Sunday, September 21, 2014

George Eliot

Although I am off fiction for the most part, I can't have a blog without saying something about George Eliot. When I lived Dixon, Illinois, which is of little inherent interest unless you want to plumb the depths of how the character of a mediocre American president might have formed, in my spare time I began catching up on literature that I had never read and surveying newer fiction. This lasted for over two decades and extended almost to the present.

American literature did not impress me at all. I tried Henry James, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. More recent writers included Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, John Kennedy Toole, Carson McCullers, Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath. I also read contemporary fiction by T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Sheila Schwartz, Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie, Francine Prose, Cathleen Schine, Mona Simpson, Michael Cunningham, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Dan Chaon, Alice Munro (Canadian), Carol Shields (Canadian), Carl Hiaasen, Marilynne Robinson, Lauren Groff and Dave Eggers. Recently I read a short story by Willa Cather. Of the entire American group, I would say that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, is the only outstanding work. I could write an essay on what is wrong with Lorrie Moore, but would rather not. My overall perception has been that the U.S. has made less of a contribution than one would expect to the arts in general compared to many other countries, when you take into consideration its size and wealth, partly because it is a relatively new country, partly because of its emphasis on commerce and partly because its patrons have tended to be the nouveaux riches.

In European literature, I read some Dostoevsky and James Joyce that I had missed. I spent a lot of time on France, reading Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand, Flaubert, Zola and Proust. The only French contemporary whom I've read is Michel Houellebecq. British writers, besides George Eliot, included Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence (I had read two novels by Thomas Hardy much earlier). Recent British writers were A.S. Byatt, David Lodge, A.L. Kennedy and Jeanette Winterson (I skipped Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and others). I also read a lot of Kafka, some Milan Kundera and a little Witold Gombrowicz. I have little interest in German, Spanish or Italian culture, and therefore skipped those countries. While I find flaws in all writers, my favorites are George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert.

As for the other continents, I've read very little. Last year I read a novel and short stories by the Peruvian Julio Ramon Ribeyro and thought some of his short fiction was very good. If I were to delve further into fiction, I suspect that South America may have a lot to offer. Yet, besides not being interested in fiction, I am not particularly interested exploring unfamiliar cultures. The above list does not include fiction that I had read earlier. For historical context, I wasn't inspired at all by any fiction until my junior year in college, when I studied early twentieth century Russian fiction, not mentioned here.

While discussing their preferences in fiction, few people go to the trouble of summarizing everything they've read, which admittedly would be cumbersome. I listed some of that information in order to provide the context of what I know and what I don't know. Thus, if someone wants to challenge my position that, say, Jack Kerouac, is not the greatest writer in history, they have an obligation to first read George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. One of the reasons why I'm reluctant to read fiction is that people, reviewers in particular, plug books that I almost invariably end up deciding are a waste of time if I read them. If every review included access to a list of all of the books ever read by the reviewer and which of those books he or she found to be excellent, it would be much easier for me to determine whether I should read the book under review. You can apply that same standard to what I say in this post. Fiction is a vast topic, and everyone's knowledge about it is bound to be limited in one way or another.

In an earlier post I discussed the difficulty of establishing aesthetic merit. That applies here too, so I'll mention some of the factors that go into my literary tastes. I think what I like best is long fiction that realistically interweaves the lives of people in a well-defined environment and covers a long time period. Obviously this is something that can't be done well in short fiction, which is why I often see the characters in short stories as stick figures who may never be able to break out of their comic book existences. Because of mobility, population growth and development in much of the West, it has become increasingly difficult to approximate the comparatively stable environments that existed up to the late nineteenth century, which is when the novel probably peaked for my purposes. That period also stands out because by then the novel had had time to mature as an art form. Beginning with World War I, the world descended into instability, and the art world changed its focus from the transition away from agricultural life to the transition to post-industrial life, which then became modernism. The modern world has a less static basis than the world of the past, making it much easier to fudge on realism: fewer people know what's going on, and a writer can now just make things up with little accountability. When challenged, they can call it artistic license, and when all else fails they can drum up critics who will call them artistic geniuses. The public, not knowing any better, takes it all in, hook, line and sinker.

For someone who prefers realism, most modern fiction is a disaster. I don't care about the nuances of one person's perceptions of Dublin, especially if he is a jaundiced literary person, so James Joyce is of little use to me. Kafka's imagination has its merits, as do his writing skills, but I find him repetitive and uninformative; in a way, his life and works are a testimony to his never having figured things out. Postmodern fiction has even less to say for a number of reasons; it often isn't well-grounded in real places or people and simulates them in a wholly unsatisfactory way, much like the empty visual art of Andy Warhol.

* * *

During my fiction period, I read that Virginia Woolf had called Middlemarch, George Eliot's best known work, "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," which captured my attention, since, in case you haven't noticed, I have a serious streak. When I began to read it, I became enchanted. I think I can say that it is the only novel I've ever read that creates a realistic world containing a variety of plausible characters who each have their distinct problems and are making their ways through life. The narrator seemed so omniscient that I sometimes felt as if the book were written by God. Moreover, it convincingly portrayed the lives of a broad swath of people, from peasants to the bourgeoisie to criminals to intellectuals, something that I had never seen before. It became my favorite novel, and I went on to read all of George Eliot's fiction and several biographies.

Most of her fiction, including the earliest, still holds up well. Her writing style, with long, convoluted sentences, appeals to me, as it did to Proust, but is not compelling to the majority of contemporary readers. As pre-modern fiction, you don't enter people's heads and access their thoughts directly, but that is made up for by close observation, which is at the heart of George Eliot's skill. Her earliest works were so accurate that readers could easily identify some of the actual people on whom her characters were based. To me, George Eliot's life is a valuable study in what I think it takes to be a good writer, and once this is understood there isn't much of a puzzle left about why I find most fiction unsatisfactory.

I attribute much of George Eliot's success as a writer to the fact that she had lived a full life, encompassing a variety of experiences and challenges, before she began to write fiction at age 36. Her father was an estate manager in Warwickshire, where she was exposed to a variety of people when she accompanied him on his rounds. Because she was not pretty, her father provided her with a better education than was the norm, perhaps in anticipation that she would not attract a husband. This prompted a lifelong intellectual curiosity that eventually led her to become an editor at the Westminster Review.

Her love life seems to have been choppy and difficult due to her preference for intellectual men. She was deeply hurt when Herbert Spencer dumped her, but soon developed a relationship with G.H. Lewes. Lewes could not marry her because he could not obtain a divorce from his wife, Agnes Jervis, who had cuckolded him with his friend Thornton Leigh Hunt, who fathered four of her children. Lewes was technically complicit in his wife's adultery, because he had knowingly accepted one of Hunt's children as his own. George Eliot and Lewes scandalized Victorian society by living together unmarried as man and wife until Lewes died in 1878. Lewes's encouragement and skill as her agent played an important role in her eventual literary success. In 1880 she created more gossip when she married an admirer, the not-so-intellectual John Cross, who was twenty years her junior. On their honeymoon in Venice, Cross jumped from a balcony in their hotel rooms into the Grand Canal. The official explanation was that he had had a sudden fit of depression. Others, Gore Vidal in particular, think that Cross was gay and perhaps had misjudged his responsibilities as a husband to his then-elderly wife. George Eliot became ill later that year and died on December 22.

I visited her grave in Highgate Cemetery in 2002. 

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