Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Man, I have not written about anything nonbiblical I have read in a long time. I was on a little bit of a George Eliot kick for a while: we read Silas Marner in a course I was taking on 19th-century literature, and then I read Daniel Deronda to be a bit in the loop on my parents’ book group, but the word was that Middlemarch was really her magnum opus, so that ws next on the list.

So: Middlemarch, like Daniel Deronda is a pretty wide story with lots of characters and a bit of indeterminacy about the identity of its protagonist: Dorothea is put forward pretty early as a focus character, but Lydgate emerges pretty early on in the narrative as sharing near-equal prominence; Fred Vincy also gets a pretty hefty pagecount on his own story. Fortunately, in spite of this structural similarity, in this book Eliot manages to maintain a sense of both threads’ relevance much better than in Daniel Deronda. Also, unlike in Daniel Deronda, we’re spared the irritation of having one of our characters be a moral exemplar.

In fact, Dorothea and Lydgate (and to a lesser extent Mary Garth) feel in some ways like inversions of the Voice of Moral Clarity: both have very specific, strong moral views which ultimately lead them to the brink of disaster. Dorothea’s moral absolutism in particular feels tragicomic: from our very first introduction to here she comes across as entirely too high-minded for words, and that’s conveyed in a way that’s played for laughs, but this attitude of hers very quickly becomes the lynchpin of her doomed fidelity towards the equally high-minded Casaubon. Lydgate is a bit harder to suss out, because his tragedy and his ideology are somewhat more distant from each other. His idealism is the cause of his lack of worldly success, but like Dorothea his marriage seems to be the real misfortune (and unlike Dorothea his marriage doesn’t seem to serve his ideals at all).

In spite of all this tragedy, and a fair amount of ribbing of its sillier inhabitants (mostly Dorothea, and some for the luckless Fred Vancy), Middlemarch feels a fundamentally sweet and optimistic story. There’s never too much of a doubt that truth will out and virtue prevail, and there’s a solid core of sympathetic characters who generally keep the reader from ever feeling that this rural society is really as vicious as it sometimes looks.

In the aforementioned 19th-century literature class, Eliot stood out as something of an idiosyncrasy which was identified as “social realism”. It’s easy to lump her in with satirists like Austen, but her observation of society feels both more and less pointed—more pointed because there isn’t nearly as much insulating wit and absurdity between the reader and the horrible things occasionally happening to the characters; less pointed because ultimately there is an overall feel to her work that things will and must come out right and that people are basically good.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

So I was studying 19th-century literature last winter, and my parents were reading Daniel Deronda for their book group (a rather unusual choice: it’s a Jewish book group, and their usual material is contemporary literature with Judaic themes). So I decided to read along (which also gave me an excuse attend the group, a thrill in its own right, as this group has been around in some configuration since I was a wee sproglet not mature enough to take part). I was nowhere near done when the book group met to discuss, but I’ve finished it since.

It is a very strange book. I’m not quite familiar enough with George Eliot’s oeuvre to actually put it in its place, but I can see why it’s not regarded as one of her best. It is very well-crafted on the level of sentences and chapters and characters but has some severe structural problems. The most striking problem is that it is not at all clear who the primary character is. We get about 20% of the way through the book before meeting the title character, and almost all of that pagecount is spent on an unlikeable girl named Gwendolyn Harleth (incidentally, it’s a very long book. 20% of it is a pretty sizable wodge-o’-text). Ms. Harleth (later Mrs. Grandcourt) remains a pretty major character, no a plot strand which is pretty much entirely divorced from the activities of Mr. Deronda himself. The plots merge to some extent late in the story, but in a purely one-sided direction: Gwendolyn depends tremendously on Daniel, and her dependence on Daniel tremendously drives her story, but Daniel’s own plotline is one to which Gwendolyn is completely irrelevant.

So why was a Jewish book group reading a novel about the lives and loves of a bunch of Brits written by a 19th-century Christian? Well, Daniel’s plot is actually aggressively Judaism-influenced and even proto-Zionist. See, he takes in an impoverished Jewess (it’s a 19th-century novel, so they use that word), and decides to help her find her family, which sends him neck-deep into the Jewish communities of London, where he feels surprisingly comfortable. Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about Daniel’s own identity, since he’s the ward—emphatically not recognized as a son—of a gentleman (who happens to be Mr. Grandcourt’s uncle, part of the tenuous connection to Gwendolyn). So midway through the novel, Daniel is basically wearing a neon sign on his head saying “I am the bastard son of my guardian and some Jewish lady”.

To Eliot’s credit, he’s not actually Sir Hugo Malliser’s son. He is, however, totally Jewish and spends a lot of the book figuring out what this means to him. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn gets happily widowed and her plotline kind of peters out as Daniel goes off to be all Zionist in Palestine.

I make it sound worse than it is. It’s actually a very good, well-observed book, with mostly good characters, excellent prose, and some interesting plotting. The actual pacing’s a bit off, and the text seems to move in fits and starts, but it still seems to mostly work. It’s just unfortunate that everything having to do with Gwendolyn seems like so much irrelevance. That includes the character (and rather sudden dispatch) of her husband. Mr. Grandcourt is a fairly thoroughgoing villain, who seems to ooze jealous malice. It’s never entirely clear why he’s such a nasty piece of work: he doesn’t actually seem to much care about or for Gwendolyn, but makes her life miserable for the sheer giddy hell of it. I mean, yes, we’re all glad when he dies, but can we get some reason for why he lived the way he did?

Daniel Deronda is an intriguing work, not least as a viewpoint from a fascinating 19th-century Christian woman who developed an extraordinary and atypical interest in Judaism and Hebrew (George Eliot was remarkable in many ways, among them her scholarly pursuits into Judaism and her proto-Zionist leanings). But I’m not sure it’s actually her best work or even in her top class: it’s structurally a real mess.

Head

[Screenshot]The Monkees were kind of like the Bee Gees in reverse. The Bee Gees started their career as a respectable band producing work with artistic merit that nobody remembers anymore, and then they had a #1 disco hit and became a big joke. The Monkees started as a joke, a blatant spoofy cash-in on Beatlemania, dreamed up by marketing executives and calculated to please. And then, as their popularity faded, they rebelled against their chosen role and ended their career in popular obscurity but with a certain amount of critical admiration. I’ll admit I knew pretty much nothing about this period of the Monkees’ career except that it existed. But the most conspicuously and aggressively independent act of the Monkees’ ephemeral existence was probably this surreal and largely incomprehensible feature-length film.

It is not actually all that good a film, like so many works of late-60s surrealism. It features cameos by a bewildering array of cultural figures from Frank Zappa to Sonny Liston to Annette Funicello, and it’s co-produced by Jack Nicholson (with the Monkees’ original progenitor, Bob Rafelson), but somehow all of this talent doesn’t end up giving the film any sense of direction. It’s choppy and confusing, with apparently unrelated scenes which don’t seem to work towards anything in particular. There are antiwar bits and anticommercial bits and self-mocking bits and long segments which don’t seem to have a purpose at all. As a cultural artifact it’s not bad, since it’s a good portrait of how attitudes had rapidly changed both towards and among the picture-perfect and manufactured darlings of the British Invasion, but it’s very difficult to enjoy on its own terms.

There’s also a lot of musical numbers, of varying quality both musically and cinematically. Probably the most notable song, and the most striking visual effect in the film, is “Daddy’s Song”. Seriously, if you’re interested in Head, save yourself 86 minutes and just watch that 4 minute clip. It’s the best song in the film together with the best visual effects in the film, and at the end we get to see Frank Zappa deadpan his way through a cameo and to top things off we get some utterly unnecessary weirdness. The rest of the movie is basically the same kind of thing only not as good.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Brighton Rock

[Screenshot]Interesting news: there’s a new adaptation of Brighton Rock coming out this year. I basically had no idea, and watched this 40s classic without any particular intent of being relevant. It’s one of a great many lesser-known Greene adaptations, but arguably in the top tier of those (with, say, The Ministry of Fear, This Gun for Hire, and, if we’re feeling particularly charitable, the unfortunate 1958 version of The Quiet American). Atmospherically, this film definitely works: there is the darkness of noir and the bright cheeriness of the seaside town coexisting in the same film harmoniously, and reflecting the Brighton of a bygone day. Even as an adaptation it’s quite good: Greene was involved in the production, so it’s faithful to his vision and mostly to his words — no Mankiewicz butchery here! Where it falls down, in my estimation, is in casting: this work basically succeeds or fails entirely on the ability of Pinky to convincingly emote his character, and rising star Richard Attenborough, despite his later brilliance, would not quite fit the bill here. He was a mite too old even at the time for the youthful gangster, and his costuming and manner didn’t actually help matters. While the sadistic element came through in full force, it seems vital to the character and themes that Pinky be elementally innocent and derive his cruelty from that well, and Attenborough isn’t even trying to be innocent, just vicious.

That having been said, the supporting actors fit their roles comfortably. Where Attenborough fails, Carol Marsh succeeds, with an innocence that makes you want to slap her silly combined with an unguarded craftiness; likewise Hermione Baddeley comes across nicely as a character with a strong sense of justice but not anyone you’d actually enjoy spending time with.

Oddly, many of the Catholic themes seemed to get lost in the shuffle; both of the Catholic characters are terrified of sex in the original work, and this motivates much of their relationship. But sex is notably absent from the film; yes, it may have been the 40s, but surely there was a way to slip those themes in edgewise, as prominent as they were in the original work. It’s not even particularly clear in this adaptation that Pinky’s Catholic. Rose’s Catholicism comes across loud and clear, and of course they include that fantastic, conflicted line about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, but all the same, Catholicism seems to loom much less large than it seems like it ought to, in spite of the extent to which it’s hammered in the last five minutes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Jeeves and Wooster, full series

[Screenshot]I first encountered this charming little bit of British TV in the company of my high-school girlfriend (I also encountered Doctor Who for the first time then, and I’ll admit I didn’t and still don’t quite get the appeal there). I liked it well enough then, but I don’t think I really appreciated its excellence until much later, after reading some Wodehouse and appreciating Fry and Laurie on other shows (particularly Blackadder) and returning to watch all four seasons. It is about as good an adaptation of Wodehouse to the screen as one could ask for. The dialogue between the two leads crackles with personality, as it ought to, and some care has been taken to translate into dialogue and mannerisms the inimitable narrative voice of Bertie Wooster from the original stories. The supporting cast is mostly one-note but they deliver it well, and the locations are really quite well-done (shot on location in London and in a number of British Stately Homes).

The New York segments are the weakest, in my estimation, although I think that’s in no small part because of the source material; Wodehouse was better at writing British folks at home than expatriates, I think. All in all, though, it’s a quite faithful adaptation, and conveys the tone and style of the original works quite effectively. Fans of Wodehouse will generally like it; people who can’t stand Wodehouse (which I can certainly understand, as I like his style but can reasonably sympathize with those who find it indigestble) probably won’t. If you don’t actually know if you like Wodehouse, well, a few episodes of this series are as good an introduction as any, and they’re largely stand-alone so there’s not too much of a buy-in. I think the second season is the strongest in many ways, but not so very much better than the first season that it’s worth breaking the (loose and easily ignored) chronological ordering of the stories.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

I read Vile Bodies long enough ago that I remember very little of it; Brideshead Revisited I’ve read in relatively recent memory but was taken mostly by its richly flawed characterization and its latent homosexual themes. I got the impression Waugh was mostly a humorist and that his shorter works were more straightforward, and so I read Decline and Fall, a nicely wicked little comedy of a character with an impenetrable innocence blown hither and yon by others’ vices. It’s impossible not to feel a little sorry for Paul throughout the story, but also to want to grab him and smack him upside the head until he behaves sensibly. The supporting characters paint a delightful and more than a little vicious picture of a world in which pretty much everyone has a more definite plan than the protagonist (most of these plans, except for Pendergrast’s philosophical wanderings, are quite morally dubious). I read in it a certain denial of the popular conception that innocence is noble: in this work, innocence is passive, and its passivity is not actually at all admirable.

But trying to suss out its philosophy might be Taking It Too Seriously. Really, it’s just a funny book with a sharp satirical edge.

See also: Wikipedia.

Memed my Hawk

[Screenshot]Seduced by the lead role of Peter Ustinov, I decided to take a look at this late-career work of his. I’m afraid it is not one of his strongest films. In fairness, he puts on a good show, playing his role with an expansive wit, but every moment he’s not on the screen drags painfully. It doesn’t help, mind, that there are no actual Turks in the production, and it’s seriously undermined by technical issues, as the DVD transfer is fairly low-quality. But mostly, it fails to really appeal thanks to long scenes of fairly static plot, where the rebels or the authorities exposit at length but not very interestingly. In the end, it didn’t leave much of an impression, although Ustinov deserves credit for his delightful (and more than a little hammy) tyranny.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.