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.

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A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I have a fair amount of respect for Michael Chabon. His Kavalier and Clay had a magical intersection with the kinds of thing I liked, and I liked his style. My father loved The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and urged me to read it. I liked it pretty well, albeit not quite as much as K&C. It’s undeniably clever, crafting an interesting and well-researched (if absurd) alternative history. Chabon is good at carrying this through to its conclusions, and the worldview is well-thought-out, and raises interesting thematic issues of cultural autonomy and interaction: the Jewish refugees’ interactions with both the Tlingit natives and larger American government play a significant role, while Jewish culture, isolated in Alaska, becomes more insular than Jewish America is today. it’s an interesting book, a quirky one, and touches on several issues I find interesting if not quite pushing my buttons the way K&C dod. However, Chabon, no matter what he’s writing, seems to always be possessed of a quick wit and an engrossing style, so this book is an easy and enjoyable read.

See also: Wikipedia.