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.

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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.

A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipul

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, earlier this year, when V.S. Naipul was getting a moderate amount of flack for saying horrible things about his female colleagues, I was reminded that I never had gotten around to actually reading any of his books, so I settled down with this one, albeit with the thought in mind that Naipul really didn’t like women very much.

Viewed with this preconception, it’s pretty easy to see Biswas as more than a little misogynistic. There is a very strong theme, from Mr Biswas’s marriage on, of Biswas’s persecution by more powerful women (mostly Mrs Tulsi) who despite their despotism are actually incompetent in managing their households. Shama’s character is presented less starkly, and I actually found her rather sympathetic (probably unintentionally, as Naipul seems to regard her as a loveless harridan).

Moving past the kinda distressing gender-presentation, it’s actually a pretty good experience-delivery system. Naipul’s prose is well-crafted, and he describes well a time and place alien to me: Trinidad, in the peculiar genteel poverty of a brahmin of little means. He expansively describes a spectrum of settings from remote villages to cities, and gives a good idea of the economic realities of privation punctuated by certain luxuries. As a character study I found it less appealing, since Biswas isn’t actually a terribly sympathetic character and feels more than a little bit like an unreliable narrator, prone both to overstating his own misfortunes and understating his own responsibility for them.

In all, Naipul wrote in a way I found easy to digest and quite absorbing, in spite of the fact that I was a little bit less than sold on the actual content of his writing. That speaks, I suppose, to his talent as a prose stylist.

See also: Wikipedia.

Jolene

[Screenshot]I saw a trailer for this at the front of a completely different movie (I completely forget which one), and it seemed like it might be interesting, so I enqueued.

It’s structurally quite competent, laid out in a series of interlocking vignettes, and there’s some pretty decent acting: Chazz Palminteri particularly does a nuanced job, and the comparatively obscure Jessica Chastain held up the lead role respectably. The other actors do a decent job with what are honestly rather cartoonish characters.

It’s hard to know what to make of the story thematically, though. It’s a downer of a story, and wanders into strange, skeevy areas with regard to gender and agency. In several of the early vignettes it’s hard to tell whether Jolene is an innocent victim of the (mostly male, although women not of Jolene’s generation also get to be malicious on several occasions) predators in her life or whether she consciously embraces her own destruction. I found myself constantly troubled by the lack of agency she exhibited, drifting passively into other people’s circles; the only case where she takes an instigatory role is the episode with Coco. But further into the story her lack of control over her fate seems to become a theme: she actively resists entanglement with Brad, and ends up getting horrifically fucked over anyways.

I’m focusing on themes because they were what stood out the most for me. The story itself kind of wanders and never really picks up speed, and the cinematography doesn’t really make it pop except early on when it embraced a late-60s/early-70s aesthetic. Apropos of that, the chronology of the film’s a bit tricky to get a handle on: we have a number of markers firmly mooring the different segments in different times and places, from the early-70s beginning to the end which signals certain “mid-90s” elements, and I’m not sure how well the timeline actually fits. Really, in spite of its many virtues of design, Jolene is a little bit drab and doesn’t really stick firmly in one’s mind. I’m a bit curious about the source novel now, but this is a film very little of which, I fear, is really going to stay with me (and indeed now, months later, finishing this review, very little seems memorable).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Szabadgyalog

[Screenshot]Oy. I have tried to give Béla Tarr a fair shake, and with the exception of a few beautifully cinematic scenes in Werckmeister Harmóniák, I’ve come up empty. It is possible the problem here is me, but his work feels awfully empty at the core, particularly when he’s trying for a cinéma vérité style, which he seems to interpret as an excuse to never have any sort of plot or character development.

The characters in Szabadgyalog are infuriatingly static and profoundly unlikable. It’s thus awfully hard to get even remotely invested in the story (such as it is). The cinematic style is muddy, and the subs occasionally mysterious in a poorly-translated way.; some of this may be the fault of the localizers, or of the state of Hungarian cinematic technology in the ’80s. Wherever the blame lies, this is a difficult film to become engaged in, and I’d rate it a failure, emotional-investment-wise.

See also: IMDB.

A Oitava cor do Arco-Íris

[Screenshot]The Eighth Color of the Rainbow is something of a curiosity. It has a clean simplicity and a fair amount of realism, but at the end, it feel somewhat pointless, perhaps because nothing really happens. Joãozinho goes to the big city, meets people, and rescues his goat a couple of times. In the end, it feels like the least remarkable slice of a fairly interesting day, inasmuch as the peripheral characters and the stories they might have seem a hell of a lot more interesting than João is. It’s a pretty film, and of some interest as a slice-of-a-different-culture, but I’m guessing Brazil has more compelling offerings out there, ones that leave me with more to say about them than “eh”.

IMDB doesn’t have this one listed. Weird, no?