Mi chiamano Meme
When Lisa Hirsch first tagged me with the latest blog meme, I was inclined to let the whole thing pass, partly because I didn't (and still don't) quite grok the point of the exercise and partly because, like Matthew Guerrieri, I had a suspicion I'd seen this one come around before. But when I got double-teamed by the Detritus boys, I figured it was time to hunker down and do as I'd been told (acknowledging that in the meantime, Patrick V. had definitively whupped my ass in the punning-blog-post-title sweepstakes).
So to reiterate, the assignment is like this:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
The nearest book to hand these days is The Vicar of Bullhampton, the 36th leg of my life-nourishing pilgrimage through all 46 novels of Anthony Trollope, and the relevant passage looks like this:
"My lord, his father's house is his own, to entertain whom he may please, as much as is yours. And were I to suggest to you to turn out your daughters, it would be no worse an offence than your suggesting to Mr. Brattle that he should turn out his son."
"Yes, your daughters, my lord."
Taken out of context like that, this exchange probably sounds a little Pythonesque. You'll have to take my word for it that the processes of chance have actually coughed up a rather exquisite little moment (Cage would've been delighted), as the fearless and dry-witted title character deftly punctures the hauteur of the odious Marquis of Trowbridge by daring to speak of his wizened spinster daughters in the same breath as young Sam Brattle. The vicar's offense is so grave, in fact, that later, after stewing about it all the way home, the marquis will write an outraged letter of complaint to the bishop, which that wise clergyman will duly laugh off.
But rather than dwelling on this passage, let me take the opportunity to don my fanatic's hat and proselytize for the splendors of Trollope's work. He's the Heinrich Schütz of English literature, the greatest creative artist whose work the average educated Joe doesn't know at all. (Years ago, I ran into a local arts writer on the street while toting a volume of Trollope under my arm. He was intrigued and nonplussed. Trollope's was a new name to him, he said, adding fatuously, "and I'm very well-read!")
Even those who know of Trollope may not realize what a treasure lies here undiscovered. One reason is that too many readers are introduced to him through The Warden or Barchester Towers, two of his dullest and least successful novels. A related problem is the likelihood of coming to Trollope from Dickens, who is admittedly zestier, broader in scope and of course far funnier. If you pick up The Warden while under the impression that Dickens represents the summa of Victorian literature — as I originally did, all those years ago — you could easily conclude that Trollope's writing is wan, flavorless stuff.
But start somewhere else and you will soon find a writer keenly alive to the moral and interpersonal struggles that all of us go through daily, and able to render them with both vividness and subtlety. Trollope's great party trick is to get his characters into moral quandaries that are brought about through no one's fault, but from which there is really no virtuous way out. Sometimes the plotting required is, in its quiet way, worthy of Feydeau. In He Knew He Was Right, for instance, a young clergyman who is a little dull-witted but not at all malicious manages to let each of two sisters believe she is engaged to marry him; yet if you go back through their conversations it's nearly impossible to find the moment when he could have acted otherwise than as he did.
Another of Trollope's great themes is the politics of personal strength, the quality that determines the winner in a battle of wills. The Way We Live Now features, among other things, a young man who can't break up with the American divorcée he's seeing and marry the girl he loves because — well, because she won't let him, that's all. And like any Victorian novelist, Trollope is fantastically good on the question of how to decide what to do with your life (even if the distaff version of that question is, inevitably, "whom shall I marry?").
As I say, Trollope lacks Dickens' verbal flair, but he also completely lacks Dickens' taste for bathos; there's no Little Nell dying laughably within his pages. He also boasts a degree of moral nuance that Dickens — whose characters are almost all clad in big black or white hats — sorely lacks (and by the way, read Richard Russo's Straight Man for the definitive moral takedown of David Copperfield). The one danger in taking up Trollope, in fact, is that you may find your love of Dickens sorely tested.
So where to begin, then? Well, despite what I said earlier, Trollope's greatest achievements are the two six-book series, the Barchester and Palliser novels. The catch is that each of those really must be read in a single stretch; themes and characters recur throughout, and in each series, the last novel only attains its full grandeur with specific reference to the first.
The best single novels, in my opinion, are He Knew He Was Right, as heartbreaking a portrait of obsession and marital dysfunction as was ever written; The Way We Live Now, Trollope's bold, slightly overambitious attempt to take in the entire sweep of Victorian culture in a single book; and The Bertrams, which Tolstoy specially admired.
Those are enough to let you know whether Trollope is your cup of tea. If he is, then other joys await — not only the two great series, but also obscure and no less wonderful gems: Lady Anna, an unusually frank (for Trollope) examination of the class system; the dark morality tale An Eye for an Eye; John Caldigate and Rachel Ray, twin indictments of religious fanaticism; the fresh-faced comedy of The Belton Estate; or the autumnal sweetness of Trollope's last novel, An Old Man's Love.
And more, and more, and more. Because here's the clincher: Trollope wrote 46 novels, most of them in the 500-800 page range. He published, on average, two or three a year, writing for four hours every morning before trooping off to his day job with the Post Office (in addition to his literary accomplishments, he also came up with the idea of the street-corner mailbox). And with one or two exceptions (avoid The Fixed Period at all costs), they're all good.
So once you join the cult, you can be sure that you will never go hungry again. In this respect, Trollope-lovers are the happiest people on the planet. We smile benevolently upon the Jane Austeners, rereading the same six dog-eared books over and over and over; but in our hearts we pity them, and feel grateful to have escaped their fate.
Time now to tag others. Since this meme has bounced around the classical blögôsphère pretty comprehensively, I think I'll pass the torch to some literary, non-musical blogger friends: Cowboy Dave Dickerson (no, he ain't a fer-real cowboy, but he is one helluva stud), Eric Berlin, and Francis Heaney. We'll see what they come up with.