Wednesday, May 07, 2008

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."

"My daughters!"

"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.


At 5/08/2008 12:08 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the compliment, but I prefer your title, and wish I had thought of it myself -- I will add that to my list of reasons I resent La Boheme.

There was a spike in Trollope consciousness around the late 70s or early 80s, when Masterpiece Theater presented The Pallisers. I guess it's subsided since then, but you've roused me to continue on my own Trollope voyages.

Here's how to preserve your love of Dickens, though: I just think of Dickens as a magical realist. Trollope is doing something different enough so that they can co-exist. I think you're so right about The Warden and Barchester Towers, both about their weakness and their importance. Mrs Proudie is supposed to be one of his great characters, but I found her to be the sort who is done so much better by Dickens -- Trollope's strengths are just where you stated, in the vivid and subtle depiction of daily dilemmas. It's interesting to compare the fate of the crooked financier in The Way We Live Now (I'm trying to avoid any spoilers) with that of Mr Merdle in Little Dorritt.

Anyway. . . thanks for a great post. It did exactly what good criticism should do, which is send me back to the artist discussed.

At 5/08/2008 12:24 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Thanks, Patrick. You're right that there's no inherent reason why Dickens and Trollope need be in competition; I can only say that in my case, it is so. The more Trollope I read, the more alive I become to Dickens' shortcomings. Others' mileage may vary.

I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember the final fates of either Melmotte or Merdle — although I vividly recall the fate of Carker the Manager in Dombey and Son, which is by a long chalk my favorite Dickens novel.

But I do want to take issue with your remark about Mrs. Proudie. The wonderful thing about Mrs. Proudie, it seems to me, is that although she's such a horrid person and a thoroughgoing ogress, Trollope makes a successful effort to understand her, and helps the reader perceive her basic humanity — especially at the end. You still want to throttle her, of course, but you have some sense of why she behaves as she does. Trollope does something similar with the horrific religious-fanatic mother in John Caldigate.

I think Dickens would have been content in both cases just to give us the cartoon ogress and be done with it. My memory of the details is hazy, but I'm pretty sure it's Barnaby Rudge that includes a villain of sort of Iago-like gratuitousness. He just does bad things to people, and in the end there's no sense of a recognizable human psychology behind the evil.

At 5/08/2008 2:36 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Vaz said...

OK, here comes the spoiler alert for the fates of Melmotte (thanks, I had forgotten the name) and Merdle: both are rich financiers who turn out to be swindlers, and both die by suicide.
Yeah, Carker and his teeth! Dombey and Son is also the favorite Dickens novel (again, by a long chalk) of a good friend of mine in DC. Mine are Little Dorritt and Our Mutual Friend.
I take your point about Mrs Proudie, but to me, she is still too much of an ogress to fit into the psychological world of Trollope. I had the feeling when reading about her that Trollope was gradually finding the way he wanted to present such a character, as opposed to the Dickens-type character he started out with (just as he does his own version of Becky Sharpe in Lizzie Eustace). Dickens would indeed have presented her as a cartoon ogress, but the thing is, there are many people we experience in life as grotesques and gargoyles, and there's a certain realism in that. You could say that this is a child's view of the world, and in many ways it is, but I think that is also the source of the strange emotional power Dickens taps into. You could also say that Trollope taps into the mature adult in us who is aware of moral complexity and nuance, so to some extent the two writers are appealing to very different qualities in their readers, so I certainly can't fault anyone for being drawn more one way than another. As you say, others' mileage may vary.

At 5/09/2008 9:55 PM, Blogger vicmarcam said...

Patrick alerted me to this interesting entry and discussion. I have to say that you have made me want to march straight back into Trollope, so thank you.

When I first read Trollope a few years ago, I was in awe of how well he wrote about the complexities of people's inner lives. I was especially amazed at how well he understood women and their thoughts, feelings and motivations. The dilemmas, both emotional and political, seemed so much of today that it was hard to believe I was reading a novel from a century and a half before. I read every word with interest until... I got to a fox hunt. I tried to read every word carefully, but had to admit I found it tedious. Patrick warned me that more fox hunts awaited me, and sure enough, they did.

I love Trollope but I LOVE Dickens because of that strange emotional power that Patrick mentioned. I remember where I was when I finished several Dickens novels because I had so fully entered his world that I had to shock myself back into the one I was living in. There's something to be said for that.

I enjoy your blog and dedicate any Trollope reading I might do this summer to you.


At 5/09/2008 10:29 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Thanks, Vicki. Yeah, the fox hunts....God help us. They're tedious, and they're a cheap plot trick on those occasions when Trollope wants to kill off a character, or give someone a long recuperation in the home of the person he wants them to fall in love with. I didn't mention them because — well, I figured I'd let people discover them on their own.

At 5/12/2008 11:08 AM, Blogger Sator Arepo said...

Thanks, JK. I now have a summer reading project. This very post is why stupid little blogmemes bear some interest (and why we tagged you).

At 5/13/2008 4:03 PM, Blogger Hollis said...

(i am not reading anymore of this gd blog...)

At 8/28/2010 7:27 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

As Joshua knows, or will when he checks his mail, I just finished The Way We Live Now, and I loved every word of its 100 chapters. This was not my first Trollope; the first was The Warden, which I liked very much, and the second was Can You Forgive Her?, found a bit long and nearly gave up on a couple of times. I'd like to read all of the Palliser novels, so probably I will have to re-read it.

The analogy with Schütz is exactly right; I feel about him the way Joshua feels about Trollope.

Next up on the smartphone (yes, I read all 100 chapters on my phone!) is Little Dorrit. I've never been a big Dickens fan, but Patrick hints that there are some similarities of theme to The Way We Live Now and suggests it as a complement.

At 5/02/2011 2:23 PM, Blogger john_burke100 said...

I'm a big fan of The Way We Live Now and I liked The Last Chronicle of Barset though I came to it without having read the other Barsetshire novels. A dear friend is now reading The Eustace Diamonds and having fun with the long legal opinions (she's a lawyer) but I get the feeling those, and some of the fox-hunting too, are partly padding. One way you write 46 long books while reorganizing the Royal Mail and hunting the fox is to fall back on the 19th century version of cut-and-paste.


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