Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Emoticon, or emoticon? (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

I promise we'll get back to Daniel Deronda by the weekend. But first, a quick update on the Robert Herrick 1648 emoticon front. My post from Sunday about it was fanned into one of those small Internet brushfires throughout Monday and Tuesday. Here's a quick roundup, with apologies to any of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook and are already tired of hearing about this:
--Alexis Madrigal wrote about it on his Atlantic blog, and provided a helpful image.

--That triggered posts from iO9, Engadget, Gizmodo, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, and many others.

--John Overholt, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library, was kind enough to offer to check the original 1648 publication of Herrick's Hesperides, and the photo he posted to his Twitter account made the smiley face even harder to ignore.

--Then, to the great amusement of our departmental assistant, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's As It Happens program came looking for me, and I taped a brief interview that aired yesterday. If you're interested in hearing me read Herrick's poem and hedge enthusiastically, I come on about 44 minutes into the program.

--Finally, Slate's Ben Zimmer closed out the day by closing the door: bringing actual research to bear, he made the case against the emoticon. In an essay about James Thurber that will appear in The Getaway Car, Donald Westlake off-handedly describes the New Yorker as "our primary viewer with alarm"; Slate, mostly to its credit, I think of as our pourer of cold water on Internet fun.
Not bad for a couple of days of silliness. Is it an emoticon? Oh, probably not. But barring the discovery of a letter from Herrick saying, "Hey, guess what I did/didn't do?" we can't be entirely certain. And one thing's for sure regardless: I'll never not see it that way now, and it's given me a fun excuse to get people talking about one of my favorite long-dead poets.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The first emoticon?

We interrupt our blogging of Daniel Deronda to share breaking news: In reading some of Robert Herrick's poetry last night, I discovered what looks to be the first emoticon!

It appears at the end of the second line of "To Fortune," which was published in Hesperides in 1648:
Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I'll be
Patient in my necessity.
Laugh at my scraps of clothes, and shun
Me, as a fear'd infection;
Yet, scare-crow-like, I'll walk as one
Neglecting thy derision.
Lest it be an aberration in the edition I own, I checked it against the new, authoritative two-volume edition of Herrick's work edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly and published by Oxford University Press last year. The emoticon is there.

Herrick's poetry is rich in wit, so it's not entirely out of the bounds of possibility that this is something more than a punctuational oddity. If so, it would predate by more than two centuries the 1862 emoticon discovered in a New York Times transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln's speeches in 2009.

In honor of the discovery of Herrick's invention, we'll close by letting him raise a toast:
"The Coblers Catch"

Come sit we by the fires side;
And roundly drinke we here;
Till that we see our cheeks Ale-dy'd
And noses tann'd with Beere.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eliot on adults not seeing what children see nor realizing what they feel

{Editorial note: Today's post from Maggie Bandur continues our back-and-forth through Eliot's Daniel Deronda. You can scroll down for earlier posts from the past couple of weeks.}

As someone who was not a terribly happy child--and as you can see in my post on Tom Brown's School Days--I am fascinated by the fact adults do not always see, and, more importantly, can't believe, that children can be deeply unhappy. Even if everyone else has had pleasant childhoods, this still involves a mass amnesia as to the intensity of one's own childhood passions and fears, and how often something said by an adult was taken to heart in a way the adults never suspected.

So, I was excited to see George Eliot's deep understanding of youthful psyches, as she describes Daniel Deronda's discovery, based on an unrelated and offhanded comment by an adult, that something about his own birth is irregular. When a tutor explains the Popes' many "nephews" were their illegitimate children, we see the alertness of youth as Daniel fixates on that fact, and the propensity of children to make imaginative leaps, as he assumes (it turns out, correctly) that his birth is illegitimate because he is also being raised by an "uncle":
Having read Shakespeare as well as a great deal of history, he could have talked with the wisdom of a bookish child about men who were born out of wedlock and were held unfortunate in consequence
--but he had never thought it applied to him until that one sudden flash of insight:
The ardour which he had given to the imaginary world in his books suddenly rushed towards his own history and spent its pictorial energy there, explaining what he knew, representing the unknown.
(It is also it is interesting how Eliot characterizes this kind of understanding: "He had not lived with other boys, and his mind showed the same blending of child's ignorance with surprising knowledge which is oftener seen in bright girls.")

Eliot understands the effect these sudden revelations can have on a child:
Who cannot imagine the bitterness of a first suspicion that something in this object of complete love was not quite right? Children demand that their heroes should be feckless, and easily believe them to be so: perhaps a first discovery to the contrary is hardly a less revolutionary shock to a passionate child than the threatened downfall of habitual beliefs which makes the world seem to totter for us in mature life.
And even more perceptively, why children may never say anything about them:
Those who have had an impassioned childhood will understand the dread of utterance about any shame connected with their parents. The impetuous advent of new images took possession of him with the force of fact for the first time told, and left him no immediate power for the reflection that he might be trembling at a fiction of his own. The terrible sense of collision between a strong rush of feeling and the dread of its betrayal, found relief at length in big slow tears, which fell without restraint until the voice of Mr. Fraser was heard saying--

"Daniel, do you see that you are sitting on the bent pages of your book?"
In spite of the turmoil going on inside--the upending of his whole world--Daniel doesn't betray his emotions beyond sitting on his book and one petulant outburst when Sir Hugo asks playfully if he would like to be a famous singer, which Daniel takes to mean he won't be raising him as a gentleman. Although Sir Hugo has a mild awareness that his ward is unhappy about something, he is completely wrong about what it is, and here Eliot captures the blindness adults have towards the feelings of children:
Let Sir Hugo be partly excused until the grounds of his action can be more fully known. The mistakes in his behavior to Deronda were due to that dulness towards what may be going on in other minds, especially the minds of children, which is among the commonest deficiencies even in good-natured men like him, when life has been generally easy to themselves, and their energies have been quietly spent in feeling gratified.
Sir Hugo feels no shame--feels pride even--in everyone assuming Daniel is his illegitimate son. And since he isn't bothered by the whole thing, it does not occur to him that Deronda might be. With a child's capacity for silent misery and an adult's inability to notice, Deronda reaches adulthood with Sir Hugo never telling him the story of his parentage--and Deronda never having the heart to ask!

And the outcome of this silent hurt is not all bad. Deronda certainly takes his early slights with more grace than I did:
The sense of an entailed disadvantage--the deformed foot doubtfully hidden by the shoe makes a restlessly active spiritual yeast, and easily turns a self-centered, unloving nature into an Ishmaelite. But in the rarer sort, who presently see their own frustrated claim as one among a myriad, the inexorable sorrow takes the form of fellowship and makes the imagination tender. Deronda's early-awakened susceptibility, charged at first with ready indignation and resistant pride, had raised in him a premature reflection on certain questions of life; it had given a bias to his conscience, a sympathy with certain ills, and a tension of resolve in certain directions, which marked him off from other youths much more than any talents he possessed.
Deronda's childhood disappointment forms him into a deeply sympathetic adult. The detailed, insightful description of his childhood mind only makes the insipid Mirah, whose own bad childhood unrealistically only intensified her inborn saintliness and didn't teach her a single practical skill for dealing with the world, stick out all the more. She has not reappeared for a while; she must get better.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mirah Lapidoth appears, bearing tears and treacle

{Editorial note: this is the fifth in the series of posts that my friend Maggie Bandur and I are trading back and forth as we wander through George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.. Scroll back for earlier posts if you want to get up to speed.}

I'll start by following up on Maggie's post about Gwendolen Harleth's specific brand of awfulness--for which she makes a solid case--by noting that her skeptical eye led me to read a later exchange between Gwendolen and her mother differently than I would have. Their fortune lost, the family is in scrimp-and-save mode, which does not sit well with Gwendolen, who, reluctantly, is about to go out as a governess while the rest of the family takes residence in a small, remote cottage. "How shall you endure it, mamma?" asks Gwendolen. After she expands on the incipient horrors a bit, her mother replies,
"It will be some comfort that you have not to bear it too, dear."
It would be, wouldn't it? At risk of doubting a mother's sincerity, I find myself reading that as less about her daughter's tender sensibilities and more about the fact that a crowded house is more tolerable the fewer self-entitled whiners you fill it with.

Distrust of intentions and sincerity is actually a good way into the point of today's post, which addresses a new character whom Maggie mentioned at the end of her post: Mirah Lapidoth, "the very Dickens-like, beautiful, but oh-so-sad eighteen-year-old" who is prevented by Deronda from acting on her intention of throwing herself in the Thames.

What Deronda didn't realize is that the Thames might have puked her right back up. She's awful. Throughout this discussion, Maggie and I have in different ways given Eliot credit for her complicated, nuanced portrayals of women . . . and then suddenly she drops on us a character dripping with all the worst sentimental Victorian ideas about the innocence and purity of young women. Deronda is clearly love-struck at first sight by those very qualities, allied as they are to a helpless frailty that is equally intolerable to a contemporary reader, and decides to take her under his wing. Even Eliot seems to sense that perhaps she's taken things a bit too far, for she opens the next book with an account of his hitherto unsuspected romantic side:
To say that Deronda was romantic would be to misrepresent him; but under his calm and somewhat self-repressed exterior there was a fervour which made him easily find poetry and romance among the events of everyday life. . . . To Deronda this event of finding Mirah was as heart-stirring as anything that befell Orestes or Rinaldo.
Now, I suppose it's entirely possible that Eliot has brought Mirah into the book primarily to complicate and advance the plot. As those who've suffered through the unlikely machinations of Raffles in Middlemarch can attest, Eliot is at her weakest when she is trying to make her novels conform to Victorian expectations for mystery and surprise; it makes you wish she could have read some late Henry James and realized that it is possible to write a great novel in which almost nothing happens.

Even if that's the case, it doesn't quite excuse the load of sentimental bosh that is Mirah's life story. After Deronda takes her to the home of his friends, the Meyricks, she relates her entire history. At length: it takes up more than 13 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. We get page after page of her sinister father and his sinister companions, her pure heart only slowly awakening to danger, the desperate measures she took to escape, her childlike faith in the goodness of people that is only slowly eroded. Of her life on stage, she says,
I missed the love and the trust I had been born into. I made a life in my own thoughts quite different from everything about me: I chose what seemed to me beautiful out of the plays and everything, and made my world out of it; and it was like a sharp knife always grazing me that we had two sorts of life which jarred so with each other--women looking good and gentle on the stage, and saying good things as if they felt them, and directly after I saw them with coarse, ugly manners.
It's all not only bloatedly insipid, and thus dull, it's also hard to believe. And that's the part I keep getting hung up on. Here, for example, is Mirah's disjointed first explanation to the Meyricks and Deronda of how she came to this pass:
My name is Mirah Lapidoth. I am come a long way from Prague by myself. I made my escape. I ran away from dreadful things. I came to find my mother and brother in London. I had been taken from my mother when I was little, but I thought I could find her again. I had trouble--the houses were all gone--I could not find her. It has been a long while, and I had not much money. That is why I am in distress.
Now, if a stranger came up to you on the street and told you that story, would you instinctively believe them, and want to know more? Or would you slowly back away? And what if they followed it with one of those life stories in which every man's hand is against them, every piece of luck is bad, and everyone is always doing them wrong?

Yet Deronda--and the Meyricks as well, who don't even have love as an excuse--seem to harbor no doubts at all. They are wholly sympathetic, positively brimming with belief. I realize there's always a substantial risk in trying to extrapolate about real people in the past from what we're given in fiction, but could people possibly have been that much more credulous then? Are we that much more thoroughly cauterized by cynicism?

As a modest, unscientific test, I decided to turn to Dickens's Little Nell, whose untimely death in The Ol Curiosity Shop is held up as powerful evidence of Victorian love of Dickens's treacly heroines. But was she really received that heartily? Were there no dissenting voices at the time?

If so, Philip Collins didn't turn any up when he assembled Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage. "Little Nell," he writes,
made her mark immediately: [Dickens's friend and biographer John] Forster was able to predict for her "as long a life as any member of the great family of English fiction can hope to enjoy." Comparisons with Cordelia and Imogen were frequent. At a less literary, more personal, level, she could be imagined "cling[ing] with a never-ending fondness around our necks, inseparable for ever." (Ainsworth's Magazine, January 1844). . . . Nor was the international furore about her restricted to simple unsophisticated readers and arguably ga-ga old men like Landor and Jeffrey. For the austerely intellectual Westminster Review, for instance, she was "the happiest and most perfect of Dickens's sketches . . . a tragedy of the true sort."
The "fierce reaction" against her, Collins notes didn't begin until much later.

Which suggests that, yes, Deronda and the Meyricks may not be atypical in their susceptibility to Mirah's sentimental innocence, and that perhaps Eliot herself thought she was creating a character as believable, and fully fleshed-out, as any of her others. At this point in the novel, I think that's the only way we can read the situation; even so, it's hard for me to reconcile with Eliot's perceptiveness and intellectual acuity, or with the flaying, modern wit she allows Gwendolen to wield.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gwendolen Harleth as seen from the distaff side

{Editorial note: this post from my friend Maggie Bandur continues our back-and-forth series as we make our way through George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Scroll back through the blog and you'll see the first three posts.}

When I saw Levi’s post about women in Victorian literature, I assumed the topic had been covered, but then I found myself mildly annoyed with the warmth and admiration with which he described Gwendolen Harleth. I mean, she’s so clearly a--well, one of those women who sigh disingenuously and say, “I don’t know what it is, but I have no women friends,” with a subtle implication that other women are mean or jealous, when it is so often she who is, at best, uninterested in anyone of her own sex. Reading back over his post, however, Levi clearly says she has a tendency towards the toxic00and my reaction perhaps reveals more about me than anything else. But still . . .

I had just finished Can You Forgive Her? before embarking on Daniel Deronda, and Trollope does describe the mental states of very different men and especially women so beautifully. (Although, when you get down to it, you could argue, Alice and Glencora are saved from their real doubts and turmoil, by steadfast, serious men who are (mostly) confident this phase will pass.) Eliot is even better. And perhaps because she is a woman, she gives us a character we don’t often see: the woman about whom all the other women say, “Why don’t any of the guys notice that she is horrible?”

And Gwendolen is a little horrible.

She shirks participating in her half-sisters’ education. “’It bores me to death, [Alice] is so slow. She has no ear for music, or language, or anything else. It would be much better for her to be ignorant, mamma: It is her rĂ´le, she would do it well.’” Her mother exhorts her to be kind to her friendly cousin:
"You know, you can’t expect her to be equal to you." "I don’t want to be equal," said Gwendolen, with a toss of her head and a smile, and the discussion ended there.
She even participates in behavior that today’s psychologists would consider sociopathic:
Though never even as a child thoughtlessly cruel, nay, delighting to rescue drowning insects and watch their recovery, there was a disagreeable silent remembrance of her having strangled her sister’s canary-bird in a final fit of exasperation at its shrill singing which had again and again jarringly interrupted her own. She had taken pains to buy a white mouse for her sister in retribution, and though inwardly excusing herself on the ground of a peculiar sensitiveness which was a mark of her general superiority, the thought of that infelonious murder had always made her wince.
White mouse aside, I wish that Isabel had left the cabinet with the creepy portrait open on purpose to ruin her vain charades. And even more damning to me:
In the ladies’ dining-room it was evident that Gwendolen was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were no beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange. Perhaps it was that she was not much interested in them, and when left alone in their company had a sense of empty benches. Mrs. Vulcany once remarked that Miss Harleth was too fond of the gentlemen; but we know that she was not in the least fond of them--she was only fond of their homage--and women did not give her homage.
Yes, Gwendolen is constrained by convention: the segregated dinners exist because “the amiable Lord Brackenshaw, who was something of a gourmet, mentioned Byron’s opinion that a woman should never be seen eating...” (!) But Gwendolen isn’t thwarted in her ambition to make art or enter politics, and not for a moment do I believe she really wants to be an adventuress. She wants only to make an effect. She needs admiration--and since women don’t exist to her, it is the admiration of men. This need--all that society can really offer her-does not make Gwendolen unworthy of sympathy; quite the opposite:
She rejoiced to feel herself exceptional; but her horizon was that of the genteel romance where the heroine’s soul poured out in her journal is full of vague power, originality and general rebellion, while her life moves strictly in the sphere of fashion; and if she wanders into a swamp, the pathos lies partly, so to speak, in her having on satin shoes. Here is a restraint which nature and society have provided on the pursuit of striking adventure; so that a soul burning with a sense of what the universal is not, and ready to take all existence as fuel, is nevertheless held captive by the ordinary wirework of social forms and does nothing in particular.
There is something poignant in how Gwendolen knows she wants something, but doesn’t know what. But she clearly knows she doesn’t want anyone else to have it. Still, much as Gwendolen might not like it, I was also touched by Eliot’s evocation of a vulnerability that ties her to all women:
Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?...

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea and Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.
It does probably help my sympathy (or schadenfreude) that things are stacking up against Gwendolen that could make her very unhappy, indeed. But I imagine she will take it with more spirit, than the very Dickens-like, beautiful, but oh-so-sad eighteen year old, who just appeared so Deronda can want to protect her. (Speaking of Dickens’s women, I reject the apocryphal stories of people running down to New York harbor to ask the arriving ships if Little Nell had died, because no one is described as asking hopefully.) I trust that there will be more to this new character--already she has been identified as a Jewess, which I’m sure was shocking at the time--but I can’t imagine her being equal to Gwendolen. And I don’t know that I want her to be.

(I have not answered Levi’s questions, but I did have some thoughts about hunting for later.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gwendolen Harleth, spoiled child, and the place of women in Eliot's Victorian England

In Friday's Daniel Deronda post, Maggie raised the question of gender, and Eliot's presentation of women. It's a topic that's inescapable--how could the author of "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" not be constantly presenting us with reasons to think about women, their education, work, and rights, in her writing?

Unsurprisingly, Eliot's portrayals of women are among the most interesting and nuanced in Victorian literature. I've lately been admiring Trollope on that front, and his novels share a crucial characteristic with Eliot's: they are often about the women found in their pages, at least as much as they are about the men. The women aren't adjuncts to their men, or plot points or prizes for their men to fight over, but active agents in their own lives. Simply presenting them as rational, individual creatures would represent a step up from Dickens's fatuous, treacly angels, but Trollope and Eliot do more: they show us the choices women in general have, and then they help us understand how individual women approach them.

What is of particular interest on that front in the early pages of Daniel Deronda is how Eliot both succinctly describes the limitations women face and uses those limitations to help us understand the spoiled child character that she gives Gwendolen Harleth in the early going. Here, for example, is Gwendolen's answer to a question from Grandcourt, a presumed suitor, about her future plans:
"I don't know. We women can't go in search of adventures--to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants: they are often bored, and that is the reason why some of them have got poisonous. What do you think?" Gwendolen had run on rather nervously, lightly whipping the rhododendron bush in front of her.
Gwendolen is being flirtatious, certainly--and what better calls to mind the familiar nervous energy of flirtation than her "whipping the rhododendron bush"? But she is also being honest, and the honesty, examined closely, is chilling: women, she says, must live where they are or stay where they're taken, with essentially no choice in the matter. Their only recourse? To become toxic.

It is that refusal to deny reality that helps to explain Gwendolen early on. She knows that she is essentially a commodity, and that her job is to fetch the best price she can. Of Grandcourt, just before meeting him--and ensuring that she looks her best, so that he will feel "admiration unmixed with criticism"--she thinks, "She did not expect to admire him, but that was not necessary to her peace of mind." Elsewhere, reminded that if she intends to hunt, she must marry a man who can keep horses, she replies, "I don't know why I should do anything so horrible as to marry without that prospect, at least." Told that Grandcourt is a "delightful young man":
"Oh, yes," said Gwendolen, with a high note of careless admission, taking off her best hat and turning it round on her hand contemplatively. "I wonder what sort of behaviour a delightful young man would have?" Then, with a merry change of face, "I know he would have hunters and racers, and a London house and two country-houses,--one with battlements and another with a veranda. And I feel sure that with a little murdering he might get a title."
Her hearers are shocked, but to readers Gwendolen's wit feels clever, daring, individual, and pleasantly modern. It helps us to believe that even as she is capricious and demanding, she also is magnetic and interesting. Unlike, say, the dissolute young Sir Felix Carbury in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Gwendolen is that rare spoiled child whose vivacity and appeal we comprehend. We see why people want to be around her, and why they're willing to put up with her less admirable qualities to do so.

Her humor is also her form of rebellion, and--along with her physical impulsiveness (whipping the rhododendrons, twirling her hat, jumping with her horse)--at the same time a reminder of the stifling limitations of her life. She is too smart and engaged for the society, and the choices, she's confronted with, and the friction generated by the difference between her human potential and her social value must be burnt off in that nervous energy. But her understanding of that disjunction also puts her at risk: she knows that she intuitively understands more than her family and friends, but she fails to realize that that understanding nonetheless has limits--limits whose effects are exacerbated by the differing social place of men and women. We see that in her first in-depth thoughts about Grandcourt:
Certainly, with all her perspicacity, and all the reading which seemed to her mamma dangerously instructive, her judgment was consciously a little at fault before Grandcourt. He was adorably quiet and free from absurdities--he would be a husband to suit with the best appearance a woman could make. But what else was he? He had been everywhere, and seen everything. That was desirable, and especially gratifying as a preamble to his supreme preference for Gwendolen Harleth. He did not appear to enjoy anything much. That was not necessary: and the less he had of certain tastes or desires, the more freedom his wife was likely to have in following hers. Gwendolen conceived that after marriage she would most probably be able to manage him thoroughly.

How was it that he caused her unusual constraint now?--that she was less daring and playful in her talk with him than with any other admirer she had known? That absence of demonstrativeness which she was glad of, acted as a charm in more senses than one and was slightly benumbing. Grandcourt after all was formidable--a handsome lizard of a hitherto unknown species, not of the lively, darting kind. But Gwendolen knew hardly anything about lizards, and ignorance gives one a large range of probabilities. This splendid specimen was probably gentle, suitable as a boudoir pet: what may not a lizard be, if you know nothing to the contrary?
It's unclear whether Gwendolen is the one thinking of Grandcourt as a lizard, or Eliot's narrator is, but the image is striking, and Gwendolen's ignorance telling. This, we are made to understand, will not go well.

{PS Questions for Maggie, to be addressed in her post later this week, if she's interested: Mr. Lush. Is he, as it seems early on, a straight Iago figure? Even if so, does he offer us a counterbalancing vision of a male being hemmed in by society and social position? Is this role as Grandcourt's consigliere all he could hope for, or do we have a sense that it's more what he's made himself suitable for? Alternative questions: How much do we as contemporary readers understand about hunting culture from reading Eliot (and even more so, Trollope)? I know that on my first encounter with the Victorians, I was entirely ignorant--now I certainly know more, but do I really understand what it would be like to be out with a hunt?}

Friday, March 21, 2014

Network notes on Daniel Deronda?

{Editorial note: today's post is a contribution from my longtime friend Maggie Bandur, TV writer and book reader. As I explained earlier in the week, we're reading Daniel Deronda together and trading off posts. Enjoy!}

I was very excited and intimidated when Levi asked me to work on this project. I have always been a big reader, but not in a very organized or academically supervised way. I have taken it upon myself to read several Very Important Books of the Canon every year and lately have despaired of the opportunity to use any of this knowledge. Although I work with well-educated people, many of whom are devouring whatever this year’s equivalent of Gone Girl is, I am surprised how many times I get teased for my reading of musty, old books. But I live by my pen! And as a television writer, I am one of the few who still can. Perhaps sitcoms don’t require a deep knowledge of art and literature--but if one is going to spend a lot of time repurposing well-trodden stories, shouldn’t one steal from the best?

Delighted to finally dive into pure intellectual discourse, I was a little disappointed to find myself comparing Daniel Deronda to television and movies--something I don’t normally do. And this before I had read Levi’s introduction. Comparing current television to novels is blecchy. Yes, a television series--one which succeeds--does have the opportunity to show its characters evolve in rich, beautiful, literary ways. But for a show to succeed these days, it seems they must be shocking, at least when first out of the gate. There has been an escalation in violence and sadism and sexy medieval incest, in order to hook people long enough to one day, maybe, explore subtler character moments. This is not, of course, new. The sublimely talky The West Wing pulled a bait and switch by starting the series with Rob Lowe in bed with a call girl, and do you remember that the pilot for The X-Files had Agent Scully in a bra. Can you imagine?! But that deeply humanistic eye for behavior and personality and the mundane which make novels special --well, it must be slipped in between meth deals gone wrong and zombie attacks. George Eliot’s “profusion of aphoristic insights” would not be likely to survive in this golden age of television. Save that for Twitter.

But perhaps I was put in mind of television because I found the opening chapter not at all surprising. It was, in fact, a format with which I was very well acquainted. A famously common and cliched network note is “Start the story sooner.” One easy way to answer this demand is the common trick of opening a show with an extreme situation--dramatic or comic--and then flashing back to how did we get here. Why is Bryan Cranston in his underwear in the desert? Why are foreigners torturing Jennifer Garner? Eliot is telling us who the main players will be, and we learn a bit of Deronda’s character before he disappears for quite some time.

This choice of opening did make me wonder if Eliot had had to deal with editors who complained, “You can’t have a book called Daniel Deronda and not introduce him for 200 pages!” Was this her method of starting the story sooner? Perhaps the chapter’s epigraph is a subtle criticism:
Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. . . . His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought sets off in medias res.
But Levi raises a good point. Do other books begin this way? Although I can’t immediately find an example, I have a sense I have read thrillers or YA books that begin similarly--stories that are perhaps more influenced by (or hope to one day be) movies. But are there any contemporary examples? Did Eliot hit on this method herself? In which case, has television perhaps been, all along, stealing from the best?

While reading, I was also put in mind of another entertainment cliche. The screenwriting book du jour, Save the Cat, claims that to sympathize with a character, particularly an anti-hero, we have to know that they are, at heart, a redeemable person, and nothing shows goodness like being kind to an animal. The opening chapter manages to show us that Gwendolen is a rare and remarkable creature, proud and perhaps not wholly good. By so quickly ruining her, isn’t Eliot ensuring her our sympathy, even as she is about to expose Gwendolen in some detail as “The Spoiled Child?” And not to skip too far ahead, but Eliot seems to have discovered the link between likability and animals, as I suspect we are to know an upcoming suitor is not to be trusted because he cruelly teases a loyal dog who wants his affection.

I believe I am supposed to pose questions. If I might broach another potentially blechhy subject, I will probably want to look at Eliot’s portrayal of women. Perhaps in comparison to Dickens and Trollope?

(On a side note, I believe Levi and I read Middlemarch at the same time for a freshman Intro to Fiction class taught by Iris Murdoch scholar Elizabeth Dipple. After not liking the book at first (perhaps because I didn’t know where it was going?), I fell in love about 200 pages in. Although I rarely set a book aside, one of the lasting legacies of Middlemarch is that I have given many books a much longer, fuller shot than they may have deserved. (Including, controversially, Don Quixote.) That class had an unexpectedly large impact for me: It was the first time I realized Dickens was funny after previously having Great Expectations beaten to death in high school English; I was introduced to Murdoch with A Fairly Honourable Defeat and had its deeper themes explicated in a way I might not have caught on my own, suggesting that college existed for a reason; and I had Jane Eyre somewhat ruined by Professor Dipple pointing out that Mr. Rochester’s teasing, coming from a man in such a superior position, was cruel. (Having recently re-read Jane Eyre, however, she was wrong: Jane is a badass; she can take care of herself.) )

(Oh, and P.S., all happy families are alike.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In which we meet Daniel Deronda, and watch him watch a fascinatrix

{Editorial note: as I explained in Monday's post, today marks the start of a back-and-forth, intended to be a bit conversational, between me and my friend Maggie Bandur as we make our way through Daniel Deronda.}

Like Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda opens on the topic of its female protagonist's beauty. Middlemarch's opening line, though not as familiar as "Happy families are all alike," is reasonably well known, and is generally, I think, considered to be a strong one:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
I would actually class it with "Happy families" in another way, however: as a line that's more memorable than effective, more showy than good. It strikes me as a line an author comes up with very early on, admires, then retains even as the subsequent paragraphs and pages develop along different lines. Oh, I'm exaggerating a bit: Eliot does at least go on to explain herself, which Tolstoy doesn't really do--but wouldn't the chapter work better opening with this line, instead, from the middle of that paragraph:
She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.
Whereas before all you had was a bit of information about appearance, couched in a line seemingly designed to make you think about the sentence itself as much as about its content, now you have a bit of insight into character, and the first hints of a relationship. And opening with "she" puts the whole thing at a further remove, adding a tiny bit of mystery and putting us into the perspective of the outside world looking on and assessing.

Which is closer to what we get in the opening of Daniel Deronda:
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
Nicely handled, no? I'm being a bit unfair, of course: I gave Middlemarch a single sentence, whereas Deronda gets a whole paragraph. But it reads that way: the blunt question that begins the book leads you to the next, and the next; instantly, we feel part of a pattern of thought.

With the second paragraph, we learn who is doing the thinking:
She who raised these questions in Daniel Deronda's mind was occupied in gambling.
The "she," we'll soon learn, is the book's heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, and right away she's being paired for us with the title character. The rest of the chapter lives up to its opening: Eliot puts us in the fashionable French casino where Gwendolen is gambling with a cool recklessness that fascinates the crowd around her. We shift from Deronda's perspective to the narrator's, and then are turned over to a chorus of the moneyed and fashionable, who trade comments and questions about Gwendolen ("For my part I think her odious. . . . It is wonderful what unpleasant girls get into vogue."), smoothly delivering some early exposition along the way. By the end of the chapter, which runs a mere eight pages, Eliot has introduced her two main characters, made her first steps toward placing them in society, and shown us their mutual, if unacknowledged, awareness of a potent force between them.

That makes Eliot's next move all the more interesting: the second chapter brings a letter recalling Gwendolen home, her family's fortune lost, her hopes for a glittering social life dashed. Without seeing Deronda again, she hurries home, not telling anyone of her troubles . . . after which Eliot carries us back a year. One hundred and fifty pages will pass before we see Deronda again, and more than that before he and Gwendolen are brought back into proximity.

It's a structure that only a supremely confident author would attempt, and I'm not entirely sure that it works. Eliot's decision to essentially set the problem for us at the outset is brilliant, but is the power of that opening scene dissipated too much by the number of pages it takes to get us back to that moment in its characters' parallel lives?

And with that, I'll turn it over to Maggie, who, if all goes well, will appear here on Friday. She may take up that question about the early structure, or she may go off in a completely new direction. Either way, I hope you'll join us!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Diving into Daniel Deronda

If I may speak for you--presuming, I hope not overmuch, upon our eight-year online acquaintance--we'll start this post by stipulating that there are few topics more tiresome than "In this current golden age of television, have TV shows become what novels used to be?" As they used to say in Mad magazine, "Blecccch."

And yet . . . (You knew there was an "and yet" coming, didn't you?) I did have that thought a tiny bit when I was reading Rebecca Mead's thoughtful new book My Life in Middlemarch and came upon this passage:
"We all grumble at 'Middlemarch,'" a reviewer for the Spectator said. "But we all read it, and all feel that there is nothing to compare with it appearing at the present moment int he way of English literature, and not a few of us calculate whether we shall get the August number before we go for our autumn holiday, or whether we shall have to wait for it until we return."
Though I tend to watch TV deeply in arrears, this does jibe uncannily with the feeling of watching a popular show these days: being part of a group, a contentious, easily irritated group that starts at every sign and waits, breathless, to see whether its conjecture will be borne out. That's the characteristic I love best about the current upper-middlebrow TV-watching culture: the way it returns us to a long tradition of serial narrative, of, if not exactly reading for the plot, at least of truly not knowing what will come next, and finding ourselves unable not to wonder. {Side note: this is one of the reasons that I love sports.}

Mead's aside reminds us that that used to be the case with these novels, too--and, for most of us, that was in some sense our own experience the first time through. The first time I read Middlemarch, I marveled at Eliot's profusion of aphoristic insights, but I also wondered, page by page and chapter by chapter, just where Dorothea would end up. It's one of the qualities I most admire in Trollope lately: he offers his characters a range of wholly plausible choices, and we truly don't know which they'll choose until they do.

In contemporary television fandom, this uncertainty, this demonstration of the potency of the installment, is made most clearly manifest in the many online TV clubs and episode recaps, the most prominent of them being Slate's. Certainly, these episode-by-episode back-and-forths can at times be of modest interest, offering recaps and little else. But at their best, they can serve as an interesting record of how we responded in real time, of what it was like to watch plots unfold and characters develop, of how a narrative took advantage of and worked with and subverted our ingrained expectations about how plots turn and people behave.

All of which is by way of a long preamble to an announcement. Having been prompted by the incomparable Patrick Kurp to read Daniel Deronda--which, despite my love (and re-reading) of Middlemarch, I've never taken up--I've dragooned my good friend Maggie Bandur, TV writer by trade, book reader by inclination, into reading it with me and trading posts and questions and ideas. If you've been an IBRL reader for a long time, Maggie's name may be familiar: she's written here before on Tom Brown's Schooldays and Clarissa, and I have no doubt she'll be good, and smart, company.

If all goes well with the other bits of life, I'll start things off on Wednesday with a brief post about the book's opening, and Eliot's quick, yet incredibly effective introduction of Gwendolen Harleth. If you're interested in reading along with us, we'd be glad of the company: there's no set schedule, but I would imagine we'll progress reasonably slowly, say, 150-200 pages a week? Come along--as usual when you read Eliot, you have nothing to lose but your confidence in received opinion!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Did I mention that I'm editing a Donald E. Westlake collection? Oh, I did? How recently?

In the [insert value = "small amount of time"] since I last mentioned The Getaway Car, the collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction I'm editing for the University of Chicago Press, a lot more of the details of what's in and on the book have been released on the Press's webpage for the book. So, with your patience (and, I hope (?) your interest), herewith:

1 The cover design and illustration will be by the wonderful Darwyn Cooke. Cooke has been my favorite comics artist since his brilliant New Frontier series reimagined DC's Silver Age in its actual context of Cold War America. I first wrote about Cooke back in 2007, praising The New Frontier at the end of this post, and I followed it up with excitement when it was announced that he would be creating four graphic novels of Parker books. So you can imagine how over the moon I am about his involvement with The Getaway Car. I've seen early drafts of the cover, and it's fantastic. I should be able to share it soon.

2 The descriptive copy that my colleague Carrie Adams (who is stuck in the, let's be honest, unenviable position of being her boss's publicist) and I came up with for the book has been released:
Over the course of a fifty-year career, Donald Westlake published nearly one hundred books, including not one but two long-running series, starring the hard-hitting Parker and the hapless John Dortmunder. In the six years since his death, Westlake’s reputation has only grown, with fans continuing to marvel at his tightly constructed plots, no-nonsense prose, and keen, even unsettling, insights into human behavior.

With The Getaway Car, we get our first glimpse at another side of Westlake the writer: what he did when he wasn’t busy making stuff up. And it’s fascinating. Setting previously published pieces, many little-seen, alongside never-before-published material found in Westlake’s working files, the book offers a clear picture of the man behind the books—including his background, experience, and thoughts on his own work and that of his peers, mentors, and influences. The book opens with revealing (and funny) fragments from an unpublished autobiography, then goes on to offer an extended history of private eye fiction, a conversation among Westlake’s numerous pen names, letters to friends and colleagues, interviews, appreciations of fellow writers, and much, much more. There’s even a recipe for Sloth a la Dortmunder. Really.

Rounded out with a foreword by Westlake’s longtime friend Lawrence Block, The Getaway Car is a fitting capstone to a storied career and a wonderful opportunity to revel anew in the voice and sensibility of a master craftsman.
I think it does a good job of hitting the highlights in a brief space--and of making one of the points that I think is key, from reader's, critic's, or publicist's points of view: This book is a bit different from the other (very good) posthumous Westlake books. Those are novels, whereas this book, by its nature, invites us to take a moment, nearly six years after his death, to reflect on his life and work, assess his place in the crime-writing pantheon, and be grateful for what he gave us.

3 We've landed a nice blurb from Charles Ardai, novelist and founder of Hard Case Crime--and the man who introduced me to Westlake, through Lemons Never Lie--and one drawn from Lawrence Block's foreword:
“Westlake was a treasure and a delight to read—the man was incapable of writing a paragraph without being witty and memorable and wise—and Westlake on Westlake is enjoyable in the extreme.”--Charles Ardai

“Stahl has done a superb job of . . . separating the best of the wheat from the rest of the wheat—Don didn’t do chaff—and organizing and notating the result.”--Lawrence Block
I can't wait until you folks get to read Block's introduction. It's everything you'd want it to be: heartfelt, funny, and personal.

4 Finally, for those who want even more details, the whole table of contents is now up on the Chicago site:
Foreword by Lawrence Block

Editor’s Introduction

1 My Second Life: Fragments from an Autobiography

2 Donald E. Westlake, a.k.a. . . .
Hearing Voices in My Head: Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark and Donald E. Westlake
Living with a Mystery Writer, by Abby Adams
Writers on Writing: A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell

3 So Tell Me about This Job We’re Gonna Pull: On Genre
The Hardboiled Dicks
Introduction to Murderous Schemes
Introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories, 2000
Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

4 Ten Most Wanted: Ten Favorite Mystery Books

5 Returning to the Scene of the Crime: On His Own Work
Introduction to Levine
Tangled Webs for Sale: Best Offer
Introduction to Kahawa
Light
Hooked
Letter to Howard B. Gotlieb, Boston University Libraries

6 Lunch Break: May’s Famous Tuna Casserole

7 The Other Guys in the String: Peers, Favorites, and Influences
Lawrence Block: First Sighting
On Peter Rabe
Playing Politics with a Master of Dialogue: On George V. Higgins
On Rex Stout
Introduction to Jack Ritchie’s A New Leaf and Other Stories
Foreword to Thurber on Crime
Introduction to Charles Willeford’s The Way We Die Now
On Stephen Frears
John D. MacDonald: A Remembrance

8 Coffee Break: Letter to Ray Broekel

9 Anything You Say May Be Used against You: Interviews
An Inside Look at Donald Westlake, by Albert Nussbaum, 81332-132
The Worst Happens: From an Interview by Patrick McGilligan

10 Midnight Snack: Gustatory Notes from All Over

11 Side Jobs: Prison Breaks, Movie Mobsters, and Radio Comedy
Break-Out
Love Stuff, Cops-and-Robbers Style
Send In the Goons

12 Signed Confessions: Letters
To Judy ?
To Peter Gruber
To James Hale
To Stephen and Tabitha King
To Brian Garfield
To David Ramus
To Pam Vesey
To Gary Salt
To Henry Morrison
To Jon L. Breen

13 Jobs Never Pulled: Title Ideas
Crime Titles
Comic Crime Titles

14 Death Row (Or, The Happily Ever Afterlife): Letter to Ralph L. Woods

Acknowledgments
Credits
Name Index
That name index, by the way? Yeah, I should probably create that soon.

Books should be here right after Labor Day. Tell your friends! Tell your bookstore! Tell your bookstore friends!