Friday, February 23, 2007

On the train with Thomas Hardy

As I was on the train today on the way home, reading Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy (2006), I noticed that a woman across the aisle was reading Hardy's final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). Though most of Hardy's novels feature characters grimly struggling against an implacable, impersonal fate that seems determined to thwart their every ambition, Jude takes such cosmic pessimism much further. Too far, in my view, though I won't deny that it's an unforgettable book. I recently told a coworker that reading Jude is like engaging in self-flagellation; I learned today that Tomalin disagrees, but only about who is delivering the beating: "Reading Jude is like being hit in the face over and over again." She continues, saying it is
a novel of unrelenting power and gloom. If the poetic dramas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean writers come to mind where horror is part of the fabric, we should remember that Hardy said he aimed to keep his narratives "as close to poetry in their subject as the conditions would allow," and that he sometimes spoke of his poems coming to him. . . . So perhaps we can believe that the worst parts of Jude and Sue's story also came partly unbidden, out of the place inside him where the wounds made by grief and loss and humiliation and failure had never ceased to ache.

But I've gotten distracted; that's not what came to mind on the train this evening. At that point, I found myself thinking about how odd it was that two of us were engaged with Hardy at the same time, more than a hundred years after Jude's publication, and wondering how many people in Chicago tonight are reading one of Hardy's novels. What would Hardy--who thought of himself not as a novelist, but as a poet who wrote novels to pay the bills--make of the fact that his novels are still read and loved today? And, given his emotional inscrutability (his close friend Edmund Gosse called him a sphinx) what would he think of being the subject of a such a detailed, thoughtful biography?

These are old questions, and unanswerable, but I still find them compelling. Authors can't avoid thinking of posterity, of course, and some are presumptuous enough to assume their works will remain of interest. Though Hardy knew he was a good writer, and he did take care that a uniform edition of his works be published in his lifetime (though that was arguably as much a business as an artistic decision) I doubt he was quite so self-confident as to imagine my spending so much time wondering about him this week eighty-odd years after his death.

In his poem "Afterwards" (1917), below, Hardy reveals that he did think on such things. However, at least in this verse the question of the sturdiness of the memory of his actual personality stands in for, if it doesn't fully replace, the question of artistic survival:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should
come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand
at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?

I hope it would gladden Hardy's notoriously gloomy heart to know that his writing has infected me so deeply that, confronted with a field in autumn or a quiet forest, yes, I do often find myself thinking of him. His words have insured that his person has survived; I look at such sights, colored by his words, and know the joy they would bring him.


  1. Many moons ago, while I was in a freshman lit. class, I chose Hardy for a research paper topic. Little did I know then what I wild ride I was in for, espescially with Jude. I felt at once drawn to and repelled by Hardy. Jude unsettled me in a way no other novel has before or since. I felt as if Hardy had discovered me calmly letting the rooks feed and given me a good shaking (an impact I think he would not have been altogether unhappy with).

    You say Hardy took his pessimistic view "too far." I wonder, have you ever read Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts? If not, it would make an interesting compare/contrast for you in this regard. My God, all that thing lacks is a razor blade taped to the inside cover. Having said that, West, like Hardy, was a very lyrical writer, and the prose is extremely captivating.

    I remember reading a commentary on Sue that called her "just about the biggest bitch in all of English literature." I don't remember who it was by though or what the justification was, but it too struck me as a memorable line.

    P.S.- I wouldn't say that I "often" find myself thinking of Hardy, but I did think of him in an odd context the other night. I was watching a scene in Zorro where Antonio Banderas is making slashing gestures with his sword toward Catherine Zeta Jones, and I thought instantly of that scene early in Far From the Madding Crowd.

    P.P.S.- I haven't read any Hardy recently; however, I would truly enjoy finding a thoughtful person to re-discover Hardy with. If you're interested and can afford to wait for a slow (very busy, though unfortunately not with reading) reader, let me know, and I'll go looking through my boxes of unpacked books. Or if you simply happen to know a place on line where thoughtful people gather to talk about books, I would appreciate learning about that too.


  2. I do remember Sue being unforgettable, and quite a problem for Jude, but English literature--though probably not much more misogynistic than most--features many a bitch.

    Off the top of my head, there's Lady Macbeth (who takes the laurel), Thackeray's Becky Sharp, Powell's Pamela Widmerpool, and Dickens's Madame Defarge. I'm sure I've forgotten many . . .