Monday, December 08, 2008

Trollope's formlessness

Nathaniel Hawthorne once described Anthony Trollope's writing as
just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.
Hawthorne was referring to Trollope's broad canvas and commitment to a detailed realism, but as I was reading Phineas Redux (1873), I began to interpret his remarks in a different light. If Trollope's characters in Phineas Redux don't know they're in a novel, it may be because the book bears little of the shape or structure of a novel. Though the book begins with Phineas Finn's return to Parliament and ends with a wedding, the first two-thirds of the novel offers almost no sense of a narrative arc; the reader has very little idea what to expect next, or where Trollope might be taking his story.

Instead--without, I should say, being in any way experimental or un-Victorian--Phineas Redux offers a hint of the formlessness of everyday life. Incidents succeed one another--Phineas is re-elected, Parliament debates the disestablishment of the church, Phineas takes counsel with his passel of female friends--but until the murder of one of Phineas's political antagonists nearly 400 pages in, there is little sense that these developments are leading anywhere. Even the murder, which takes place between chapters, offers little in the way of traditional suspense: though Phineas is accused, Trollope tells the reader point-blank the identity of the real murderer, and even the outcome of Phineas's protracted trial seems a foregone conclusion.

All this should not, however, be taken to mean that Phineas Redux is a bad or uninteresting novel; it's decidedly neither. In fact, Trollope's reduction of plot to a mere succession of lived days is bracing--and surprisingly well-suited to the real aim of the six Palliser novels, of which Phineas Redux is the fourth: to demonstrate how people and societies change over time. Readers of all the Palliser novels will have spent more than 3,000 pages with some of the characters by the end of Phineas Redux, and at least 1,300 with almost all of them. Through the accretion of detail and the piling up of seemingly minor decisions, we have come to deeply know these characters, and the growth of that knowledge is the reason we keep reading; the erstwhile plot is at best secondary.

Along the way, the pleasures are countless. Though Phineas Redux does have its longeurs--what 600-plus-page novel doesn't?--Trollope's prose is always elegant and interesting. He is as capable of loosing a wicked generalization--such as
A man who is supposed to have caused a disturbance between two married people, of a certain rank of life, does generally receive a certain meed of admiration.
--as a powerfully compact character sketch, such as this one of Duke Plantagenet Palliser:
Our old friend Plantagenet Palliser was a man who hardly knew insolence when he met it. There was such an absence about his of all self-consciousness, he was so little given to think of his own personal demanour and outward trappings--that he never brought himself to question the manners of others to him. Contradiction he wuld take for simple argument. Strong difference of opinion even on the part of subordinates recommended itself to him. He could put up with apparent rudeness without seeingit,a nd always gave men credit for good intentions. And withit all he had an assurance in his own position--a knowledge of the strength drecived from his intellect, his industry, his rank, and his wealth--which made him altogether fearless of others. When the little dog snarls, the big dog does not connect the snarl with himself, simply fancying that the little dog must be uncomfortable.
Trollope's dialogue is also exceptionally good; his characters--especially the female ones, who tend to be strong-willed and outspoken--frequently speak to one another with a startling directness. Take this exchange between one of the sequence's most interesting characters, Palliser's wife, Duchess Glencora, and Mr. Maule, whose impending marriage she has just facilitated. As the Duchess opens the dialogue, it's important to remember that she is not one to be mean, merely--like so many of Trollope's characters--frank:
"People go on quarrelling and fancying this and that, and thinking that the world is full of romance and poetry. When they get married they know better."

"I hope the romance and poetry do not all vanish."

"Romance and poetry are for the most part lies, Mr Maule, and are very apt to bring people into difficulty. I have seen something of them in my time, and I much prefer downright honest figures. Two and two make four; idleness is the root of all evil; love your neighbour like yourself, and the rest of it."
That sort of directness--especially when set against the manic mannerisms of Dickens characters or the sour satire of Thackeray--can be remarkably refreshing. It strips away much of the natural distance between us and the Victorians, making us, however temporarily, their intimates, and forcing us to think as they think, ache as they ache.

In his Autobiography, Trollope wrote,
By no amount of description or asseveration could I succeed in making any reader understand how much these characters and their belongings have meant to me.
I think he sold himself short; his love is obvious, and infectious. With two more Palliser novels to go, I can already foresee the sadness to come when the last page is turned and their story is told.

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