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!

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