Thursday, May 29, 2014

Disappointed in Daniel Deronda

{This may be the final post in the back-and-forth that Maggie Bandur and I have been conducting on Daniel Deronda, though it’s possible that my assessment here will prompt Maggie to respond. Regardless, thanks for sticking with us through this (unexpectedly slow-paced) reading.}

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Daniel Deronda, Terence Cave sums up contemporary responses from English readers and critics. My paraphrase: It would be great if it weren’t for all that stuff about Jews. Cave notes, however, that even as English critics praised the Gwendolen Harleth sections and dismissed the Jewish characters and themes, Jewish publications were doing the opposite. It’s easy, therefore, to write off the English establishment’s response as anti-Semitism, or, at a minimum, discomfort with the different social strata and lives represented by Eliot’s Jewish characters.

The problem is that they’re right. They’re not right about the Jewish characters and themes themselves being a problem, of course--that’s where the social discomfort in the response is hard to deny--but their criticisms point to the way that the failure of those aspects of the novel to be integrated with the novel’s other concerns ultimately dooms Daniel Deronda. Think back to where the book begins: We watch a striking young woman throwing caution, and propriety, to the winds at the gaming table. We meet the young man, of mysterious past, who is watching her--and who quickly, anonymously, intervenes to help her clear a debt. We know their stories will be intertwined, and that these next many hundred pages will reveal some sort of approach, combat, and resolution of their independent wills and fates.

That Eliot doesn’t deliver what we expect is not a flaw. Her decision to instead show a mismatch, a truly unrequited love, is impressive, and it makes for some moving scenes, as Gwendolen realizes that Deronda is not the safe harbor she’d been counting on. And her desire to bring in larger themes, and paint a portrait of a mostly neglected, often despised people is also admirable. Cave defends her decisions in the introduction,
The evidence might, it is true, seem to confirm the view that the novel falls into two separate parts, each appealing to different tastes and different cultural norms; but that would be to accept the least demanding reading (on both sides), whereas patently the point of the novel is to make unusual demands on the reader.
He is right that Eliot is trying to do something new, and it’s our job as readers to attempt to meet her on her ground. The problem, however, isn’t with her plan, but with her execution: She wants us to see Deronda driven by a quest for identity and purpose, a quest that can’t be fulfilled through a typical social life and novel-ending marriage. Yet Deronda’s questing always feels light, of limited depth and complexity. I compared him once before to Tolstoy’s Pierre, and I think the comparison remains instructive: Pierre is flighty and irresponsible, but we never question the fact that he’s driven by his inchoate desire to belong to something larger. By contrast, Deronda’s similar desire never ripens for the reader.

That failure can be laid squarely at the feet of Eliot’s two most important Jewish characters, Mirah and Ezra. Her secondary Jewish characters are wonderfully drawn: we believe in, and appreciate, all the Cohens from the minute they appear on stage. But Mirah and Ezra suffer greatly from a flaw that in literature is all but insurmountable, even after we discount for contemporary distrust of sentimentalism: perfection. I wrote before about Mirah’s gauziness, the insipidity that makes her as formless and uninteresting as a love interest in Dickens, but Ezra is just as bad. What do we know of him? He’s ill, he’s obsessed with Jewish history and philosophy, and he’s unfailingly kind and polite. But when we attend his discussion group with Deronda, we hear nothing from him that captivates, see nothing of the fervor or eloquence that could make us understand Deronda’s fascination. Like Mirah, he exists only as a perfection, an instrument for opening Deronda’s mind, and thus we have a hard time caring about just what Deronda’s mind is being opened to.

The same problem plagues the revelation of Deronda’s Jewish heritage. His mother--who at least is memorable in her self-absorption and caustic speech--turns out to be someone we’ve never encountered before, and the big secret of Deronda’s Jewish ancestry is exactly the one we’ve assumed we’d learn. The revelation fazes us barely more than it fazes Deronda (though perhaps we benefit unfairly from the passage of time in that case; it’s conceivable that seeing the very picture of an English gentleman revealed as a Jew could have provided a salutary shock to Eliot’s readers in her day)--it merely opens the door for him to definitively break with Gwendolen’s fantasies.

Gwendolen Harleth is a character worth reading 900 pages for, even if the novel disappoints. And nothing by Eliot could ever be devoid of interest, given her piercing intelligence and facility with epigrammatic observations. But oh, how I wish that Daniel Deronda were the novel it appears to be in its opening, full of fire and dash, mixing self-dealing subterfuges by Lush and clever machinations by Gwendolen, honorable doubt from Deronda and long-held secrets from Sir Hugo. What I wish for, I realize, is a much more traditional novel--and perhaps not a George Eliot novel at all. But sometimes it’s worth remembering the value of form, and this book brought it to mind: to watch such a compelling set-up dissolve into so much inchoate blandness can’t help but frustrate.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, but how long is the apprenticeship?, or, Impatience then and now

{My friend Maggie Bandur and I are nearing the end of our wander through Daniel Deronda, and, in realization of that, in today's post Maggie backtracks a bit, taking us to an earlier scene that caught her eye. If you're just joining us and want to follow the whole thread, just scroll down to earlier entries and work your way back up; the first post is here.}

I appear to be the hold-up here, and while Levi travels for work and family, edits a book, hold down a prestigious job and runs six miles a day, I have no such excuses. I have spent much of the last month literally staring at the wall. This is the hiring time for television writers, when most of the shows staff up, and if you don't get one of the lucrative chairs when the music stops, you may not work again for a while. And although TV staff jobs will give you a mouth like a sailor, you develop no other transferable, marketable skills.

I would like to think it's not just my fretting that has held me back. The fact is I have actually (Shhh!) finished the book. I do think I am still trying to process how I ultimately feel about Daniel and Gwendolen and Mirah and their fates. (They all die. Shhh.) So, if I am permitted to backtrack a little--and Levi never responded to my e-mail to tell me I couldn't--there is a conversation in Daniel Deronda that has really stuck with me, especially in my current mental state. I was so tickled to discover, in the midst of this nineteenth-century novel, a conversation I have had many times: the one where someone asks how to break into the entertainment industry and--more importantly--how long before they can expect to be famous?

Her family having lost their money, Gwendolen decides she is going to take to the stage as an actress and singer. After all, she's always been a hit at parties. She goes to Klesmer, the composer for advice, and the results are eerily familiar. Gwendolen presents her plan with "the conviction that now she made this serious appeal the truth would be favourable." Klesmer takes a looong time answering and then begins ominously: "The gods have a curse for him who willingly tells another the wrong road."

Klesmer suspects Gwendolen does not understand the realities of what is involved:
Well, then with that preparation, you wish to try the life of the artist; you wish to try a life of arduous, unceasing work, and--uncertain praise. Your praise would have to be earned, like your bread; and both would come slowly, scantily--what do I say?--they might hardly come at all.
Gwendolen assures him she is ready--while betraying that she isn't:
I am quite prepared to bear hardships at first. Of course no one can become celebrated all at once.
And when Klesmer lays out the discipline and sacrifice involved, Gwendolen tries the classic defense of, "But I've seen so much crap; it can't be that hard":
"I will be obliged to you if you will explain how it is that such poor actresses get engaged. I have been to the theatre several times, and I am sure there were actresses who seemed to me to act not well and who were quite plain."

"Ah, my dear Miss Harleth, that is the easy criticism of the buyer. We who buy slippers toss away this pair and the other as clumsy; but there was an apprenticeship to the making of them. Excuse me: you could not at present teach one of those actresses; but there is certainly much she could teach you."
First of all, let me be clear I don't ever begrudge having this conversation. It is where everyone starts, there is a special place in hell for people who shit on others for having their same dream, and when it gets down to it, we're all in the same boat: If you look at the facts, making a living doing something creative is more or less statistically impossible and please don't make me look down to where the roadrunner has lured me out over the cliff. But there is something surprising and comforting in the le plus ├ža change . . . of this passage. I haven't been so delighted since Anna Karenina, shut out of society, decided to write a children's book. Apparently, frustrated, creative people with nothing better to do have been writing children's books for at least two hundred years! (Now, that I think about it, I could write a pretty good children's book.)

But when Klesmer discourages Gwendolen, I found myself ashamed that I do not take enough time to think about the honor and privilege that comes with a life in the arts:
I am not decrying the life of a true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organisations--natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it; ready like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say I am not yet worthy.
I do long to be such a worthy, choice organisation. But I am also sure Klesmer would not consider what I do to be art. And it is hard for me to tell the world that all I want to do is express my innermost soul--so now, won't you just give me tens of millions of dollars and a crew of two hundred to do it?

Friday, May 09, 2014

Judging Deronda

{Back at Daniel Deronda, responding today to Maggie Bandur's post from Wednesday. Despite all the other distractions, readng and non-reading alike, we've finally both made it well past the 500-page mark!}

I was pleased to see Maggie raise the question of why Deronda is so uncomfortable with the idea that the Cohens--whose company he clearly enjoys--might be Mirah's relatives. All the possible reasons she adduces seem likely to play at least some part, but the crucial one is eventually identified by Deronda himself the night that Mordecai invites him to the Philosophers' club:
Deronda thought, "I shall never know anything decisive about these people until I ask Cohen point-blank whether he lost a sister named Mirah when she was six years old." The decisive moment did not yet seem easy for him to face. Still his first sense of repulsion at the commonness of these people was beginning to be tempered with kindlier feeling. However unrefined their airs and speech might be, he was forced to admit some moral refinement in their treatment of the consumptive workman [Mordecai].
It's their "commonness," which in this case seems to be a combination of their actual class and their lack of any refinement that might lift them out of it.

What's hardest to process, looking back from our era, is the sense of class as essentially catching, transmittable. If we're honest, we'll all admit that we've been unpleasantly surprised at some point by the uncouth relatives or connections of a friend or loved one, but we root that critique not in their class, but in their behavior--and even then we question our reaction, remembering the role of opportunity and unearned advantage in making us who we are. We may judge, but we do so uncomfortably. Still less do we allow that judgment to affect our sense of the friend we already know. Economic class in America may be far more heritable than we would like to tell ourselves, but we are nonetheless beyond the point of thinking it marks a person and his descendants for life. Yet that seems to be exactly the source of Deronda's fear.

I was also pleased to see Mark Marowitz, in the comments, not only come out as a Grandcourt partisan (!), but suggest that perhaps Deronda actually isn't a nice person. It's a thought that had been nagging at me, too: Is Deronda perhaps just a privileged prig? We have seen him take two generous actions: reclaiming Gwendolen's jewels and saving Mirah from drowning. Both acts involved beautiful women, and the former--the only one that required thought more than instinct--was in aid of a woman of his own class, and required only money. Other than that, what have we seen of Deronda? A friendliness with the Meyricks that seems wholly good. A friendship with Grandcourt that seems to be much more about watching a mirror of the bad self he might become than it is about enjoying Grandcourt's company. And we have his friendship with the Cohens, in which he evinces kindness, but his motives are at least partially instrumental.

Then there's his spiritual questing, in which he is beginning to remind me of Pierre in War and Peace, a character who spends most of the novel so wrapped up in himself that he barely even notices the Napoleonic war. Can someone this preoccupied with himself be nice? Sure, he's incredibly solicitous of Mordecai, but that seems rooted substantially in a desire to see himself as serving a larger purpose.

No, I think the only powerful article for the defense comes in the context of Gwendolen. When Deronda realizes the depth of her despair at her ill-chosen marriage, he forces a conversation, and the urgency of his advice rings true, and utterly selfless:
"[T]here are many thoughts and habits that may help us to bear inevitable sorrow. Multitudes have to bear it." . . .

"Then tell me what better I can do," said Gwendolen, insistently.

"Many things. Look on other lives besides your own. See what their troubles are, and how they are borne. Try to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to care for what is best in thought and action--something that is good apart from the accidents of your own lot."
In that scene, Deronda is fierce and focused; we are able to see both his magnetism and the power he could bring to a friendship if he so chose. Will we see that Deronda again?

Monday, May 05, 2014

Mirah and Deronda and Gwendolen, living in different worlds

{I apologize for the slow pace into which my friend Maggie Bandur and I have fallen recently in our back-and-forth stroll through Daniel Deronda; beset by the usual plagues of the blogger--work and travel foremost among them--we have fallen off the pace, but we're back at it. Today, it's Maggie, taking off from my post last week about Deronda's Jewish themes and their place in Victorian literature.}

I, too, am fascinated with Eliot's depiction of Jewish culture in the Victorian era, although I have trouble not seeing it through today's lenses. It makes me terribly uncomfortable when Mirah keeps apologizing for being Jewish because "I know many Jews are bad." I wonder if her perfect, wan saintliness was necessary to get the nineteenth-century reader on board with the story. This only-slightly different Victorian doll lures one into a deeper examination of Jewish life and culture in England -- a culture Eliot obviously cared about and studied -- just as the fans of Tom Sawyer's antics looking for a sequel find themselves reading a subtle examination of race in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As the book explores the merchants and working class philosophers of the Jewish community, we see a portrait of the Cohen family, with its pawnbroker father and delightfully precocious children. After young Jacob shows off his own pocketknife:
"Have you got a knife?" says Jacob, coming closer. His small voice was hoarse in its glibness, as if it belonged to an aged commercial soul, fatigued with bargaining through many generations.

"Yes. Do you want to see it?" said Deronda, taking a small penknife from his waistcoat-pocket.

Jacob seized it immediately and retreated a little, holding the two knives in his palms and bending over them in meditative comparison. By this time the other clients were gone, and the whole family gathered to the spot, centering their attention on the marvellous Jacob: the father, mother, and grandmother behind the counter, with baby held staggering thereon, and the little girl in front leaning at her brother's elbow to assist him in looking at the knives.

"Mine's the best," said Jacob, at last, returning Deronda's knife, as if he had been entertaining the idea of exchange and had rejected it.
The little girl wants to show Deronda her Sabbath dress, the adults show their commitment to assimilation by talking about going to see the Emperor and Empress of France at the Crystal Palace, and the family generally proves itself to be friendly and generous. So I do not understand with my modern mind why, with Deronda obviously liking them, he is upset by the notion they might be Mirah's relatives. Because of the father's occupation? Because they talk about money? Because they are tradespeople, and she is such a special flower? Is it a matter of anti-Semitism or merely class or just an English dislike of commercial ambition? I am not sure I understand the implications exactly -- but I am relatively sure I wouldn't like them.

I also wondered if the introduction of the uncanny and mystical Mordecai was the other side of the stereotype coin: the fetishized, spiritual version of "the other," a sort of Victorian precursor to Madonna studying Kabbalah. Mordecai yearns for a like-minded friend to whom he can pass on his revelations and scholarship, before consumption takes him. (Although Eliot does state his illness makes his age difficult to determine, I assumed he was as old as Methuselah -- which we learn later cannot be the case.) But I am being unjust. Eliot does show many facets of this world, and, indeed, Deronda's outlook is constantly evolving and expanding -- as presumably the reader's is, too.

As a reminder that these topics remain, after so many hundreds of years, fraught, it was interesting to me to hear Mordecai calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Although I suppose I knew that Zionism had existed -- well, since the destruction of the second temple -- it is something I tend to associate with post-World War II. He dreams of a "new Judea, poised between East and West -- a covenant of reconciliation." I wish he could see his desires to come to fruition -- yet would he grieve to see how precariously it is still poised?

But all of this also makes me worry about poor Gwendolen. (Yes, she is poor Gwendolen now.) Gwendolen, having been placed in a terrible situation, believes Deronda may have the knowledge of how she might endure it. But Gwendolen, "with all the sense of inferiority that had been forced upon her, it was inevitable that she should imagine a larger place for herself in his thoughts than she actually possessed." My heart breaks as I recognize that situation of being so affected by another human being and their words, when they do not reciprocate -- or even suspect -- that level of need for their good opinion:
[I]t was as far from Gwendolen's conception that Deronda's life could be determined by the historical destiny of the Jews, as that he could rise in the air on a brazen horse, and so vanish from her horizon in the form of a twinkling star.
Indeed, Gwendolen's world of manners and mores seems very far from the one in which Mirah and Mordecai live, surrounded by echoes of ancient history and national destiny. As I read on, I wonder how the novel will resolve these differing threads. Or is this a book about how we all inhabit different worlds which others may never fully understand? Or is there, perhaps, a problem in the writing that Mirah and Gwendolen seem to be in different novels?