Classic long books are full of great things, rubble and trivia – and most deserve to be read more than once.
This year I became a member of the I’ve-read-The-Lord-of-the-Rings-twice Club, though I must admit it was a struggle. I was determined to re-read it, having what I thought were fond memories from thirty years ago of my first reading, and inspired by the three movies, but it turned out to be a sometime exciting, sometime turgid, sometime overblown, sometime extraordinary book. With songs.
I’ve also discovered that I’m an honorary member of the I-don’t-seem-to-be-able-to-finish-a-book-by-Thackeray Club. Neither Becky Sharp or Barry Lyndon have managed to entice me beyond the half way mark. Something more interesting has always turned up, and these two languish unacknowledged in their peculiar long-winded story-telling.
Last year I read The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s as if, as I get older, I need to take an annual journey into some huge novel, in order to say I’ve done it, or just to prove I can stick with it. This book, like many of Alexandre Dumas, was hastily written, with some sections thrown together months apart. There’s no doubt it’s badly plotted (a colleague wrote the outline, apparently) and it has a long digression in the centre. The hero is a strangely uneven character, some of the characters behave very oddly, and yet it’s extraordinarily enjoyable.
When these 19th century serial writers are at the top of their form, they plunge your imagination into what is best about storytelling. At their worst you have to keep reminding yourself that they wrote to horrific deadlines and had to get something out to their readers, even if that something was mostly padding. (Dickens seems to be one of the few serial writers who was able to overcome this problem by his sheer genius – and humour.)
I’d love to sit down and read some of them again: the Anthony Trollope Barchester series, many of Dickens’ best novels (I’ve read Bleak House twice – which has one of Dickens’ more sympathetically portrayed Christian characters in it), and Middlemarch, that wondrous achievement of George Eliot’s, which wasn’t produced in serial format, and which she abandoned after writing some hundreds of pages, and began again.*
But will I live long enough?
This piece was originally intended for the column in the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga.
* I have lived long enough to read Middlemarch again; there were some disappointments, some oddities, and quite a bit of enjoyment. I've written a rough review on Goodreads which I'll add here:
My memory of this book was that it was terrific, and a wonderful read. Well, I was younger then, and something about it must have clicked with me to think so.
This second time round, I found some of it turgid, to say the least. I didn't enjoy Eliot's author comments much, although they, like everything else, improved as the book went on. I found it took a long time to get moving, and yet the last 100 pages or so are top notch, moving along faster than you can keep up. It's as if she spends most of the book setting things up, and then all of it comes to a great climax at the end. It's just that the setting up is long-winded.
I didn't enjoy her minor, representative characters who she introduces into certain sections as a kind of chorus on the events. Apart from their general meanspiritedness, they all sound much the same, and you feel there might have been a better way to do this. Compare these to minor characters in Dickens, who often outshine some of the leading characters!
Sometimes she explains her characters far too much, and doesn't give them room to explain themselves - which they certainly can do, when allowed. However, these explanations are interesting for their psychological insight, and are certainly ahead of their time, coming closer perhaps to Henry James in their style.
I wonder how many readers over the years have breathed an enormous sigh of relief when the abominable Mr Casaubon dies, somewhat prematurely, and alone. Now, you think, things will improve for Dorothea. Nope, they don't much, and in fact things go far downhill for several of the characters before the book ends. But Eliot doesn't leave us at the bottom: perhaps improbably she lets Mary Grant and Fred Vincy marry; Fred never really seems to have changed, although Eliot claims he has. She finally allows Will and Dorothea to marry, which is a relief, too, but Lydgate and his self-centred wife are condemned, you might say, to struggle on for two or three more decades. Not everything can be solved in this particular world.
The book is about a lot more than the married lives of its characters: politics and reform, medicine in a time of transition, money and greed, Christianity and the lack of it. There are almost too many subjects for one book. But at least it has a heroine with spunk (even if she is missing for chapters at a time in some parts of the book) and a few men who are mostly her equal. None of your wishy-washy Dickensian heroines here...!