Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

I’d almost forgotten I’d read Oliver Harris‘s The hollow man (Cape, 2011) until I found it at the bottom of a pile of other stuff, but to be fair I did read it at a pace, which does says something about its efficiency as an “urban thriller,” as it calls itself on the cover.  The plot is pretty hollow, actually.  Corruption in the City of London (fair enough), new Russian wealth in London (ditto), a mega-con involving Hong Kong gaming organisations and putting a casino on Hampstead Heath; oh, and Nick Belsey, a washed up anti-hero of a police  detective (gambling debts, bucket-loads of booze) who can see a way out of his problems by hijacking the con (which is an interesting twist) but who can also seemingly run halfway to Stansted Airport when the time comes.  Nonsense really, but delivered with a certain pizzazz, a lot of which comes from Harris’s treatment of an easily recognisable London itself (yup, I’ve had a few pints there myself etc) as the action moves all over the City and the city, and especially the N and NW postal districts.

Speaking of which, there was a brief period when I used to buy the New York Review of Books from a bookshop on the Finchley Road when I was working in Swiss Cottage.  There was one long essay by Gore Vidal that has stayed with me over the years.  He was analysing the top 10 bestselling fiction titles one week and came to the conclusion that they were all written at one remove, as if they were describing movies rather addressing life as she is lived; The hollow man reads like a pretty good edgy television series.

That said, Harris can write a bit – he is published by Cape, after all – and he can turn a decent phrase (“Belsey saw, momentarily, how he would remember it from his own exile, when memory had done its filleting and hung up its bloodstained apron“) and there’s a nice mordant wit at play throughout (“Belsey sat for a moment and enjoyed being back in the Wishing Well [a pub].  He did not like to think what wishes were made here.  People threw small change into the urinal with an irony he found hard to gauge.”) and the dialogue is fine, a frisson never far away.  Indeed, I wouldn’t necessarily say no to spending more time in the company of Nick Belsey so long as he cuts down on the drinking; I get a hangover just thinking about it.

I wrote the above a couple of days ago and,as it happens, I’m feeling a certain nostalgia for Oliver’s novel since I started struggling with this month’s book group book, George Eliot‘s Silas Marner: the weaver of Raveloe (1861).  Huge paragraphs, a frankly forced character of a main man, and one of the most tedious sessions of bar-room banter to be ploughed through anywhere, I am sure, in all of literature – the sort that make Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals actually seem kings of comedy.

Further on in (this is more log than blog) I’m finding saving graces.  Silas Marner is an incredibly frustrating book, a real curate’s egg of Victorian melodrama and sentimentality – never mind the big secret of how on earth (or why) the young Squire managed to get secretly married to the opium addict in the first place – of vibrant thought and radical observation (that’s the George Eliot I thought I knew from Middlemarch) somewhat at times obscurely phrased though they be.

And Silas, the absurd title character out of Grimm’s tales?  Disillusioned by his loss of faith after being found guilty of a crime he was the fall guy for by the casting of lots in a Calvinist community in a northern industrial town, the  weaver exiles himself to this rural outpost in the Midlands (another ‘country’) and leads a miserable hermit-like existence wherein his only solace is literally, of an evening, worshipping the gold coins his labours bring in.  For 15 years his regular contact with the people he buys his raw materials from and the people he weaves the linen for impinge on his miserable existence not one iota.  His life is changed by the lottery of a baby chancing upon and managing to crawl its way in the snow through his open door.

In the end I’m not going to say I was blubbing like a baby at Silas’s mellowing (though, eat your heart out, Charles Dickens) but I did cheer when Eppie, said babe, now a teenager (not that they existed then) rejects the offer to be adopted by aforementioned young (though now older) Squire and second wife because she’s not interested in mixing with their posh friends, eating their rich food etc; she’s happy with her gardener, her garden and good ol’ Silas.  A warm glow, then, despite first impressions that still stand.

Which weren’t helped initially by the cover of the Penguin edition (2010) I read, featuring – out of context – the quote, “Kindness fell on him as sunshine on the wretched.”  This had me wondering – surely sunshine is a good thing, a compensation available to all, and should we be including the deserving wretched in all this?  Can’t blame George for that, though.  In context it would appear that they are wretched because they are untouched, unmoved, by said cheering sunshine.  Nor was I aided by the presumption of the rhetorical question embedded in the opening (and over a page long) paragraph that asked, “The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely […] for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?

But as I say, things progressed.  Indeed, later on in that same tedious pub conversation mentioned earlier, and read after I picked the book up again the next day, there’s a brilliantly comic depiction of how hearsay and prejudice can sway an interpretation of events, concerning “men of that sort, with rings in their ears” and there’s a very modern discussion on the arguments used by parties for and against the perception of ghosts, in metaphorical parallel with discussion of the narrative’s pivotal crime.  Similarly the treatment of religion, from the extreme sectarian to the cosy C of E (“There had been no bells in Lantern Yard“) and the separation of morality from sacred texts (“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.  We see no white winged angels now.  But yet …“), of chance and contingency from divine intervention.

George Eliot brings a charm and a radicalism, a practical sensibility, to her writing that is a revelation to me, raised as I was on (schooled in) Dickens and Charlotte Bronte; where was she in the syllabus?  Enjoy:

“… but we must remember that many of the impressions that Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means …”

“The Squire’s life was quite as idle as his sons’, but it was a fiction kept up by himself and his contemporaries  in Raveloe that youth was exclusively the period of folly, and that their aged wisdom was constantly in a state of endurance mitigated by sarcasm.”

Not forgetting GE, the music critic, with, “The magic scream of his fiddle.”


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Not much rain in evidence on the blasted heath (I know – blasted is  Macbeth but let it lie) in the Donmar Warehouse production of ‘King Lear‘ at MK Theatre this week.  Abstract sound and lighting effects and such an unearthly echo put on Lear’s big “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech that the words themselves were lost.  More about the production later, because first I have a problem with the play itself.

Groucho Marx puts his finger on it in his letter to brother Gummo describing an evening he spent in the company of T.S.Eliot (reprinted in ‘The essential Groucho‘).

…  I took a whack at ‘King Lear’. I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was …

That, too, failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing ‘Animal crackers’ and ‘A night at the opera’. He quoted a joke – one of mine – that I had long forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly. I was not going to let anyone spoil my Literary Evening. I pointed out that King Lear’s speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me most? And then disowning the youngest – the sweet, honest Cordelia – because, unlike her wicked sisters she couldn’t bring herself to gush insincere flattery. And Cordelia, mind you, had been her father’s favourite.

And there you have it.  I blame the Bard.  Wam bam, straight into the action with no back story, no hint of the nature of his past kingship, no real reason why, and before you know it, an old man’s anger, full-on bitching and civil war. I’m with Groucho, floundering.  What comes later in the text deserves a better setting, a better beginning.  (And I could do without the eye gouging).

We get there in the end, of course: life, the universe, everything.  This production is highly stylised, leaving the words, the actors, the lighting and sound effects to do the work.  Indoors and outdoors the set is unchanging, crudely plastered (faux marble?) planks – across the back and sides of the stage, on the floor and the ceiling; hardly a prop, no scenery.  Further stylised in that practically everyone was dressed in black (in period style but non-specific period) save for Lear in his white smock at the end, Gloucester with a white shirt (to show the blood) and Cordelia’s dark purple dress, not forgetting the Fool’s muted but still motley.

The cast was tremendous, of course.  For all that I’ve said above I was enthralled.  Derek Jacobi‘s Lear, after the initial Mr Angry, played a blinder.  I’d never really thought of Gina McKee as a stage performer before, but as Goneril hers was a huge presence, with – for me – unexpected moments of real erotic power.  So for all my reservations, about play and production, another memorable night at the theatre.

As it happens the romantic climax of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch‘ is acted out against a backdrop of heavy rain storm, gusting winds, thunder and lightning.  Not that you notice really, because the emotion is so intense.  This climatic accompaniment is par for the course pace Em B I guess, but here the taboos are social, financial.  She’s not only gonna marry beneath herself but giving up a hard-earned inheritance too.

Middlemarch: a study of provincial life‘ is set in the early 1830s (Great Reform Bill and all that) and was written 40 years further down the line.  It is a book to cherish on so many levels – as a portrait of a society in change, for its observations of people rather than caricatures, as a vibrant storytelling embrace of ideas – and not least, as said in my last post, its anticipation of prose and authorial tone to come.  Here too is recognition that, as Ruskin maintained, “There is no wealth but life” , even if Dodo did have a private income before she married the mad old failed uber-intellectual of a clergyman who tried to forbid her true love from the grave.  There’s more humour than I remember too, some lovely sardonic stuff about the way women and what is seen as their function was regarded.  Lovely bitter-sweet coda too, telling how things turned out later for the main participants.  Great book, simple as that.  I’m confident I’ll pick it up again in the years to come.

I read it on an iPad and ended up highlighting so many passages.  Here are just a token to taste, starting off with the justly celebrated closing passage:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

… who can, as it happens, drop in lovely jaundiced asides like:

… the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

Here’s Casaubon, the heroine’s first failure of a husband, and his intellectual’s fear of music (she was fooled by his seriousness):

“I never could look on it in the light of a recreation to have my ears teased with measured noises,” said Mr. Casaubon. “A tune much iterated has the ridiculous effect of making the words in my mind perform a sort of minuet to keep time — an effect hardly tolerable, I imagine, after boyhood.”

And here comes Oscar and his many heirs and heiresses even up to the present day, with a nod, of course, back to the Romantics, from the man she marries for love (from Chapter 22):

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion — a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”

“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. ” I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”

“You are a poem — and that is to be the best part of a poet — what makes up the poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

Enough. And now for some more crossword clues from the Guardian cryptic that have raised a smile of late.  As should be obvious, what we like are the puns good and bad, the word play.  Answers below, in pale green so they’re not that easy to view:

  • Spooner’s pet’s entry to working-class symbol (4,3)  a beaut from Araucaria
  • Lionel, fine as a composer (6) easy but irresistible from Gordius
  • Perhaps Horace is aware of pronounced facial feature? (5,4) – thank you Arachne
  • This land is in our heart and it’s in the head (7) – a patriotic Boatman
  • It’s about Ulysses: say, is he queer? (7) – the master Araucaria again
  • Made fish pie for the hungry (8) – neat from Rufus
  • 19th centurt Act to improve the police? (6,4) – Rufus again, and
  • They serve little Arthur during drinking bouts (19) – raise another glass to Rufus


Flat cap (cf cat flap) / Bartok / Roman nose (like Arsene) / Br-it-ain / Odyssey (odd is he?) / famished / Reform Bill (groan) / b-art-enders

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So, back in the high life again. At the Floral Club (flower arranging … someone we know) annual charity quiz, the team I’m on blow their joker; nay, the joker round is our worst scoring round of the night.  The real crusher is not being able to come up with the name of the bird that is the RSPB symbol.  I know this.  I  know that Bert Jansch made an album called it; I can see the cover even now, I say, in some quizzers agony.  As it happens the cover I’m imagining is nothing like the real thing, but hearing an excerpt from the title track later did take me right back.

We end up a respectable 5th out of 15 tables and the chutney with the ploughman’s was delicious.  Home made, we asked?  No, Costco.  A word to the wise, in particular those unfamiliar with team quizzes.  (The joker round, by the way, is the one where you score double points.)  In selecting your joker the thing to do is choose the round you least expect to do well on.  Our 100%er?  – the round called “I feel like dancing”.

But earlier that week a great night at Scribal Gathering, in the upstairs room in the Crown pub.  A monthly poetry and music open mic gig now into its second year, mc’d with great style and enveloping enthusiasm by one Richard, replete with top hat and, because it was International Women’s Day in quite a big black dress.  The open mic segments were good not because the poets or musicians were necessarily that great (though some were inevitably better than others) but because of the non-judgmental nature of the proceedings, of the sense of community, with us being urged to give first timers the loudest reception and acknowledgment of the night (inevitably there are more than one). Best line (sorry didn’t catch the name): “You’re working for peanuts / with a nut allergy”.  I do feel a certain stirring.

Loudest applause was actually for the advertised headliner, a performance poet (though it probably looks fine on paper too) of some, it turns out, renown.  Catherine Brogan is a demure looking (hah! – no really) young crochet loving Northern Irish poetry powerhouse and an experience to behold, a whirlwind of arms and attitude and words that are both serious and fun, sometimes at the same time.  Now I understand what people mean when they talk of poetry slams, though this was a lot more than punk sensibility.  Check her out from here.  A riveting performance it was a delight to behold.

Meanwhile, I plough on through George Eliot‘s ‘Middlemarch‘ for the book group.  Read it many years ago and I couldn’t remember a thing about it, but I’m not complaining about returning to it now (apart from the growing pile of other stuff).  Funnier than I remembered and engrossing.  I can see the legitimacy of the grandiose claims made for it and am surprised at times at how modern its sensibility – blonde jokes (or rather joke) for instance.    Engrossing, feminist and wise – did people really think she was a bloke when it was being published?

Interesting too, to read it on an iPad.  I’m almost disappointed to say how easily I have taken to this format.  Those long paragraphs with no dialogue seem to romp by in the text size on your choice, even if it can be a little daunting when you see you’re on page two thousand and something and still have another two thousand to go if you like to retain the two pages to view traditional book format.  Which I do.

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