Saturday, March 23, 2013
Book #55 - Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Two weeks ago I finished George Eliot's "Middlemarch". And for the first time since I started this blog, I've had serious writer's block. Whiskey didn't help, martinis didn't help (although they were made with Plymouth Gin and they were delicious!), and even copious, ice-cold bottles of the new California Lager from the Anchor Steam Brewery here in San Francisco didn't help, despite it's being one of the best new beers I've had in a long, long time. I thought I might try finding the necessary inspiration by calling up Chloe Sevigny and seeing if she'd want to drive down the California coast with me in a rented 1968 Porsche convertible, but then I thought that would take me even further from my goal of blogging about "Middlemarch". No, I needed to buck up, man up, saddle up, and sit down and write this damn thing. So I made a cup of Four Barrel coffee, sat down, and stared at the flickering computer screen until I started typing this out. But you'll notice I still haven't talked about "Middlemarch". Damn it!
OK, so why is this so difficult? Maybe it's because this book has left me stunned. Reading it reminded me of when I listen to the piano playing of Teddy Wilson and I think "Oh. So that's what genius is. I will never be 1/10 that good at anything. I think I'm going to lie on my couch, have a few California Lagers, and watch old reruns of "Knight Rider"".
This book is a work of genius. Reading the sentences is like eating a stick of butter...you can't go very fast because it's so rich and thick. Saying her characters are nuanced is as nuanced as turning off your Kindle by taking a sledgehammer to it. I mean, her characters are so complex, and so real. Her writing is like reading a 19th century version of a Hi-Def 3D movie.
But enough metaphors and similes. "Middlemarch" is the story of the inhabitants of the small English village of Middlemarch in the early 1800s, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832. England was beginning to modernize as the industrial revolution took hold and the railroads started to link the country together. It was a time of great change. The novel focuses largely, but not entirely, on the story of two couples. Dorthea Brooke is a beautiful, young, smart idealist who marries a much older man, Edward Casaubon, who Dorthea thinks is a brilliant intellectual, but who turns out to be not so brilliant and kind of an asshole. And "kind of" is being generous. The guy is old and cranky and insecure and now has a beautiful young wife and he can't deal with it so well. And then there's Tertius Lydgate...a young, intellectual, ambitious doctor who marries the stunningly beautiful Rosamond Vincy, who has expensive tastes and cares nothing for her husband's ambitions unless they will help him make more money in order to support her in the manner to which she'd like to become accustomed. Tertius is a bit naive and Rosamond is more than a bit manipulative, much to Tertius's detriment. Neither marriage goes particularly well, to say the least. And the ironic thing is that Tertius and Dorthea would probably make a decent couple...they're both ambitious in a sense of wanting to do great work in order to help society. But they never get together, and their paths don't really cross as much as we expect when the novel begins.
Hey, that was pretty good, right...I mean, I actually wrote an entire paragraph about "Middlemarch" without getting writer's block and thus resorting to stupid techniques like breaking the chain of thought just so I could go all "meta" and start ranting about writer's block. Oh wait. Crap...maybe this is what happens as middle age progresses slowly towards senility. Maybe my blog posts, as infrequent as they have now become, are just going to get more and more rambling and crotchety, like they were written by some old guy who's totally past his prime and yet still dreams about Chloe Sevigny like he's some damn teenager or something. Did George Eliot ever get writer's block? Probably not. She probably hammered out "Middlemarch" in a week or two, then traveled to the south of France where she hung out on the beach and drank strawberry daiquiris while waiting for the royalty checks to come rolling in.
I think the daunting thing about writing about this book is that it's so good and so rich...I can imagine reading this book ten times and getting more and more out of it each time. The book is not just the story of the two couples and their unhappy marriages. For one thing, the book is about the whole town of Middlemarch. There are many other characters, each one fully drawn and fully human, whose lives impact the principles, and who have stories of their own. In fact it seems to me that a big part of the book is about how the society we live in affects our lives...how social customs, the people around us, and what others think about us, is as important to our characters as our own characters are. The marriages in this novel turn out the way they do not just because of the temperaments of the individuals in the marriages but to the social pressures and conditions in which they live.
I was also struck by how George Eliot is not Jane Austen. With the latter, the novel would have had a happy ending and everyone's problems would be solved when they finally got married to the right people. Eliot's novel does not end happily. Well, it doesn't end unhappily either, really. In the end, people just sort of muddle through. Dorthea is able to move on from her marriage to Casaubon (spoiler alert: he dies, she falls for someone else, complications ensue (lots of them), they finally get together) but she never able to change society and contribute to the betterment of mankind nearly as much as her desire and abilities for this would allow. Fuck, that sounds like my life. We all have high hopes and in the end 99.999% of us fail to meet our own expectations. The idealism of youth slams into the brick wall of the reality of life. Our situations and failings impede the realization of what our talents and desires might have added up to. We muddle through. And poor Tertius stays married to Rosamond, never very happily, and (spoiler alert!) instead of curing typhus and making huge advancements in the science of medicine he ends up working in a resort where he helps cure rich people of their gout. The lives people live in "Middlemarch", like the lives we live in San Francisco, or Akron, or London, or wherever we're living, never get as far or are as happy as we imagine when we're young and innocent and ambitious. As those great philosophers They Might Be Giants wrote: "Everyone dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful".
This is a beautiful, brilliant, complex book, as rich as anything I have read. It's not a quick and easy read, just as this has not been a quick and easy post to write, but if you love literature and writing and humanity then it's well worth the effort.
Woah, did I really finish? Meh...kind of a lame review but fuck it, it's whiskey time. This review is not what my ambitions and expectations were at the beginning, but whatever...time for a shot of whiskey, a few California Lagers, and a few episodes of season 2 of "Knight Rider"!