Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
Running to almost 900 pages, Daniel Deronda came out not as a standard Victorian triple-decker, but as a four-decker. Its heft is reinforced by its dense prose style and its thorny subject, the decadence of the English aristocracy and its antisemitism or, as it was called at the time, “the Jewish problem.” In spite of its weighty subject matter, Eliot’s last novel is surprisingly droll and satirical. Its somewhat experimental style, deliberately drawing us through all the declensions of a character’s inner thoughts, puts us in the front row seat for kind of kaleidoscopic introspection practiced so well later by Henry James. Most surprising are the novel's sensational elements, not only reversals of fortune and shocking revelations, but also an intense examination of emotional states.
The two main characters are Gwendolyn Harleth, an ignorant but surpassingly beautiful woman of good family, and Daniel Deronda, a beautiful young man with mysterious antecedents but noble in rank and temperament. Although hardly a unique literary creation, Gwendolyn nevertheless holds our attention because of the three-dimensional treatment of her character. Eliot lavishes much on Deronda's development, but he remains a cipher for most of the book except for brief glimpses of unstudied behavior or a rare flash of anger. Deronda is a sort of male Dorothea Brooke who, like his Middlemarch predecessor, is searching for something more than just being a part of polite society. Just as Dorothea wanted to be educated and to use her wealth to better the lives of the poor, so Deronda also wants to find a more meaningful purpose to his life. Where Dorothea’s passion is depicted by Eliot as admirable but futile because of her gender, Deronda’s mission is grand, nothing less than the rehabilitation of a nation—in this case, restoring the Jews to Israel. Deronda’s Zionist project comes after he learns that he is a Jew and is thus able to marry Mirah, the young Jewish woman he saved from drowning. Through her brother Mordecai, Deronda first begins to grasp “a spiritual destiny embraced willingly” and hears about “the sacred inheritance of the Jew.” Unfortunately, this mentorship involves some tiresome scenes in which Mordecai delivers himself of visionary speeches that leave him wild-eyed and exhausted. Gradually, it becomes impossible to see him as anything less than one of William Blake’s venerable prophets, eyes blazing with messianic purpose. The less said about the insipid Mirah the better.
As for Gwendolyn, she handles her trials with spirit—Eliot constantly refers to her as “saucy”—and resilience, in spite of the author’s various descriptions of her as a lap dog, a cunning feline, and even a serpent “turning her neck” when speaking to other people. Eventually, Gwendolyn catches the eye of a suitably rich husband: Henleigh Grandcourt, a man so phlegmatic that he can barely summon the energy to speak or even hold his eyes open. Eliot completes her picture of Grandcourt as the played-out English nobility by depicting him often as reptilian or lizard-like. Because Gwendolyn’s family has lost their fortune due to speculation, they are living in a smaller house and may have to reduce their household even further. Grandcourt is seen as an ideal remedy to restore the family's financial stability, although his own prospects are hardly secure. Both his money and a potential future peerage are dependent on various family affairs falling a certain way. His rank and outward appearance are creditable, but what lies beneath is shaky. In addition, his secretary, Mr. Lush, is a man of highly questionable propriety (think a slightly more respectable Raffles from Middlemarch). Mr. Lush handles the dirty work, no small part of which is the handling of affairs for Grandcourt’s longtime mistress, Mrs. Glasher and her four children. The marriage between Gwendolyn and Grandcourt comes with a steep price: Gwendolyn’s family has security, but Grandcourt is a terror, imposing psychological bonds on his wife that are far more painful than chains might be. The scenes between Gwendolyn and Grandcourt are superb with Eliot’s powers of psychological realism reaching new intensity and pathos. The results creates surprising empathy for a woman who isn’t particularly distinguished or even likeable. As if to compensate for his shameful treatment of Mrs. Glasher, Grandcourt quietly and insidiously makes constant, unreasonable demands on his wife’s behavior. The marriage ends tragically in Genoa in a boating accident, and one wonders if Theodore Dreiser had been influenced by this episode when he was writing An American Tragedy. Daniel Deronda is a formidable novel by one of the great writers in English literature, one who acknowledged the limits of the medium and yet managed to transcend them again and again.
A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howells (second reading)
Published in 1890, Howells’ novel follows the March family as they leave Boston to try their fortunes running a new periodical in New York City. I remembered this novel as being somewhat colorless and indeed it is not as compelling as others from the period—the works of Theodore Dreiser or Frank Norris, for example. But for a reader with a background in magazine publishing, as I have, it does strike a few chords. Howells had an extensive background as a writer and publisher, having begun as a printer’s devil while still a teen. He offers an insider’s knowledge of the demands of publishing, as well as great familiarity with the daily mechanics of production such as typography, commissioning articles, and creating cover art.
March agrees to leave a job in insurance in Boston to go to New York to edit Every Other Week. His friend, the fast-talking wheeler-dealer Fulkerson, convinces him that the prospects for a new literary magazine are good. Unlike London, where literary magazines were thick on the ground, New York was more of a newspaper town. And when a streetcar strike breaks out, March has a chance to observe how superfluous a literary magazine editor can be in a town that demands fast-breaking news. March also has to deal with the magazine’s backer, a natural gas magnate named Dryfoos, who has agreed to put up the money if his son can be publisher. This brand of nepotism leaves March conflicted between his principles as a literary taste-maker and a family man in need of a paycheck. The subplot involving a wastrel artist named Beaton and the various marriageable females in the story is rather predictable and tiresome. Howells’ ability to render accents does deserve special mention as he has clearly studied regional and ethnic accents with care—although, I did find moonlight-and-magnolias speech of the Virginians Madison Woodburn and her father the Colonel to be syrupy in the extreme.
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (second reading)
At the time of this writing, Baz Luhrmann’s film version of The Great Gatsby is fading in the rearview mirror, another in a long line of interpretations that fail to capture the evanescent 1920s as chronicled so vividly by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As with most movie adaptations, the book is better. Likewise Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. (I haven’t seen the 1962 film, but I have reservations about casting Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones as the jazz age couple Dick and Nicole Diver.) On this second reading, I discovered that in fact Tender Is the Night is superior in every way to The Great Gatsby. Its characters are more three dimensional, its scenes and dialogue authentic, and its overall style modernist and complex. Tender Is the Night takes place in the roaring twenties among glittering surroundings on the French Riviera and beyond. Having money, the Divers pass the time traveling from resort to resort according to the seasons. Travel is a sort of career for people like the Divers, a way to maintain social connections (desirable or simply tolerated) and to show off one’s motoring equipage. The Divers are surrounded by a cast of characters with various degrees of wealth and class: sexy ingenues, lecherous young Englishmen, disputatious Americans, and beautiful gold-diggers. Diver, somewhat surprisingly, has a profession, he is a psychiatrist, but he is more interested in drinking. Nicole, sexually abused as a child, is alternately lovely, troublesome, and flirtatious. Diver does his best to keep the peace, but they are surrounded by too many volatile personalities, not the least of which is that of his own wife. Fitzgerald’s style is precise and crystalline, even brittle, barely covering the spreading cracks beneath the surface.
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
All adventure novels may not have sprung from King Solomon's Mines, but surely this book is a perfect specimen, if not the prototype, of the modern genre. Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good each has his own reason for seeking the treasure in the mountains north of Durban, and when they meet Allan Quartermain, they are willing to endure any hardship to complete their respective missions. Quartermain is an experienced adventurer, but drolly honest about his lack of courage. Good is a bit of a dandy, appearing clean-shaven and dapper even after weeks on the trail. Curtis is older but doesn't lack spirit; while he is curious about the treasure—diamonds reportedly as large as pigeon's eggs—it is his lost brother that he really seeks. The three men set off with African bearers and nothing more than an old map drawn on a strip of linen. The linen was torn from the shirt of the last man to seek the diamonds and he draw the map in his own blood as he lay dying. Haggard is a manly writer, unsparing and direct, and his book is good, clean fun.
Magnus Merriman by Eric Linklater
This jolly novel follows the charming but delightfully flawed Magnus Merriman as he “catches enthusiasms,” first as a lover and poet, then as a politician, and finally a crofter. Mainly, however, Magnus is a character who believes that all the world must be convinced of his worth even as it repeatedly refuses to declare itself so moved. If it were true that a “man by taking thought [could] add a cubit to his stature” then surely Magnus, as his name suggests, should be a big man indeed. We watch him encounter a series of setbacks that would reduce a lesser man, but the indomitable Magnus gallops ahead buoyed up by his healthy ego. After a feckless amour with the leggy American Frieda, Magnus, in a fit of noblesse oblige, falls in with the idea that civil service is an honor he owes society. The campaign is messy, embarrassing, and ultimately, Magnus finds himself high and dry when his political strategist, the aptly named Captain Smellie, makes off with the funds. Magnus retreats to some relatives in Orkney and takes up farming, but not before he gets the local beauty pregnant. Linklater is a prose stylist of immense facility and wit, blending a sense of satirical romanticism with a genuine appreciation for the natural world.