Sunday, 10 January 2010

Thoughts on Three Books

1) Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

I started this a little while ago, and would put it down to read other books between chapters. It's not that I wasn't interested in it, but that I wasn't interested enough. The main character was interesting in her own flawed way, and there were a number of narrative quirks and preoccupations I found interesting--one of which, though the least frequent, having to do with my recent obsession with multiple selves. This wasn't enough, though. I just could not feel the stakes. I suppose part of it was that the back of the book led me to believe it was a ghost story, and it's not.

But then the novel began to gain momentuum, as they say. The novel is about the narrator, an unnamed early-twenty-something girl orphaned into the working class, who marries the wealthy Maxim de Winter and moves into Manderly, his estate. She, however, is his second wife; her predecessor is the late Rebecca--the very recently late Rebecca. The crux of the novel is that the narrator's dreams of an idyllic life are repeatedly blocked by the 'ghost' (though not supernatural) of the house's previous mistress. The narrator feels herself rivals with Rebecca on a number of accounts, and she finds she loses more often than not. It's interesting, but it wasn't as riveting as I had hoped.

Until, of course, the weeks before the Manderly Ball, the structural centre of the novel. As the plot progressed toward this point, I became more interested. I could see what would happen at the ball, but I could not predict how it would fall out. There was about to be a disaster, and I wasn't sure what the consequences would be. And after that, things moved quickly, and everything was of consequence.
I have two observations. First, it's one of those books that is good to read because it alerts you to other people's emotional or interpersonal situations: it's about wrong assumptions, about people trying and failing to connect, about despair and redemption. The narrator's situation is one which deserves empathy, notwithstanding her own foolish caused no small part of it. Second, it has pointed out to me a trend in our contemporary literature which perhaps prevents us from enjoying some of the 'classics.' We have not exactly revived the tradition of beginning in media res, because people don't like flashbacks any more. We are, however, beginning precisely where the exciting part begins in our literature. We don't tend to allow things to develop, to build up, to reach a climax. This is of course partly to do with the genres we now produce. Detective stories, political thrillers, spy novels, and the ilk in a way must begin with the violent and transgressive act which move the story. (Of course, Hamlet begins after the murder and it still builds slowly, but there is speculation that Hamlet was Shakespeare seeing how long he could drag out the Rising 'Action' without destroying the play--and in so doing he made something that worked. It made Hamlet's own deliberation, own internal torment, the focus of the play, with the piling of bodies being a consequence of this.) I think of course of Shakespeare's climb toward the centre: it is not until the climax in the third act that Turning Point, or exciting part, happens. Thinking about it, this is true of many 'classic' novels--Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby. We so rarely see this any more, this paced progression, and when we do run into it we get bored. It's not that we couldn't stick to it if we thought there was a promise of excellence, that this was a build-up. But we don't even think of that. We expect a novel to be homogenous, the same sort of pace and style straight through. How awful that would be, if all books ran like that! I think I enjoyed Rebecca so much more for it taking off then if it were the same throughout. The point where we, the reader, think, "Here we go," is worth it. In my opinion.

2) John Milton's Samson Agonistes.

Technically not a novel but a tragic poem, Samson Agonistes is Milton's portrayal of Samson the Nazarite after he is betrayed by Delilah, blinded, and handed over to the Philistines. Samson is a slave lamenting his poor fortune and discussing it with assorted visitors upon the scene. Also, this is a closet drama. Perhaps there are interesting things to say about a play which will never be seen and Samson's blindness (that just occured to me now, typing this), but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

I'm not claiming this reading is for everyone. It's interesting to somehow who has studied the Renaissance, of course, in that it discusses typical Renaissance preoccupations in new ways (fortune, publishing, women, manliness, love, nationhood, productivity). It was also be interesting to someone who is interested in disability studies, given that Samson in the narrative is blind--as was Milton, when composing it. But to your average person, what interest?

If you can get past the formal diction and the characters' tendency to frame everything in the manner of a formal debate, the interesting part is in the characters' emotions, of course. Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism is what clued me into the poem's interest in this respect, calling Samson, scream that he would tear Delilah apart if she touched him one of the most--I forgot what word he used, 'touching' cannot have been it, but it had to do with emotional impact, so let's say--moving scenes in all English literature. Samson is blind, and people are staring at him and he can't look back. Meanwhile, Delilah, his wife, the women he loved despite his family's misgivings, has betrayed him; he also knows that he betrayed himself in trusting her. She has returned to him and wished to make up, and in his anguish he cannot forgive her, even though he knows he should. When she tries to explain herself she winds up hurting him more. Samson's anguish is made less palpable by the Miltonic verse, but if you can read it and then picture it to yourself immediately upon reading it, the emotional stakes are high.

Milton has a tendency among the Renaissance poets, I think, to give his villians reasonable perspectives. This has led people who perhaps read more simply than others (and I'm not separating literary analysts from 'philistines' here but rather some analysts and some regular folks from other analysts and other regular folks) to say that Milton himself sided with his villians. They say that Milton's hero is Satan, not Christ, and I think in reading Samson Agonistes people might be tempted to say that Milton vindicates Delilah. I do not think this is ture. I have not yet read Paradise Regained, so I suppose I cannot speak, but from what I understand of it, it can put rest to any claims that Milton sided with Satan. The hero in this one is clearly Christ, and Satan is clearly the villian. This being said, a story is more interesting when the villians are not unreasonable. Consider Lewis' The Silver Chair. Many consider The Lady of the Green Girdle to be the most dangerous of Lewis' villians because she not only comes so close to winning (both the White Witch and King Miraz get further than she does) but because it is so clear that had she broken the surface, things would have been much bleaker and harder to overthrow than under either the Witch or the Telemarine. She, after all, is far more convincing, which we see in people's reactions to Puddleglum's speech: either they cannot accept his reasoning and end up believing the witch, or upon accepting it, they are actively relieved. And I mean the readers, not the characters. This moment is a strong one, one that lasts.

But back to Milton. I do not think he vindicates Delilah, but he does make her a more engaging character than he may have. I am still not sure how much the chorus' dismissal of her 'showing her true colours in the end' (as a traitor) reflects Milton's own attitudes towards her. It doesn't really matter in the end, though. The chorus doesn't quite have it right about her, after all. She did wrong, yes, but I can understand her, I can feel for her. I think that her last defiant speech to Samson, claiming she is proud of what she did, is a reaction to her rejection of her. I think that she really did want his forgiveness, that she truly was contrite. I can empathize with her on this. She made a horrible, horrible mistake, and now it's too late to go back. I, for one, feel bad for her. I, for one, forgive.

There are readers who wouldn't, who would say that you sow what you reap and that it's her own bloody fault, no complaining now. These are the people who don't sympathize with Northumberland in 2 Henry IV as he mourns his son's death; yes, Hotspur died because his father was a rebel and a coward and Hotspur himself was a rebel and rash, but his son is dead. This requires pity. The fact is, if people who screwed up don't get our pity, then we all deserve whatever horrors come to us and have no place lamenting to others. We have all made enormous errors that, if combined with bad luck, would have destroyed ourselves and those around us. We have simply been lucky, or good liars. All of us. Delilah made a mistake, and paid for it; her mistake may have been worse than any of ours, but it is different only is magnitude and consequence, not quality. So I say, yes, she is a villianess, but she deserves our pity, too. If we can get past the prose, I like to think Samson Agonistes shows us a pathetic (in the original meaning, "deserving of pathos") Delilah, but of course I realize that there are many, many readers who won't spare her their empathy anyway, because they are so in the habit of dispensing judgement.

3) Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Litte Town

I loved this book. The back described it as a blend of the idyllic and ironic, and I had thought that impossible. It turns out it was quite possible. It's about a small Ontario town after the turn of the century but before WWI. It's both grand and small; the very humble matters of Mariposa are elevated to historically-shaking heights. Leacock manages to blend affection and ridicule perfectly, such that the townsfolk's foibles are presented good-naturedly. I recommend this book to anyone at all. I would in particular like to hear what a city-person thinks of it; after all, I align myself with the rural every time. My perspective of this book would be different from someone else's.
This book, for the most part, sits in a timeless past. Leacock wrote the novel as taking place twenty years before its writing, before the Great War and the Depression he was writing from. I suspect that even for him it had a sense of idyllic history, of nostalgia, of the world the way it was. For him, it was the world as it was when he was a boy; for us, now, we have never seen the world this way.
At least, not in this time period. But small towns don't change much in their structure, except perhaps in becoming gradually more anonymous as times go by. One way or another, the small town of Mariposa is in ways similar to small towns today. In ways it's dissimilar, too, but if you watch Corner Gas or read books by Stephen King, you might already have a feel for the small town mentality. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Corner Gas is a modern, televised Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town at heart. The point is, there is something timeless about Mariposa. It chugs on and on and remains virtually the same, while the urban 'important' world morphs yearly. The big, urban world may change as it likes, but I wonder how much of its change is sustained or generated by the actions of the little, rural world it ignores. Perhaps the election in Mariposa means nothing at all by itself, but the elections of all the Mariposas in Canada combined... well, I am forced to think that those matter quite a bit, really. Seen as a very small part of a very large whole, perhaps Mariposa is after all just as grand as it thinks it is.
Perhaps we all are.

1 comment:

Cait said...

I really liked Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town too.

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