Monday 20 April 2009

Area book-lover thrilled by return of missing reading mojo

I seem to have gotten my reading mojo back yesterday (my day off) for I finished Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in one sitting, and I've been reading my Mark Twain book pretty steadily today, in between spurts of work productivity.

I loved Ivanhoe. It was a really good read and lots of things happened. It was just full of Happenings. Said Happenings caused a great deal of conflict and stress and it was all superbly handled by Scott, who I will now make a point of seeking out when I want a fat novel.

Besides being a really good read, Ivanhoe actually made me think a little (phew! that's tiring stuff!!), for the line between historical realism and his feelings about Jews (pretty much universally hated in late 12-century England, when the novel is set) wasn't always entirely clear to me. For me, this lack of narrative clarity made Rebecca's position seem all the more tenuous - for if even the narrator isn't completely on her side, then her escape from the various and extreme dangers she faces mightn't be counted on! While Rebecca is well-represented in the novel, the other Jewish characters seem to have been created by a writer torn between sympathy and condemnation for their financial power. Scott's devotion to Shakespeare (who, in the form of echoes of The Merchant of Venice and any number of history plays, is just all over this book), might also have further complicated his representations of Jews.

I won't tell you how Ivanhoe ends, but I will say this: regardless of how Scott felt about Jews or his Jewish characters, Rebecca is the centre of this novel and I really don't know why he decided to call it Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is certainly tied up in the action but it's the role he plays in Rebecca's life that seems more dominant in the narrative.

Ivanhoe's conflicts are physical and their outcomes never surprising; Rebecca's conflicts are religious, emotional, physical, and their outcomes never certain, and not just because of the mixed feelings Scott may or may not have had about her. She truly is pressed on all sides and her choices difficult, painful, and sometimes impossible. She's a great character and even if Scott felt he couldn't make the book obviously about her by calling it Rebecca, it seems one of the novel's early frontispiece artists felt the way I do about her centrality to the story (see above - that's Rebecca threatening to kill herself in response to an attempted rape) .

So, what fat novel should I read next? Dostoevsky's The Adolescent is looking good, but then so are Tolstoy's Resurrection, and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and Stoker's Dracula, and Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, and Banks' Steep Approach to Garbadale, and...


celine said...

May I throw a vote in for Dracula? Not a fat book by any means, but certainly one of my beloved reads ( it and the wonderful Frankenstien) Read it I say! Read it now!

Ruth King said...

I love it when I get into a great reading mood. The kind of days where the pages just seem to turn themselves. There's nothing like it!

I read Ivanhoe in high school and loved it. I need to revisit it.

I'm also tossing in a vote for Dracula. I'm hoping to re-read that this year and would love to compare notes on it!

Sarah said...

I loved Ivanhoe as a kid and should re-read it to see if I still enjoy it.

I'd vote for Dracula as well.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Since everyone else is enjoying or has enjoyed Ivanhoe so much, I'll just note that it's easily my least favorite Scott novel, of the six I've read, and move on.

Because what I really wanted to say is that your ideas about Rebecca seem spot on. This is the ethical heart of the novel.

I've read that Scott's Rebecca is a contributing factor to English philo-Semitism, which is a bit of a paradox, since in other ways, with other characters, Scott employs a lot of standard anti-Semitic notions.

Sandra said...

So glad you got your reading mojo back. Mine disappears when I'm ill and I hate that feeling. Ivanhoe is quite the piece to tackle after you've been feeling that way.