Monday 8 February 2010

I find it enough to live, without spinning lies to account for life

The quotation from George Eliot's Romola which serves as the title of this post is spoken by the rather surly artist Piero di Cosimo; he says it in response to Tito's comment that perhaps he is a philosopher disguised as a painter, rather than simply a painter. (Tito conceives this idea based on Piero's habit of what Tito calls "the blending of the terrible with the gay" (p. 247).) Piero is distinguishing himself in this assertion, and therefore the art of painting, from other professions and modes of being distasteful to him.

This offhand comment, for me, in many ways lies at the heart of the first book of Romola. In these 200 or so pages we've met Tito Melema, a mysterious Greek washed ashore (literally) in Florence who, by dint of his intelligence and not inconsiderable and almost universally appealing charm, manages to create for himself a comfortable life out of almost nothing. Being good-looking, learned, and possessed of an easy self-confidence goes a long way in Eliot's 15th-century Florence. Tito quickly finds himself employed, attached to an old scholar who adores him, and engaged to the scholar's beautiful and good daughter.

And yet, Tito harbours a grave secret about a breach of familial duty so appalling that were it to be revealed, all his social successes would be stripped of him and shame would be heaped on his head. His secret appears to be safe by the end of the first book; however, as Eliot reminds us, even if Tito continually refuses to acknowledge it, "Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness" (p. 219).

Such an appalling image! (And so representative of the sharply observant ability to dissect what moves the human animal that, to me, makes Eliot stand out far beyond all her peers, even the beloved Dickens.) One can't help but think of Adam Bede and the literal murder of a child here - but a murder not even quite so visceral as strangling! The presence of such an image in the narrator's meditations on what will be the outcome of Tito's dissimulations speaks harrowingly to how his relationships and life - and the lives of those to whom he connects himself - will in all likelihood turn out.

Piero's comment is a negative reflection on Tito's character, even if neither of them has no real sense of how true, and darkly true, it is. Tito could be living his life, simply, with no self-protective or dishonest accounting necessary - what attracts Romola and her father and most others to him is mostly true, and under Romola's influence could have become wholly true - if he weren't carrying around his desperate secret like a rank cancer growing in his belly.

Tito isn't the only one who spins lies to account for life, however. On the one hand, Eliot outlines (in, to me, sometimes admittedly confusing detail) the political complexities of this central European medieval city at a time of political flux. On the other hand, the seemingly benign lies that Bardi and Romola tell one another and themselves regarding Tito - what he can and should mean to them, and what lies behind his passively pleasant eyes - are no less dangerous for being both conceived in sincere and honest ways, and based on all the information at hand. For there are clues, subtle though they may be (in the case of Dino's vision, not so subtle), that suggest that Romola's godfather is not simply being contrary by refusing to subscribe to the universal approbation of the young Greek golden boy.

The expectations Romola and her father hold for Tito - which are entirely reasonable - are nonetheless lies. And they are lies which not only help them to positively account for the blank spots in Tito's history and his current self-representation, but they also feed both his need and his ability to make false accounts for himself. The social ties that bind, in Romola, are tender and beautiful as well as toxic.

Tomorrow, on to book two! I am really enjoying Romola, although as Rohan over at Novel Readings warned me, the first several chapters are slow going. She also warned me to skip the chapter entitled "The Florentine Joke" altogether; I did not follow her advice in this regard, in part because she didn't tell me why to skip it and because I wanted to discover for myself whatever its "flaws" might be. My feeling is that there are two problems, at least from the point of view of being 1/3 through the novel: 1) It stands out for serving no purpose in terms of either narrative movement, establishing atmosphere, or introducing new and important characters; 2) It casts an until then seemingly nice enough character - the barber - in a rather shabby and cruel light. Okay, and 3) It's not actually funny.

While I am happily reading Romola - because in spite of the above, I am ridiculously happy to be deep into an Eliot novel - here's Piero di Cosimo's (I think) most famous painting for you to admire. And a poem by Wm. Blake, which I think much better than the above gestures towards the mood I feel lurking under the surface of Tito and Romola's current happiness. But maybe things will not turn out quite so luridly and gruesomely as I imagine.

"The Sick Worm"
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. (From Songs of Experience)


Heidenkind said...

Did he wash up on the Arno? How did he wind up there?

Stefanie said...

This is an Eliot book I knew nothing about. It sounds great. I think I am going to have to add some Eliot to my reading this year. Maybe even this one!

Rohan Maitzen said...

The joke that isn't funny (to us) is an interesting trope, if I can dignify it with such a pedantic label. There's a whole scene in Silas Marner involving yokels in a bar that is strikingly un-witty. But the point sort of (if I understand it correctly) that their wit is not our wit, or GE's wit. It's a form of intellectual estrangement, and if it can be alienating even from the relatively familiar environment of rural England, how much more so when Renaissance Florence is our setting! So in a way I concede that the unfunny joke chapter is a way of keeping us alert to the foreignness of the past, and what people find funny is something useful to focus on to bring out their values and so forth. But the thing about a joke is, it should be funny! It's just too disappointing to approach humour pedantically: we all know that explaining a joke kills it dead.

So, I've been thinking that the Florentine Joke chapter is an extreme version of the "cheese to the macaroni" problem. In the introduction to the Penguin edition, Dorothea Barrett (rightly, I think) describes Romola as a novel written in translation--we're given what is supposed to be Italian. But what works best is not necessarily the most literal rendition but something that captures the idiom or the essence of the speech (or, in this case, the joke). Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel, for instance, for me are outstanding historical novelists because they avoid the temptation to write in (what they imagine to be) reconstructed "old" English but rather weave some key phrases or allusions into quite modern speech. We don't forget that these characters are not quite us, but we aren't distracted by too-overt artifice. GE would have written a more immediately accessible and engaging novel if she had let her 15th-century Italians speak more like her 19th-century characters.

But...(and here, of course, she is a step ahead of me in the problem as always) that wouldn't quite solve the joke problem, since it's not just speech that's at stake there but a whole range of attitudes towards superstition and so forth. If she'd conjured up some joke we could laugh at, she couldn't conclude, "It was a scene such as Florentines loved..." without sacrificing her hard-won authenticity of detail.

So? Maybe she should have skipped the whole attempt at a joke, because it just puts too much pressure on her whole enterprise. But Romola is, without a doubt, the least funny of her novels (Mill on the Floss, while excruciating, is occasionally hilarious, for example). Maybe that's one reason the chapter is quite so disappointing: it was our only hope of a laugh!

OK, enough. Sorry to ramble on! I should probably save it for my seminar...

Mark said...

You do an excellent job of summarizing the intrigue inherent in the first half of Romola. I also thought your comments on the macabre nature of some of Eliot's imagery (ie.: deeds and strangling babies) quite apt and thought-provoking. There is certainly a sadistic side to her storytelling.

I find it interesting that Dr. Maitzen tried to dissuade you from reading the "A Florentine Joke" chapter. I wholly agree with your criticism but can't help but feel that Eliot must have included this chapter for some specific reason. In this week's George Eliot seminar, I pointed out that the gossipy mob of The Mill on the Floss’ St. Ogg's seems to find echoes in Renaissance Florence. In “A Florentine Joke,” is Eliot trying to give us some sense of the jesting of the time so that when Tito plays his marriage ruse on poor Tessa we won't be completely appalled? Is there a malevolent side to the Renaissance temperament that Eliot is trying to call attention to?

Thanks for the insights. I look forward to reading what you have to say on the second half of the novel.

Mark Diachyshyn

Y S Lee said...

Colleen, this is terrific. I've been putting off reading ROMOLA for ages because I love having another Eliot novel to look forward to, but now I may just have to dive in.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: You'll have to ask Tito - Eliot's not telling, so far.

Stefanie: Yay, Eliot! Truly, one of English histories best writers.

Rohan: I like your idea that the joke ensures that Eliot's 15th-century Florentines don't become too familiar to us. Yet, given how much work she appears to be doing to differentiate between them and "us" (a word that alters in meaning as time passes!), I wonder at how Tito is in so many ways differentiated from his Italian peers - but with no cultural referents to explain him.

Indeed, on the contrary, all her explanations about his dubious feelings and actions are insistently attributed to a nature that appears to be wedded to no culture whatsoever. This could be a gesture towards a universality of human inclination regardless of culture, it could reflect his status as an orphan who's had no constant immersion in any one culture to define him, or it could be what you recently blogged about - what happens when one try consciously to sever all historical/familial bonds.

Mark: I always become nervous at the thought of divining authorial intention. I have no doubt Eliot (and all authors, even the "bad" ones) are driven by narrative and thematic intention - whether or not what readers understand is precisely what they intend is another question, generally not an answerable one.

Ying: Dive, dive! And then let's chat about it. I love knowing people with PhDs in Victorian lit. :) You are all my heroes.

Geordie said...

I will open with a confession (Tito, take notes): I am enjoying your posts (just as I enjoyed our classroom discussion/deconstruction of Romola in Dr. Maitzen's seminar these past two weeks) perhaps more than I enjoyed reading the novel itself. There was something ultimately unsatisfying about my (literary) trip to Florence, and I think the discussion of "The Florentine Joke" chapter captured it nicely. I can't wait to hear your verdict once you've finished the book.

I don't endeavour to solve the (unsolvable) intentionality issue regarding that chapter, but I came across an interesting footnote in my edition (insert Grad student joke here) which quoted a letter Eliot wrote to Alexander Main in 1871 about the "Joke":

"The general ignorance of old Florentine literature, and the false conceptions of Italy bred by idle travelling...have caused many parts of 'Romola' to be entirely misunderstood--the scene of the quack doctor and the monkey for example, which is a specimen, not of humour as I relish it, but of the practical joking which was the amusement of the gravest old Florentines, and without which no conception of them would be historical. The whole piquancy of the scene in question was intended to lie in the antithesis between the puerility which stood for wit and humour in the old Republic, and the majesty of its front in graver matters."

To which I would say, one chapter hardly qualifies as a proper balancing out of "the majesty of [the Republic's] front." Surely I am not asking for more monkey chapters, am I? Are there other funny parts that I've overlooked?

Eliot at least seems aware here of the edge to which any author submits when he/she transports her readership to 'authentic' exotic locales: some things get lost in translation.

Enjoy the rest of your journey.

Geordie Miller

Bookphilia said...

Geordie: In order to maintain balance in the universe, I will offer a confession in response to yours: I am not enjoying the third volume of Romola very much. I have been finding it especially unsatisfying (not exactly sure why yet) since Romola literally floated away. For gawd's sake, where is she and what the hell is she doing?

The Frate's fall is too belaboured and somehow lacking in pathos. Eliot is holding her cards close re: whether or not Tito will get away with it all but I find this mysteriousness equally frustrating rather than tantalizing or anxiety-inducing.

But all shall be revealed to me tomorrow and I'll see what I can come up with to say about it.

PS-Thanks for the snippet from Eliot's letter re: the Joke. I agree, no more monkeys.

PPS-I wish I had your edition of the book - in mine, the copious footnotes relate almost entirely to edits Eliot made, sentences cut out and/or altered. Sigh.