Friday, 16 September 2011

Why I must never, ever, ever read (auto)biography again

Just a (hopefully) quick post on what I've been reading, and what I ought not to be reading so that I can read other things I want to read. Anthony Trollope and I are going to have to have a duel, that's all.

I had been enjoying my Victorian Literature project so much that I decided to read Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography in between fat Victorian novels, instead of something more contemporary.

I enjoyed the Autobiography very much, at first, for Trollope seemed to be rather endearing in his stiff-necked hilarity; e.g., finding himself wedged between two men at a gentlemen's club, who didn't know who he was but who were loudly complaining that Anthony Trollope over-used the same old characters in different novels, Trollope announced himself and then promised to kill one of his most famous characters dead the next weekand did! This made me really very happy.

But his hilarity died somewhere along the way, and he spent a lot of space coarsely (and dully, so dully) discussing in great detail the precise amounts of money he earned for each novel he published. I don't object to authors making a living via writing; it sounds rather delightful, in fact; it's that he was so specific about it. People who talk a lot about all the money they've made regardless of profession are tiresome.

What really appalled me, though, was that his commitment to never missing a deadline was so ruthless that he sent things off which he himself believed to be not very good. He was a great reader himself so I find it doubly shocking that he didn't appear to have an inkling of how rude that is to the readers that kept him in business! Trollope, damn your eyes, I thought we were going to be excellent friends. As it is, I'm now rather relieved that it'll be some time before I encounter one of your novels on my Vic Lit list.

This book hasDear gawd, please, make it briefly!put me off the Victorians altogether. (My reading comfort is rather like a delicate flower, or small and easily frightened woodland animal; any little upset can cause catastrophe.) Worse yet, my next Victorian novel is supposed to be Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond; that this was one of Trollope's favourite books of all time is making the problem harder to overcome.

It's not that I disliked Trollope entirely; but that doesn't seem to matter; much about the book was enjoyable, particularly his thoughts on his contemporary authors (although I completely disagree re: George Eliot). It seems that knowing almost anything about authors I like is potentially fatal. I thought it was just that Mishima was a whole packet of crazy unpleasantness; but no, the sad fact is that while I think the New Critics were unmitigated idiots, I actually don't want to really believe that authors actually exist(ed). Except for David Mitchell, of course.

In my non-Victorian lit-reading meantime, I have, of course, turned to my beloved and entirely reliable Ellis Peters for solace and healing. The Confession of Brother Haluin is the 15th chronicle of Brother Cadfael, and it's one of my favourites so far in the series, right up there with The Virgin in the Ice (book 4). Cadfael et al got to be very tolerant but Peters didn't, for a change, overuse her favourite adjective. There was snow and pain and death and remorse and more pain and lust and murder and redemption. A comforting, satisfying read, in part because it wasn't particularly surprising or suspenseful.

Reading Ellis Peters is like getting wrapped up in your favourite blanket and being given a bowl of your favourite comfort food. I'll be quite sad when I'm done the series (just four or five more little books to go).

Much more challenging was Junichiro Tanizaki's uber-famous novel of Japan near the end of the Second World War, The Makioka Sisters. A compatriot of mine in my MA year told me that this novel was like a George Eliot novel. Now, with that I can't agreebut that's because no one, as far as I know, has ever come close to replicating Eliot's profound ability to unpack her characters' characters.

But this by no means should imply that The Makioka Sisters is not an excellent book; it is an excellent book, truly. This story of four sisters trying to maintain old traditions of behaviour and sentiment in a world that's leaving them behind is by turns amusing, appalling, terrifying, and frustrating. And Tanizaki's skill at subtly cranking up the underlying anxiety as the events that lead to Japan's surrender is "set your teeth on edge" effective. Painful, yes; but Tanizaki also somehow maintains the compelling story-telling throughout. Just wonderful.

Finally, I just re-read a Renaissance slice and dice of the first order, a play I hadn't read in probably twelve years and which I did not remember at all: Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women.

My gawd, it is just so damned good. It is stunningly foul in its portrayal of human desire; people are truly a disgusting lot in Middleton's world view. I've never met such a compelling she-villain (Livia) in my explorations of the Renaissance drama (that I can remember; you can be damned sure I will be seeking out all the Middleton going in case I've missed and/or forgotten more amazingness of this lurid order). I am desperate to see this play performed; a double-header of it and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore might well constitute my idea of heaven on earth.

Just read it, trust me; and while you're doing so, try to think of who could do justice to a character like Livia. I can only imagine Angelina Jolie in five years or so, in one of those rare instances in which she doesn't simply phone in her performance.

Also, William C. Carroll's introduction was very compelling; it almost made me miss academia (in part because I met this prof at a conference once and he didn't know me at all but made a point of being really nice to me).

Right then, I'm all caught up. I'm back to The Gone Away World which I put down for awhile but am now rushing madly through again.

12 comments:

Tony said...

Oh dear :(

I wasn't quite so put off by Trollope's musings as you were (I quite liked the fact that he wasn't obsessed with his art). From other things I've read, I get the feeling that the truthiness of the Autobiography can be questioned anyway :)

Must have another go at 'The Makioka Sisters' soon as, while I enjoyed it, I didn't really think it was a great work (and definitely not up with George Eliot). Perhaps another go will change my mind...

Tony said...

P.S. After one of my BBAW posts, Tash Heidenkind wondered whether I'd heard of the Bookphilia blog as she thought it might be something I'd be interested in ;)

Teresa said...

Funny how reactions differ. As someone who works in magazine publishing, which is completely deadline driven, I can't get too cranky about an author who's ruthless about never missing deadlines. I've worked with people who want to fuss over their writing until the last possible second, and there's always some possible improvement. Sometimes, though, you have to let it go if it's going to get published at all.

Then again, I've seen articles that came in looking like little more than notes that still need to be written into an article, so there is such a thing as being too ruthless--or managing time too badly.

Amateur Reader said...

How do you know that you know anything about the author after reading this book? Trollope wrote novels. How do you know this is not one of them?

Biblibio said...

First off, I'm glad the reading improved after Trollope. Good to know that you can always find a way to get out of a potential reading slump!

As for autobiographies and stuff, I often have a similar feeling. On the one hand, I love learning more about those brilliant minds behind my favorite books. I mean, it can be really awesome learning what an author was thinking at a certain point in life in relation to his/her writing. But sometimes it's just disenchanting. I mean, knowing that certain authors were total jerks or kind of didn't care about anyone or were racist and stuff like that can be pretty off-putting... what's a reader supposed to do?

heidenkind said...

Honestly, most of the time I think the less you know about an author, the better for the book.

Tony Aha, so this is where I've seen you before. ;)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Oh dear! I find most of the Autobiography completely endearing. There's just something to stolid about AT himself, and so unpretentious. I was going to say that, for the sake of Victorian literature and Victorianists everywhere, and all who love your posts in this area, you must NOT read Henry Esmond next or we'll never get you back. But then I thought that since I liked AT's autobiography (and you hated it), perhaps a novel I hate will be one you love. Still, risky....

Also, if you dare try another Victorian autobiography and haven't read Margaret Oliphant's, I do recommend it.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm in the middle of my third Trollope novel. He's not a favorite of mine, but still in my "I definitely like his novels" camp. I'll make sure not to read his autobiography; it does not sound like it would endear me to his books...

And I LOVED THE MAKIOKA SISTERS. I found it more characterizing society as Austen does more than like Eliot does. But, I've only read it once.

And I agree, from my experience reading MIDDLEMARCH, nothing compares to Eliot's ability.

whisperinggums said...

Great post Colleen ... I know many people who dislike autobiography so found your take interesting. Trollope's attitude to deadlines is a thorny issue ... it may be that he was a perfectionist and what he thought wasn't perfect was in fact perfectly (ha!) acceptable if not very good. Or, it may be a case of prioritising - probably the way some authors use a pseudonym for their money making pot boilers. I think the proof of the pudding should be in the eating and not in what he says?

Oh, and I love, love. love The Makioka Sisters for its insight into Japanese society at a time of change. Such an eye opener but I read it around 20 years ago now so can't remember the details, just how I felt about it.

chasingbawa said...

I haven't managed to read anything by Trollope yet although I'm hoping to one day. I love big fat books but never fancied Trollope because I didn't think his novels were gothic/mysterious enough. However, it seems he's a big favourite amongst bloggers:)

Oh, I love the Brother Cadfael mysteries. As you say, they're such a comfort to read.

And I also really loved The Makioka Sisters but can't compare to Elliot as I haven't read her novels (!) But I'm getting to her soon...

Colleen said...

Tony: I think I've gotten over the Trollope autobiography, so its relative distastefulness and/or truthiness is starting to matter much less to me...which is a good thing! How do you feel about other Tanizaki books? I'm a very big fan of The Gourmet Club...

Teresa: You make a very valid point; indeed, Trollope discussed how contemporaries such as Thackeray really made life difficult for editors and fellow writers by not being able to submit anything in timely fashion. And the fact is, while I whined about his apparent disregard for his regards, I have enjoyed all of the novels of his I've read; so he wasn't a complete bastard to anyone. It seems I was more of a romantic about literary production than I thought; mea culpa!

Amateur Reader: Powerful use of the provocative rhetorical question, my friend. :) I don't know anything.

Biblibio: Yes, I don't know what to do. I have a very attractive bio of Dickens sitting on my shelf...I think I need to wait till I'm done with all the Dickens I've planned for my Vic Lit project before giving it a shot...

heidenkind: Except for David Mitchell. He is both Nice and Funny.

Rohan: My goodness, that is a strenuous warning against Henry Esmond! Can you give me some hint as to why it's so awful...is it humourless? I can skip straight to Villette or The Odd Women if it means the survival of my project!

Rebecca: Or, wait till you've read all the Trollope novels you want to read. There are some good bits; like I said in my post, I really enjoyed his discussions of his famous literary contemporaries...

whisperinggums: You're right, the proof is in the pudding...it just took me a little while to remember that. :)

chasingbawa: I was just thinking of you the other day because I AM READING PERDIDO STREET STATION and it is SO DAMNED GOOD. Also, that you haven't yet read Eliot is amazing - you have so much to look forward to. But she's no more gothic and mysterious than Trollope, fyi. :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Henry Esmond is not humorless, not at all, but the joke is purely conceptual, the entire novel conceptually pure.