Friday 25 November 2011

In death they were not divided

I finished re-reading The Mill on the Floss tonight; I first read it in 1998-1999 when I had the pleasure of being in Rohan Maitzen's graduate seminar on George Eliot. I loved it then; I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Why I love this book is radically different in 2011; it's a sign of how immature a reader I was then that it's only now that I understand how much this novel is not about Maggie and Stephen and how much it is about Maggie and Tom, and the larger web of familial and social relations they stand at the centre of. For those of you who saw this obvious fact ages ago, don't laugh too hard at me.

I've never believed the fairly commonly held notion by so many readers I've come across that if you don't properly sympathize with a book's central concern and its characters' most basic and irresistible desires and motives, it's because you haven't experienced them personally. I have argued with a number of parents about this with specific regard to Cormac McCarthy's The Road; they insist that I don't like it because I don't understand it, and that I don't understand it because I don't have children. I have dismissed this fuzzy syllogism as balderdash and I still do. I maintain, against a tide of disbelieving moms and dads (mostly dads) who read books, and internet trolls given to uttering death threats, that that book is bad because the writing is bad and because the plot in no way makes up for this deficiency.

But my failure to understand what I now see The Mill on the Floss is about--the central importance of our first relationships with the people and places who raise us--is sort of related to this claim, and that's surprising. My failure to see what this novel's primary concerns are isn't the result of my not having had that experience, however (although my experience growing up was certainly nothing like Maggie's, and not just because I luckily had electricity, but unluckily no fetish whose head I could hammer nails into). Rather, it was, I think, the result of my being, at that moment in my life, determined to escape all the scenes and claims of my life thus far, to leave and be someone else by being somewhere else (and, indeed, I escaped directly to rural South Korea within the year). It wasn't that I didn't understand what made Maggie what she is; on the contrary, I quite desperately didn't want these things to be this powerful or important, and that clouded my reading judgment.

To be someone else by being somewhere else--naive? overly simplistic? foolish? weird? Yes. But it's something Maggie feels implicitly and partly why I've always felt both attracted to and irritated by her. For while other characters in the book seem to enjoy the appearance of such bonds, none feel them so excruciatingly deeply as she does; certainly, none are as devoted to them as she is, even in spite of her struggles with her own vanities and selflessnesses. For her, family, birthplace, and her everyday life cannot be separated without serious damage to her soul. I was always desperate for her to show enough chutzpah to tell the stupid, self-righteous, and unbending Tom to shove it; to just leave, one way or another, and try to find some place where she wasn't constantly belittled and misunderstood.

In other words, I wasn't just an immature reader during my first go-round with this novel, I was also a selfish one--for I wanted things for Maggie that she wouldn't have wanted for herself, things that would have made her even more miserable! I had a touch of Stephen Guest in me then and would have gladly tricked her down the river and out of town, just to give myself the satisfaction of kicking her dumbshit family to the curb.

No, I was not a generous reader, and I suspect that's not unrelated to the fact that I wasn't a very generous person. I don't know if I'm a generous person now; probably not. But I think I'm a somewhat better reader. I think George Eliot was incredibly generous; indeed, I don't know how anyone who wasn't painfully generous could write books like hers. Her profound intelligence was focused so entirely on the human; even her philosophical musings, which the very silly Anthony Trollope complained about, never stray far from the most central human concerns. She looked deep and doesn't seemed to have judged anything she saw too harshly.

Now, about the physical act of reading The Mill on the Floss. I started out with a trusty Penguin Classic, sturdy and well footnoted. But my back has been not so great lately and to try to make carrying it around in my bag less of a burden, my husband convinced me to try it on the Kobo eReader he got for his birthday.

At first, I absolutely loathed the experience. It didn't feel like a book and so I was constantly being reminded of the ridiculous Star Trek: The Next Generation prop I was holding in front of my face. I was distracted by how frequently I had to "turn" the page. No footnotes. And a lot of typos. I didn't think I'd make it. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But then, it somehow began to grow on me. And it's fine; at some point, it stopped feeling like staring at a gadget and started feeling like reading. I switched back to the Penguin tonight to finish The Mill on the Floss and that was also good, and now all of a sudden I have double the reading options I used to have. I don't know how often I'll use this thing; it is my husband's after all, and as acceptable as the experience turned out to be, I still missed the tactile associations of holding a book-book in my hands. That said, if I ever get around to Clarissa, it might have to be on Kobo...otherwise, I'll end up in hospital.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

I miss those days of jam and idleness

My reading is all over the place lately; it's taking me a long time to finish things, in part because Autumn hasn't been very cold and I've been cycling like a fiend. I've also been working on the 4th Annual Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-Off because its inventor and fearless leader, Lisa, is off to distant lands to talk to people about raw food. She's a brave and lovely lady.

But I have been reading. I've been plodding my way (enthusiastically! but it's still plodding) through The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom for months now. There are two things you need to know about children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom: 1) She wrote fantastic letters. (E.g., "Someday very soon I'm going to write you a great letter. But not today.") 2) She discovered the genius that is Maurice Sendak and it's her we have to thank for the timeless, wild rumpus that is Where the Wild Things Are.

Letters take me a long timeI read one and then I feel as though I'm done with that author for at least a few months; short stories are the same. It's absurd. My sleepy snail pace with this collection has been exacerbated by the fact that the first copy I borrowed from the library fell to pieces in my hands, and there are only two circulating copies; I may not be able to immediately renew it when my time is up.

(This book was recommended to me by Rohan Maitzen, who is much better at storming through books than I am, unless those books are by David Mitchell.)

I'm also slogging through cult favourite The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis. It began like a beautiful, hilarious, silly dream; there was a deer's head mounted on the wall of a seedy bar, and that deer had a smoke in its mouth...but then, I don't know. The book just deflated and while I'm 2/3 of the way through I don't know if I can bring myself to even finish it. I honestly don't know how a book that began by making me laugh, and out loud like a stupid git at that, every 20 lines or so can have become so totally dull and uninspired.

And I feel wretched that I don't love this bookKevin recommended it because he loved it so. But you know, we actually often don't love each other's favourites. I thought Soucy's The Immaculate Conception was brilliant; he objected that it didn't always make sense, and not in a charming way. He loves Cormac McCarthy, who I think is very clever only for having made it as a famous writer who generally can't write complete sentences. We tend to agree completely only on Cloud Atlas; but that is more than enough to build a friendship on.

Rohan, again, directs my reading life: After 13 years, I'm re-reading The Mill on the Floss, which I first read in her George Eliot graduate seminar; she's teaching it again now to some undergraduates. I'd been hoping to read along and write a series of posts worthy of my eddication as I did with Romola last year. However, while I think I love the book much more now than I did in 1998, I just don't have the time; those Romola posts took me hours and hours, and as I worked in a bookstore then, it seemed much easier to find time to spend hours and hours thinking and writing about books.

I lament not giving this novel the attention it deserves, but I'm happy that it seems to have reignited my enthusiasm for my Victorian Lit projectwhich I am absolutely not going to jeopardize again by trying, again, to read Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond! I might even skip Villette and go right back to Dickens, just to be safe.

Then there are all these books I haven't even cracked, the most important being my Lisbon guidebook and my Portuguese phrase book. I really, really should look at these books, as we're heading to Portugal in just over a month...but somehow it just keeps not happening. I keep finding myself busy with something else. God, I'm such an irresponsible pre-traveller!