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.


Meytal Radzinski said...

Wait, wait, "ridiculous" prop? I'm pretty sure the only reason I received a Sony Touch a few years back was because it's straight out of Star Trek... Well, that and my family's hope that I would stop buying so many physical books as well (as if).

Anyways, very interesting how your perception changed. Not so much that it changed (which I think is fairly normal) but how. When I read The Mill on the Floss a few years ago, all I saw was the relationship between Maggie and Tom - I didn't really care about anything else. I wonder what I would see if I reread it today... I suspect I too would find some "obvious facts" that always elude the reader the first time around... Very interesting post on all fronts.

Rohan Maitzen said...

The first time I read Middlemarch, all I saw was Will and Dorothea: our readings definitely change over time. Will Mill now, I'm preoccupied with the landscape, and with Mrs Tulliver's teapot. Also, reading it this year, for some reason it suddenly illuminated for me why, long ago, I left behind someone I thought I was passionately in love with, never to see him again. I don't know if I'll ever dare right about this in any detail on my blog, but I think Eliot is right that we can't make choices that aren't in some way continuous with our past.

I have more or less adapted to reading on my Sony (I read Our Mutual Friend on it this summer, my first really long novel read that way). Once you get reading, it's the words that matter. I still love "real" books, and I worry a bit about buying only a license, and that to something that may have a technological expiry date even if we can't foresee it now, so I'll keep on buying paper books too. I really like being able to borrow library books electronically (though I sure wish the library selection was better).

I hope this has put you back in love with the Victorians! You were so right to postpone Henry Esmond.

Rebecca Reid said...

I recently read this for the first time and I was frustrated by the end. Writing about it on my blog opened up discussion and I appreciate it far more now.

Personally, I despised Stephen Guest, but I wanted Maggie to run off with Philip. I really liked him. I was frustrated that Eliot emphasized the Tom/Maggie relationship in the end, since I didn't like Tom at all. But. I really need to reread it, I know that already, because just thinking about it causes me to want to revisit the characters and setting and see how my second perception of the story and relationships will be.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

A good story, well formatted and without typos, should be absorbing enough so that all the walls melt away--physical and metaphysical.

Bookphilia said...

Biblibio: You're right, having a ST:TNG reading device is kind of awesome. Just like the first time I did Skype I pretended I was in Blade Runner. :P

Rohan: I am absolutely back in love with the Victorians; well, I never fell out of love, really, I just couldn't get past Henry Esmond. Not being able to read it made me confused (because VF is so stellar) and guilty (because I really want(ed) to stick to the timeline I set out for myself. Ah well. I'm going to give Villette a go once I'm done my current Sayers novel.

Eliot's notion of us not being able to make choices discontinuous with the lives we've led so far is actually one of the only ideas of hers I disagree with.

Rebecca: I wasn't frustrated so much as pained by the novel's conclusion; it's terrible what exceptional circumstances are required to re-unite people who should never have been disunited. It's a terrible refllection upon Tom's rigid adherence to his own sense of correctness.