Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Debt = bad, love = good

Let's talk about another Trollope novel! I know how you don't love those, and I don't care.

This is another pleasant little Barsetshire book, with lots going on. There's some politics, there's some love, there's some social awkwardness, a little of everything. Plenty of characters, and a few of those awful political chapters where Trollope just spins himself into a satirical tizzy about Victorian politicians that no one really cares that much about anymore. Boo, back to the romance.

One of the main plotlines has to do with the dangers of credit and debt. Trollope goes into great detail about the emotional consequences as well and material and social when a young clergyman, Mark Robarts, foolishly helps a friend borrow money from a shady lender (anti-Semitism, ahoy) and then ends up on the hook for more money than he makes in a year. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction (like, any) but a plot that warns about the dangers of debt seems sort of old-fashioned, and yet -- let's get topical -- it seems almost timely. Maybe our society would benefit from a little more horror of owing money. It is a little eerie that the dissolute spendthrift friend, who doesn't much care about who gets ruined along with him, is the one who sees borrowing money as completely normal and unproblematic.

The storyline raises a lot of questions about the proper lifestyles of clergy, and the specific customs and remuneration of Anglican clergy, but ultimately this is a rather uncomfortable corner for Trollope, I think, and nothing is really resolved. Trollope likes to see his clergy living genteel, comfortable lives and being jolly with their genteel neighbors, and on the whole I think he likes the inconsistencies that come with an old system of parishes and livings; but this doesn't do much for those who get the wrong end of the stick -- and it doesn't provide any disincentive whatsoever for men to become "sporting parsons". The debt plot lets him hold forth on the proper distance a man of the cloth ought to have from Worldly Ways, but I don't think he really solves all the problems he raises.

Miss Dunstable returns in this book, which is exciting except her character has been modified since the last book. Trollope makes her older by about a decade, and whereas the last time we saw her she was very shrewd and capable, here she's more bowed down and jaded and Trollope marries her off in a sort of tying-up-loose-ends way. It's not impossible for her character to have evolved along these lines, but Trollope doesn't (I don't think) have her change so much as he just retroactively retools the character.

And so I haven't really said anything about Lucy Robarts and Lord Lufton. This is one of those relationships like Frank Gresham and Mary Thorne, or Luke Whatever and Rachel Ray, where you know they're going to end up together from fairly early on but it's just a matter of working out the details. Trollope's heroes and heroines don't have to do much changing to win their loves; mostly the men just have to be persistent. My inclination is to say that this is more evidence of Jane Austen's superiority, as I think she likes to have her heroes and heroines learn and change and grow, rather than having their parents learn and change and grow enough to stop opposing the match (or just having a big bag o' money fall from the sky to make things possible). If I'm wrong about this don't tell me. I like Trollope but Austen is a god(ess).

Monday, October 8, 2012

More marriage-in-crisis literature

So the book in the last post was about a marriage on the rocks in interwar Britain, and this one... well, only broadly and for the sake of pithy blog post openings could one describe A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym as being about a marriage on the rocks in 1950s Britain, but there it is.

Really, there is an enormous difference between Pym and Waugh. Waugh takes his story to the ends of the earth in a way; his book is a worst case scenario. Pym on the other hand is supremely realistic. Something I liked about both Excellent Women and Glass of Blessings is the way she captures how life is sometimes poorly plotted. You get very excited for something and then it doesn't happen for weeks and when it does happen you don't really care anymore, or it's not really what you had expected in the first place. Or you meet someone and sparks fly and it all seems very significant, and then nothing happens but maybe you run into them a year later at the grocery store or something. Pym manages to capture this without being totally boring about it.

The title is a reference to the way the novel concludes (so, "spoilers" I guess, although this is more a slice-of-life novel than a nail-biter). Wilmet Forsyth is the main character, essentially a woman of leisure. She doesn't regret not having children but she feels vaguely dissatisfied and fears that her life is empty and aimless. When she meets her best friend's handsome brother, and that same friend's husband starts hitting on her, Wilmet starts to think maybe she needs to get out of a rut. Meanwhile she is deepening her friendship with a very pious unmarried woman, whose charity and goodness make Wilmet uncomfortable. Lots of things happen, but at the end Wilmet decides that she shouldn't think of her life as a boring rut but as richly blessed: why should she feel guilty and unhappy because she has been provided for? It's an interesting way to conclude the novel, and I like the way the title interacts with the story and the reading experience.

The book features a gay character who is apparently So Gay that everyone who meets him goes, "oh, so that's what's going on!" Of course, you the reader can't see him so it's kind of hilarious. The one cue in the narration on his first introduction is that he is engaged in the supremely domestic activities of grocery shopping and cleaning the flat. It reminded me a bit of the way Ron Santo (God rest him), the very colorful radio commentator for the Cubs, would sometimes start laughing about some sign in the crowd without actually telling the radio audience what it said. Anyway, one nice touch is that the young man is employed as a waiter and a model for knitting patterns -- and when Wilmet gets home, she opens up a knitting magazine and there he is. Meanwhile, there is another character who is really obviously So Gay, at least to the 21st century reader, and no one makes any comment. If you're doing that LGBT reading challenge, you might want to have a look at this book.

I'm on the road this week so I don't have the book to hand to give you any funny quotes, but I really enjoyed this one. It's a fun book that manages to capture the "feel" of real life without being dull.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Waugh, I get it now

This book reminded me of nothing so much as An Evening of Long Goodbyes, even though I can't remember many of the details about that book, and since AEoLG obviously is much more recent I suppose it's more appropriate to say that Paul Murray's book takes after Evelyn Waugh's -- but guys. You guys. You know you have to lower your expectations when you come to this blog.

This book is hilarious and it is brutal. I think I really get why Waugh is such a respected writer now. Reading this, more than anything else, gives me a genuine desire to (re-)read Brideshead Revisited. See, Brideshead is one of those Important Modern Classic kind of books that people tell you to read, but I generally try not to read things unless they have a real emotional appeal to me in the moment, as opposed to a theoretical appeal. Also, I read Brideshead when I was in high school and my "I am above all your childish teenage books" phase and I did not get it at all. It's sort of humorous the way I will see a reference to some important theme or character or event in Brideshead and have no idea that was even in there.

Anyway, back to the book I did read.

Tony Last is a deeply unfashionable person: he is in love with his life as a country squire, with his historic house, with his family's history and traditions. What he loves most of all is a quiet Sunday at home: he goes to the service at the village church more out of respect for the ritual than any personal religious feeling, and on the way home he picks a flower for his wife. He's a simple person with simply, old-fashioned pleasures. His wife Brenda, is a former London beauty who regards this lifestyle as a kind of role-playing game -- until John Beaver comes to stay a weekend with them. Beaver is a sophisticated mooch who is a kind of professional social straphanger, mostly getting invited to parties at the last minute to balance out the genders. Brenda and Beaver start an affair -- the urbane London people of course have no problem with this as a matter of principle; of course Brenda would want to escape that boring life in the country, although Beaver is a comical person for her to latch onto. Then something unforgivable happens. By the end of the novel, everything is in pieces, not that society knows or cares.

And all for nothing seems to be Waugh's point. It's perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to the fashionable set that Brenda has her affair -- it's also unsurprising when the affair peters out, after Tony and Brenda's marriage is irreparably ruined. No one gets anything they want, except for the bored society ladies who get a few years of juicy gossip, and both Tony and Brenda lose everything they had ever enjoyed. Although Tony's humble, good-hearted relatives end up with the historic house and the good country lifestyle, so there is some goodness to the ending, although it's a bit like seeing plants in the ruins of a building.

There are all kinds of cliche book-review words that spring to mind: "unflinching" "savage" etc. This is not a happy book, but it is good, and it's also very funny. One of my favorite jokes was the priest in the village church, an old man who spent much of his life ministering to the army in India. Since he's so old and senile he just reuses all his old sermons indiscriminately...
The vicar preached his Christmas sermon. It was one to which the villagers were particularly attached. "How difficult it is for us," he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woollen gloves, "to realize that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of the alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen."
A Handful of Dust reminded me of An Evening of Long Goodbyes in the way it combined wickedly funny writing with a sad and even disturbing story. Both books go from a darkly fun beginning to a much darker ending, although unsurprisingly I think Waugh is clearly the master here.

Incidentally, one of the creepier stories in the collected volume I read earlier this year makes a reappearance here as the fate of Tony Last. I was a little sad about that because as soon as I got to that section, of course, I pretty much knew how it was going to play out. Another argument against reading short stories and/or "collected works"!