Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In which the Polar Vortex forces me to write a post

I think I would have to rank The Way We Live Now among my favorite book titles ever. It's maybe not a particularly original phrase but something about the rhythm of it appeals to me. It's evocative and immediate; as soon as you read the phrase it conjures up something of the change we all have to deal with in our own lives. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, not only is it a nice little string of words, it also fits the book perfectly and even lends a little focus to a fairly wide-ranging plot.

Y'all know I love some Trollope. Apparently this is one of the books that gets singled out as his "masterpiece" and I can see that. There's a lot going on, but the book never gets lost in the weeds or bogged down (or other landscape metaphors). Even as I was reading I was impressed by the way the different elements unfolded, and pleased to find that there were no over-the-top satirical digressions like some others of his books (yaaaaaay).

At the center of the book is change, and particularly change around the relationship between money, honor, and social acceptance. The sinister Augustus Melmotte is making unheard of sums of money, and he has a daughter who will presumably be the heir to all this. Although he, his Jewish wife (yes, it goes there, or skirts close), and the mousey daughter are completely uncouth, various impecunious nobles and members of respectable society start cosying up and/or scheming to become part of his business or to marry the daughter. Melmotte is making his money through -- brace yourselves -- SPECULATION

which obviously makes everything worse. Trollope's big point is that there's no there there, both in terms of the money (that's not really a spoiler, is it?) and in terms of Melmotte's social acceptance. People don't really want to associate with him, but the fact that other people apparently are willing to tolerate him (for his ££££) makes them willing to go along too. Here, this passage captures the line of thinking at the heart of the novel nicely:
There is money going. There must be money where there is all this buying and selling of shares. Where does your uncle get the money with which he is living like a prince at San Francisco? Where does Fisker get the money with which he is speculating in New York? Where does Melmotte get the money which makes him the richest man in the world? Why should not you get it as well as the others?
Trollope obviously has a problem with Melmotte as a foreigner, and the book certainly leaves the door open to anti-semitism, at the very least. It's interesting that Melmotte himself is not Jewish, but his wife, who basically does and says nothing, is Jewish; and also that in an episode in which a young lady decides to marry an old rich Jewish guy for the material advantages and gets rejected by her parents for doing so, it's the Jewish financier who comes off best of all. So while Melmotte's cosmopolitan background and association with, yes, Jewish moneylenders, are all very sinister, Trollope seems to be pretty deliberate in trying to make his book not about evil Jews corrupting everything. Certainly he's not up to modern post-Holocaust levels of decency and sensitivity, but he does also seem to be trying, in the context of his own time and contemporary developments, to align himself on the progressive, open-minded end of things. And in this book, it's actually America that is the most consistent source of sketchiness and danger. Anyway, just as important is the fact that the "respectable" English characters do not cover themselves in glory. There's lots of shameless conniving around cash-grab marriage matches; the young heirs to respectable positions are pissing away their inheritance and youth gambling and corrupting young working women; and of course everyone's primarily concerned with what everyone else thinks of them.

Well, that's what Trollope's concerned with, but it's an entertaining book because the characters are interesting. Trollope does his thing with the romantic pairings, showing how love is both a natural phenomenon that can't be helped or created, but also something that can be influenced by circumstances and even rational considerations. I just like the way he writes these things; it's not just overwhelming romantic love that wins the day, but rather a combination of (irrational) affection and (rational) admiration that lead to a happy pairing. Trollope likes giving counter-examples, where people are attracted to each other or respect each other but the match just doesn't work because the other half of the equation is missing, and while the mother or the lover or someone else might urge the girl (it's usually the girl) to go through with it anyway, Trollope upholds the ideal that both things ought to be there. Well -- he upholds it for the middle class at least. Ruby Ruggles has affection and romance confused (due to reading novels, bad girl), but I don't think she ever had much affection for whats-his-face the miller.

A surprise awesome character in this book is Dolly Longstaffe -- Dolly, short for Adolphus, he's a dude and yes that threw me for... a while. If we're keeping a list of proto-Bertie-Woosters, he goes right on there, not least he becomes the one who sets the ball rolling for the great unraveling in the final third of the novel. He starts out as a kind of nothing background character and, thanks in no small part to his own clueless bullheadedness, becomes a kind of hero in the end by sticking to his guns and refusing to play the game(s).

FINALLY, I come to the thing that prompted me to actually sit down and write this. Hilariously (to me), one of the great modern social evils Trollope wanted to expose in this book was the evil of authors and reviewers colluding to promote books. That's right: threats to the social order, new forms of financial trickery, and FALLACIOUS BOOK REVIEWING, oh noes! So in service of this very important theme one of the main characters is Lady Carbury, who is seeking literary fame. (There is a lot to be said about Lady Carbury, and how she is a much more sympathetic character than Trollope means her to be, and how his solution is for her to just support a male writer, but dammit this post is already too long.) At one point she starts writing a novel and she names the main character Cordinga, "selected by Lady Carbury as never having been heard before either in the world of fact or in that of fiction." Which I was reminded of when I read Alice's post about Carmilla, because I was all "that's not a real name, silly Victorian authors."

UGH FINE I will make brief comments about Lady Carbury. If you read her plot as "Trollope is offended by no-talent people who only write for the sake of getting attention, and who are willing to game the system to get that attention," it's like, ok T, you're kind of an elitist dick, but if you're seriously bothered by this, fine, whatever. But the fact that she's a woman, and her failings as an author seem characteristically feminine -- well. And then he gives her this super-sympathetic backstory, where she's had a really shitty life, including an abusive marriage, and so she has set her cap at literary fame to redeem her life now that she's a widow. So while she behaves really awfully to her children, it's hard to see her literary aspirations as anything other than mildly humorous, and certainly not as a point against her. Again, as an individual character who doesn't have any particular love or talent for writing, it kind of works for her to end up settling to enjoy the literary scene through a social connection to it rather than as a celebrated author -- but that's not actually it, is it: it's that her proper role in the end is as wife and hostess. Mmhm.

Anyway. As usual, I did really like this book even though Trollope is like, Dead White Guy Number One. I read it over Christmas and even though it's a big ol' Victorian novel I happily picked it up whenever I got a chance.