Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On Depth; In-Depth

I’ve been re-reading Silas Marner, first encountered in High School  English class, and re-experienced in audiobook, some dozen years ago; and liking it better each time. 
Impelled by this, I finally acquired a copy of Middlemarch,  by reputation  the author’s finest work, though little referred to  nowadays.   I have long resisted reading it, for it is thick, very thick;  and the time remaining me  may be thin, very thin, and how to spend it?  But by the accident of this and that, I wound up with an unabridged recording, from the library,  which I listen to  at fitful intervals,  principally when cooking, or washing dishes.

I am unusually sensitive -- I almost wrote, vulnerable -- to the influence of the spoken word.   It instills me  like a transfusion,  plain me or nay.   And I am well aware, that  at this very moment, she seems to speak through me:  Yet welcome, gentle lady;  welcome, to my brain …

And by a happy accident, such audition is fraught with contretemps -- if I unplug the thing, the place is lost (there being no bookmarks, for a CD);  plus  with all those buttons, it often happens,  that quite unpremeditated, I shut the thing off.   Or I shut it off deliberately, intending to mark the place, but do not return to it until several weeks later, all memory of the stopping-point  long lost.  And hence, not wishing to skip over anything,  I am  ever and again  obliged  to re-listen, to passages previously heard.   And it has, with time, come to my attention, that I thus receive, just a little more, each time.    In other words:  the narrative has depths;  and while, at first hearing, one might attend to some merely syntactic elegance, yet at the second, the moral gravity may come to the fore.   Or if at first, a trait of character, perhaps upon second hearing, a subtle irony, that passed undiscovered  the first time.

It is not every book -- very few books indeed -- that can withstand  such a fine-grained sifting, such a criblage jusqu’au fond.  And that is the mark -- far more than the dazzle of first acquaintance -- which marks a work out, as one which, with the passage of ages,  still grips the intense-attentive reader, while the candle gutters low;  which rewards re-reading;  one which the angels   keep on their nightstands …

The book would be fine, in any event;  but an extra chord is rung, by an overtone, proceeding from the fact, that  I --  I myself -- appear to be compact  of both those characters:  Dorothea and Casaubon.  As was, I am now convinced, George Elliot herself, from the mirror-side of the gender divide.  Was -- is, rather :  for she yet lives.

I am a man of sixty winters;  she, when she put the final pen-nib upon paper,  was a lass of barely fifty.  Yet I attend to her lessons, intently; as who should sit  at the foot of Socrates.


The reason for this novel’s comparative neglect -- and it is as fine as anything in Dickens, though cut from a different cloth -- is not far to seek.   It is very long; it is gnarly, its meaning must sometimes be divined, or extracted with tweezers; and above all, there lies plain old Silas Marner  ready to hand, plain-spoken and serviceable, and mercifully short.  So the latter is assigned in high schools (or was, in my day; uncertain whether high schools “do” books anymore), and then everyone figures,  Well, I’ve “done” Elliot:  that little box is checked, and promptly forgotten.

I have as yet  read (from print)  barely the tenth of it;  but even this much, is the sort of ex pede from which Herculem might indeed be plausibly derived -- moreso than for a novel of looser texture, whose ultimate import depends upon some final effect of plot or whatnot.  (I am thinking in particular of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, no single part of which is any good at all.  But it is famous, so I kept reading, thinking:  So all right, he’s not a stylist, but some overarching architecture will come apparent in the end.   -- It did not.  A total waste.)  The intricacy, the weighing of each word, is more characteristic of a Salinger short-story, than of long novels from whatever epoch.  In fact, one’s expectations are such, that at the beginning, I listened to it  much as I might listen to any other Muzak accompaniment to my kitchen chores -- “All Things Considered” or “Car Talk”.   It took a while to realize, that this thing repaid the closest attention.
And so, though the book is but begun,  I write this now:  both to settle my thoughts (always clearer when you see them on paper), and to send out the proverbial  note-in-a-bottle --  should (by any chance)  my own soul  be required   this very night.

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