Tag Archives: British Literature

The Worst Kind of Irreligion: George Eliot on the Reception of Daniel Deronda

I am reading George Eliot’s journals and letters alongside her novel Daniel Deronda.  In a letter dated the 29th of October, 1876, she describes to her friend Mrs. H.B. Stowe her surprise that Daniel Deronda has not met with more resistance because of its Jewish subject matter.  She describes the shameful racism and bigotry she witnesses among her own class:

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with.  But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as to my nature and knowledge could attain to.  Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.  There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.  But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.  Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.  And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek.  To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.  The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

The U.K., of course,  is not the only country in which racism, bigotry and xenophobia are a persistent, national problem .  Eliot’s words are just as relevant today, unfortunately, for the culture of racism that the current leadership in the U.S. has incited which is horrifying, shameful and disgusting to witness.  I am glad that Eliot does not mince words and calls it what it is—ignorance and stupidity.

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Gwendolen as St. Cecilia: Some Beginning Thoughts on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

I am so happy to be occupying, once again, a world that George Eliot has created with her novel Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen, like many of the heroines in Eliot’s novels, is willful, independent, and a fierce presence from the very start. When we first meet her she is gambling and completely believes in the force of her luck at the roulette table and the impact of her elegant figure on her male admirers. Upon entering the home that she will occupy with her mother and four sisters, Gwendolen makes a grand entrance fitting for a young woman so confidant and headstrong; she poses at the piano and remarks to her family and the servants—her audience—that she would make the perfect figure for a portrait of Saint Cecilia:

‘Mamma, mamma, pray come here!’ said Gwendolen, Mrs. Davilow having followed slowly in talk with the housekeeper. ‘Here is an organ. I will be Saint Cecilia: someone shall paint me as Saint Cecilia. Jocosa (that was her name for Miss Merry), let down my hair. See, mamma!’

She had thrown off her hat and gloves, and seated herself before the organ in an admirable pose, looking upward; while the submissive and sad Jocosa took out the one comb which fastened the coil of hair and then shook out the mass till it fell in a smooth light-brown stream far below its owner’s slim waist.

Mrs. Davilow smiled and said, ‘A charming picture, my dear!’ not indifferent to the display of her pet, even in the presence of the housekeeper. Gwendolen rose and laughed with delight. All this seemed quite to the purpose on entering a new house which was so excellent a background.

Like the martyr Saint Cecilia, Gwendolen has an interest in music and she is a strong willed woman who demands the attention of those around her. Saint Cecilia wished to remain a Virgin but her parents married her off to a pagan nobleman named Valerian. But Cecilia convinces her husband to convert to Christianity and they are both killed for their faith. In the first few chapters of this novel, my mind kept wandering back to this image of Gwendolen as Saint Cecilia. Eliot especially makes it a point to highlight Gwendolen’s talent, for which she is rather proud, as a singer and musician; and we are made very aware of the fact that Gwendolen has no real interest in marriage but views it as a means to an end—if she marries a wealthy man then her importance in life will be greatly elevated.

I suspect in this scene I’ve highlighted that, not only are we are getting a glimpse at Gwendolen’s spirit, but we are also meant to see her hubris on full display. I have no doubt that Eliot’s use of this Saint is rather deliberate and symbolic and I look forward to occupying Gwendolen’s world for a while and seeing where Eliot takes us with his image.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Daniel Deronda, a few fellow readers responded that this was their favorite Eliot novel. I would say that my favorites in order are Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner. (I have yet to read Romola, Felix Holt or Scenes of a Clerical Life.) It will be interesting to see where Daniel Deronda falls on my hierarchy of Eliot novels. What is your favorite Eliot?

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Aspiring Epicureans: The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

Epicurus writes about friendship:  (Sententiae Vaticanae LXXVIII-translation is my own)  “A man becomes especially noble in mind through wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal.” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).  Friendship was an important aspect of his Hellenistic philosophy which promoted the attainment of a happy, carefree life free from pain and fear of death.  In Athens Epicurus had a property called the Garden where his community of friends, which regularly included women, would gather, share common meals and discuss philosophy.

The narrator in Geoff Dyer’s novel The Colour of Memory has no steady job, no real prospects in life, and lives off the dole.  But what he does have is a steady, supportive group of friends: Freddie, Carlton, Steranko, Foomie and Belinda.  The book lacks a true plot, but instead is one description after another of the narrator and these rather well-read and interesting friends hanging out, going to pubs, listening to music, getting high and generally enjoying one another’s company.  Dyer even includes long descriptions of the card games that they play throughout the course of a long, boring winter’s day.  I like to think of them as aspiring, 20th century Epicureans:

On Christmas Eve Steranko invited everyone over to his house for a turkey dinner.  We all sat around the kitchen table which he had dismantled, hauled up the stairs and then re-assembled in his room.  A fire was burning in the grate and more wood was piled up on either side of the fireplace.  All the usual clutter of his room had been cleared away and thrown on his bed or shoved into corners: notebooks, sketch pads, paperback novels.  As always, the walls were covered with unfinished drawings; canvases were stacked up in a corner.  Apart from the fire the only light in the room was from candles on the table and on the mantelpiece.  He had even bought some cheap Christmas crackers.  Everyone had brought booze and grass and we were all drunk and stoned by the time Steranko emerged from the kitchen bearing the turkey ceremoniously before him like a crown on a cushion.

Freddie’s decision to move away from England and the close knit group is what brings about the shocking and unexpected ending of the story.

Since the group all live in the rough neighborhood of Brixton in London, they are constantly trying to avoid pain—that is the physical pain of a random beating or mugging.  The narrator is obsessed with his physical safety and does anything he can to avoid a fight, a mugging, or a burglary in his apartment.  He witnesses a man being beaten on the Tube, but neither he, nor anyone else on the train, steps in for fear of getting attacked himself.  When Freddie is badly attacked on the street his friend’s swollen and deformed head brings him to tears.

Where the narrator and his friends fall short of being true Epicureans is their tendency to engage in recreational substances to the point of hedonism.  I thought it especially astute for the narrator to recognize this flaw:

Waking up the next morning with the odd sensation of being surprised to be alive I threw recklessness to the wind and abandoned my spontaneity programme then and there.  I was fed up with the rigours of impulsive living anyway: I didn’t have the application for it.  I couldn’t cope with being stoned at eleven thirty in the morning and that kind of thing.  Spontaneity seemed constantly to tow regret in its wake.  Living for the moment was all very well, I decided, but you had to pick your moments carefully.

He doesn’t completely give up drinking and getting stoned, but he does back it off to the point where his activities don’t cause him excruciating pain and regret the next day.  I took a break from my epic summer reads to try something a bit shorter and easier to read.  Dyer’s book was a pleasant distraction for a few hours.

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Corpus Erat: The Metamorphosis of Marcus in Brigid Brophy’s Flesh

This was my first experience with a Brophy text and I was pleasantly surprised by her writing even with a rather short novella. I viewed the book as a metamorphosis, much like those described in Ovid’s epic poem, in both a physical and emotional sense. At the beginning of the story Marcus is a timid, skinny, introvert who lingers at the edge of the parties that he forces himself to attend. He is the only boy of a wealthy Jewish family living in London and, as a result of his upbringing, he leads a rather pampered life. He has his own flat in London, for instance, but most nights he goes home for dinner and sleeps at his parent’s home. Since he has no need of a real occupation or a source of income, he spends his time reading and studying art. Being an introvert myself, Brophy’s description of Marcus’s awkwardness at a party made me cringe:

He had got himself hemmed in by other people’s backs and jammed in a corner between a bookcase and a table of food, on either of which was there room for him to set down his glass, which had been empty for half an hour. He picked out one of the books, opening up a black gap on the shelf, and mimed reading. But this solitary pleasure at a party seemed to him as much a solecism and a confession as if he had stood there wiggling a loose tooth in his mouth; and the feeling of being exposed overwhelmed any pleasure the book might have given him.

Marcus meets his future wife, Nancy, at this same party and this interesting woman is immediately drawn to Marcus because of the potential she sees in him. A potential for what, we have no idea at first. But when a very nervous and virginal Marcus is initiated into the pleasure of the flesh during his honeymoon, we are made to understand that she saw in Marcus a man that she could teach to please her in just the ways she needed: “Nancy did have a talent. It was for sexual intercourse.”

What I found most surprising in this small book is that, although much of the narrative is funny and quirky, Brophy also inserts passages with sublime, poetic descriptions of physical intimacy. After Marcus and Nancy consummate their marriage, she writes:

Where she led him was a strange world that was not new to him, since he had always known it existed, subterraneanly: a grotto, with whose confines and geographical dispositions he at once made himself quite familiar, as with the world of inside his own mouth: but a magic grotto, limitless, infinitely receding and enticing, because every sensation he experience there carried on its back an endless multiplication of overtones, with the result that the sensation, though more than complete, was never finished, and every experience conducted him to the next; a world where he pleasurable lost himself in a confusion of the senses not in the least malapropos but as appropriate and precise as poetry—a world where one really did see sounds and hear scents, where doves might well have roared and given suck, where perfectly defined, delightful local tactile sensations dissolved into apperceptions of light or darkness. of colour, of thickness, of temperature…

This marks the turning point in Marcus’s transformation to a more self-confident man. He finds a job that he is good at and really likes, he starts to gain quite a bit of weight, and he continues to delight in the physical aspect of his marriage to Nancy. As Brophy lingered on Marcus’s physical transformation in the second half of the novella, I kept thinking of a line in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Pygmalion discovers that he statue has come to life: “Corpus erat! “ (It was a body!), he exclaims.

I have one other Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country, sitting on my bookshelf that I am now eager to read. I am about to visit some amazing bookstores on my summer travels, so please let me know in the comments of other Brophy titles I should be on the lookout for.

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Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The English word Kudos comes from the ancient Greek noun κῦδος which is actually a singular, nominative, neuter form, and means renown, praise or glory.  In Ancient Greek literature it is oftentimes used in relation to warfare and appears several times in Homer’s Iliad.  For the Homeric hero kudos is triumphant power or success on the battlefield which results in pretige, recognition and high rank.  Like these warriors on the battlefield, the characters in Cusk’s final installment of her trilogy,  are competing with each other for personal recognition.  Set at a literary festival and a literary conference in unnamed countries in Europe, most of the book contains stories from the lives of fellow authors and translators that Faye meets; in Kudos, Faye herself fades even further into the background of the narrative and we get fewer details about her own life than we did in Transit or Outline

When Faye first arrives at the literary festival she meets with her publisher and he gives her a glimpse into what the book industry believes is the best way for authors and everyone involved with them to gain kudos.  The “holy grail” for a publisher, he tells Faye,  “were those writers who performed well in the market while maintaining a connection to the values of literature.”  He goes on to explain his views of modern literature in such a harsh marketing climate:

Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent.  What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it.  It was entertaining, in a way, to see Dante awarded a single star out of possible five and his Divine Comedy described as ‘complete shit’, but a sensitive person might equally find it distressing, until you remembered that Dante—along with most great writers—carved his vision out of the deepest understanding of human nature and could look after himself. It was a position of weakness, he believed, to see literature as something fragile that needed defending, as so many of his colleagues and contemporaries did.

Several writers that she meets complain of their work not being properly recognized and their vying for attention among readers, reporters and other authors at these festivals gives the book a rather melancholy tone.  Written in the same style as her previous two novels—it’s been described as postmodern, indirect speech, autofiction, oral history—we occupy Faye’s world as a writer by seeing it from the perspective of those around her.  The common thread that runs through many of her colleagues’ stories is that, in this literary atmosphere of consumerism where money is the almighty ruler, there is very little kudos to go around for any of them.  A female translator and author complains that her books are a lot less well-known that those of the male authors’ works she has translated; a male author laments the fact that he is only popular and on the bestseller list now because he is writing with a partner and under a pseudonym; a harsh book critic argues that his volumes of poetry are not as widely recognized for their literary merit as they should be as a sort of pay back for all of the bad reviews he has written.

A teenager whose task it is to get writers from one venue to the next speaks about kudos, thus making it the only book of the trilogy that specifically mentions its title in the text.  Hermann had won this college’s highest award, named “Kudos”, which was given to both the top male and female students.   The boy doesn’t understand why gender needs to be a factor in an award and tells Faye his mother’s opinion about the “Kudos”:

His mother, for instance, believed that male and female were distinct but equal identities, and that having two awards was as far as it was wise to go in honouring human achievement.  But many other people felt that there should be only one award, given to the best student.  The caveat of gender, these people believed, obscured the triumph of excellence.  His mother’s response to that was interesting: if there was no caveat, she had said, then there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil.

Just as in her previous two books, Cusk continues to examine gender roles, especially in terms of marriage and family life, throughout Kudos.  No one she meets is in a happy, stable marriage; many, if not most, are divorced and have an inimical relationship with an ex-partner that puts the children in the middle of the animosity.  Towards the end of the book, Faye is having lunch with two women, Felicia and Paola, who are in charge of her during the literary conference and she observes that the three women are sitting at a table in the restaurant under a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist.  Felicia tells a heartrending story of how her ex-husband, through his spiteful and cruel behavior, has made her and her young daughter’s life difficult after the divorce.  Her concluding words about his treatment of them I found very chilling: “I had not, moreover, found freedom by leaving him: in fact what I had done was forfeit all my rights, which he had only extended to me in the first place, and made myself his slave.”

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on Canvas. с 1610-1615

Paola’s retort about her own ex’s abuse is equally as disturbing and also serves as a bit of a rebuke to Faye who has recently gotten remarried: “‘It used to hurt so much when he pulled my hair,’ she said, ‘so it is good to talk about these things when your head is whirling with wine instead, and with the picture of the man’s severed head on a plate before my eyes.  What I don’t understand,’ she said to me, ‘is why you have married again, when you know what you know. You have put it in writing,’ she said, ‘and that brings with it all the laws.'”

The story that stands out in my mind the most as far as gender roles, family and marriage, the one I have read several times and keep pondering over, is that told by the gentleman whom Faye sits next to on the plane on her way to the literary festival.  It is interesting to get a male perspective of family life and I found his story just as sad as the others.  This well-dressed,  middle-aged man had been the director of a global management company, he tells Faye, and he was constantly traveling and away from his family.  Now at the age of forty-six he was retired but being with his family more often had not brought him the happiness and tranquility he had expected.  His family had gotten used to him being away so much, and his constant presence in their lives now felt intrusive.  He says to Faye, “‘Since I left work I find that I’m constantly getting into arguments with people.  My family complain that now I’m at home all the time, I’m trying to control them.  They haven’t actually said,’ he added, ‘that they wish we could go back to how things were.  But I know they’re thinking it.'”  Both males and females in Cusk’s final book of her trilogy struggle to find their place in a family, in a job, in society.  It is rather fitting that the text ends with a rather gross and sinister action that is also focused on gender.

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