The Most Dangerous Book.

James Joyce’s Ulysses stands today as one of the most critically lauded novels ever written – despite the fact that it’s difficult to read and more difficult to understand – which has, to some extent, papered over its tortuous path to the marketplace. When Joyce was first writing the novel, it was serialized in parts in a literary periodical called The Little Review, which then ran afoul of U.S. obscenity laws, leading eventually to the book’s banning before it had even been published. In 1933, Random House, at the time a relatively new publisher founded by the owners of the Modern Library imprint, decided to publish Ulysses and force a judicial hearing on the book’s legality. In the resulting case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not obscene, marking one of the first big victories against U.S. obscenity laws, including the Comstock Act, which made sending materials deemed obscene through the mails a federal crime.

Kevin Birmingham recounts the legal battles over Ulysses in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, weaving that story into one about the book’s original authorship, including Joyce’s health problems and eccentricities. The book may have gone a bit overboard in detailing Joyce’s personal life – I really didn’t need to hear excerpts of the dirty letters he and his partner Nora sent to each other – but the details around the book’s history and the Puritanical extremes of American laws at the time are indispensable to anyone who’s ever read a banned book.

Joyce is a giant among authors today for all four of his major works, but had difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or his collection of short stories, Dubliners, each of which also ran afoul of authorities but also lacked any obvious commercial appeal. Even when published, the works languished on the market for several years, leaving Joyce, obsessed with his novel and spending what money he had on drink, financially dependent on various patrons who wished to see Ulysses completed. He began writing the book in 1914, published the first episode in The Little Review in 1918, and saw the novel published as a whole in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. (The Paris bookshop by that name today is named for Beach’s shop, which closed in 1941 after Beach was sent to an internment camp.) Copies of the banned book circulated for nearly a decade, with multiple seizures and burnings by overzealous authorities, until the 1933 ruling that cleared the way for its publication and unlikely status as a bestseller.

Joyce received some money from the serialization but wasn’t always aware of the self-censorship of his sort-of friend and advocate Ezra Pound, who looms large in the book for his role in spreading the gospel of Joyce while appearing to hold a sort of professional jealousy of the Irishman. Even the first full edition of Ulysses was rife with mistakes – Wikipedia cites Joyce scholar Jack Dalton as saying it contained “over two thousand errors” – and its publication history has always been complicated by Joyce’s deliberately obscure prose and the messy handwritten manuscript he handed over to a series of typists as he was writing. The attempts of Pound and others to soften the parts of Joyce’s work deemed “offensive” were futile, as Joyce wanted the book to offend, both because he wrote much of this novel (the first major work of modernism) to resemble thought in the mind before it became formal speech, and because he had a puerile obsession with bodily functions.

Yet the Nausicaa episode, the one at the heart of the eventual trial, is also one of the book’s most literary and most abstruse to readers. Leopold Bloom masturbates as he watches a young woman sitting on the beach, exposing her legs and bloomers to him deliberately when she realizes he’s looking at her, but Joyce couches it in obscure language and makes it unclear how much of the episode is real and how much is happening in Bloom’s mind. Similarly, the final episode, Penelope, is a fifty-page internal monologue from Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, broken into just eight sentences (and with only two periods at that), where, among other things, she admits she was “fucked yes and damn well fucked” by another man, yet the “obscenity” is so thoroughly buried within the long, hard-to-follow text, that arguments around its offensiveness had to isolate the “dirty” parts rather than considering them as a whole – because, in reality, if you read the work straight through to try to get to anything salacious you’d be too exhausted to be titillated by the handful of descriptions of sex. Those arguments eventually carried the day in Woolsley’s oft-reprinted opinion on the matter.

Birmingham gives great detail on the business end of Ulysses, from its publication history to smuggling efforts to get it around censorship in the U.S. and eventually Great Britain, as well as much information on the fundamentalists in various anti-vice societies who helped write and enforce the draconian laws that could ban a book on the basis of a single complaint. The founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock (later U.S. Postal Inspector), and his successor, John Sumner, abused powers they should never have been granted, trampling on the First Amendment to censor and destroy any materials they found objectionable, including early works on contraception and abortion. While Comstock died before the first episode of Ulysses appeared in print, he set up the regime that allowed Sumner and others to suppress the book in part or whole for fifteen years, even though by 1923 it had been widely praised (and panned) by well-known authors, poets, and literary critics. These passages end up some of the strongest in Birmingham’s book, better than the details of Joyce’s life with Nora, as is the brief section on the beginnings of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s last novel and one of the most difficult reads in English literature (or so I’m told, since I never got past page one).

Around the same time I listened to Birmingham’s book on audio, I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and a book so heavily inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses it felt highly derivative to me. McBride writes in a style that mimics Joyce’s pre-speech efforts – McBride herself has said she wanted to voice thought before it became thought – to tell the story of a girl whose brother undergoes a drastic surgery to remove a brain tumor when he’s still a toddler (before she’s born), an event that shapes her entire life as well. The narrator’s destructive relationship with her born-again mother (the book has a strongly anti-religious bent) leads to her having sex with her uncle at 13, going to college, becoming a promiscuous alcoholic, being raped twice, and pulling an Edna Pontellier. Beyond the aggravating prose, the book is one-note, dismal and hopeless, the story of a path determined before birth, a girl who can only gain agency by destroying herself. It may be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I’d want to read.

War and Peace.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace appears on most lists or rankings of the greatest novels ever written; Daniel Burt had it second in his all-time rankings in The Novel 100, and it appears on the Bloomsbury top 100 Classic Novels list as well. Ernest Hemingway considered its passages on war the archetype of writing about combat, and Tolstoy’s contemporaries – Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Levsky – all heaped praise on the novel. Its girth (well over 500,000 words) put me off for years, especially because I found Anna Karenina overlong due to Tolstoy’s lengthy philosophical diversions, but War and Peace sticks to the plot far more faithfully, reserving the Big Thinking stuff for the book’s tiresome Second Epilogue instead.

The war in question is the Napoleonic war, with most of the book’s action taking place in the early 1810s, with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia taking up much of the second half of the novel. Tolstoy presents us with four families – the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, and the Kuragins – and puts them through the wringers of war while running them through the usual who’s-marrying-whom plot lines that drove almost every major novel written before the late 1800s. What appears to begin as a trite story of an unexpected inheritance and women chasing the suddenly eligible bachelor becomes a densely woven story of families coping with losses both personal and financial while dealing with upheaval in their aristocratic world. One of the central male characters becomes a tragic hero in the great romantic tradition, while another undergoes multiple spiritual transformations that foreshadow the rise of the Bildungsroman in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russian, German, and British literature. While Tolstoy’s female characters aren’t as well-developed as the male characters, they’re a little more than just props waiting around for their men to come back from the war or battling to win the affections of the latest heir apparent.

The apparently happy endings of the book’s First Epilogue seem illusory, as the old way of life for the upper classes of Russia is winding down, with Tsar Alexander I moving away from the liberal policies of his early rule to a postbellum period of decreasing political freedoms, presaging the disastrous reign of his younger brother, Tsar Nicholas I. This contrast may also have been Tolstoy’s way of emphasizing the importance of personal and spiritual satisfaction, especially that of the family, rather than the pursuit of power or of material gain, goals he depicts as empty throughout the novel. It’s an awkward conclusion to a grim novel, however, one that relies heavily on historical records – it’s among the earliest historical novels to attempt to accurately capture events of the time period covered, with Napoleon, Alexander I, and many of their leading military commanders appearing in the book as characters, even interacting with Tolstoy’s fictional ones.

Reading a book of this length, even one as plot-driven as War and Peace is (as opposed to the tangent-laden Les Miserables), is a significant commitment of time and attention; it took me 22 days to get through, reading pretty consistently every day, including most of the footnotes and occasional references to other resources so I could keep all the characters straight. (Really, Leo, you had to name two of the characters Nikolai?) I was blown away by Tolstoy’s ability to draft a novel with such a broad scope without letting the story spiral beyond a reader’s ability to follow it. A lot happens to the dozen or so key characters, but nothing so improbable that I felt cheated by the story; if anything, Tolstoy’s adherence to realistic depictions of the battles seemed slow given my experience as a modern reader, where I’m still recovering from an education in books where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger and stuff explodes every few pages. I never found myself forced to continue reading through a tedious section until the second epilogue (a waste of time, largely), but also never got lost in the story or found myself pulling for particular characters. I doubt I’ll ever tell anyone they just have to read War and Peace, but I’d never discourage anyone from trying it.

That completes my run through the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels, a list of 99 novels all published before 1950, plus the short stories of Chekhov. I could quibble with many titles on the list – the omission of The Master and Margarita and the inclusion of News from Nowhere stands out – but as a primer of great works of western literature, particularly British (42 titles), it’s solid and informative, pushing me to read a number of books I might not have otherwise tackled, and introducing me to some less-known works and authors. War and Peace was also the 89th book I’ve read from the Novel 100, although I don’t plan to finish that list, with the Finnegan’s Wake, the Molloy trilogy, and The Man Without Qualities all among the remaining eleven titles.

Next up: Something a little more recent, Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, named by author and critic Lev Grossman as one of the ten best novels of the first decade of the 2000s.

The Magic Mountain.

I have a new post for Insiders up on ten breakout players from 2014 whose performances look sustainable to me.

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was, until this month, one of the only novels to ever defeat me – after reading the first few pages on a vacation (bad idea) in 2008, I set the book aside and couldn’t fathom tackling its heavy, leaden prose again. Its presence on both the Novel 100 and the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels lists was enough encouragement to get me to try the novel again, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did at least finish the book thanks to a lot of time logged on trains in New York City last weekend. (I read the original translation, because I’ve had the copy for ages, but the link above goes to the newer translation by John Woods that earned high marks from people who actually look into such things.)

The Magic Mountain is a “novel of ideas,” which is a euphemism for a book without a plot. Hans Castorp, the everyman protagonist, heads to a mountaintop sanatorium for tuberculosis patients around 1907, ostensibly to visit his cousin Joachim for a few weeks before embarking on a career as an engineer. A chest cold convinces Hans to extend his stay, which turns into seven years – mirroring the seven years of tribulation in Revelations – that see Castorp exposed to all manner of philosophies of life, death, religion, politics, and meaning, not to mention the rather frequent expirations of his various comrades-in-phthisis. He spends much of his time listening to arguments between the patient Hans Settembrini and Settembrini’s friend Naphta, a dialectic that becomes increasingly rancorous as the book progresses, with Settembrini the humanist speaking in circles around Naphta the Catholic extremist’s outdated, reductive arguments. Neither man has any monopoly on truth, or even a fractional share of it, and their debate ends in the only realistic fashion, speaking to the futility of arguing over such philosophical questions to such an extent that one never does anything concrete about them.

Hans is a truly enigmatic central character, bland like Nick Jenkins of A Dance to the Music of Time, but more involved than Jenkins’ largely neutral observer-narrator, essentially committing himself to the sanatorium on the flimsiest of grounds – the whole institution is more a money-making enterprise than an institution boosting convalescence – partly because he develops a crush on the Central Asian-looking Frau Chauchat. (The Chauchat was a machine gun used by the French Army during World War I, which had just ended as Mann was writing his book but takes place after the novel’s conclusion.) Hans’ participation in the various philosophical debates he encounters, mostly between Settembrini and Naphta but occasionally involving Joachim or other consumptives, is abortive and often uncomfortable. He is a metaphorical man-child, but while his naivete allows his elders to engage in lengthy exhortations on their beliefs, his childishness becomes absurd when he abases himself in front of Frau Chauchat.

Mann intended his novel both as a grand book of ideas and as a subtle satire of other works of the time, much of which is lost on the modern reader because the targets of his parody haven’t held up as well as his own work has. There are passages where he shifts gears into comedy-of-manners territory, and dreamlike sequences – including the long, gripping passage where Castorp takes a walk on his own but is caught in a snowstorm that nearly kills him – that show tremendous imagination and Mann’s ability to create narrative greed that quickens the novel’s pace. But I’ve read most of the major philosophical novels of that era, and while they consistently rank highly on every list of the greatest novels ever written, they always fall short in the aspect of fiction I enjoy most: the story. Castorp grows, sort of, although at the end he’s more educated without being much wiser, and there’s no central plot that gets or even requires some sort of resolution at the end. He marches off to war, with a ten-page epilogue that shows him on the battlefield (and in the trenches), but is he any better off? Perhaps shaking off the illusions of childhood and of a life still permanent arm him better for what would be four years of a very ugly war, assuming he were even to survive it, but the experiences he had on that mountain seemed far from magic to me.

This leaves me with just one title left on the Bloomsbury list, War and Peace, and twelve left on the Novel 100, although I don’t intend to finish that list because some of those books look like they’ll cause me too much pain.

Next up: J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm, the second Cormoran Strike novel, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.

Bleak House.

My second “mock” draft for 2014 is up for Insiders today.

I’ve had mixed views on Charles Dickens over the years, loathing his work when forced to read Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities in high school, only to enjoy The Pickwick Papers tremendously when I read it at age 34, picking up more of the wordplay and sarcasm but also benefiting from a more free-wheeling storyline. I even read abridged (Moby books) versions of at least two other Dickens novels when I was about my daughter’s age, and still remember hating Fagin – probably a reason I’ve never read the unabridged Oliver Twist to this day. My goal of completing the full list of titles on the Bloomsbury 100 forced me to decide on Dickens’ longest and most highly-regarded work, the 350,000-word Bleak House, a legal drama, soap opera, romance, and mystery all wrapped up in an overarching work of stinging social criticism.

The central plot device in Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit in England’s Chancery Court, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a case that originated as a dispute over a will that has since devolved into a nightmarish sequence of legal maneuvers designed only to rack up billable hours, with no evident progress toward a conclusion. The suit has already driven one claimant, the dotty Miss Flite, to madness, and its promise of lucre if it ever reaches a conclusion will lead other characters down that path over the course of the book. Dickens uses the lawsuit as a method of introducing a panoply of main and secondary characters, and splits the narration between his omniscient voice and the orphan Esther Summerson, who becomes a ward of John Jarndyce and companion to another of his wards, Ada Clare. Ada’s romance with her cousin Richard Carstone, and his subsequent search for an actual career, form the basis for one major plot thread, while the unknown history of Lady Dedlock, another claimant to part of the Jarndyce fortune, forms another. The latter story eventually leads to murder, a mystery that gives the novel some much-needed narrative greed just as Dickens seemed to be passing his pitch count and losing his fastball.

Dickens published the novel in monthly installments, something he did for many of his novels, which is the common explanation for his verbose prose, mostly comprising overly detailed descriptions of anything worth describing in the text. But the style also likely encouraged Dickens to craft chapters as individual episodes, moving the stories along and creating cliffhangers and twists to conclude them, so that even the modern reader won’t get too bogged down in lengthy descriptions of a stand of trees or the furniture in a sitting room. I also got the impression while reading Bleak House that the serial nature of the initial publication may have helped blunt the impact of the numerous deaths, mostly tragic (and one, Mr. Krook’s, rather comic), that occur over the course of the novel, ranging from deaths due to poverty and disease to those due to drug abuse, mania, or a broken heart.

The social criticism within Bleak House remains the book’s main selling point in modern reviews and rankings, with Daniel Burt naming it the 12th-best novel of all time in The Novel 100, tops among the Dickens novels on his list. The theme of a chasm between the haves and have-nots still resonates today, especially in the United States where the safety net is tattered and worn, but it’s somewhat obscured by the soap opera that dominates the novel’s plot. To make the story appeal to a large audience, Dickens included no end of romantic entanglements, loony side characters (some enjoyable, some just too ridiculous), and deaths and illnesses, all of which serve both to stretch the book out and to provide entertainment value. The absurd Mr. Smallweed (whose physical state seems a dead ringer for J.K. Rowling’s depictions of Lord Voldemort at the beginning of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire), the rakish Mr. Skimpole, and the doomed Mr. Krook all have their moments of humor, often dark, but Dickens overplayed many of his other jokes, such as Mrs. Jellyby, a woman obsessed with Africa to the point of ignoring her own children – a metaphor for England and for missionaries more worried about converting African natives than feeding the local poor. (I’ve already slipped one reference to Mr. Krook into an ESPN column, and there will be more when Oregon pitcher Matt Krook is draft-eligible again in 2016.) That’s the main reason why the third quarter or so of the book began to drag, along with Dickens’ too-prolix prose, before he inserts a murder and the ensuing mystery to ratchet the tension back up in a race to the finish. Without that, finishing Bleak House would have been quite a chore.

I haven’t seen the award-winning 2005 mini-series (free for Amazon Prime members) which adapted the book into an 8½-hour serial and included in its large cast a young Carrie Mulligan (as Ada Clare), Gillian Anderson (as Lady Dedlock), and Patrick Kennedy (as Richard Carstone), but would welcome any feedback on whether it’s worth tackling.

Next up: I’m behind on reviews, having already finished Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka’s memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood, and just started Attila Bartis’ Tranquility.

The Portrait of a Lady.

New Insider content from Monday – reactions to the Carlos Ruiz re-signing and the Tim Hudson contract.

My only previous experience with the American writer Henry James was a failed attempt to read The Ambassadors back in 2005, and successful reads of two of his short stories, “Daisy Miller” and “Turn of the Screw,” back in high school. While he earns near-universal praise for the emotional depth of his writing and the quality of his prose, I always thought his prose was too prolix, and avoided him for years as a result.

The Portrait of a Lady appears on the Bloomsbury 100, which meant I either had to end my boycott or give up on my goal of reading all 100 titles, and since this also appears on the Novel 100 (at #29) I figured I’d stop being a stubborn ass about it and give it a read. James’ prose is, still, too prolix, and the novel moves about as quickly as a Yankees-Red Sox game on national television, but I could see that it’s also the work of a brilliant writer, and his central character is among the most memorable I’ve encountered.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, starts the novel as a young American woman who travels to visit her aunt and wealthy English uncle at their estate outside of London, where her aunt rarely spends time but her uncle and her cousin Ralph are often in residence, as both suffer from health issues. Isabel’s high-spirited, independent nature faces an unexpected test when she inherits a fortune and no longer has to even consider marrying for money, which leads her into a mésalliance that wrecks her innocence and threatens to destroy her individuality.

James invests nearly all of his time, including some multi-page paragraphs, in building and exploring the character of Isabel; rather than allowing her words and actions to define her, he crafts her with costive prose that I found difficult and unengaging. It is one thing to tell us that Isabel couldn’t feel shame for her mistakes for long because “she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself;” it is another to talk about this for over two pages without a paragraph break. James’ fustian dialogue still illuminates her character and those of her suitors, the American expatriate Madame Merle, and her friend from Albany Henrietta, so why bury them in mountains of Dickensian descriptions?

Portrait‘s climax was by far its best and most clever part, as James gives us an ambiguous ending where we can easily imagine Isabel choosing either of the two paths ahead of her. By that point, she’s made her bad marriage and realized she’s effectively trapped in it, until an escape route appears before her – but one that would require her to sacrifice image and propriety in the eyes of the aristocratic world in which she travels. Her tie to her stepdaughter, who is growing up under the oppressive thumb of Isabel’s husband, may be a stronger disincentive to flee than her vows to her husband. Has her independence atrophied so far that she would choose a lifetime of unhappiness to save face? I’d like to imagine James writing both endings and opting to forgo one entirely because neither option satisfied him. Or maybe he just got lazy.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is also on the Bloomsbury list. Beth’s not doing so well right now, though, so I put the iPad in the freezer.

Middlemarch.

This week’s Behind the Dish podcast reunited me with my old Baseball Today co-host Eric Karabell. And you all thought I died when I went over that waterfall with Bias Cat, didn’t you?

George Eliot’s Middlemarch appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and ranks 9th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, but after my intense dislike of her novel Mill on the Floss*, I expected a similarly arduous read, with slow prose and distant, even odious characters. Middlemarch feels like the work of a different author, however, less bleak and moralistic, with stronger, better-rounded characters (and a few jerks), and every bit as pointed a perspective on the restrictive nature of Victorian society, especially regarding the rights of women.

* Not to be confused with Millon de Floss, one of the great biographer-stalkers of his time.

Middlemarch weaves several related stories together, all centered in the fictional English town of the title, revolving around idealistic young characters whose desires go beyond the traditional spouse-seeking of English literature prior to the 1860s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, destined to be the semi-tragic heroine of the novel’s first major plot, as she rejects a suitor nearer her age and emotional temperament to marry the dour, chauvinistic theologian Edward Casaubon, a blowhard who is the first of the novel’s many comic side characters. Dorothea’s other suitor, Sir James Chettam, marries Dorothea’s sister in what becomes a far happier marriage. Edward refuses to induct Dorothea into his intellectual life, perhaps because it is nearly bankrupt, leaving her bored and unhappy until his early death, at which point an absurd codicil to his will forbids her to take up with Edward’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is a far better emotional match for Dorothea.

Middlemarch is also home to the Vincy siblings, Rosamund and Fred, a financially irresponsible pair who have very different aims in romance: Fred wants to marry Mary Garth, with whom he’s been in love for years, while Rosamund sinks her claws into the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, because she sees him as a path to upward mobility. Fred’s ability to marry is hampered by his dissolution, which leads him to bankrupt himself and nearly do the same to Mary’s father, while Rosamund manipulates the idealistic Lydgate, who doesn’t plan on marrying because it would interfere with his professional endeavors, into a betrothal he didn’t desire.

Eliot takes the usual themes of marriage and inheritance as the starting point for deeper explorations of character and societal mores than contemporary novels typically explored, helping usher in an era of fiction where independent women were increasingly found as central characters and where their lower standing in a male-dominated culture was fodder for entire novels. Dorothea begins as a high-minded, emotionally immature woman who reaches for some ill-defined goal in marrying the old pedant Casaubon, only to realize she’s grasped at a cloud and lost her independence without any intellectual gain. Fred has to be shamed into a life of industry and diligence, in a career that seemed beneath him, to have any chance to marry the woman he loves. Lydgate’s match with Rosamund turns out to be disastrous, as her extravagance nearly bankrupts him, his researches grind to a halt, and he’s caught up in a scandal involving the local squire Bulstrode, who makes ill use of the doctor to try to hide his own mistakes. While some characters face consequences for their own sins, others find their lives constrained by the need to keep up appearances, or by the effects of gossip about untoward appearances. Even in the epilogue, Eliot grants most of her characters middling outcomes, where financial success and happiness are mutually exclusive; Dorothea may at least fare the best, as she can find happiness even in an imperfect situation, telling Ladislaw that “if we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for,” marking why she stands above the rest as the novel’s real protagonist and most empathetic character.

As much as Dorothea stands at Middlemarch‘s moral center, Lydgate struck me as the most fascinating character because of the small window he provides into Eliot’s own views on the rise of science and research in English society and culture. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to work as a doctor to fund his researches, bringing ideas for reform and for greater service to those unable to afford proper medical care to a small town with decidedly staid ideas on what a doctor should do and say. The obstacles he encounters from the town’s aged, established medics slow his practice significantly, even when he has some success in treating difficult cases, but it is the marriage to the dim-witted, materialistic Rosamund that destroys his intellectual curiosity, because he can no longer devote time to research or volunteer work because he has to pay the debts she has accumulated. Coming from a male author, this might read as misogynistic, but Eliot imbues all of her characters, male and female, with strengths and defects, so even the venal Rosamund is multi-dimensional, while the reader cannot exonerate Lydgate of blame in his own downfall. (It’s also hard to accuse Eliot of anti-feminism when she has Mary say, “Husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”

Middlemarch might be the most-praised novel ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf referred to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” A.S. Byatt used that quote in her 2007 review, saying it was possible to argue – seriously, can you get more wishy-washy? – that Middlemarch is “the greatest English novel.” Daniel Burt’s top 100 only lists two English-language novels ahead of it – the abysmal Moby Dick and the abstruse Ulysses, the latter by an author who’d abandon English entirely in his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot’s prose is far more pleasant to read than Melville’s and easier to digest than Joyce’s, with incisive wit (as in the “husbands” comment above) or profound renditions of human emotions:

When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Writers who craft realistic characters typically exhibit this understanding of emotion and thought, whether the feelings depicted are negative (fear of mortality) or positive. Eliot can drift from compassion to disdain – Mary, the novel’s most insightful speaker, points out that “selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything in the world,” which is undeniable – over the course of a few pages, but there is always the sense that she reveres character, even if she doesn’t always revere her specific characters. I don’t share Woolf’s and Byatt’s veneration of Middlemarch, as the Lydgate/Rosamund thread tended to meander and Rosamund was the least compelling character in the book, but it is a marvelous novel, a broad study of many brilliantly rendered characters, and a lesson in integrating multiple storylines into a single narrative.

The Brothers Karamazov.

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!

I thought I’d like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a lot more than I actually did. I loved Crime and Punishment and at least enjoyed the prose of Notes from Underground, while several of you said you thought I’d like Karamazov given what other novels I’ve said I like.

The plot is quite straightforward for a novel of about 900 pages. The three brothers of the title all vary widely in temperament and philosophy: Dmitri (also called Mitya), the hedonistic, hotheaded eldest brother; the Ivan, the dour, academic, atheist middle brother; and Alyosha, the gentle, highly religious youngest brother. The three are tied together by their father, the cold, profligate Fyodor Karamazov, who had two wives and may have fathered a fourth son, Smerdyakov, out of wedlock. Fyodor has little to with raising his sons, and no emotional connection to them, but is tied to them by questions of inheritance and social standing.

Dmitri’s womanizing eventually brings him into conflict with his father when the two pursue the same woman, while Dmitri also finds himself forced to turn to his family for money, leading to a dispute between Dmitry and his father over the former’s inheritance. When Fyodor is found murdered, Dmitry, who has vowed to kill his father before, is arrested and charged with the crime; Ivan ends up descending into madness while trying to esablish his brother’s guilt or innocence; and Alyosha, after leaving the monastery where he was a novice, ends up a sort of friend and mentor to Kolya, the brash leader of a group of local kids.

The novel’s length allows Dostoevsky to include a few subplots, such as Alyosha and Kolya, but the bulk of the novel is taken up by long passages such as the multi-chapter arc of Dmitri’s trial (in which Dostoevsky took aim at several highly publicized trials of the era, including one where the attorney defending a man accused of nearly beating his daughter to death humiliated the six-year-old victim on the stand). Another chapter has Ivan relating a parable he wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor,” to his brother Alyosha, expounding on Ivan’s questioning of the possibility of a benevolent, personal God, and the associated questions of free will and individual liberty. The story itself, which depicts a Spanish Inquisitor interrogating Jesus Christ after the latter returns to earth, leaves its ultimate meaning open to interpretation, fitting with the philosophical ambuigities of the novel as a whole.

Dostoevsky’s prose is actually quite easy to read, even though, like many Russian novelists, his sentences are long and he often veers from the main point. But I think my main problem with the book was that I could not get into the central philosophical conflict at the heart of the novel. Dmitri’s trial has some drama, as it’s not clear whether he’s guilty, but it is so long and drawn-out that his guilt is beside the point, as Dostoevsky seems to be offering his views on the jury trial itself, which was relatively new to Russia at the time the novel was published. Dostoevsky waxed extensively on similar questions of faith and freedom in Crime and Punishment while also delving into the nature of evil, and doing so in a novel that’s just over half of the length of this one, making it a more fluid read and also attacking the philosophical questions more effectively.

One bit I did enjoy was the substantial amount of dry, often dark humor in the novel, such as the comment about a European nose specialist who “can only cure your right nostril” and sends the patient to Vienna for a specialist who deals with left noses, or the devil, visiting Ivan in a hallucination, pointing out that, in hell, “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.” More of that would have made the book more compelling for me, although I imagine Dostoevsky was using humor primarily for satire purposes, not for laughs.

I feel like I should emphasize here this is a matter of personal preference – I’m not questioning the book’s legacy or place in the historical canon. It’s 5th on the Novel 100, 29th on the Guardian 100, and part of the Bloomsbury 100 I mentioned in Thursday’s chat, and has been cited as a heavy influence by numerous later authors from across the world. It’s a very ambitious novel, and I imagine a difficult one to conceive and write because of how much Dostoevsky was trying to express through dialogue without the benefit of action. Unfortunately, it left me wanting something more substantial; as easy as it was to move through the novel, I was never fully engaged by any of the stories or by the characters. Perhaps it’s my own tastes, and perhaps the novel just read as dated to me, but it wouldn’t make my personal top 100.

Of course, it’s just possible that the Bluths are the Karamazovs and everything suddenly makes sense.

Next up: I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is 7th on the Guardian 100, 32nd on the Novel 100, and on the Bloomsbury 100, after Karamazov. It’s bawdy and funny, full of explicit sexual humor and double entendres, but the language is so different from modern English that I found it hard to read and occasionally hard to follow. I’m now about a quarter of the way through H.G. Wells’ Kipps, which is also on the Bloomsbury 100.

Sons and Lovers.

I chatted on Thursday, and also posted an updated top 100 draft prospects ranking, with links to 40 scouting reports posted and another 20 either in the queue or en route to my editors.

D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was far easier to read than his later work Women in Love, although little of any consequence happens to the morose protagonist, the original mama’s boy of western literature, the human fungus Paul Morel. The book appears at #9 on the Modern Library 100 and is on the (unranked) Bloomsbury 100; it made the honorable mention list of 100 in the original Novel 100 and moved up to #62 when Daniel Burt revised the list in 2010.

Paul Morel stands in for Lawrence in this semi-autobiographical work, mirroring Lawrence’s peculiarly close relationship with his own mother and its effect on his attempted affairs with two women. The fictional Morel is the third child and second son of a working-class couple whose marriage has deteriorated through the father’s drinking and the mother’s domineering personality, a conflict that causes Paul and his older brother William to lose respect for their father entirely as they age. Paul forges an unusual bond with his mother that hinders him in two relationships in his late teens and early twenties, one with the innocent, smothering Miriam, the other with the more independent yet conflicted Clara.

Paul himself is a drip – enough that the literary critic Harold Bloom referred to this novel as “a portrait of the artist as a young prig.” Paul is obsessed with some kind of inner spiritual satisfaction independent of religion that he would find in love, but only finds it, for reasons never entirely clear to me, in his relationship with his mother – who does not satisfy his intellectual or artistic pretensions, only reveling in his modest successes, while discouraging his relationship with the sweet but nonintellectual Miriam, viewing her as a rival for her son’s affections. That affair sours when Paul discovers the more wordly Clara, separated from her husband under circumstances that Lawrence deliberately obscures from the reader until later, and with whom Paul has an affair that revolves more around sex than love (cast as “passion” within the book), an affair that withers later when Paul’s mother begins to die of cancer and when Paul meets Clara’s husband, a dim-witted brute severely damaged by his wife’s abandonment.

Even though Lawrence modeled Paul after himself, the emotional center of the novel isn’t Paul but Paul’s mother, who married beneath herself, grew miserable with her choices, and chose to focus her energies on her sons, first William and then Paul, living vicariously through them and manipulating them emotionally to try to influence their choices. She fails with William, and when that bond is beyond recovery, she turns to Paul, molding him as she sees fit, directing him in the workplace and in romance to the point where he cannot form a sound adult relationship with another woman while she still lives. There is no hint of untoward behavior, but the “Lovers” of the book’s title are clearly William and Paul, the surrogate loves of their mother’s otherwise unhappy life.

The saving grace of Sons and Lovers is the sheer intensity of Lawrence’s descriptions of emotions, both within Paul’s head and through his dialogue with his mother, Miriam, and Clara. It’s difficult to make passages that revolve around thought and feeling into compelling reading, yet Lawrence’s prose here never flagged – his familiarity with poetry is evident, as is his deep connection to the material. Paul’s a nebbish, more antihero than here – after he breaks with Miriam, you’re like, dude, cut the damn cord already – but Lawrence can invest the reader in Paul’s story despite that emotional immaturity.

Next up: I just finished Dan Koeppel’s superb non-fiction book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

Gravity’s Rainbow.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is #23 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and is part of the TIME 100, as well as holding the distinction of being the only book recommended by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction committeee yet rejected by the Pulitzer Board. It is a transgressive novel, drenched in paranoia, replete with esoteric knowledge of fields from engineering to calculus to military history, with detours into magical realism and Beckett-esque absurdity.

Also, it sucks.

I don’t mean sucks in the sense that mass-market paperback pablum like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich might suck. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t cookie-cutter or cliched, it doesn’t lack imagination, it is in no way predictable, and it is incredibly ambitious. It is also one of the least enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had. It is difficult to the point of obtuseness, it is repulsive without meaning, it is largely unfunny despite a clear intent to be humorous, and parts of it are painfully misogynistic.

To the extent that Gravity’s Rainbow has a plot, here it is: It’s World War II and the Allies are trying to predict where the German V-2 rockets aimed at London are likely to land. They discover that American Tyrone Slothrop, conditioned from birth in a Pavlovian process similar to the Little Albert experiment, can predict the landing spot of the next rocket due to a peculiar case of hysteron proteron paraphilia: The rockets hit in places where he’s recently had sex. If it’s hard to fathom how that thread can turn into a 776-page opus, fear not, as Pynchon shows great capacity to craft new characters (and discard them just as quickly) and sent Slothrop and the other semi-central actors in the book on various wild goose chases across Europe, frequently involving explicit descriptions of sex, often on the deviant side of the ledger. What Pynchon really needed here was an editor, but in all likelihood, the editor knowledgeable enough to tackle this book didn’t exist.

If you’ve read, or are at least familiar with, Joyce’s Ulysses, imagine a book of that scope and with a similar multitude of allusions, but designed to express modern paranoia in all its forms, from fear of military (and soon nuclear) annihilation to fear of government intrusion to fear of mortality to fear that we lack free will for reasons metaphysical or genetic. It’s all in here, somewhere, if you can find it; I’d be shocked if Pynchon wasn’t a major inspiration for later paranoiac writers like Gibson (Neuromancer), Dick (Ubik) or Stephenson (Snow Crash), and perhaps even Jasper Fforde, who mines dystopian alternate realities for laughs in the Thursday Next series and in Shades of Grey. But unlike those books, accessible for all their erudition, Gravity’s Rainbow is work, work to follow his prose, work to follow the nonlinear plot, and work to follow the references. It’s no wonder most reviews I’ve found of the book, including Burt’s, refer to it as a book with a very high owned-to-finished ratio.

One of the Pulitzer committee’s main objections to Gravity’s Rainbow was its vulgarity, and the book is, in relative terms, pretty filthy, with unstinting descriptions of sado-masochism, incest, rape, coprophilia, and … well, there doesn’t really need to be anything beyond that. Pynchon’s obsession with the functions bodily accentuates the male-ness of the book and narrative but highlights the fact that women in this book are largely there to have sex with the men. There are only two female characters of any depth beyond a few lines. One is Katje, a triple-agent who’s there to seduce Slothrop. The other, Jessica Swanlake (Pynchon loves funny names, but usually just violates Ebert’s First Rule of Funny Names), is there to have sex with Roger Mexico even though he knows she will betray him in the end and return to her fiancee, making her faithless in two relationships. Even the prepubescent Bianca/Ilse character, who might be two different girls, is a temptress, sexually mature beyond her physical development, and available to the adult men in the book, without any indication of approbation from other characters or the omniscient narrator. The term misogyny is frequently used now simply to mean bias against women, or imbalanced treatment, but the word’s original sense, hatred of women, applies as strongly here as in any book I can remember.

If there’s something to praise in Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s in Pynchon’s subversion of the novel’s form. Circular or other nonlinear plots can be entertaining even before we consider their literary purpose. Confusing the reader a little is fine, often part of the pleasure of reading a complex book, as long as there’s some kind of payoff in the end. Pynchon’s ambition here seems unbounded, but boundaries can be as helpful as deadlines, because sometimes you just have to pull back a little to get the thing done. The book is ‘finished,’ in that Pynchon actually completed the manuscript and filed it, giving the book an actual Ending, but it feels incomplete, not least because so many plot strands wither and die without any kind of resolution.

One coincidence that made my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow a little better: I had never heard of the genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia by the Germans in 1904-06 before reading about it in the book I read right before this, King Leopold’s Ghost. The Hereros figure prominently here as well, as some Hereros who fought with the Germans against their own people ended up fighting again for the Germans in World War II, with one character, Oberst Enzian (his name a slight pun on gentian), earning a fair amount of screen time. Pynchon alludes to the irony of the members of a tribe nearly wiped out by the Germans fighting for that country in its attempt to wipe out another people in a much broader, more efficient attempt at genocide.

If you’d like a similar take on the book, but with more f-bombs, the Uncyclopedia entry on Gravity’s Rainbow echoes many of my thoughts on the book, including the three-bullet summary at the top. If hating it brings me in for criticism from “pretentious, elitist snobs,” so be it.

Next up: The University of Chicago Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Richard Stark’s Parker, originally published as Flashfire and the basis for the Jason Statham/Jennifer Lopez film in theaters now.