I had lunch last week with a friend from university days, who remembered me going on about Middlemarch back then. Apparently I was very keen on Casaubon’s doomed project, the Key to All Mythologies. My friend assured me that my keenness was ironic, but maybe in his heart of hearts the young me feared he had a lot in common with Casaubon.
As I read the book this time, two things stood out for me that I’m pretty sure I took for granted in 1968 (yes, it’s been that long!).
First, the main characters are very young, and the narrator speaks with the gravity of experience. In 1968 I read a contemporary review that, from memory, began by saying that reading George Eliot’s prose was like lifting the heavy lid of a sarcophagus. I was at a loss to understand what the reviewer meant, but this time around the narrator’s world-weariness is clear as a bell, along with her deep affection for, and possibly even envy of, the young characters.
Second, there’s a serious concern with money. Dorothea can be virtuous because she inherited a small fortune from her mother, and she inherits a further substantial fortune when Casaubon dies. Part of her virtue for most of the novel consists of a commitment to use her wealth well: she sets out to be a decent landlord, but never considers that her wealth is created by the labour of the people she means to be kind to. (Marx was still working on Das Kapital when Middlemarch was published, but George Eliot had almost certainly read Les misérables.) Lydgate comes from gentry, but is determined to make his own way as a doctor and scientist. Rosamond is all about wanting affluence without worrying where it comes from. Fred gets into serious trouble by gambling, and finds his way to responsible work.
These two strands come together brilliantly in the climactic scene at the end of Chapter 83. Dorothea and Will have just declared their love for each other, all doubts as to the other’s integrity dissolved, and they have faced the apparent impossibility of marriage because of the terms of Casaubon’s will:
‘Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent – the great tears rising and falling in an instant: ‘I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth.’
It’s been stated explicitly much earlier that Dorothea could renounce what she has inherited from Casaubon, but only now does she see that as a real option. ‘I hate my wealth’ – the wealth is a kind of prison from which she can escape.
But the word ‘young’ is crucial here. The narrator and the reader know not to take her outburst literally. Will takes her in his arms and, looking into his eyes, she says ‘in a sobbing childlike way’:
‘We could live quite well on my own fortune – it is too much – seven hundred a-year – I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs.’
So, she doesn’t really hate her wealth as such, only the part of it that constrains her. She’s hardly opting for poverty. The narrator sees that, and so do we, but we can still appreciate the moral leap she is making. And that wonderful final clause, so clearly the cry of a young person – ‘I will learn what everything costs’ – sends echoes back through the whole book. Fred has had to learn the cost of his gambling; Lydgate the cost of marrying unwisely; Rosamond, however briefly, the cost of dalliance. Even some of the older generations learn what things cost – notably Mr Bulstrode whose sins find him out.
I’l miss the world of Middlemarch. I’ll wait a couple of weeks before I plunge into my next slow-read project, in no hurry to have George Eliot’s voice fade from the front of my mind. I’ll give her the last word, from the beginning of the ‘Finale’:
Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic – the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.
That’s from Mary Ann Evans, towards the end of a book dedicated ‘To my dear husband’, to whom – scandalously – she was happily not married.
Before the meeting: This is another excellent book I wouldn’t have read but for my wonderful book group.
The book moves disconcertingly from genre to genre. After a bit of hayseed comedy, it develops into one of those murder mysteries where wisecracking out-of-town detectives arrive to help resentful local cops with an apparently insoluble case. Then there’s some social satire as the detectives, who are both African-American, make fun of the racism endemic in the small town. It’s all good TV detective show fun with an anti-racist bent.
Then the corpses multiply, each murder scene featuring a dead and mutilated White person paired with a long-dead Black person whose clenched fist holds the other’s severed testicles. It could be a highly implausible serial-killer yarn, or a revenge ghost story about racist violence in the USA (against Chinese people as well as African Americans, as the narrative makes unnervingly clear). A magic realist parable, perhaps, in which the murder scenes eerily evoke, and partly reverse, iconic images of lynchings? Or a tale of witchcraft? Certainly one key character identifies as a witch, but then she is also an amateur archivist who has accumulated records of thousands of lynchings from 1913 to the present. Or maybe, as the plot widens, it’s a zombie apocalypse, one whose allegorical meaning lies right on the surface. And Donald Trump makes an appearance. In the end, it’s a genre mash-up that manages – perilously – to stay coherent.
It’s all – to quote Quentin Tarantino from another context – ‘so much fun’. But it doesn’t lose sight of the monstrous historical reality. For example, one chapter consists of a ten-page list of names, in the manner of a spread in Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book, Citizen (my blog post here), and reminding me of Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah’s short story ‘The Finkelstein 5’, in which Black vigilantes kill random white people while shouting the names of Black people who have been murdered (my blog post about Friday Black, the book the story appears in, here).
A book that plays around like this with form and genre, that preaches a little, chills a lot and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, has to work brilliantly at the scene level and even the sentence level. This one does. I could give lots of examples, but take the moment at about the one-quarter mark, when the detectives, Ed and Jim, visit the juke joint on the edge of town.
The narrator doesn’t say so, but everyone in the joint is Black. Apart from one character who passes for White and another who is revealed to be Black late in the book, this is Ed and Jim’s first encounter with the town’s Black people. (In classic movie structure the one-quarter mark is the second turning point, often involving a change of location.) When they walk in, everything stops:
Jim and Ed stared back at the staring faces. ‘Yes, we’re cops,’ Jim said loudly. ‘And we don’t like it either. Everybody carry on. Have fun. Break the law, if you like.’ A couple of people laughed, then others. There was the sound of someone breaking a rack at the pool table in back. The dancing and chatting started up again.
Maybe you have to enjoy writers like Elmore Leonard to be tickled by moments like this. I do and I am. You almost don’t notice that what is being described is a tacit alliance, or at least deep mutual understanding, among the Black characters, whether they’re cops, people relaxing at a bar, or possibly murderers.
What happens as Ed and Jim question the bartenders continues on that note. The bartenders express no sorrow for the racist White men who have been killed, but it’s different with the photograph of the Black corpse whose face has been beaten in. This corpse has appeared at the first murder scene, disappeared, turned up at the second murder scene, and disappeared again. Soon after this scene he will be identified [rest of this sentence whited out, but you can select it with your cursor if you don’t mind spoilers], mistakenly but with great thematic impact, with Emmett Till, whose murder sparked outrage in 1955. At this stage, most of the townspeople, Black and White, believe that this ancient corpse is somehow the murderer.
Jim pulled the picture from his pocket. ‘This is kind of hard to look at, but tell me if you recognise this man.’ The man cringed at the sight. ‘Ain’t nobody gonna recognise him. What the fuck happened?’ Jim shrugged. ‘If this man is alive, we want to find him before that cracker sheriff and his deputies do.’ ‘How can that man be alive?’ the bartender asked. Jim shrugged again. ‘Franklin, come here and look at this.’ The other bartender came over. Jim held up the photo for him to see. ‘Lord, have mercy. What’s that?’ ‘That’s a human being,’ Ed said. ‘Somebody did that to another human being. Do you recognise him?’ The second man shook his head. ‘He must be dead. Is he dead?’ ‘On and off,’ Jim said. The man offered a puzzled look. ‘We don’t know,’ Ed said.
‘Somebody did that to another human being’ lands like a well placed rock in the middle of the hard-boiled humour. It’s a sentence that is to gather force like a snowball in an avalanche. An awful lot of the writing in this book is as impeccable as that.
Why The Trees? Trees don’t feature in the book much at all. But a character sings the Billie Holiday classic (written by Abel Meeropol / Lewis Allan):
Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Nearer to the meeting (spoiler): On Friday 28 April news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusation led to a notorious racist murder, had died. Percival Everett got there just before Real Life: in the novel Carolyn Bryant, aka Granny C, is the third person to die in the presence of the small Black corpse. It’s unlikely that the Real Life Carolyn Bryant even heard of this book, but the timing!
After the meeting: Tragically I came down with a heavy cold (not Covid) on the morning of the meeting, and spared them all the risk of infection. It’s now a couple of days later and the customary brief account of the evening hasn’t materialised, so all I can say in this section of my blog post is: a) one chap beforehand said he could barely read for tears of laughter, until the book went dark and the laughter dried up; b) on the night itself, the conversation turned – as it does – to identity politics, including pronouns (several of us have gender non-conforming family members or friends); and c) they all had a good time while I stayed home nursing a stuffy nose.
I have a shelf full of science fiction and fantasy books that I acquired through BookMooch after finding a list of titles recommended as essential reading in the genre. Every now and then I actually read one of those books.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was on that shelf.
I had previously read just one Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (my blog post here), which was the basis of the movie Blade Runner; and I’d seen at least two other brilliant movies based on his work: Total Recall and Minority Report. So I was expecting a dystopian future, a surveillance state, psychological dislocation and the kind of philosophical rumination that can be hard to tell apart from quasi-psychotic, drug-induced meandering. My expectations were filled to overflowing. The book is like a weird waking dream, put together without much care for logical coherence, and at the same time it feels somehow deeply personal. It’s also masterly story-telling.
Jason Taverner is the phenomenally successful host of a weekly TV show. He’s a six, a genetically engineered superior human, handsome, charismatic and super-smart. Without warning he finds himself in a seedy hotel room, stripped of his identity – all records of him have disappeared from the data banks, there’s no trace of his TV show, and none of his associates recognise him or have any memory of him. Somehow he has to somehow acquire forged ID papers to avoid being picked up by the pols or nats and sent to an FLC (forced labour camp).
The story progresses through a series of encounters with women: his long-term partner in the TV show who is also a six; a woman he has seduced and dumped who unleashes an alien creature on him that (we believe) precipitates his crisis; a disturbed teenaged girl who forges his documents and tries to blackmail him into having sex with her; a spectacular, drugged out dominating woman who lures him into her mansion with disastrous results; a quiet ceramicist who is impressed to be meeting a celebrity. There’s a lot of drugs, a weird death, plenty of sexual titillation (see below), and a final bonkers explanation of what has been happening that an early reviewer described as ‘a major flaw in an otherwise superb novel’, but which I loved. Take your pick.
The book was published in 1974 and set in 1988, so the book’s near future is our fairly remote past, and readers in 2023 have the extra pleasure of clocking how wrong Dick’s predictions were. People fly around the city in self-flying quibbles and flipflaps but have to find a public phone to make a call. They read the news on foldable newspapers. The 70s protest movements have led to the Second Civil War in the USA; the surviving students now live underground beneath the ruins of universities and risk being captured and sent to forced labour camps if caught outside looking for food. The USA is a police state, and everyone is apparently on drugs of one kind or another.
Also dated is a creepy sexual element that seems to function mainly to assert Dick’s status as a pulp writer. Police surprise a middle-aged man in bed with a boy who has a blank expression, and though they are disgusted by the evidence of child sexual assault it is revealed to us that the age of consent has been lowered to 13. There are regular references to pornography and phone network orgies (as close as the book comes to predicting the internet). Two of the main characters are brother and sister who live in an incestuous love-hate relationship and have a son who is away in boarding school. And so on.
While the sexy stuff might assert the book’s pulp status, there’s also a strand of references to ‘high culture’. The book’s title, as the main example, comes from the 16th century lute song ‘Flow My Tears’:
Each chapter begins with a couple of lines from the song, so that it becomes in effect a sound track, a melancholy, orderly counterpoint to the characters’ panic and disorder. Sadly I didn’t look it up until I started writing this blog post, so it didn’t work that way for me.
Taverner’s progress is marked by his encounters with women. Meanwhile he is pursued by men, chief among them Police General Felix Buckman, who listens to classical music, and whose tears flow when he decides to seal Taverner’s fate. He has one of the weirdest scenes in the book, when he stops his quibble at a refuelling station and, out of the blue, has an intimate (but not sexual) moment with a Black stranger, which Dick later said was a mystical reference to a scene from the Christian Bible (Acts 4:27–38) – which he hadn’t read.
Having said that the book seems not to care for logical coherence, I should give you an example of the writing, which is always measured, even flat. Here is the moment, about a third of the way into the book, when Buckman makes his first appearance. His personality is revealed to us deftly – his easy authority, his cultural sophistication, his kindness. At the same time, details of the book’s world are filled in effortlessly, including the presumably intentionally comic bodily reference in ‘sphincter’ and the unintentionally jarring distinction between an ‘officer’ and a ‘female officer’:
Early in the grey of evening, before the cement sidewalks bloomed with nighttime activity, Police General Felix Buckman landed his opulent official quibble on the roof of the Los Angeles Police Academy building. He sat for a time, reading page-one articles on the sole evening newspaper, then, folding the paper up carefully, he placed it on the back seat of the quibble, opened the locked door, and stepped out. No activity below him. One shift had begun to trail off; the next had not quite begun to arrive. He liked this time: the great building, in these moments, seemed to belong to him. ‘And leaves the world to darkness and to me,’ he thought, recalling a line from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy’. A longcherished favourite of his, in fact from boyhood. With his rank key he opened the building’s express descent sphincter, dropped rapidly by chute to his own level, fourteen. Where he had worked most of his adult life. Desks without people, rows of them. Except that at the far end of the major room one officer still sat painstakingly writing a report. And, at the coffee machine, a female officer drinking from a Dixie cup. ‘Good evening,’ Buckman said to her. He did not know her, but it did not matter: she – and everyone else in the building – knew him. ‘Good evening, Mr. Buckman.’ She drew herself upright, as if at attention. ‘Be tired,’ Buckman said. ‘Pardon, sir?’ ‘Go home.’
A friend who recently read Middlemarch for a book group said she more or less hated it. I suppose I might too, if I was reading it with a deadline, but at five pages a day there is so much to enjoy.
A lot has happened this month. Fred and Mr Farebrother’s rivalry for Mary Garth’s affections is out in the open. The Will Ladislaw’s origin story has been revealed, to us and to him; he has felt obliged to leave town and exit the narrative, but not without declaring his love to Dorothea, leaving her sorrowful but happy. The agent of Will’s revelation has precipitated a crisis in the life of Mr Bulstrode the sanctimonious banker, which allows George Eliot to lay out in excruciating detail the way people can lie to themselves. The marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond has continued to deteriorate; financial disaster has been averted, perhaps too late to save the marriage and with terrible strings attached to the means of his rescue. There’s been a death, a murder even.
The rumour mill has been in hyperdrive, and while the pub gossips’ dialogue is richly comic, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that class-based comedy, and the unremitting focus on the land-owning and professional classes, that my friend found off-putting. I tend to think of it as a kind of science fiction: from one point of view the world of the book is far removed from the actual world – there are no people of colour, the working class and poor people are fairly uniformly dim, etcetera – but from another point of view it’s as realistic as, say, Succession.
I love the moments when Eliot takes the gloves off, like this, which leaves us in no doubt how she feels about the beautiful but completely unempathetic Rosamond:
In fact there was but one person in Rosamond’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best – the best naturally being what she best liked.
This morning’s reading was the first, short chapter of Book VIII, and the end is almost in sight. Things are looking grim for all the characters, and the many narrative strands are starting to come together. Lydgate has made himself the target of serious suspicion by helping the loathsome Bulstrode in his hour of need, and incidentally confirming for the reader that he is a deeply honourable man. Dorothea, hearing the news, is determined to clear his name, and in this chapter all her friends advise caution. Here’s a paragraph:
Dorothea’s tone and manner were not more energetic than they had been when she was at the head of her uncle’s table nearly three years before, and her experience since had given her more right to express a decided opinion. But Sir James Chettam was no longer the diffident and acquiescent suitor: he was the anxious brother-in-law, with a devout admiration for his sister, but with a constant alarm lest she should fall under some new illusion almost as bad as marrying Casaubon. He smiled much less; when he said ‘Exactly’ it was more often an introduction to a dissentient opinion than in those submissive bachelor days; and Dorothea found to her surprise that she had to resolve not to be afraid of him – all the more because he was really her best friend. He disagreed with her now.
I just love the music of that. There are two long sentences reminding us of the story so far, especially of Chettam’s relationship to Dorothea, then a third that deftly evokes their current relationship, with the lovely observation of the turn of speech that allows ‘Exactly’ to mean its opposite. And the paragraph ends by bringing us back abruptly to the present moment with a sentence of five words.
At the very end of today’s reading, there’s a rare moment when Dorothea laughs, and almost as are a moment when she is bested in conversation. She’s talking to Celia, who like the book’s villain Rosamond is committed to conventional femininity, but unlike her is generous and kind. Celia urges Dorothea to take Chettam’s advice and hold back from interfering in Lydgate’s affairs:
‘Why can’t you think it your duty to submit a little to what James wishes?’ said Celia, with a sense of stringency in her argument. ‘Because he only wishes what is for your own good. And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better.’ Dorothea laughed and forgot her tears. ‘Well, I mean about babies and those things,’ explained Celia. ‘I should not give up to James when I knew he was wrong, as you used to do to Mr Casaubon.’
Touché, little sister!
At my current rate, my next Middlemarch progress report will be my last.
Before the meeting: To fully appreciate this book, you may need to have read Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 classic of USA children’s literature, A Girl of the Limberlost. I haven’t read it, but Sue at Whispering Gums has, and loved it. You can read her review of Limberlostat this link.
The novel’s main character is Ned, a young teenager living on an orchard in Tasmania towards the end of World War Two. His two older brothers are away at the war, leaving Ned and his older sister to help their gruff, widowed father on the struggling farm. Ned has a secret goal of buying a boat – he’ll raise the money over summer by shooting rabbits and selling their pelts. Rabbit fur is prized as material for making slouch hats for soldiers, and Ned hopes his father will believe his killing project is inspired by patriotism rather than self-interest.
The story unfolds as you’d expect, reaching forward to Ned’s later life as father of two adult daughters and back to an incident involving a whale. There’s more I could say about the book as a whole – the Tasmanian bush, Ned’s father, the boat, the whale and a wounded quoll – but this is a ‘Page 76’ blog.
Page 76 comes almost exactly at the novel’s one-third point. The local vet has given Ned’s project a boost by asking as payment for services rendered that he clear rabbits from her garden and the forest behind her place. (US readers note: in Australia a vet is a veterinarian surgeon, not a former soldier.)
Before rereading the page closely for this blog post, I would have said that it deals with the practicalities of trapping and shooting rabbits – a necessary bit of telling before we move on to the important bits of the story (the boat, the quoll, the father, the girl next door, etcetera). But slowing down to read it, I realise that it’s full of the stuff that makes the book engrossing.
Bending my rules a little, here’s part of the description of the vet’s patch of forest on page 75:
A place of dark-eyed wallabies and fat-faced possums and flickering wrens and eagle-sized ravens and swarms of rabbits beyond counting, beyond thought. A place so thoroughly non-paddock and non-river and non-orchard that, when he picked his way through its structures, Ned began to unmoor from the leafy dirt and drift away from the version of the world he knew. A wave of prickles needled through him. He felt a shifting beneath his flesh: all his pain and shame and anger and sorrow would peel off his nerves, steam from his bones and fry off his skin.
Only after bringing the place to our attention as so full of life and a kind of enchantment, the narrative moves on to Ned’s activities. The first full sentence on page 76 pulls us up short:
By the time the sun had fully risen, his hands were full of death.
What follows a brutal edge to it. First the traps:
Each morning he’d find at least two of their corpses in the teeth of his traps, sometimes three. He’d skin them at the edge of the garden and hurl the bodies far into the trees.
Then the shooting:
After he’d stashed the skins in his bag he’d move through the forest, towards the small clearings that lay within its interior. Here other rabbits inched over the grass, grazing at pace, their cheeks swelling in the low light. Ned stepped quietly, made sure he was obscured by the darkness of the ferns, waited. He’d raise the rifle and pick out the fattest animal, the cleanest fur. Missing was difficult, although occasionally he managed it.
It’s not that Ned has any particular feeling about the killing. Earlier, we’ve seen him working out the best way to place the traps, and he’s fascinated by skinning techniques. Here his focus is on moving quietly, picking the best victim. But Robbie Arnott’s prose insinuates a different perspective: the dead rabbits are ‘corpses’ and ‘bodies’; the living animals graze ‘at pace’. The comment that ‘missing was difficult’ comes from Ned’s pragmatic perspective, but it conjures up an image of innocent, vulnerable creatures. I’m reminded of the hunting scene in Renoir’s La règle du jeu, where the humans are cheerful and relaxed, but the camera shows rabbits first fleeing for their lives then dying in close-up, tails and ears twitching. The counterpoint there between the characters’ perspective and that of Renoir’s camera is similar to the tension between Ned’s view and Arnott’s prose.
The narrative doesn’t pass judgment. It leaves that to Ned’s daughters much later. This page offer a final harsh image (‘In the trees, ravens picked apart his kills.’), and something that has underlain much of the story so far comes into full view. As Ned makes his way back, ‘his bag heavy with pelts’, he feels ‘the unmooring, the needling, the shifting’ named on the previous page:
The burning away of his emotions, until he saw only the forest around him, and felt only the weight of his bag and gun, and the warmth of the morning.
Then this (moving on to page 78 – Maggie, Toby and Bill are his siblings):
Outside of those mornings in the forest he was exposed to an uncontrollable stinging in the folds of his mind … To counter this, he avoided thinking about anything that brought on the sting. The war. The school year that awaited him. The mare. The quoll. Maggie, ice hammered from metal ships, northern seas of endless chop. The rush of Toby’s smile, and how soon they might see each other. His father. How his father, after he’d read Toby’s letter, had asked Ned if anything had come from Bill. The blank fissure in the old man’s face when Ned had shaken his head.
The saga of the rabbits and the boat is something that Ned has dreamed up to distract himself from deeper issues: the questions of his relationship to the land that the captured quoll embodies, the ordinary angst of being a teenager, and over it all the cloud of war. Arnott doesn’t hit us over the head with this, but it’s always bubbling under the surface.
After the meeting:
As always it was a fun evening with far too much to eat. A couple of chps brought Tasmanian-themed food and drink. I had offered to host at short notice when our designated host came down with Covid (not as bad as the first time, he said, but still rotten). As a result I inherited substantial leftovers. We spent some time, quite unrelated to the book, as a bunch of old codgers trying to help each other understand the young people these days. We had minimal success, perhaps because the younger and wiser group members (overlapping categories) were detained elsewhere by work, family commitments and the aforementioned Covid.
The book struck a deep chord for a number of people. Two had read it twice. One said he resonated strongly because like Ned he had two older brothers and has two adult daughters, and Ned’s experience chimed with his own. The other had read Robbie Arnott’s first novel, Flames, then returned to Limberlost, enjoying the way it revisited similar concerns in a very different mode. One man’s partner had loved A Girl of the Limberlost with a passion, but otherwise we’d all read this book without illumination from that one.
I confessed to blogging about page 76. Someone promptly read a beautiful passage from page 77-78, in which Ned is haunted by images of violence among birds, in ancient and modern warfare, and in the sight of the girl next door carrying a rifle.
Some insights were shared about the quoll that Ned accidentally traps and then keeps until it has recovered from its wounds: it mirrors back to Ned the wildness and rage he can’t admit to feeling; it’s a beautiful thing that transcends humdrum daily life; it becomes an intimate shared experience between Ned and the girl next door; it provides one of a number of occasions when Ned’s father surprises him by being sympathetic.
There was a lot more. I came away from the meeting with a much deeper understanding of the book, and of the traditional rural masculinity it depicts.
Last November I decided to experiment with blogging about books by taking a single page and writing whatever comes to mind about it. I picked page 75, my age at the time. Sadly, though I did focus on page 75 (or 47 or even 7 in shorter books), I didn’t really keep to the plan but felt obliged to go on about the books in general as well. Now that I’m 76, I’m renewing the experiment.
You could describe A Solitary Walk on the Moon as a quirky comedy, but that suggests a particular kind of US movie – and Evelyn, the book’s laundromat-manager protagonist, is more John Wayne than Miranda July, or perhaps Miranda July in a John Wayne role. Like the hero of a classical Western movie, she’s a loner who brings her peculiar set of skills to the aid of the community who come to love her, but among whom she feels she has no abiding place.
Page 76, a little past the one-quarter mark, is relatively uneventful, but in it the characters develop, the plot moves forward and key images recur, all without breaking a sweat.
Evelyn is in the process of building what will turn out to be a patchwork family. Having overheard two young women, laundromat customers, talking about a friend who has disappeared, she has insinuated herself into their confidence, and enlisted the help of a befuddled old man, also a customer, who she has learned is a retired policeman. At the start of this page, she introduces the man to the young women with characteristic awkwardness and a touch of bravado that doesn’t quite work:
‘This is,’ Evelyn said, suddenly realising that she didn’t know his name, ‘our retired policeman.’ Her ta-da finish went unacknowledged.
We understand the lack of acknowledgement to be partly because the young women don’t quite trust Evelyn, and partly because the retired policeman is grubby and vague-looking. By this stage readers have come to understand that though Evelyn is deeply strange – perhaps non-neurotypical, perhaps from a non-mainstream culture, or perhaps dealing with childhood trauma – she is smart and well-intentioned. But we also understand other people’s hesitance around her.
The ex-policeman introduces himself as Phillip, and they head off to the police station. In a characteristic narrative move, they stop on the way for Phillip to play the love-me, love-me-not ritual with a daisy. He presents Evelyn with the stem, ‘topped by a clearly embarrassed pistil and a sad, solitary petal which flapped about in the evening breeze’. This moment reminds us that Phillip is probably in early stages of dementia, but it’s also a feature of the novel’s style: at any moment there’s likely to be a mild departure from a straightforward narrative. All the characters, it seems, are at least slightly odd, or at least wonderfully naive.
They arrive at the police station:
‘Don’t ring the bell,’ he said authoritatively when Evelyn went to ding the bell. ‘How will they know we’re here?’ she asked. The old man pointed at the mirror behind the counter and sat down on one of the plastic moulded chairs. They were all bolted together, and Evelyn wondered why. No one in their right mind would steal one. Phillip crossed his legs and clasped his hands behind his head. The two girls sat either side of him. Evelyn was not in the mood for sitting and wandered around the waiting room looking at the faded posters that looked like they’d been there for years. There was a chart of missing persons, and Evelyn vaguely remembered the tall cross-eyed man who had gone missing while bushwalking a few years back. They had never found him, as far as she knew.
This isn’t one of Evelyn’s most eccentric moments, but you can see her restless mind at work, wondering about the chairs, noticing the details of a missing man. We half expect her to go in search of him (she doesn’t). Hilde Hinton draws us into Evelyn’s world, so that we too come to notice the odd things that stand out for her, and find ourselves seeing the world with fresh eyes – not those of a child, but fresh all the same.
You can see the author’s mind playfully at work here too: is Phillip’s counter-intuitive advice about ringing the bell sensible, or are we being played with? Either way, it’s characteristic of this book that a man who when we first saw him was unable to find his own way home has practical wisdom to offer when he’s on his own turf.
There’s a faint hint here of Evelyn’s past. It’s the missing persons chart that she notices. The novel is full of such people: the young women’s missing friend, the mother of a little boy who calls on Evelyn as the only friendly adult in his life, potentially Evelyn herself. We gradually discover that she has had a number of previous lives. We learn almost no specifics, just enough of her childhood to know she was ill treated. We learn that she has walked out of her life a number of times and started over each time, so an undertow of suspense builds: this time, as she almost inadvertently builds a patchwork family around her, will she stay or will she go?
The search for this missing friend turns out to be a minor episode (they don’t actually find her, but the search is resolved). In terms of the longer arc, what is happening here is that Phillip is being drawn back into meaningful participation in society. He will go on to help solve the mystery and become part of Evelyn’s knocked-together community.
There are other great characters: Don, the man from the paint shop who is delighted by Evelyn; and the little boy and his drug-addicted mother. As the back-cover blurb says, Evelyn is going to make a difference in their lives, whether they like it or not. She’s a terrific character and this is an immensely enjoyable book. I’m grateful to the Struggling Artist, who picked it up more or less at random from the Marrickville Library shelves.
This month, as usual, Middlemarch made its presence felt elsewhere than in the five pages I read each morning. Researching her family history, the Struggling Artist learned that her paternal ancestor who came to Australia roughly a decade after the events related in Middlemarch was a health practitioner who started out as a doctor and became an apothecary because that’s where the money lay after medical doctors were no longer able to sell drugs. This change in the law plays a big role in the fortunes of Middlemarch‘s Lydgate. He is in favour of the changes and the established medical men of the town, believing they will be deprived of much of their livelihood, take against him.
In last month’s progress report, I described the moment when Dorothea feels pity for Casaubon, her dried-up stick of a husband. I thought it was a central turning point, a hinge. Little did I know (spoiler alert) that the real turning point would turn up in the next day’s reading! He died.
This month, among the older generation there’s much buying and selling, some blackmail, some generosity to the younger generation, a near riot as the railway comes to town, and some apparent endorsement by George Eliot of appalling class attitudes and behaviour.
Among the younger generation, which is where our interest really lies, Dorothea is taking up the management of her inherited estate, while a codicil to Casaubon’s will says she will be disinherited if she marries Will Ladislaw – which if it becomes known will create the impression that the two young people have been having a dalliance (nothing could be further from Dorothea’s mind or Will’s upright nature, though it’s what we want for them both). In the hope of winning Mary’s hand, Fred has given up any intention of becoming a clergyman, but he has discovered, and inadvertently alerted Mary to the fact, that the altogether decent, but older, Mr Farebrother has his hopes set on her too. Rosamond, who only last month revealed that she was pregnant, has had a miscarriage probably caused by going riding against her husband’s advice, and there’s a brilliant scene when Lydgate tells her about their financial crisis expecting her to see it as their shared problem, only to find that their understandings of the world, including in particular of their marriage, are separated by a huge gulf.
Today the narrative returns to the vexed issue of Dorothea and Will’s prospects. At least, that’s where I think we’re heading. Chapter 59 begins with this wonderful sentence, a nice example of Eliot’s way with similes, and of her wry understanding of how good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes:
News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.
While visiting the Farebrother household Fred learns about the codicil to Casaubon’s will. He, who ‘knew little and cared less about Ladislaw and the Casaubons’, wants to avoid being scolded tiresomely by his sister for having given up the Church, and passes the news on to distract her. Who knows what his sister, gorgeous and totally lacking in empathy, will do with the information? It’s not like her to keep any cat in any bag.
Five pages of Middlemarch each morning has been my dependable daily joy for four months now.
This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. Natasha May wrote in the Guardian that when she was young she found George Eliot’s sympathy for Dr Casaubon life-changing. She quoted this from Dorothea’s ‘honeymoon’ in Rome:
She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.
In my 20s, as far as I remember, I thought George Eliot’s sympathy for Casaubon was largely sarcastic. My current reading is closer to Natasha May’s. This month in particular, as he faces his mortality, I can tell that Eliot genuinely feels for him, and she paints his inner turmoil so vividly that when he offers Dorothea a word of attenuated kindness, we feel it as his moral victory, as well as recognising that Dorothea is no longer in his thrall:
‘Come, my dear, come. You are young, and must not to extend your life by watching.’ When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.
That’s the end of Book Four, and of the first volume in the edition I’m reading, so pretty much the central hinge of the novel.
Since then, in the first pages of Volume 2, the narrative has been concerned with the politics of Middlemarch. Fifty years ago I read this as variously background and counterpoint to the main story of Dorothea’s romantic life. It’s not that I misread it then, but this time around I’m much more interested in Eliot’s satirical account of how an uneducated public responds to medical innovation, how professionals’ vested interests oppose that innovation, how media (in this case newspapers) function as tools of political agents, how political elites look after their own, and so on. It’s hard not to think of current conversations about the First Nations Voice to Parliament when I read a sentence like this one:
Oppositions have the illimitable range of objections at command, which need never stop short at the boundary of knowledge, but can draw for ever on the vasts of ignorance.
This morning, I read a scene involving the two young men: Lydgate the reforming doctor (I can’t bear to call him Tertius), and Will (it seems unfriendly to call him Ladislaw) the reformed artistic gadabout who now edits a newspaper. Lydgate has married the beautiful Rosamond, which we know won’t end well; Will adores Dorothea, which we fear likewise. Lydgate has thrown his lot in with the religious ideologue Bulstrode because he supports Bulstrode’s hospital project. Will is allied with the scatter-brained Mr Brooke’s potential run for parliament because he sees it as a way of supporting the movement for political reform*. The young men – one of them lying on the rug in the other’s living room, while the latter’s wife, Rosamond, waits impatiently for the disagreeable conversation to finish – discuss the evergreen subject of how to form alliances with others who are less than perfect. Lydgate:
If one did not work with such men as are at hand, things must come to a dead-lock. Suppose the worst opinion in the town about Bulstrode were a true one, that would not make it less true that he has the sense and the resolution to do what I think ought to be done in the matters I know and care most about; but that is the only ground on which I go with him.
Rosamond calls a halt to the conversation. When Will has gone she and Lydgate have a brief conversation and we find out in the last three lines of the chapter, almost as a throwaway that a) Lydgate’s household debts, unknown to Rosamond, are becoming more pressing and, b) Rosamond is pregnant. I thought of this novel as proceeding at a leisurely pace, but no five pages pass without significant plot developments.
* Mostly I can live with not understanding the specific political and cultural references in Middlemarch. I did look up Lord Grey’s Reform Act of 1832. Mr Brooke is a Tory, who in his typical muddled way thinks Grey (a Whig) has a lot going for him. Will hopes to help Brooke get elected, and to influence him to support Grey’s bill.
Before the meeting: I enjoyed this novel enormously. I expect people who know Chile, and especially the Chilean poetry scene, would enjoy it even more.
In the freezing Chilean winter of 1991, teenagers Carla and Gonzalo curl up night after night under a magnificent red poncho watching television in her mother’s house and manage to do ‘everything except for the famous, the sacred, the much feared and longed-for penetration’. Just as the nights are beginning to warm up and remove the excuse for the poncho, they get an opportunity, but the famous etc event turns out to be less than absolutely pleasurable, at least for Carla.
The story goes on from there. In my innocence, I was surprised by the turns of events, so I won’t go into detail, except to say that Gonzalo as a teenager is an aspiring poet, and we get to read one of the atrocious sonnets he writes for Carla; and some years later Gonzalo becomes stepfather to Carla’s son Vicente.
The second half of the book begins with an echo of the opening of the first half. Vicente, now a teenage aspiring poet (probably more promising than Gonzalo), is in explicit sexual action with Pru, an older woman visiting Chile from the USA, using alarmingly explicit English he has picked up from porn.
It may be a spoiler, but I’ll risk it: the relationship between the two poets Gonzalo and Vicente is the heart of the book and its narrative spring. Carla and Pru, and Vicente’s natural father León, are vivid secondary characters. Chile, in particular Santiago, and most specifically the Chilean poetry community, provide the charming, engrossing, at times hilarious, always lively milieu.
Pru is visiting Santiago on her first major journalistic assignment. Her editor wants a ‘human interest’ story about stray dogs, but she persuades him to let her explore the poetry scene, and Alejandro Zambra has a lot of fun describing her interviews with poets.
I have no idea if poets and poetry have the prominent role in Chilean life that these poets claim. One of them says that for Chileans the Nobel Prize in Literature is as significant as the World Cup, and it’s a matter of huge pride that Chilean poets have won it twice: Gabriela Mistral (1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971). Not that any of the living poets care too much for Neruda or Mistral – the living are much more interesting and important, and their mutual competition, championing and denigration make Australia’s so-called poetry wars look … well, I was going to say tame, but really it makes them look normal.
I’ve read two other novels with poet protagonists recently: Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother and Niall Williams’s A History of the Rain. Unlike the former, we believe that the characters in Chilean Poet actually write poetry of varying quality; unlike the latter, these poets are part of a thriving scene rather than slightly deranged, isolated mystics. One of the joys of the book is the way their alertness to language features strongly in all their relationships. The account of Vicente’s wooing of Pru, for example, is full of the joys and perils of communicating across a language barrier.
There’s a terrific scene in the first part, when Gonzalo is a hands-on father to Vicente. He breaks one of Clara’s rules by allowing Vicente to sit in the front seat of the car – and accidentally reveals his crime to her. She explodes, using the word betrayal, which sets him off:
‘I’m so sorry for taking care of Vicente every single day,’ said Gonzalo. ‘It’s times like these it’s clear you’re not his father,’ retorted Carla. Gonzalo looked at her with astonishment and contempt. He grabbed his hair with his left hand, and with his right he tore up an abundant clump of grass. ‘I’m a much better father than that lame-ass, ugly, mediocre motherfucking pusillanimous sack of balls who stuck his dick in you.’
Rather than continue with the fight, the narrative stops there, and the poet-mind kicks in. Gonzalo spends two pages mentally critiquing his own sentence. It ‘felt a bit ungrammatical and was a pretty stupid outburst, but …’ He ponders the accuracy of ‘ugly’, acknowledges that pusillanimous doesn’t apply, and wonders if he used that word ‘for the mere pleasure of saying a word that León would have to look up in a dictionary’. He quite likes sack of balls because it’s not only hurtful but original. And before pouring himself a double whisky and stomping off to his writing-room he indulges in this final piece of poetic analysis:
The truly damning part was definitely that grand finale, who stuck his dick in you, which brought jealousy to the forefront and insinuated that Carla was some kind of whore. Still, the accusation held a trace of childishness, as if Gonzalo had only just found out how babies are made.
Megan McDowell’s translation is terrific. At many moments, the narrative turns on the use of language, as in the passage I’ve just discussed. At a key moment, when Vicente is quite young, he and Gonzalo discuss the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’ – padrastro. Gonzalo is reluctant to take it on because astro at the end of a word has negative connotations. McDowell does a brilliant job of putting this into English as a completely plausible conversation for a poet to have with a young boy, and manages not to feel as if she is winking at English readers over the characters’ heads.
The meeting: After an hour of convivial catch-up and organising of food, we settled down to the book. Unusually, the Chooser explained how he had made his choice: he started out thinking of something by Annie Ernaux, in deference to the Nobel Prize committee, but as none of her books were easily available he sought advice at from his local bookseller, who suggested this – which turned out, he said, to be a perfect summer read. One chap who usually doesn’t say much, and usually speaks softly, immediately grabbed the floor and disagreed vehemently: not an ideal summer read at all; for that he’d recommend Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series; this author was too intent on displaying his knowledge of poetry and poets to keep his narrative alive and engaging.
And it was on!
No one, it turned out, had done the work of checking which poets in the book are real and which imagined. A number of us, including a late-comer who had missed the opening salvo, just loved the bit where Pru interviews a range of poets and leaves the main narrative on hold. There’s a disorderly poet’s party that got a lot of love.
The bits that might have been irritating, where the author breaks the fourth wall to comment on his decisions, were pretty universally enjoyed. We were sorry to see the end of Pru, the gringa journalist over whose shoulder we get to know the poetry scene. One chap felt that Carla, Vicente’s mother, was a bit two-dimensional. No one contradicted him, but no one seemed to mind terribly. One man said he’d read the book very soon after last meeting and could barely remember it, which he took to mean it is pretty forgettable – though he did remember that it lacked any strong sense of place. Not everyone agreed – perhaps not the physical place, but we felt that there was a strong feel for the cultural milieu, and the food.
One man brought a bottle of pisco and made pisco sours (of which many are drunk in the book), plus a sour-without-pisco for the non-drinker. He also brought a selection of holiday photos from Santiago and Valparaiso, including one of Pablo Neruda’s home, now a museum.
Favourite passages about poetry were read and enjoyed all over again, including one in which a poet says he doesn’t know whether what he writes is any good, but he writes because of what it achieves for his own mind. (That definitely rang a bell for me and my own adventures in rhyme).
As usual, the conversation dissipated, though this time it stayed roughly on topic: there were anecdotes about meeting famous poets and other famous people (including two stories about David Malouf that cemented his status in my mind as a spectacularly kind person), ruminations on the comparative respect in which poets are held in Chile and Australia, an invitation for personal reflections about step-parent experiences that went unaccepted because none of us had been there, stories of young men getting excited when they realised they were talking to an older man who reads books, some excellent ribaldry. Unrelated: George Pell’s faulty theology, Lydia Thorpe’s stand in relation to the Voice, the complexity of some post-Holocaust Jewish family histories.
Towards the end of the evening, the man who had set the ball rolling with vehement negativity announced with equal vehemence that he realised he had actually enjoyed the book. We took this as vindication of the group as a way of taking the solitary act of reading into a shared experience.
After the meeting: Someone mentioned having seen a YouTube conversation with Alejandro Zambra and Megan McDowell. I dutifully watched it during my grandson’s afternoon sleep the next day. It’s full of good things about the translator–novelist relationship – if you watch it and are strapped for time, you could start at the 10 minute mark and skip all the charming introductory stuff. I particularly love their discussion (from 13’00” to 19’05”) of the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’, padrastro, including Zambra’s comment that as a poet Gonzalo is fighting with that word. Poets are always fighting with words, intensely, he says, ‘which is beautiful’.
Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.
This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. In Claire Potter’s book Acanthus there’s a short poem ‘Middlemarch in the Kitchen’. I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading in the lighted kitchen: ‘instead of the grass and the trees, the objects I turn my back on are before me in the window’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere. [Added on 16 March, just a little more than 2 months later: This morning, a passage in Chapter 61 of Middlemarch leapt out at me. The pious Mr Bulstrode’s past is catching up with him, so that ‘he felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees’.]
I have been away from home since the last week of December, and I didn’t bring my borrowed copy of Middlemarch away with me, as it would have risked damage to this beautiful object.
The parts I did read since my last progress report told mainly of the death of Peter Featherstone and the general disappointment generated by his will. In the younger generation, Lydgate has proposed to Rosamond, not without a degree of manipulation on her part; Fred has not benefited from his uncle’s death and so all hope of marriage to Mary seems lost; Dorothea is unhappily resigned to a life of misery with Mr Casaubon, but Will is back in town. Intrigue and hypocrisy continue to be the order of the day among their elders. George Eliot’s pleasure in her creations continues to shine in every sentence.
Here’s something from the last page I read before packing for Victoria. Mrs Bulstrode has raised the subject of her niece Rosamond’s betrothal to Lydgate – having a vague sense that this inappropriate match is partly due to her ostentatiously pious husband having given Lydgate a boost in the town’s social life:
‘I am sure we are bound to pray for that thoughtless girl – brought up as she has been,’ said Mrs Bulstrode, wishing to rouse her husband’s feelings. ‘Truly, my dear,’ said Mr Bulstrode, assentingly. ‘Those who are not of this world can do little else to arrest the errors of the obstinately worldly. That is what we must accustom ourselves to recognise with regard to your brother’s family. I could have wished that Mr Lydgate had not entered into such a union; but my relations with him are limited to that use of his gifts for God’s purposes which is taught us by the divine government under each dispensation.’ Mrs Bulstrode said no more, attributing some dissatisfaction which she felt to her own want of spirituality. She believed that her husband was one of those men whose memoirs should be written when they died.
‘Those who are not of this world,’ he says, meaning himself, who is of course one of the wealthiest men in town and much given to power games. And we know that ‘the use of his gifts for God’s purposes’ refers to Bulstrode’s having installed Lydgate as the only chaplain in the new hospital, thereby excluding any clergyman who might be critical of Bulstrode, The reader wants to give him a good shaking.
Maybe George Eliot’s irony is a little heavy, but I just love that ‘assentingly’: Bulstrode doesn’t have to disagree with his wife in order to reject outright her implied request for an intervention. Mrs Bulstrode’s backing off is one of GE’s myriad examples what we now call internalised sexism – but in case you’re inclined to think her belief, all evidence to the contrary, in her husband’s spiritual superiority is a mere comic invention, I remind you that just this morning former Australian Prime Minister was quoted as describing the recently deceased George Pell as ‘a saint of our time’.