Thursday, March 31, 2011

Featured Passage, Eugenie Grandet

I have been debating between two passages out of Eugenie Grandet to feature today, and I decided that since many of my readers may not have had any Balzac in their lives to this point, I would give both passages.  Together, they reflect in miniature the book as a whole.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Among the Grandest of Them All: Reflections on Balzac's Eugenie Grandet

I have never forced myself to write a top 10 list of all-time favorite books.  But if I had one, it would look different today: something would have to give way for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Featured Passage, Far From the Madding Crowd

Thanks to all who are following this blog!  In the future, I plan to post new reflections on Tuesdays and a featured passage from that book on Thursday.  But before we get too far from Hardy, here's a passage I loved from Far From the Madding Crowd.  There is a plot spoiler, but it occurs 30 pages into the book, so I don't think you lose too much suspense by reading this.

Farmer Oak makes his living as a shepherd and has a good flock going when his inexperienced and over-zealous sheep dog drives the flock off a cliff, leaving Oak a destitute man.  Now the passage; enjoy!

"[The dog] had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o'clock that same day--another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Mantle of Hardy: Reflections on Far From the Madding Crowd

“The material world is so uninteresting, human life is so miserably bounded, circumscribed, cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.  I want another domain for the imagination to expatiate in.” –Thomas Hardy

On best-selling Allegra Goodman’s recent novel The Cookbook Collector, the following blurb appears: “If any contemporary author deserves to wear the mantle of Jane Austen, it’s Goodman.”  Though I love Austen, I find myself wishing that someday I might be blurbed as deserving to wear the mantle of Thomas Hardy.  I formed this wish after recently finishing Far From the Madding Crowd and then reading what literary critic John Paterson had to say about Hardy’s philosophy of the novel in Paterson’s book The Novel as Faith: The Gospel According to James, Hardy, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf.
I was 14 when I first read Far From the Madding Crowd, and although it would be some years before I had the critical language to articulate what I loved about Hardy, I would have told you that a Hardy novel has a completely different—and entirely pleasing—sensibility from any other novel.  You know when you are reading Hardy.

Now I can name that sensibility—it is the sensibility of substance and truth over style and subjective psychology, of poetry and philosophy over representation and science.  Of course, his novels are also composed of the elements he is famous for: bringing classical tragedy into novel form, and with it, a strong sense of fatalism; also his rendering of a rural, agrarian England on the cusp of industrial revolution.

I am a product of George Mason University’s MFA program—a program which I loved and which exceeded my very high expectations.  But I felt a strong emphasis on psychological representation in the vein of Faulkner and Joyce and on ridding the text of exposition, favoring scene (more on this later).  Contemporary literati tend to distrust any author with abstractionist tendencies; in other words, an author had better not have a prevailing philosophy, and if he/she does, she must be very careful not to let it interfere or impose itself in any way on her characters. 

No wonder Hardy is so refreshing.  Though his characters have enough integrity to stand on their own and hold interest, the examination of a particular character’s thoughts is never allowed to overwhelm the forward, fated movement of the plot.  Leading lady Bathsheba Everdene—a character who certainly holds individual interest in her unconventional and courageous ownership of her own farm—becomes entangled in Hardy’s ingenious imbroglio of three suitors, each of which, though somewhat a type, has, too, his individual qualities.  We understand the characters’ motivations, and yet individual motivation is not the emphasis as it has been in so much literature since Hardy.  Instead, Hardy’s philosophy of a beautiful and natural universe fixed beyond the whims of individual agency prevails. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour

John Milton set out to write an epic. And, based on the unapologetic way he went about pursuing his goal, he probably suspected that he was going to write the epic to end all epics, which he did with “Paradise Lost.”

Wait!, the literarily inclined of you readers are yelling, Milton isn’t Elizabethan; he was born five years after Queen E died! True. But as far as this blog is concerned, Elizabethan refers only to me, Elizabeth Eshelman, and my opinions, not the fecund time of Shakespeare and Jonson.

So here was Milton, a young man determined to write a great epic. How should he begin? By devoting six years to intensive reading, of course. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (if you don’t own it, start your Christmas list), his reading included “ancient and modern theology, philosophy, history, science, politics, and literature.”

So, what do I—and more specifically, this blog—have to do with ambitious Milton? Well, I’m not setting out to write an epic, but I am setting out to be a novelist. My first novel manuscript is currently out with agents (cross your fingers!), and I’m ready to start in on novel #2. I have the premise; I have the characters; I have a structure in mind. But in these early stages, I found myself thinking of Milton’s reading program, and thinking, too, that I have enough faith in my intellect to assume if I put good things in, good things will come out.

To that end, I decided on five books I had to read before beginning my novel. Already the schedule has changed: I was recently seized with the need for a Hardy fix and picked up Far from the Madding Crowd (not one of the five planned); I polished off Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and knew I had to read Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet ASAP; and to top it all off, I couldn’t keep myself from writing the first pages of novel #2.

Still, I’m off and running, and I hope you’ll join me as I post reflections on the books I have selected specifically as fuel for novel 2. At the least, you may find a title or two you want to try; better yet, you’ll get a glimpse of how to “read like a writer,” which seems to be a popular thing these days. Just ask Francine Prose.

And one last, very important note about Milton. Milton could undertake his six year reading plan because his father supported him financially. Similarly, I could not be doing this without the munificence of my husband, Nat, who buys with his 9-6 desk job my intellectual freedom.