Sunday, June 14, 2009

`Remember to Do It Brilliantly'

This happened in 1979 or 1980. I had a doctor’s appointment in Defiance, Ohio, a city I hardly knew, and allowed too much time for getting there and finding the office, so I walked around downtown and discovered a narrow, chaotic book store on one of the side streets. I don’t remember its name or much else about it except the book I bought: a used Signet paperback of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with an introduction by Irving Howe.

The attraction was immediate and twofold – Howe, whose book on Sherwood Anderson I still prize, and who first steered me to György Konrád’s The Case Worker; and the book itself, the only Eliot novel I hadn’t read. I started reading as I walked to the doctor’s, and continued in the waiting room and I finished the ample text in a day or two. I couldn’t do that today. Nothing matches our youthful ardor when a great book seduces us unsuspectingly. We turn these long-ago loves into myth, which recalls a sentence from Eliot’s novel that has migrated across many commonplace books since I first transcribed it 30 years ago:

"Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: -- in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.”

My resolution to reread Daniel Deronda -- of necessity more lingeringly and with a less impulsive sensibility – is motivated by the recent publication of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. Himmelfarb has salvaged the Victorians for our generation in such books as Victorian Minds (1968) and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991). She’s a rare historian who can write. In a review of her new book, Joseph Epstein reminds us that “the cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world.”

As I noted in a recent post about George Santayana, Epstein seems to be maturing as a writer, growing more thoughtful without resort to humorlessness. For instance, he addresses Eliot’s penchant for “commenting, as if from the sidelines, on the action going on in the novel” – a technique much disliked by certain readers:

“Ruminations of this sort -- on temperament, on the nature of thinking, on second-sight, on gambling, on a vast deal more -- weave in and out of the narrative proper. One of the modern fiction workshop laws is that a writer should always show and never tell; George Eliot did both, and with sufficient success to wipe the law off the books. Tell all you want, the new law should read, so long as you remember to do it brilliantly.”

1 comment:

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"Nothing matches our youthful ardor when a great book seduces us unsuspectingly."

Sometimes I feel as if books find me - and how fortuitous these unplanned readings often are! More seems to come of the books I'd never planned to read, of the books that seem to, of their own volition, plan to be read.