My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. Continue reading
Between our train and our bus on the way to Norcia, we stopped for a coffee in Spoleto. The bartender was from Mexico and she thought we were German (I think because Americans typically only speak English), but she then asked where we were going. She was surprised when we said Norcia—since the earthquakes there have not been so many visitors. We received similar reactions from police who stopped to check our identification and from the bus driver who picked us up. As we neared the town, we could see buildings with pieces falling off and there was much less activity than I remembered from previous visits. The town itself was surrounded by scaffolding and the walls were damaged in many places, but looking through gates, one could see someone sitting at a café or a few firemen walking around another spot. After we got off, a monk in a car brought us up the hill to worksite where the Benedictines are constructing their new home: San Benedetto in monte. Continue reading
As I begin to explore different literary blogs, I have found that many of them have recently put together a “personal canon” of sorts. (Some examples: here, here, and here.) For many years, I looked to this list as something of a “canon” for myself, but I’ve found myself going back to a shorter list of books over and over. Below is a rough list of the books that come to mind as some of the most important to me. I attempted to divide them by genre at first, but I couldn’t make a clean divide between theology and philosophy, or even between theology and biography, and Rebecca West’s masterpiece does not sit easily in any genre. So I simply divided into “older” and “newer”, with a few added to the end. Continue reading
This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.
I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:
“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”
Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.
Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”
This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”
My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.
(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)
I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.
(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)
By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.
I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.
In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.
Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.
One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are others who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.
If I had to liken Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).
Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.