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Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope

 

I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.


I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.


I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.


Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.


The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

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Damsel in Distress

We hadn’t checked our tires since we moved—oh the joys of car care—and on the way back from the gym I noticed that one of them was low. I headed to the closest gas station where air has a price: $1.50 in quarters for five minutes. But that wasn’t my problem; I had quarters stored in the glove compartment. My problem was psychological: I was on my own in a still-strange town, a tire had deflated to 15 lbs., my husband was not around, and despite AAA membership, I suddenly felt vulnerable—a damsel in distress.

The myth of damsels in distress pervades classical literature, painting, sculpture, cinema and every woman’s life into the 20th century, at least. There are many examples, here is just one: A US World War I poster (Harry R. Hopps; 1917) invites prospective recruits to symbolically save a "damsel in distress" from the monstrous Germans. And the monstrous German looks like King Kong who, in turn, looks like a threatening man of color. Say no more re: embedded cultural stereotypes.

The #MeToo movement continues women’s struggle against oppression, violence, abuse, humiliation, workplace discrimination, stereotypical imagery and, yes, distress. The difference now is that women don’t require “saving”; they are saving and empowering themselves.

But we have our retro moments. I could not, absolutely could not stop releasing air from the tire with—you know—the little gage. I went inside the station, forgetting that gas stations are not service stations any more, and said, out loud, to all and sundry paying their bills for chips and candy and gas, “Is there anyone here who can help me put some air into my tires?”

And, lo! a man said, “‘Yes, beautiful lady, of course.”

I swooned.

Short, stocky, mid-50’s maybe and he had an accent. Eastern European was my guess, grew up in a communist regime, has his own business—I was writing his life story--until he bent over and I saw a statement about supporting the Second Amendment on the back of his tee shirt. I asked him about the logo on the front; the sports store he uses, he said. “You can get anything you want there.” Anything meaning guns and ammunition.

“Great,” I said.

In five minutes the tires were done, with a free diagnosis: “ Dry rot in those tires, I’d suggest a set of new ones before the winter.”

Then came a lecture about our beleagured country and the threats we are facing.

“Russian cyber attacks?” I asked.
“No, the Arabs. Why do you think this is a gas station and there are no service stations any more? Those politicians, they know nothing.”
“Oh.”
“And what about killing babies, what about that? They put the vacuum in and suck the baby out.”

I was riveted. It’s not that I haven’t heard these “ideas” before; I have, many times. But there was something about the dissonance between this man’s kindness and his rant that struck me hard. It was a reminder that none of us are all one thing. And that fear runs deep. Because even in the (relative) safety of America, and with a more kindred—albeit fascist, not communist ---politician in the White House, this man was still very afraid.

Dear reader, he was a man in distress.

So I didn’t take anything he said personally, not at all. Beautiful I may be, but I don’t think he “saw” me, or cared about my politics, or where I’m from, or what I do, or my ethnicity. I could have been anyone or I could have been someone, it made no difference. I was a blank screen upon which he projected his terror. I just didn't want to get too close to him when he was carrying a gun. He was probably packing as we stood there talking, or had a weapon concealed in his car.

“Thank you for helping me.” I continued. “You’ve been very kind. I’m heading for Mavis right now to buy a new set of tires. I really do appreciate what you have done for me today.”  Read More 
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Philip Roth & Tom Wolfe, RIP

"The sheer surprise of the Lindbergh nomination had activated an atavistic sense of being undefended. "

"A childhood milestone, when another’s tears are more unbearable than one’s own."

--Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America: A Novel,” 2004

“In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.”

--Tom Wolfe, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” 1987

This blog post is dedicated to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe who died this week, both in their 80’s. They were tireless writers, prescient writers. They wrote fiction and nonfiction, though Wolfe was primarily a journalist who wrote his novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” on a dare. All journalists eventually turn to fiction and harbor the ambition to write The Great American Novel, his friends said to him, sotto voce. Hubris ascendant, Norman Mailer had always said he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” a nonfiction book that used fictional devices to tell a story. Roth wrote a tongue in cheek, not very successful novel called "The Great American Novel," in 1973. It was about baseball.

Tom Wolfe found it difficult to relinquish interviewing and the scaffold of a real-life story, so he disciplined himself to produce a certain amount of words every week, and made an arrangement with Rolling Stone to serialize the book. That was unusual, strange and nerve-wracking. He vowed never to do it again. Think of Dickens, Trollope and other 19th century novelists writing to deadline, much like journalists, every week, book after book after book.

Roth had always written fiction, fiction that reads like nonfiction, and only occassionally wrote nonfiction. His setting was more often than not Newark, the city of his birth, and he created a persona, Nathan Zuckerman , a writer, to tell his richest stories. Yet, my favorites are non-Zuckerman novels, both masterpieces: “Nemesis” and “The Plot Against America,” which I reread this year. It was the One Book selection in several towns across America and for good reason; it is prescient indeed.

These days women are often offended by the old guard of white-American, sometimes misogynist male writers—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc. – men of the pre-women’s movement generation. And though we may wonder what women writers were doing for them, and with them, as they were getting published and becoming famous, these essential contemporary questions do not diminish the writers’ talent and accomplishments. Still, it's of interest that Roth's ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, wrote a scathing memoir about her marriage to Roth, "Leaving a Doll's House," that paints the author as a self-centered misogynist. Her book faded into obscurity as his reputation soared. And is it fair and is it right? Fair, perhaps not. Right, absolutely. Books survive on their merit.

So, too, the work of Wharton, Hemingway and many others. Anti-semitism courses through Hemingway and Wharton like a mother lode. When I was young and came upon mindlessly cruel racial slurs, in the voice of the narrator or the character, I shut the book and tossed it aside. I was more than offended, I was terrified. But no longer: the times in which those writers lived were different times. With #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, we are now in the midst of another advancement in Civil Rights. Writers will digest these changes and use them in their work. I am certain that Roth and Wolfe, both astute observers of America, would have done the same had they lived another decade.  Read More 
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