Novel Readings 2010

My turn! Here’s my traditional look back at the highs and lows of my reading and blogging year.

Book of the Year:

Hands down, and entirely to my delighted surprise, since I had no particular expectations going into it, my favourite book of the year was Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I raved about this book in my original post, and I’d like to emphatically repeat what I said there:

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.

I don’t usually do this, but I feel strongly enough to provide a link straight to Amazon so you don’t waste any time getting your own copy. Mine was a gift, and for that, many, many thanks to the amazing Steve Donoghue of stevereads, book-giver extraordinaire.

More books I’m particularly glad I read:

After featuring it three times running on my ‘most looking forward to’ list and making at least one false start, I did finally read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (it took two posts to cover it, here and here). I enjoyed it thoroughly, proving my long-held theory that sometimes books simply have to ripen a while on the shelf before the reading experience can be perfectly tasty. “Would I read A Suitable Girl?” I asked, rhetorically, I thought; “You bet I would.” Imagine my pleasure in learning that just such a book is forthcoming!

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’sLeaving Brooklyn proved every bit as rich and satisfying a read as my long-time favourite Disturbances in the Field, though in quite a different style and register. It’s a coming-of-age story, “an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that [I concluded my original review] I think deserves to be called ‘important.'” It would have been my ‘book of the year’ if it hadn’t been edged out by Dear Genius–but that’s OK, because Dear Genius is a book that advocates for all other books!

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety took longer to grip me than Wolf Hall, but once I was well into it, it really wouldn’t let me go, even though there was absolutely nobody in it to like or even (except sort of theoretically) to root for. A bit like A. S. Byatt, Mantel is resolutely severe, not only towards her characters, but also towards her readers, giving them little comfort or even encouragement as they press on:

if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed.

Even at the end–the guillotine for pretty much everyone, as we know it will inevitably be–she avoids what I called “tumbril sentimentality” of the Tale of Two Cities variety (I can’t imagine Oprah ever assigning this novel to her followers). Impressed as I was by Wolf Hall, I read several other novels from Mantel’s back catalogue this year and was repeatedly startled by her range of styles and interests (not one, not even A Place of Greater Safety, really fits the marketing tag ‘by the author of Wolf Hall‘ as they are all simply too dissimilar). The other that resonated most deeply with me was The Giant, O’Brien. Fludd was under the tree for me this year, so there will be at least one more Mantel novel in 2011.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. I found this “a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental” (hmm, I’m noticing a trend away from sentimentality this year–even A Suitable Boy, though full of sentiment, does not ultimately cater to our more wistful or wishful emotions).  I’m glad finally to have begun my relationship with Fitzgerald; I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Flower for years and I look forward to doing so in 2011.

Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of My Own. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Hardwick. Well, OK, not exactly, but I envy her the force and confidence of her critical voice. Even when I disagree with her, I really want to talk to her about what she says. I was particularly interested in her essay “George Eliot’s Husband,” which sets a high standard for biographical thinking not met at all by a particular more recent attempt to write about my favourite novelist–Hardwick says more worthwhile things in a few pages than that author comes up with in a couple hundred.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Another tough-minded, unsentimental novel, as expansive in its own way as A Suitable Boy or A Place of Greater Safety. I called it “history as information management,” and I meant that as a tribute of a sort. Byatt is an accomplished novelist; while Seth’s abundance (though I loved it) occasionally seemed cluttered, Byatt’s somehow has a tautness to it. If Mantel writes historical fiction that defies conventional expectations of the genre, Byatt does the same with the ‘sweeping family saga.’

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I called this “a quietly harrowing account of hopes turned back and diminished,” and concluded that “hope is a dangerous pursuit, not just because of the risks of the pursuit itself, but because sometimes the chance you take brings you only further away from what you really wanted.”

Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved. This book, a classic of Canadian modernism, took me out of my comfort zone as a reader; talking about it with the new book group I belong to took me out of my comfort zone in other ways–but salutary ones! I ended up finding some kinship between Father Dowling and a couple of Victorian protagonists who founder, similarly, on the mismatch between their most strongly felt principles and the pragmatic realities of their world. But Callaghan’s setting, contexts, and language are not Victorian at all.

May Sarton, The Small Room. In the end I didn’t love this novel, but it interested me enormously, as did the conversation it generated on (and around) the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Its central themes certainly struck a chord with my ongoing anxieties about my professional work and the public discourse around higher education:

So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek. Dare I say that they don’t write pulp fiction like they used to? Purple prose, absolutely, but as I said in my original post, it’s ‘royal purple, richest velvet.’ I haven’t worked my way through the rest of the du Maurier collection on my shelf, but what’s a sabbatical for, if not to catch up on books you otherwise have no excuse at all for reading?

Books that disappointed, for one reason or another:

Happily, once again there weren’t very many of these. Leading the pack is certainly Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, which I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly. Here’s the money quote:

I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

I was pleased (though hardly surprised!) that George Eliot in Love also won a spot in the ‘Worst Nonfiction, 2010‘ smackdown at stevereads: “Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.” Ha! Between us we perhaps give the lie to the old saw about the only thing worse than not being talked about.

I was underwhelmed by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us.

For quite different reasons, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was also distinctly unremarkable: “The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry”–the salient example of the latter being, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H.

I think my expectations were just too high for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed reading some parts of it, but I don’t ordinarily seek out work in some of the genres he plays with (notably, science ficton) and I was frustrated by the way so many different kinds of storytelling were shoehorned into one book–even though Mitchell is dazzlingly smart (too conspicuously so, I sometimes thought) about the unifying threads. My conclusion after reading it was “after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them.”

The best of the not-entirely-satisfying collection is Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’d rather read an imperfect novel by Ian McEwan than any novel by probably the majority of other contemporary writers. I actually couldn’t quite decide which category to put Solar in, it’s so nearly excellent–but in the end, I decided McEwan set too high a standard for himself with Atonement and (for me, at least) Saturday, so for failing to live up to it, here he is down here.  A bit of my original post:

Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2011:

There are too many to enumerate, really, including all the treasures delivered for Christmas from my lovely family, but here are a few titles, if only to motivate me as the new year gets underway.

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. This is the new Suitable Boy: it will be on this TBR list until I get it read! Surely being on sabbatical, if only for half  the year, will remove most of the standard excuses.
  2. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Yes, the new Lydia Davis translation. I’ve begun this, but it got pushed aside during the Great Cough and Cold of late 2010.
  3. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve been curious about this since reading about it in Hardwick’s A View of My Own.
  4. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This one is another object lesson in why you should never “purge” your book collection, no matter how often you move or how many times someone close to you mutters baleful warnings about running out of space. I owned this trilogy as a girl, never got around to reading it, purged it, and now–older and wiser–rejoice to have found a nice Penguin edition in a local bookstore.
  5. A delicious stack of old Virago Modern Classics, including novels by Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Rebecca West, and many others.
  6. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I’ve owned this for a couple of years without reading it–I think its time has come.
  7. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. The discussion at Conversational Reading piqued my interest about this novel, which I’ve owned for many years without reading (note again the value of the ‘ripening on the shelf’ theory to justify these habits!).
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. This is the next book up for the book group that read Such is My Beloved. I read it many years ago but Greene is an author I haven’t done anything with since turning ‘pro,’ and I’m finally, belatedly, interested.
  9. Colm Toibin, The Master and Brooklyn.
  10. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. I’ve made some progress on this one, helped by an excursion into Woolf’s letters and diaries. I’d like to finish it in 2011!

I observe that not one of these is a work of literary history or criticism! There’s some chance that being on sabbatical will also give me a chance to recover some energy for that kind of reading! Certainly I will be doing some of it, as I am working (still!) on at least one academic paper which I hope to get into publishable form by the end of my leave.

Other Novel Readings highlights:

In 2008 I noted the invitation to contribute to The Valve as an important development in my blogging life. 2010 saw my farewell to The Valve, following on a resolution to “Get On With It!“–whatever, exactly, “it” is. The biggest development in 2010, congruent with this shift in emphasis, was the invitation from the fine folks at Open Letters Monthly, first to move Novel Readings to its new home, and then to join their editorial team. Both steps have been good ones for me, helping to sustain my blogging energy, bringing me into contact with all kinds of interesting writers and readers, even providing an excellent excuse for a trip to New York. Under the influence of these developments I increased my contributions to Open Letters, taking advantage of the flexibility and outstanding editorial input the magazine offers to write some more pieces on Victorian literature (Felix Holt and Vanity Fair), a couple of reviews (in addition to George Eliot in Love, I reviewed Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame) and an essay on Gone with the Wind that took me a little outside my usual 19th-century ‘beat’ but reflected  my ongoing interest in ethical criticism–and my desire to write in a more personal voice. The Gone with the Wind essay earned me a link from Arts & Letters Daily, which helped me believe that I do have something interesting and even valuable to say as a critic–something that I have rarely felt in my almost 20 years as a practising academic critic. Looking ahead to 2011, I hope I can continue to build my confidence as a writer and critic, keep discovering what I have to say and saying it as well as I possibly can, in my own voice.

To everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings, and to all of you who keep up your own wonderfully thoughtful, diverse, and stimulating book blogs, thank you, and Happy New Year.

Open Letters in October

The new issue of Open Letters Monthly is up and it is full of exciting stuff. First of all, October is the month for the annual Bestseller feature; this month the team takes on the NYT nonfiction bestsellers, and the results are not always pretty. Tuc MacFarland, for instance, is understandably discouraged by the #1 title, Sh*t My Dad Says, which he fears “could give hope to an entire San Fernando Valley of couch-dwelling stoners.” Greg Waldmann is similarly appalled at #2, The Obama Diaries, “a stupendously moronic and transparently racist satire,” and Rita Consalvos thinks # 5, Kendra Wilkinson’s Sliding Into Home, “may be the closest we ever get to a book written by an actual bunny, a petty, petted, fluffy, brainless, ruthlessly self-absorbed gnawing creature accustomed to being kept on display [and] used for pleasure.” There are bright spots, however, including #10, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which Maureen Thorson concludes “makes a poisonous tree a little less poisonous,” and #8, S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, described by Steve Donoghue as “both a superb work of history and a fast-paced, gripping narrative on par with the some of the smartest historical fiction on the market.”

The rest of the issue ranges as broadly as usual. Joanna Scutts writes about “The Daringly Sensible Marjorie Hillis,” author of such useful titles as Live Alone and Like It. Sarah Emsley reviews the new Annotated Pride and Prejudice, “a beautifully produced and informative guide to reading Austen’s brilliant and beloved novel in its historical context.” Anne Fernald reviews Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: A Castle’s Unfinished History, a “story of land not merely owned but loved and understood.” Bartolomeo Piccolomini reports on a new biography of Machiavelli, and David Michael examines a history of English anti-Semitism. Ingrid Norton continues the series ‘A Year with Short Novels’ with Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, while Irma Heldman adds to her ‘It’s a Mystery’ series with a look at S. J. Rozan’s On the Line. Elisa Gabbert appeals to our senses and our memories this time in her monthly perfume column, while Abigail Deutsch engages with Anne Carson’s form-defying Nox. I have an essay there as well, a reconsideration of one of my long-time favorites, Gone with the Wind. This is my first attempt to do book writing that’s also personal writing–my first attempt outside this blog, that is–so I’m a little apprehensive but also excited about it. And that’s not all that’s in the issue, so head on over and check it out for yourself.

Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

Somehow that post title ends up sounding like a law firm! Its somewhat miscellaneous character matches my recent reading experiences well, though.

Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights is the first book on my blogging catch-up list. I picked it up on a recent trip to Doull’s because I’ve been spending a fair amount of reading time in Iran lately and also remembered having read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Persian Nights in her collection Mezzaterra, so it just seemed like a good book for me to try. Soueif seems to have liked it better than I did: she found it ” a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility.” I’m quite prepared to believe that she is a better reader of this book than I was, but I was disappointed precisly by the lack of seriousness and by the sideways, slightly satirical way it touched on issues of moral responsibility. The book clings closely to the point of view of Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who ends up spending alone what was meant to be ‘together’ time for them in Iran. I felt that her limitations became the novel’s limitations, that the opportunity for a complex narrative about cultural misunderstandings and crosspurposes was handled instead as a rather sour comedy of manners. I agree with Soueif that Persian Nights “is a story about the limits of change — and, finally, its impossibility,” but I would press a little on that, or add in that it is about the limits of change that are possible for someone like Chloe.

The first ‘Mitchell’ on the list is for David Mitchell: I’m reading Cloud Atlas. Notice that I say “reading”: it’s a work in progress. I was doing really well until “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” I’m not a science fiction reader, largely because I find the elaborate artifice of ‘world-making’ tedious, and while I accept intellectually that the genre at its best works as an indirect way of exploring themes or problems in our actual world (though of course I’m sure it doesn’t always, or have to, do this)–still, there’s a machinery to it that I don’t read well. Still, I persevered with Sommi 451 and eventually became adept enough at the futuristic dialect to feel a pulse of readerly excitement as it came to its (interim) conclusion. But then Mitchell hit me with “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and ground to a halt. Egad. It’s like reading “Caliban Upon Setebos” but for 100 pages. Still, the novel as a whole is clearly genius, and I know my expectations and reading habits are just being tested. I’m going to return to it and just read, even skim, if I have to, until I feel that pulse again, because I’m quite keen to return to all the other narratives, each of which caused a terrible hiccup of interrupted attention as I began it the first time–like grinding gears!–but each of which also had drawn me right in within a few pages. I enjoyed seeing the threads of connection gently laid down for us, too, and I’m pretty confident that the experience of following them back out of the labyrinth of stories will be quite thrilling. I just have to get past “Sloosha.”

‘Sage’ here is for Lorna Sage, whose memoir Bad Blood I’m also stalled in the middle of. I’m not sure why, except that the atmosphere of the book was depressing and I have been discovering, also, a strain of resistance in myself to memoirs as a genre.

And the second ‘Mitchell’ here is for Margaret Mitchell: I’ve just finished reading Gone with the Wind for (and I’m not making this up) the 32nd time. I know this exact number because GWTW was a favourite of mine in my misspent youth and I used to note each rereading on the inside cover (the copy I now have takes me from 23 to 32). I have many thoughts about how this book looks to me today–but I’m saving those for what I hope will become an essay for Open Letters on just that experience of rereading something in a different way, from a different time–almost, as a different person. I’m thinking of drawing (not too heavily, I hope) on Wayne Booth’s discussions of books as friends in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. In this case, not to spoil the ending of my future essay or anything, I have to say that this friendship right now is under a lot of strain, but I think, despite myself,  its longevity may sustain it. Don’t we all, after all, have a friend (or a relative) we still love, warts and all, in spite of everything that’s wrong with them? We’ll see.

In the meantime, because clearly I don’t have enough unfinished projects on the go, I’m about to start work on this nice bookish sampler from Little House Needleworks. I’m going to try and sneak “George Eliot” in instead of “Wilder”–not that I didn’t read and love all the Little House books as a girl, but really, if it’s going to hang in my office when it’s finished, she just has to be there. There’s some nice lurking irony in this project, given how many of these writers felt about needlework! Canadian readers with a crafty tendency may want to know that I ordered my copy of the pattern from the Button & Needlework Boutique in Victoria. You Yankees are on your own.

Rehabilitating Rhett Butler?

The New York Times Sunday Book Review includes this review by Stephen L. Carter of Rhett Butler’s People, a recent novel by Donald McCaig. I’m not sure the review inspires me to read McCaig’s novel, but it does increase my desire to re-read Gone with the Wind, a book I read more than two dozen times in my youth but have not returned to since I turned professional. Even in my earliest readings, I think I knew enough, as an avid reader and history buff (and daughter of a civil rights activist) to recognize that idealizing the Old South was unacceptable, but my recollection is that I always felt it was the movie that played the nostalgia card, not the book. The opening text of the movie, for instance, none of which (except the phrase ‘gone with the wind’ itself, of course) is taken from the novel, reads,

There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South…Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

I copied out that text from the movie once so that I could use it when I teach Scott’s Waverley; part of what I argue (drawing, of course, on a number of critics including the wise man who taught me to appreciate Scott, Harry E. Shaw) is that Scott avoids such idealization of the past, attaching that kind of naivete to Waverley himself before “the romance of his life has ended and its real history [has] begun.” My memory of the novel has always been that it is not sentimental in this way, and that while it is about people fighting for “the Cause,” it does not, itself, embrace that Cause as obviously worth their blood and tears. For one thing, the most loyal characters (Melanie, for instance) are the weakest and least able to survive; the momentum towards the future is powerful, with Scarlett’s selfish pragmatism outpacing any other ideological commitments (though she operates unthinkingly with the racist assumptions of her upbringing, slavery is primarily a means to an end for her, readily replaced with white convict labour as times change–her readiness to use people of all kinds to achieve her goals is her moral trademark, as is true of her closest Victorian counterpart, Becky Sharp). But here is Carter’s summary of the novel’s attitude:

“Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936, and despite heroic efforts over the last seven decades to transform it into something else, the novel stands as an apologia for the Old South — the South of gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic power of the Freedmen’s Bureau. That Mitchell was able to defend this vision in a novel of such power, beauty and depth is a tribute to her literary genius. But the vision is no less terrifying for having been brilliantly presented.

These generalizations seem (again, in my recollection of the novel) open to a number of counter-examples (there actually aren’t many “gallant plantation owners,” for instance, except the Wilkeses, with the other county families of varying degrees of wealth and pretty mixed manners [and the whole community carefully historicized], and Mitchell apparently found quite comic the way Tara was transformed from her idea of a prosperous farmer’s home into a pillared mansion–and while I remember black characters who conform to the negative stereotype Carter invokes, I also remember characters like Dilcey, and I wonder if Mammy’s role is so simply degraded and degrading).

I think part of what we might return to is a question I raised earlier in thinking about the film Far from Heaven, which was also, as I look back, a point at which I thought about Gone with the Wind as it might look to me today. The main character in “Far from Heaven” suffers socially for her liberal views on both race and, as it turns out, homosexuality, which are shown as highly atypical in her community and social circle;

I found myself wondering if it would be impossible to do a sympathetic story in which a character who is not tolerant of such divergence from the norms was the protagonist: Kathleen’s best friend, for instance, who feels sorry for her having a gay husband (but has no liberal views on homosexuality), and whose sympathy seems to dry up when Kathleen admits her feelings for a black man. Of course we do not accept or want to sympathize with those attitudes, but does her (historically typical) mindset put her outside the pale? Is this why Gone with the Wind is not an entirely respectable novel today–because, among other things, its main characters are almost all quite satisfied with racial discrimination and slavery? But isn’t that realistic, in terms of majority opinion in the antebellum south? Can you depict that society as it was historically, depict its Weltanschauung without a layer of overt critique, and not appear to be (or really be) endorsing past values which we have learned to reject as immoral?

(It occurs to me that the best example I know of a novel that knowingly makes us intimate with a wrong-headed protagonist is Ishiguro’s brilliant The Remains of the Day, though even there, it’s not Lord Darlington we are brought to sympathize with.) At any rate, Carter’s view that “the filmmakers were in fact trying to sanitize Mitchell’s novel” does not seem obviously true to me in terms of its overall attitude–though he is right to point to the indirection introduced about “the Klan” as an example of easing our relationship to one of the novel’s most dramatic but also problematic incidents. It’s interesting that Carter acknowledges “power, beauty, and depth” in the novel while also rejecting it ethically and politically; this seems like a good case for the kind of analysis Wayne Booth experiments with in The Company We Keep, in terms of how far we can separate ethical and aesthetic judgments.

A further question Carter’s review raised for me–or, really, the whole project of the novel he’s reviewing raised–is what does it mean to “rehabilitate” someone who never actually existed?

The Klan question, the woman he dishonored, the rumors of a bastard in New Orleans, the money supposedly pilfered from the Confederate treasury — all of this McCaig explains away while keeping the story moving at a nice clip, faster even than the original….

McCaig pierces the mystery in which Mitchell shrouded Rhett Butler. He gives Rhett a life. We begin to understand where he came from, and why he was the way he was and did the things he did. McCaig discards Ripley’s cumbersome tale and invents fresh lives even for the characters necessarily common to both sequels. The new story has its own integrity. It makes sense.

It’s not as if what he has provided is the real backstory of the character (any more than Jean Rhys provided the true story of Mr Rochester’s first marriage when she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea–an oddly common perception among students, which suggests that they are getting it from their teachers…). To what extent does, or should, this new story infiltrate our interpretation of the original? Carter concludes his review by suggesting that “after finishing Rhett Butler’s People, it may be impossible to read Gone With the Wind in quite the same way.” I can’t test that theory unless I read McCaig’s novel, but once the pressure of the term lets up, maybe I can at least read Gone with the Wind again for myself.

Historical Fiction (Again)

I’m still thinking about what makes some historical novels so much more convincing than others, and about my annoyance that the protagonist of The Linnet Bird was so predictably progressive in her attitudes. The problem can’t be as simple-minded as not finding it believable that a 19th-century woman would be anti-imperialist; of course, on such issues there were contrary opinions in the 19th century, just as there were men and women who advocated women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. These were attitudes that went against mainstream assumptions in many ways, and that is part of what gives them drama as fictional positions, as the characters who fight for such enlightened views get to be rebels for our causes: they are fighting for what we widely accept as right. But does this mean that it is impossible for historical fiction to appeal to modern audiences if its protagonists accept the mainstream attitudes of their time? This week I watched an interesting period drama called Far From Heaven, in which the main character is a “perfect” 1950s wife and mother with liberal views on race who gets into a sympathetic relationship and then a romance with her black gardener. It becomes clear to them that what they want is so far out of step with the norms of their community that they cannot persist: his daughter’s safety is threatened, for instance, and both of their sets of friends condemn their attempt to cross the racial line. At the same time, the film explores the struggles of her “perfect” businessman husband with his homosexuality. The film makes very clear that both his love and hers are forms of impossible desire because of the historical moment in which they arise. I thought all of this was movingly presented; the highly stylized character of the film prevented it from being maudlin or cliched, as did the absence of heroism or simplistic happy endings. In the context of the thinking I’ve been doing about historical fiction, though, I found myself wondering if it would be impossible to do a sympathetic story in which a character who is not tolerant of such divergence from the norms was the protagonist: Kathleen’s best friend, for instance, who feels sorry for her having a gay husband (but has no liberal views on homosexuality), and whose sympathy seems to dry up when Kathleen admits her feelings for a black man. Of course we do not accept or want to sympathize with those attitudes, but does her (historically typical) mindset put her outside the pale? Is this why Gone with the Wind is not an entirely respectable novel today–because, among other things, its main characters are almost all quite satisfied with racial discrimination and slavery? But isn’t that realistic, in terms of majority opinion in the antebellum south? Can you depict that society as it was historically, depict its Weltanschauung without a layer of overt critique, and not appear to be (or really be) endorsing past values which we have learned to reject as immoral? Perhaps it’s time I put aside the Lymond Chronicles for a while and took another look at GWTW.