Monday, October 11, 2010

Classics, Genre Books, & Anthony Trollope

My light reading in September began to leave a saccharine taste in my mouth. Because I was working so hard and my brain was apparently dead, I read a lot of contemporary fiction.  My classics fell by the wayside. I felt slightly dissatisfied, but fell asleep every time I opened Dead Souls. I seemed to have no choice but to read Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich (a fun novel, by the way). Finally I decided to compromise with Golden Age Detective Novels.  Yes, they're classics, but they're also plot-driven and can be read just as easily as the latest best-seller by Stieg Larsson.

As usual I am awed by the brilliance of Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey series.  I could happily read one after another.  I am not surprised that people tend to go crazy on the Peter Wimsey listservs, calling themselves after Sayers' characters, Harriet Vane, Miss Murchison, Campbell, and others.  I loved The Five Red Herrings, the mystery of the murder of an obnoxious artist, Campbell, who alienates everybody in a village in Scotland and has several fights on the night of the murder.  This  entertaining novel is interwoven with train time tables, a forged painting in the style of the murder victim,  questionable alibis of six artists, and Peter Wimsey's humor and detection.  One should keep notes on the clues, but somehow the book is too fast-paced and enjoyable to bother.  After rereading the novel, I watched the PBS adaptation. Well, yes, of course I'm in love with Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey.  And this film is really so well-done:  every time I saw the red-bearded Carmichael I had to laugh, because he was simply so over the top.  I have heard there are some recent PBS films of Sayers' Harriet Vane novels and will have to check them out.  

Alice Vavasour in The Pallisers
I've also started rereading Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?  The experience is spellbinding--I can read this for hours--and I am completely sympathetic toward Alice Vavasour, though she is a sometimes unlikable heroine.  She cannot make up her mind whom to marry.  She's brilliant and rich, she needn't marry, and her history is complicated.  She broke off an engagement with her unfaithful cousin, George, and then became engaged to John Grey, a calm, reliable man.  Although she loves John Grey, she isn't sure she wants to retire with him to the country.  She breaks the engagement, influenced by her cousin, Kate, who urges her to marry George.  George, a cynic and a libertine, now wants to marry Alice for her money because he is running for Parliament.  

The musings about marriage seem very real to me.  Perhaps we approach it from a different angle now--should we marry the men we sleep with?--but nonetheless marriage is a serious question and many hesitate before taking the step.  Some prefer not to marry.  The commitment is too final.  This is partly the case with Alice. Alice wants to live in London and be the mistress of her own life.   She tries to convince herself that love does not matter.  She does not have the choice of sleeping with John Grey or George Vavasour before she marries, but we can see at one point that she is repulsed by George, whereas she is attracted to John when he holds her hand.  So how on earth can she consider marrying George?

Alice is not the only person confused about marriage.  A widowed aunt is pressuring Kate to marry a comical farmer who visits them every market day.  These scenes are especially droll because the farmer is courting the widow, not Kate, and the widow is attracted to a penniless man whom she sees on the sly.  Lady Glencora Palliser, an heiress, is heartbroken, married to a man she doesn't love, because she was bullied by her family to give up Burgo, the ne'er-do-well whom she adored. Alice, who believes that, once married, one puts other loves behind,  is scandalized by Glencora's confidences about her feelings for Burgo.  Glencora, one of my favorite characters in literature, is less lady-like than Alice. And she is honest about what she thinks and feels.

Can You Forgive Her? seems very modern.  The novel is realistic and absorbing, the style plain yet compelling and often humorous, and only occasional authorial intrusions remind us that the novel is 150ish years old.  What contemporary writer is a Trollope?  Perhaps Richard Russo.  He popped into my mind because his characters are so engaging, his prose so leisurely and yet precise, and a few of his novels are set in the fictitious Mohawk, New York, and similar depressed working-class towns.  A different class of characters, but just as intriguing.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the posting on Trollope. He is very modern. I don't think anyone is writing quite in his full vein -- for he includes the political world too, broad topics of social concern as well as the private subjective and anguished. A continuum of male types too.

I liked the still from the Wimsey movie. I too liked Five Red Herrings for the Scottish atmosphere.


Frisbee said...

There's no one like Trollope. Isn't it strange, when you think about it, he wrote such great books without leaving a great influence? So many writers play with themes from Dickens, Lawrence, and others.