Monday, December 28, 2009

Various miscellany

Some further ruminations on books I posted about earlier...

Titus Groan: The opening of the novel is almost cinematic. Peake starts with the people outside Gormenghast Castle, the bright carvers. He moves to their carvings, which are stored inside the castle, and watched over by RottCodd. Flay comes in tell Rottcodd that a son has been born, and we then follow him through the kitchens up to Lord Sepulchrave. It's like a long tracking shot taking us through most of the personages who will be important in the novel to come, but completely unintrusive. It also tells us right away that Gormenghast is a place with many unvarying traditions, and introduces us to the rivalry of Swelter and Flay which will become critical as the novel proceeds.

Idylls of the King: This poem has an awful view of women! I try not to let politics of another time get in the way of my enjoyment of most books, but Idylls makes it very hard. Most of the women are horrible. Aside from characters like Vivien, who is always evil, I found the portrayal of Guinevere to be one of the most negative I've ever run across. The only female character who is presented in a positive light that I can remember off-hand is Enid, who smiles through what's essentially an abusive relationship. I've read that Tennyson's portrayals of women were very influential to the Victorians. I suppose we can't blame him for that, but it does explain why the Victorian attitude toward women was so negative.

The French Lieutenant's Woman: I see that I was incredibly terse about this novel in my first post, thinking I'd get back to it. And that's a pity, because in retrospect it was one of the more interesting novels I read this year. Fowles gives us a few conundrums in the novel, but I think the central one is what to make of the titular character. Fowles tells us she is his "protagonist," and yet she's never a point-of-view character, and isn't even present in most scenes. I think most people would call Charles the protagonist, so what is Fowles getting at?

This is a novel about people trapped in their time period. Fowles gives us many details about Victorian times not merely to set the scene, but to show us how all the characters are trapped by their current mores. Sarah is the one exception -- she chooses her place in society, even if it's a negative one. She lies about the lieutenant, even though it places her in a worse position; we may not understand why she does it, but it's a clear choice.

I think this ties in to the odd double/triple-ending. In one sense, the first ending is a red herring. Charles can never choose to return to his former life; it would be a complete betrayal of his character. However, the other two endings are both possible to Charles, and depend somewhat on how we (and Charles) see Sarah. In a sense, Charles has a chance for the first time to make a real choice; Sarah gives him that option.

Another game that Fowles plays with the two endings is by claiming that they're equivalent -- one is as likely as the other. However, he knows that we readers have to read the first ending first; this isn't a hyper-text novel where we can click a link and choose the order of the endings at random. So, does he intend one ending to be more important than the other? If so, is it the first, which is more emotionally satisfying, or the second, which seems somehow truer?

On another note, Fowles uses evolution as a metaphor for the Victorian age. (As does Byatt in Angels and Insects: it would probably be instructive to compare how they do so, but space doesn't permit here). Society as a whole is evolving in unforeseen ways (Marxism being just over the horizon is another major theme in the novel), and most of the characters have to change or die, so to speak. The aristocracy is fading into irrelevancy, and the self-made man is gaining in respectability, as Charles is dimly beginning to see.

I'd probably need to give the novel another go-through to address most of these issues...

No comments: