Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope
Trollope understood his audience. They were the educated upper class of Victorian society, and they had no interest in the brutish lives of those in the lower classes. They wanted to read about lords and ladies, vicars and bishops. They wanted romantic entanglements, money matters and political maneuvering; they wanted virtue and villainy. And since reading was their main form of entertainment (imagine that!) they wanted a story that would go on at length. A bit about the genesis of Framley Parsonage shows how well Trollope gave them all they desired. Thackeray asked him to contribute to Cornhill Magazine, which he was editing. Trollope produced monthly installments of three chapters (the complete book consists of forty-eight). During this run the circulation of the magazine stayed around the 120,000 mark; after the last chapter was completed the sales dropped off sharply. Trollope was highly readable then, and he still is. His enduring strength is his insight into human nature (which hasn’t changed over time). He avoided one-dimensional characters or treacly sentimentalizing. And despite his benevolent attitude, he was a cynic; thus we get observations like this: “If I want to get anything from my old friend Jones, I like to see him shoved up into a high place. But if Jones, even in his high place, can do nothing for me, then his exaltation above my head is an insult and an injury.” And, for a novel populated largely by clerics, Trollope chooses to exclude God; what his religious hierarchy care about are money, position and prestige. If a barb can be gently applied, Trollope was a master at it. He did believe in some things, one being that man and woman weren’t meant to live alone. Marriage was a wonderful institution – if the couple are united by love and respect. Fanny is generous and forgiving toward her errant husband; without her, he would have crumbled. Though I enjoyed my five hundred page stay in Barsetshire, I was more interested in some characters than others. Nathaniel Sowerby has lived for over fifty years indulging in every luxury without doing a lick of work. He’s a manipulator, a man who uses others for financial gain. But he operates so smoothly, with such charm, that he resists being dismissed as a mere scoundrel. I also had strong feelings for Lucy Robarts, a girl that the imperious Lady Lufton condemns as too “insignificant” to be a proper match for her son. But Lucy is very significant – not in beauty or how she carries herself, but in how she thinks and in her actions. Lucy does marry Lord Lufton, with his mother’s blessing. And they lived happily ever after? Trollope seems to imply that things may not be all that rosy.

Chalky – Matthew Vaughan
This resolutely idiosyncratic novel was written by a twentieth century author, but the setting is the Victorian England that Victorian English writers don’t concern themselves with. The opening sentence: “Chalky sat in the corner of the room and chewed his piece of rag while the snake-swallower vomited into a battered bucket over by the bed.” Three-year-old Chalky is abandoned by his prostitute mother and is taken to a Church orphanage whose manager is a sadist and a pederast. When Chalky emerges as a distinct personality he’s a thirteen-year-old who is physically strong, intelligent, and determined; his first act is to bring about the downfall of the manager. The reverend who had taken Chalky to the orphanage sees potential in the boy, and he educates him (how to speak correctly, what books to read, etc.). But though Chalky absorbs, his ideas and personality are set. The most important element in his makeup is his reserve: he’s composed, stoical. He has two sexual encounters in his entire life (described in a detail that would make D. H. blush); they’re releases from his self-imposed repression, but are followed by a resumption of defenses against such release. As a profession, Chalky selects the military; he’s perfectly suited for that life, and he rises in the ranks. When Vaughan stuck to factual episodes, the book flowed, was very readable. But he clutters things up with long, erudite asides about religion, metaphysics, etc. And too many events are contrived. Most significant is the ending, which involves an encounter in Africa with a sect of “snake-men” (yes, more snakes). Chalky’s plan to have his platoon captured and then rescued is just plain dumb. The scene that ensues is as nightmarish as the opening one – purposely so. It exists only so Vaughan can have Chalky relive childhood terrors. This is a novel that fails in some ways, but which is endowed with an inner conviction. Ultimately I cared about Chalky. Or, rather I felt sympathy for the fact of his isolation, and that may have been what Vaughan was aiming for.

The Silence in the Garden – William Trevor
Trevor always approaches his stories from an oblique angle; I’ve come to expect this, and to wait for characters and events to take shape and become meaningful. In this case, I waited to the end, largely in vain. I’ve also long admired his ability to evoke emotions, but with this book I felt little to nothing. So what went wrong? For starters, there were too many characters, some who matter and many who don’t – one’s attention gets diluted. And telling the story in part through a diary doesn’t work when the diary writer has no defined personality. Trevor is good with muted people, but Sarah is almost non-existent. At the heart of the matter there’s a long-ago tragedy that has lasting repercussions; the revealing of what happened is done in such a vague and disjointed way that it had no impact. Characters, too, are handled in a desultory fashion. Villana marries a much older man – there’s a lot about wedding preparations – but we never learn how this oddly-matched couple get along. What we do get are pages devoted to young, illegitimate Tom walking around town. In the final chapter Trevor jumps ahead decades, to when everybody except two players are dead (and unaccounted for). Tom contemplates the downfall of the once-idyllic Carriglas. But since Trevor had never created a sense of the idyll, its downfall had no resonance. The writing is good, there are patches that are stand out, such as John James’ affair with a fat, fifty-ish owner of a boarding-house (he despises himself for his weakness, she’s desperate for his love). And the deeply religious Holy Mullihan is really creepy (“There’s a thing called contamination, Tom.”). But beyond these effective odds and ends, there’s not much life stirring in this garden. One wonders, when an author falls far short of his own standards, if he realizes it. I think Trevor did. What he delivered to his publishers was a very short novel with an aborted ending.

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