Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy 
In a powerful and disturbing opening scene Michael Henchard, during a drinking bout, puts his wife and infant daughter up for auction and sells them to a passing seaman for five guineas. The following day he’s repentant, and makes a vow never to take another drink for twenty-one years. When we next see him he has risen from poverty and become the mayor of the Sussex village of Casterbridge. Hardy created a great character in Henchard – a flawed and complex man who compels one’s attention and engages one’s imagination. But as the book moves along his forceful presence is diluted. Hardy recognized the loss, and he identified the problem. He wrote the novel to appear serially in a newspaper, and he felt the need in each week’s installment to introduce new characters and incidents; many of these incidents are unlikely (especially as they accumulate) and the new characters are lacking in depth and authenticity. Henchard himself gets stretched this way and that to accommodate the plot twists. What would this novel have been if Hardy hadn’t felt the need to give his readers a page-turner? If he had let only artistic judgements guide him? Quite possibly a great novel – which it isn’t. But it’s definitely worth reading. One of its virtues is the recreation of a Wessex village in the late 1800s; the place and its people – through their talk and their actions – come vividly to life. 

The Rise of David Levinsky - Abraham Cahan 
The words “and Fall” could be added to the title. Certainly, in America, David rises. In Russia he lives in poverty; but as a boy he’s intensely interested in religion and learning: his goal is to be a Talmud scholar. When, in his teens, he immigrates to America he’s penniless; but his smarts and toughness and ability to engage the trust of people in a position to help him (in however small a way) enable him to become, by the time he’s in his late thirties, a millionaire. So what constitutes a fall? His religious beliefs and his passion for learning and culture go by the wayside. His youthful high-mindedness is compromised by business decisions that aren’t always ethical. He has no interest in the textile industry beyond the profit margin. So in the closing sentence he writes that “the poor boy swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher’s Synagogue seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak manufacturer.” This 530 page novel was written in 1917, and I read all of it; I find the story of the immigrant experience to be an interesting one, and the workmanlike prose carried me along. Cahan was able to capture a teeming New York and its colorful inhabitants. The novel’s only weakness has to do with the author’s depiction of Levinsky in love; his rhapsodizing about his feelings struck a discordant note. These three romantic episodes – all fated to turn out as disappointments – are given too much space. Still, Rise is a capable, satisfying piece of work, and is deserving of the revival that Harper & Row gave it in the 1960s. 

The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith 
I’ve joined the millions of readers who have enjoyed this novel since it appeared in 1766. But why has it given so much enjoyment? In his Afterword J. R. Plumb of Cambridge University states his belief that it’s because the novel radiates goodness and shows how the buffets of a wanton fate cannot break the spirit of a truly good man. I totally disagree, and I think I may have read it as Goldsmith intended: as a highly amusing dismemberment of a good man. Dr. Primrose (note the name) has every virtue; he is indeed a good man. That he’s a religious man has no bearing. It’s notable that, although the Vicar is a great talker, the name of Jesus never appears in this novel. But the afterlife – eternal bliss – is often referred to as the blessing that one receives after leading a life free of sin (though those who repent also get admission to heaven). The novel opens with the Vicar ensconced in domestic tranquility; but from this idyllic state he suffers one misfortune after another; these move from minor to more and more dire and then to disastrous. There’s a villain to blame for most of the serious disruptions – the vile Squire Thornhill (boo, hiss), a lecher who’s attracted to Dr. Primrose’s two beautiful (and virtuous) daughters. Dr. Primrose ultimately winds up in gaol, penniless, his arm maimed by a fire (he ran into his burning house to rescue his two small sons); one daughter is dead from the shame of being corrupted, the other has been kidnaped. I’m not callous to suffering, but Dr. Primrose doesn’t suffer. He’s like one of those toy figures that you punch and they immediately pop back up, still smiling. Goldsmith has created a caricature, not a real human being susceptible to the burden of real pain. Never does the vicar contemplate revenge, nor does he once question his faith. Disasters, when not based in reality, can be funny (think of Laurel and Hardy). This is not a tragedy, but a comedy of misfortunes – a “What next?” outing. In gaol, seeing his life coming to an end, the vicar still preaches an uplifting sermon to his fellow prisoners. The guy just won’t give up. Then comes the long closing chapter in which, by means of an unlikely deus ex machina, all the problems are remedied; even his dead daughter is brought back to life (actually, it turns out that she never died). This, too, I found funny – because it’s preposterous. An “unlikely” savior? What a understated word! This ending is not meant to be believed except by the gullible. My take on the novel is that Goldsmith was being subversive. At the time he wrote it he couldn’t openly make a religious figure an object of mockery, so he disguised his intent; but, for me, the disguise was transparent. It wasn’t for the likes of J. R. Plumb. He finds fault with the novel for its “outrageous improbabilities” and its “unrealistic characters” – elements I don’t see as faults: they’re intended. Maybe you get out of a novel what your nature inclines you to. But, truly, I think Oliver Goldsmith and I were on the same wave length. He was kicking up his heels like a rambunctious mule, wrecking the barn in which virtue resides and enjoying himself immensely. That the novel retains a freshness after all these years is a tribute to his accomplishment. *

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