Is this the greatest novel in the English language?

Middlemarch, I mean.  Wikipedia tells me that this is the opinion of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.  It also quotes Virginia Woolf, who calls it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

I first read it back in high school or college, when I read pretty much everything.  I doubt that it was assigned reading — it’s about a billion pages long.  So I probably spent a chunk of my spare time devouring it one summer.  This time around, almost out  of the blue, I decided to have my hero Walter Sands read it in the course of Where All the Ladders Start (coming soon to an ebook store near you!), and I decided I’d better take another look at it myself, to make sure the things I said about it were true.

It surely is a novel for grown-ups.  I can’t imagine subjecting a middle schooler to it, the way we make them read Oliver Twist.  I can’t imagine what I would have made of the book in high school.  A few more thoughts:

  • Middlemarch has its moments of rustic humor, but Eliot is never as funny with her rude mechanicals as Dickens is with his working-class folks.  And she even doesn’t try to be as funny as Jane Austen when it comes to relations between men and women.  That is serious business.
  • There’s a bit of social commentary in the novel.  I didn’t recall this from my first reading, but it’s actually a historical novel — written in the 1870s but taking place in the 1830s.  So we see the railroad about to make an appearance in the area, for example, and the Reform Bill is in the air.  But that material seemed fairly bland to me.
  • Where Eliot is great — and maybe unequaled — is when she deals with love and marriage, and the complexities of serious relationships in a serious world.  Dorothea and Casaubon, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, Rosamond and Lydgate — by the end of the book, we are so deeply inside these characters’ heads that we seem to know them as well as we know ourselves.  That’s a pretty impressive achievement.

That is to say, I re-read the whole damn thing, which used up a large chunk of my reading time for the year.  It was worth it.

What you can do when you’re not writing

  1. Go for a run and listen to Chopin.  Listening to Chopin doesn’t generally make you run faster, but for me, running is about survival, not speed.
  2. Sit on your deck, drink a Little Sumpin’ ale, and read Middlemarch.  This ale is the perfect complement to a long Victorian novel.  Middlemarch doesn’t have the humor and passages of stupendous genius that mark a Dickens novel, but it also doesn’t have the absurd coincidences and simpering female characters. Reading the novel, though, is taking me about as long as writing my own.
  3. Watch The Two Mrs. Carrolls, an entertaining but incredibly bad 1947 thriller starring Humphrey Bogart (a tad out of character playing an insanely murderous artist) and Barbara Stanwyck, who only gradually comes to the realization that the artist she married is also insanely murderous. It features a ridiculously primitive application of Chekhov’s gun — “Here, I happen to have this gun.  Why don’t I leave it with you in case the Yorkshire strangler happens by?”  It also features what I’ll call the principle of “Barbara Stanwyck’s gun” — in a movie of a certain era, if the female lead is pointing a gun at the villain at the climax, she will find herself unable to shoot the guy, for no apparent reason.  The villain will easily disarm her, but the hero will arrive in the nick of time to save her from certain death.
  4. Go to the beach and complete the Sunday Sudoku.  I am man enough to admit that I am often unable to complete the Sunday Sudoku.  However, I’m here to tell you 2014-08-10 11.22.20that I completed it in near-record time today.  Was it the salty air?  Or the knowledge that I didn’t have an unfinished novel to return to?
  5. Read the two-page open-letter to Amazon in the New York Times signed by a bazillion famous authors, telling Amazon to basically quit using them as leverage in their negotiations with Hachette.  Color me unimpressed.  Here is one response to it, via The Passive Voice.
  6. Come up with a couple more ideas for your novel.  Well, yes, that can happen, too.