Well, I must say that I am impressed with my follow-through abilities as of late. I was certain that by September 1st I would have to hang my head in shame because I had failed to meet my own challenge. However, as soon as I finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I promptly took Middlemarch off my shelf and started reading it. I am currently in the middle of getting to the middle of Middlemarch (Chapter 24, Book 3: Waiting for Death, if that’s important information). There have been some surprises.
Surprise #1 – I used to read novels like this all the time, and was engaged enough, and enjoyed them enough, to write lengthy essays on them? Me? It seems strange. It has been some time since I’ve delved into a book of this literary complexity. Oh, I have read some “dense” novels recently, Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is certainly as complex as Middlemarch (I’ve actually just been struck with an idea about a paper comparing the two novels (it’s like riding a bike!)), but the intricate Victorian prose, especially Eliot’s particular style, is something I have not experienced in years.
Surprise #2 – I’m really enjoying it. At first I found it almost tiresome, and I found that my mind was wandering after long stretches of reading, but then I set up a system where I would read three chapters of Middlemarch, and then take a sort of rest by reading three chapters of Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues. This system has heightened my appreciation of Eliot’s prose, and reminded me of the vast difference between reading for entertainment and reading for edification (or at least an enjoyment of a more involved nature). It’s kind of like the difference between swimming in the ocean and swimming in a pool.
Surprise #3 – Eliot’s sense of humour. It’s sly, and subtle, but it’s there. For some reason I remembered the book as being quite humourless, but that is certainly not the case. I think that, more and more, I’ve been seeking humour in the books I read, and it has helped me to recognize it here in Middlemarch better than I was able to when I was a student, always looking for a thesis rather than a chuckle. Eliot’s way of drawing characters who can be laughed at, and admired, or at least liked, at the same time is quite astonishing.
Surprise #4 – This is certainly related to Surprise #3, but the dialogue is really spot on. Like humour, good dialogue is something I look for in a novel. It’s not as easy to do as it would seem, and when I find it, I thoroughly enjoy it. Eliot masterfully captures the cadences, rhythms, and idiosyncrasies of natural speech.
So, on the whole, this is not the death march that I was afraid it would be. I’m actually anxious to get back to reading Middlemarch when I’m done this. Will poor, feckless Fred (a character with whom I am uncomfortably sympathetic) be carried away by the typhus, or will Mr. Lydgate save him? Are Dorothea and Ladislaw going to get it on? It’s all much more exciting than I remembered. I’ll try to delve more into the actual story and characters in my next update when I have reached the middle of Middlemarch (“middle” has begun to sound very strange in my head).