Middlemarch

The other night I went to do a bit of Christmas shopping and found myself in a department store looking at one of those miniature villages. It was an elaborate display, each and every little figurine placed perfectly and lit to lend authenticity to the scene of what was touted as an English village, nineteenth century style. Many people find such collectibles to be desirable, and the price tags certainly reflect that value held by some. Of course each piece is sold separately. While I was marveling at the intricate layout of the porcelain village, something occurred to me. I was nearing the end of Middlemarch, the novel so often proclaimed as Mary Anne Evans’ masterpiece. I had truly enjoyed my time in that fictional Midlands village amid each sentence and character so lovingly drawn and perfectly plotted. There is so much of both, plot and superbly drawn characterization, that Middlemarch never sags or becomes anything less than delightful to pick up. Yet I was feeling towards the novel more dimly lit than a figurine lamp whose fuse had blown.

I had allowed the whirl and buzz of modern life to creep into my times alone with the über Victorian, not to mention a clamor from the shelves of all the 3 or 4 novels I had passed over in the month it took to read Middlemarch. Mostly though, I became distracted about halfway through the novel by thoughts of what it must have been like to be Mary Anne planning and implementing sentence upon sentence in order to carry out the vision and statement which is Middlemarch. Did she sit on a worn carpet at times, tired from bending over the manuscript at a table, only to rise with an aching back from hours on the floor with her fountain ink pen and reams of paper? Did her hand hurt the way mine sometimes does when I’ve spent too many hours clicking and typing without watching the angles of my wrists? Did she have to interrupt her work to fix meals or tea? How did she do it?

Middlemarch can only be compared to a marvel of urban planning or perhaps to the software engineering coup that brings an entirely new system into being. I’m forced to look at the novel and its creation through the lens of modern life, my only frame of reference, and a somewhat poor one for understanding the intricacies of an imagination so all encompassing that I can only stand and gawk. The overwhelming presence of Middlemarch the creation had pushed me away from Middlemarch the story. George Eliot’s light of genius fairly snuffed my candle of twenty first century devotion to the work, all because I couldn’t fully enter the story without the aura of its creator blinding and diverting me.

So what’s the use in pulling a volume such as Middlemarch from the shelf? Surely there are other more rapid fire forms of delivery for the reader’s fix. Why did I bother if the whole time I would be held back from true appreciation for the tale by a case of the dumbstrucks at the mechanics it took to bring about?

As I stood looking at the Christmas village display, I wondered what it would take to bring a twenty third century person back into our times for a look. Could it be accomplished by a porcelain representation? Or will it take something like Richard Price’s Lush Life to shout into the future from our present? There was nothing to learn from the department store arrangement. There was everything to be gained by finishing Middlemarch, by letting the huge novel seep into me in the coming weeks and months, by imagining Mary Anne with her full skirts and the discomforts of her nineteenth century life as she executed her artistic vision about a Midlands village and its inhabitants. It does matter, and I answered my own question thusly:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Middlemarch. It exists as certainly as art and creativity and imagination exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Middlemarch. It would be as dreary as if there were no Mary Annes. There would be no Victorian novels then, no Brownings, no Brontës to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment of the worlds that are gone, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which literature fills the world would be extinguished.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance as they are found in literature can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else more real and abiding.

I think Mary Anne might agree.


Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andreï Makine

 

 

There is a tune, for which I’d gladly part

With all Rossini, Weber, and Mozart,

An ancient air, whose languid melody

Has secret charms that speak only to me*…

We’ve all had them, those dreams whose intimations of life are so strong that we can see, smell, and embrace someone we love and long for just as they slip from the grasp of our light sleep. We wake up, dizzy and lump throated, frantic to bring the dream back, to sink into it again and to possess that person for one moment longer, knowing that the trance was sweetest just as it was lost.

The Franco-Russian author Andreï Makine captures this moment when ”secret charms” speak in his 1995 novel Dreams of My Russian Summers. I read the novel with mixed expectations, having no knowledge of the author but an interest in his 2006 novel, The Woman Who Waited after reading this review. My utter lack of familiarity with Proust, particularly with À la recherche du temps perdu, caused me initially to doubt my adequacy to approach Makine’s novel of remembrance. However when I sat down with Dreams of My Russian Summers, all doubts and fears were swept aside by the beauty of the language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan.

Dreams of My Russian Summers is as difficult to encapsulate as that achingly sought spectre who appears then vanishes in troubled sleep. Makine jumps back and forth in time to tell the coming of age story of a Russian boy who spends summers with his grandmother, Charlotte, in her apartment near the steppe outside the Siberian village of Saranza. From her flower potted balcony, Charlotte entrances the unnamed boy and his sister with stories of France, her homeland, creating for them a gilded world of tragedy and romance that begins with the 1899 death of French president Félix Faure in apoplectic orgasm.

The death of Félix Faure made me aware of my age: I was thirteen; I guessed what ”dying in the arms of a woman” meant, and from now on I could be spoken to on such subjects. Furthermore, the courage and total absence of hypocrisy in Charlotte’s story demonstrated what I already knew: she was not a grandmother like the others. No Russian babushka would have ventured on such a discussion with her grandson. In this freedom of expression I sensed an unaccustomed perception of the body, of love, of relationships between man and woman — a mysterious ”French outlook.”

With the narrator’s entrée to French lore, his imaginative powers are unfettered from their Russian beginnings within the bleak concrete blocks of Soviet housing. Nightly spellbound by his grandmother’s tantalizingly descriptive summer tales of France, the young boy feels himself drawn to her native tongue and its ability to portray emotion. He’s captivated in such a way that his worldview suddenly bursts into being, alive with empathy for persons both fictional and corporeal.

The fatal love that had caused the heart of the president to burst reshaped the France that I carried inside me. This came mainly from storybooks. But on that memorable evening the literary characters who rubbed shoulders on its highways seemed to be awakening after a long sleep…Without being able to explain it myself, I felt as if I heard a string vibrating in the soul of this woman (referring to Emma Bovary). My own heart sang out in unison. A smiling voice that came from Charlotte’s stories prompted me: ”Emma Bovary, c’est moi!”

The burgeoning empathy that the narrator describes suddenly enfolds not only his beloveds, but the unsavory and brutal as well. The boy is able to perceive motivations that are exceedingly noble and those that are much less so. He feels his grandmother’s fear and ultimate bravery in wartime. He keens intimately the excitement of his friend Pashka upon hearing a poem by Victor Hugo. Simultaneously, the now lustful teenage boy understands the desire for power embodied in stories he hears about Lavrenti Beria, the despotic head of Stalin’s secret police and serial rapist who trawled the streets of Moscow for prey in his limousine.

And I hated myself! For I could not help admiring this stalker of women. Yes, within me there was someone who — with dread, with repulsion, with shame — reveled in the power of the man with the pince-nez. All women belonged to him! He cruised around the vastness of Moscow as if in the middle of a harem. And what fascinated me most was his indifference. He had no need to be loved, he did not care what the women he chose might feel toward him. He selected a woman, desired her, possessed her the same day. Then forgot her. And all the cries, lamentations, sobs, groans, supplications, and curses that he had occasion to hear were for him only spices that added to the savor of the rape.

I lost consciousness at the start of my fourth sleepless night. Just before fainting, I felt I had grasped the fevered thought of one of those raped women, who must have realized that whatever happened she would not be allowed to leave. This thought, which cut through her enforced intoxication, her pain, her disgust, resounded in my head and threw me to the ground.

In such manner, the boy grapples with his newfound powers of empathy. All the while, as the narrative shifts and flashes forward and back, both the boy and his grandmother grow older. Now a young man with his own emerging, complex history, the narrator searches for the right tools to wield in the world as an imaginer and empathizer.

This language-tool, employed, sharpened, perfected, was, I told myself, nothing other than literary composition. I had already sensed that the anecdotes about France with which I had amused my fellow pupils throughout that year were the first draft for this novelist’s language: had I not manipulated it to please sometimes the ”proletarians” and sometimes the ”aesthetes”? Literature was now revealed as being perpetual amazement at the flow of words into which the world dissolved. French, my grandmaternal tongue, was, I saw now, the supreme language of amazement.

All of which sent a pang through me and caused me to feel the need to rent a Parisian garret and reside forevermore among words, wine, words, words! Then, I looked round the office lunchroom. The jig was up. The reverie was ended; clients would be waiting. As someone who considers herself the most selfish of readers, Makine’s journey of emotional involvement with fiction and her human counterparts affected me deeply, though the novel must be experienced in its entirety for its languorous qualities to seep in. No amount of searching for the best passages can find the wispy loved one. To my unpardonable delight, none of the dog earing I lavished upon my lovely hardback edition can target exactly the right phrases. Dreams of My Russian Summers is the first book in a long time that I instantly began to reread after finishing it, only to quit in exasperation, as though I had tried to hold someone that last, flickering moment before they vanished forever, as though I had awakened from a delectable dream and was caught trying to return.

* An Old Tune, Gerard de Nerval