Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Mrs Gaskell, Lawrence Sterne, and Primo Levi

 Well, so much for getting lots of reading done!  I'm going back to work tomorrow and I have read just three books (one of 'em's pretty hefty though).  I have had other things on my mind unfortunately - things which will be good blog subjects if they ever come off.  Watch this space.  Anyway, during the lockdown, I read Cranford, Tristram Shandy, and Other People's Trades.

Cranford, by Mrs. Gaskell.

I did like this!  I had read excerpts from it in Frank Muir's Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, and then spotted it in a second-hand shop and grabbed it.  It's a very gentle, but very funny book.  I read Gaskell's North and South not so long ago, and that was quite idealistic and... morally driven, maybe (it certainly put me off reading any more of her books, until I saw the extract in Muir), so I wasn't expecting such nonchalance here.

It's a book about the lives of a group of women in a town called Cranford (and Cranford is mostly women), very concerned with propriety, and highly entertaining as a result.  'The name of these good people was Hoggins,' Mrs Gaskell writes of one household.  'Mr Hoggins was the Cranford doctor now; we disliked the name and considered it coarse; but, as Miss Jenkyns said, if he changed it to Piggins it would not be much better.' (p.95)

The concern with respectability does not seem to work to the women's disadvantage, vis-a-vis men, as it usually did in the nineteenth century (and since).  It's not exactly a feminist book, but perhaps one could call it 'pro-female'.  'Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men.  Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior.' (p.18) Later one, one of the characters says 'My father was a man, and I know the sex pretty well.' (p.146)

Despite the humour, the first part of the book is a litany of upsetting, dramatical deaths: Captain Brown (killed by a train); the Captain's daughter (unspecified wasting disease); Mr Holbrook (another unspecified death - possibly to do with Paris and frogs being bad for the digestion); and Mrs Jenkyns (faded away after her son disappeared).  So the story retains a certain tragic quality.  However, apart from the humble demeanour of Miss Matty, there isn't much in the way of moralising.

I thought the book was very interesting in terms of historical detail.  Gaskell talks of pattens - those strangely elevated, clog-like over-shoes, which women wore outside because their ordinary shoes were more like slippers.  Also, 'calashes' get a mention: they are sort of outsized hoods, wired to fold back like an awning, designed apparently to cover any height of hairstyle, and not very becoming according to Gaskell.  There is also mention of the St James's Chronicle, and the way - when you subscribed - you simply got your turn at reading the one copy in the village.  (Judith Flanders talks about this in her book, Consuming Passions.)

Finally... sesquipedalian!  It means long-winded, or using long words or, in relation to words themselves, polysyllabic.  So, in using the word 'sesquipedalian', you would yourself actually be exemplifying the concept.  (Note, Lawrence Sterne, in the next book, uses 'sesquipedality'.)

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Lawrence Sterne.

This is one of those books that, although I almost fell asleep on numerous occasions, was actually very good, and seems to be originator of many writing traditions and tropes.  I'm not sure I'd recommend it casually but, if you are interested, absolutely do read this!

Again, it was excerpted by Muir, so I had seen the style and was expecting to like it, and I did, but if I came to it looking forward to finding out what it was actually about, I would probably have been disappointed.  The story was quite loosely hung together - not about anything as such, not much plot to speak of, not particularly aptly titled - but it had a witty, charming narrator, a small but perfectly formed cast of characters, and some very funny individual sketches (the moment, for example, on p.286, where, out of the blue, a hot chestnut rolls off a table and drops into a man's breeches).  I loved the portrayal of his parents relationship.  The narrator's father, although not an unsympathetic character, is strongly opinionated, ostentatiously well-read, and can make for abrasive company - indeed, prides himself on being so.  His brother-in-law - the narrator's Uncle Toby - deals with him with the utmost patience and equanimity, sinking into stoical pipe-smoking silence, or whistling 'Lilibulero' at times of provocation.  The narrator's mother, on the other hand, takes a different tack.  She seems to have a policy 'never to refuse her assent and consent to any proposition my father laid before her, merely because she did not understand it' - a policy which obviously infuriates her husband.  'She contented herself with doing all that her godfathers and godmothers promised for her - but no more; and so would go on using a hard word twenty years together - and replying to it too, if it was a verb, in all its moods and tenses, without giving herself any trouble to enquire about it.' (p.558)  I suppose you could take that as evidence of a lack of intelligence, but it comes across as a deliberate tactic, used in dealings with a difficult husband.

It is these characters - Walter Shandy, his wife, and her brother Toby (and his servant, Trim) around whom the book centres.  Tristram Shandy himself isn't born until a good way through the book, and even when he is, he doesn't feature very strongly in the story.  At the one point where he suddenly does come into the foreground - in volume VII, which seems to describe part of his Grand Tour through Europe - everything got a bit surreal and free-floating.  That might have been one of the bits where I nodded off.

But in spite of the fact that he takes virtually no part in the 'action' (such as it is), the presence of the writer is strongly felt - it's the best, most characteristic thing about the book.  Christopher Ricks, in his introductory essay, describes it as 'self-conscious narration, with a comically intrusive writer' (p.xvi) (something that other writers before him had also experimented with apparently) and this is it precisely: it is the narrator's particular perspective of his family which provides the story.

There was much periphrasis in this book (and I cannot stand periphrasis)!  This, Sterne's choice of word, refers to the use of indirect and circumlocutory speech or writing.  The narrative is lengthy and verbose and the narrator easily distracted, with a strong tendency to go off at a tangent.  In fact, he pauses occasionally to list his future tangents!  It must have been difficult to criticise this though because Sterne addresses the issue directly, several times, and argues in favour.  (According to the notes, quite a few writers did this in the 19th century.)  On p.64 for example: 'Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine; - they are the life, the soul of reading;---take them out of this book for instance,--you might as well take the book along with them; - one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;--he steps forth like a bridegroom'.  Any confusion that might result from repeated digression, he puts down to lack of attention on the part of the reader.  On p.52, he orders one reader to go back and re-read the previous chapter, with more attention.  In reading, he says, 'the mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitue of which made Pliny the younger affirm, "That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it."'  So that's one argument in favour of sticking with boring books!

Another thing I liked about this was that I often found the humour quite opaque.  Obviously its a funny book, but I wasn't sure if particular instances were supposed to be funny or not.  For example, one of the few things that actually happens is the birth of the narrator, during which the local doctor inadvertently grasps the wrong part of the baby with the forceps, and flattens it.  The flattened part, apparently, is his nose, which is a disaster because big noses are highly prized in the Shandy family.  But then, Sterne writes an entire chapter (albeit the chapters are all very short) about how he doesn't want his readers to get the wrong idea and construe the word 'nose' mistakenly - as they might, for example, the word 'crevice'... 'I define a nose, as follows, - intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition. -For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, - I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.' (p.197)

So, after making such a production of it... was it the baby's nose that was flattened?  At any rate, the other part of him that Sterne might have been referring to is later caught in a falling sash window, so maybe it makes no difference.

It is moments like this though, that I couldn't make out.  Is Sterne being deliberately suggestive here; or was it inattention on my part; or is this ambiguity just something you get when reading centuries-old novels?

Anyway - read it.  It is very long, rambling, boring in parts, can't keep to the point, and nothing happens, but the style, or the narrator's voice, is definitely worth the effort.

Other People's Trades, by Primo Levi.

I saw this and bought it without knowing anything about it, except for having read another of Primo Levi's books.  If This Is A Man/A Truce described his confinement in a Nazi concentration camp and, almost equally fascinating, his heady, slightly mad experience in the confusion of Europe after the war was over.  On reading that book, I felt - much like I do with George Orwell - that I would be happy to read anything by this person.  (But I do tend to get carried away when I like something.)

This book is a collection of short pieces Levi wrote for newspapers.  Many of them are concerned with science or the natural world - beetles, butterflies, fleas, tadpoles, spiders, stars - not subjects that have ever set me on fire.  It was clear though, that this wasn't his specialism (he was a chemist, I believe); the writing is appreciative and curious, but very gentle - so in style, as well as content, it seemed to lack punch somehow.  Perhaps it's the age of the book that gives this impression, or maybe it's just one of those instances where newspaper columns don't convert well into book form.  (I thought the same of E. M. Delafield.)

Perhaps I am 'typecasting' Levi on the basis of If This Is A Man, but the pieces I most enjoyed were about people, and humanity - for me, that's where he excels in writing.  I really liked 'The Best Goods', which is about Eastern European Judaism and how deeply education is established in its cultural history.  'Ritual and Laughter' similarly, looked back at a sixteenth-century text on Jewish customs and its author's concealed amusement at the tricky implications of the orthodox religious interpretation.  'On Obscure Writing' is about how readers of incomprehensible books should not feel bad if they remain in the dark throughout - this is the fault of the writer, not the reader.  And the first essay, 'My House', is a lovely portrait of the house where Levi lived from the day he was born - familiar but unsentimental, except for the memories it carried.  (It made me realise that perhaps I tend to do the opposite - sentimentalising the house and disregarding the memories.)

There were then, definitely essays that chimed with me but, unfortunately, a large part of the book covered things outside my area of interest.

No comments: