Thursday, October 26, 2006

A daunting read

I have been manfully ploughing through George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" in recent days (OK, I admit it, weeks!).
Generally speaking, I am a modern fiction sort of person (Julian Barnes, Thomas Pynchon, Peter Carey, that sort of thing), but I do still have a soft spot in my soul for the older classics, and George Eliot (along with Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and others) is still among my favourites.
"Daniel Deronda", often considered her pièce de résistance, is however a daunting read. We are at page 700-odd before Daniel even meets his mother, and there are still 200-odd pages to go (the length of many complete novels). And it is not just the sheer weight of the book which daunts, but it's density. There are beautifully constructed sentences which take up most of a page, and by the time you reach the end (of the sentence, I mean) you are wondering what the first half was all about. Just a random example of a sentence from page 685:

Many nights were watched through by him, in gazing from the open window of his room on the double, faintly pierced darkness of the sea and the heavens: often in struggling under the oppressive scepticism which represented his particular lot, with all the importance he was allowing Mordecai to give it, as of no more lasting effect than a dream - a set of changes which made passion to him, but beyond his consciousness were no more than an imperceptible difference of mass or shadow; sometimes with a reaction of emotive force which gave even to sustained disappointment, even to the fulfulled demand of sacrifice, the nature of a satisfied energy, and spread over his young future, whatever it might be, the attraction of devoted service; sometiomes with a sweet irresistible hopefulness that the very best of human possibilities might befall him - the blending of a complete personal love in one current with a larger duty; and sometimes again in a mood of rebellion (what human creature escapes it?) against things in general because they are thus and not otherwise, a mood in which Gwendolen and her equivocal fate moved as busy images of what was amiss in the world along with the concealments which he had felt as a hardship in his own life, and which were acting in him now under the form of an afflicting doubtfulness about the mother who had announced herself coldly and still kept away.

The meaning comes through, but you really have to work at it, much as you have to work at Samuel Becket or James Joyce. The grammar and puctuation is impeccable (all those colons and semi-colons - who knows how to use those correctly, nowadays? - parentheses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, you name it!), and the vocabulary erudite (this, in the days before thesauruses).
But not what you would call beach reading.
I think the next book on my "to-read" shelf may be "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" by Salman Rushdie. I like to be made to think (and Rushie ensures that), but these days I can only cope with so much hard labour in my reading.

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