Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
DEAR DEAD DAYS
I’m an incorrigible reader of nineteenth century literature in the English and French languages. I love the solidity of novels from back then, the clear-but-complex plots, the leisurely descriptions of physical things and even the long chattery asides that people like Thackeray used to insert. Dickens, Balzac, George Eliot, Zola – they’re very different from one other, but they’re all my idea of a good read. Whenever I can take time off from reading the latest releases, I head back to them.
But I have to admit there’s an element of guilt in my reading now. It came to me in a most extraordinary flash of insight a few years ago. I was sitting there lapping up Honore de Balzac’s Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes, which has been accessibly translated for Penguin Classics as A Harlot High and Low. Written in the 1840s but set in the 1820s, it’s a story of blackmail, murder, prostitution, police corruption and many very sordid varieties of crime. There are some ghastly prison scenes. I was reading it with great pleasure, absorbing it as thriller, panoramic view of society (Balzac’s specialty) and psychological study, when I suddenly asked “Would I be enjoying this story half as much if it were set in the present day?”
Of course I knew I wouldn’t.
I knew that the story, if set in the present day, would be unbearably depressing.
Instead of filling the mind with images like nineteenth century illustrations, it would fill the mind with images like reality TV. Instead of the smoky Paris attics of the poor and wretched (virtually a poetic image now) there would be the vandalised state-house or council-flat slums of the modern poor. Nothing poetic about it, but plenty to deplore. And the novel’s criminal-turned-policeman would be some horrible bent cop facing the TV cameras at an enquiry.
Further realizations crowded in on me. When we read literature from a past age it may be meticulously realistic – and for all his melodrama Balzac did try to be realistic – but we are somehow insulated from it. It is in the past, after all. It becomes romance or unreality. Admit it or not, to pick up even the best nineteenth century novel is to some extent to choose escapism.
I’m reminded of another much-loved novel from the same age as Balzac. It concerns similar sordid elements, yet is usually regarded as a rattling good yarn suitable for the whole family. This is Oliver Twist.
In 1968, when the film Oliver!, a musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, came out, the reviewer Jan Dawson (whom I’ve accessed from Halliwell’s Film Guide) astutely commented “There’s a heightened discrepancy between the romping jollity with which everyone goes about the business, and the actual business being gone about… such narrative elements as the exploitation of child labour, pimping, abduction, prostitution and murder.”
This is more-or-less how I feel about so many of my nineteenth-century favourites now. I can pretend I am reading something immensely adult and serious. Indeed there are few things as intentionally serious as George Eliot dissecting an English town in Middlemarch, Gustave Flaubert skewering a limited bourgeois soul in Madame Bovary, or Emile Zola rubbing our noses in the slummy horrors of L’assommoir and Germinal, the gangster capitalism of La Curee.
But we are distanced from them by time. And the prose is so good and clear that we are almost comforted.