Romola, George Eliot

It’s six weeks since my last post. The idea of only posting after I have finished a novel (in this case, well after) would work well but if I didn’t insist on reading classic novels which are much longer, and I’m a slow reader to boot. So this literary necrophilia for me means fewer blog posts, which may not seem a problem. Oh but it is. You see, I am not a proper book blogger – I shamelessly use mine as a way to sell tickets to Chico Chica shows. So I need to find other excuses to burden the world with my unimportant views. I have resolved to look for more excuses to post in 2015, and to buy a camera so I can add some visuals to my wordy posts.

As with bubble gum cards and Pokomon cards, a lot of us have pleasure in completing a set – it doesn’t matter what it is, just something that we can own with a pleasurable sense of achievement. There’s a literary form of this malaise. I’ve often heard it said that someone has read ‘all Proust’ or ‘all Stendhal. This requires a great deal of commitment and a a zealous academic approach. Dickens is almost manageable but Balzac less so.

George Eliot only wrote seven which makes her canon an attractive proposition for nerdy literary types especially when she happens to be England’s greatest novelist. There are the big five (in the order in which I read them): Mill On The Floss, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. But there are two others which get far less attention: Romola which I completed very recently. There is also Scenes of Clerical Life. One day I will read that, not so much to complete the set, but to find out if it’s as dull as it sounds. After that, in the mahogany-veneered bookshelf of my memory bank, I will place my George Eliot Box Set. It’s terribly sad, I know.

Romola, being outside Eliot’s big five, was, I presumed, a lesser work. But it isn’t. It’s just different in that it takes place in 1490s Florence rather than the usual rural nineteenth century England. The period, being at the cusp of the modern era, was momentous. Printing, gunpowder and America were recently discovered and the book outlines the beginnings of challenges to papal authority. Michaevelli is a minor character so to is Fra Lippi (who I’d come across in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic dialogues). Michaelangelo and da Vinci are casually mentioned and even Mona Lisa gets a cameo role as an old woman.

The plot is full of political scheming so it’s a bit like a Hilary Mantel novel except Romola has immeasurably more depth and beauty. The novel finishes with an epilogue which shows Eliot’s true voice in the form of Romola speaking to an infant:

It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good. There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards, and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.

Chico Chica have been recording their second album with Joe Keach at Cowshed Studio where performances are recorded onto old-fashioned tape. It’s a process that recognises that nearly all technological advances are victories of power over pleasure. Chico Chica do things gradually, starting with four songs: Private Hands, A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy With an Edge and I’m a Playgirl. We used a salsa rhythm section so chose those songs that would most benefit form such a treatment. They also happened to be the songs with the strongest spoken word component. The overdubs, mixing and mastering will be done in January 2015 so the download-only EP will be launched soon after. By the end of 2015, we should have recorded the twelve (maybe sixteen) songs needed for a CD release.

Chico Chica will be performing at:

Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec
140 Newington Butts, Kennington
London SE11 4RN
9.00pm Friday 5th December 2014
Tickets: £7.00 (£5.00 diners)
Bookings: 020 7582 6800

All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities Of The Plain (The Border Trilogy) Cormac McCarthy

ImageA cowboy’s life is simple. He doesn’t philosophise much, not out loud anyway.  He shows very little emotion. A cowboy’s life is much like Cormac McCarthy’s prose style. Sentences without verbs. No colons and no semi colons.  Very few commas. So lists use ‘and’ a lot as in ‘red and blue and black and…’ Poets use this trick to make a list iambic but McCarthy just wants to eliminate punctuation clutter. There are no speech marks but the reader can tell the difference between dialogue and narrative. One is grammatically correct the other not. I’m not a regular reader of modern american fiction so I found the style drew a little too much attention to itself. It took me a while to get used to it. After a while I got to kind of like it. I’m even thinking of adopting some of its aspects in my own writing.

Cormac McCarthy is one of the big literary names of the day and these books are reputed to be among his best. I bought it as a compendium. This saves money but the book wouldn’t fit in my pocket so I had to carry it around in a man bag which just didn’t seem the kind of thing a cowboy would do.

The tales take place in the borderlands between New Mexico and Mexico. A lot of the dialogue is in spanish. The cowboys speak spanish but the vaqueros never speak english. This is annoying because there’s no translation. But McCarthy hints at the meaning through the context. He did this often but but by no means always, so I still had to look up a lot of the words and let others remain a mystery. Since many of Chico Chica’s songs are in spanish it’s about time I learnt the language. Reading these books is a good way of for a near beginner to improve it.

In these three books, I never got a real sense of character. McCarthy doesn’t bother with descriptions so I had no idea what the cowboys looked like. Most importantly McCarthy never describes emotion,  after all, cowboys don’t discuss emotion. After one character discovers his younger brother had been killed the narrator describes a cowboy riding a horse. In the distance, a happy cowboy looks much the same as a sad one.

I was expecting the cowboys to be hot. Truman Capote would have made this landscape sizzle. But here the cowboys didn’t sweat or yearn for shade or have a raging thirst. The only vegetation he mentions is the juniper tree.

But the narrative was full of meticulously recorded actions such as making coffee, taking off a hat, mending a puncture or removing a bullet from a body. McCarthy draws the reader into the cowboy psyche. The narrator may not sound like a cowboy but he certainly thinks like one. Cowboys are simple and practical folk.

But cowboys have a spirit of adventure. In Mexico the wages are much lower, the cowboys have no friends or family and there is no rule of law. Yet, driven by a creeping modernity which threatens the old way and attracted by the simple welcome of the peasants, these cowboys feel compelled to make the crossing.  Everywhere they go they are be greeted with tortillas and beans but these people are scarred by memories of unimaginable poverty and brutality of Mexico’s civil wars.

In these three novels I often found myself disengaged by the overly-detached style. I was pulled along by the momentum of a lifelong reading habit sometimes having to keep my interest by playing spot-the-comma.

Out of the three I found The Crossing was the most powerful story. Teenage cowboy Billy Parham traps a wolf that had been marauding the family farm but rather than killing it, he takes it back to its native Mexico. I’m not sure if this was out of a sentimental attachment to the wolf or he was looking for any excuse to cross the border. The wolf eventually dies on him before he was able to release it to the wild. So he returns and from then on life is a series of heart-wrenching misfortunes, first his parents are murdered, then his brother and then his beloved horse.  At the very end a stray dogs tries to befriend him. He shoos it away. And then, no doubt thinking of the wolf, he tries to find it again but can’t. The book finishes with Billy breaking down and weeping. It is the only time anyone cries in the whole Border Trilogy.