Silas Marner Day 41: George Eliot and George Saunders: Live Human Being

 

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It’s not human, but it’s sure a live presence: unidentified plant, Zakynthos, July 2018

Long time since I read and wrote on Silas Marner.  (See that previous post here )I’ve been away from my routine, such as it is,  and latterly I’ve been even further away – having a long swim and lot of sleep and reading in  lovely Zakynthos, which I found a land of  great plants, generous hospitality and welcome, fine courgettes and  the cooking of courgettes.

I asked our host, Demetrios, why Zakynthos has two names (sometimes Zakynthos, sometimes Zante) and he replied, Let’s start with the bigger picture… Why does  Greece have two names? Hellas (as the Greeks call it) and Greece (from the Latin, as the Romans called it…) Ah, there was time there for slow answers.

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Courgette Balls, home-made  by Maria at Dopia’s House,  Vasilikos, Zakynthos

I didn’t do much apart from read and swim and in the cool evenings walk to Dopia’s House for fine home  cooking and a visit to the one of the  three village shops. But I did think, when I get back, I will re-establish my daily reading and writing practice. So here we go.

I look back and see I last read and wrote about Silas Marner on the 30th April.  Hoooo.  That’s not good.

Silas was in my mind because before I went on holiday a much-respected colleague told me she was reading Silas Marner, but she didn’t say ‘reading’, she said ‘getting through’, which made me think she was finding it hard going, and when I asked her, she said she was…Which made me think ‘most people would find it hard going’.  Which made me think, ‘how could it not be like that?’ And it’s such a wonderful book –  what a shame to be put off by the slow opening chapters, or the ongoing problem of it being hard-to-get-through.

Reading aloud with others would help, because one of the hard-to-get through things is the  length and complexity of sentences. That is made easier by the slowness and added concentration of reading aloud. Another – the long-ago-ness.  Shared Reading would help share the strangeness – you’d ask each other questions about hand-loom weavers and poultices and the like. Another, things to do with tone. Tone is still hard to get right in reading aloud, but it is more likely to be got right by your voice when voiced than when read silently.

In my experience, when you are reading something hard-to-get-through in your head two things happen – you drift away from the hard sentences and don’t absorb them, and you lose sense of the longer rhythms of meaning which are often about tone of voice.  Recently, have I had this experience with George Saunders  prize-winning novel, Lincoln in The Bardo.

I like to think of myself as George Saunder’s greatest fan, so it’s not easy to admit I found that novel hard going.  I was, like my colleague, getting through it, because I wanted to, because I love George Saunders, because it is his first full-length novel and I wanted it to be great. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to give up on it. I wanted to get it!  But I couldn’t concentrate enough to make it come to life.

So I was delightful to I find Audible has a brilliant recording, with many great voices.  And that got me into it.  The recording  fails a little in that it records all the  historical research notes, which in a written text you’d pass over, and they got in the way during my listening… but even so, listening  broke the book open for me, and got the tone and voices in my head.  So I was sorry to see so many disappointed and perplexed reviews on the Audible page –  this is just not a good a starting place for getting to know George Saunders.  Disappointed readers/listeners: start with  the short story collections – I’ve written about them, in passing, before:  Pastoralia, Tenth of December.

I’m going to have some downtime in August when I will be having an operation on my foot. Have been stockpiling things to read, and will add Lincoln In The Bardo to that pile, as I think it is time for a re-read.

But meanwhile, back to Silas. Last time I was writing about George Eliot as a kind of pre-psychology psychologist, working out how human minds work. Thinking about Nancy Lammeter and  her husband Godfrey Cass. We’d been reading about Godfrey’s desire to adopt  Eppie (his own child, though no one but he knows it), and his inability to imagine Silas’ feelings;

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This is interesting, isn’t it?  We’d probably be naturally inclined to want to cross Godfrey off – to  set him up as a no-good-nik, and take no notice of  his inner workings. But that, George Eliot feels, would be a mistake; her big premise is, it’s better to try to understand people we are not naturally sympathetic to.

What do we learn here?  Godfrey, as posh person, doesn’t have an opportunity to realise poor people have feelings in the same way he has:

we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means

Some radical education would be needed to overcome this  natural seeming state of social affairs. Godfrey doesn’t know these people, doesn’t mix with them, doesnt meet them, talk to them.

It’s all very well, for me as a twenty-first century middle class  Guardian-reader, being outraged that a posh landed gentry type didn’t know what it meant to be one of his own villagers. But then I think back to before The Reader and ask myself how much time I actually spent with homeless multiply addicted young men living with psychosis before I began reading in hostels and rehabs?  I  give the pseudonym  ‘Jay’ to one of those young men…I  would theoretically have known  that Jay has feelings like me, but I’d never have  been close to Jay, never seen him moved to tears or being loving to another person, only seen him as a threatening  presence  in a deserted car park. Never saw him have his feelings. Not to my credit, but true. I had not gathered the impressions – him asking me for change at the car park exit frightened me – which could have helped me overcome my fears of Jay. Without getting to know him, how could I really know him?

Now I look at this choice of word, ‘adequate’, thinking of myself or other modern versions of this Cass problem.

It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project:

Think of fear of refugees, fear of  others, fear of those not like us… what is ‘adequate knowledge’ in such situations, where people are not seeing others as fully human. Very few of us would be ‘deliberately unfeeling’ if we knew (‘adequately’) what it meant to be other person.  ‘Adequate’ – it’s not a lot of knowledge.  It’s enough to make us feel. But  perhaps we are becoming too kind to Godfrey?  Here’s a real corrective;

his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

How complex he is!  He has  had a ‘blighting time of cruel wishes’  – that person who did not  own up to nor  take responsibility for his first wife and his own child – that was Godfrey. Who suffered the blight? The cruelty? Yes – his dead wife, yes, his abandoned child. But also  – prehaps – he, himself?

As well as that cruelty, there is in Godfrey, ‘natural kindness’.  That’s real, too, though how  I am to hold the two things (  ‘cruel wishes’ and ‘natural kindness’ ) in balance is a real and very life-like question.  Despite the kindness, I’m still worried about the now past time of cruelty.  And that worry is extended by the  added comment on Nancy.

Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

He is naturally kind, when not pressed by more terrible needs. Nancy is  not entirely tricking herself. Oh, but the presence of that ‘wilful illusion’, even as a partial negative!

Being a live human is complicated business.

Is that why I love George Saunders despite sometimes not getting it and not getting through it? Yesterday I re-read his short story ‘The Falls’. ( It’s in Pastoralia.) Highly recommended for some live human being.

 

 

 

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