Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot


George Eliot’s last novel is an ambitious undertaking. We follow two people starting with the moment they first saw each other, in 1865 at a resort in Leubronn, a fictional town in Germany. As young Gwendolyn Harleth plays roulette, she is observed by Daniel Deronda. She perceives that while he is taken by her great beauty, he seems to be critical of her behavior. Spoiled and stubborn, she refuses to stop until she has gambled away the last bit of her winnings, trying to appear uncaring. The next day she is called home by a letter from her mother that they have lost all their money, but not before the necklace she has pawned after her losses is mysteriously returned to her.

From there we go back to learn how the self-centered Gwendolyn and the quiet Deronda reached this moment. Gwendolyn has had everything her own way up to this point, ruling over her social circle despite her lack of wealth, uncaring about others, and demanding to be entertained constantly. Just before her trip to Leubronn with family friends, she has refused an offer from Henleigh Grandcourt, a man whose wealth and position would seem to promise all her dreams would come true. However, she has learned that he has a family already, with his longtime mistress.

Deronda is the ward of Sir Humphrey Mallinger, Grandcourt’s uncle. Like most people, he believes he must be Sir Humphrey’s illegitimate son. A most generous and compassionate man, he misses a scholarship to Cambridge through helping his friend Hans Meyrick to win one. He also rescues Mirah, a young Jewish girl who was about to drown herself, and takes her to the Meyrick family for safekeeping. Through her he meets a mysterious Jewish visionary named Mordecai and becomes interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. This novel is the first to treats Jews sympathetically.

From there the two stories continue in tandem, only occasionally intersecting. While there is a great deal of narrative, common in novels of the period, the tale is enlivened by Eliot’s light touch with dialogue and by her penetrating, and sometimes satiric, insight. For instance, she says “it was evident that Gwendolyn was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were not beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange.”

I love what Mrs. Meyrick says of her son: “‘If I were to live till my Hans got old, I should still see the boy in him. A mother’s love, I often say, is like a tree that has got all the wood in it, from the very first it made.’”

Deronda’s story of growing interest in Judaism and what we would now call Zionism is less interesting. In his introduction to my copy, F.R. Leavis disagrees with Henry James that Eliot’s intellectual ability is the cause; Leavis admires her intelligence and intellectual powers. Rather, he blames the failure of this part of the book on Eliot’s persistence in endowing her protagonists with idealism. He calls this “immaturity” on Eliot’s part, and even describes Deronda as being a woman in his desire to make the world a better place.

I disagree. As Donald Maass points out, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant.” He goes on to ask writers “What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with?” In another post he suggests that “Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use. Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.” Yet we as readers treasure our encounters with these emotions. “‘Higher emotions’ are called that for a reason. They elevate and inspire us. Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of ‘moral elevation’ by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.”

The trick is to make the character interesting by adding internal conflicts and shadings. He or she cannot be all positive. Plus the character has to change. While Deronda has some internal conflicts over who his parents are and whether the woman he loves will also love him, these do not fundamentally change him and he never does or is tempted to do anything wrong. The only way he changes in the book is through his decision to immerse himself in Judaism. He is still his perfect self at the end. Mordecai too is entirely perfect and does not change.

The other reason why the Jewish part of the story drags is that so much of it is presented in long intellectual monologues by Mordecai, unbroken by action or emotion. Today we call this “info-dumping” and try to avoid it.

I don’t think the problem here is idealism, so much as it is the lack of shading in our idealistic characters and the misuse of dialogue to convey chunks of information. Still, there is much to admire in this book. I found myself, despite having read it before, hurrying to get to the end to find out what would happen to these two characters.

Have you read any of George Eliot’s novels? What did you think of them?

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi


I always start my memoir classes by discussing what a memoir is. It covers a discreet portion of the author’s life, usually with a limited time frame, and is the author’s perception of the incidents described. Autobiography, on the other hand, is expected to be more objective and to cover the author’s entire life. Therefore, we might question this “autobiography” of someone who is only 39 the year it is published.

Yet Agassi is justified in calling this an autobiography. The frame of the book is his last match as a professional tennis player, at the U.S. Open. From there we go back to his childhood and follow him up to that moment in 2006, that last match. Since almost every moment of his life has been devoted to professional tennis, I think it’s fair to say that one life ended that day and another began. Also, the reworking of Agassi’s original material by another writer, the extensive fact-checking and multiple editorial rewrites provide some objectivity to what is a very personal account.

I love watching tennis, the intense one-on-one battles where the advantage shifts back and forth. The psychological battle interests me almost more than the physical one. A person has to stand out there alone under the unrelenting eyes of cameras and spectators, without teammates or coaches or even privacy to collect themselves. They have to summon the courage to keep playing when they are losing horribly, embarrassingly, and the composure to stay calm in the run-up to an unexpected win.

Reading this book just after Wimbledon gave me added insight into what is happening on the tennis court. Agassi speaks of the “magnetic force” that comes near the end of a match that can pull you over “the finish line” into the win and the equal force pushing you away.

More than that, he gives a close description of the shaping of a professional tennis player, something that starts in early childhood. Agassi’s father gave him a racket when he was three but even before that, according to his mother, “when I was still in the crib, my father hung a mobile of tennis balls above my head and encouraged me to slap at them with a ping-pong paddle he’d taped to my hand.” No wonder he grows up hating tennis and rebelling whenever he gets a chance. Given his seemingly adult-style career, I had to keep reminding myself as he described some of his shenanigans of how young he was.

In some ways, it’s an all-too-familiar story of a childhood stunted and deformed by a stage- or sport-parent who demands that the child’s every moment be devoted to practice. Yet Agassi’s unusual openness about his experiences, his emotions, his misjudgments and mistakes lift this book above the ordinary. The tone is well-calculated to avoid self-pity and show respect and even love for those who might be said to have harmed him.

It’s a compelling read. I was surprised by how well-written it is until I got to the acknowledgments at the end. Agassi credits J.R. Moehringer with transforming their taped interviews into this book, along with input from editors and first readers. He explains that though Moehringer refused to have his own name printed on the cover, Agassi wanted to ensure he got credit for his work. With that, I was no longer surprised. Moehringer is an amazing writer. I’ve written about his extraordinary memoir The Tender Bar.

I treasure the brief outline of Agassi’s second life at the end of the book, a life born of his desire to help disadvantaged children. If we are lucky, we find work that gives our lives meaning.

What sports biographies or autobiographies have you found illuminating?

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen


I recently saw the film Love and Affection, which is not based on Austen’s novel of that name, but rather on her epistolary novel Lady Susan. The film seemed odd to me and a bit boring, aside from some very broad humor, so I immediately went home and read the novel for the first time.

As so often happens, I wish I’d read it before seeing the film. The story begins with the recently widowed Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica leaving Langford, where they had been visiting the Manwarings. Lady Susan sends Frederica off to school and goes on an extended visit to her brother, Charles, at Churchill. We learn rather quickly that Lady Susan not only has been receiving Lord Manwaring’s “attentions”, but has also detached the wealthy Sir James Martin from Miss Manwaring and persuaded him to propose to Frederica. Frederica, “born to be the torment of my life” as Lady Susan says, violently rejects the proposal.

So we have a fairly standard gothic plot of a heroine being forced into an unwelcome marriage, except here it is by her mother rather than the usual father/uncle/guardian. Also unusual is that Frederica is not the protagonist of the story; we only hear from her once in the novel.

In the film, Lady Susan is presented as being deliberately amoral, fully aware and proud of her ability to twist events and actions to pretend that she is the one behaving properly. She comes off as a proper villainess, like Madame de Merteuil in LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons, published in 1782 and immediately translated into English and widely read.

Yet, in the novel, this wickedness is not so obvious. The most interesting justifications come in her letters to her friend, Alicia Johnson, with whom one would think she would be more open. Is Lady Susan deceiving herself as well as her friend when she presents herself as a martyr trying only to do what is best for everyone? I have certainly known individuals with an immense capacity for self-deception. And Lady Susan, as a widow with a grown daughter and no money, is in a vulnerable position in a world that offers no hope for survival in such a situation except relying on the kindness of friends and family.

In her biography of Jane Austen, Carol Shields says of this book:

The novel, never published during her lifetime, is her strangest and most unsettling literary offering and seems to have been unpopular with her family and friends. It is charmless. And very nearly pointless . . . [Lady Susan] shows not the slightest degree of shame or self-awareness as a reader might have expected by the novel’s end, and Jane Austen does not mete out to her what would be an appropriate punishment. It may be that Austen half admired her creation’s mixture of cunning and sexual bravura; Lady Susan was at least capable of exercising power—even though this force was chiefly directed at breaking up homes and managing her daughter’s misery.

Austen scholar Ellen Moody offers a different view:

The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. . . There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she [Austen] found in her culture and what she wanted to say . . . My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest.

I appreciate the ambiguity of the novel over the shallowness of the film. As Ellen Moody points out, “If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and . . . think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then.” Instead, you can “read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to.”

Shields dates the novel from around 1795, but Moody makes a good case for it being set in 1804-5, including there a calendar of the events in Lady Susan.

Ellen Moody also has completed a close reading of Jane Austen’s letters, posted on her Reveries Under the Sign of Austen blog, which Austen fans might enjoy. It begins here.

Have you seen the film Love and Affection? What did you think of it?

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd


Boyd is another author of many books who is new to me. This one sounded like something I’d love: the story of a fictional photographer, Amory Clay, living through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. A professional woman’s life, the events of the last century, a much-loved author (apparently) with multiple awards, rave reviews for this novel: what could go wrong?

Much, apparently. While the story had moments of interest, I found it hollow at the core. Not only was it not compelling, it was rather boring. I’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit.

The story is narrated by Amory in straight-forward past tense, occasionally interrupted by journal entries from 1977, the “present” of the story. Born in 1908, Amory has a charmed childhood. Boyd includes fun quirky details such as her earliest memory being of her father doing a handstand. However, her father returns from the Great War damaged in ways that are not visible. Meanwhile, a friend of the family, “Uncle” Greville, has given Amory a camera, setting her on the path to her eventual career.

The story follows her life through high points of the next decades, such as Berlin in the 1920s and New York in the 1930s. She becomes one of the first female war photographers in World War II and later in Vietnam. A successful career woman, she publishes books of her photos and works on magazines.

The book is sprinkled with photographs, found by the author at places like estate sales and included to enhance the illusion that Amory is a real person. However, they backfired for me because their quality was so poor. I could not accept them as favorite prints of an accomplished photographer.

I was interested in her career, but in fact, the story is much more concerned with her love life. That sigh you hear? That’s me. Maybe a giddy 20-year-old would be more obsessed with her affairs than her art and career, but across a woman’s entire lifetime? It felt like a male author’s fantasy of a woman’s preoccupations. I should have been warned by the title.

The other reason the book felt empty to me is that Amory herself is hollow. She lives through exciting and terrifying events without any emotion. In fact, there were only two brief moments in the entire story where I detected any tremor of feeling. Since Boyd is supposedly such an accomplished author, I have to assume this is deliberate.

Can anyone, male or female, be so cold as this woman? It may be reticence rather than coldness, but it still keeps the book from engaging the reader. After the first terrible event, she says, “I had what I now suppose was a form of nervous breakdown.” That’s not really enough to stir feeling in a reader. As Donald Maass—an incredible writer, agent and teacher—says: just telling the reader a character feels an emotion doesn’t make the reader feel it.

It’s a shame because the story is so promising and the prose, aside from its lack of emotion, well done. Dialogue is crisp; settings and characters economically and effectively described; action scenes tight.

In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty differentiates between cognitive meaning and emotional meaning. Of the latter she says, “This noncongitive notion of meaning, a sense of emotional importance or ultimate goal, is independent of the more traditional semantic notion of meaning as definition or intellectual content.” She also calls them “temporal lobe meaning and limbic meaning”, suggesting that they are processed by different parts of the brain.

Perhaps Boyd meant this story to be cerebral rather than emotional. If that were so, though, surely it would be more productive to focus on something other than Amory’s love affairs: world events perhaps, or what it was like to be one of the first women in a male-dominated field, or even what it was like to have a career at a time when few women did. If the women’s suffrage movement or second-wave feminism were mentioned, I must have missed them.

If you’ve read this or other of Boyd’s books, please let me know in the comments what you thought of them.

What novel have you read that captures the entire span of a character’s life?