THE DOLL is the most engrossing novel that I’ve ever been so ambivalent about

Remember yesterday when I wrote about Boleslaw Prus’ THE DOLL? Well today I’m 25% of the way through! Yes, I made an absurd amount of progress with this 1000 page Polish realist novel, because it’s actually really readable. For the first few chapters, I was like, what am I reading? And then I realized it was a novel about a businessman who’s in love with an impoverished noblewoman and I’m like okay, I get it.

The reverse of this novel is actually a staple of more Romantic literature (the high-status woman who’s being courted by a business man–Trollope’s The Way We Live Now comes to mind). In those novels, commerce is always portrayed as something quite ignoble and demeaning, though. But in this one the businessman is the hero! And what’s more, he’s also a would-be scientist!

It’s a fascinating book. So full of rich detail about 19th-century Poland. For instance, I’ve only rarely read a novel that was so concerned with how things look. You get paragraph after paragraph of loving description of the interiors of places.

The book is full of set-pieces. For instance, there’s one where the businessman, Stas, encounters the object of affection in his store and suddenly realizes he’s just a woman and that there’s no reason to be obsessed about her. And then he wanders the streets of Warsaw for twenty pages and sees all the poverty and need, and thinks, “Hey, I’m rich. I could do something about this!” and then he goes home and continues to obsess about the woman.

But he also maintains a vestigial interest in charity. He’s obviously been changed by this epiphany…he just hasn’t been changed very much. Which I love! It takes a lot of psychological insight, and a very sure hand, to thread the needle in that way.

And the book is just, on a page by page level, engrossing. I compared it yesterday to War and Peace, and I think the comparison is apt. Just like War and Peace, it makes you forget that you’re reading a book. Instead, it’s just a dream that goes on and on. When I was reading, I had the–nowadays quite rare–experience of checking where I was on the kindle and seeing that I’d gone ahead thousands of locations without realizing it! That’s pretty amazing. Usually even the best book leaves me wondering how close I am to finishing it.

And yet…the fatal ‘And yet.’

The book is uneven.

There are parts that leave me scratching my head. For instance, there’s an internal set of chapters: ‘The journal of an old clerk’ where the businessman’s head clerk narrates his life in the first person. The best thing about them is that oftentimes they’re so clearly tedious that you know you can skip them. So, for instance, there were pages and pages of the clerk’s experience as a partisan in the Hungarian revolt, and I just skipped them. I’ve read The Charterhouse of Parma and I’ve read Les Miserables and I’ve read War and Peace, so I know that long battlefield scenes can be very powerful and interesting. But in this case they weren’t.

And I am also left with a persistent feeling that the underlying engine of this book–the love plot–is unworthy of the fantastic eye and energy and level of detail and observation that we see. I don’t know. All the characters are interesting, but it’s just…I suppose it’s that the businessman seems too self-sufficient. He doesn’t seem like he’d fall prey to this kind of obsession.

In a way, it’s similar to those genre novels that keep you compelled and then leave you wondering, “What’s underneath this?”

Here I’m left wondering, “What about theme?”

It’s there, of course. This book is indisputably great. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as War and Peace. I particularly love how it examines the relationship between the aristocracy and the bourgeois. This is the moment when one is giving way to the other, and it’s fascinating to see how the two groups dance around that. But still…I do have an ambivalence…Bolesław_Prus_(1897)

If you’re gonna make a speech in your novel, you should just make a speech!

url_quotThe_Junglequot_By_Upton_Sinclair-s312x475-108352-580John Scalzi recently linked to his review of Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my own post about the book (which is, incidentally, my favorite novel).

And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.

However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.

The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.

I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.

And I think that’s great.

People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.

If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).

The insanity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

les-miserablesMy grandma doesn’t have wifi, but I thought that upon returning to New Delhi I would be reunited with my love. However, I soon discovered that the internet in my parents’ apartment is down. The four of us are reduced to using a 3g internet dongle to put cellphone internet into our computers. Truly a barbarous situation. There are so many unsync’ed Evernotes on my iPod Touch.

I am nearing the end of Les Miserables. It is truly a masterwork. I started reading it because my friend Becca was doing a re-read. She’s been blogging out it part by part by part, so if you’re interested in plot and such, that’d be a good place to go.

I like it a lot. In many ways, it reminds me of two of my favorite books: War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged (unsurprising, since Hugo was Ayn Rand’s favorite author). This is a book that contains worlds.

The primary method of world-delivery are these gargantuan digressions. The book starts with a 22,000 word novella that describes a guy—the bishop—who literally only appears for like three scenes in the main plot. That is far from the most irrelevant digression, though. There is a whole dissertation on the battle of Waterloo that could actually be cut from the book in its entirety without harming the work’s structural integrity. In fact, it’s disingenuous to even call them digressions. The book is full of charming page-long digressions that you barely notice. Those are not what I am talking about; I am talking about massive essays that stick out of the novel like shrapnel from a cannonaded corpse. In fact, I have prepared a list of some of the longer ones:

Digression Length (words)
The wealth, history, habits, character, and selected incidents from the life of Bishop Myriel(i.e. the bishop guy who lets Jean Valjean off after JV steals from him) 22,000
The Battle of Waterloo (which takes place well before the start of the action in the novel and really has no relevance to anything at all except that Thenardier appears in it for like a split-second at the end) 21,000
An exhaustive description of the organization and rules of the convent where JV and Cosette take shelter after fleeing 11,000
Why convents are TERRIBLE things 5,000
A discussion of underworld slang and whether it belongs in real literature 9,000
The habits of Paris street urchins (and why they represent all that is good and true in the soul of France!) 8,000
The nature of riots (and why they’re awesome!) 3,000
A description of the Paris sewers 15,500
The character of King Louis Phillippe (and why he deserved to be overthrown, even though he really wasn’t such a bad guy) 6,000

That’s over 100,000 words out of a 550,000 word novel. I compare it to Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace, but it’s actually nothing like that. Those works had long digressions, but their longest expositions were organic outgrowths of the plot and were also concise statements of the author’s life philosophy. Galt’s speech at the end of AS is about 33,000 words long…but it’s also the centerpiece of the book. The same is true of the long-ass (50,000 word) tract about Napoleon that comes (in conveniently skippable form—if you’re so inclined) right at the end of War and Peace.

Les Miserables is nothing like that. It reads like the work of a madmen—a person who has no concept of what people want to read or what is appropriate. I mean, it starts with 22,000 words (half of a Great Gatsby!) about some random guy. The closest thing it comes to is the weird 100 pages at the beginning of Demons where Dostoyevsky explicates on the odd love between an old professor and his patroness. But at least those two are characters in the book! They continue to appear! And at least that is largely told in scenes, with plot and stuff happening. I mean, the Myriel section is not as plotless as later essays will be, but it’s definitely not traditionally structured fiction.

It’s astonishing that Les Miserables exists and was successful and continues to be successful today. And that success is, in large part, not in spite of the digressions, but because of them. I enjoyed almost all of them (except the one about slang—god help me, I never want to hear the word ‘argot’ ever again). Some of them (particularly the one about the convent) were intensely fascinating. They add such a flair to the story. In War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged, you’re always like “Welp, here’s more objectivism” or “Welp, here’s some more stuff about the silliness of Napoleon”. But in Les Miserables, you really have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s like…”Hmm…alright…I guess we’re talking about the sewers now.”

And…I liked that.

The book is also real good. All kinds of interesting things happen in it. The characters are, like…characterey? Okay…I guess all I really wanted to talk about was the digressions. If you’re looking for a translation, I’d say that my Wilbour translation was eminently readable, although I think it’s like a century old.