How to write a book review of the greatest novel in the history of English literature

I finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch weeks ago. I put it off for years; I suspected it would be the best book I’d ever read and I wanted to have that experience to look forward to. I like rationing what I know will be superb, brilliant, superlative* books. I also feared what would happen to every book that would come after it.
I was right to be scared, my friends. Have you read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer? Middlemarch, especially while I was reading it, but even now, seems as real to me as Nell’s primer did to her–more real than reality, peopled by literally real, almost hyper-real beings. As though it evolved as I was reading to particularly suit me. It’s made the world outside of its pages seem simply dull and shabby.
Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But. BUT. Literarily, I have nothing like Middlemarch left to look forward to. I am reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and I can objectively see that it is brilliant. But it’s not Middlemarch brilliant. Anathem pleases me to no end, but it doesn’t illuminate the inside of my brain! I have Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall that I’ve been chewing my nails over for months now, sitting on my shelf–but I fear that I won’t be able to truly enjoy it because it’s not Middlemarch!!
Given all this…devastation, how can I even suggest writing a “book review” of Middlemarch? I can’t. As for some essays in the style I wrote about Eliot’s Romola a few years ago, I also can’t, although that would be appropriate and desirable. Why? Romola was genius but a kind of genius I felt I could engage with. Middlemarch makes me feel as though I’ve been visited by a superior being that I almost can’t look at straight on. (This alien metaphor makes sense, actually, because who’s more hyperbolic than those who claim to have been abducted by UFOs? Besides hysterical bloggers, I mean.)
In plain and serious language, not only would I need to read this novel again to even begin to form intelligent thoughts about it, but I could easily spend the rest of my life looking for the key to all its intricate mythologies of humanity. Yes, to over-simplify, this is a novel about humanity. But Eliot’s deep and minute comprehension of what makes people tick is so profound I don’t know what to call it except mystical. Example: Dorothea Brooke, in conversation with Will Ladislaw, refuses to be pigeon-holed on her views of religion:
“I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me.””What is that?” said Will, rather jealous of the belief.”That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.””That is a beautiful mysticism—it is a—”

“Please not to call it by any name,” said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. “You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl. I used to pray so much—now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have desires merely for myself, because they may not be good for others, and I have too much already. I only told you, that you might know quite well how my days go at Lowick.”

“God bless you for telling me!” said Will, ardently, and rather wondering at himself. They were looking at each other like two fond children who were talking confidentially of birds.

“What is your religion?” said Dorothea. “I mean—not what you know about religion, but the belief that helps you most?”

“To love what is good and beautiful when I see it,” said Will. “But I am a rebel: I don’t feel bound, as you do, to submit to what I don’t like.”

“But if you like what is good, that comes to the same thing,” said Dorothea, smiling. (p. 387)

What Dorothea can’t part with…well, nothing sums it up better than the novel’s final paragraph but I won’t quote it here, in part because no matter how many times I re-read it, it makes me weep. But it’s something to do, to put it in decidedly un-Eliot-like and non-mellifluous terms, about bringing all of one’s guts and loyalty to the relationships that matter–and they all matter. And gentleness, so much gentleness, which is everything because others “may seem idle and weak because they are growing. We should be very patient with each other” (p. 80). There are so many moments like this; scratch this, the whole thing, every word, constitutes a moment like this–one of supreme and humbling generosity.

In Casaubonesque futility, I could just keep amassing journals of important Middlemarch quotations until I finally felt like I had everything I needed to finally write something worthy of my subject matter…but then I would simply have reproduced the novel in its entirety. Which might, actually, be the only monument that could do justice to Eliot’s genius. Certainly nothing I produce can do so.

*I use this word far too much. I know this. But alternatives such as consummate, supreme, or unsurpassed just don’t really cover the beauty of the literary perfection I want to convey here. Superlative is, itself, a lovely word; ugly, neutral, or workman like words simply aren’t adequate.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. So why not re-read Middlemarch right now?

    1. Perhpas Colleen is postponing her second reading for the same reason she postponed her first. I know I am. I want something to look forward to. Maybe once every two years. Yes, a good reading plan. 2014, 2016, 2018 will all be better for it.

      1. Colleen says:

        What Kevin says. By the way, Kevin, BEFORE I’d read this comment I’d been thinking that re-reading Middlemarch every two years would be a very good idea. Also, we start home renovations in a couple of weeks…my brain really won’t be up to the task of re-engaging with Eliot then!

  2. Rohan says:

    Hear, hear! I fell for Middlemarch when I first read the novel at 18 and as you know, I’ve never really recovered. But I read it much better now and that sense of it always having something more to show me or make me think about or make me feel is very much part of my admiration for Eliot’s accomplishment.

    I’ve just finished Madame Bovary and I’m completely provoked by its un-likeness to Middlemarch. I’m trying to convince myself that there are multiple paths to greatness, but I have to wonder why someone would want to take the Madame Bovary path!

    1. Colleen says:

      I can only agree, with everything.

  3. Oh my, your favourite book, what a wonder and what accolades for the joy of rereading. Now I feel content I have not read it and must make sure to get a copy so I have it for that day when I think I have nothing of interest to read.

    Regarding the last comment, I loved Madame Bovary, not for its sentiment so much as the innovatory use of language, Flaubert was virtually the creator of the metaphor and this is a book I shied away from for years not knowing and then discovered it such an absorbing read, I just love his playfulness with language and sawit as the beginning of a whole new way of communicating with the reader and inciting their imagination.

    1. Colleen says:

      It’s a long time since I read Madame Bovary so I can’t comment on its innovation in language…but I’m certain others were using metaphors in exciting ways well before he was. See Shakespeare, for example.

  4. Tony says:

    It’s definitely a book I look forward to rereading. I’ve read it twice, the last time in the first year of my blog (2009), so it must be time for a repeat visit soon.

    And yes – the ‘Middlemarch’ way is infinitely preferable to the ‘Madame Bovary’ way…

    1. Colleen says:

      Didn’t I see you post somewhere (the Twitter?) that you’re from Middlemarch country? That must be surreal. Books have been set in my home town but not truly great books! I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts when you get back to the novel…

  5. Stefanie says:

    I dunno, seems like your passionate outpouring here is the best thing you could say about the book. It has certainly made me want to run to my shelves and dive in.

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