I knew halfway through Middlemarch that whatever book I read next was utterly doomed. Eliot’s novel is too fine, too well-written, too mature (as Woolf so succinctly said, it’s “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”); whatever followed it would come off as shabby, awkward, and half-formed. And it was; I chose a Neal Stephenson book, Anathem, in the hopes that broad differences in style, subject, and genre would mitigate the inevitable letdown; it didn’t work. Anathem still sits in my memory as a merely okay YA fantasy novel; I’m certain it isn’t YA, or mediocre YA at that, but that’s how I remember it. This is the Middlemarch effect.
I’m reading now, but friends, I’m suffering. I read Bring Up the Bodies in July or August and I’m still floundering around trying to find novels that seem good enough; my brain keeps returning to Hilary Mantel, comparing everything to her second tale of Cromwell, to its energy, to that writing! (The one gloriously demented exception to this terrible drought has been Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; damn, I loved that book.)
I didn’t think at the time that Bring Up the Bodies was as perfect as Wolf Hall; but I also don’t know why I thought that. I had a vague impression of mild breakdowns in language or plot at points but I can’t remember any such breakdowns in detail now. I do very clearly remember feeling a sort of poisonous exhilaration as Cromwell enacted his revenge on the men who made such grotesque mockery of his beloved mentor’s death. Henry Norris, left forepaw.
I remember the thin but impenetrable veil hanging gracefully between Jane Seymour and any real understanding of what motivated her. The impossibility of reconciling Anne Boleyn’s private female body and her public role, her public presence, her not quite acceptable public voice as queen; she only returns to the closed, private domain of women after her head is separated from her body. Then there was Mantel’s terrifying characterization of a king equal parts squalling baby, hopeless romantic, and vicious paranoiac.
I want more of this: unembarrassed ambition in writing; I want clear repudiation of prose describable as sparse or luminous; I want profound delight in pure story-telling. Mantel’s gift (one of her many, many gifts) is that she can create mysteries in her narrative and characters without just leaving things out; she can write literary fiction that is robust enough to not need to be described in earnest capital letters to be taken seriously.
It’s a sad and frightening irony that the more truly great books I find, the less I’m able to read the middling to acceptable to pretty good ones. Yet, this contrast is part of what makes the experience of reading something like Middlemarch, Bring Up the Bodies, or Crime and Punishment (the first novel that ever struck me down this way) so unsettling. Their very rarity gives them more power than they already inherently possess!
Part of my plan to remain a happy reading person is to delve into more non-fiction; I’m bolstered by my lack of experience with it, in part because my dearth of knowledge of that whole mega-genre means my standards are in some ways relatively low (that said, MFK Fisher and E.B. White have shown me that in terms of pure style, my standards should remain just as high as they are with fiction). My other, more immediate, plan is to read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. Surely, this will help snap me out of fruitless pining for Mantel’s Cromwell…! Right…?