Where's the book?

Monday, July 14, 2014

So long, Anthony, so long

#29 definitely took longer than any book I've read for a while. I've been keeping fairly successfully to my book-a-week schedule, with the occasional one taking slightly less and the less occasional one taking slightly more. But book #29, The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope, was a monster, a massive, heavy, 825-page, 100-chaptered, tiny-type killer of a book. Fortunately it was also wonderfully entertaining, so I don't regret getting slightly off schedule because of it.

If you overlook the Victorian language and references, The Way We Live Now could have been published this year. It's the Victorian version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which in itself refers back to the serialized satirical novels of the Victorian era. (Round and round and round we go.) The book is a story of financial scandals, Madoff-like frauds, greedy society swells and social climbers, amid a general atmosphere of scandal, dishonesty, and moral decline. See what I mean about it being published yesterday?

Trollope wanted to make a moral point by satirizing what he saw as a society in moral ruin. He said, "If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel."

David Suchet as the great Augustus Melmotte
There are multiple plots and sub-plots, and while much of the action revolves around the great financial wizard Augustus Melmotte, the man himself doesn't make much of an appearance until the final third of the book. Melmotte has a shady background (he might be--horrors!--a Jew), lax moral behavior, and a very modern way of doing business. He invests in an American railway concern without actually putting any money into it, then sells the shares that increase rapidly in value simply because the great Melmotte has invested in it. He buys an elegant London home from a desperate and nearly penniless Lord, takes title, then turns around and mortgages it for more money than its worth. He's a powerful character, compellingly ugly and low. Unfortunately for Trollope, but lucky for the reader, it's a low characters in the book who are far more interesting. The moral points of view belong to only a few, and they are a rather dull bunch. I found Melmotte's daughter Marie, who he is assiduously trying to marry off to a future Marquis, a wonderful character. She goes from being in love with a simpleton, just because he's pretty, to standing her ground against her strong-willed, abusive father, and marrying finally, the man she chooses.

Trollope apparently agreed about his immoral characters being of greater appeal to the reader. "The interest of the story," he once wrote, "lies among the wicked and foolish people."

Melmotte is a low scoundrel, but he's an entertaining, vivid, low scoundrel. He's a man with juice, and I'd rather read a story about a juicy low scoundrel than a dull and proper man of morals.

I'm looking forward to watching the 2001 BBC mini-series made of the novel, with a great cast (David Suchet, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Macfayden (Mr. Darcy!), and Miranda Otto, among many others).

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