Where's the book?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Round the world with #39 and #40

#39, a slender volume, has been sitting in my to-read pile for ages. Mr. Gilfil's Love Story is by one of my favorite writers, George Eliot, but I'd never heard of it, so was fascinated. Turns out the book is actually one of the three long stories that make up Scenes of a Clerical Life, Eliot's first published work.

It concerns the life of a clergyman named Maynard Gilfil, and starts out with a long and rather dreary introduction to the Reverend Gilfil's lonely middle-aged life. I rarely find Victorian writing difficult to read, but this long opening passage (pages and pages long) made me understand why so many people find the Victorian novelists difficult.

George Eliot
One the story got underway it improved. Somewhat. Most of the tale flashes back to Mr. Gilfil's earlier life, when he was in love with a young woman named Caterina, the ward of a wealthy nobleman. But Catarina is in love with the nobleman's nephew and heir, who has made her love him but now plans to marry a more suitable woman. We already know from the dreary opening that things end badly for Catarina. She loses her love, marries Gilfil, but dies in childbirth, leaving Gilfil to live out his life a lonely, heartbroken man.

It's not a pick-me-up, and it never gets terribly interesting. I think in future I'll leave the other two "stories" from Scenes of a Clerical Life alone and stick to Eliot's novels instead.

#40 is not so slender, but equally uninteresting. Shipwreck, by Louis Begley, is a strange tale. It's told by the writer John North to an unnamed narrator he meets in a bar. We know nothing at all about the narrator who makes his appearance known only occasionally. The entire story is told by North. Since Begley does not use quotation marks, the few and far between moments when the actual narrator intervenes with a comment or thought can be startling and confusing, since you have almost completely forgotten about his existence.

The story North tells is of his moral disintegration (although I'm not convinced he ever had much in the way of morality to disintegrate). He has woken up one morning and decided that every word he has written is, basically, crap. In Paris for the publication of his latest novel he decides to be unfaithful--for the first time--to his wife, a wife, he says, that he absolutely adores. Since he claims to be fully satisfied in every way by his wife (who appears to be nothing less than a saint), the decision appears to be arbitrary and absurd. Of course, things don't go very well with the young woman he chooses for his fling. In fact, things get fairly out of hand. Along the way, we come to pretty much despise North, who is selfish, cold, calculating, nasty, and, perhaps, antisemitic.

The book has been sold as a sexual thriller, hot and heavy, but Begley's sex scenes are about as cold as North (just realized how well the name works). They are the farthest thing from erotica. In fact, it's really only North's evaluations of power and money, especially as it concerns his old-guard Protestant family versus his wife's wealthy Jewish bunch, that seem to pack any sort of punch. He is an amoral man who does so much wrong that he should be interesting, but unfortunately, he isn't. In a better author, one with some power in his pen, this could have been a roller-coaster ride of a story. Too bad.


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