Middlemarch by George Eliot – Review

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“Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Middlemarch is the perennial favourite of well-read parents everywhere, and my mother was no exception to this. That guaranteed that that I would do everything I could to avoid this book as a sulky teenager, and as adulthood began to creep along I merely forgot it existed.

This year, after reading a number of the looming geniuses of 19th century England (and having discovered that the writing there was, unsurprising to everyone but me, bloody good), an essay by the incredible Zadie Smith went over just how special this book is to her and should be to others. So, I decided to finally give George Eliot a go.

I began reading and thought:

“Okay, so Middlemarch has one of the best written opening paragraphs in fiction. Not a bad start.”

I kept reading.

“Right, so Middlemarch has one of the most gorgeous opening pages in fiction. This is a great start.”

I kept reading.

Three weeks later, after forcing myself to take the novel slowly—I wanted to savour the experience—I was in love with Middlemarch in a way I have been in love with very few books. Yes, that’s a melodramatic way of describing how certain books can make you feel. In my experience, it’s also an accurate one.

The omniscient narrator gives us an all-encompassing view of life which only 19th century novels can pull off with such lightness. I’ve recently become fascinated with authors who can truly create multiple personalities within a single novel; David Mitchell and Susan Barker are great examples of this rare talent, but if they’re chameleons then George Eliot was a shape-shifter.

Young, old, handsome, homely; poor; rich; there’s no one Eliot can’t write fully fleshed. She was absurdly talented at expressing the intricacies and individualities of humanity, and she did so without demonizing those who held views likely extraordinarily different to her own.

This is by far the least plot-driven book to sit on my favourites’ shelf; the actual events are small scale by design. That small acts can have huge implications for those we live with is one of Eliot’s central conceits, but this means it’s difficult to express what makes this book special succinctly. George Eliot describes this feeling of the gap between experience and explanations better than I can, unsurprisingly. Near the end of the novel, Celia asks Dorothea to explain just how a surprising relationships came about:

“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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“…she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see…”

Some novels give you interesting ideas to think about. Some create an entertaining stories. Some do an interesting mixture of both of these things. A rare kind of book, however, can transport you into a time, place, and body that are far away from anything you would normally experience, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtston achieves this with ease and grace.

Hurston creates the humid, vibrant landscapes of South Florida through a dramatic third-person prose style that borders on mythical, but it’s dialogue – phonetic, funny, and raw – that lets her truly shine. Crafting insightful, funny conversations that still propel narrative almost looks easy when she does it. Almost.

The characters are flawed, even the most lovable: the protagonist can seem self-centered;  Tea-Cake is affectionate and funny, but his temper and gambling can make him almost dangerous; her other love interests are cruel, but understandable. That’s why it’s possible to really believe and care about them (“loving” characters can be a trite phrase used to describe mere affection, but in this case it’s appropriate), and one of the reasons why I almost didn’t want the book to end.

I was turned onto this book by an essay by Zadie Smith, who once again is scarily perceptive. Her thoughts as to why the love of Tea-Cake and Janie rings so true despite the deluge of poor romance in a lot of otherwise strong fiction, for example:

“[T]he choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame[.]”

Put simply, what makes this novel truly special is that Hurtston’s characters feel as organic in the way they interact and clash. This is a love story with conflict and heartbreak, but completely devoid of cliche and over-sentimentality. That’s something rare and fantastic.

Changing My Mind: Ocassional Essays by Zadie Smith

  

“I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.” 

“Changing My Mind” is a strange title for a book of essays. The majority of opinionated writers in the UK often appear worryingly sure of themselves. The columnists littering the pages of our newspapers are a strident bunch, desperate to demonstrate that they know what’s best for us.

Smith isn’t strident about much, despite her obvious mental gifts. This is one of the many reasons she comes across as far more intelligent than the majority of non-fiction writers who have bothered to write in the last few years (that I’ve read). She weaves her way through topics from strange angles, isn’t afraid to take readers on weird asides, and peppers her pieces with footnotes containing strange trivia. I’m certain I won’t be the first person to compare these essays to David Foster Wallace (whom is namedropped in almost half the essays here), but Smith comes across as, if anything, more erudite than him, which is intimidating but great fun to dig through.

The range of subject matter covered is wide considering how cohesive this is: race, E.M. Forster, Christmas, Kafka, the Oscars. Smith has a distinctive voice: she’s learned but friendly, challenging but inviting, sombre but hilarious in the space of a paragraph. She enthusiastically engages with whatever she decides to muse on, and references philosophers, rap artists, Madonna, traditional literary canon figures, anything that appears to pop into her mind. There are fine lines between fun and frivolous, serious and dour, knowledgeable and pretentious, but Smith knows just how to maintain engagement.

Smith’s willingness to question her own motivations and delve into her topics with endearing self-consciousness mean that, despite how often she’s uncertain, you’ll be glad to have heard what she had to say.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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“A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals–that they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.”

This is a novel about identity, a lengthy examination of a simple idea: the impossibility of escaping your family’s past.

The idea that we are islands — people who can live apart from the histories that brought us to the piece of rock we stake our claims on — is batted about in this book like a mouse by an angry cat. Characters, particularly the second-generation children, slip in and out of different cultural identities like they’re trying on new suits.

Sometimes these characters want to abide by the cultures they’ve been taught to value; sometimes they are making desperate attempts at individuality, at casting aside the expectations of not just their families but the society they are trying to make their way in. They have mixed success, but it’s consistently entertaining to read about.

The omniscient narrator feels like a calm voice in the middle of a hurricane, a dispassionate yet wise woman who is guiding you through a complicated maze of her own making.

It sometimes feels like this novel doesn’t know where it’s going, like the main plot-line has taken a back-seat to whatever random musings have appeared in different characters’ minds, sometimes for fifty-pages at a time, but maybe that’s appropriate. Things rarely occur in real life, after all, in simple, straight forwards ways, or the way we expect, so why should they here?

White Teeth is an entertaining look at Britain’s identity crisis, and a great snapshot of the different forces which help make the UK the complicated, diverse, interesting place it is.