Wednesday, November 30, 2016
I'm not expecting deep and complex character development in A Man Called Ove, no more than I expect character development in all but a very few films - and this novel is close to a screenplay in ova (ha) - but it's not exactly an action story, either - the title alone tells you it's a study in character. Part of understanding a literary character is getting a sense of where they came from, what forces built their personality, the back story, in other words, and Backman gives us in summary form Ove's back story: difficult childhood in some regards, mother died when he was quite young and father died when he was 16, leading Ove to abandon school - though he like and was good at math - and take a lifetime job as a railroad mechanic, a job at which he performed very well (as did his father before him) until he was made redundant, as the English say, just before the outset of this novel. What we see about his father was that he was an honorable, honest, hard-working man and a devoted dad; Ove inherited some of that - he was clearly a great worker and lived by his father's code of honor - we don't rat on people, and we don't fight. So I wonder what makes the adult Ove such a crank? He seems, from his childhood, as if he'd become a respected and well-liked retiree, but no - he fights with everyone, holds all kids of garden-variety prejudices and biases, is blunt in his expression of same, and comes very close to hanging himself in his apartment until interrupted - comic relief! - by some neighbors at the door. So there's a disconnect - how did he go from point a to point b, what happened that made him such a grouch and misanthrope? We do know that he deeply loved his recently deceased wife, thought she was too good for him - she must have tempered some of his eccentricities. But it's the eccentricities that make this novel; to the extent that it has a narrative shape at all, it will clearly be about his building relationships with the neighbors whom he holds in contempt, which is to say all of them. I don't know why they put up w/ him, honestly; maybe that's a Swedish thing (or a movie thing), but I think most Americans would ignore him at best and at worst be afraid of him, his temper and distemper.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove is a best seller and, well, it reads like one: story of a curmudgeon nearing 60 recently widowed getting by on his own in a what seems to be a townhouse somewhere in the middle of Sweden, cranky with everyone he meets but in such an over-the-top way that you kind of feel for him and recognize that he's needy and lonely and entertaining in his irascibility. First scene shows him buying a computer in an Apple story and arguing with the sales force about what he should (or shouldn't) buy: laptop? ipad (he calls it an opad), etc. - he doesn't understand even the basic terms and his about 5 generations removed from the sales force (question why he would be buying an Apple if he's so ignorant re how to use it; also recognize that Backman may have taken an editor's advice and moved this scene, out of sequence, into the first pages of the novel, because it's pretty funny). Story meanders on as Ove gets angry while replacing a wall hanging - how can some people not even care the right way to do home repairs?, he mutters - and then into a confrontation with a new neighbor who damages his siding and mailbox while backing up a trailer. The new neighbors are Eastern immigrants; they have two cute kids who come over the provide Ove with an Asian rice dish. Grumble, grumble. Can you predict where this novel is going? Might we take a wild guess that this family will change Ove, and he will come to, grudgingly, love the children? Did I mention that this is soon to be a movie? Are you surprised? All that said, it's a sweet story and easy to read and, in part out of interest in Sweden, I'll stay w/ it.
Monday, November 28, 2016
George Eliot lived up to expectations and showed why she was a great writer in the sorrowful conclusion to Daniel Deronda - with DD at last married to Mirah, as they head to the East to carry the message of her late brother, Ezra/Mordecai - DD will be a prophet calling for a homeland for the Jewish people (about a century before his time). Note how this is the inversion of the famous conclusion to the great, near-contemporary American classic, Huck Finn, with the character heading out for the territories - but in this case heading East, and not to get away from civilization but to imbue himself with a new (and very old) culture. At the same time Eliot concludes the far more emotional, touching, and subtle element of the plot: Gwendolen's facing widowhood, her future, and her solitude. She was sure that she and DD would marry - based on her attraction to him, not his to her, and on her supreme self-confidence, but she learns at the end that, though she has sacrificed much in her life, entering a loveless marriage so as to provide for her mother, she is not entitled to happiness just by fiat; we have seen her mature, suffer, and come out the stronger - but not in a classic romantic way. It's as if Eliot glimpsed at that future for Gwendolen - Eliot could have taken the easy path and married her off, if not w/ DD then with her cousin Rex, who fades into the woodwork by the end of the novel, but Eliot took a bolder and more unconventional - and more credible course. Finishing Deronda, I read some of FR Leavis's writing on Eliot in his classic The Great Tradition: On the one hand, very pleased to say that my reading was entirely in accord with, if less extreme than, his sense of the novel, which he divides into Good Eliot (the Gwendolen section) and bad Eliot (DD sections) - even refers to it as two distinct novels, DD and Gwendolen Harleth. Like Leavis, I found some of the writing about the Jewish themes leaden, and much of the dialogue just awful -- DD's, Mirah's, and especially Ezra/Mordecai's. That said, I got very frustrated with Leavis, whose entire focus is on determining whether this or that novel, this or that author, is "great" - he's full of opinions, and very learned, with amazing # of novels at his fingertips. But really, isn't there more to criticism than ranking and rating books? He has very little to say about the substance of the novel, and nothing at all to say about the place of this novel in its culture and in its time - or his. Does anyone else find it peculiar, to say the least, that he could write an extensive essay about Daniel Deronda, in the early 1940s, with not a word about European Jews of his own time and place?
Sunday, November 27, 2016
George Eliot does a beautiful job in sorting out the complicated love relationships among the central characters toward the end of Daniel Deronda: The eponymous DD at last feels he can be in love with and marry the beautiful Jewish woman, Mirah, but the class differences between them are so vast and both he and she as so sensitive to the imbalance of power between them that their dialogue is awkward and stilted. DD does not want it to appear that he is taking advantage of Mirah, through some form of droits de seigneur, and she in turn thinks it's presumptuous for her to make an claim on DD's affections - so her older brother, Mordecai/Ezra, becomes what you might call the mediator: they both talk about their devotion to him and to his obsession with independence and freedom for the Jewish people, rather than about their attraction to and affection for each other. In a subsequent chapter, the widowed but now impoverished Gwendolen invites DD to her house to discuss her future. Ostensibly, she asks his advice on accepting any part of the inheritance from her abusive late husband, Grandcourt - she wants to take only enough $ to support her mother and half-siblings, none for herself. But what she really wants - is DD. She's trying to tell him that she will give up all of her claims on the Grandcourt estate if he will have her; he completely misunderstands and gives her cold, thoughtful, legal advice - or, if he does understand, he resists her overtures because of his love for Mirah. Her sorrow is extremely sad and touching - and I imagine all modern readers will wish that these characters could just come out and say what's in their hearts. There's so much unspoken here. I still suspect that Gwendolen will marry her cousin Rex - but it will be settling for second-best, not a likelihood for happy marriage among equals. Same with DD - can her really have a happy marriage with Mirah, so different from him and so lost in devotion to her strange brother; for how long will the marriage endure with the memories of St. Mordecai constantly between them? Eliot is, to her credit, resisting the happy resolution of the comic romance - there's a lot of darkness at the heart of this novel.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
The last 100 or so pages of Daniel Deronda will test the mettle of George Eliot - will she succumb to convention and end her novel as a conventional romantic comedy with the main characters nestled together a a set of married couples, each, through trial and trib., finding the best possible mate - which would be Deronda married to Mirha, and Gwendolen married to her cousin Rex: for at least three of them (Gwendolen the exception) this would constitute the fulfillment of long-suppressed desire. As we approach the conclusion, we see Mirah for the first time admit to herself her protective jealousy toward Deronda, rising to his defense when her brother, Hans, reproaches DD and suggests that he is now free to marry the widowed Gwendolen. And of course we know that the biggest obstacle between DD and Mirah has now been obliterated - she doesn't know it yet but DD is soon to tell her that he was born a Jew. All that said, I hope that Eliot can stay true to the darker forces that her novel reveals - that each of these characters, wiser but damaged, will pursue their own course through life - atonement for Gwendolen, pursuit of the law for Rex, serving her brother's memory for Mirah, becoming a champion for the Zionist movement for DD. For could either of these marriages really work? Mirah is saw lost in the devotion to her brother Mordecai/Edward (by far the least credible character in the novel - there's not a passage of his dialog, or monologue as the case may be, that sounds anything like the parlance of a human being) that it seems she will be a dead weight around DD or anyone else she marries. DD himself is so lost and confused - could her really become a good husband or father? Gwendolen is so damaged by her horrible marriage, her loss of pride, her trauma, and her guilt; and Rex is seems like a little puppy beside the powerful and sharp-witted Gwendolen - she could never look up to him or respect him as anything other than her kid cousin. Do we trust Eliot to be true to these facts - or to bow to convention and obliterate all she has created?
Friday, November 25, 2016
No surprise really that Gwendolen Grandcourt who collapsed and was found "crushed" on the floor at end of section did not actually die - just goes into a deep depression on the death of her husband, not because she loved him or misses him but our of guilt for not trying harder to save him from drowning, a perverse fulfillment of her barely suppressed desire to kill her abusive (mentally) husband. We learn in the next section that Grandcourt had pretty much cut her out of his vast estate - unless she bears him a son - so this leaves open a faint possibility: Could she have been pregnant when her husband drowned? If there's no son, all of the Gandcourt money goes to the son he had out of wedlock w/ Mrs. Glasher - we haven't even met this young man, but it would seem he's just a child. And by the way never mind his three sisters, they'll just have to depend on the kindness and generosity of their now wealthy older brother - typical of the fate of women in this novel and in the culture of the time. The sudden death of Grandcourt revives another passion: Gwendolen's cousin Rex had been broken-heated when she showed no interest in him years back; now, restored to health (he dropped out of Oxford for a year he was so depressed, and talked about going to Canada with his sister Anna), he's a rather boring law student, and he begins to wonder whether he might be back in the picture with Gwendolen. The poor young guy has no idea of the strength of the forces he's confronting - she's a strong and independent woman who would crush him. The one person who might enter into her life, the eponymous Deronda, is still traipsing through Europe and trying to learn more about his ancestry: he goes to Frankfort to recover the chest with records and documents that his long-lost mother has secured for him. I don't know what secrets are left to reveal here, unless he has some odd and unexpected relationship to the young woman, Mirah, whom he thinks he loves. He vows to continue with his interest in Judaism and, it would seem, in his commitment to advancing Zionism. We see by this point, near the end of the novel, how unconventional Eliot can be - quite different from most 19th-century British novelists: there are no happy reunions or marriages or incorporations into the social order on the horizon, it would seem - just characters wiser, more experienced, more committed to their unique path and vision: Deronda's Zionism is a reversal in a way of Huck Finn's heading "out for the territories" - another version of alienation from the accepted, rigid social order and from the world's expectations.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
You have to sense something will go wrong when the dour and spiteful Grandcourt insists on going "boating" with wife, Gwendolen, while they're laid over in Genoa. They rent a sailboat, and we have no idea whether he has any idea how to manage the boat, although he's so sure of himself that we suspect he may be getting in way over his head. Gwendolen dutifully manages the tiller, and all seems OK, and then - we shift viewpoint to Deronda's who arrives at the shorefront and sees a great disturbance and learns that a man has drowned in a boating accident. First reaction: even for 19th-century fiction, Eliot is pushing the boundaries of coincidence here. You figure the chances! Only a novelist's hand could bring these 3 characters together 1,000 miles from home at the very moment of greatest crisis. The question: was it an accident? We then get into a long scene in which Gwendolen "confesses" to Deronda; she's tormented by guilt. But did she kill her husband? Eliot toys with us for quite a while before the waters settle and we see that she didn't kill him but she sure didn't rush to his rescue - holding a line far too long - once he'd been knocked into the sea. (Might have been good if Eliot had set it up earlier that he couldn't swim - but maybe that's the problem w/ writing a novel in installments - you can't backtrack.) So her guilt is about her failure to act. That's too bad - it would have been more dramatically satisfying if she'd killed the bastard. In any event, Eliot ends this section of the novel - Revelations - when the hoteliers find Gwendolen on the floor in the morning crushed by her guilt. So - I'm hanging here - is she alive or dead? Readers, beware - a novelist will probably says "dead" if that's the outcome - "crushed" leaves everything open, and I think she needs this character alive for the remaining chapters. Gwendolen is by far the most interesting (and tragic) character in the novel; I don't believe DD will end up w/ her - too many forces are pulling him in different directions - but she will probably make amends to Mrs. Glasher and the out-of-wedlock children her horrible husband Grandcourt left behind.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
There are (at least) two "isms" at work in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The two: feminism, and Zionism (or we could reverse them and call the two chauvinism, and anti-Semitism). In my view the feminism/chauvinism theme is much more strongly presented in this novel. The most compelling and most credible character is Gwendolen, as we follow her on the sad course of her life, from smart and beautiful girl who attracts the attention of the most eligible bachelor in the area and then has her life blown up when she learns of his secret past - 3 children by another woman whom he never married - then she draws the attention of the handsome but untitled Deronda, which should be a serious match, but her family loses all its money and she marries the odious Grandcourt so that his wealth can support her mother and half-siblings. (The theme of the attractive and intelligent young woman married to a dislikeable, often older man runs throughout Eliot's work - we see it in Middlemarch, anyway). We truly feel for Gwendolen, for the loss of her independence, her subjugation, her broken spirit; similarly, when we meet DD's mother late in the novel and learn of her frustrated career as a singer, we understand that Eliot is showing us the difficult life for an intellectual or artistic woman in her era - but the Gwendolen narrative line is far better developed, and we empathize because we understand her and believe in her as a character. The Zionism theme, on the other hand, feels forced into the novel: do we ever really believe in the prophetic Mordecai, in the saintly but elusive Mirah, of her melodramatic rescue from the brink of drowning, most of all in Deronda and his peculiar obsession w/ the Jewish people of his time - when her truly seems not so interested in the Jewish cause as in Mirah. Credit to Eliot for writing such a fine novel about outsiders and outcasts - not at all typical of the work of her time - but this novel would have been stronger if it had a unified rather than a bifurcated theme.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Rest in peace William Trevor, who died today (ou peut etra hier), one of the two greatest living English-language short story writers is now gone (leaving Alice Munro) - though neither had been publishing much if at all over the past three or four years. Trevor was often called the English counterpart to Chekhov, and I think that's quite accurate: his short stories were like novels in miniature, not because they were packed with action or incident, quite the opposite, but because by containing so little - often just one scene or action - they conveyed and implied so much. I was not surprised to read in the NYTimes obit that Trevor had in earlier life pursued a career as a sculptor: in both sculpture and writing, his writing anyway, it's all about what's removed from the fiction (as he said in one interview); he has also said that he considers his novels - there were more than a dozen - to be failed short stories. His career as a sculptor also explains the haunting beauty of one of his greatest stories, Sacred Statues - about a young man who gives up a working-class job to create statuary for churches, but can't make a living at it, ends up on a road crew, and the beautiful last line that I can only paraphrase: The world, not he, had failed. I wish I could remember more of his stories in detail - but what stays with me is primarily the mood of loneliness, sorrow, missed opportunities, a world of being much like Chekhov's, as it happens. I believe I have 17 posts on Trevor, which those interested can look at - mostly from my reading of his Selected (or Collected?) Stories, about 5 years ago. I would say the only thing not good about Bob Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize for literature this year is that now Trevor will never receive the honor (which goes only to living writers): I wish they split the prize the year Munro won (as they did years ago, I think for 2 Israeli authors).
Monday, November 21, 2016
At last Daniel Deronda learns who his parents are and learns in the process what most readers had long suspected - that he is Jewish by birth. He meets his mother, now the widow of some sort of Eastern European count and in her youth a famous singer (clear reprise here of the early career of Mirah, the young Jewish woman w/ whom DD is in love, who had spent her youth on tour as a child-prodigy singer, pushed by her evil father). DD's mother turns out to be cold as ice; she rebuffs every attempt he makes to care for her and to receive her love. She is an angry and bitter woman, and has no regrets about giving up DD when he was 2, only feeling that she did well for him by placing him with Sir Hugo, a English lord who raised DD as an English Xtian gentleman. She believes she saved DD fro the hateful fate of being born a Jew. So where does Eliot stand in all of this? She seems to be suggesting that blood will out - that DD, despite his being raised as a Christian, inevitably follows a path toward Judaism - falling in love w/ Mirah, adopting her brother as a mentor, and, perhaps - the novel seems to be heading this way - devoting his life to the cause of Zionism. So all of DD's mother's efforts to in a sense inoculate her son against Judaism have failed. Yet Eliot is not entirely contemptuous of DD's aristocratic mother. There is a telling passage in which the mother says she did the right thing because she wanted to be a great performing artist and raising a son would have made that impossible - women cannot have both motherhood and artistic success. How can we not hear Eliot's voice in that? How cannot we not accept the truth of that lament - at least in the late 19th century? She is cruel and cold-hearted no doubt, but she is also a protofeminist, facing a dilemma that no male artist would face, making a decision for which no male artist would be castigated. Not that all artists don't suffer, each in his or her own way - Hans Meyrick in this novel is an example - but the lament of DD's long-estranged mother rings with a particular plangency and truth.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
The section "Revalations" in Daniel Deronda does conclude with a revelation, kind of, as Sir Hugo, who has raised DD from infancy and whom DD suspects may be his father (which would make DD a potential heir to his title), hands DD a letter that he says will reveal his actual parentage; he says he has withheld this information from DD for all this time at the request of DD's mother, but now he has her blessing to reveal the truth. What does DD do? Puts the letter - unread - into a jacket pocket! Who would do that? Only an author who wants to keep her readers guessing until the next installment. Well, we get one bit of info, as DD asks Sir Hugo: Is my father living? The answer is, no - so that seems to be a blow to DD, but we suspect not a fatal blow. In the previous chapter there was a very nasty confrontation: Gwendolen, who is in a miserable marriage to the wealthy Grandcourt but who still maintains a crush on DD, invites DD over to have a private conversation. That seems like dangerous grounds, and it is - as Grandcourt becomes suspicious when Gwendolen says she's not feeling well and will skip an opportunity to ride horses; Grandcourt turns back and surprises Gwendolen in mid-conversation. DD leaves abruptly - it's surprising that Grandcourt doesn't challenge him to a duel on the spot - and the next day Grandcourt tells Gwendolen he's going away "yachting" for a few months - and she's coming with him. What a time that will be - cute couple stashed away together - sounds like a Polanski movie. All signs are point toward Gwendolen and Deronda getting together, though Eliot is a lot tougher and more cynical than Dickens or Trollope - this is not a romance, and I suspect things will not end happily ever after. I am anticipating a more "American" ending, with characters, or at least the lead character, heading off "into the wilderness" to pursue his ideals (Zionism) or his ideal (Mirah).
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Daniel Deronda tells his friend? master? mentor? charity case? obsession? Mordecai that he has made a major discovery and has a significant announcement to make - and the reactions to this declaration are telling - telling about the course of this novel, about the Victorian age, and about Eliot (George). First reaction: Mordecai expects that DD will tell him he's learned of his parentage and that he is in fact a Jew. This, however, is not to be (yet, anyway) and has nothing to do w/ the announcement. Then, the Cohen family that has sheltered and provided for the somewhat mentally deranged Mordecai hopes and expects that DD is about to tell them that Mordecai has inherited a fortune. (Ha ha - typical of Eliot's condescending if not anti-Semitic attitudes). Then, DD tells them: he has found Mordecai's long-lost sister, Mirah. (He doesn't tell that he saved Mirah from drowning, nor that he is in love w/ Mirah.) This leads to much discussion about the future course of Mordecai's life: DD and Mrs. Meyrick - mother of his college friend, Hans, and the one who has more or less adopted Mirah into her family - take care of all the practicalities, renting a place for Mordecai not far from Meyrick household - so they've more or less taken over Mordecai's life and care. But to what end? Will Mirah now give up her music career to take care of her brother? And will Mordecai give up his dream of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine now that he can settle into a life free of financial worry? Eliot has really slowed the pace in this section of the novel, delaying the inevitable big scene of reunion of brother and sister - partly to build tension of course, but perhaps she has other twists and surprises to build into the plot. On the periphery - it's clear that both DD and his best friend, Hans, have fallen for the beautiful Mirah; these developments could lead to the dissolution of their friendship as well as to the increasing isolation and self-sacrifice of Mirah. We have to believe that Mordecai's instincts were correct as well - we still don't know anything about DD's parentage, and it would make sense if he were to learn that he's of Jewish descent - although that would also seal the fate of the novel, which at least on some level suggests that mistreatment of the Jews is an issue for all of the British, not for Jews only. (Whether emigration to Palestine is a proper solution is another matter - as the homeland idea represents not really support for the English Jews but the complete rejection of the Jewish culture, as with the idea, espoused by Lincoln himself, of sending freed slaves to a homeland in Africa.)
Friday, November 18, 2016
In the long meandering section of Daniel Deronda on the Zionism and the Jews-of-London subplot, we'd almost forgotten about the lead female character, Gwendolen, but we catch up with her again and, to no one's surprise, she's miserable in her marriage, her husband, Grandcourt, is a bully and a prig, her only consolation, if it's that, is that her marriage lifted her mother (and uncle Gascgoigne?) out of poverty, but was that a reason for her to throw her vibrant, promising life away in a loveless marriage? What's worse, she frets that her husband still has some kind of attachment to his ex-mistress, Mrs. Glasher (had to look it up, thought it was Grasher) - this is the woman who, prompted by the meddling and sinister "friend" Lush, warned Gwendolen that she shouldn't marry Grandcourt and made her promise never to reveal this conversation - a completely impossible and unfair demand, in my opinion, but never the less Gwendolen tries to honor this commitment and not discuss what she knows about Glasher w/ her husband. Interestingly, all of the major characters (except Mordecai) come together in a scene - we're now about 3/4 of the way through this long novel - at which the music instructor Klesmer arranges a private performance by the "jewess," Mirah; she is willing to sing in the hope of getting some work as a voice coach; at this very awkward party, Gwendolen, Grandcourt, DD, Mirah, Klesmer (who told Gwendolen she didn't have the talent of drive to become a pro singer), and Mrs. Klesmer (Gwendolen's best childhood companion and stepsister, Anna - in a marriage her family opposed, to that "jew, that gypsy) all come together and we see the strands, cracks, and adhesions in their inter-relationships - most notably, Gwendolen's continued infatuation w/ DD and is relative indifference, as he's now smitten w/ Mirah. Why exactly he's holding off on the big reveal - introducing Mirah to her long-lost brother, Mordecai - isn't clear except insofar as it supports Eliot's need to extend the plot and the tension - but the outstanding question is how deeply DD will be drawn into Mordecai's Zionist quest and into the orbit of the charming but seriously traumatized Mirah.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Can a great novel be deeply flawed? The answer has to be: Yes. If for no other reason than - Huckleberry Finn, the great beautiful story of the two young men floating together down the river - scarred by the unsubtle racist attitude toward Jim and marred by he ridiculous plot developments when Tom Sawyer comes on the scene. And in a completely different context, yes, Daniel Deronda is a deeply flawed great (or near great) novel - scarred by unsubtle anti-Semitism and marred by the Zionist subplot. The two are different in that Eliot's politics are more evident and more admirable, and Twain nearly ruined HF when he couldn't figure out how to end it so drew in a character from a previous successful novel; Eliot nearly ruins DD by veering off into a polemical, didactic channel - yes, friend WS (not Willm Shakespeare) via FR Leavis was correct - though I was interested in the novel in part because I wanted to see a great 19th-century novelist's take on the Jews of her time, what I'm getting is her take on the Jewish issues of her time: the Zionist chapter is from a literary standpoint extreme dull and even clumsy - no one on this earth speaks the way Mordecai does, her Jewish characters are neither distinctive nor recognizable - they're just mouth-pieces, and without a drop of wit. Things get stranger when Mordecai tells DD that he is actually Ezra Cohen (DD assumed the pawnbroker working in Ezra Cohen's shop was Ezra - strange that he never got the names straight), i.e., the long-lost brother of the beautiful Mirah. Even by the conventions of 19th-century fiction, this is a little tough to swallow. Maybe Eliot will make more of it? Maybe she has another surprise or twist in store? She quotes from Aristotle in one of the epigraphs that she uses to head every chapter, this one saying something like: It is the nature of the probable to include many improbable events. Maybe so, for for novelist that dictum doesn't work. The improbably in a novel stands out as an instance of the author's failure and uncertainty; in life, the improbable stands out as a wondrous event. That is, we accept the improbable in life whereas in a novel, we don't believe it.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Good Eliot, bad Eliot - some parts of Daniel Deronda are so smart and engaging, especially owing to Eliot's shrewd and all-knowing narration, full of insights and apercus, yet other parts just drag along, and I'm afraid I encountered one of the drag-along sections last night, the beginning of section VI - Revelations, which of course promises much but so far has delivered little. To be revealed: DD's parentage (and is he Jewish by birth?), the connection between Mirah and the Cohens of London, the role of Mordecai. But so far we get only DD's long rumination about who Mordecai is or might be: a wise prophet, or a deranged man? And then an even longer chapter in which DD accompanies Mordecai to some kind of discussion group or club where there's a long debate about the anti-Semitism and the treatment of the Jews in modern (19th century) Europe. Of course this is building toward discussion of the fledgling Zionist movement; all well and good, but this whole section shows Eliot at her polemical worst, putting forward ideas without any serious effort to link the ideas to character or action. The men in this group are, to me, largely indistinguishable, and the whole debate seems abstract and removed - there's nothing, at this point, at stake, it's just words. Well, a novel is also "just words," but they are words that are, as Aristotle (whom Eliot quotes) puts it: an imitation of an action. Or, put another way, a novel tells a story - it's not, or ought not be, a repository of facts and ideas. A novel must move through time and move its characters (and us?) from innocence to experience. DD is on that course in this novel, as is Gwendolen, his counterpart - but Eliot puts that on hold for too long as she diverts into didactics.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
The mysteries that surround the eponymous Daniel Deronda as we finish section V (?), "Mordecai": most of all his parentage - he is troubled that he does not know who his parents are, he suspects he may be an out-of-wedlock son of his so-called uncle, but we get the hint that just maybe he's Jewish by birth? That would tie together the strands of the novel and explain his sudden, overwhelming love for the Jewess Mirah as well as his near obsession with Judaism and London's Jews. Is he in fact related to Mirah? That would be too much of a coincidence even for a Victorian novel, but still - it's possible. And that's the 2nd mystery: Who are her parents? DD suspects that he's discovered her mother and brother, Ezra Cohen, pawnbroker - and his evidence is in part that the mother declines to talk at all when asked if she has (or had) a daughter. So is she mourning the loss of Mirah, and will it be a miracle if DD can reunite mother and daughter? That seems too pat and simplistic for George Eliot - if she's the mother, Eliot has given far too much away. We can't be that much smarter than the characters, that is. So maybe the silence of the Cohens conceals another mystery. Leading to: who the heck is Modecai? He seems to think of himself as some kind of poet-prophet, and he seems to have settled on DD as the one to convey his prophecies to the next generation. But, hey, this is not normal human behavior; does DD recognize that he's dealing w/ disturbed and disillusioned man? Some readers may remember a old man much like Modecai who haunted Broadway and 116th across from Columbia in the late 60s - Columbia students called him the Yumkey Man (he called himself Nuc Nulb = New Concept, New Language-Bringer); Paul Auster included a character much like him in one of his novels (I have written about him, too - unpublished): the point is, I can see that DD might feel pity for Mordecai, and curiosity, but he also must realize that Mordecai is not a well man.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Book group last night on The Great Gatsby and a particularly lively discussion with the main point of disagreement: Did Nick Carraway like or admire Gatsby? Some said yes, definitely, he idolized Gatsby and particularly admired as a lost romantic, who was willing to devote his life, and later to give up all he had, for his love for Daisy. Others - including me - believe that Nick despised Gatsby, held him in contempt. The most significant passage in resolving this dispute, I believe, was Nick's last words to Gatsby. On the day after the fatal accident, in which Gatsby's car runs down and kills Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson - Nick asks G and learns that D was driving, then hears G give his chauffeur orders to leave the car in the garage - strange, because needs to have the busted fender repaired. Nick says good-bye to G and as he's leaving turns back to tell G that he's a better man than all the rest of them. Nick then says he, later, was glad he'd said that - which may make some readers think he actually liked G. But in the rest of the paragraph he goes on to say that he never liked G, from start to finish. Well, despite Nick's claim that he is the most truthful man he knows, I think there's a little dissembling there: Nick may have been taken in by G's allure, at least at first, but the course of this novel involves Nick's moving from innocence to experience. He comes to learn that G and his type and his world - and Daisie's too - is careless, as he puts it, and much worse: criminal, even murderous, and of course entirely selfish and self-centered. Nick, disillusioned, retreats from the East and goes home to the Midwest, a simply place (or so he thinks): the scene of college kids returning home for a Midwest xmas is an incredible contrast with the phony, flashy Gatsby parties. Nick, a good guy, takes care of G's funeral, but that's it. During the process, he gets that call from the guy who begins telling him about a batch of stolen bonds, but hangs up when he realizes he's not talking to G. I'm sure someone's written about this, but I'd guess that G was in part playing up to Nick because he knew Nick was a naif in the bond business and may as eager as the young G to make a quick killing. By today's industry standards - maybe different then? - Nick was in danger of being disqualified as a broker just for hanging around w/ G. Nick retreats home, wiser but wounded; we don't know what becomes of him - except that, like his progenitor, he becomes a writer - I think he even refers to what he's writing as a "novel." The event of the novel took place 2 years, he notes, before he composes TGG; although Nick is in one sense nothing more than a window through which we see the image of Gatsby and his coterie, he's also a far greater man than anyone else in his novel, he's the creator of it all.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Mohsin Hamid's story (or novel excerpt?) in current New Yorker, Of Windows and Doors, reminds us of why we read fiction, or one of the reasons why - to experience, through the consciousness of another, a set of experiences that may be foreign or alien to us that that enlighten us about the world in which we live. We all have read numerous news accounts of the cities torn apart of the Middle East, about once civilized regions transformed into hellholes or urban warfare, with thousands of people killed, hundreds of thousands uprooted, millions living in daily fear for their lives, gangs of militants patrolling the streets and killing at will, the political landscape changing day by day, block by block, every moment in life a constant jeopardy. Hamid brings these horrors to life in the way that fiction writers can and do and that nonfiction writers, journalists and others, aspire to though rarely achieve. The city is unnamed - probably Aleppo, you could fill in the blank - and the story is told through the POV of a young couple in love: the young girl living on her own, her parents killed (she has no clear idea when), the only evidence their house now a bombed-in ruin; he lives with his family, mother killed in a random shooting, father in mourning. She moves in w/ his family, and they carry on a sweet but surreptitious romance - even walking in the street is to live in constant danger, as simply holding hands could lead to execution. Their goal is to get passage out - sadly, the father refuses to join them, as he needs to be near the presence of his late wife - and here the story takes an odd turn: they hook up with a mysterious agent who can provide them access, for a fee, to a door that will lead them into a different world. The doorway passage is a touch of dreamlike surrealism, or perhaps magic realism, in this otherwise straight-forward narrative; they pass through the door and find themselves in a new setting, which it turns out is a refugee camp in, I think, Greece. So I wonder if there is more to their story, if this is only the start of a longer piece? If so, Hamid's narrative decision seems a little odd - as if he wants to tell of the refugee's experience, but he has little sense of their actual passage so he makes that, with a wave of a wand, disappear. All told, though, a powerful story that will help us understand the lives behind the grim headlines we read every day.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Past 3 posts looked at George Eliot's relation to Jewish people and Judaism as depicted in Daniel Deronda - sympathetic and deeply interested in anti-Semitism, a perpetrator of anti-Semitic insights, or entrapped in condescension? There's a 4th aspect as well, which will be my last post on this topic at least for a while (still only about 2/3 through the novel): There are obvious hints throughout the novel that the eponymous DD may himself be Jewish - the fact that he really doesn't know his parentage, at least one of the Jewish shopkeepers he visits asks if he is "one of us," his inexplicable fascination with not only the beautiful Jewess Mirah but w/ her entire Jewish culture. In fact, at one point I thought DD might be Mirah's long-lost brother, Ezra - though that doesn't seem likely at the moment (the coincidence of that would be absurd, actually - though not out of the realm of, say, Dickens). But whether he's Jewish or not, at least one of the Jews he meets - Mordecai - has singled him out as some sort of Messiah-like figure - the one to bring the message of the Jewish people to the world. So what does it mean that Eliot has made the central figure in her novel possibly a Jew by birth or at the least a prophet adopted by the Jewish people to lead them to the Promised Land (I believe the novel will take up the issue of 19th-century Zionism)? Every character - but especially the lead characters - is some version of the consciousness of the author: so much of the author's thoughts, feelings, experiences, and studies go into the establishment and development of a character, it's impossible that the lead character does not in some many represent a version of the author herself (or himself, as the case may be) - which is one reason why there are so few successful novels in which authors write about a community or set of characters entirely alien to their experiences. For ex., I think I could never write a novel about a black community, but I have written about black characters and - whether readers have found them credible of not, I don't know - but I think they represent aspects of my own (mediated) experiences and ideas. Same - on a much grander scale - for Eliot and Daniel Deronda: inevitably, he is in part a transformation into words of Eliot's personality and experiences - she is, herself, a Jew, or can at least imagine herself as "one of us."
Friday, November 11, 2016
George Eliot and the Jews - yes, she's brave and a trailblazer, probably the first major British author to write seriously about Jewish characters and their place in English culture and society, but yes, as noted in yesterday's post, she is locked into the stereotypes of her era and even in her effort to portray Jewish characters thoughtfully she depends on the most hateful of cliches and racist images: hook-nosed, money-grubbing, shrewd businessmen, clannish, socially obnoxious. So what's the answer here? There's a 3rd element to Eliot and the Jews, which I'll call her well-meaning condescension. For all the Jewish characters portrayed so nastily in Daniel Deronda, we also have the beautiful, sensitive, mistreated, misused Mirah: the woman whom DD saves from drowning, obviously falls in love with, sets her up to live with the family of his college friend (the Meyricks), sets off in search of her long-lost mother (and brother). So, yes, she's a lovely and sympathetic character - and that's part of the problem. By introducing her - in the most melodramatic and over-the-top episode in this elsewhere shrewd and realistic novel - it's as if Eliot is saying: See, not all Jews are loathsome and untrustworthy. Here's one who's a real beauty - and look how all the English Christians she meets fall in love with her! This of course is a variant on "some of my best friends are black/Jewish/gay, etc." the exception meant to prove the rule, but that in a sense disproves it. The point is, in a way, Jews are acceptable - so long as they don't act (or look) Jewish. Mirah is not trying to "pass" - practically the first thing she tells DD upon being rescued is that she's a "jewess" and she asks: Do you despise me? The answer is: at this point in the novel, we're not sure. But there's more to say on this topic, in a future post.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Yesterday's post was on George Eliot's bravery and originality in writing seriously about Jewish people and Jewish themes in Daniel Deronda - one of the very few British novels ofthe 19th century to include Jewish characters in a significant and largely sympathetic manner. Kudos for that GE, but, on the other hand ...was George Eliot anti-Semitic despite, perhaps, the better angels of her nature? Sadly, it seems to me she did not transcend the mores and conventional ideas of her time - as even in her attempts to treat Jews and Jewish culture seriously she is mired in some the deepest and most troubling Jewish stereotypes. Her English Christian characters are blindingly original and complex, but her Jewish characters? Hateful as this may be, just take a look: as Deronda wanders into the Jewish quarters of Frankfort, he goes into a book shop where an unfriendly Jewish shopkeeper overcharges him for a book. In his wanderings later in the Jewish quarter of London we, through his eyes (and Eliot's trenchant narration) see a # of Jewish characters, and Eliot always describes them as crude and homely, big-nosed, dark, angular, just ugly. We meet another used-book seller who chintzes Deronda, then we meet a pawnbroker who bargains him down in price for a diamond, we meet the pawnbroker's little son who immediately starts bargaining with Deronda about a trade for a penknife - in short, Eliot can't get beyond the conventional, cruel, anti-Semitic charicature of Jews as money-hungry, sharp and perhaps corrupt business people, homely, and clannish, so, yes, even though there are exceptions to the trend (the lovely Jewess, Mirah) and even though she does pay a passing nod to some positive aspects of Jewish culture - devotion to faith and to family, notably - whether she meant to be or not, whether she knew it or not, Eliot was anti-Semitic. And yet, there's another dimension to Eliot and anti-Semitism, which will be the topic of a future post.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Eventually, in reading Daniel Deronda, we have to face the question: Was Eliot (George, that is) anti-Semitic? I'll probably post a few times on this, but to start let's get some basic ideas down. First, I think she was incredibly brave to take on the issue of anti-Semitism and to have significant Jewish characters and a narrative line about Judaism - really unique in its time I think (Scott had a Jewish character, which Eliot mentions, but there are not many or maybe not any others in the Victorian era). Second, the eponymous Deronda is at least initially not only sympathetic to Jews and their suffering, he also becomes a heroic rescuer of the young "jewess," Mirah, who is extremely surprised that young Christian man of good breeding and some wealth we not "despise" her and in fact helps get her a place to live with some family friends. But he's more than that: through his encounter with Mirah he develops a true curiosity about and interest in the Jews in general and the Jews of London in particular. While traveling in Europe, he takes the time to visit the Jewish "gasse" (ghetto?) in Frankfort, to buy a book on Judaism, even to attend a service. Later, home in London, he ventures into the Jewish quarter - ostensibly in search of Mirah's long-estranged brother, Ezra Cohen, but it's also like a field trip for DD - he buys more books and makes anthropological observations about the Jewish culture. So, on this level, clearly, no - Eliot is not at all anti-Semitic. But there's more.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Just like that Gwendolen marries Grandcourt and her married life is off to a horrible start - of course the relationship right from the beginning seems cold, without love or passion, and with Gwendolen already feeling indebted to Grandcourt for pulling her family out of poverty. Then, she gets a letter hand-delivered from Mrs. Gresher - Grandcourt's one-time mistress (and perhaps the mother of his children? That part isn't clear to me - have to go back and re-read); she's returning to Grandcourt a set of diamonds he'd left with her, as promised - her one demand was that she be able to present the diamonds directly to Gwendolen: but she does so with a curse, berating Gwendolen for breaking a promise and letting Grandcourt know that she had met secretly w/ Mrs. Gresher. Gwendolen breaks down into hysterical screaming after reading the letter and its curse; Grandcourt rushes in, end of chapter. Yes, Grandcourt is a totally unsympathetic character and Gwendolen herself, though admirable, is not necessarily someone you'd like to know - this is the nature of a "round" character, not a type or stereotype - but what about Mrs. Gresher (too many G names!): she's not very sympathetic herself, despite the hardships she's endured. Her demand - that Gwendolen never reveal that they'd met - is completely unrealistic; obviously Gwendolen will have to check out the story that Mrs. G tells her: is Grandcourt a cad and a liar, or is this a set-up? (I thought it was - but turns out to be true at least in part.) She's in a position a little like Hamlet - trying to ascertain the veracity of a terrible tale, while not tipping her hand. That's really impossible to do; of course she will tell Grandcourt or ask about this alleged relationship (whether he lies, too, or not - that seems to be immaterial, in her rush to secure her finances and, she thinks, her independence). Meanwhile, Deronda, still enamored w/ Mirah, though he seems to have spent no time with her, is learning all he can about Judaism - that should be interesting, unless Eliot, as I've been forewarned, lets her novel drift into polemics.
Monday, November 7, 2016
Complications develop as the love-triangles form about 1/3 of the way through Daniel Deronoda, with Gwendolen agreeing to marry the totally worthless but worth-a-lot man, Grandcourt, a marriage she enters into with no enthusiasm, no desire other than to get access to his money to support her now-derelict family. But then DD shows up on the scene - not only as someone who'd been immediately attracted to G but also as a rival to a title - depending on whether his guardian will recognize him as a "legitimate" son - to which Grandcourt also has a claim. Right, it's impossible to keep all this straight, and you probably don't have to: the main point, suddenly G is flirting with this handsome guy and Grandcourt sulks and doesn't like this at all. Meanwhile, Grandcourt goes to see his former mistress, now living in a crappy house in dreary coal-mining town and raising her 3 (?) children - I think they're children by Grandcourt, though can't be sure - she hooked up w/ him after leaving an abusive marriage, I wish Eliot would say more about that - an important back story that she's leaving aside - and he demands back from her some diamonds he'd been holding: she insists she will return them, but only directly to Gwendolen. More trouble brewing? And for the 3rd triangle: What about the woman - the "jewess," Mirah - whom DD saved from drowning and has entrusted to the care of his best friend's (working-class) family? He is obviously drawn to her as well - so we'll have to see which force draws him more powerfully: the conventional but spoken for Gwendolen or the socially shocking but available Mirah.
Sunday, November 6, 2016
At the end of section 4 (?) of Daniel Deronda Gwendolen accepts the marriage proposal from Grandcourt - but in all of world literature is there a less enthusiastic acceptance? He follows her back from the continent to her little place in Wessex and sends a message, via a servant, that he'd like to speak w/ her the next day. After a great deal of hand-wringing and delay (the servant is waiting to take back the reply to Grandcourt, but why not keep the poor guy waiting, that's what being a servant is all about) she tells her mother she will refuse any marriage offer from Grandcourt. Mom is kind of upset by this - marriage to the wealthy Grandcourt could solve all their financial problems - Mother and 4 children won't have to move into the shabby "sawyer's cottage," and Gwendolen won't have to take a job as a nanny to 3 bishop's daughters. Gwendolen spends a nearly sleepless night, Grandcourt arrives promptly at 2 p.m., sits a few feet away from her, and eventually, after some bantering, she accepts and he kisses her hand. These two have nothing in common, nothing between them, and Gwendolen completely knows that - she's marrying him for two reasons: he's such a dullard that she can be married and maintain her independence (or so she thinks) and they really need his money. Marriages have been built on weaker foundations of course, but don't you just want to reach into this novel and grab her by the shoulders and shake her awake? Life isn't all about horseback riding and playing roulette. She will be miserable and probably make him miserable as well. She, who has never know want or suffering, cannot bear the idea that she might have to work to earn some money, that she might not be able to marry into an "upper" class - but with her wit and beauty, her life is before or, or could be, and she's shutting the door by accepting this dullard with, by the way, a shaky history in past relationships, if the Mrs. Gresham (?) story (Grandcourt has two children by her but refuses to marry her, or so she says) is something we should believe.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
The ever more odious Grandcourt now is scheming to get back into the good graces of Gwendolen - OK on the one hand he recognizes, I think, that she has no money or title to bring to him, so perhaps his love for her is genuine, and perhaps the whole mysterious back story - that he had a relationship with and children by another woman whom he has refused to marry - may be a false - but why is he so unlikable, kind of a dolt and very nasty to his right-hand-man Mr. Lush? Is his desire for Gwendolen something only stirred by an incipient rivalry w/ another suitor - Deronda - spurred only by the desire to get what someone else wants? In a more conventional comedy of manners, the truth would all come out, we'd learn that Grandcourt is a good man who whose chances for happiness in marriage were (nearly) ruined by the scheming servant, Mr. Lush, and he would prove himself to Gwendolen and marry her and lift her and her family out of (near) poverty. Yet Eliot's is not a conventional novel: I suspect the Grandcourt is as shallow and narcissistic as he seems, that Gwendolen is making a series of terrible mistake and decisions, and that even the sympathetic, eponymous Deronda - who really, about 1/3 way through the novel, is pretty much a secondary character - will prove to be not right for Gwendolen, either not good enough for her or too good: the sub-plot of the Jewess rescued from drowning will have to play a role. Can she possibly be a serious love interest for Deronda? Or would that be too scandalous? In other words - to Eliot's credit - I have no idea who will end up with whom, and whether the assortment of couples at the end will be conventionally comic or much more wry, foreboding, and dark - and I suspect, knowing Eliot's sharp (and sometimes even impenetrable) wit and intelligence, the latter, more unconventional outcome.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Developments in Daniel Deronda, as Dernonda heads off to the continent leaving behind the "jewess" whom he saved from drowning - Klesmer, the music maestro who has been giving lessons in the Gacgoigne household (Gascoignes are the cousins of the central character, Gwendolen) falls in love with G's cousin and closest friend, Anna, and the two declare their love - to the complete freakout of the parents who believe he's bounty hunting and that she's throwing herself away on a "jew, a gypsy" - whether he's actually Jewish seems to me doubtful, they just associate him w/ all the invading hordes of foreigners, hmm? - but Anna says she will marry him, even if she's disinherited, and he stands by her honorably. They talk about him being a talent on the order of Mendelssohn or Schubert, but it's not clear whether readers are to take that seriously or as must local pride and exaggeration. At the same time, Gwendolen comes home as her mother and 4 half-sisters (barely characters at all in this novel) are moving into some rundown house - having lost all their money in some kind of weird investment scheme - and she is preparing to go off and work as a governess for a Bishop's daughters - and she can't abide the thought of that, she is definitely no Jane Eyre. She sees herself as proud, beautiful, aristocratic, and brilliant - all true - but she makes a terrible mistake and decides she wants to be singer or actor (believing the polite praise she receives after drawing-room performances at home means she has real talent); she asks Klesmer what he thinks - could she take a few lessons and become a star and solve all the family problems? And he correctly lights into her: you don't just dally in art and become a star, and it isn't a field you enter in order to make money, you have to be completely devoted and willing to face years of failure and penury (he obviously speaks from experience and from the heart) and her sense that she could just take a few lessons and become a star is actually a deep insult to him and to all artists - for such a smart woman, it's surprising that she doesn't recognize this. Whether that's a sign of her desperation, her narcissism, or perhaps of Eliot herself missing a beat, I'm not really sure.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
T Coraghesan Boyle, a prolific, smart, entertaining writer who has explored so many genres and ideas in his long career, shows up in this week's New Yorker with a story, Are We Not Men? ( is this a quote or a reference that I've missed?) which is an homage to one of his great contemporaries, George Saunders - but unfortunately its a pale version of a Saunders story. This may be new territory for Boyle, I'm not sure, but his footing is uneven: story narrated by a disaffected middle-aged narrator in strained marriage and dull job (somewhat typical of Boyle,'s literary milieu, and of Saunders's as well) but we're some 20 years or so into the future in a world in which virtually all of nature has been made over by genetic engineering: So what is most likely a fairly ordinary American suburb has lawns that glow iridescent green and trees that shed neither leaves, bark, nor twigs. In the opening paragraph the narrator confronts a loose do the color of a maraschino, and we later learn it's a genetic breed called a Cherry Pit (ha). Of course the engineering doesn't stop w/ pets and lawn care but is also part of procreation: couples getting pregnant order the genetic makeup they want for their child, much like, as he notes, selecting options for a new car - so we see a world of 6-foot-tall middle-schoolers who are preternaturally fluent in French. Ok, so this world is unsettling and odd, like much of Saunders's fiction, but where it falls short: Boyle doesn't do much with his imagined world. The plot is wafer-thin: essentially, narrator has brief affair with next-door neighbor to console her for loss of her engineered pet pig and neighbor becomes pregnant at same time as narrator's Type A+ wife, and at the end I just shrugged and said so what? There's no sense of horror or despair or exploitation in this story, which there could be, should be - and even less sense that Boyle is seriously (or even comically) trying to peer into a dystopian future: it's just a romp, really, funny at times and always well narratred - Boyle is a complete writing pro in any subgenre - but it seems finally pointless, or aimless.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
I'm beginning to see what WS via FR Leaviss warned of regarding Daniel Deronda. Part of my interest in reading this novel was that I'd heard it was about Zionism, as perceived in England in the 19th century; as anyone who's studied British lit knows there are very few Jewish characters in British Lit until the 20th century, and most of those that make the cut are hardly sympathetic. (Revenge!). And - though it takes about 25 percent of the novel - finally the Eliot introduces the Jewish theme, as the eponymous Deronda, a well-educated young man with a good inheritance but no title (although he thinks he may be the out-of-wedlock son of his uncle and therefore the legit heir to his title) is dabbling in "the law," for which he clearly has no interest or aptitude but it's what one does - like so many characters, e.g., the cousin in Bleak House, or, for that matter, think of Nick Carraway, an American counterpart, who aimlessly decides to "learn about bonds" - when he saves a beautiful young woman in despair from drowning in the Thames. Turns out she's a "jewess," and she expects Deronda to despise her, but instead he shelters her and seems to be falling in love with her. Well and good - but then we get so far the longest chapter in the novel in which she tells her life story to the woman who's offered her housing (mother of Deronda's college friend). This is really a tedious chapter, as Eliot gives up her narrative voice and just grinds through the events the life of this unfortunate woman. I can see that the is headed toward didacticism - Jews are people, too! - but expect more from Eliot and hope she rescues the novel rather than letting it slip into preaching and cheap moralising.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
In looking up some obscurity yesterday I noticed a blog entry or website or something that asked: Why is "Call me Ishmael" considered a great opening line? Didn't read the entry, but here are several reasons. First, it immediately establishes the narrator as someone factual and direct and in direct contact with you the reader or listener - it's an intro, but also an imperative sentence, much stronger than, say, "My name is Ishmael." Yet, second, it's a bit of a misleading line. In fact, as we learn from the second sentence, about the dark November of my soul, I think, that this is a loquacious and highly stylized narrator. Ishmael narrates the whole novel, I believe, but he vanishes into his own narrative: he recounts all that he sees, learns, and knows about whaling and about this whaling expedition, but he plays no role other than narrator - he himself has no bearing on the plot. So why is he telling the story? Because (as we learn at the end), he is the sole survivor, the only one who can tell the tale with credence. Yes, Melville could have used a 3rd-person, omniscient narrator, but this Ishmael guy makes the story that much more immediate, direct, and personal - yet by being so removed from the plot, he makes it universal as well: it's his story, and everyone's (anyone's). What a strange first sentence, though - especially in that over the course of the entire novel, I'm pretty sure, nobody actually does call him Ishmael. I don't believe there's ever a line of direct address or a conversation that captures his name. So perhaps it's not his name? Perhaps he asks us to call him Ishmael so as to protect his real identity, which is ... what? Herman? Or it may be as good as saying, you might as well call me Ishmael as anything else, because I have a story to tell and my name won't make a whole lot of difference. All this setting aside the more obvious theme of the Biblical Ishmael, the less favored son sent off into exile and perhaps taking up life with a rival state and founding a (rival) line of his own: I don't see any direct correlation there except that adopting or announcing the name Ishmael sets this character, and this story, as one of exile, cursedness, and loneliness. As a final note, there have been playful takes on this opening line, including the opening of (I think) a novel (possibly by Irwin Shaw? not sure) that begins with two men concluding a conversation on a NYC street corner and one says to the other: "Call me, Ishmael."