Sunday, May 22, 2005

BOOKS: On Childhood and Immorality

Er, I've just managed to get young Master Sam to sleep, and my writing time is precious, so let's all pretend that I've written an incredibly witty, thought-provoking introduction to this entry. Are we all on board? Yay!

Feed My Dear Dogs by Emma Richler (#18)
One of the perks of being married to a fancypants TV producer guy is that he brings home review copies of books sent in by publishers. Most of these suck, but every so often a gem like Feed My Dear Dogs lands in my lap, all the more awesome because after reading the first few pages, I didn't know if I'd be able to finish it.

Don't get me wrong; the first few pages were as beautifully written as you could wish for. But there's a crazy density -- combined with a loopy, lyrical quality -- to Richler's prose that had me reeling until I got my sea legs. After that it was clear sailing.

The loopy narrative is the voice of Jem Weiss, middle child of five of the precocious Weiss family (no relation to the author's own non-fictional clan, Richler clarifies).

"I never really grasped why it was at all necessary to leave our house now and then and go to other houses, to play with other kids..." So begins this story that takes us inside the magical world of the Weiss family, as Jem paints scene after (mostly unconnected) scene of a seemingly idyllic childhood spent in a large family of precocious children, a larger-than-life father, and a gentle, beautiful mother.

But as Jem's intense love for her family reveals itself, you get an increasing feeling of dread. Everything's too perfect, you think. But I'm getting into spoiler territory, so I'll back off now. Suffice to say that I found this novel beautiful and funny and touching... in a non-Oprah kind of way. But I'm one of those people who has way romanticized their own childhood, and I only recently learned that puts me in the minority.

There's more meandering than linear storytelling in this book, but the net effect is rather like spending a cozy evening sharing treasured family stories. Questioning the dearth of plot would just make you look like a petty jerk.

By the way, in case you're wondering, author Emma Richler is daughter to Mordecai Richler, sister to Daniel. There's some serious talent in that family. (For proof, check out Daniel's 1992 novel Kicking Tomorrow. I have no idea why the dude doesn't write more fiction.)

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (#19)
I hadn't read Vanity Fair in about 15 years, but I was inspired to revisit it after Exxie posted about it on her site. I'd forgotten how good it is. And how accessible. Did I already say how good it is?

It's also renewed my ire at Mira Nair and her movie adaptation of the book. Plus, I know Reese Witherspoon is America's sweetheart and all, but she said some dumbass shit about Becky Sharp being a feminist hero that needs to be corrected:
In my opinion, Becky Sharp is an early feminist. She is really a very modern character. She'd been deprived of parents and has no place to go in the world - yet she still manages to succeed. Every success she has in her life is based on her own merit, which is a modern idea for a period story.

I think she absolutely has a heart, even in an environment where people care very little about other people, a society of buying and selling people. You can buy your way into society and then fall from grace because you lose money. In a world that's so hard to negotiate, she does a fantastic job of managing. She figures out how to negotiate her way through society.
Whuh? Did we read the same book?

First off, let's get this straight, and pay attention, because I'm only going to say this once:

Becky Sharp is NOT a hero, dammit.

Thackeray goes out of his way to make it clear that
Vanity Fair is a "book without a hero." You're not expected to be in any of the characters' cheering squad. The subversive thing about the book is how Thackeray tempts you to like Becky by making her clever, charming and witty... especially appealing compared to the tepid, dull and downright stupid cast of characters.

(Remember, the book is called "Vanity Fair" -- a place peopled with weak, stupid and/or corrupt, immoral characters -- and Thackeray repeatedly reminds of this in narrative asides, keeping us mindful of the fact that everyone in it is suspect.)

As far as being a "feminist" hero... well, my definition of feminism is pretty broad and inclusive: a feminist is someone who believes in the right of women to exercise a full array of choices. But all Becky chooses to do is steal her friend's boyfriend, mess around on her husband, and neglect her child. I don't see how these are feminist choices. Someone disabuse me if I'm wrong.

Now that I've scared almost all of you away with my rigidly moralistic streak, is it too late to mention that I find this book incredibly entertaining? I do! It's funny! Pick it up! I'd even go so far as calling it a good beach read... if I were the kind of person who recommends beach reads.


I can't believe I wrote this entire post without the baby waking up. I am the best mom ever. And I'm almost caught up on my backlog! Let me see... only... oh, crap... only six more books to post about. Oy.


Anonymous said...

Vanity Fair is one of my all-time favorite books as well, and I agree with you that Becky Sharp isn't meant to be a feminist heroine in the sense that Reese Witherspoon takes her to be.

I think it is true, however, that there definitely are proto-feminist ideas in the novel as a whole. Thackeray takes all the "ideal" feminine characteristics and piles them up in the form of sweet but spineless Amelia, whom he himself described in conversation as "not worth Dobbin's having." Having her as a foil to Becky is T.'s way, I believe, of illustrating that neither the Virgin nor the Magdalen can be a fully desirable human being.

And I must mention that, re: your point about Becky's less than lofty ambitions leading her to man-stealing, adultery and child neglect, while I agree that there is a degree of spite and carelessness there, (esp. with regard to George Osbourne) it also isn't as if Becky can go out and start a business or otherwise earn money. Her getting pregnant in the first place, attempting to seduce Jos, and most of all seducing the Marquess of Steyne are primarily motivated by her desire for money. In the only ways permitted her by the society of the time she is being as ruthless and aggressive as any C.E.O. could be. So I think it is a bit unfair to deride her efforts as mere girly bitchery -- she's all about the dough.

Going again back to Amelia, then, witness _her_ response to poverty as compared to Becky's. She begins withering away after her husband's death in genteel shabbiness with her son and father, only rescued at last by the faithful Dobbin -- and I think T. wants us to feel some degree of contempt for her and her willingness to fade away so passively.

For me, the closest thing to a hero that the novel has is Rawdon Crawley, and I would love someday to read a novel that follows his adventures after he went to become the governor of Coventry Island. But overall the novel does have the characterizations you point out (which are the same as in War and Peace, incidentally), that the smart characters that have gumption are too mean to like, and the nice characters are so helpless and dumb that you want to smack them.


Veronica said...

It's something about the language. I can't get past the language! Victorian literature is my downfall...although I enjoy some of it very much, others I don't get much. I've finally come to the point in my reading career when, if I haven't understood anything for 350 pages I know the world won't end if I don't finish the last 350. Maybe I just didn't like the story. I don't know.

So have you seen the movie? Opinions on that?

Anonymous said...

Thackeray does say it's a book without a hero. However, there are points where he insinuates that the term "hero" does not extend to women. And I believe there is even a line where he states something to the effect of "If we must have a heroine, let it be Becky".

Further, I somewhat agree with jen who says, "she's all about the dough". I personally interpreted Becky's affair with the Marquess de Steyne as not so much an affair at all, merely a ploy to get money, but more specifically, a ploy to get a good place for her husband so that she, Becky, wouldn't have to continue her hustle for years and years to come. I felt that Becky wanted the money, but hated the hustle -- but recognized that, in her position, the hustle was about the only way to get money.

As for feminism, I have no opinion. But I do think that even if Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero, we may still allow it to have a heroine.