Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. Clarkson was fond of poking fires - specific Phineas Finn

Phineas Finn was in one significant way the weakest of the mere nine Anthony Trollope novels I have read.  Twenty-plus years and twenty-plus novels into his career, with Phineas Finn Trollope comes close to abandoning any kind of physical or sensory description of the world of his novel.  He takes it all for granted – the clothes, the furniture, the arrangement of rooms, even the appearance of characters.

Yet there is a huge mass of detail, as in the novel’s first two sentences:

Dr. Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts, – the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway, – as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected. Many said that the doctor was the richer man of the two, and the practice of his profession was extended over almost as wide a district.

The paragraph continues with information about Dr. Finn’s reputation, family (Phineas Finn, the novel’s hero, is his only son), pecuniary history, and his favorite cliché.  Every detail except perhaps the last is not sensory and immediate but social.  The information the reader needs is how characters exist in relation to each other: status, wealth, power, and attitude.  A scene is then a passage in which these bundles of status, attitude, etc., by which I mean characters, are arranged in varying configurations so that they can converse.  A scene in Phineas Finn is almost all talk – chatter, flirting, debate, advice.  Everything important is between quotation marks.

There are few exceptions.  Phineas has been visited by an unpleasant bill-broker who commandeers the fire:

“I can pay no part of that bill, Mr. Clarkson.”

“Pay no part of it!” and Mr. Clarkson, in order that he might the better express his surprise, arrested his hand in the very act of poking his host's fire.

“If you'll allow me, I'll manage the fire,” said Phineas, putting out his hand for the poker.

But Mr. Clarkson was fond of poking fires, and would not surrender the poker.  “Pay no part of it!” he said again, holding the poker away from Phineas in his left hand.  (Ch. 21)

In most scenes in Phineas Finn, the characters might as well be disembodied word balloons.  Lots of writers do that kind of thing well.  And that is setting aside the times, increasingly frequent as the novel nears its ends, when the conversations turn into debates about the duties of a parliamentarian or the role of the wife in a marriage.  These passages are period pieces, artistically null.

The poker scene should make it clear that I am not demanding dazzle, nothing like the elaborate descriptions of pumpkins and cheeses I can find in an Émile Zola novel, but rather a sense of imaginative integration of character, language, scene, and action, like when the traveling salesman in Orley Farm springs onto a painted table.  This is close to what I think of as the finest, rarest kind of fictional art.  I am also skeptical of Zola’s baroque lists, which go to the other extreme.  And there are, of course, other kinds of fictional art, many kinds, some of which can be found in Phineas Finn.


  1. It's true, I have almost no recollection of what Phineas Finn--the novel, I mean; I remember PF's fine facial hair very well indeed--looks like. And I don't know about you, but words not nailed in some way to the physical world don't last long with me...if I hadn't blogged about it myself, I might not be entirely certain that I read Phineas Finn at all.

    I read Phineas Redux recently. It is a little more rooted in the physical world; I remember something about a gun and a woman's waist (different scenes) and Phineas's extremely manly beard is everywhere. But no, these are no Barsetshire novels....

  2. Nailed to the physical world - me too, me too. I remember not sentences but scenes. And the trick is that I do not need much to nail down a scene - a usurer hogging the poker - just a little something.

    I used to look ahead into Phineas Redux - the gun appears to be linked to Finn's beard!

    1. Everything is linked to his beard, really.