When I read on vacation I do not take notes, and with a long, complex book I cannot write much without notes. I read The Way We Live Now (1874-5) while on vacation, therefore etc. which is a shame since I have come to think it’s the best Anthony Trollope novel of the dozen I have read.
With most novelists, once I have read twelve of his books I would not be so wishy-washy about which is best. With Trollope, who knows, there might be a dozen more that are better. I doubt it, but I don’t know.
The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s longest novel, which turns out to be one reason I thought it his best. On the one hand, it is just more Trollope stuff, the kinds of characters and situations he had been inventing and rearranging for thirty years, but in this case more means not just more characters than usual, more social range, and a greater intricacy of plot. I felt that Trollope had pushed himself to his limit, like this was the most complex artistic object he could create.
The center of the novel is short-fingered vulgarian Augustus Melmotte, a big money con artist, a one-man financial bubble. His schemes entangle a range of other characters, whose schemes in turn entangle others, and on like that indefinitely, I mean logically, the only limit being the cognitive and artistic capacity of Trollope. The cast of characters is genuinely huge, ranging socially from a farmer’s daughter to the Emperor of China, swear to God.
Why not keep going? Why can’t the cast be the entire population of England, or Earth, and the story be everything that happens to everyone everywhere? The first two hundred pages or so of the book suggested a theoretical novel which consists of nothing but the introduction of new characters. The Way We Live Now was serialized, and I at times felt I was doing it an injustice by reading an episodic chunk every day for twenty days rather than every week or month. Perhaps time should pass for me as it does for the characters, and as it did for the original readers.
Trollope begins the novel with a cruel trick – the other thing that makes this his best book is its conceptual trickery. The phoney baloney con game that starts the novel, long before Melmotte’s worthless Mexican railroad shares, is publishing, or literature, or books. The first con we see is the act of writing a book.
She spoke of herself in these days as a woman devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L. (Ch. 1)
But her book is an inaccurate pop history worth about as much as those railroad shares and would be literally worthless if it not puffed up by corrupt magazine editors and reviewers (“It must be confessed that literary scruple had long departed from his mind”).
The chapter is quite funny, but the subject is too trivial to sustain an 800 page serial novel, and if Trollope had attempted it he probably would have died in an enraged apoplexy before he finished it. Best that he displaced his anger onto the financial sector.