Tuesday, January 26, 2016

devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L - The Way We Live Now

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.


  1. we saw the tv version with david suchet. it was pretty good, and inspired me to buy the book which i haven't read yet. i read the barchester books a while back and liked them, but this sounds a little intimidating; maybe on my 80th birthday, if i make it...

  2. "this was the most complex artistic object he could create" - I like this way of putting it a lot. It has been quite a few years now since I reread TWWLN but it has always seemed to me to stand out in that way too. But whether that makes it his best novel is another question, and one I can't answer since I haven't read them all either! In its complexity it is more like the things we often admire in other novelists, but does it lose something of the airiness or open-heartedness that makes some of his simpler novels so delightful? Is bigger, darker, angrier always better?

    Once upon a time I worked quite hard on Lady Carbury, since my official niche was hack lady historians. Honestly, I was relieved to give it up, but she fits very nicely into the story I had found to tell about how their work was (wasn't) valued.

  3. The TV version ought to be at least 20 hours long to catch that effect of the book. The only intimidating part is the length, and that's 40 pages a day for 20 days.

    I will pretty much always pick more complex over simpler in this comparison, all else equal, and even not so equal. "Simpler" is not used as a word of praise around here.

    Bigger is not always better. But maybe it is for Trollope. Artful compression is not in his toolbox.

    Darker and angrier I take as separate issues. I will try to write more about this novel's cruelty. It really is an angry book. Mr. Harding is nowhere to be found.

    If only Lady Carbury had written a better book! Or if Trollope had let her. His description of her novel, or really of her novel-writing, is another piece of cruelty.

  4. Like Rohan, I have let many years elapse since I read The Way We Live Now, or, for that matter, any new Trollope. I remember it being in the top tier of his books, along with the Last Chronicle of Barset (and I've read all the Barsetshire series and the Palliser novels--although thirty years ago in the case of the Pallisers). But The Way We Live Now belongs on that same shelf with Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, and Bleak House (and Our Mutual Friend and Daniel Deronda) as bold, ambitious, and thoroughly complete worlds that reflect the experiences, world views, and artistic sentiments of their creators. I know I should devour all of Trollope the way I did Dickens, Eliot, Austen (except for the juvenilia), Hardy, and Melville (those may be the only authors for whom I have read ALL of their major works--oh, wait, I've read every Agatha Christie, too. Between you and Shelf Love I will be challenged for the rest of my days. 2016 is My Year of Melville, but I will be done with re-reading him well before the year is through; what next? I await further installments of your blog for inspiration. I've already added La Regenta that you mentioned recently (which, of course I had never heard of) and I'm feeling guilty about not having read much Crane or virtually any Edwin Arlington Robinson except Richard Cory. Maybe I'll polish off Forster this year; I've only got one to go plus the louche late unpublished stories...so many books, so little time. Keep blogging; you inspire me.

  5. I've yet to read this although I have seen the miniseries which I thought was excellent.

  6. This was the book that got me Hooked On Trollope. It was a little intimidating, but once I got started, I could hardly put it down -- I kept sneaking off to read "just one more chapter"! It's an absolutely brilliant novel. I agree that it's hard to say just which Trollope novel is the best -- I've read about 20 so far and loved nearly all of them. TWWLN has to be near the top of any list that even attempts to rank Trollope.

    And now I must hurry up and finish Armadale by Wilkie Collins so I can get back to the Pallisers, it's been too long since I finished The Eustace Diamonds!

  7. You had me hooked when you named this one as the best Trollope novel among the 12+ you have read; so, Kindle-free download, here I come! Thanks, AR(T).

  8. "devour all of Trollope" - bold words! But I have seen it done. My understanding is that among all those books there are only a couple of real duds, which is impressive.

    The novel is practically built for TV adaptation.

    I hope to finish the Pallise novels this year, too. Or next or whatever. Two to go.

    RT, I hope you like it. Don't buy any Costa Rican railroad shares while you're on vacation.

    1. No R/R shares purchased but a much needed investment in Rx at farmacia; but this too will pass.