Tuesday, January 13, 2015

First chop! - George Eliot's extreme bijou world-nausea

Having read the novel badly, I do not want to waste time making an argument about Daniel Deronda.  Mostly I just want to mess around with the book.  Poke at passages like this one:

It was Mab who carried her breakfast and ushered her down – with some pride in the effect produced by a pair of tiny felt slippers which she had rushed out to buy because there were no shoes in the house small enough for Mirah, whose borrowed dress ceased about her ankles and displayed the cheap clothing that, moulding itself on her feet, seemed an adornment as choice as the sheaths of buds.  The farthing buckles were bijoux. (Ch. 20)

I think I need to make one argument to get anywhere, and this passage supports it, not the surprising last sentence but rather Queen Mab and her felt slippers clothing the Jewish fairy princess.

But not today.  How about:

The exterior [of an ancient church converted into a stable] was much defaced, maimed of finial and gurgoyle, the friable limestone broken and fretted, and lending its soft gray to a powdery dark lichen; the long windows, too, were filled in with brick as far as the springing of the arches, the broad clerestory windows with wire or ventilating blinds.  (Ch.  35)

Maimed of Finial and Gurgoyle would be a good name for a metal band.  The next sentence I dislike (“pleasure on its piquant picturesqueness”) but the rest of the description has lots of nice colors and details.  “’Oh, this is glorious!’ Gwendolen burst forth,” and it is quite good, although the scene is essentially the description of an imaginary genre painting, Eliot imitating a Salon description (e.g., the puppy).

“She had a world-nausea upon her, and saw no reason all through her life why she should wish to live,” in Chapter 24; I love that, “world-nausea.”

These are the fairy girls again: “Their faces seemed full of speech, as if their minds had been shelled, after the manner of horse-chestnuts, and become brightly visible” (Ch. 18).  I have a lot of trouble with Eliot’s imagery, or really the complex things she does with it, but that’s a terrific line, although not as good as “the restlessness of vulgar furniture” (Ch. 12).  I do not understand why that is not a maxim, nor why it was not the title of a Belle and Sebastian album.

I hardly expected a George Eliot novel to have so much slang:

“That girl is like a high-mettled racer,” said Lord Brackenshaw to young Clintock, one of the invited spectators.

“First chop! tremendously pretty too,” said the elegant Grecian, who had been paying her assiduous attention; “I never saw her look better.”  (Ch. 10)

Clintock is nobody, a decorative character, but he lets Eliot show off her ear for what I assume is horsey talk, unless she is making the slang up; how would I know.  Clintock gets off an even better one a couple of pages later:

“What extreme guys those artistic fellows usually are?” said young Clintock to Gwendolen.

Slang is apparently cyclical.

One of the oddest lines in the novel soon follows:

Klesmer's verdict on her singing had been an easier joke to her since he had been struck by her plastik.

I read Daniel Deronda in Barbara Hardy’s Penguin Classics edition, so I had the honor of badly reading the novel in the company of Eliot’s best reader.  In her footnote, plastik “seems to be a rather odd usage by George Eliot” (p. 888).  But I am sure that for Hardy, as for me, some of the pleasure in Eliot – in any great writer – comes from her odd usages.

Yes, the German-Jewish musician is named Klesmer.  Please file that with the fairy slippers for later use.  The entire Jewish part of the novel is something of an odd usage.


  1. Well, you simply must define "reading badly." Methinks you are too hard on yourself. Perhaps you are being ironic and I am too dimwitted to sense your ironic deflections.

  2. What do I mean. A real difficulty in taking the book on its own aesthetic terms, which is some combination of ignorance and resistance, without the creativity that can result in a good misreading.

    Maybe I was too ambitious at first, too, fighting too hard with the complexity of the book, as if a first reading were the right time for that. Well, it might be if I understood the aesthetic better.

    Barbara Hardy's introduction was a big help. I should read her book.

  3. When having trouble with a book by a writer whose other works I respect, I find it useful to remember that Cervantes also wrote La Galatea and the Persiles, or that Nabokov wanted to write a novel about evil Siamese twins instead of Lolita until Vera put the kibosh on that plan. Sometimes genii choose subject matter that is extremely hard to execute well, even for them.

  4. Véra Nabokov acted in the service of readers everywhere.

    My biggest problems with Eliot are more fundamental. I had the same struggle with Middlemarch, and had the hardest time here with the first couple hundred pages, the parts people like the most. As I moved into the unpopular, risky, and even irritating part of the novel, the German part, I had found my way in.