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A PASSION FOR MIDDLEMARCH: REBECCA MEAD’S LIFE IN FICTION

mead             ge

Rebecca Mead                                             George Eliot

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead             Published by: Text, $32.99

Why do we love some books more than others, and revisit them again and again? Perhaps we identify with their heroes or heroines; maybe a writer’s style speaks to us in a singular way; or we view the novelist as a role model, a light to guide us.

For Rebecca Mead, that special novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She’s read it every five years or so since the age of 17. Born in England, Mead moved to New York after university and has worked as a journalist ever since. Now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mead’s new work – part memoir, part biography – takes Middlemarch as a starting point to revisit both her own life and Eliot’s. By deconstructing the novel, she re-interprets it through a 21st century lens, and shows how her life has frequently paralleled and been enriched by its story and characters.

As she writes:  “What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? And what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things, and surveyed where I had come from, and thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?”

Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf said in her 1919 essay re-appraising Eliot, “was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.  By then, Eliot had fallen out of favour. Her moralistic authorial interpolations were viewed as sanctimonious, her views on how to build a better society considered old-fashioned, ill-suited to a modern world. Woolf’s essay in the Times Literary Supplement was a first step in re-establishing Eliot’s reputation.

Yet in her day, Eliot’s star shone bright. The daughter of a provincial clergyman, she was unconventional and ambitious. From her early teens she realised she was an agnostic and refused to accompany her father to church.  Headstrong and rebellious, she turned her back on her family’s expectations of a good marriage and moved to London to live independently. She adopted the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ when she first started publishing novels, to be judged impartially by her peers and avoid being pigeon-holed as a “woman writer” (it’s almost scary how contemporary this sounds). But long before that, Marian Evans edited the thinking person’s magazine, the Westminster Review, translated, wrote essays and was an integral part of the Victorian literary scene.

She was not a good-looking woman. Portraits display her big nose and lantern jaw. Henry James describes her as charming despite her unfortunate plainness. But her voice was melodious, her conversation scintillating. When she met the writer and social campaigner George Henry Lewes at the age of 38, she moved in with him freely, even though he was still married.  Despite the shocked tut-tuts of society, they lived together contentedly  for over 20 years until Lewes’ death.

Mead  contrasts this meeting of minds with the marriage of Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea, to the pedantic clergyman Casaubon.  Straight-laced, puritanical and mean-spirited, he is the polar opposite to the passionate Dorothea, a young woman whose stifled  intellectual yearnings lead her to this ill-fated choice. Dorothea longs to escape her provincial roots and become her husband’s partner and helpmate as he writes his great opus, ‘The Key to All Mythologies’.  But he deliberately sidelines her and the work is never finished. Middlemarch portrays a doomed marriage with extraordinary exactitude and empathy. Through her research, Mead traces the possible models for the couple, Mark and Francis (sic) Pattison. He was a young, ineffectual Oxford don. She was a forward-thinking young woman who, unsatisfied by a partner so obviously  her intellectual inferior,  eventually divorced him and remarried.

Still, Mead judges Casaubon more kindly now than on her first reading of the novel. Eliot, she says, was able to recognise the limitations of human beings, and one of her strengths as a novelist is her uncanny ability to write about stumbles and failures, characters whose endings are unspectacular and whose lives are unremarkable. It is this, says Virginia Woolf, that makes Eliot among 19th century novelists, “so large and deeply human.’

Mead’s ever-changing relationship with Middlemarch  and with Eliot herself is at the heart of this book. She literally grows up with the novel and reads it anew with fresh insight and admiration. As an adolescent, desperate to leave her seaside childhood home, Mead  identifies with Dorothea’s  longings for travel and intellectual challenges, yet later she reflects as an adult on her youthful pretensions, and the importance of home in moulding personality.  As a writer, her transition from the provinces to Oxford, to New York and to a career in journalism echo Eliot’s own life path.  Even her relationships are viewed through the prism of Eliot’s experience. On becoming  a step-parent, Mead recalls Eliot’s own emotions towards children not her own whom she comes to care for deeply. Eliot’s social conscience, far from preachy, is a reflection of seriousness and commitment to society which Mead also strives for in her own work.

The Road to Middlemarch binds two very different women together through their shared love affair with a novel. Exquisitely researched, it sheds new light on Eliot and on 19th century fiction. Mead has written an engaging, wise and fascinating tribute.

I’ll be interviewing Rebecca Mead in the next edition of my Pageturners podcast next month.

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TALL TALES AND SUMMER SATIRE

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After my jetlag was compounded by searing days of 40+ degrees in Melbourne, leaving me and everyone else tired and mentally foggy, I took advantage of the last few days of holiday to tidy up the house, to the sounds of cool jazz and essential books/arts podcasts. My spring – or rather summer – clean was a great way to kick off the new year and I can’t tell you how cleansed I feel after de-cluttering, ruthlessly binning outdated files, and “I should keep this it might come in useful” oddities (anyone fancy a Duck Clock, complete with quacking alarm? Who gave me this? And, more importantly, why?), bundling up clothes for the Salvos and moving read books into boxes, to make room for this year’s crop.

It’s going to be a great year, with new work from amongst others David  Malouf, Sonya Hartnett, John Scott, Janet Turner Hospital and Favel Parrott; internationally, expect new books from Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen. Martin Amis and, a personal favourite, Lorrie Moore. And of course, I’m still working out how much – if any – of the First War commemoration I should cover. A pile of freshly-minted books is eying me accusingly as I write this, but I have copy to write for the Australian Book Review, a grant application, and the second draft of my play to finish off first, so they will just have to wait.

One of the pleasures of holiday reading is that you have time to cover books you wouldn’t normally have time to savour, so I was genuinely pleased to chortle over Richard Glover’s George Clooney’s Haircut (ABC Books, $24.99).  Glover is a humourist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald. Although his work is sometimes syndicated in the Melbourne Age, we don’t have the pleasure of reading his columns weekly, which is a great pity.

Glover has a talent for exploring the minutiae of everyday life. Whether it’s acknowledging the passing of time and accepting his mullet needs drastic, overdue attention – hence the “Clooneyesque” haircut of the title – pondering on the best way to fill out the census, or despairing over his never-ending home renovations, he cracks witty one-liners as easily as shelling nuts. He writes with an enviable ease and fluidity, an empathy for his readers that makes reading him both a joy and a feeling that you’re conversing with an old friend. I caught myself deliberately slowing myself down not to finish the book too fast, making myself wait for one more delicious chapter.

We can all identify with his list of faux-pas and declining standards of etiquette. They include Phone abandonment (leaving your mobile on your office desk, where it will ring constantly with a sickeningly cloying ringtone); Elevator Blindness (deliberately closing the door on someone you can see running to catch the lift); Eyejacking (some Philistine reading the newspaper you’ve bought over your shoulder on public transport) and Surprise Veganism (slaving over a hot stove cooking a meal for 10 only to find none of your guests can eat anything on the menu).

His survey of writers’ festivals wickedly partitions authors into purveyors of Quick Lit (news-related books published 24 hours after a cataclysmic event), Clit-Lit (erotic fiction aimed at the female market), Sick Lit (crime novels often with a Scandinavian setting featuring ghastly murders), Shtick-Lit (memoirs by comedians featuring their best one-liners), Flick-Lit (picture-filled coffee table fare), Sit-Lit (any book to be read in the loo) and so on.

This is all highly amusing, but Glover delves deeper. He has an uncanny ability to point out home truths, so you reflect on changing social mores, with a smirk on your face. Take his views on today’s increasingly complex menus in fancy restaurants. “Restaurant chefs claim to be obsessed with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, but… everything is presented in little towers, as if the plate were valuable real estate. It’s then splashed with a melange of butter, cream and salt in a way designed to cause a heart attack. The only place you get with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, is at home”.

Yes, yes, Richard, bring it on, carry on exposing the comedy in our ridiculous posturings and pretentions. Can’t wait for your next book.


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10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

Happy New Year everyone and may all the books you read in 2014 be memorable!

As I struggle (despite Melatonin) to overcome jetlag, I am very conscious that I have neglected Books Now! over the last few weeks as I’ve been gallivanting halfway across the world, having a great time, but alas, doing much less reading than I hoped. (NB: it was a very active holiday and after rock climbing, trekking and wild water rafting across Peru and Argentina, I fell into bed exhausted at the end of the day).

So while I shake myself out of apathy, and get ready to pen my first review for 2014, I thought I’d ease back into the blogosphere gently. Here’s a great article written by Emily Temple on writers and writing – enjoy!

“If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own favorite essays on writing to the list in the comments.

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“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Read it here.

In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

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“Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer, from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House. Read it here.

Bernheimer is a constant champion of the fairy tale and its influence on literature at large (not least as editor of The Fairy Tale Review), and a writer we couldn’t do without. This essay unpacks the formal elements of fairy tales, and does a fair bit more than hint at their essentialness to writers of all kinds.

“Fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is… Every writer is like a topsy- turvy doll that on one side is Red Riding Hood and on the other side the Wolf, or on the one side is a Boy and on the other, a Raven and Coffin. The traditional techniques of fairy tales—identifiable, named—are reborn in the different ways we all tell stories.”

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“Reflections on Writing,” Henry Miller, from The Wisdom of the Heart. Read a few excerpts here.

A characteristically wonderful exploration of Miller’s own emotional, psychological, and technical struggles with writing.

“I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything; smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.”

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“The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost, from Collected Poems. Read it here.

A gorgeous mini-essay from an American giant that is equally relevant to writers of poetry or prose, and is almost a poem itself.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

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“On Style,” Susan Sontag, from Against Interpretation. Read it here.

As much about criticism as it is about writing (and perhaps more), Sontag dissects style versus form versus content versus the conceptions of all these things that we have in our heads.

“In other words, what is inevitable in a work of art is the style. To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage) , what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style. Compare that which is forced, labored, synthetic in the construction of Madame Bovary and of Ulysses with the ease and harmony of such equally ambitious works as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The first two books I have mentioned are great indeed. But the greatest art seems secreted, not constructed.”

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“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot, from The Sacred Wood. Read it here.

Whether or not you subscribe to Eliot’s “impersonal theory” of poetry, or his conception of the artist’s inevitable “self-sacrifice” to the past, there’s no arguing that this essay is a barn-burner.

“If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of “sublimity” misses the mark. For it is not the “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

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“The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.. Read it here.

Here, Lethem discusses not just the shifty concept of plagiarism in fiction, but the anxiety of appropriating pop culture, copyright, Disney, the power of a gift economy, the idea of a “commons of cultural materials,” art of all forms. A must-read for any contemporary creator, especially if you’ve ever nicked a line from a favorite book.

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing”.

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“How to Write with Style,” Kurt Vonnegut, from How to Use the Power of the Written Word. Read it here.

Vonnegut is an enduring treasure trove of literary advice — everyone you know has seen this excellent video of the man explaining the shapes of stories — and this little essay is no different: clever, whip-smart, and told with joy.

“Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

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“Why I Write,” George Orwell. Read it here.

It’s hard to put together a list of great essays without including something from Orwell. So why not this one, forever quoted by anyone who has ever tried to write a novel, or wanted to?

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

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“On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Read it here.

But of course: the essay that has launched a thousand notebook-keepers.

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”