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

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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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THE LADY’s NOT FOR BURNING: Rachel Kushner and the politics of the ‘70s

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The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner           Published by:  Harvill Secker $39.95

The first image that inspired The Flamethrowers, says Rachel Kushner, is that of a young woman with masking tape over her mouth; the second was of a Ducati motorcycle. There were other thoughts that flitted across her mind too – art and revolution. These elements coalesced to form the narrative base for her new novel.

Kushner, who is also a poet and essayist, came to prominence when her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, won a number of awards and was a New York Times bestseller in 2008. Dealing with the events that led to Castro’s Cuban revolution, it underpinned several themes that are obviously of great interest to her – politics, history and social change.

The Flamethrowers weaves all of these strands to create a multi-layered narrative that mashes the bohemian world of art in 1970s Manhattan into the turbulent underground politics sweeping across Italy at the same time. The novel’s 22 year-old heroine is never named, known only as Reno – the place she comes from. A motorcycle racer who breaks a world record for dashing across salt flats in her leathers, she nevertheless views herself primarily as an artist. She comes to New York to further her career and to discover life. Of course, she finds much more than she bargained for.

The Flamethrowers is (most satisfactorily) a coming-of-age novel, with (less satisfactorily) the building blocks of thriller thrown in. Manhattan in the 1970s was the birthplace of Minimalism. Artists were abandoning Abstract Expressionism for work that followed critic Clement Greenberg’s dictum of being non-representative and an experiment in pure form. This is the world that Reno falls into – naïve, almost childlike in the way she trusts and follows others, she becomes the girlfriend of one such artist, Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. The reader follows her through the precious, vacuous, self-referencing world of art, full of jostling egos and petty jealousies and vendettas. It’s a wonderfully satirical portrait filled with memorable characters and a deliciously wicked depiction of the Chattering Classes. How these people talk! One monologue goes on for 13 pages! Wide-eyed, with a curious innocence, Reno takes all this in, non-judgmentally, a blank canvas waiting to be written on.

The second half of the novel sees Sandro and Reno travelling to Italy, where they visit the matriarchal mansion on Lake Como, ostensibly for Reno to compete in a motorcycle trial. Again, Kushner takes us into the privileged world of the Italian upper class, with its snobberies and prejudices. It’s here that the novel begins to unravel. During the 1970s, revolution was in the air. In 1978 the Red Brigades killed the leader of the Christian Democrats and former prime minister of Italy, Aldo Moro. Kidnappings of rich industrialists were rife. Hundreds of thousands of people, many armed, gathered to protest against government corruption in the streets of Rome. Factories and public servants went on strike. Pulled in, almost by accident, into riots and a Red Brigade-like terrorist cell, Reno has to grow up very quickly and take matters into her own hands.

Kushner’s prose combines the intensely poetical with a flair for objective reportage. Yet there is a sense, in the Italian part, that she is simply reproducing vast tracts of research and background reading and twisting it into plot. The disparate story-lines mesh uneasily, the characters’ arcs sag. She’s much more comfortable in the New York sections of the book, where the narrative sparkles and the protagonists pulsate with life. There are protestors and gangs in New York, too – revolution is in the air, both politically and artistically. The novel also intersperses Reno’s story with that of the original founder of the Valera factory just after the first World War. This is perhaps the most awkward part of the narrative, as Kushner takes up Valera and runs with him for a few sections, and he is then, inexplicably, abandoned.

Nevertheless, Kushner is an excellent commentator on the changing role of women. With the rise of feminism in the 1970s, women were beginning to experience new freedoms. The Flamethrowers captures women on the cusp of social independence, making their way and plotting career paths, yet still at the mercy of men who choose, use and then forget them. Reno and her friends have little say in this. Their ambiguous status is symbolized by Reno’s day job as a “China girl”, whose faces were used to adjust color densities in film processing. Most were secretaries who worked in film labs.  As Kushner writes: “If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.”

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is Kushner’s use of archive photographs to introduce chapters of the book. They show her extensive research, her desire for accuracy and objectivity and are of great historical interest. The title of her novel is not arbitrary: there were real Flamethrowers – the Arditi of the first World War, an elite troop of Italian soldiers who breached enemy defences in order to prepare the way for a broad infantry advance. Kushner’s characters are also Flamethrowers in a sense, blitzing their way through artistic and political environments with mixed success. It’s an apt metaphor for the novel itself.

Read it: to discover an author who blends the political and personal, often with devastating effect

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Pictured: A China girl from the 1970s


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BROOKLYN DREAMING – Monica Trápaga’s NY Food Adventure

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A Bite of the Big Apple by Monica Trápaga   Published by: Penguin Lantern  $39.99

When she was little, my daughter was a devotee of the iconic children’s ABC TV series Playschool and particularly loved the “pretty lady with the hushy voice”. The lady was Playschool presenter Monica Trápaga and the “hushy voice” was my daughter’s attempt to say ‘husky’.

Well, times have moved on. My girl’s now at Uni and Trápaga divides her time between Sydney, where she runs a vintage emporium called Reclaim, and her Brooklyn home. In the Big Apple, she indulges her passion for jazz singing, entertaining, looking after her extended family and cooking up a storm.

It seems in many ways a divine existence, which Trápaga recounts in her cookbook, A Bite of the Big Apple, co-written with her daughter Lil Tulloch. It’s a big-hearted, rambling compendium, in which they take us on a culinary journey through NY, its multi-cultural influences, markets and produce. At the same time, friends are recalled, life-affirming experiences are recounted and many recipes are shared (I can vouch for the Lavender Lemon Pound Cake).

Part of the book’s charm lies in the gorgeous, colourful collages that accompany each recipe designed by Trápaga herself and the food photography has also been taken by family and friends. Unlike the fast-paced nature of New York itself, this is a meandering book to savour slowly. Dip in and out, try a recipe here and there, reread a diary entry. The only jarring note is the final section, which recounts Trápaga’s home decorating philosophy – this sits uneasily with her search for the ultimate dessert and her obsession with spring lamb.

I’ll be interviewing Monica Trápaga in the next edition of 3mbs’ book programme, Page Turners, where she’ll be talking more about her Big Apple culinary adventures.

Read it: If you enjoy wholesome cooking, and a glimpse into the inner heart of New York.