I have in my drafts, among other things, an unfinished review of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, titled The War and Peace Experience. I don’t usually review books. It is an intellectual exercise I can hardly set myself to any more than physical exercise. It requires a revision – albeit quick – of the contents to help identify the major themes of the book, and calls for collecting and organising one’s own thoughts on the same. This isn’t half as simple as it sounds. Forming an opinion should be easy by the time you’ve read hundreds of pages’ worth of a subject, but it is not.
In the immediate aftermath of reading a classic, you lose your voice to that of the author. And so it was for me: for a long time after I had finished War and Peace, it was only Tolstoy’s voice that I could hear as I reflected on the subjects he had covered; my own had retreated to some dark, secluded chamber of my brain. In the long run, however, you do get your voice back. Having taken its time to digest the author’s implicit and explicit propositions, having filtered the necessary from the unnecessary, having linked old knowledge to the new, and knowledge – as a whole – to conduct, your voice finally finds the strength to assert itself – first in thought, then in speech. But it won’t assert itself in writing unless you give it a pen and a paper or a digital variant thereof. That is why my review was never finished.
Yesterday, I finished another book that I have been prompted to write about: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I had been reading that book for four months. A page or two a day, at times ten, at others none at all. I had started off thinking it wouldn’t take long because it looked like a 300-page book. It was in fact an 800-page book but the Penguin paper quality had me. It was only when I had lived through half the Middlemarchers’ lives and the action still wasn’t rising that I turned to the last page and saw the number at the bottom. 795. I hope a 5-page exaggeration is excusable.
Yesterday, I finished another book that I have been prompted to write about: George Eliot’s Middlemarch
There are pros and cons to letting a book extend over that long a period. The major pro is that the characters become larger than life. You don’t read away months and years in a single sitting, you live them – sometimes, one day at a time. Life is not superficially fast for the characters any more than it is for you. It is like a parallel universe whose characters eventually end up spilling into yours. Or, is it the other way around?
In any case, once you are weeks-deep into a book, it becomes the backdrop for your life and helps put things in perspective. You could pick up the book after days and find, to your surprise, in a character’s internal monologue, that he or she is going through exactly the situation you find yourself in. And that is as close as it gets to magic: characters in the story correspond to people in your life, and twists in the plot coincide with events. For instance, the strains and conflicts affecting Dorothea, the trade-offs confronting Mary, the vocational musings of Lydgate, and the debates inside Ladislaw’s head are not only relatable but fairly common to us all.
As for the major con, well, people get sick and tired of watching you with the same book all the time wondering if you’ll ever finish it.
This is not so much the Middlemarch experience as it is the long-read experience. Not that I’m going to do anything about it; just noting so you know that I know I digress. I have come out of my writer’s block after far too long to let off-track musings discourage me now.
You can enjoy a story if it is fast-paced and gripping, but you only enjoy the book if the descriptions are profuse
Middlemarch was like any other classic in terms of the depth and complexity of its plot. Each character in this plot has interests as distinct and distinctly-defined as if they were real. It would take a person like myself a lifetime to be able to articulate his or her own feelings with the authority that George Eliot has over every single one of her fictional characters. That is something that never ceases to fascinate me.
Then there is the skill at description. I once thought of these descriptions as drags but I enjoy them now. They are very thorough and almost indispensable. You can enjoy a story if it is fast-paced and gripping – as I recently did My Cousin Rachel – but you only enjoy the book, the reading, if the descriptions are profuse. And George Eliot’s descriptions have to be – perhaps after Virginia Woolf – the most brilliant and insightful I have ever read.
I have now on my list The Karamazov Brothers. I will start reading it very soon to fill the void that finishing Middlemarch has left in me. I had wanted to finish the book but I had not wanted it to end. Unfortunately, you cannot have the one without the other, and I can only hope to develop associations as strong with other characters that I come across as with the Brookes, the Chettams, the Vincys, the Garths, the Lydgates, and the Ladislaws of Middlemarch.