Saturday, January 7, 2017

Missing The Point

After finishing Daniel Deronda I was keen to set about reading Terence Cave's introduction to the Penguin edition I'd been reading. I'd deliberately avoided looking at this earlier based on Prof Cave's own advice that the intro contained spoilers, and good advice it was. I found the narrative drive of the novel well nigh irresistible, especially in its second half. But I did find the prof's footnotes to the text extremely useful and these gave a few pointers to his own reading of the text, which further fuelled my desire to read his introduction.

I must say his appreciative comments on the text in the intro (and his notes) echoed my responses, particularly with regard to the ambition of the writer in going outside the comfortable English frame of Gwendolen's world and exploring the world of the Other in the Jewish part of the novel. In that respect Eliot's final work seemed to me remarkably prescient of more modern concerns, and relevant to my own experience in ways that, say, Middlemarch, for all its insight, indeed greatness, falls short of. I found an urgency about Deronda that took me aback.

The intro also reminded me of something I'd largely forgotten: the negativity of much critical comment on the work, particularly with regard to the Jewish part. I found myself scurrying to my battered old copy of Leavis's The Great Tradition in order to re-read his less than complimentary treatment of the novel. He's certainly appreciative of the part he entitles (with some arrogance, I must say) Gwendolen Harleth, and does justice to the psychological depths involved, but he's stunningly dismissive of Eliot's treatment of Daniel, Mirah, Mordecai et al.

I find this baffling. Certainly these characters lack the psychological depths of Gwendolen and Grandcourt, but isn't it obvious that Eliot is not interested in duplicating that kind of writing in this part of the novel? And isn't it extraordinary that a remarkable reader like Leavis isn't able to surrender to what the writer is doing in the Jewish segments? Prof Cave nicely puts a name to what GE is up to here; he sees it as a step from Realism into Romance. I'm not keen on literary labels generally, but I think that in this case they are useful. Certainly what I felt when I was reading - and I felt it very intensely - is to some degree explained by those terms.

So for the last few days I've been thinking not just of this great novel and my responses to it, though it has lodged itself in my imagination, but of literary criticism and how at its best it can illuminate and excite and at its worse entirely miss the point of why we read at all.

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