I have the extremely odd habit of saving drafts in the most random places, and so, I just stumbled upon this Clarissa reading journal that I wrote way back in 2007. I have to published it because it’s just so odd (it was, it seem, an assignment for school that I took really seriously), it’s in the same epistolary style, and because I’m so amused that I wrote it an forgot about it again. It seems to function as a sort of diary of my Clarissa reading experience, and if you have ever read the novel, I’m sure you understand why such a step is necessary. I hope you enjoy.
Letter 1: Miss Pamela Coovert to Self at Future Date
4 September 2007
I’ve read through the Introduction to Clarissa and I can’t help but be a little worried, the Introduction is, theoretically, written by someone very fond of the book, but even their glowing terms can’t seem to mask what appears to be a staggering behemoth of a novel. I have unofficially assigned it tome status, which I like to give books more than 100 pages larger than a nice, round thousand. Apparently, every time Samuel Richardson went to edit it down he – in an act that makes it obvious that he was his own publisher – added to the book. Happily it seems that we are dealing with the first edition, which, it seems, is the smallest version. Also, the Introduction amusingly notes all of the far better known writers to slam the book (and Richardson in general) as time goes by, specifically, S. T. Coleridge. Still, Dr. Runge assures us that we are lucky to be among the few classes of graduate students who will ever get through the authentic version of this book; perhaps my pride would be more awakened at this thought were we reading James Joyce, at least then, at the end of the novel, I’d feel cool.
Well I was considering not writing about this novel, but then the DP came up and “write about the most recent book you’ve read” is kind of a perfect prompt. Who am I to resist?
The absolute worst book of the semester award still goes to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bland, but Murphy by Samuel Beckett was a close second. How did Murphy escape this dubious distinction? Because I hated it, and, perhaps amazingly, I feel that hating a book is better than feeling nothing at all. Published in 1938 this is an early piece of postmodern literature and obviously influenced Tom Stoppard. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays (mostly to see staged) I also have to begrudgingly spare Beckett from condemnation. I have not read his plays, but would like to, since I feel his style really works better for tragicomic, theater of the absurd. Yes, I’m a theater nerd too!
So who is Murphy? Well Murphy is a guy who likes to speak in riddles, tie himself to his favorite rocking chair, and refuse to get a job, instead forcing his girlfriend to support him until her savings are bled dry and she has to become a prostitute again. Then he finally somehow gets a job, but decides rather than be a decent person and pay Celia back so she doesn’t have to be a prostitute anymore, he just waits until she leaves the room they’re renting, sneaks in, and moves out all his stuff. So when I summarize the plot for my friends and family they start laughing the laugh of sympathetic dark humor. Murphy is my life. I have not dated one, but several Murphys, and the thing of it is: I hate Murphy. He’s selfish, emotionally detached, and generally speaking, he is the living worst. My professor was like, “This is the most sexist book we’ve read, do we even need to discuss it? I mean, it’s pretty obvious.” It really is. There are several speeches about how women are terrible, but I guess you must have to hate women to trick one into supporting you until she’s bled dry and has to sell herself on a street corner to take care of her dying grandfather yet still feel no obligation to help her out once you’re on your feet again. Man of the year!
A note to begin: the Wikipedia entry for D. H. Lawrence’s 1925 St. Mawr is kind of pathetically short. Remind me to do something about that, won’t you?
So this story caused a rumble in my class when it was discussed, with the girls on one side of the class, straining under the pressure of not clobbering the boys for their shocking sexism. St. Mawr brings that out in a room, I suppose. Part of the issue, maybe the whole issue, lay with the characters (in the order I remember them being introduced):
Lou aka Louise aka Lady Carrington – A woman once madly in love with her husband Rico, now less than content in her marriage. Not interested in sex anymore, because she thinks men are all playboys or babies, which grosses her out. Buys St. Mawr after she hears he killed some people and gives him to Rico, obviously. Ends up leaving when Rico (who is about to have an affair with their airhead Australian neighbor) decides to kill St. Mawr. Buys a ranch in America and lives as a “vestal virgin” but worshiping (not overtly) nature.
Rico aka Henry aka Sir Henry Carrington – A painter (an impressionist, a school that Lawrence thought was garbage) and an Australian who inherits the title of baronet from his father. Starts to gain popularity as an artist and initially likes St. Mawr. He cannot control the horse, however, and eventually has his ankle crushed by St. Mawr when he falls on top of him. The injury is because Rico will not let go of the reins when they capsize, pulling the struggling horse down on top of him, like a moron. After this he decides to kill St. Mawr, but instead secretly sells him to his airheaded neighbor Flora, whom he is obviously going to have an affair with. She promises to geld (castrate) St. Mawr, presumably to make him docile, but really because Rico wants to enact some grotesque male sexual vengeance on the animal. Rico is gross and should be hated.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? More like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young BLAND, burn! Okay, really though, it’s been a long time since I really hated a novel, especially one that’s in the canon, but James Joyce is really killing me this this one. The Modern period is interesting because they were doing something different with the novel, pushing boundaries, experimenting, but this novel is utterly awful. Boring, trite, and overwrought, reading it is an exercise in tedium. If I can imagine an author – in this case Joyce – looking up from the manuscript, chuckling to himself, and whispering “James Joyce you genius,” before resuming writing, it means I hate the novel. Writing a novel, at its heart, should be an effort to reach other people. The precise emotion is less important, whether it’s didactic or the author just wants to entertain, every novel should reach out more than it reaches in. I feel that this is a universal, fundamental trait of the novel. It’s also why I feel Literature is such an important thing for people to study, especially young people, because it teaches empathy and challenges what one knows (or can know) about another. Novels are opportunities to go outside of yourself and connect with another person in the quiet, non-judgmental space that the pages create. This novel is the opposite of that in nearly every way.
Bland is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man becoming an “artist,” which I had to learn online, because you certainly cannot tell that from oh, I don’t know, reading the novel. That’s not important to Joyce though, if Joyce is happy with his novel he doesn’t give a flying fig if you’re getting anything out of it. I cannot help but wonder if this selfishness manifested in, shall we say, other aspects of Joyce’s personal life. Of course that one might be my issue, stupidly expecting to get something out of the many hours I devote to reading; regardless I am disappointed that Joyce isn’t alive to feel the sting of my personal insult. Let me put it another way: I read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, which are her personal diaries with no notes as to who the people are or what is doing on, diaries that were never meant to be read by anyone but Plath, and that was still easier to follow than this novel. Really though, the clearest message of this novel is that Joyce was a deeply self-absorbed person. That’s not the official message of the novel (I have no idea what is), but it was quite clearly communicated to me via the novel. Transmission error … transmission error …