Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Her books

I haven't finished yet but I'm far enough along that there are certain aspects of the book that seem of some significance as I look back. One of these is Madeleine's book collection. It's the very first thing in the book. We know about her books before we know her name.

There is something very right about this. I was at university at the same time (early 1980s) as Madeleine , Leonard and Mitchell and the cultural references are largely correct. One of the things that girls did back then was have their books on a shelf in their room and boys who were lucky enough to get into her room (a privilege that did not necessarily imply sex although it sometimes did) would look at her books and try to reach some conclusions about who and what she really was based on this collection. It's something we all did and I remember people talking about it.

So, as I say, there is something very right about it all. If anything, the problem, it seems to me, is that he doesn't make enough of it. University students are lousy tenants so they pay a premium. As a consequence, they end up jammed into apartments or houses and the only privacy, the only intimacy, they have is in their bedrooms. And even that is very limited. You can hear your roomies having sex and you can hear them having fights and breaking up. Odd as this may seem, to actually sit in a girl's bedroom and be able to study the spines of the books on her shelf was a more exclusive experience than knowing what she sounded like when she came or whether she and her boyfriend discussed issues such as would she swallow, would she wear more exciting underwear and would she please stop obsessing about his ex-girlfriend.

Fred Kaffenberger says he liked the three principals—Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell—in this novel. That's an important observation because it really comes down to that. Eugenides doesn't have the knack of creating romance about the places or activities he writes about. No one, reading this, would get a yen to go to Brown University. It all comes down to these three characters. You will either find them and their struggles compelling or you will hate the novel.

And Madeleine is the most important of the three. We meet her first and she is, at least to where I am at about seventy percent completed, the center of the book. The only thing the two men have in common is that they are both in love with her.

So let's look at her books in the order they get mentionned:
There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.
I'll start with the "redoubtable" Brontës. Who is making this judgment? Please excuse me if I remind you that "redoubtable" means "formidable" and that, in a novel anyway, doesn't necessarily mean good. If you were a girl who voraciously reads and they were among your favourites, you might say "redoubtable" as a way of expressing the strength they had and the strength you got from reading them. If you were a boy interested in a girl who voraciously read novels the Brontës might be a formidable barrier because they were big, dense books that boys don't like to read because they dwell on a lot of heavy romantic stuff that doesn't interest boys. And that would matter a lot in a list that had started with Edith Wharton and Henry James, making for a very formidable group. If you were a boy in Madeleine's bedroom you might well think that the only small mercy is that there is no much-loved copy of Jude the Obscure in her collection.

Austen is a typical choice but she gets remarkably little attention in this book. There was a bit of a revolution going on in the eighties in that  the kinds of novels that voracious girl readers loved but that academics tended to diminish were beginning to get a strange new respect in English departments and Austen was the central figure in that revolution. In other words, she has to be there or the book would lose all credibility. But that is the problem for that is the only reason she is there. Much as a novel about a Canadian boy would have to mention hockey, a novel about a girl like Madeleine has to mention Austen. But that is all there is. Austen isn't much discussed and later in the book Madeleine will admit she has not made much of a study of Austen.

I suspect Eugenides hasn't read much Austen. Eliot he has read, his last novel was called Middlesex!

Next we get some poetry but poetry doesn't matter in this story and neither do the paperbacks Madeleine was assigned for classes. What does matter are the final two items listed, and they make for a rather odd pairing:
There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now using to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot.
Colette and Updike have nothing in common except that they both write a lot about sex and particularly about sex on the sly. And Madeleine reads them on the sly too! I wonder what she is likely to have learned from them? Colette always writes about feelings, about what it feels like to be in love. She does this even when cranking out soft-core porn about girls having "inappropriate" relationships with other girls or boys having affairs with older women. Her books can make you tingle for all that, they made me tingle plenty in my teen years, but they are very different from Updike who tends to describe acts.

Sadly, there is no connection, at least not yet, between these books and Madeleine's sex life. And you'd expect there to be. The impressions a teenager gets from the sexually suggestive books she reads on the sly should have a huge effect on her early sexual experience.

Finally, I should note that the significance of the title has already been explained right here on the first screen of my electronic edition of the novel.

Oh yeah, names. Madeleine's name is a derivative of Magdalen with all that implies. It's also the name of the pastry that triggers the memories in Proust. Are either of those things significant in this novel? I don't know.

Eugenides name is also intetesting, by the way. I'm not anything even remotely resembling a Greek scholar but it must mean "good family" or "good ancestors" or "good descent". Which is kind of appropriate because one major theme of the novel is about the social outsider (Mitchell) in pursuit of the insider (Madeleine). When Mitchell accidentally catches a glimpse of Madeleine's breast, he describes it as her "Episcopalian breast".

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