Friday, August 14, 2009


I have just indulged in a rather interesting experiment. While reading Thackeray's novel, I've also been able to watch the six part BBC serialization starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharp. I'll comment on this BBC serial later--but first to the novel itself.

Well, it's a very good novel. Certainly one of the best from the Victorian period which it parodies so beautifully. Becky Sharp is a fine literary creation and the personal embodiment of that "Vanity Fair" which Thackeray, on the one hand, appears to despise so much, while winking at us in happy glee and suggesting "it ain't such a bad place after all" (by gad!)on the other. All the main characters are fully realized and mercilessly exposed in their weaknesses by the unrelenting author.

Becky, as I have said, is the very embodiment of the superficial, and finally worthless, attractions on offer in the pitiless and unrelenting world of "Vanity Fair" which raises people up for a moment, only to mercilessly crush them forever after they have strutted for their little pompous moment on the high society stage. Amelia's Major Dobbin is the only really honourable character in the book--and he is continually trampled over by all the bright young things who want to make their momentary splash in "Vanity Fair". Thackeray describes him as a "spooney" and, indeed, he spends most of the novel as Amelia's platonic lover who dare not ask for more than the little she will give him. Becky Sharp is the real hero, heroine or "anti-heroine" of this novel "without a hero". She manipulates everyone with the most perfect judgement and lives for the joy of Vanity Fair's thousand intrigues. Her husband Rawdon's unexpected escape from a debtor's house and subsequent discovery of his wife making love to the Marquis of Steyne (and his resultant thrashing of that gentleman) is probably the most dramatic moment in the book. However, Becky--if not her husband or the Marquis--is able to move beyond even this catastrophe.

Vanity Fair is not without faults for the modern reader. Sometimes Thackeray indulges in page after page of almost nonsensical parody of the contemporary society of his day and this comes across (in the 21st century) as even worse than Swift's most obscure rants in Gulliver's Travels on the Tory/Whig politics of his time. Thankfully, Thackeray doesn't usually detain his reader long in such tedious environs, but soon gets his marvellously readable story moving again.

As I wrote earlier, I have been watching the 1998 BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair while actually reading the novel itself--and it's been quite a revealing experience. Of course, one sympathises with the person responsible for making the adaptation. How is it possible to condense the action of more than 800 pages into a 6 hour serial? No doubt it's an impossible task, but I was, mostly, impressed with the beeb's minor success. The adaptation is well done, though it's not without blemish and, most notably, substitutes some of Thackeray's prejudices for several of our own time. For example,(in the novel) Becky's husband, Rawdon, thrashes Lord Steyne with his open hand to make the point that he regards him as a coward and expects to be satisfied in a duel. The beeb substituted a drunken head-butt for this subtle assault--presumably because they thought this was more acceptable to late 20th century British yob culture. Again, the serialization accurately includes a black manservant in the Sedley family. However, he (the black manservant) is given a far larger part in the adaptation than in Thackeray's novel (where, indeed, he is hardly more than a wretched slave). Wouldn't it have been better to simply cut this character out altogether rather than have him purposelessly wandering through every episode full of a somewhat threatening "joie de vivre"? Nevertheless, as I wrote earlier, the adaptation is probably ALMOST as good as it could have been in the circumstances. In particular, Natasha Little is quite enchanting as Rebecca Sharp.

So now I move on in my reading to weightier matter: "The Brothers Karamazov" awaits!

Thursday, August 06, 2009


For what it's worth (and that's not much!) my own "Top Ten" list of novels would be as follows. Naturally, I only include books I've personally read. The list might change as blanks in my reading are filled in. For example, I hope shortly to get started on "The Brothers Karamazov". There is a little voice in the back of my mind which suggests that perhaps dreamweaver55 is right about Madam Bovary being overrated. However, I'm going to stick with it at number three as it IS a wonderful example of the realist novel, and predates Tolstoy's great novels.

1. War and Peace
2. Anna Karenina
3. Madam Bovary
4. Crime and Punishment
5. Ulysses
6. Wuthering Heights
7. The Great Gatsby
8. David Copperfield
9. Bleak House
10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Monday, August 03, 2009


Well, recently, in an American poll of writers, "Anna Karenina" was voted the greatest novel of all time. It is difficult to understand why. Certainly, it's a very good novel: but the best? No, I don't think so. It's certainly not as profound as Tolstoy's other masterpiece, "War and Peace". At the time of Anna Karenina's publication, several critics dismissed it as a tale of self-indulgent adultery in high places. Of course, this is too extreme and simplistic a view, yet it has a kernel of truth in it as well. None of the characters are truly sympathetic. Anna leaves her husband and son for the somewhat characterless Count Vronsky, and derides and scorns Karenin for his attempts to hold the marriage together. After that, with somewhat breathtaking audacity, she insists on a divorce (which Karenin refuses to give) and the right to have her son live with Vronsky and her (it might be an issue today, but it was a non-issue in the Tsarist Russia of the time: the state and the church were absolutely on the side of the wronged husband). The subplot of the novel which involves the husband of Vronsky's former love, Levin, also fails to produce a wholly appealing character. One feels that Levin, with his spiritualty, belief in the land and the peasant and agonised search for spiritual truth, is the character Tolstoy most holds up for our admiration. However, he frequently comes across as a misanthropic bore whose occasional spells of overt sentimentalism do much to repel the reader. Still, his final realisation that spiritual truth is different from and separate to reason, will strike most readers as profound (at least in the way it is worked out in the novel). This is contrasted with Anna's very limited final sensibility that tells her everyone in the world really hates each other; and she dies with spite in her heart, believing--correctly--that her suicide will be the total ruin of Vronsky--and that this will be her final revenge on her lover for not loving her enough (though how he could have loved her more, it's difficult to see).

Contrast all this with "War and Peace" which has as its main theme the movement of history itself and examines such ideas as how much free will man really has. The pre-Marxist view expressed in the novel that great cycles of history have deeprooted causes beyond the ambitions of Kings and Princes, was striking for its time and gives expression to a philosophical view of history that still makes sense for many people, even today. Moreover, the novel has a "cast of thousands" and historical characters such as Napoleon, the Russian commander, Kutuzov, and Tsar Alexander himself, are compellingly portrayed. Furthermore, the fictitious characters are more sympathetically drawn than in "Anna Karenina" (especially in the case of the lethargic, but likeable, Count Bezuhof). Finally, the only explanation I can think of for putting "Anna Karenina" in a higher position in the list of 'greatest ever novels' than "War and Peace", is--the likely enough one--that far more readers have reached the end of "Anna Karenina" than the end of "War and Peace" (which is 500 pages longer, and intellectually more demanding). The top 3 novels in this interesting American list (which never included a single novel by Dostoyevsky, but yet found space for several far weaker novels by American writers) were:

1. Anna Karenina

2. Madame Bovary

3. War and Peace

My own top 3 would be the same--but in a different order:

1. War and Peace

2. Anna Karenina

3. Madam Bovary

All in all, a great triumph for the realist novel!