Friday, January 25, 2008

Look on Me, and Despair

Some months ago, I wrote here about beginning Samuel Richardson's massive Clarissa, regarded far and wide as the longest and most boring English novel in history, only to have to set it aside to read Tree of Smoke.

Well, I picked it back up last weekend, sank into it for several hours, and spent most of the week with it -- which, as the photograph indicates, doesn't mean I've gotten that far. You have to really, really, really spend some time with this book before that book mark looks like it's made any noticeable progress at all.

I hate setting books aside. I hate not finishing them -- even ones that are unpleasant or downright painful to read. (Bad or indifferently written ones are a different category altogether. There are any number of bestsellers where I never got past page 15.)

Clarissa is not the kind of book I put in the painful category; more like the difficult category. It's not, however, really what I would call boring, although many if not most people will have no problem saying otherwise.

It's kind of a mock epic. Given its size, you'd think it would move on the scale of War and Peace: big book, big issues, hundreds of characters, many drawn at epic length, mighty battles and even mightier issues of time, eternity, and the meaning of life.

Instead, Richardson takes what would not have been out of place as a Tolstoy subplot -- a determined young woman struggling for romantic independence against the demands of her family -- and drags it out, episode for repetitious episode, over 1500 pages of exceedingly tiny print.

Recap of the story so far: the young Clarissa Harlowe finds herself the object of attraction of a rakish swain named Lovelace, whom her family thoroughly despises. When Clarissa falls into ownership of her grandfather's estate, the family presses her to marry a loathsome, illiterate, but similarly wealthy creature named Soames; Clarissa refuses, as she is alternately attracted and appalled by Lovelace, the thoughts of whom continually find their way into her head. The family is so insistent on her marriage to Soames that they are bent on disowning her; she is just as determined if not more so to make her own destiny.

This drama -- played out in letters between Clarissa, her friend Anna Howe, her family (brother, mother, father, assorted uncles) and Lovelace -- cannot be rehashed enough. A letter from Clarissa's family absolutely demands that she quit her childish ways, recognize her duty to family and society, and marry Soames; either in voluminous replies to her family -- or in written re-enactments staged for Anna's benefit -- Clarissa staunchly refuses. Letters fly back and forth between two sides, neither of whom will budge an inch. The family presses harder and makes increasing threats; Clarissa negotiates with them, devises ways to communicate with Lovelace, and argues merits of this or that plan of attack with Anna, who also brings in comments from her mother.

This is, no doubt, what drives a lot of readers away, but it's also what I like about the novel, as well as what apparently made it as influential as it has become. The more you read it, it takes shape as a work of considerable psychological depth and insight, as well as a work of both family and social politics, as Clarissa is faced with more and more challenges from the family, learns how to press this or that advantage, and how she can gain ground through psychology, both forward and reverse.

I can't promise I'm going to drop everything else to finish it, but I do hope to gain a little more each day and at periodic intervals record my progress as well as photograph it.

I wonder if I'll have grandchildren by the time that bookmark is in the final pages.

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