A Book With Arms Around the World

Young Woman Reading by Courbet

Young Woman Reading
by Gustave Courbet

I do have an actual topic to write about this week, and I’m going to do that. In a minute. First, however, I wish to ramble pointlessly through selected yet random trivia from my life this week. I mentioned at some point—was it last week?—that an agent was looking at a chapter from Benedict and Miramar. When I heard back from her she said that she liked the idea for the book, but did not like my style of writing. Well, OK. That message is less positive than it might have been, but it also means I can slow down on the frantic pace of revision. I can go back to sleeping on the train sometimes.

Today at work I discovered, by accident, as always, that we were closing at 2:00, plus, oh glorious bells from Heaven, that we also have Monday off. When I left work at 2:00, I had a feeling of almost ethereal delight.  It was only two in the afternoon, I was off work until Tuesday, the day was sunny, and there I was in the middle of Washington on the Mall, so I thought I’d stroll on down to the art museum.

It’s a long walk to get there from where I work. I take a route down Constitution Avenue, past those vast buildings that go on and on, like white marble cliffs lining the avenue. The buildings are plenty impressive, you bet, but not at all built on a human scale. “You want a drink of water, a place to sit down, a snack, a bathroom?” Keep walking. On the way down to the museum I also walk past the Washington Monument, and I wondered, if all the monuments in the world were built by women, how many monuments would look like giant penises? I don’t know. Maybe a whole lot more of them.

Part of my time at the National Gallery I sat down in that underground cafe with the waterfall, with a glass of wine and two oatmeal cookies, and I made notes on the next novel I’m planning to write. Then I found rooms full of “small” French paintings. That’s what they called them, because the frames are not very large. In one of those rooms I found a really lovely painting called “Young Woman Reading”. It’s a bit incongruous, as she is half undressed outdoors and has settled down to read a book, which is not what I normally do outdoors when I’m undressed, but to each her own. By her expression, she is clearly engrossed in what she’s reading.

Although the book in the painting is small, since it’s a French painting let’s pretend that she’s reading a French author, Victor Hugo, and that she’s reading Les Miserables. I just finished reading that novel a week or so ago, after spending quite a long time on it (my edition has 1,500 pages). Except for the last 30 or so pages, I loved that book, I hugged it and said sweet things to it, took it out to dinner. I would compare it to War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov. How could I have lived to be this age and not have read this book? What other incredible masterpieces am I blankly unaware of?

Yes, of course I’ve heard that there is a musical based on the book, but now that I’ve read the book, which is dense and rich and full of philosophy and history and excursions on ideas, I can’t imagine that the musical comes even close to the book. Instead, the show probably extracts about 25% of what is in the novel, so it’s probably a story about Jean Valjean and Cosette and a few others, with some revolution. That’s definitely not what the book is “about”, though it does contain those things.

The book is too vast in subject matter, not to mention characters and style, to discuss it very thoroughly in a blog entry, even if I had focused just on the novel the way a good blog would have done. The novel has humor, it has black tragedy, and it has unashamed pathos instructing you to feel things. The plot with Jean Valjean, which is only a fraction of the book, is quite clever and uses a device that modern writers would get slapped for, incorporating about a dozen highly unlikely coincidences. The plot is ludicrously impossible, yet it’s fun and entertaining.

One of the things about this book that reminds me of War and Peace is that the author was bold enough—or foolish enough, if you don’t like it—to halt the story for as long as he damn well wanted to discuss other things. Some of those discussions can be rather long, such as Napolean’s place in French or European history. Or, believe it or not, a very long discussion of sewers.

I feel inspired by this book. I’ve got some ideas in mind already from reading Les Miserables as to how I will approach the next novel, and I think it will affect what I do with plot as well as style.

Possibly I might criticize the book in terms of character development, which will surely surprise anyone who has read the novel. Hugo describes some of his characters rather meticulously, but toward the end I realized that I did not really feel emotionally connected to any of them. Normally I might consider that a fatal flaw in a novel, but for a book as rich as this, I was willing to let it go.

Before too long surely I am going to go find a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Maybe while I’m reading it I’ll go down to the cathedral in Washington and sit in the cathedral while reading about a cathedral. That’s just the sort of geeky thing I would do. But I bet you have faults, too. So I don’t want to hear it.


Filed under Book Talks

2 responses to “A Book With Arms Around the World

  1. Lori

    Doesn’t like your style of writing?! And that means what, exactly? sheesh.

  2. David

    Some people have, hmm, attenuated capacity for appreciating snarky witticism (the modern way of saying “being a smart ass”, something I specialize in) combined with eclectic literary sensibility. Go figure.

    It is, by the way, a delight to see your name here. I believe you also specialize in snarky witticism.

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