Monday, March 08, 2010

Daniel Defoe--Moll Flanders (1722) Though published eighteen years before Pamela officially got the era of the novel underway in English, this is certainly a very near ancestor of that beast, if not a full-blooded member of the family. Like many old ur-novels of this type, including Don Quixote, it starts off quite rough, but eventually finds a kind of rhythm that hurtles it forward. A modern writer would have gone back and corrected the beginning once he found his bearings, incorporated more smoothly into the rest of the book, but this was apparently not thought important in 1720; the origins of the genre, we are told, being humble, and it being held in low esteem by the real literati of the day, no doubt accounts for this neglect. The evocation of atmosphere, details and other textures--houses, sense of place, possessions, all the things that I like, are also rather spare by more recent standards. Everything is in the service of relating the story in as straightforward a manner as possible. As far as there is any literary decoration, it would be the good number of sly observations on human nature and society that are dropped in from time to time among the narrative.

That was about all I could muster to say about the book at the time I read it. It marks a significant development in English literary history and I am glad to have gone through it and become familiar with it, but on the whole I found Moll and her world to be only very faintly perceptible, three-dimensional, whole, alive, what you please, to me. There was nothing in it that was really fascinating to me.

Great Picture Here of the Modern Imagination Firing on Autopilot. There appear to be at least four or five film or television adaptations of the novel, though none as far as I can tell is rated as especially fine. Obviously the elements of the story would have cinematic appeal, though in what form is not something that shines through in the book itself. I would imagine that the interpretations are wildly varying and perhaps even outrageous.

People familiar with the story may recall that after being orphaned, Moll managed to be taken into the house of some gentlepeople where she claims to have had a proper upbringing, dancing, French lessons, refined manners, only to get into trouble when she allows herself to be seduced by the family's eldest son. I used to think that the tone of the narrative in most of the rest of the book was not consistent with this education, but I have since come to understand that it is difficult to keep up certain postures if one falls out of regular contact with the circles where one acquired those postures.

There was a point around a third of the way into the book, when Moll is working on about her third husband, in addition to several other past lovers, when the demands of chastity in a new ongoing situation became ridiculous, and despite some great arguments regarding the matter, the struggle wearied me.

The cleverest episode in the book was the one where Moll and a male counterpart mutually deceive themselves into marriage, she by intimating that she possesses a fortune, he by posing as the owner of a large estate in Ireland. When the deceptions are found out (the man opens his letter of confession to her "My dear--I am a dog"), though they have grown fond of each other, they call the marriage off anyway to better pursue their respective self-interests.

One of the favorite pastimes of contemporary critics is to complain that modern literary novelists don't pay any attention to the primal struggles and machinations of ambitious people in the pursuit of wealth, which is after all perhaps the driving narrative of all human existence, especially at this point in history. I doubt in the long run this that this will seem true of our era, but certainly there are plenty of people in the MFA/writers' workshop/conference circuits seem to exist in a world of rather languid plenty. Given that many of them procure a sizable income themselves and follow the modern upscale lifestyle of exercise, healthy eating, 3.6 university degrees and 2.2 fellowships per person, it is obvious that they do not suffer from too great a deficiency of energy in ordinary life, it is only in their literary (and perhaps sexual) activity that they become sapped of vigor. Not having any of the difficulties, with the possible exception of sexual/romantic ones, which dog ordinary people--money, school, oppression, lack of self-control, the police, the legal system, macro-inferiority complexes--finding any drama in life becomes a struggle. Hence we have a deluge of books by people with glittering academic and professional credentials who apparently find taking care of a baby completely overwhelming. There is a kind of artist's poverty, a combination of sporadic or under-employment, debt, a certain level of squalor and discomfort which is marked by sparseness rather than grossness, leavened with regular exposure to interesting and lively people and ideas, that seems to be optimal for the imaginative faculties but also seems very hard to re-create in society as currently constituted in the necessary form.

Robin Wright as Moll in Another Adaptation. Evidently she was not good in this.

p.180--A breakdown of Moll's history, which is impressive: " is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me! How little does he think, that having divorced a whore, he is throwing himself into the arms of another! that he is going to marry one that has lain with two brothers, and has had three children by her own brother! that has lain with thirteen men, and has had a child since he saw me! Poor gentleman!"

This reminds me of how powerful the effects of the electronic revoluton, cameras, cell phones, lack of necessity of carrying cash, etc, on street crime, robbery and so on, the nature of which hadn't changed much between 1700 and the mid 1990s, have been in the fifteen years since then. You don't seem to read much about people getting mugged or robbed on the street anymore compared to when I was a kid, or maybe I just am not paying attention.

Like many older (pre-1900) as opposed to newer novels, this one did pick up the longer it went. The technique of accumulating characters and incidences which build on their own momentum in the service of the story and don't whirl out in a variety of directions is evidently more difficult to master than it looks

My edition--the Heritage Press, 1942--is illustrated by probably a hundred pen and ink sketches executed in lines and curves and other flourishes. I don't know what the technique is called, but the effect is more like cartoons than exact representation. I didn't like them so much at first but they grew on me. I should have scanned one for display here. There don't seem to be any of them posted elsewhere on the internet.

Moll sails to Virginia at the end, noting that they entered "the great river of Potomac". Unlike the ancient rivers of Europe and Asia and Africa and some of our celebrated western rivers in North America, one doesn't often see or think of our eastern rivers celebrated as 'great' either in literature or song or art, with perhaps the Hudson as an exception, but quite a few of them certainly are, the Delaware, the St Lawrence, the Connecticut.

More on Virginia, it was noted that it "did not yield any great plenty of wives". They aren't lying there (I never had any very good luck with the ladies from that rich and stately commonwealth). I also noted that Moll Flanders managed to journey to America twice in her life (and once back to England) despite not living in an era of cheap airfares, so maybe there is some hope that when Peak Oil, the Global economic meltdown, etc, comes to pass, that the majority of us will not all be trapped wherever we happen to be for all time afterward as some predict, but that some limited brand of movement will be on offer.

There is maybe more in the book than I am giving it credit for. There are better 18th century novels, and I am sure at the time I was comparing it to those and finding it lacking, but it has endured better than almost anything else from its time, and is still in print from a major house as I speak.

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