One thing that I do not really do is keep up with the modern literary scene. With occasional exceptions, I tend to not know anything about new or even semi-new writers of literature, and it is only rarely that I read a novel written after about 1968; indeed, if I were to discount mysteries and hard-boileds and Wodehouse and Mitford(s), that date might be more like 1908. (Nonfiction is, of course, a separate matter.) This exclusivity derives not so much from snobbery as from terror of the wide-open territory that is the current and future literary scene. That is, it seems to me that if I am to delve into current books, there will be no end to it - I will have to be reading everything out there all the time, discovering and evaluating and following new authors and their unceasing parade of new productions. Mining the past, on the other hand, seems much more manageable - all I have to do is go into any old used bookstore now and then, pick out a handful of Penguin or Oxford classics, and stay happy (if somewhat musty) until I have finished reading them.
It is by this procedure that I have ended up reading a truly random selection of 19th century novels. Among these are three by Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone, The Woman in White, and Poor Miss Finch, the last of which is truly spectacular, involving as it does a beautiful blind woman and a pair of handsome twins, one of whom is literally the color purple - can you guess the contours of that plot? (Also filed under "Collins, Wilkie" in my memory are Lady Audley's Secret and Cousin Henry, neither of which are actually by Collins but might as well be, right?) My friend M, a fellow book-devourer, recently got herself onto a Collins kick, apparently feeling shamed by a Facebook list of books that people ought to have read or something of that nature. (This list also included the Harry Potter books and, I think, The Clan of the Cave Bear, so I don't really think it's something to get oneself ashamed over, but there we have it.) After she finished The Woman in White, she lent it to me to re-read, as I had forgotten the shocking and dastardly secrets revealed therein.
So I am now re-reading The Woman in White. It was not especially easy to get back into right away; the cosmic levels of improbability at which Collins operates are rather daunting at first, and the kind, quivering, sentimentalities of "Walter Hartright, of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing" rather tiresome. After awhile, though, the story does get going enough to keep you roped in, and the narration switches over to "Vincent Gilmore, of Chancery Lane, Solicitor," a far superior narrator. Indeed, I think Mr. Gilmore is my favorite narrator of the book. He is perhaps the closest thing in the book to a real person, and in any case the closest to Collins in education and position and perhaps temperament - possibly even more so because Collins himself read for the bar - and Collins grants him a good-humored voice full of shrewd observations of a type that other, more verklempt, characters haven't the time or sense to make.
To wit, here are some of the Mr. Gilmore gems that I enjoyed today:
I had [unlike the writer of this blog] been favourably impressed by Mr. Hartright, on our first introduction to one another; but I soon discovered that he was not free from the social failings incidental to his age. There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do. They can't sit over their wine; they can't play at whist; and they can't pay a lady a compliment.
It is the great beauty of the Law that it can dispute any human statement, made under any circumstances, and reduced to any form.
I liked to feel her hearty indignation flash out on me that way. We see so much malice and so little indignatioin in my profession.
I'm not entirely sure what is happening to me, but there is no denying that these days, my consciousness feels more and more fragmented, and any concept of self more questionable. Often, I feel as though I can barely locate myself in the crumbling pieces of the body and mind that I seem to have once inhabited. Some days, it is only in reading a story, or in watching one on television, that I can escape this incoherence and locate some sort of sense in my own mind and in the world around me. Today, during my free periods at school, I neglected my grading and test-writing in order to enjoy Mr. Gilmore and to allow his clear thinking to, at least temporarily, stand in for my own.