Back from Prague (which rocked) for a great week in reading, starting with Henry Mackenzie’s slim novel (basically a novella at a little over 100 pages), The Man of Feeling. I refer to this in the first chapter of my thesis, but I’d only ever read the bits I needed to, and because it’s so short, it seemed especially worthwhile to just read the whole thing. It’s a perfect example of “the sentimental novel”, a genre in vogue in the mid-1700s characterized by what seems to 21st-century audiences like extreme, over-the-top emotional reactions. The Man of Feeling was published in the 19th century with an “Index of Tears” so that readers could look up their favourite crying episode in the plot! Within the space of a generation, though, this level of extreme sentiment (many famous 18th-century novels, like Pamela, are lower-key, more sophisticated versions of the genre) went from being highly in vogue to highly mockable, and it’s likely the Index of Tears was included at least as much for a reader’s amusement as for their participation in the weeping. The pattern of the story (rich but not too-rich Harley travels his local area, talking to unfortunates and giving them money as their stories move him) set the standard for episodic sentimental exchange in fiction. I quite enjoyed it; Harley’s experiences are slightly more individualized than a bare summary would suggest, and the recurring question of whether he’s principled or completely insane—whether strong feeling is a luxury for the propertied classes, essentially—is a worthwhile one.
Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch: This defeated me a while back, so I went back and tried it again when I was feeling a bit stronger. I finished it, but there are so many competing plot strands, ideas and symbols—labour history, nineteenth-century immigration, climate disaster, Native American history, linguistics, turtles, early pennies, BDSM, disability—that the thrust (if you will) of the story just gets lost. Too much going on, not enough tying it all together. I don’t insist that a book be neat and tidy in every particular, but I don’t think a certain level of thematic coherence and inter-reliability is too much to ask for. I’d recommend this for cli-fi fans anyway, because of the way it interweaves speculative fantasy, reparative history, and the ecological future, but for a more casual reader it’d be a bit of a struggle.
Love in Excess, by Eliza Haywood: The first and most popular novel by Haywood, whose work I’m investigating as possible content for another chapter of my thesis. This one deals less explicitly with prostitution; its contribution is the way it allows female desire to be subjective, complex, and human, a treatment English fiction was not used to giving such a topic at the time (1720). The characters have the frustratingly interchangeable names of romance (Melliora and Melantha; Aloysa, Amena, and Ansellina; d’Elmont and d’Espernay), but they each have individual personalities and respond in ways that don’t just accord to their “type”. You can actually see the novel form moving towards more fully articulated interiority in this book, in a way that’s really exciting. Also, the plot events are absurd (so many disguised ladies who are magically impossible to tell apart, so much pining, so many jealous schemes and stratagems), but decidedly compelling. Because Aloysa is a separate person from Amena, with a totally different set of traits and approach to life, you do care about what happens to both of them, even though it appears on the surface level to be basic bedroom farce. I read it in two days (a feat, given the convolutions of eighteenth-century prose) and enjoyed it immensely.
Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, by Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy for which Mahfouz is most famous in the Western world is fast shaping up to be one of my best reading experiences of the summer, awkward translations notwithstanding. In Palace of Desire, tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad finds that his sons are growing up: Yasin makes another disastrous marriage, then a third (which lasts)… with the very same courtesan to whom his father has been addressing his affections. Kamal, at seventeen, is hopelessly in love with his friend’s sister Aida, and in the grip of ideals about literature, philosophy and intellectualism which may or may not make him happy. In Sugar Street, we see how Kamal’s lofty dreams have collided with the bureaucratic reality of teaching, and the focus shifts to the new generation, al-Sayyid Ahmad’s grandchildren: brothers Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad, who espouse the Muslim Brotherhood and Marx, respectively, and Yasin’s son from his first marriage, Ridwan, who engages in what Mahfouz delicately but unmistakably suggests is a gay affair with an older politician in order to rise in the ranks of the civil service. The women—Amina, Khadija, Aisha, and the wives and daughters of the sons—fade into the background a little bit in the second and third volumes, which is a shame, although things certainly happen to them: Amina gets older and wiser, and gains more independence as her husband’s power wanes; Khadija makes her husband’s house a war zone by quarreling ferociously with her mother-in-law; Aisha is brutally bereaved. I said on Twitter, and will say again, that TV ought to stop doing poor rehashes of Austen and start adapting material like this. It really does have everything—war, sex, money, death, illness and aging, young love, politics—and a canny adapter could easily expand the sections focusing on the women, and the gay affair, for a modern audience; they wouldn’t have to make anything up.