Saturday, July 26, 2008

Jane Austen "On Beauty"

Just because I've been addicted to TV the past few weeks doesn't mean I've forgotten how to read. I've just finished two quality books. One is a classic and the other is a modern take on a classic. Not a lot happens in either novel - just the normal, everyday drama of life, where little things mean everything and social events are simply bookends between which real life happens.

I read the first 265 pages of On Beauty with very little interest. The characters were well drawn; the language was readable, yet intellecutally satisfying; I learned some interesting things about art history. But somehow, I wasn't attached. Then something extraordinary happened - I was reading a scene where Kiki goes shopping with Carlene Kipps, and Carlene asks Kiki to come to her country house with her. There was something familiar about this scene... Then I realized the exact same thing happens in Howards End!

Howards End is my very favorite E. M. Forster novel, and consequently it is one of my favorite novels ever. E. M. Forster takes a back seat only to Jane Austen and maybe Thomas Hardy. I'm surprised it took me as long as 265 pages to figure out that On Beauty is a modern retelling of Howards End. There are so many explicit similarities: the concert, Jerome's short-lived romance with Vee, of course the shopping scene, etc.

This knowledge did not necessarily improve the novel for me, but it did make it much more interesting. I finished it only a couple of days later. While E. M. Forster's novel is about trying to repair the prejudices against and inequalities between classes and genders, the modern version is of course about race. I get what the author was trying to do, and I am appreciative of the effort.

I am still on the fence about whether or not I liked the book. It was well written, and the modern take is flawless. The plot is perfectly woven, the characters are drawn well, and the language flows nicely. But, somewhere in the back of my mind I keep wondering why Zadie Smith couldn't come up with her own story. Is she so uncreative that she has to steal from a classic? On the other hand, I have liked modern takes on Jane Austen novels, and I'm not absolutely against the idea of re-working a classic - not to change it or improve it, but to update it and at the same time keep the integrity (meaning, point, focus) of the original piece intact. (Two cinematic examples: Clueless - a modern retelling of Jane Austen's Emma, and 10 Things I Hate About You - a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew). Note to self: read more Shakespeare.

I obviously have no final conclusion. I'm not sorry I read it, and I can see the value in the novel. However, I cannot give it a hearty endorsement. You'll just have to read it and decide for yourself. But read Howards End first!

There are a hundred reasons to read Jane Austen, not the least of which is the language. She is so clever, biting, sarcastic, and just plain funny. Northanger Abbey is by far the best of her novels in this respect.

As you may or may not be aware, it is the first novel she wrote, though it was published last. It is plain to see that it is a first novel. She is experimenting with language and character development. She has her characters reading and discussing novels, and thus we are informed of her taste in literature and her opinions on some of her contemporaries.

My favorite sentence of the book was on page one: "[Catherine's mother] had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on - lived to have six children more.." Jane (we're on a first name basis now) never fails to entertain.

The characters in Northanger Abbey are all very vibrant - especially the bad ones. Isabella and John Thorpe are both snobs who aspire to climb the social ladder. Both assume that others are extremely interested in everything each does or says, and they each spend most of their breath informing everyone of their humble, giving and supportive natures - while their actions show nothing but selfishness. It is so fulfilling when Jane punishes each of them. Then there is General Tilney and his bad temper, attempts at civility, and secrecy. Jane keeps his intentions a mystery throught the novel, and thus the reader's interest is held for the entire novel.

As for Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, they are a little less vibrant. There is no question from the beginning that they are destined for each other. The spark ignited at their first meeting cannot be mistaken, and anyone who has read Jane Austen knows that her heroine always meets her hero at the beginning of the book. They must both overcome obstacles in order to finally end up together. The obstacles to their union are nothing more than a long series of misunderstandings, and miscommunications. Catherine is naive and Henry is not quite eager enough. Otherwise they might have gotten engaged right away and there would have been no novel.

The best part about this Jane Austen novel is that there is more here than just the regular social interactions - balls, dinners, card-playing and dancing. This is a gothic book - mysterious and suspenseful. There was more than one passage where my heart was beating fast - wondering what ghosts would next appear.

When speaking about it with Mike earlier today, I put it at spot #5 out of the 6 Jane Austen novels. However, after thinking about it some more, I have decided that I rank Jane's novels as follows (1=best, 6=least favorite):

1- Pride and Prejudice;
2- Sense and Sensibility;
3- Mansfield Park;
4- Northanger Abbey;
5- Emma;
6- Persuasion.

Now that I'm done, I'm going to read Pinnochio, because I think it will go quickly, and I want something easy and light while we're moving. Keep voting, though. I will read the winning book once we move and are settled!

1 comment:

  1. So I read Northanger Abbey when I was in England, and one of the people there with me said that one of the literary criticisms about the novel is that Tilney is gay. So as I was reading it, I just kept thinking about that. And I can see it. He really isn't a very good male lead--he's definitely no Darcy! Also, the guy who plays Bingley in the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice was in the movie Penelope. Just thought i'd let you know