I Finish “Vanity Fair” & Dobbin Writes His Name in a Dictionary

Dobbin reading in “Vanity Fair”

The other day I raised the question of whether we should write our name in books.  While I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an  urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  I did write my name in my Latin dictionary.

I was finding VF a bit of a slog until I wrote my name.  Is it magic?  Then I began to enjoy it.

Thackeray spins a rip-roaring story of love and war.  His whimsical style can be a little coy,  but the characterization is peerlessly vivid.   I relished the wit of Becky Sharp, an artist’s daughter and con artist who rises from governess to a belle of high society.  Becky seems extraordinarily modern.  Today, with her business sense, she would control Wall Street.   She has a knack for twisted economics, as she schemes to cheat creditors and friends.   She might have survived the financial crash of 2008. There is even a bit of #metoo exploitation about Becky:  she spins convincing tales about being victimized by men she victimizes. (Yes, they say you must believe what people tweet, but you can’t believe Becky!)  My favorite character is her husband, Rawdon Crawley, a gambler and a libertine who eventually reforms for the sake of their son.

Sometimes Thackeray’s satire is a little too 18th-century.  (N.B.  He is a Victorian writer.)   And I tired of his authorial asides as he skewers the Vanity Fair of life.  Still, he satirizes all the characters.  Even the morally upright William Dobbin, a Major in the Army,  goes too far in his idealization of sappy Amelia, the widow of his best friend, George Osborne.  And Amelia foolishly idealizes George, who, unbeknownst to her, did not just flirt with Becky but wanted to run away with her.

And then in the last chapter, after Dobbin quarrels with Amelia, we learn the most important fact.  Dobbin writes his name in books!

Some books still subsisted, after Dobbin’s departure, with his name written in them:  a German dictionary, for instance, with ‘William Dobbin, – th Reg.’, in the flyleaf; a guide-book with his initials, and one or two other volumes which belonged to the Major.

I mentioned that I’d written my name in a Latin dictionary.  Dobbin writes his name in a dictionary too–my doppelgänger!

Mellie (Olivia de Haviland) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) in “Gone with the Wind”

By the way,  I recommend VF to fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell obviously lifted signficant bits from Thackeray:  Scarlett O’Hara has a lot of Becky in her, and Amelia is Mellie.

Hardcover Collections & Paperback Allergies

Do I collect books?  No, but I have a lot of books.  And I do own four copies of each of the Brontës’ seven novels, bought for the cover art.

I usually prefer paperbacks. They’re light and portable, and somehow feel more daring.  I love lounging on the sofa and reading a nearly weightless paperback.

But lately I’ve switched to hardcovers.  Have I stopped lounging?   No.  Wait for it…  I AM ALLERGIC TO PAPERBACKS.  And I wonder:  should this be happening outside an underground comic book?

Much to my chagrin, a strong bleach-based spray cleanser gave me a case of contact dermatitis.   And that’s why I was reading Vanity Fair in a Penguin hardcover, because my the paper in the old paperback is too acidic.

The rash has  cleared up.   It’s enough to make me a collector of hardcovers, though.

I do enjoy other people’s book collections, even though I’m not a collector.   In  the latest issue of the TLS, Nicholas Murray writes about collecting the original World’s Classics hardcover series. He says these tiny books were “launched in 1901 by Grant Richards and bought by Henry Frowde of Oxford University Press in 1905. It ran until the mid-1970s, publishing well over 600 titles. The name survives in OUP’s current paperback library of classic editions, originally ‘World’s Classics’ and renamed Oxford World’s Classics in 1998.”

I  have the World’s Classics hardcover edition of George Moore’s Esther Waters.  I found it years ago at a used bookstore.

I certainly would like that edition of Katherine Mansfield!  But I already HAVE a Katherine Mansfield.  (You can buy it for about $10 on Etsy..)

Do You Write Your Name in Books? On Rereading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

The other day, while I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an irresistible urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  At 12, I scribbled my name in Jane Eyre.  I also wrote it in  my Latin dictionary.

Then I broke the habit. Some years ago, I was irritated when a librarian wrote my name in a  novel I’d lent her.  It seemed impudent, because it wasn’t her book.

Perhaps I wrote my name in Vanity Fair because I was enjoying it less than I hoped. When I first read it at 17, I  found Becky Sharp hilarious and Dobbins charming, but I was disappointed in the book.   I was a Victorian novel nut, but I  preferred Dickens’s  pyrotechnics and Trollope’s plain style to Thackeray’s pointed wit and stylistic bibelots.  In  the introduction to the Penguin, John Carey compares Vanity Fair to War and Peace.  I do not see the similarities.

I enjoyed Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and The Newcomes.  So why  does the clever, nimble prose of Vanity Fair not delight me?

I wrote my name in the book, so now I have to like it.

Do you write your name in books?

Are You a Russian Lit Geek? Rereading Goncharov’s “Oblomov” and Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks”

Are you a Russian lit geek?  I love Russian classics.  I even saved my adorable notes from a long-ago Russian Literature in Translation class.  And I  recently reread two 19th-century Russian novels, Ivan Goncharov’s comic masterpiece, Oblomov, and Tolstoy’s short novel, The Cossacks.

I have never read a funnier novel than  Oblomov. The enchantingly slothful hero, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, prefers sleep to action.  He naps and lazes all day in his dusty apartment, where his servant Zakhar does as little as possible.  In the opening chapter, the two quarrel about the housekeeping.  Zakhar claims he can’t dust or sweep the cobwebs unless Oblomov goes out for a day.  The prospect horrifies Oblomov. “Good lord! what next?  Go out indeed!  You’d better go back to your room.”

Nothing can wake up Oblomov:  neither his bailiff’s cheating him of money,  nor  the landlord’s eviction notice.    But when his energetic half-German friend Stolz shows up, Oblomov reluctantly make the rounds of social visits. But he doesn’t truly wake up tills he falls in love with  Olga, a young woman determined to direct his life:  she  insists that he read books and  take long walks.  The romance  can’t last, of course.  Oblomov becomes sluggish in the fall.  And he  suffers from what he calls “Oblomovism.”

One of the most famous chapters is “Oblomov’s Dream,” the longest single scene in Russian literature, according to critic Richard Freeborn.  Oblomov dreams of his  idyllic childhood  and future with a wife and children on his beautiful country estate.  The power of Oblomov’s imagination radically changes our attitude toward his sleepy mode of living.  Critics in the 19th century interpreted “Oblomovism” as an illustration of the  Russian character flaw that prevented reform and revolution.  Stolz is successful only because he is half German.  But Goncharov also believed the artist must be a passive vehicle, “an artist of the eye” who relies on his subconscious. And Oblomov fits that description, I think on a third reading.  Yet such an interpretation is out of context.

I have read and loved David Magarshack’s translation of Oblomov (Penguin) and Natalie Duddington”s (Everyman’s Library).

Tolstoy wrote The Cossacks, a partly autobiographical novel, over 10 years.  He  traveled to the Caucasus in 1851 and in 1852 joined the army as a cadet.  Writing The Cossacks was Tolstoy’s attempt to deflate the romantic view of the Caucasus. It was published in 1863.

The Cossacks begins as the story of  Olenin, an upper-class young man who wonders “how to live.”  He leaves Moscow for the Caucasus, because he seeks a new kind of life.  In the Caucasus he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains.  And he becomes infatuated with the simplicity and naturalness of the Cossacks.

The most interesting part of the book is a series of sketches of Cossack characters. The women farm and do the work; the men hunt, drink, and fight.   Tolstoy focuses on three characters:  Lukashka, a fearless Cossack soldier who does exactly what he wants, Maryanka, a gorgeous young woman who is understood to be engaged to Lukashka, and “Uncle” Yokashka, an old man who tells stories and drinks to excess.  Olenin falls in love with Maryanka. He wants to be a Cossack, but in the end realizes he will never fit in.

It is not my favorite Tolstoy, but he could not have written War and Peace if he had not written stories about the Caucasus and Crimea.

I have two good translations of this:  David McDuff’s (Penguin) and Aylmer and Louise Maude’s in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. As so often, I preferred the Maude.

The Tyranny of Routine & Three Literary Links

A scene from “The Jane Austen Book Club”

You need to follow a routine.  That’s what they tell insomniacs.  Get up at the same time every day.  Oh, sure, set that alarm for 6 on the weekend.  That will regulate your sleep patterns.

I used to be an insomniac.  I seldom slept more than four hours a night.    In a sitcom,  everyone laughs when the “insomniac” is caught snoring, because it proves that he or she does sleep.   But I used to stay up and read till 1 or 2, and then get up at 5:30 to get to work by 7:30.

My insomnia stopped when I began to work at home.  So the problem was simple:  I  wasn’t a morning person.  Now I get my sleep, and my schedule is flexible.  My motto is,  Get it done.  The time of day doesn’t matter.

Because of the tyranny of routine in the workplace,  I very much enjoyed John Stilgoe’s column in The Guardian, “Is a daily routine all it’s cracked up to be?”  Routines are said to help creativity and productivity, but a study of academic writing habits proved that it isn’t always helpful to write every day.  You may lose your motivation.

Stilgoe writes,

Routines are good. It’s easier to make something a habit if you plan it in advance and do it daily; plus there’s the (controversial) phenomenon of “decision fatigue”, which implies that you should “routinise” as many choices as possible – such as when to get up and what to do first each day – to save energy for others. Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.


1  Gene Wolfe, a literary science fiction writer, died on April 21.  Last year I wrote at my blog Mirabile Dictu (here) about  The  Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s award-winning quartet, The Book of the New Sun.

And in an article in The New Republic, Jeff Heer calls Wolfe the Proust of science fiction.   He writes,

Wolfe, a celebrated writer of science fiction and fantasy with a deeply Catholic imagination, died on Sunday at age 87. Wolfe was a writer who occupied a unique niche by fusing together three seemingly divergent strands: pulp fiction, literary modernism, and Catholic theology. His four-volume masterpiece The Book of the New Sun (of which The Shadow of the Torturer is the first tome) is an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian.

3.  Have you read the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu’snovel, The Tale of Genji?  That was my summer project a few years ago.  In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about the Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

On the Consequences of Mediocrity

“The medium is the message.”–Marshall McLuhan

Mediocrity is both the medium and the message on the internet.  You can blog or tweet your opinions on politics, fashion, yoga, beer, art, travel, movies, and books.  You can pore over rough-hewn, poorly-researched articles at online publications. The facts may be wrong and the writing barely within the laws of syntax, but such stuff has driven newspapers and magazines out of business.

Mediocrity is good enough, writers keep saying at mediocre  online publications.  At Lifehacker, staff writer Nick Douglas shares his muddled thoughts on revising  the high school English canon.  In the  first sentence he declares, “The Great Gatsby is overrated.”  (You can imagine my dismay.)  He asserts, “The point isn’t to build a new canon. The point is to destabilize the idea of the canon, one that has propped up too many mediocre artists and excluded too many brilliant ones, one that feeds into a monolithic idea of America that looks nothing like the country’s actual past or present.”

The so-called “mediocre artists” propped up by the canon are, of course, authors of the classics. (Yes, I’m annoyed.)  Douglas smugly insists that students would benefit more from The Lord of the Rings (I read it when I was 10!) and a Y.A. author named Rainbow Rowell (whom doubtless the students read when they are 10).  His background seems not to be in literature or education: he has no interest in style or structure, and is unfamiliar with the concept of reading outside his comfort zone.  I recommend that he read the critic Maureen Corrigan’s excellent book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

One of the most sophomoric online publications is Book Riot, which bills itself as “the largest independent editorial book site in North America, and home to a host of media, from podcasts to newsletters to original content, all designed around diverse readers and across all genres.”  I don’t mean to single out any particular writer–the articles all read like blog posts–but I was annoyed by Abby Hargreave’s essay, “I Don’t Read the Introductions in Books.”  She says she used to read the introductions in college, but indicates it was kind of a bore, and now she doesn’t anymore.  She really hates spoilers!

Still, unlike Nick Douglas, she tries to be fair.

She writes,

When I graduated but continued reading, I went back to ignoring the introductions and any other forewords. I find now that I’m still suffering from a lack of background on a lot of the older material I read. That’s a natural consequence, but there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and read the introduction after I finish the novel. I often don’t, but that’s not the point. Some books include afterwords as well as introductions or forewords. This is especially great because it seems obvious to me that an explanation or analysis of the book—which introductions, in my experience, often end up being—should come after the main text. Spoilers aside, it’s difficult to get much out of an analysis if you don’t have the context.

It’s not that I mind whether or not she reads introductions. After all, she’s not a scholar.  And I think it’s perfectly sensible to read the introduction after reading the novel.  But I dislike the “It’s-okay-to-be-mediocre” tone.   Mediocrity can be dangerous, as we know from literature.  I recently read Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, the third in his Growth trilogy of environmental novels.  (He won the Pulitzer for the second, The Magnificent Ambersons).  In The Midlander, set in Indiana in the early 20th century, Tarkington tells the story of two brothers in a wealthy family, Harlan and Dan Oliphant, who dislike each other from boyhood.  Brilliant, snobbish Harlan graduates from Harvard with honors,  while sweet, stupid Dan barely graduates.

Harlan is a natural aristocrat, living with their wealthy parents in their lovely home, cleverly investing his money, and spending most of his time collecting books and reading.   Dan goes into business and works ceaselessly:  he buys a farm and intends to build a development there when the town grows.  People mock Dan as a harebrained dreamer, but the city eventually does expand in that direction and people buy the lots. Then Dan starts an automobile factory to serve the suburban residents.

Harlan sees the fall of their city as smoky factories are built in the neighborhood and  families flee to the suburbs.  Urban sprawl has attacked his city, as it has  other American cities.  By the end of the book  we appreciate Harlan’s insights. Although we love Dan’s personality,  Dan’s vision was destructive.   And Dan pays the price.

The middle doesn’t always mean mediocrity. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the mythic engineer Daedalus devises wings of feathers and wax to escape from King Minos’s prison.  He tells his son Icarus before they fly across the sea, “Fly in the middle of the path, because if you go too low, the water will weigh down your feathers, and if you go too high, fire will burn your wings.”

Daedalus does not mean mediocrity by the middle:  he knows from the political climate in which he alienated Minos that flying too high was dangerous. But Icarus flies too near the sun, burns his wings, and crashes. And Ovid, too, paid dearly for flying too high. The emperor Augustus  banished him  for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  And though Ovid wrote letters begging friends to intercede on his behalf (Epistulae ex Ponto), he died in exile.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

What I find tragic is not so much the desperation as the new self-congratulatory mediocrity.

Am I Hallucinating, or Is Every Book Group Reading Trollope’s Palliser Series?


I belong to too many online book groups.   You probably do, too.

But here’s what I wonder:  why are they all  reading Trollope’s Palliser series?

Mind you, I love the aristocratic Pallisers.   Trollope’s six-book “political” series is loosely linked by recurring characters who are members of the political and social  circles of Plantaganet Palliser, a dry-as-dust  politician, and his lively, willful wife, Lady Glencora.

I am a great rereader, but  recently I was struck by the comedy of hundreds of Victorian lit fans rereading the Pallisers–probably for comfort and sanity!  My email Trollope group has read the Palliser series several times, and is about to embark on The Duke’s Children, the last  in the series.

And then I visited a Goodreads group I’ve long neglected, “The Readers Review: Literature from 1714 to 1910.” And they just finished The Duke’s Children.

The Duke’s Children is not my favorite Trollope, but since I seem to be  living in a Palliser era, don’t you think I should participate?

I wonder if we need the relatively cozy (though sometimes very dark) Palliser books to get us through our current unstable age.

Long live Trollope!