“Be your Rubicon big or small, clear or foul, it is the same: you shall not return.”
I hate to bad-mouth modern culture—that’s not true, I spend half my time doing exactly that.
Anyway, here’s a thought: the more I enjoy a work of “classic” literature, the sadder I feel when I think about the general deterioration of modern literary taste and talent. And I very much enjoyed the book I just read: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith. I had wanted to read one of Meredith’s novels for a long time. Published in 1859, Richard Feverel was one of his earliest novels. Do you know, the Los Angeles County Library system, which is an excellent library system with millions of books, doesn’t have a single copy of any of Meredith’s novels. And he was one of the foremost Victorian authors. I ended up ordering a used paperback copy online.
Richard Feverel was a young, spoiled aristocrat who inherited his father’s bull-headed stubbornness. The book is a romance, a social commentary on parental methods, and an exploration of society’s losing struggle with Nature. It achieves all these goals through a rich, dramatic plot and finely-drawn characters. These basic elements are brought to life through prose that is pure and dialogue that is varied and lifelike, all sharpened to a keen brilliance.
Meredith’s style is not radically distinguishable from Dickens or Eliot, but it does demand more thought and concentration than most Victorian romance. Richard Feverel is laced with allusions to both Christianity and ancient classical mythology and literature. Most of the main characters are well educated and tend to converse at an impressively-high intellectual level. Moreover, Meredith is prone to metaphor. Not all readers appreciate metaphor, but he uses the device so artfully and so faithfully that it forms a distinct layer of meaning in the novel. The sum result is a novel that kept me interested from start to finish, introduced me to a whole cast of unforgettable characters, and gave my brain some much-needed exercise.
So why does this make me sad? It makes me sad because nobody writes like that today. Some people might say that’s a good thing. That’s like saying it’s a good thing that today’s furniture is made of plywood and plastic instead of solid handcrafted hardwood. A lot of novels come and go in my house and I open them and start to read, in good faith. Of these, if they were written in the last thirty years, they almost always prove disappointing, in style, in character development, in originality, and life is too short to spend it reading things that don’t measure up to even the basic standards of earlier eras. There are some exceptions, thankfully. But when most people, and that includes most fiction writers, are raised on a steady diet of mass-produced popular literature, we can’t expect anything better when they, in turn, sit down to write the great American novel. Libraries and book stores with shelves full of glossy best-sellers and not a single George Meredith will not tend to produce great writers. They will produce writers of glossy best-sellers.