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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Adelle Waldman's new Emmaesque novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.....and Waldman's Loathe Affair With Persuasion!

Whenever one of my non-Janeite friends or relatives sends me a link to a Jane Austen news item on the Internet, invariably I was already aware of it via the multiple “nets” I already have in place for catching such news as soon as it appears. Well, Friday night was the exception that proves the rule, and makes me glad I have such nice friends watching out for stuff I am interested in.

A non-Janeite friend sent me the above link to a brief interview with Adelle Waldman, the author of a new novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, that sounded interesting to me---Why? Because from just from the article title….

“Author Adelle Waldman strove to create realistic MALE LEAD, EVEN IF HE ISN’T LIKABLE”

….I had a strange hunch that Waldman’s novel had been inspired by Jane Austen’s writing, and in particular by Emma. The article title of course seemed to be a sly tip of the hat to Jane Austen’s famous quote about Emma: “I am going to take a HEROINE whom NO ONE but myself WILL MUCH LIKE” ( as to whom, by the way, I believe Jane Austen was actually referring to Jane Fairfax, the shadow heroine of Emma!).

And sure enough, once I read the interview, and read the following in the interview, her intentional emulation of Emma became crystal clear:

”I started thinking about how many books I had read by male authors about this young guy who comes to the city and conquers it with his intellect and charm and covers a wide swath of the female population and it’s all very charming. I thought that there was something missing in some of these books. I think what happens with a lot of these books is that there’s a truth about the man in the center that’s being edited out and glorified. It just seemed really interesting if I could focus on the aspects of the character being mean and I don’t just whitewash over the ugly, daily, minute details of rating women and things that I think a person wouldn’t write if they were trying to write a more self-glorifying account. I tried really hard to not think about whether I or others would like Nate but the thing that I thought had to be my guiding principle was for it all to feel real. I thought of guys that I had dated and my friends had dated and guys who would be a jerk in some way and then there were guys who could be mean but also admirable at times, and I just felt like that’s what I’m going for. I want Nate to seem like a person that I had met or could have met that’s hard to categorize. I didn’t want to analyze. And I thought that sometimes he’s not the nicest of guys and maybe people don’t want to read about this guy, but I shut that off because I really wanted to write about him.”  END QUOTE

So I had to take a look, and yesterday, I browsed the first 50 pages of her novel (less the handful of pages that didn’t allow me to read), and from that sampling, it seems obvious to me that Waldman was trying to do what she saw JA do in Emma (but which, I suggest, JA actually did with all of her heroines, just less obviously), i.e., to make the reader see the war of the sexes through the protagonist’s eyes, while still allowing the reader enough additional narrative perspective so as to be able to read between the lines and get a more accurate, objective take of what happens outside the comprehension of the main character’s narcissism.

As you might have guessed, Waldman is light years away from the mastery of JA in pulling off such a difficult literary stunt successfully, because the reader can readily see, as you read along, what the alternative interpretations are which the hero keeps missing. Whereas JA “sells” Emma’s point of view so much better, on multiple levels, keeps it mysterious—but then again, the bar JA set was high—there has never been a better such novel written in the history of Western literature, after all.

Nonetheless, from what I read, I think Waldman did a workmanlike job, she writes prose that is quite intelligent and readable, and after 50 pages I was left curious to know how things would turn out for her dubious “hero”.—those are good things, and so I suggest you take a look at it yourself, and see if it piques your interest.  

The rest of this post won’t be about Waldman the novelist but Waldman the literary critic, and I have a mixed review of her in that capacity as well.

To begin, it is highly ironic that, despite her putting Emma at the top of her list of Austen’s novels here….

….I got no sense whatsoever that Waldman saw at all into the shadows of Emma, and I saw no sign of her attempting to emulate JA by creating a palpable sense of mystery, of suggesting alternative ways of reading various subordinate characters differently than is overtly debriefed in the novel.

And I quickly confirmed that Waldman indeed does not read Jane Austen the way I do, from reading her article at about Jane Austen:

Aside from Waldman’s discussion of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, she does a pretty good job of writing about P&P and MP from a mainstream Austen scholarly perspective. But she betrays more about herself as a reader than she does about Jane Austen, when she writes the following astonishing negative judgments of Persuasion, into which I will intersperse my own responses:

Waldman: “Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations... The bad characters, whether snobbish, scheming, or hypochondriacal, are unwaveringly bad. (Directed at such easy targets, satire ceases to be satire. It’s more like gawking at roadkill.). The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable.” END QUOTE

The (apparently) overdrawn characters Waldman is thinking of, and their respective, defining, exaggerated “traits”, are obviously Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot (snobbery), Mary Musgrove (hypochondria), Mrs. Clay and Cousin Elliot (scheming), Admiral & Mrs. Croft (good-nature), and she should have added Louisa Musgrove & Capt. Benwick (excessive sensibility).  I have to hope she did not intend to include Anne and Wentworth in the category of good characters who are “boring, smug, and insufferable”!

As to the admittedly over the top quality of some of the characters, I  first would suggest that these are no different in that regard from Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Norris, Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, Lucy Steele and other Austen characters who are apparently extremes of their types. Why are they okay in the other novels, but not in Persuasion? I’d be curious to hear Waldman make a valid distinction between them.

But second and more significantly, it apparently never entered Waldman’s mind that this pervasive over-the-topness in Persuasion might all be one giant set-up, a garden path fifty yards wide and nicely paved, that JA has laid out in front of readers like Waldman, to lull such readers away from reading suspiciously, and from looking for the complexity hidden just beneath the farcical surface. Stated another way, what if the cardboard characterizations are actually a reflection of Anne Elliot’s subjective inability to penetrate the masks of those around her, and of Anne’s own subjective prejudices which subtly distort her perceptions of others?

Waldman, by her comments, seems to take Austen’s characters pretty much at face value---she never suspects that there may be more going on than meets the eye in passages like the one in which Wentworth boasts to the Musgrove girls, which I have written about a number of times…

….or the passages in which Sir Walter reveals an amazingly subtle sense of humor and range of knowledge about the admiralty, marine life and fossils:

And there many more such passages in Persuasion, just as there are in the other five novels. So Waldman, ironically, is like Emma, actually, in this very regard. There’s more in Austen’s novels than Waldman the critic has every dreamt of in her literary philosophy.

But now this one-liner (she ranks JA’s best one-liners as well) is near the top of the list of astonishing comments by her:

Waldman: “[Persuasion] is also the least funny of Austen’s books.” END QUOTE

I bet we could get a great thread going in which people could list all their favorite funny lines and funny passages in Persuasion—not overtly funny like the witty farce of P&P or Emma, or the charming repartee of Northanger Abbey, but subtly darkly funny like the humor of MP and S&S. Anyone who wants to start that thread, please just speak up—otherwise, I will, in a few days.


But then, in closing, Waldman protests so much against Persuasion having any merit whatsoever, that she goes to the considerable trouble of rationalizing why certain other famous readers of Persuasion have been taken in by,  and love, Persuasion:

Waldman: “And yet many people whose taste is generally excellent—including, for instance, Slate’s own Ron Rosenbaum and the literary critics William Deresiewicz and Harold Bloom  —consider Persuasion Austen’s best book. Tastes may simply differ, of course, but I have a theory: I suspect that some readers prize Persuasion because it is superficially more “serious” than Austen’s other novels. Anne Elliot, at 27, is older than her other heroines, who range from their late teens to their early 20s. Her plight is also the saddest. While Austen’s other protagonists are optimistic about their futures, by the time we meet Anne, she feels that her life has been permanently blighted. Seven years before the novel begins, she broke an engagement to the man she loved on the advice of a trusted friend, and she has pined for him ever since. Her day-to-day life as an unattached woman is dreary. She lives with her unpleasant older sister and her father, a vain, unintelligent man, vulgarly proud of his well-preserved good looks and his baronetcy. Her main solace is tending to the children of her silly, self-involved younger sister. It’s hard not to be a little moved by the barrenness of Anne’s life. Austen herself seemed to be: The mood and setting is autumnal, and the prose is more lyrical than it is in her other novels. The somber tone, the sadness of Anne’s situation—those alone may dispose some readers toward Persuasion. Perhaps even some of Austen’s most fervent admirers are a little embarrassed by her comedies of manners and her books’ supposedly trivial subject matter, the way each one ends with the marriage of its heroine. Perhaps these readers hold up Persuasion, with its older, sadder protagonist, as a counterargument to the charge of frivolity. (Rosenbaum seems to do precisely this.) But Persuasion lacks not only the comic sparkle of Austen’s other novels. It also lacks, relatively speaking, the fineness of observation and the psychological nuance that is enough to make any book—even the fairy-tale-like love story of a teenage girl and a wealthy man—a great one.” END QUOTE

That unfortunate theory I will just allow to speak for itself.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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