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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

 

They Matter for A Writer As Well as A Reader

The Things That Matter
by Edward Mendelson
Pantheon Books, New York 200

On page 116 of his book, Mendelson includes the following footnote: “Virginia Woolf promulgated the legend that the scholarly London Library kept George Eliot’s novels on the shelves when everyone else’s novels were banished as frivolous, but the legend reflects a genuine nineteenth-century sense that George Eliot was different from writers of mere fiction.”

Mendelson’s footnote provides the key to the issue of what constitutes literature (as far as it applies to works of fiction) as opposed to “mere fiction,” and in The Things That Matter Mendelson provides the reader with tools for discerning the literary merits of what he or she reads. But this is true not only for a reader but for a writer as well; at least one who sets lofty goals for himself when he sits down at his keyboard and tries, vainly perhaps, to craft something that transcends “mere fiction.” The Things that Matter, do matter for a writer (at least this one) as well as for a reader.

The structure of Mendelson’s book takes seven classic novels and explains in clear and accessible prose what each of these novels has to say about the stages of human life. The novels and the life stages they address are: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (birth), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (childhood), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (growth), George Eliot’s (Maryian Evan’s) Middlemarch (marriage), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (love), To the Lighthouse (parenthood), and Between the Acts (the future). One of the dust jacket blurbs says of Mendelson’s book: “Mendelson . . one of the finest literary scholars of our time shows us how seven novels can help us with the stages through which we all must pass. Another blurb tells us that The Things That Matter shows “the connection between literature and life.”

These statements are true and one could add many more without being accused of hyperbole: Mendelson’s book is one that any serious reader or writer will be the richer for reading. Having said all this, it is perhaps permissible (if perhaps also temerity) to suggest that the book is not exhaustive in exploring the subject. These are not criticisms in the sense that the things that matter to Mendelson do not matter, but that the things he writes about are not necessarily all the things that matter. I doubt he would make the claim that his book is all-inclusive in this sense.

For one thing, all the novels he discusses are written by women and three of his choices are all written by the same woman, Virginia Woolf. They are all British women, and they all wrote well before divorce became available and (relatively) accepted. The point of view of male writers on each of the stages of life would undoubtedly show that things that matter to men are sometimes different, especially in love, marriage, parenting and the future. In looking at only the feminine point of view, if one can only look at the point of view of one sex, Mendelson chose the right one if only because women, at least Mendelson’s choices, lived in a paternalistic society and were able to view the stages in life from both the feminine side (their personal experience) and the masculine side (the world in which they lived) much as a writer from a racial minority can write with insights into the dominant culture as well as the minority culture, whereas a member of the dominant culture would have more difficulty doing so from his point of view.

But a man’s point of view would be worthwhile. For example, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin seafaring stories show a masculine point of view about all seven stages of life, including a radically different view of love and marriage, that is quite different from the novels Mendelson explores. Certainly O’Brian’s novels are “men’s books” and are very much adventure stories, but they are still literature and address the same seven stages of life with just as much seriousness and insight as the books Mendelson cites in spite of the fact that the “wham-bam, blood and guts” of O’Brian’s books appeal more to men than to women. Men's lives also include issues at each of the stages that are not always as important or are considered very differently by a man than a woman, e.g., duty, honor, loyalty, obedience, success, and physical courage.

In a world in which divorce is more accessible and has less social stigma–as well as a world in which single motherhood in all its manifestations (including "bastardy") is more common and acceptable–books written since the mid-twentieth century provide contemporary insights into these seven stages of life. Books from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century are not always helpful to a reader at the beginning of the 21st century in sorting out and (for a writer) resolving the conflicts in relationships and marriages. Contemporary novels address these issues from an entirely different point of view than did the books Mendelson uses as examples.

One could also say that American, Canadian, and Australian writers–not to mention the many and diverse nationalities who have English as a first or second language, or who don’t write in English at all–might have entirely different takes on the stages of life than British writers, and their voices would also add something to understanding life.

The same comment can be made in suggesting that a homosexual viewpoint on the issues, especially growth, love, marriage, parenting, and the future would be worthwhile because their experience, and the context in which they live with these issues, are also part of the human experience. Addressing Gay and Lesbian points of view is as important in the modern world as addressing the classic issues of male/female relationships and those of racial or ethnic minorities. Michael Cunningham’s work would provide an example, especially because his The Hours is an interesting retelling of sorts of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

But, to return to all that is good in Edward Mendelson’s book, nothing he writes should be overlooked or devalued because he did not write a 200-volume study covering the things that matter in the entire universe of worthwhile and significant classic and contemporary novels. He’s done an excellent job on the subject and provides excellent tools for looking at the books we read (and the ones we write.)

Order the book directly from Amazon.com by clicking on the link below.


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