Regular visitors to this blog are aware that I tend to read books that are not, shall we say, first in line for canonization in the near future. Or the far future. Or...any future, really. This is what happens when you have a taste for doing literary history. In any event, prior to hanging out at UCLA's Sadleir Collection, I decided to read the first volume of an 1829 novel that, for reasons not immediately clear to me, exists on GoogleBooks in volumes one and three, but not, as far as I can tell, volume two. The Sadleir Collection, however, has all three volumes. Isn't that lucky?
For the edification of my readers, allow me to reconstruct the experience of reading volume one. With allowances, of course, for some...self-dramatization.
Pp. iii-v. Shee breaks out the modesty trope. Everybody in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is modest. All books impose on the public. Nobody publishes anything remotely interesting, noteworthy, or otherwise unusual. It's a wonder that the novel even exists as a literary form, once you think about it.
Under the circumstances, this is not cause for concern. Yet.
The introduction. An Irish family sits around debating the state of contemporary fiction, its decline and fall (or rise and flourishing, depends on which character you ask), the merits of Sir Walter Scott, the brilliance of Fielding and Sterne, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. Presumably, Shee wants to justify writing a novel. The less-than-charitably inclined, however, may feel an urge to remind him that introductions should not be forty-two pages long, and that it is generally considered advisable to get to the plot. Alas, as Shee has been dead since 1850, it is somewhat difficult to point this out to him.
Perhaps now would be a good time to invest in a ouija board, or conduct a seance.
Page 43. Shee explains that this novel will be about the Oldcourts. The reader, continuing to feel less than charitable, gently observes to no-one in particular that she knew this already, because the Oldcourts took up the first forty-two pages of the novel.
Also, the book is called Oldcourt. Unless that's supposed to be some sort of bait-and-switch.
Page 44. Shee decides that now would be a good time to discuss in medias res. The innocent reader begins to feel a nagging concern.
Page 50. Shee has been discussing the various problems facing poets, biographers, and novelists. The reader, beginning to feel somewhat put-upon, wonders when we are going to get to the plot.
Page 50. Wow! We're going to get to the plot!
Page 61. The reader was, it seems, getting ahead of herself...and of Shee. By page 61, we know something of the Oldcourt family background, and we know that they are Catholic. But why, exactly, this book has come to exist upon the face of the earth, remains obscure. And yet, surely, this novel must actually be about something?
Page 62. The dawning of a new chapter. Unfortunately, this dawn, no matter how rosy-fingered (rosy-fonted?), fails to bring the plot with it. Instead, Shee's oh-so-playful narrator admits that his "powers of amplification" might be insufficient to produce a triple-decker. The increasingly irate reader, shaking her first in the general direction of her Acer Aspire One (on which she is reading Oldcourt), points out sternly that this is a triple-decker, and that Shee's "powers of amplification" are all too obviously on view. Because we still don't know a [insert epithet or expletive of choice here] thing about what the [insert second epithet or expletive of choice here] book is actually about, or why we should be reading it.
The reader calms herself.
Pages 65-66. Shee is discussing historians, biographers, and novelists.
The horrified reader suddenly realizes that Shee is imitating Henry Fielding's digressions. In a fit of inspiration, she wonders if it might be possible to charter a red phone booth and travel back in time to the eighteenth century, where she will eliminate Henry Fielding's novels from the historical record, thereby rendering Oldcourt impossible. After further thought, she concedes that this might be overkill, and is somewhat unfair to Fielding.
Plus, she hasn't the slightest clue where to find a red phone booth.
Page 76. NOW SHEE IS WRITNG ABOUT HOSPITALITY WHAT IS THIS I CAN'T I DON'T EVEN
After this moment of inarticulate rage, the reader reminds herself that she is an academic, and should therefore be approaching this novel in a state of scholarly calm. Moreover, she further reminds herself, just because Shee has yet to establish a plot, the hint of a plot, or even the teensiest wisp of something that, with considerable TLC, could someday be a plot, doesn't mean that he's incompetent. He might be subverting the conventions of linear narrative, thereby generating an altogether new sense of historical transformation that critiques Sir Walter Scott's post-Enlightenment theories of cultural progress!
Or he might be incompetent.
Page 77. Shee admits that he might be "going off, as it were, at a tangent..." As it were? As it were?? As it were?!!!
For those of you keeping track, the reader remains in the dark about why this novel has emerged from the depths of GoogleBooks to seize her in its Cthulhu-like tentacles.
(Cthulhu does have tentacles, I think.)
Page 82. The family Oldcourt reappears. The reader nearly faints from the shock. What next--a story, even?
Her hopes begin to rise.
Page 92. There are many anecdotes about the Oldcourts and their various self-destructive behaviors. This is not quite a plot, but one must applaud any move in that direction on the author's part. Yet the reader is somewhat distressed to realize that the Oldcourts now under discussion are not the same Oldcourts as those hanging out in the introduction. The forty-two-page introduction, in case you've forgotten.
The reader's hopes, initially up, now begin to sink.
Page 93 ff. Something vaguely resembling, not a plot, but at least a coherent narrative, puts in an appearance. The reader wonders if she should faint, dance around the room in celebration, or some combination of the two.
Page 115. The narrator, who had temporarily digressed from digressing, is now digressing from his non-digression. This prompts the reader to contemplate defenestrating the book. Good sense, and an unwillingness to blow another three hundred dollars on a new Acer Aspire One, intervenes.
Page 189. The narrator puts in an appearance at the Oldcourts' chapel. The reader takes a moment to tell him exactly what she thinks of him. For some reason, the narrator remains unconcerned.
Page 240. After undigressing from the digression from the nondigression which followed the original digressions, the narrator begins redigressing. (Reredigressing? The reader has lost count.) By this point, given the choice between unconsciousness or continued perusal, the reader elects unconsciousness.
Several hours intervene, uninterrupted by any dreams pertaining to awful nineteenth-century novels.
Unfortunately, the reader awakes, and upon recollecting the novel's existence, rails at the heavens. Why has she been forced to bear this burden? Is this some punishment for an unspeakable crime?
After striking some melodramatic poses, however, the reader concedes that this really is her fault, and reminds herself that if she had decided to specialize in Dickens, this would not be happening.
Page 270ff. It appears that Shee dislikes dueling. The reader gathers this, because we now enter upon a lengthy set-piece about dueling, in which a character expounds his theories of same at length. Considerable length. So much length that one of the Oldcourts tries to get him to can it. If only the author had taken his character's hint!
Page 357. After much hobnobbing about dueling, the actual duel goes kerflooey.
Kerflooey, incidentally, is a criminally-underused theoretical term.
(ETA: I apologize for my lapse in time-travel tech awareness. Dr. Who fans may consider me appropriately chastened.)