Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

This is not a great novel. I don't regret reading it, but I can see why Butler didn't write much fiction. He has no aptitude for creating characters with any life. Part of this might be caused by the fact that he has no interest in any of his people; he has them figured out completely from the beginning, and the entire novel basically consists of them acting out the stunted personalities he has made for them. It is one of least lively, least surprising good books I have ever read.

Basically, the novel is about the education of a boy -- Ernest -- and his life in the dreary house of a clergyman. His father is a not really a bad man, but he is still a horrible man to have as a father. The usual petty tyrant stuff: occasional beatings, forced cheerless prayer sessions, a complete lack of affection. His mother is also sheer mediocrity from top to bottom: reasonably good natured, but a little vain, modestly ambitious, cheap, and a complete slave to the wishes of her husband.

So: a pretty lame couple. Why would anyone want to read about them? They remain this way from beginning to end. The central drama of the book is basically whether Ernest is going to escape the influence of this shitty household. I'm not giving much away when I tell you that, yes, he does. The entire book is narrated by a Mr. Overton, who becomes a sort of mentor to Ernest, and it is clear in the first forty pages that Ernest has already become an independent writer.

Ernest loses his faith in the literal truth of the Bible, and gradually realizes that most of what his father stands for is somehow opposed to life (when Theobald, the father, finally dies in his sleep, Overton says "This is not more than half dying, but then neither was his life more than half living." Man, harsh!) Maybe this was a big deal when it was published, because most middle-class Victorian parents were probably as bad as the Pontifexes (this is Ernest's family name) -- but it doesn't have much sting now, at least not for those of us who are reasonably sane or interested in reality.

(A digression: I also get the distinct sense that Butler was an asshole. It is very hard to put one's finger one exactly how you can tell this. I think I got this impression from the fact that Butler (or whatever, "the narrator") insists that the reader like a woman who seems like a silly, malicious woman (Althea, Ernest's aunt, and also his benefactor). This asshole, non-asshole divide is very hard to defend with text, but I think most people who are not assholes themselves can usually tell when an author is one. (There's actually an excellent passage in the book about how authors can't help reveal themselves in their books, no matter how much they want to conceal.) And it isn't about whether the writers behaved "well" or "badly" in their lives. I have no idea how Butler acted. Chekhov and Frank O'Connor certainly didn't act all that well, but every sentence that they wrote makes me feel like they were wonderful people. Katherine Mansfield, G.B. Shaw? Quite clearly terrible people. And this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. This train of thought can be continued later.)

Anyway, the book mainly seems to exist to get across some of the author's ideas on society and religion, and this is a terrible, terrible reason to write a novel. Nonetheless, this means that several passages can be plucked out and stand alone as rather profound and incisive. I'll provide some of my favorites, to save you the trouble of reading the book: "Then he saw also that it matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion, a man may make, provided only he follows it out with charitable inconsistency, and without insisting on it to the bitter end. It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies." (Here, here.)

And, finally, the passage that made reading the entire book worthwhile, and that I really, really hope is true.

"Everyone has a mass of bad work in him which he will have to work off and get rid of before he can do better -- and indeed, the more lasting a man's ultimate good work is, the more sure he is to pass through a time, and perhaps a very long one, in which seems very little hope for him at all."

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