The Madeleine Project: A Visit to the Meta-Towers

The Madeleine Project is the name for my effort to go back and see if that which gave pleasure in the past still resonates when it’s revisited. The only rule is that it can’t be expensive to relive the past. For me that means you have to be able to check the past out from the library, rent the DVD, or get the ingredients for it at Safeway.

So far, I’ve looked at poetry (Donne’s St. Lucy’s Day). I’ve been meaning to re-experience my favorite green pasta with fake Parmesan, but haven’t gotten around to it.

Trollope is the next installment in the Madeleine series. About twenty years ago, while I was studying for the California bar exam, I spent the summer reading Trollope. I loved Barchester Towers, in part because it was so good at skewering an institution that takes itself so seriously. In the case of Barchester Towers, that institution is organized religion. Twenty years ago, I was worried about entering an institution sort of like the church, an institution that seemed to take itself awfully seriously, the law. In fact, the law and the church were two professions often chosen by sons who weren’t first in line for the family title. As the fourth child, and with no family title for anybody, it seemed like a good choice. Back then, I suspected I wasn’t going to be very good at my new job, the one I was due to start after the bar exam. I hadn’t liked law school. There weren’t enough stories. The interesting ones were buried in the case books and nobody ever wanted to really talk about them.

What Trollope did was demonstrate that people in power, the people I was a little afraid of, can be utterly ridiculous. I went on to read the Palliser novels, a series that took on politics. And then individual great novels like Can You Forgive Her? and the Eustace Diamonds. The last two are well worth reading again. I’ve never forgotten that thing about people in power often behaving in utterly ridiculous ways. The Palliser novels were a bit of a slog. Other people like them very much, so you might want to check them out too.

In case you’re curious, here are the things I know about Trollope. His mother made much needed money by writing. She was pretty good and pretty popular. Trollope didn’t have a patron, unless you count the postal service, which is where he worked, as an administrator for a good part of his life. Money was a worry for him. He is credited with inventing the post box, that wonderful British icon.

He is also one of the great 19th century novelists and Barchester Towers is probably his most well known novel. It’s the story of a lovely, leafy town in England and the shenanigans that happen among the clerical set when a new bishop and his odious wife and assistant come to town. The novel is full of men and women whose business it is to bring the Church of England to the world. (I say women because, although women obviously weren’t preaching from pulpits, one of the novel’s greatest characters, Mrs. Proudie, does her utmost to run things from behind the scenes.)

There are wonderful things here, very funny looks at how foolishly people behave. For that alone, this novel should be read more than once. It will cure you of pomposity and stubborness — at least while you’re reading it. Afterwards, well, that’s up to you.

The thing I kept noticing this time around, though, is something I don’t remember from reading it before. It’s the narrative voice. It’s a third person narrative, but the narrator (who is never named and not a character) has a personality. He’s a chatty guy. And every once in a while, he breaks in and tells you what’s really going on. It’s a little like the moment in film when a character turns and addresses the camera, except in this case the narrator isn’t a character. That moment, by the way, has seldom worked for me (too self-conscious, too hip, too meta). But this narrator really does. And he proves that Trollope had a light hand with the meta-stuff. (I’m just guessing, and I hope you Dear Reader will correct me if I’m wrong, but a meta-something is just a comment on the way that something works. A meta-novel draws attention to itself as a novel, for example.)

Here’s an example. One of the subplots in the novel concerns a woman named Eleanor Bold. She is that most wonderful of characters in English fiction: the rich, beautiful widow. Naturally, a lot of people are interested in whom she’ll marry next. (There’s no question she’ll marry again. The funny thing is that she’s the only one who’s utterly unaware of the speculation around what she’ll do. She’s too busy spoiling her young son to see much of this.) The worst thing that could happen, in the eyes of many (including her father, sister and brother in law) is that she’ll marry the horrible greasy curate, Snope, and bring the odious Mrs. Proudie into their circle and basically ruin their lives. And then there’s Bertie Stanhope, a ne’er do well fortune hunter who’s also trying to worm his way into her affections. Nobody really cares that these two men would be bad for Eleanor, they just don’t want her to chose someone they don’t like. I admire Trollope for recognizing how deeply self-involved we all are. And although he laughs about it, he sees this as a universal weakness rather than an individual character flaw — and that’s because he’s a generous novelist.

So how does he handle the suspense about Eleanor’s future? He tells you not to worry about it:

“But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.”

He goes on to explain that this kind of suspense isn’t to his taste as a novelist:

“And here, perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his view on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes too far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage.”

Not for him, these kinds of mysteries. He points out that your friends are likely to tell you what happened anyway, or you can just turn to the last page to find out what happens. And then he says something I just love, which is, essentially, that a good story isn’t held together by keeping a reader in suspense:

“…take the last chapter if you please — learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there by any interest in it to lose.

“Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.”

I do so like that idea: A writer’s job is to make the reader feel like she’s been taken into his confidence. And what that means is that the writer will never deceive the reader as he tells his story. At its most basic, that simply means that the writer’s job is to be honest with the reader, to convey as carefully and accurately as he can the truth of the story he is telling. That doesn’t preclude humor or wit or even the occasional surprise — it means that the writer’s essential promise to the reader is that the writer will tell the best story he knows how to tell.

Twenty years later, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. I give Barchester Towers ten madeleines, ten being the highest on the madeleine scale.

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19 thoughts on “The Madeleine Project: A Visit to the Meta-Towers

  1. Thanks for another wonderful post. You’ve inspired me to give Trollope a whirl – especially as he knocks organized religion, which has never been one of my favourite things. I recently reread Middlemarch, which I studied 17-odd years ago. It came to life! I had found it turgid and dull as a twenty-year-old, but this time around it was wonderful. Somethings are definitely worth revisiting.

  2. Hello Charlotte — One of the pleasures of reading certainly lies in re-reading. I’m glad to hear that about Middlemarch. I wonder what other things are that way? Best, BL

  3. I love the concept of the Madeleine project. If only I could prevent myself from obsessively purchasing new books and devouring them immediately. Book Buyers Anonymous?

  4. How wonderful that you actually get around to reading them!! I’ve got a very short list of summer books and so far I’ve managed to read one of them (Alan Furst’s Foreign Correspondent, great fun, not taxing) and then another that’s not even on that stack.

  5. I also love the Madeleine project! I love to read new books, but I also love to re-read, to see how the book has changed, how I have changed, just for the fun of it. And you’ve really taken the “meta” concept and run with it! Yes, I’d agree with your definition.

  6. The Madeleine Project does sound like fun – but do you ever find that in re-reading something your original concepts of it are destroyed, and you actually enjoy it less? It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but I remember trying to re-read some of my favourite books from childhood as a teenager and finding them empty of whatever I had loved in them the first time round. Sometimes I think I’d rather just leave the original memories intact, flawed though they may be.

  7. LOVE it. The project and the essay on Trollope. (A good essay really makes you want to dump what you’re reading in favor of what the author described, which is exactly what I want to do to the Al Franken book I started yesterday.)

    I think I may start a Charlotte Russe Project and eat this dessert whenever I read anything by Charlotte Bronte. Though this flies in the face of the meta concept, it sure would be fun.

  8. Hello Dorothy, Yes, there was something about you saying it’s good to try out new things that’s really made meta come alive for me. I’m moving on though, to charlotte russe! Max, I do think there will be things I don’t love as much as I did in the past. Food, I think. But maybe books too. You’re right sometimes it’s better not to go back! My fear is that I’ll miss something really good, though. Dear LK — I do believe in eating book-appropriate food. I have a wonderful Jane Grigson cookbook called Food With the Famous that’s all about what people might have been eating in certain books and time periods. And I make a really mean madeleine. But there’s only so much time in a woman’s day… What exactly is charlotte russe? It sounds lovely and french and like some kind of whipped dainty. MMM.

  9. LOVE this post, although I wish everyone would stop adding to my TBR pile. How is all my life I thought myself fairly well-read, and then I dance around the periphery of litblogging and find myself woefully underread? Hmm. At any rate. The idea of a Madeleine project is fabulous, although the green pasta and parmesan, hmm. Not so sure about that combination, LOL. Looking forward to hearing more from this project, as ever!

  10. I’m so glad you liked this, and I’m with you on the green pasta. Possibly that’s why I haven’t revisited that chapter in the culinary past. You’re not underread Courtney, you’re YOUNG! I’m guessing I’ve got a decade and some on you, baby — that’s a lot of books.

  11. Nice post. Trollope is great, isn’t he. It is funny to see you write about the narrative contract, the idea that the writer create a world in which readers can share and believe, really be the “dear reader”, as I am currently working on a piece in which my author, Flann O’Brien, breaks that rule in so many ways, as did Sterne before him (and many after him).

    I think my only quibble is that a metanarrative seems to be something invented well after all the Victorian (and earlier) authors (oh, and Tolstoy, of course) broke into their narrations to give reassurance to the reader, and tends to be a non-overtly narrated element of the story – Joyce’s use of the Odyssey in Ulysses, for example.

  12. In addition to being a contemporary clothing store, Charlotte Russe is a cold dessert of Bavarian cream lined in a mold of ladyfingers. Now how perfect is that for Bronte, I ask you?

    CHOCOLATE CHARLOTTE RUSSE

    4 sq. unsweetened chocolate
    6 eggs, separated
    3 sticks butter, soft
    1 1/2 c. sugar
    3/4 c. confectioners’ sugar
    1 tsp. vanilla
    1/3 c. milk
    3 doz. lady fingers

    Melt chocolate in top part of double boiler. Mix egg yolks with milk and 3/4 cup sugar. Mix with chocolate in double boiler and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Cool in refrigerator until cool.
    Beat egg whites with some salt until stiff. Add confectioners’ sugar gradually. Mix softened butter with 3/4 cup sugar. Add chocolate mix to butter mix. Fold in egg whites.

    Line springform pan with lady fingers side first then bottom. Add 1/3 of mixture layer of lady finger then 1/3 mixture keep layering top with whip cream.

  13. Edwin, I hope you like it — don’t forget to tell me what you think, okay?

    Welcome Barry, Your novel sounds interesting. I wonder if, even with an unreliable narrator, there’s still an implicit promise of some sort of authorial honesty? I love narratives that are told through the screen of that kind of narrator (Remains of the Day, for example — or that book about the Dogs at Nighttime.) As for meta-narratives — thank you for that explanation. It’s helpful to remember that this is indeed a modern construct and what narrators like Trollope’s are doing is something a little different.

    My my Litkit — it sounds a little like really, really delish chocolate pudding in a sort of tiramisu-y kind of cake but more about chocolate. It sounds so incredibly good. Something you’d make to celebrate a happy event in a friend’s life. Thanks a million for this recipe!

  14. Thanks for the welcome. Flann O’Brien goes a little beyond the unreliable narrator: his narrator is not only dead but unaware of the fact – we see him die, but he just carries on with the story, which gets stranger and stranger. The funny thing is, in his first novel, Flann O’Brien sets out his own rules for what makes a novel, and then plays with those rules in The Third Policeman.

  15. I really like the sound of Flann O’Brien — are you posting on him at some point or are you writing about him for some other venue? Either way, let me know. This sounds like essential reading (both your piece and Flann himself)

  16. “.. let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.”

    Nice! That was a fine post. I really enjoyed the way you paraphrase Trollope’s quotes on his writing method. And you’re right about this being very similar to the way he introduces Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington : It seems to be Trollope’s style to take the reader’s hand in a “Come, let’s see what they’re up to” kind of way..

  17. I’m a bit shy about writing about Flann at my place – I’m writing my dissertation on him, and my supervisor reads my blog, so I’ve been keeping very quiet about him there.

  18. Thanks Polaris. It is a little weird reading books where the main character has one’s name. As I recall, things turn out much better for Lily Dale than they do for the Lily in The House of Mirth who ends the book a vial of opium clutched in her hand.

    That makes sense Barry. Do you have any Flann reading recommendations? And good luck with your dissertation. It sounds as though you’ve chosen a wonderful writer on whom to focus.

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