Thursday, January 31, 2008

One man's eccentric is another man's mother...

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This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

This question depends a lot on your tolerance for eccentricity. One drag queen's eccentric is another person's soccer mom - you know what I mean? Also the flagrantly normal rarely make interesting subjects for novels, not those I read, at any rate. But, let's see, some memorable eccentrics. I'll start with the obvious:

Alma in Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale - a more compelling and touching eccentric would be difficult to find. In fact, Williams was pretty much a master of this category - Laura in Glass Menagerie, Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending and just about everyone in Vieux Carre.

The entire Glass family in Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour are all pretty quirky and loveable, although occasionally I want to drag Bessie physically from the bathroom to leave Zooey in peace for just five minutes.

One of the strengths of Tell Me Everything is that Sarah Salway makes a heroine of Molly, who begins as one of life's outcasts for her differences, but whom we grow to understand and even love.

Richard Power's The Goldbug Variations features Stuart Ressler, a scientist and music lover in the 1950s part of the story, as well as Frank Todd, a researcher, and Janet (I think, her name is) a librarian from the 1990s part of the story. They're pretty much all eccentrics - marvelous characters! You do want to read this book. You do want to read this book.

Dickens is a master of eccentrics characters of both ilks. Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House is one I simply want to murder. Devotes her life to the poor of Africa at the expense of her own family, needy simply for her love (if not her help with the housekeeping). An utterly infuriating eccentric for her singleminded-pigheadedness.

I could go on and on with this question, but just one more. Turn over an Iris Murdoch novel and your sure to find at least one eccentric. The most embarrassing one that comes to mind is Charles Arrowby, recently retired man of the theater and hero of The Sea, The Sea. The novel was a Booker winner for good reason. It is a gem and features one of the most cringe-worthy heroes you are ever likely to meet.


Anonymous said...

I second on the Dickens characters. The characters are among the most memorable in English literature; certainly their names are. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs Gamp, Charles Darnay, Oliver Twist, Micawber, Abel Magwitch, Samuel Pickwick, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known and can be believed to be living a life outside the novels that their stories have been continued by other authors.

Chrisbookarama said...

Mrs Jellyby needed a good smack.

Anonymous said...

I could have killed Mrs. Jellyby! However, Mrs. Flite I quite liked...course we're moving from eccentric to insane at that point. Dickens does seem to create a wealth of eccentricity, doesn't he?

Ted said...

M - I've yet to read The Pickwick Papers but it's on my list to get to one of these days. I don't know if it's Dickens specifically or the British in general who seem not to merely tolerate eccentricity but to celebrate it.

C & J - Doesn't she just make you want to scream?

Jodie Robson said...

I hadn't thought of it until Matt mentioned Dickens' characters leading a life outside their books, but one of my favourite eccentrics is Miss Havisham in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books.

Got to re-read the Salinger books. I know they are there somewhere...