Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Vastly differing approaches to the vanities of two men (Books - The Dead Fish Museum & Middlemarch)

I wrote yesterday about the contrasting experiences of reading Charles D'Ambrosio's contemplative, urban stories and George Eliot's sprawling 'Study of Provincial Life.' Last night after studying I read a little in each. D'Ambriosio's story Drummond & Son concerns a father who owns a typewriter repair shop and his schizophrenic son.

Hardly anybody used typewriters these days, but with the epochal change in clientele brought on by computers Drummond's business shifted in small ways and remained profitably intact. He had a steady stream of customers, some loyally held over from the old days, some new. Drummond was a good mechanic, and word spread among an amerging breed of hobbyist. Collectors came to him from around the city, mostly men, often retired, fussy and strange, a little contrary, who liked the smell of solvents and enjoyed talking shop and seemed to believe an unwritten life was stubbornly buried away in the dusty machines they brought in for restoration. His business had become more sociable as a growing tribe of holdouts banded together. He now kept a coffee urn and a stack of Styrofoam cups next to the register, for customers who liked to hang out. There were pockets of people who warily refused the future or the promise of whatever it was computers were offering and stuck by their typewriters. Some of them were secretaries who filled out forms, and others were writers, a sudden surge of them from all over Seattle. There were professors and poets and young women with colored hair who wrote for the local weeklies. There were aging lefties who made carbons of their correspondence or owned mimeographs and hand cranked the ink drums and dittoed urgent newsletters that smelled of freshly laundered cotton for their dwindling coteries. Now and then, too, customers walked in off the street, a trickle of curious shoppers who simply wanted to touch the machines, tapping the keys and slapping back the carriage when the bell rang out, leaving a couple of sentences behind.

Drummond had worked at the shop with his own father and now, with his son's illness and the disappearance of his wife, he brings his son to the shop. However, with his son bursting into disconnected monologues about umbrellas as sculpture and dropping to his knees to pray in the middle of crowded streets, he is unlikely to become the "& Son" part of this generation of the business. Drummond, like his customers, is a holdout because of love. He, too, is refusing the future. His is a clumsy and somewhat desperate love, but it is love just the same. D'Ambrosio renders this entire little universe with sweet precision in about 20 pages. A beautiful and sad story.

In about half that number of pages, Eliot delivers to us, the history of Lydgate, the young physician who comes to Middlemarch hoping to made an important discovery in the field of anatomy. But first she begins with an observation on the path of the ambitious:

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till on day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions...Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures.
Here is the path of all vanity, she seems to say, and the paragraph could be merely devastating - the death of life's dreams. But then at the end, she comes in with a little barb, making both herself as writer and us as reader complicit in the failure of their ambition through our ordinariness. Brilliant! Lydgate, it seems, has a plan to avoid such a failure:

Does it seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer? Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who "Broke the barriers of the heavens" - did he not once play a provincial church-organ, and give music-lessons to stumbling pianists? Each of those Shining Ones had to walk the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame: each of them had his little local personal history sprinkled with small temptations and sordid cares, which made the retarding friction of his course towards final companionship with the immortals. Lydgate was not blind to the dangers of such friction, but he had plenty of confidence in his resolution to avoid it as far as possible: being seven-and-twenty, he felt himself experienced. And he was not going to have his vanities provoked by contact with the showy worldly successes of the capital, but to live among people who could hold no rivalry with that pursuit of a great idea which was to be a twin object with the assiduous practice of his profession. There was fascination in the hope that the two purposes would illuminate each other: the careful observation and inference which was his daily work, the use of the lens to further his judgement in special cases, would further his thought as an instrument of larger inquiry. Was not this the typical pre-eminence of his profession? He would be a good Middlemarch doctor, and by that very means keep himself in the track of far-reaching investigation.

One of the things I enjoyed about reading these two excerpts about struggling men side by side is that D'Ambrosio gives us only the barest essentials about Drummond's circumstances, a short paragraph about his business, a scant sentence about his departed wife, mostly we watch his behavior in the shop and on the streets of Seattle with his son. Eliot not only gives a detailed narrative about Lydgate's history, analyzing his reasons for his behavior (which we have not seen, but rather heard about), she gives us this behavior in the context of "the multitude of middle-aged men" and of "great originators." Yet both render whole characters before us, bringing them to fuller life, both build whole recognizable universes in which these men live, both elicited emotions from me, the D'Ambrosio is a more first-person sort of experience, let us say empathetic, whereas the Eliot is a more third-person type of experience, I feel sympathetic although I do have to crack a smile with her knowing quip at the end, that excludes me, the reader, from being as vain as Lydgate by classing me as a conformist and already a failure. I can't over how meanly clever that is. I have really enjoyed noticing on this last reading how similarly astute each writer is in their vastly different approach to the simple vanities of two men.

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