Monday, November 17, 2008

Blood lines and books (Books - The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox)

**SORT-OF PLOT SPOILER** There is probably someone out there with a good explanation for this: why do so many Victorian era stories hinge on lineage - cradle switches, people who are not who we think they are, and the like? I wonder if it's to do with Darwin or if it preceded his writing? Does anyone have a theory? Lineage certainly plays a key role in the plot of The Meaning of Night.
I had taken the decision to abandon my given name of Glyver, except of course with respect to those few, like Le Grice and Tom Grexby, who already knew me. It was not mine by birth but was a kind of alias, imposed on me, without my knowledge or consent by others. What loyalty did I owe the name of Glyver? None. Captain Glyver was not my father. Why, then, should I bear his name? I was who I was, whatever I chose to call myself; and so, until I could redeem my rightful name and title, I would put on whatever pseudonym suite my present purposes. My whole life would be a disguise, a daily change of dress and character. I would inhabit a costumed world, entering now as one character, now as another, as circumstance demanded. I would be Incognitus. Unknown.
The actor's fantasy! Do you know that when Dustin Hoffman was working on the film Tootsie (if you haven't seen it - see it. It is so much fun) he actually went out to lunch with someone - I think it may have been Sidney Pollack - to try out his female character and see if he he would be recognized? This idea of name, of blood, as identity is in one way an extension of the institution of class. One was born into ones class and traversing those blood lines was tricky business. This is an English story, born of a country with a royal family and a parliament, containing a House of Lords. So certainly pedigree takes some precedence in a different way than it would in a country founded on Whitman's creed of the individual:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself...

But in Michael Cox's wonderful story it is lineage that drives our narrator's sens of identity and it is reclaiming what he believes to be his lineage that gives him and the plot of this book its sense of purpose.

Another pleasure of this novel, is that our narrator and at least two other characters, are obsessed with books and in particular collecting rare books. One key twist in the plot has already hinged on a rare book. Another important character has a collection of rare antique erotic books. A third lives at Evenwood - the estate of the lineage in question - which houses a private library of immense size and value. Cox's descriptions of the library take up whole chapters and are a delight to this bibliophile. I am buried deep in the plot of this book now and it has me by the scruff of the neck.

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