Monday, May 21, 2007


taking a few minutes off from Candide and Rasselas and Pope's (slightly awful--great poet, mediocre philosopher) Essay on Man which are on the menu for tomorrow's faculty seminar to say that Sebastian Faulks's Engleby is the most enchantingly funny novel, I am completely in love with the unreliable first-person narrator. I've only had time to read the first third of it, will hope to finish later this week, but it is a delightful book indeed! I am not sure how accessible it will be to everyone, I think it will be funnier (but perhaps the excellence in Faulks' execution of the voice makes knowledge of the references irrelevant?) if you know a certain amount about this sort of middle-highbrow English culture stuff, but seriously I was laughing out loud to myself (I'm not exaggerating, really laughing out loud) at the deadpan cultural judgments which do some quite wonderful character and plot work in context.

Any of my students reading this will understand why I find the following quotation so delightful, for instance; I leave it for your contemplation (and there is a hilarious long passage on practical criticism that I commend to the attention of anyone who was at John Guillory's talk in the English department a few weeks ago and would like to know more...). The narrator is a university student from a lower-middle-class background, admitted to do English and now studying science but with many strong literary opinions:

My first summer vacation, I worked for a few weeks in the paper mill to get money, then took a ferry to Le Havre. I thought I'd hitchhike somewhere interesting and do some reading on the way. I took big paperbacks I could tear the pages out of as I went along: The Wings of the Dove, The Magic Mountain, Pamela and Anna Karenina. I remember reading Pamela on a camping site near Tours and thinking I was glad I was becoming a scientist. I don't think it's famous because it's a good book; I think it's famous because hardly anyone else was writing novels in the eighteenth century. Posterity didn't tell Richardson he'd done a fine job; posterity told him he'd done an early job. You wouldn't want to fly in a Wright Brothers plane now.

Now that I've blogged it, this is out of the question, but I must confess that the notion came over me that this would make a hilarious final exam question for my eighteenth-century novel class. "Discuss." But don't you like the way that it would be more just straight-up funny if the paragraph ended with the words "early job," but topples over into the mildly unsettling with the last sentence? I like this deadpan first-person kind of voice, in fact that last sentence sounds to me like something I wrote in Heredity only I can't think quite what!


  1. As a former student forced to wade through Pamela, I confess I agree with this assessment. While an interesting read, it is also a tortuous one.

  2. Yes, really that's the reason I can't have it as an essay question, think how dismayed I would be if half the class agreed with it! That, I would just rather not know!