Saturday, November 7, 2015

We All Deserve More Than a Dollop of Trollope

I wholeheartedly concur with the thoughts expressed in this City Journal piece about the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope on the occasion of the bicentenary of this birth. In his own time, Trollope, who was as popular as he was prolific (the two going hand-in-hand) was overshadowed by the likes of Charles Dickens and George Eliot.  Having make my way through probably half of Trollope's novels, I fancy myself a true Trollopian.
Not a trollop, mind you, for that is something very different. And while there are a few trollops in his books, what I relish is the dry humour, the clarity of his prose style, his depiction of real people (as opposed to many of Dickens's creations, who, while certainly memorable, amount to caricatures, and are thus far too outre to seem really real) and the simulacrum of the upper class world and the lords and louche types who populate it. It is a world full of pretentious fools whom Trollope is more than delighted to deflate.
On occasion, I have found his depiction of Jewish characters--the louchest of the louche in his world--to be distasteful. But I have never thought of Trollope as an out-and-out Jew-hater. He was reflecting the English distaste for the "the Jew" that was endemic to his society (and that made George Eliot's philo-Semitism as expressed in her novel Daniel Deronda, which had both a Jewish protagonist and a religious Jew with proto-Zionist tendencies, a curiosity to non-Jews of the time, but that remains thrilling to the Jewish reader--or at least, to this Jewish reader).
Anyway, if I had to pick my three favorite Trollopes, they would be these (in no particular order):
1. Phineas Finn: This one's about an extraordinarily handsome and charismatic Irish MP who endures woes--and successes--both romantic and political as he cuts a swath through London society and the House of Parliament.
2. The Eustace Diamonds: Like Phineas Finn, this book is part of the Palliser series of novels. This one concerns one of the silliest, and thus most delectable, of Trollope's creations--the merry widow, Lizzie Eustace. Lizzie uses her feminine wiles, such as they are, to hold onto a set of priceless gems that don't actually belong to her, and much hilarity--and social commentary about class and the distinct lack thereof--ensues.
3. The Way We Live Now: Shades of the Bernie Madoff affair, this novel tracks the rise and downfall of an ambitious Ponzi scheme, and the schemer who almost pulls it off. Spoiler alert: there's a scene towards the end when the schemer, unaware that someone has spilled the beans re his scheme, sits in his grand quarters, presiding over a lavish dinner--to which no one ends up arriving. His embarrassment, though it constitutes what one might call "just desserts," is almost too hard for the reader to bear. And it serves as an example of Trollope's astonishing ability to intermingle the comic and the tragic in a single scene.

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