Into the Canon

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Graff.jpg

I teased at this the other day but wanted to bring out a bit. Here is Mr. Brooke. I gather some read him as a bit of idiot. I read him as a bit of an absent-minded professor. His niece has just returned from Rome and he is greeting her and her new husband Causabon:


"I need not ask how you are, my dear," said Mr. Brooke, after kissing her forehead. "Rome has agreed with you, I see--happiness, frescos, the antique--that sort of thing. Well, it's very pleasant to have you back again, and you understand all about art now, eh? But Casaubon is a little pale, I tell him--a little pale, you know. Studying hard in his holidays is carrying it rather too far. I overdid it at one time"--Mr. Brooke still held Dorothea's hand, but had turned his face to Mr. Casaubon--"about topography, ruins, temples--I thought I had a clue, but I saw it would carry me too far, and nothing might come of it. You may go any length in that sort of thing, and nothing may come of it, you know."

Brooke has a very particular way of speaking, which I find amusing. He almost reminds me of an insecticon. He repeats himself and tends to wave off entire epochs with three word summaries and the broad label "that sort of thing." 

For instance:

Ah? ... Well! He is a good match in some respects. But now, Chettam is a good match. And our land lies together. I shall never interfere against your wishes, my dear. People should have their own way in marriage, and that sort of thing--up to a certain point, you know. I have always said that, up to a certain point. I wish you to marry well; and I have good reason to believe that Chettam wishes to marry you. I mention it, you know."

Or:

Very true. You couldn't put the thing better--couldn't put it better, beforehand, you know. But there are oddities in things," continued Mr. Brooke, whose conscience was really roused to do the best he could for his niece on this occasion. "Life isn't cast in a mould--not cut out by rule and line, and that sort of thing. I never married myself, and it will be the better for you and yours. The fact is, I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them. It is a noose, you know. Temper, now. There is temper. And a husband likes to be master.


Or:

"Lydgate has lots of ideas, quite new, about ventilation and diet, that sort of thing,"

His cadence are the most unusual in the book, and stand out, as the rest of the voices aren't as well delineated. But I find myself meditating on how his voice sounds to me in my head.

The thing about Middlemarch is not that it is long, but that it is detailed. I don't mean detailed as an assembly of facts and descriptions. I mean detailed like an old Harlem brownstone, or the Cathedral up here in Morningside Heights. Mr. Brooke's voice is a place of retreat, a cavern for my mind to whirl around in or explore It is as if Eliot created a plot and then tricked it out, if I may be so profane. There are epigraphs, allusions to scientists who I do not know, weird unpredictable shifts in voice, notes on the history of medicine, Zen-like aphorisms, all of it attached to a narrative. 

I find that I don't much care about the narrative ("the what happens next?") as I enjoy losing myself in the detailing, in the craftsmanship. This is what I mean when I claim that the novel has "physicality." The best thing about Middlemarch is that it has exploded my sense of what a novel can be. I felt the same way about Faulkner, but I think I also kind of dismissed because he wrote so small. (I'm speaking as a matter of subjective taste, as opposed to fact.) He often just seemed a little crazy. 

Anyway, There's a moment in Issac Hayes's "Walk On By" where he repeats the chorus, and suddenly, in the background, you hear horns cracking lightly. (It's at about 2:23) I love that moment. It's the most unexpected, most delicate thing. And it comes amidst a meaty and unexpected reworking of another song. Hayes's version is slow, plodding almost, and the his heavy grieving voice is set against background vocals from what almost sounds like European church choir. The song is thick. It's physical. There are so many places to get lost.



Of course this is likely my native aesthetic coming to the fore because this kind of thickness is always what hip-hop, at its best, excelled at. You hear it in the great Public Enemy albums, in the great Wu-Tang albums, in Rakim's lyrics. I guess it's only natural that I would see this here. George Eliot is just bringing the Bomb Squad.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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