Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Repeat Wednesday: Why I don't read the classics

I’ve been reading way too much trash recently -- books with sex or drugs or violence and no redeeming value whatsoever. The last book I finished was about a gay vampire who had other things on his mind than sucking blood. Try checking that out of the library without a fake moustache and dark glasses. After being both embarrassed and bored, I figured I'd read something respectable for a change. I’d seen most of the classics on “Masterpiece Theater” and they didn’t seem all that difficult so I figured I’d get one of them. To speed things up, though, I’d skip over Kenneth Branagh's lines.

I ended up with “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s one of those books you mean to read but never do, and halfway through the book I understand why. Like a PBS miniseries it’s interesting in theory, but after more than a couple minutes in reality it just bugs the pants off you.

For one thing, I expected intrigue, intelligence, and wit, but instead got a Victorian potboiler on the level of “All My Children.” Austen uses plenty of big words in Ye Olde English, but I’m still pretty sure the first printing had Fabio’s great-grandfather in a torn pirate shirt on the cover.

The book concerns several hundred people, all related, who alternately love and hate each other with the skill of Italians. At the center of the story are the Bennets: Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, and their daughters. Lots of daughters. The number is never specified, and it seems to change by the hour. We start off with Elizabeth and Jane, then page by page discover Lydia, Beth, Kitty, Mary, Lizzy and Eliza, though someone smarter than myself may discern that four of these could refer to the exact same person.

The big romance is between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, a guy who doesn’t even get a first name until page 187. There’s a roadblock flung in their path: we’re supposed to think that Mr. Darcy is unforgiveably rude because he went to a ball and only danced twice. That’s rude? the guys reading will ask. Hell, if he showed up in his underwear, guzzled scotch from a bottle and asked the hostess to pull his finger maybe she’d have a case. Then we learn that a dance lasts fifteen minutes, that you have to book them like appointments with the cable guy, and that dancing with the same woman twice is roughly equivalent to proposing marriage. Under these conditions even Fred Astaire would be hanging around the buffet table stuffing rumaki in his gob. Besides, that’s unforgiveably rude? That’s an obstacle to a relationship? Once I forgave a hubby who had sex with a preoccupied paraplegic.

The characters hook up and break off straight out of daytime drama. Miss Bingley likes Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy likes Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley likes Jane but seems destined to marry Countess De Burgh’s daughter (his cousin) to unite their estates. Elizabeth ought to marry Mr. Collins, her cousin, but since she hates him she pawns him off on Charlotte Lucas, the only character who’s not a relative. There are like eight sets of cousins who consider each other for marriage, yet for some reason they’re more concerned with estates and property than bearing children who have bat ears and duckbills.

Adding to the overall confusion is the language barrier. Shew, sallad, chuse -- maybe these words used to be English, but now they sound like parts of a snail. When they play “Vingt Un” I’m not sure they need playing cards or a plastic mat with colored circles on it. I have no clue what a “quadrille” is, and in the book it seems to alternate between being a dance and a board game. A major plot point hinges on how the Bennet estate is “entailed.” I’m guessing it’s not the opposite of what a butcher does to a bunny.

Here are some of the convoluted phrases Austen uses, and what I determined they meant through hours of research:

“It is more than I engage for, I assure you.”“Huh-uh."
“Dare I say my eye might have misjudged the possibility?”“Really?”
“I see no occasion for that.”“Whaaa?”
“That is not an unnatural surmise.”“Maybe.”
“Upon my honour I have not the smallest of objections.”“Oh. Okay.”

Now, I don’t mind a little wordiness as long as the author keeps it all straight. Austen, though, turns the whole exercise into a word problem. There are forty countesses in the book, yet rather than referring to them by name she gives the name of their house. “’I visited your relations at Lancashire,’ the Countess of Marscapone exclaimed while her own thoughts dwelt on her sister at Longhorn.” Everyone has three or four cousins with the same name (Colonel Fitzwilliam and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet on page 252, much to my astonishment). And everybody’s got more aliases than Puffy.

Austen loves to throw all sorts of folks into a room and not tell you who she’s talking about. Pronouns, adjectives, past participles -- I‘ve never seen so many things dangling, and I spent one Christmas at a nude beach. Here’s a typical scene among the Bennet sisters (remember there are somewhere between five and forty of them). See if you can tell who’s talking, and who they’re speaking of:

“Tell me, dear Lizzie,” enquired the younger Miss Bennet of her sister, “who is it that you are fondest of?”

“Methinks she shall chuse herself!” a flaxen-haired lass cried, and her two elder sisters tittered.

Elizabeth looked at her older sister with fine eyes mingling incredulity and agitation. “Why am I thus subjected to this undisguised air of discivility? Whilst my desires burn brightly within my bower they are of no small importance to yourselves, and I fear you shall render them like insects ‘neath a hasty hobbled boot.”

Silence hung in the air, then the girl leaning against the mantle-piece spake. “Beth, you are over scrupulous, I assure you; her intent was not so bold.” She turned to the woman nearest the bird. “What say you, Kitty?”

The tallest sister who isn’t Lydia froze with mortification. “Indeed, madam, I am not Kitty,” she observed. “Kitty stands indifferently by the balustrade, nearest the girl who’s allergic to cheese.”

The woman with the bean-shaped mole and crinoline knickers pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “I foresaw the return of this confusion within a fortnight,” she cried, and with the girl who’d recently returned from the dentist fled the room, fatigued.

And so, kind reader, to cut a long story short, I’m giving up. At page 274 I’m bidding a final “fare thee well” to the Bennets and the Bingleys and their fourteen hundred cousins and returning the book to the library, where it can be admired from a great distance. Tonight I’ll enjoy a respite from such obfuscation in my bed-sit chamber, neither playing nor dancing a quadrille with the one I hold in fondest regard who isn’t me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aww. But P&P is so good...