Monday, April 18, 2011

...On Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite novelists, occupying a place at the top of my list with Tolstoy and Tolkien and very few others. There, I’ve said it. I enjoy Thomas Hardy and his peculiar brand of pessimism.

Having admitted Hardy is among my favorite novelists, I’ll admit something else. I’ve only recently read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I can’t say why it is that I’ve waited so long to get around to reading what many consider to be Hardy’s masterpiece, except to say that Hardy isn’t someone whose entire oeuvre you swallow whole. He needs to be digested in bits and pieces – for the reader’s sanity, at least.

It also reminds me of an essay by the very funny and acute Nick Hornby, who wrote in response to his first (late) reading of David Copperfield (Dickens is Hornby’s favorite writer):

    “Even the snootiest critic/publisher/whatever must presumably accept that we must all, at some point, read a book for the first time. I know that the only thing brainy people do with their lives is reread great works of fiction, but surely even James Wood and Harold Bloom read before they reread? (Maybe not. Maybe they've only ever reread, and that's what separates them from us. Hats off to them.)”

Hardy’s novels, however, test the very reasons that we read. Why do we read? To discover? To explore? Escape? Learn?

Few people, whatever their reasons, read specifically to be depressed. Unless a novel is really spectacular in other ways, if it depresses me I will eventually put it aside and probably not return to it. Crime & Punishment was that way for me. In spite of an interesting plot, halfway through I found that I dreaded picking it up again. A few of Faulkner’s novels have affected me this way - Sanctuary, to name just one.

Hardy doesn’t depress me. His novels plummet unerringly toward the tragic. Poor Tess Durbyfield is doomed. Nearly everyone who picks up this novel understands that before reading the first line. Most of Hardy’s novels work in similar fashion – tragic character flaws bring about a downfall; circumstances conspire against happiness; selfish (and even well-meaning) secondary characters contribute to the effect.

I think it is a mistake to think, however, that all this adds up to a sum total of gloom. It does not. Aside from one particular instance in Jude the Obscure, gloom often suffuses the books but never dominates them. Hardy was pessimistic about human nature. He was also well aware of nature’s ambiguous attitude toward humanity. Nature the sheltering hand, the ever-nurturing mother, does not exist in Hardy. Nature is nature – beautiful and treacherous and altogether enigmatic.

This ambiguity and general pessimism does not supersede beauty, which you find literally everywhere in Hardy’s novels and stories. Beautiful people, magical moments, and – more than anything – an incredibly vivid and breathtaking landscape, are ever-present.

Hardy’s prose is poetic in the extreme, and more visual than just about any other writer I can think of. That is something the three novelists I mentioned in the opening have in common. Hardy, Tolstoy, and Tolkien all create some of the most vivid scenes and landscapes imaginable.

One thing that great art does is allow us to see things more clearly than we could with our own eyes. Hardy’s “Wessex” is that way. Everything down to the smells, colors, and sounds of that country are indelibly impressed upon the mind, more so that if we had walked that country ourselves. Consider this passage, describing Tess and Angel’s rambles into the morning pastures around Talbothay’s dairy:

    Or perhaps the summer fog was more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which the scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks. Birds would soar through it into the upper radiance, and hang on the wind sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which shone like glass rods. Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls. When the day grew quite strong and commonplace these dried off her; moreover, Tess then lost her strange and ethereal beauty; her teeth, lips, and eyes scintillated in the sunbeams and she was again the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only, who had to hold her own against the other women of the world. (136-137)

Hardy’s novels (and short stories) are absolutely brimming with scenes like this, which makes the reader long to walk into the story however poorly things are bound to turn out.

I consider myself an Anglophile with a particular love of the English countryside – thatched cottages, rolling English hills, stone fences, a thousand years of history at every turn. For someone with an interest in that sort of thing, Hardy supersedes even the charm of Dickens or Austen, who are less pastoral in their approach.

That is not to say that Hardy’s novels are not flawed, in some respects. The overarching doom of the protagonists seems almost contrived rather than naturally-occurring. There are so many little moments of hope and possibility for these characters, and yet always there is that chance meeting that destroys all, the one comment left unsaid. Hardy is often keen to point these moments out with comments like – “If she only would have appealed to --” Of course she does not, the road to happiness goes untaken, the fate is unfortunately sealed.

Quibbles, really. Because like the best travels, the point of Thomas Hardy’s writings is the journey, not the destination.

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