On Tuesday night, I went to see Recent Tragic Events, the new play about 9/11 that opened Sunday at Playwrights Horizons (about which more in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal and here on “About Last Night”). Early in the evening, I noted with astonishment that the two principal characters not only were fans of the novels of Anthony Trollope (one plausibly, the other not) but thought The Way We Live Now to be his best book. It so happens that (1) I think so, too, (2) I happened to be rereading The Way We Live Now that very evening, and (3) I had a copy of it in my shoulder bag. Since Recent Tragic Events is about coincidences, I was pleased to be experiencing a big fat juicy one of my own.
I’m one of those benighted souls who prefers Trollope to Dickens, though “prefers” is a weak way of putting it, since I don’t like Dickens at all and have been more than mildly addicted to Trollope for a good many years. I don’t know what caused me to re-read The Way We Live Now this week (other than the long arm of coincidence), but I usually pick it up once a year. In fact, I like it so much that I wore out my original paperback copy and am now the proud owner of an elegant little “World’s Classics” miniature edition printed in 1962 on Bible paper and small enough to fit easily in the palm of one hand–unusually compact for a 960-page novel that is Trollope’s longest.
I like a lot of things about The Way We Live Now, among them the sheer festiveness with which it catalogues the moral disintegration of Victorian London. Trollope was a moralist of sorts, and The Way We Live Now is a vivid document of his change-and-decay-in-all-around-I-see brand of conservatism, but he was too fascinated by the spectacle of human nature not to tell his angry tale with the lip-smacking gusto of a man who knew that a big crook is still big.
I also like the dazzling concision with which so naturally expansive a writer is capable on occasion of making his points. At one point, Trollope describes the frankly cynical way in which Lord Nidderdale, an impecunious young noble, woos Marie Melmotte, the daughter of the aforementioned crook. Nidderdale is looking to marry money, and makes no bones about it. Says Trollope: “I doubt whether Lord Nidderdale had ever said a word of love to Marie Melmotte,–or whether the poor girl had expected it. Her destiny had no doubt been explained to her.” That second sentence is perfect.
Another aspect of The Way We Live Now that I admire more and more as I grow older is directly related to Trollope’s expansive tendencies. As a young reader, I particularly admired short, polished novels written from a tightly focused point of view. I still do–I think The Great Gatsby is the great American novel by an extra-long shot–but I’ve also learned to love the baggy inclusiveness of the triple-decker novel. The Way We Live Now is crammed full of characters, situations, and subplots, to all of which Trollope pays affectionate attention. If you judge novels solely by their neatness, you’ll find this one way too messy. I used to feel that way, but now I revel in the panache with which Trollope riffles through his snapshots of the various strata of London society. He’s out to show us the biggest possible picture, and like Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he succeeds with a vengeance.
One advantage of so amply proportioned a novel is that it leaves its readers room to grow. When I first read The Way We Live Now, more than a decade ago, I was completely caught up in the story of Augustus Melmotte, the brazen swindler who cons his way into Parliament. At the time, I was writing editorials for the New York Daily News (and, not coincidentally, had just read The Bonfire of the Vanities), and Melmotte, logically enough, seemed to me the book’s most convincingly realized character. I still think he’s pretty damned impressive, but now that I’ve settled into an uneasy middle age, I find myself far more interested in Roger Carbury, the fortysomething squire who rejects the mad hurly-burly of Melmotte’s corrupt world, falls in unrequited love with a sweet young girl who doesn’t reciprocate his ardor, and does his best to do the right thing by her even though it breaks his heart. When I was 35, Carbury’s dilemma struck me as stagy–rather too Victorian, if you know what I mean. Now that I’m 47, I find it both believable and deeply moving.
That’s the great thing about the large-scale novel of society and manners. Precisely because its canvas is so wide and varied, it can be seen from many different points of view, and so is less likely to go dead on you over time, the way art collectors speak of certain of their paintings as having gone “dead on the wall.” It’s not that I can readily imagine getting tired of The Great Gatsby or Black Mischief or Enemies, a Love Story, but who knows? After all, I might live a very long time (and would like to). Ivy Compton-Burnett confessed in old age that she no longer read Jane Austen because she knew her novels so well from frequent reading that they no longer held her attention. I can’t imagine ever saying such a thing about The Way We Live Now.
So when Heather Graham, the star of Recent Tragic Events, announced in her best party-girl voice that The Way We Live Now was her favorite novel, I giggled to myself. That wasn’t the most unlikely-sounding thing about Recent Tragic Events, but it definitely ranked in the top ten. I’m not saying that leggy young blondes can’t appreciate Trollope. Stranger things have happened…just not to me.