Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Slow Fiction, or Getting Absorbed with Trollope

      My previous post raised the question, what if absorption drove the pulse of Victorian novel reading? I am not alone in asking such a question. In Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction (2009), Garrett Stewart queries, how can we take seriously the "conjuring work" of the Victorian novel's language? To do so would entail unfolding novels "phrase by phrase, sometimes syllable by syllable."   
    When calling to mind Victorian examples of absorptive prose, Trollope comes, perhaps, last. His style has since its publication been regarded as the mimicry of the middle classes' quotidian speech turned back upon readers. In J. Hillis Miller's lasting impression, Trollope gave readers an aesthetics of the same to the same. Similarly influential, D.A. Miller quipped that the best place to read Trollope is ensconced in an armchair because of its staid everydayness. Composed in a seemingly transparent, common, mechanical prose, Trollope's novels send readers into half-attentive stupors. 
    Trollope scholarship has, however, undergone a formalist turn. Long regarded as a formal hack (thanks to Henry James), we now recognize Trollope's numerous formal innovations. In particular, we have come to recognize Trollope as a pioneer in psychological realism, on par with his contemporary George Eliot. But unlike Eliot, whose moral project cultivated critical fellow feeling, Trollope's psychological realism aimed, above all, to simply prolong his reader's time with characters. Surely his fiction provides insights into a character's deliberations on future conduct and their various attendant cultural contortions. But the phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable form of his realism slows readers down. Way down. 
   Trollope’s style is above all pellucid, “as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as is the electric spark which passes from one battery to another battery” (Autobiography 235). Such a style was especially important to Trollope’s  psychological realism, because it differentiated his writing from George Eliot's. To Trollope, Eliot’s style lacked ease, thereby demanding rigorous rereading: “there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended” (247). Such effects, produced largely through her Gibbonesque sentence construction – elongating sentences via parenthetical statements, which therein separate subject from verb over long expanses – imped a reader’s progress within each sentence. Trollope, in contrast, develops a style that at the level of the sentence moves his readers along without digressions. Sentence to sentence, however, Trollope’s prose is as varied as Eliot’s. It both draws readers along and slows them down.
      Trollope develops this style through oscillations between types of discourse and shifts in grammatical mood. Take The Small House at Allington's opening paragraph of Adolphus Crosbie’s pages-long deliberation over “his future conduct” in relation to both Lily Dale and Lady Alexandrina De Courcy:
Crosbie, as soon as he was alone in his chamber, sat himself down in his arm-chair, and went to work striving to make up his mind as to his future conduct. It must not be supposed that the declaration just made by him had been produced solely by his difficulty at the moment. The atmosphere of Courcy Castle had been at work upon him for the last week past. And every word that he had heard, and every word that he had spoken, had tended to destroy all that was good and true within him, and to foster all that was selfish and false. He had said to himself a dozen times during that week that he never could be happy with Lily Dale, and that he never could make her happy. And then he had used the old sophistry in his endeavour to teach himself that it was right to do that which he wished to do. Would it not be better for Lily that he should desert her, than marry her against the dictates of his own heart? And if he really did not love her, would he not be committing a greater crime in marrying her than in deserting her? He confessed to himself that he had been very wrong in allowing the outer world to get such a hold upon him that the love of a pure girl like Lily could not suffice for his happiness. But there was the fact, and he found himself unable to contend against it. If by any absolute self-sacrifice he could secure Lily's well-being, he would not hesitate for a moment. But would it be well to sacrifice her as well as himself? (244-245).
Trollope shuttles between various discourse registers: diegesis (“Crosbie, as soon as he was in his chamber”), to authorial intervention (“It must not be supposed”), to reported thought (“He had said to himself”), to free indirect discourse (“Would it not be better”), back to reported thought (“He confessed to himself”), then wrapping up with free indirect discourse (“But would it be well”). The effect is two fold. First, these oscillations depict Crosbie’s psychological state from as many perspectives as possible, therein providing insight into his deliberations on his conduct and into the self-swindling such deliberations perform. Second, such insights depend upon readers' close attention to the perspective of each sentence as the narration moves along a spectrum of utmost interiority (free indirect discourse) to exteriority (reader’s potential judgment).
            This passage’s back-and-forth shifts in grammatical mood and tense compound the slowing effects of its discourse oscillations. It moves from indicative statements (“he had said to himself”) to the subjunctive, modal statements (“Would it not be better”). Through such formal techniques,Trollope not only represents his characters' deliberative conduct , but also condenses his readers' attention. In so doing, Trollope elongates the reading duration in excess of more his straightforward prose. While at a quantitative level such passages take up a sizable proportion of narrative space, which condenses the total number of words per page in contrast with diegetic prose and dialog, at the qualitative level these passages further elongate attention. They thus create attention sinkholes embedded within what would otherwise be a pellucid unfolding of plot. These common passages intensify of our attention on character instead of  plot. We experience a condensing focus on character and a simultaneous elongation of reading duration.
       Rather than providing us a critical perspective from which we can reflect upon characters's thought processes, Trollope's style, in slowing readers down, gets characters to dwell in the minds of readers. In so doing Trollope’s fiction achieves its didactic aims of “impregnating the mind of the novel-reader with a feeling that honesty is the best policy, that truth prevails when falsehood fails, that a girl will be loved when she is pure, and sweet, unselfish; that a man will be honored as he is true, and honest, and brave of heart; that things meanly done are ugly and odious, and things nobly done beautiful and gracious” (145).
     Absorptive prose here governs readers. It conducts our conduct by drawing us into intimate contact with characters for prolonged durations. We love honesty and truth because we have read slowly, absorbed by style phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. 

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