Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Walter Scott, Waverley (1814)

People say this was the first "historical novel."  I can only imagine what people must have thought encountering this concept for the first time: Huh?  A novel that also has HISTORY?!  Who is this man who can do such devilment?!?  I'm surprised they didn't burn him at the stake for witchcraft.

At any rate, the concept certainly resonated.  It's kind of impossible to find reliable numbers, but Scott was, if not the most popular writer of the nineteenth century, then certainly well up there, and a lot of people were of the opinion that he never surpassed this, his first novel.  I'd like to say that I chose to read it now in order to commemorate its two hundredth anniversary…so that's what I'm going to say.  Want to say a thing; say the thing.  Neat how that works.

So look.  I get--sort of, intellectually, at least--the idea that this kind of writing was new and exciting.  And I get--again, very much in theory--that people might have been drawn to the Scottish Color, along the same principle that they'd have been interested in the endless descriptions of fish in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  I get these things.  Kinda sorta maybe.  But be that as it may, I can't help feeling more alienated than I have ever felt from our nineteenth-century forebears, because seriously?  THIS was their favorite book by their favorite author EVER?

I'll come right out and say it: Waverley is really goddamn boring.  A subjective judgment, I know, but I just don't know what else to say.  If people were really that into the Scottish Flavor--well, bully for them, I guess, but to me it's just super-tedious with no reason behind it.  In the first half of Waverley, nothing happens.  I cannot adequately communicate to you the vast, trackless wastes of nothing that happen.  The situation is that Edward Waverley, the guy whom Scott keeps referring to as his "hero," though you would be pressed to find much justification for this nomenclature, is a romantic sort of young man who is pushed to join the army, which he does, only then he goes on a massive, indefinite leave, 'cause apparently you could just do that in the British army of the time, and wanders around visiting some Scottish people and seeing some Scottish things, and…that's it.  Not much more to say.  Again, if this is the kind of thing you like, you'll like it, I guess, though I still have trouble seeing exactly why.

In the second half, I have to admit, a  number of things of various description do happen.  It's undeniable.  But these are not, to my mind, particularly interesting things.  What mainly happens is that Edward gets involved in the Jacobite cause--mainly because his would-be love interest is part of it, rather than anything more noble--and ultimately participates in the uprising of 1745, which was basically the last time the movement actually threatened anything--and this points to another very serious problem: you have to sorta kinda take the Jacobite cause seriously.  I don't think many people at the time of the novel's publication were really pining for the Stuarts, but--I can only assume, because otherwise I don't see HOW this would've been of interest--they could at least see it as a sort of romantic, doomed thing.  Me, not so much.  Looking back on it, it just seems silly and dumb and who fucking cares just abolish the monarchy already.  Mind you: I'd hypothetically be willing to set that aside for the purposes of appreciating the novel, if Scott ever gave me any reason to.  But that, he is not interested in doing.  There seems to be the presumption that it's just a given that this is gonna give us something to hold onto, and a rooting interest.  So, for instance, when the previously alluded-to love interest rejects our alleged hero because she's just TOO DURNED DEVOTED to the cause, it just creates a sense of bathos.  Why are you wasting your life like this, woman?  The rest of you should feel free to answer that as well.

I tell you, the damn thing feels a LOT longer than six hundred pages.  Dull story (when there IS any story to report), clunky prose, risible comic relief--not much interest beyond the historical to be found here, folks.  And another thing: in a previous life, when I was writing a dissertation, one of my main touchstones was Georg Lukács (and boy, I wrote that name so many damn times that I still have the exact gesture necessary to type it with an accent without slowing down down cold), who had the idea that literature has value insofar as it's able to model the ways that the different hierarchies and structures of society fit together.  If a book doesn't do this, it is BAD.  It's a little daffy the way he applies this, but the concept is interesting, and it certainly provides a good jumping-off point for debate.  But my point is: one of his favorite authors--who, allegedly, demonstrate the good qualities he was after--is Scott.  I had never read Scott when I was dissertating, but now that I have, Lukács just looks absolutely insane.  Highlanders tromping about contesting a vaguely-defined political cause does not seem to me to demonstrate much of anything about anything.  And if it DID, you'd think--given Scott's popularity--that the flippin' socialist state woulda been ushered in sooner rather than later.  I mean, for Lukács, that was the whole POINT, after all.  One gets the sneaking suspicion that Marxist critics liked to elevate people like Balzac and Scott not in spite but BECAUSE of their right-wing politics--'cause this way, they can make their not-that-interesting point about the overt politics of an individual being irrelevant.  So now, in addition to everything else, Scott has made me think less of one of my former critical lodestones.  THANKS, OBAMA.

Here is a quote what I found on the wikipedia: "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths.– I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must."  That's JANE AUSTEN, foax.  Try as she might, she COULD NOT RESIST the allure of Scottish people milling around and getting all het up for dumb reasons.  Your mileage, however, may vary.


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