Wednesday, October 21, 2009

far from the madding crowd

Hardy finally gave up, you know. His novels were so heavily criticized, so many different groups and individuals weighing in for one reason or another, that he threw in the towel and retreated into his poetry. And he wrote some good poems. One of my favourites is about the legend of the animals in the barns and stables going to their knees at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. It is written in a wistful, plaintive tone, the poetry of a man who lost his faith along the way but who never really wanted to lose it and never found anything better to replace it.

But to return to the novels. The works of Thomas Hardy used to be a staple of high school English literature courses. Why they are not anymore is an issue for another blog: they are readable, highly dramatic and often keep the interest of a good number of teenage readers. If people have read anything by Hardy it will probably be Tess of the D'Urbervilles, commonly referred to as Tess. Or maybe they haven't read it, but recall the title because they saw a film version of it (the ill-starred Roman Polanski's being the best).

Hardy's novels can be grim fare. No one is spared the jarring, jagged blows of life. The novels are Shakespearean tragedies. The stage is littered with dead bodies or dead souls at the denouement. Yet this is too easy to say, true as it is. There are glimmers of redemption in many of his novels' final pages, far more glints of hope than William affords us at endings of Othello, King Lear or Hamlet. Without spoiling you with spoilers I shall mention a few (for I have no idea who has been reading Hardy these days of the Yorkshire moors when even the people who gave us Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Hopkins and Eliot and Tolkien have lost their literature and lost their fiction and so lost their way).

I might as well start with Tess. A tale that still haunts and hurts when I re-read it and re-live it. What horrific loss in the book, loss of all kinds, and the loss is relentless right up to the final paragraphs. Yet, there, just there, a shaft of light, a bright promise of new life, surprising, but there it is. (Read it for yourself - but please start at the beginning of the novel, not at the end, so that the proper impact may be most properly felt.)

Then there's The Return of the Native - I remember my older brother reading this in high school in the 1960s and all the mysterious books of those long lost days - including Pride and Prejudice and The Sun Also Rises - stirred a hope that I would one day get to open these intriguing volumes. (Alas, I was not to open them in high school literature courses, for by the 1970s they had vanished from the curriculum.)

Native has its share of tragedies and loss, just like Tess, and just like Tess the curtain closes not simply on bodies and broken lives but great promise and great hope, even a fledgling faith in a better world and a better God. The difference with the feel-good endings of the formula fiction of today is that the characters of Hardy's novels and the readers of those characters' pen and paper lives pay a price to get to the crack of sunlight and it's never a given. Tess and Native have those crinkles of the luminous, however brief, but Hardy's novel of Oxford the Cruel, Jude the Obscure, has none of it. Jude is, like all Hardy's novels and poems, beautifully written, but painful, oh so painful in its beauty. No dreaming spires here except ones that impale you.

But when Hardy does bring you into the light of a decent day, blinking furiously to take in the colours and sudden blessings, you know very well there has been no formula or fluff, you have lived and suffered real life just like your own real life and others' real lives. You have been somewhere in your imagination that matters and that can change your soul. I have yet to read a Hardy novel that does not turn me inside out and offer a form of catharsis or transformation, and that for the better, even though the pain may be razor sharp - not unlike the way in which the grace of God comes to us in the stone cold dark and cuts both dead and living flesh and dead and living spirit.

Yet, I confess here and now - for all blogging seems to me to be something of a confessional for all who strike the keys - that I have not read all Hardy's novels. But soft, before you howl foul, I am pretty sure my reading of the ones I've missed along the cobblestone years will bear me out, for Hardy is Hardy, yet I will submit to this - after I've read my missing links, I will return to blog about any theory of his art I must alter or any fresh insight I have threshed from the fields of Wessex (or that have threshed me). Surely that's fair.

And I will begin with Far From the Madding Crowd, a title that has always intrigued me. Following that I will delve into The Mayor of Casterbridge. Then I'll work my way through the others: Desperate Remedies, A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree . . . and on and on until I find myself at his own end with his wonderful poems. Let us see if what I have written here holds up - a great adventure it will be to find out.

And if you haven't read any or much of Hardy, why not join me this autumn and see what you come across in his dark and leafy wood, infrequently ignited by vertical light so pure you can only shut your eyes and wish its illumination may be so, may truly be so.

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