Review Post 11 – From the Comfortably Sublime to the Absurdly Ridiculous

It’s March, so it must be time for Doctor Thorne, the third of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (the one I’ve read the least as it took me ages to get a copy – pre-Book Depository, simpler times…). In this novel, we move away from Barchester itself and spend a while in the country area of Greshamsbury, home to the fallen gentry of the Gresham family. The Greshams have blood, but they no longer have much money; therefore, it is the duty of the young heir, Frank Gresham, to marry money. But wait! A penniless childhood sweetheart? Familial discord? A rival suitor? Don’t you just love Victoriana…

So where’s this Doctor then, you may ask (no, not that Doctor; there are no blue police boxes in this story)? Well, the Doctor, although (as Trollope himself admits) he may not be the true hero of the story, is nevertheless the key figure in the story. Uncle, and guardian, of our heroine, Mary, confidant and adviser of Frank Gresham’s father, and executor of a will which may alter certain opinions (and prospects), the tireless Doctor Thorne winds his way through the novel, mending broken heads and hearts alike. While those familiar with Barchester may be forgiven for initially likening him to our old friend the Warden, it soon becomes apparent that he is a very different character. He is a much spikier, more independent and capable person who has no qualms about standing up to the ‘quality’ of the county, even when the weight of generations of blood oppose him.

Blood, more notable in this book (despite the title) for its metaphorical rather than literal appearance, is at the heart of events. Breeding may be important for livestock, but is it important for people? While Frank Gresham’s qualities and the Scatcherd family’s failings may suggest that it is, Mary’s finer points and the absurd, patronising behaviour of the ancient De Courcys hint that having a traceable family tree isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, we all know what is going to happen; Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur. However, in this book, I feel that there was too much inevitability about the plot. As always with Trollope, the characterisation was spot on, and some of the scenes (the Thorne-Gresham confrontations, the depiction of the drunken, dying Scatcherds) are fantastically written. I just thought that at 550+ pages (and with the ending as plain as could be from about half-way through), the book may have outstayed its welcome a little. It’s still a pleasure to read, but it’s not the best of the series by a long way. Next stop, Framley Parsonage in April…

*****

Blood also features in my other review today, albeit of a more literal kind. Albert Camus’ classic novel L’Étranger tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian, from the death of his mother through a serious crime and the ensuing trial. It’s a fairly simple story (luckily for me; my French isn’t what it used to be), but the ideas behind it are anything but. The story serves as a vehicle for Camus to expound upon his philosophical ideas and his take on existentialism.

Meursault is a curious character. The death of his mother leaves him cold, and he seems to be completely devoid of any real emotions. Despite the extreme situations he finds himself in, he never appears to get upset or hot under the collar. The reader is forced to decide whether he is emotionless or simply egocentric and unconcerned with the affairs of others. The answer, perhaps, is the latter; however, it’s slightly more complicated than all that…

You see, Camus was one of the pioneers of Absurdism, a philosophical theory which basically held that life’s a bit of a joke, and you have to make of it what you can. He developed the ideas of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who said that there are three ways to make sense of life: suicide, religion or accepting that life has no meaning except that which the individual can make of it. However, while Kierkegaard plumped for option b, Camus rejected religion as being a waste of time and went for the third option (in this novel, this choice extends to Meursault in his discussion with the prison chaplain).

Meursault plays this taking life as it comes role to perfection: no tears at his mother’s funeral, no emotion when his girlfriend talks about marriage, no fear when on trial. He simply rolls with all that life throws at him and makes the best of his situation without stressing out about it. In the end, it is this ‘unnatural’ attitude which brings about his downfall. Although he is ostensibly being tried for a crime, the trial actually focuses on his behaviour before he commits it as the prosecutor and judge (and the jury) are unable to believe that someone who behaves so calmly could have acted on the spur of the moment. In effect, the trial becomes more a discussion of Meursault’s inhumanity than of his guilt.

This is a wonderful read, short and (thankfully) fairly simple, while at the same time rather thought-provoking. For those of you without a guiding purpose in life, it’s well worth a read. Those of you who are of a more religious nature may be a little more wary, but there is no strong anti-religious message here, simply a rejection of someone else’s faith by a man who doesn’t need it. Dorothy, we’re not in Barchester any more…

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2 thoughts on “Review Post 11 – From the Comfortably Sublime to the Absurdly Ridiculous

  1. You explain L'Etranger so succinctly. I remember reading it at uni as it's my father's favourite book (I grew up listening to 'Maman est mort') but I think it was too difficult for me (or I was too immature). And reading Sartre only confused me more. I really want to give it another try now. Thank you!

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  2. No worries 🙂

    I have a funny feeling that I was supposed to read this book at some point (either for A-Levels or in my first year of uni – which makes it the early 90s…) but simply didn't. Well, better (about 17 years) late than never I suppose!

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