Thursday, January 26, 2017

Classics #2

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Roderick Random – Tobias Smollet

Whenever I think of the category “18th century novel,” I quake at the thought of undertaking a thousand-page epistolary novel like Pamela. But I’m enough of a reading snob to want to read what nobody else reads, length be d----d. Plus, an encomium dedicated to Tobias Smollett by George Orwell, whom I prefer more as a critic than a novelist, made a deep enough impression to be filed away in my sieve-like memory. So, Roderick Random, Smollett’s first novel, published in 1748, it was.

I suspicion that Smollett is infrequently read these days because Roderick Random has all the qualities of the picaresque novel, a form that, in our more easily-perturbed days, after hours of yoga and sensitivity training sessions, we don’t know how to take. For instance, our titular hero becomes a valet for a learned lady, whose brain, her maid reveals, is subject to nutty obsessions:

[S]ome months ago, she prophesied the general conflagration was at hand, and nothing would be able to quench it but her water, which therefore she kept so long, that her life was in danger, and she must needs have died of the retention, had they not found an expedient to make her evacuate, by kindling a bonfire under her chamber window and persuading her that the house was in flames: upon which, with great deliberation, she bade them bring all the tubs and vessels they could find to be filled for the preservation of the house, into one of which she immediately discharged the cause of her distemper.

Indeed, the knock-about humor is rough, calling to mind the gusto that Dickens put into describing how poor Oliver Twist was hit, battered, thumped and thrashed and kids in Bleak House getting their heads caught in wrought-iron fences. The mockery, horse-play, and violence make us taboo-leery post-moderns gasp in dismay. We can see where Dickens got his relish for plainly describing the grotesque and shifty:

This member of the faculty was aged fifty, about five feet high, and ten round the belly; his face was as capacious as a full moon, and much of the complexion of a mulberry: his nose, resembling a powder-horn, was swelled to an enormous size, and studded all over with carbuncles; and his little gray eyes reflected the rays in such an oblique manner that, while he looked a person full in the face, one would have imagined he was admiring the buckle of his shoe

The farce is very 18th-century in that at night roadside inns invariably involve guests getting into the wrong bedroom by accident or design and fornicators getting it on with or without the full informed consent of the fornicatee.

The morality-free satire bites and stings, pierces and hacks as it takes on nepotism, arbitrary authority, conscience-free malice, deceit, not to mention the old standbys hypocrisy, greed, lust, and stupidity. Life isn’t fair, not anywhere, especially not school, for our hero, for anybody:

I was often inhumanly scourged for crimes I did not commit, because having the character of a vagabond in the village, every piece of mischief whose author lay unknown, was charged upon me.—I have been found guilty of robbing orchards I never entered, of killing cats I never hurted, of stealing gingerbread I never touched, and of abusing old women I never saw.—Nay, a stammering carpenter had eloquence enough to persuade my master, that I fired a pistol loaded with small shot, into his window; though my landlady and the whole family bore witness, that I was a-bed fast asleep at the time when this outrage was committed.—I was flogged for having narrowly escaped drowning, by the sinking of a ferry-boat in which I was passenger.—Another time for having recovered of a bruise occasioned by a horse and cart running over me.—A third time, for being bit by a baker’s dog.—In short, whether I was guilty or unfortunate, the vengeance and sympathy of this arbitrary pedagogue were the same.

Our hero is a typical main character for a picaresque. Roderick Random is a young Scotchman of humble origins and a spotty medical education who must get by on his wits, connections, and petty criminality.  Rory has a faithful retainer like Sancho Panza, Hugh Strap, a barber, as his name implies.  The characters are mainly types and caricatures, with names that sum them up like Mr. Vandal and Lord Strutwell. The caricatures cover everybody from cheating innkeepers to quack pharmacists.  The characters are clear-cut in the naval chapters. The sailors Morgan (the Welsh surgeon), Uncle Bowling, Cpt. Oakum, Dr. Mackshane, Jack Rattlin, all live and breathe while the gay (in our sense) Capt. Whiffle and his favorite Mr. Simper  faint in horror at the smell of tobacco.

Smollett sets the characters in in a variety of realistic-feeling settings. Smollett was trained in medicine and like all doctors, got hardened to bad smells and gory sights. Rory is press-ganged and ends up in the cockpit of the warship Thunder.

We descended by divers ladders to a space as dark as a dungeon, which, I understood, was immersed several feet under water, being immediately above the hold. I had no sooner approached this dismal gulph, than my nose was saluted with an intolerable stench of putrified cheese and rancid butter, that issued from an apartment at the foot of the ladder, resembling a chandler’s shop, where, by the faint glimmering of a candle, I could perceive a man with a pale, meagre countenance, sitting behind a kind of desk, having spectacles on his nose, and a pen in his hand.

Written in the first person, plot there is not there, more like narrative strands worked into a mesh, weaving  up one writer’s tapestry of the rowdy ripping 18th century with all its corruption, racketeering, privateering, slave running, poverty, prostitution, brutal wills, the Marshalsea debtor's prison, impressment, political and arts patronage, and the dark origins of modern medicine and pharmacy. Now we know why the Victorians were so uptight  –  they were fleeing in horror and disgust from the loud licentious 18th century. And its medieval squalor and dirt:

[W}hen I followed him with the medicines into the sick berth, or hospital, and observed the situation of the patients, I was much less surprised that people should die on board, than that a sick person should recover. Here I saw about fifty miserable distempered wretches, suspended in rows, so huddled one upon another, that not more than fourteen inches space was allotted for each with his bed and bedding; and deprived of the light of the day, as well as of fresh air; breathing nothing but a noisome atmosphere of the morbid steams exhaling from their own excrements and diseased bodies, devoured with vermin hatched in the filth that surrounded them, and destitute of every convenience necessary for people in that helpless condition.

A picaresque novel like Roderick Random seems terrible long, too, so readers might tremble like I do at the prospect of Pamela. Worry not. The multi-syllabic discourse is daunting at first, but the sheer fun and – let’s face it – dreadfulness of the adventures will grow on blasé readers like us. We’ve read Cormac McCarthy, we can handle Smollett.

A bigger problem is that nowadays few of us can picture a tie-wig and bobwig. Nor are we really strong on French and Latin tags.  My only advice on both issues is the miracle of search engines –sure, it’s an extra step but you will be the only kid on the block that can distinguish a pigtail wig and a periwig. Or upon seeing Putin’s President on TV you will impress everybody worth impressing by appropriately whipping off “Semper avarus eget” (greed is never satisfied).

Anyway, I’m glad I read it. It was a lot of fun. A sloop is sinking so sailors, expecting to die, go on a rampage in order to check out of this vale of tears as drunk as skunks. Naturally. A sailor breaks into the purser’s rum locker with an axe:

At that instant the purser coming down, and seeing his effects going to wreck, complained bitterly of the injustice done to him, and asked the fellow what occasion he had for liquor when, in all likelihood, he would be in eternity in a few minutes. “All’s one for that,” said plunderer, “let us live while we can.” “Miserable wretch that thou art!” cried the purser, “what must be thy lot in another world, if thou diest in the commission of robbery?” “Why, hell, I suppose,” replied the other, with great deliberation, while the purser fell on his knees, and begged of Heaven that we might not all perish for the sake of Jonas.

Being a brute, I like satire that is as savage as A Modest Proposal. If nothing else read it to get a bead on where Dickens, Melville and Thackeray were coming from. I confess, however, that  I’m unsure if I’m going to read other novels by Smollett.

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