- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006


By Edward Mendelson

Pantheon, $23, 260 pages

Edward Mendelson’s “The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life,” begins with the author charting a roadmap: “This book is about life as it is interpreted by books.”

It is clear right from the start that Mr. Mendelson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, is as interested in the human drama as he is in guiding close readings of seven stars of the English canon: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818); Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” (1847); Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” (1847); George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (1871-72) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925), “To the Lighthouse” (1927) and “Between the Acts” (1941).

As much as he wants to write about the English novel in the 19th and 20th century, he wants to show how some of the best-loved fiction shed light on the “great experiences or stages that occur, or can occur, in more or less everyone’s life.”

The book’s narrative follows a chronology that simultaneously corresponds to the years in which the books were published and the stages of life as identified by Mr. Mendelson: “Frankenstein” is paired with birth, “Jane Eyre” with “the process of growth into childhood,” “Middlemarch” with marriage, and the three novels by Virginia Woolf with personal love, parenthood and “the stage when life surrenders to the next generation” respectively.

At first, I was skeptical about how long a formula this arbitrary would hold my attention. Moreover, I balked at Mr. Mendelson’s explanation for choosing only female writers. Mr. Mendelson writes that because a woman writer “had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes, and to defend those values by paying close attention to them in her writing,” she was “more likely than [a man] to write about emotional depths.”

Also, I found myself thinking of a list of books that could just as easily have suited his purposes. Having recently (and belatedly) completed reading “Anna Karenina” on the long-ago advice of a beloved Russian teacher, I wanted to say, Why no Tolstoy. Every phase of life is passionately rendered in his book about the doomed Anna. Or, I thought, if you are thinking strictly in terms of English novels, Mr. Mendelson, Why no “Mayor of Casterbridge?”

Soon it hardly mattered. This is a masterful book, one that is filled with surprises and delights. Through the steady accumulation of insights about the seven great books he has chosen and their approach to the bounties and vexations of life, the reader comes to learn why we read books at all, and why we read them to feel deeply and know more.

Frankenstein is the story of childbirth as it would be if it had been invented by someone who wanted power more than love.” So begins Mr. Mendelson’s discussion of the Shelley novel, one that “combines the inchoate fears of childhood with the sophisticated intelligence of an adult” and raises the question about what parental obligations are beyond the giving of life.

In his chapter on “Wuthering Heights,” Mr. Mendelson returns Cathy and Heathcliffe to their childhoods and makes the case that it is a “state of titanic intensity” that each never entirely grows out of.

“Everything that Wuthering Heights says about childhood, growth, and adulthood is contradicted by Jane Eyre,” Mr. Mendelson writes. In this chapter, the author draws distinctions between the sisters and explores the ways in which their views on education positioned them differently in this world.

When the reader comes to the end of Mr. Mendelson’s discussions of each of the Bronte books, the quote referring to Jane’s passage through the “deserts of solitude” to a union with Mr. Rochester (“I married him”) strikes like a thunderbolt. Like reading the novel anew, Mr. Mendelson’s book gives readers a chance to reexperience the thrill of Jane’s triumph.

Mr. Mendelson’s chapter on “Middlemarch,” perhaps the most cerebral of the novels discussed here, crystallizes the profundity and passion of that book and focuses how the respective couples came together in marriage and why these unions resonated.

By the time readers arrive at the three Virginia Woolf novels Mr. Mendelson discusses, there can be no doubt that all of life’s vicissitudes that we encounter as adults — love, parenthood, death — had a place in Virginia Woolf’s books, novels in which she, perhaps more than other writer covered here, spoke explicitly to what “mattered,” as in this segment spoken by Clarissa in “Mrs. Dalloway”:

“A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart, rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”

But Mr. Mendelson, ever the guide, takes readers one needed step further. “The thing that mattered is something she does not name, but it has to do with integrity, with intimacy, with self-knowledge, with what Clarissa had earlier thought of as ‘the centre which mystically, evaded them.’”

Fluid, wide and deep, “The Things That Matter” takes a rightful place next to the literature we love because of the way it shows us how our lives do live in these books.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide