Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

I picked up “tiny” Vicar just after finishing “mammoth” Middlemarch thinking it would be an easy read. Vaguely I seemed to recollect that Goldsmith’s book was on my list of “classics I want to read some day”. But as I read I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it would be considered a classic. It certainly wasn’t in the sense that Leland Ryken describes them: “a work whose excellence as literature and whose importance to western culture are indisputable.”

The language was not singularly beautiful nor were the characters richly developed. In fact, the calamities and coincidences in the book were so unbelievable that I had to force myself to finish it. The only “true moment” in the book is when the vicar is put in prison for debt and is jeered at by the prisoners for trying to preach to them. Now THAT I could believe! Even his eventual winning of their affection was credible. The rest was just too bad (or too good depending on the story’s timeline) to be true.

On a more positive note, I’m including some great quotes from another reader of worthwhile books, Mandi at (now defunct). Highlighted sections are my emphasis. On “Day 52” she wrote:

Reading Dante reminds me of the thoughts that I’ve had over time about really great classic literature. C.S. Lewis once said about The Wind in the Willows that it wasn’t a book you judged; it judges you. And that is how I feel about the greats like Dante, Augustine, and Homer. We modern Americans are eager to judge but not so eager to be judged. We dismiss everything from Shakespeare to Virgil as “not all it’s cracked up to” or we claim that things like truffles or escargot don’t taste as good as others claim. The one thing we never seem to consider is that the fault may lie with us…It is high time we started to acknowledge our betters and a good place to begin is with the classics.

On “Day 63” she wrote: I’m enjoying these satirical novels [by Evelyn Waugh] but nagging at the back of my mind are two things. One: they’re not as funny as Wodehouse and two: they’re not beautiful. This is all fairly amorphous in my mind but bear with me as I sort these thoughts out. My taste in novels is generally for pleasant or rich ones. I enjoy a tragic story but not a bleak one. Wuthering Heights good. 1984 bad. I don’t mind happy endings no matter how unfashionable they may be in literary circles, although a happy ending alone is not enough to content me. I can bear with deus ex machina without complaining but poorly composed prose and shallowness drive me nuts. Wholesomeness pleases me but Goody-Two-Shoes will send me up the wall. I can handle the preachy-ness of Little Woman but Elsie Dinsmore makes me gag!

Mandi, I couldn’t agree with you more!


Anonymous said...

What a coincidence that this quote about Wind in the Willows is on Semicolon's site today. Apparently Mandi remembered the quote, but not the correct author. It was A.A. Milne who said we should let books "judge us".

Sherry said...

I'm with Mandi, too. I think we share a similar taste in books. And Waugh isn't as funny as Wodehouse, but then very few writers come close to Wodehouse's humor.