Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scenes of Spherical Life


Statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton by Pants


One chilly morning I found myself in the grimy Warwickshire town of Nuneaton with several hours to wait for a London train. The caffs were all full of jam donut-scoffing chavettes with screaming toddlers strapped into vehicles the size of milk floats. There isn't much else in Nuneaton whose main thoroughfare contains a network of down-at-heel high street franchises and grubby off-licences. 

Nuneaton has one and only one claim to fame - it is the birthplace of George Eliot. She was born Marian Evans on a grand estate just outside of the town. As luck would ordain, I happened to be passing through in 2007, the 150th anniversary year of the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot's first book. It's set in a fictional place called Milby, modelled on Nuneaton. I found a convenient 150th anniversary Wordsworth Classics edition in the sparse Waterstone's which I intended to read on the train but didn't. I spent the time composing a seething blog post about the reprobate owner-operator of the service, Sir Rich Bastard Brandname. I found new meaning for the term 'quick and dirty' and an almost Wellsian conceptualisation of 'time' in the adherence to schedules in the travel experience.

But back to Eliot. With four hours to kill, I needed somewhere warm and quiet. The library smelled like damp dalmatians flatulating on pub carpet but it had free internet. Unfortunately. use was time-limited to fifteen minutes, giving me just enough space to reply to a long email. I pressed 'send' and looked up. There was a sign. It read 'George Eliot Collection'. I followed it and came upon a treasury of things Eliot. There were many editions of her books, none first editions but I don't suppose they'd have them sitting on shelves. What they did have and what I might have missed my train over had it not been running late, was bound photocopies of Eliot's early notebooks. 

They are fascinating reading. The first thing that strikes you is their multi-linguality. If Eliot wants to write about France, Italy, Germany or Ancient Greece she writes it in French, Italian, German or Classical Greek. As a girl, she didn't receive a formal education but she did have the run of the great library of Arbury Hall, home of the Newdigates, the local aristocrats. Eliot's father, Robert Evans was the farm manager on the estate. Copies of his notebooks are also in the library. They mostly contain information about farm transactions. She didn't get her way with words from old Bob and that's for sure. Eliot's early sketches show a mind confidently finding it's way in the world. And she managed this in almost complete isolation with only the aid of books. 

More recently I read The Journals of George Eliot edited by Australian academics Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. What an amazing transformation overtook Eliot when she ditched the deity, took up with her fancy man and headed off to live in London and travel to Weimar, amongst many other places, where she had breakfast with Liszt and a couple of Wittgenstein princesses in the morning, translated David Strauss in the afternoon, had an hour's pleasant discussion on Byron with the Marquis de FerriĆ©re before tea and went to hear TannhaĆ¼sen in the evening. 

Last night, when I was unpacking books for no good reason, (if I had already put up shelves I might have had what may be reasonably defined as 'good reason'), I found my as yet unread copy of Scenes of Clerical Life. I'll commence to reading when I finish the book I'm presently on, My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey. Curiously, I chose two back-to-back books by prize-winning Australian authors who are now resident in the USA. Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book is an interesting read, particularly if you want to know more about book binding techniques. I got a bit impatient with the constantly shifting points of view. It was like trying to make your way across a crowded room to the one fascinating person, only to be waylaid by a battalion of bores with abandonment issues. So many books are like that these days. Is it really necessary to cover every character's perspective? I found myself scanning these cut-to sequences for the necessary clues like a contestant on Treasure Hunt. 

Earlier in the evening, before the book unpacking frenzy which was prompted by the search for another book which I didn't find and can't even remember what it was now, I listened to Pennies from Kevin, a marvellous radio play by the Sydney Theatre Company. You too can have this pleasure simply by taking yourself here. You know if I find something funny, it really is funny. And you don't have to be Australian to enjoy it. It's a simple premise - the Australian Government transplanted to Hogwarts School with an economic crisis to conjure away. A cast of four or five people, a guitar and a piano and it was hilarious. I realised listening to it how rare it is to experience an entertainment built entirely on wit and ingenuity. You know you can give kids any number of expensive, battery eating, multi-tasking advanced robotic toys but they'll still only want to play with a ball. We're simple beings who like simple pleasures. 

I may go and see Avatar this week, and I'll probably enjoy it too but I'd be just as happy lying on the sofa and trying to work out why odd numbers are funnier than even numbers and prime numbers are the funniest of all.