I read Nabokov’s chapter on Mansfield Park last night (from his Lectures on Literature) and it was interesting. If I hadn’t read the book I nearly would not have needed to as he goes into so much detail about the different sections and characters. But I am glad I did and I still intend to read each book he discusses – next up will be Bleak House, which, not having a huge background in Dickens, I am really looking forward to.
Early in the chapter on Mansfield Park, Nabokov writes:
Miss Austen’s is not a violently vivid masterpiece as some other novels in this series are. Novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina are delightful explosions admirably controlled. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak of marvelous genius in that child.
Two things: First, I love the idea of “delightful explosions admirably controlled”. What a wonderful way to describe those books and other examples of incredible literature. But second, his comment on Austen surprised me and in a way, disappointed me. I immediately wanted to stand up for her and say – back off Nobbie, and don’t be so patronizing!
But at the same time (sigh), I see his point. They are exquisitely crafted books with a touch of genius – her wit, her ability to render a character grotesque, her perfect timing. Reading Jane Austen is delightful and consistently so. I can read and re-read her novels again and again. Each visit brings me the same enjoyment. Nonetheless, they are comfortable stories and I know that happiness and an orderly finish await me in the final pages. So in that sense, he’s right, they aren’t explosions at all.
Interestingly enough, halfway through my read of Mansfield Park, I started to get really anxious about who Fanny was going to end up with. And I felt for a while that Mansfield Park might turn out to be my favorite Austen because of all the suspense. But, well, the ending kind of changed all that. She ends up with Edward like expected and although Austen points out that this isn’t a second choice on his part, it did kind of feel like it. Also, I would have loved to get the ending in scene, instead of exposition. Nabokov points this out as well, and even critiques the epistolary structure that comes barging in toward the end as a bit of authorial laziness. Fair? A bit. But also quite normal for her time period. The story just seemed to lose a bit of momentum at the end – especially after Fanny goes back to Mansfield from Porstmouth. Pride and Prejudice will remain my favorite and I would love to read Nabokov’s views on that particular Austen – I wonder whether he would have had just a bit more praise for her. Hard to say.
So, as I said, next up is Bleak House but I am awaiting a copy from Bookmooch so in the meantime I am finishing up Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart and still working through the Rashomon tales as well as enjoying my lunches with Schopenhauer.