Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

I read this novel in a Victorian prose class in graduate school more than ten years ago. Although I enjoyed it then, I felt I was missing something because of time pressures, and I wanted to read it at a more leisurely pace. I also reread the introduction. I had forgotten how influential this book was. Its ancestors include Laurence Sterne and his imaginative novel, Tristram Shandy. Sartor’s descendents include Melville’s Moby Dick, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The appendices, which I did not read then, proved helpful in understanding Carlyle’s thoughts during and after the writing of the novel.

As the short biography included in my edition tells us, Carlyle was the son of a dour, strict Calvinist, who viewed fiction as some form of deceit. This was a fairly wide-held view in the 19th century, hence the number of novels based on “found manuscripts,” in which the author was careful to warn the reader that the author could not attest to the veracity of the "facts" related. Carlyle abandoned fiction for this dubious line of reasoning after completing Sartor.

This imaginative novel is really an essay about a made up philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh, who has written an extensive treatise on clothes. Now, I can imagine this might sound boring to some, but it is full of humor – the extremely dry British variety, and this novel contains much of the philosophy current in the early years of the Victorian Age. Again, as the Introduction says, Sartor is key to understanding that influential period.

In fact, the Introduction also claims that Sartor did for the Victorian age what Lyrical Ballads did for the Augustan Age – turn it on its head before destroying it.

So. Am I glad I reread this novel? Yes. At just over 200 pages it only took a few hours, and I really do think I have a better understanding of Carlyle’s great novel now than I did back then. Four stars.

--Chiron, 3/20/08

No comments: