Monday, March 2, 2015

Worse than Trainspotting: Guy Mannering is uproarious

Maybe it's because I just read Edith Wharton's cheerless Ethan Frome, but I'm finding Walter Scott's Guy Mannering to be a laugh riot. This is my first experience of Scott's writing, and I am delighted, truly happily surprised.

I initially decided to read this novel because I had a brief interest in novels called The Astrologer, which turns out to be the subtitle of Guy Mannering, as the title character is a sometime amateur astrologer though he neither really believes in astrology nor has a firm grasp on the actual methods of the art:
Among those who cherished this imaginary privilege with undoubting faith was an old clergyman with whom Mannering was placed during his youth. He wasted his eyes in observing the stars, and his brains in calculations upon their various combinations. His pupil, in early youth, naturally caught some portion of his enthusiasm, and laboured for a time to make himself master of the technical process of astrological research; so that, before he became convinced of its absurdity, William Lilly himself would have allowed him 'a curious fancy and piercing judgment in resolving a question of nativity.'

On the present occasion he arose as early in the morning as the shortness of the day permitted, and proceeded to calculate the nativity of the young heir of Ellangowan. He undertook the task secundum artem, as well to keep up appearances as from a sort of curiosity to know whether he yet remembered, and could practise, the imaginary science[...]

It will be readily believed that, in mentioning this circumstance, we lay no weight whatever upon the pretended information thus conveyed. But it often happens, such is our natural love for the marvellous, that we willingly contribute our own efforts to beguile our better judgments. Whether the coincidence which I have mentioned was really one of those singular chances which sometimes happen against all ordinary calculations; or whether Mannering, bewildered amid the arithmetical labyrinth and technical jargon of astrology, had insensibly twice followed the same clue to guide him out of the maze; or whether his imagination, seduced by some point of apparent resemblance, lent its aid to make the similitude between the two operations more exactly accurate than it might otherwise have been, it is impossible to guess; but the impression upon his mind that the results exactly corresponded was vividly and indelibly strong.
That's a good joke, the book's principle joke: Walter Scott does not believe in astrology. The reader presumably does not believe in astrology. Guy Mannering does not believe in astrology. And yet, despite us all agreeing that astrology is "imaginary science," the fates of two (at least) of the book's characters will follow the courses of the horoscopes that Mannering has cast for them. Also, let it be noted that a gypsy witch's prognostications at her spinning wheel also support the work Mannering has done by way of prediction. All of this is terribly funny, as are Scott's character sketches whenever someone new walks into the scene. Great stuff, really great. The Scots dialect gives me a headache, though. It's worse than Trainspotting.

I will probably not write about the plot much (what do I care about plot?) but I plan to quote more of Scott's jokes as I read.

11 comments:

  1. Is dialect a notable (annoying) feature in this one as it is in other Scott novels? You see, I've tried Scott a couple of times but the heavy-handed dialects (if I recall correctly) were too much for me to handle.

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    1. There is a lot of dialect in Guy Mannering, but Scott thoughtfully appended a lexicon to the book. Most of it, if you read it aloud, becomes clear. None of it's as colorful (which is to say, obscene) as the Scots dialogue in Irvine Welch's novels. Naebody greetin abat nae radge cunts, for example.

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  2. Waverley has almost no dialect. John Galt is the Scots writer who really developed dialect writing.

    "we willingly contribute our own efforts to beguile our better judgments" - boy is that ever true.

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  3. I expect you to read Blackmore's "Lorna Doone" next.

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    1. I read Lorna Doone in 1979, I think. Mostly I remember the bad guy sinking into a bog. My memories of Lorna Doone are for some reason mixed up with Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo," so in my head I have things like "Lorna Doone, Lorna Doone, Boom-lay, boom-lay, boom-lay, BOOM."

      I discovered this weekend that we have not a single novel by Hawthorne in the house. I managed to find "Young Goodman Brown" in a couple of story collections, and a couple of poems in another collection. Imagine my surprise. I've never read Scarlet Letter or Seven Gables, but I assumed Mighty Reader of course had, since she's seemingly read everything. We turn out to have a full shelf of Thomas Hardy, though.

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    2. "Lorna Doone, Lorna Doone, Boom-lay, boom-lay, boom-lay, BOOM!" Yes, like! And you must read Hawthorne, surely. I've read pretty much every scrap, and I still love him, so... Hardy I have loved for poems and the Wessex tales, mostly.

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    3. Yesterday afternoon I bought a copy of The Scarlet Letter, which I think will be my next read.

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  4. I encounter quite a few of Scott's novels as I explore the phenomenon of modern medievalism. Man, Guy Mannering is an obscure one.

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    1. All of Scott is obscure to me; he's forever been one of those authors referred to in the 19th-century literature I read. Guy Mannering is great, though. A really good book. I am reminded of all the earlier comic novels, of Tristram Shandy a great deal, but also of Cervantes.

      I keep thinking about the father in To the Lighthouse, who ties his own creative worth to whether or not people are still reading Walter Scott, and I irrationally feel that I'm keeping that fictional father's works alive by reading Guy Mannering. So I've somehow become a very minor character in Woolf's novel.

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  5. Woolf, in her letters, had a running joke that she was the last remaining reader of Walter Scott.

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    1. I have to steal that for a character in a future book. The same character will go to a lending library for a copy of Krapp's only novel. Nobody will get those jokes but I will laugh a great deal over them.

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