The 80s were a decade about which sweeping generalizations are made which conceal a billion daily realities – I think of Christopher Isherwood visiting Venezuela late in life and remarking that it had been going about its very different business “the whole time”, all the time he’d been alive. But some generalities, being general, can be made. It was a point of huge capital energies being expended in the vacancy of a colossal crisis of faith, when the foundations of old views of the world had been cracked to their very base. New technologies, in what would in retrospect be seen as their infancy, were already changing the rhythms of daily life, the speed of information and capital. It was the best of times, the worst of times.

I’m talking of course about the 1880s, when Samuel Butler completed an autobiographical novel so critical of Victorian pieties that he suppressed it until after his death. It is all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’, with not a single quotation mark in 400 pages. To a contemporary reader, its cultural critique is shooting fish in a barrel. The cruel remnants of an already castrated church go through their tired and hypocritical pantomime, and Butler spends half the book laying the generational groundwork to explain one confused young semi-aristocrat’s journey through the stations of what eventually proves a full life, from cloister to gutter, prison to pundit.

This book somehow remains near the top of the occasional Best English Novels list, but is very little read today, and its easy to see why. As I read it myself, I was drawn on by its barely submerged, subtle wit even as it explained at length dry angels-on-a-pin arguments that were ideological current events in its own time, rendered by our epoch antique. I’m not sure why I feel this book has to be reckoned with, if to embody the irrelevant arguments of a lost time or to see summed up in one novel everything one writer felt must be said but never to the open air so long as he lived (the book was published in 1902).

My copy was one I stumbled on in one of our local used bookstores that carry a plethora of unsalable bestsellers from a generation back in dust and disregard, and a select few any customer would buy. 1919 Modern Library edition, so bound in gorgeous leather with the odd Art Nouveau landscape and muscled neuters holding up letters in the flyleaf. A friend visiting the store last week in a state of inebriation seized on  it and I promised I’d sell it to him when I finished for 100 pesos. (I paid 60. Like I say, what you pay for here is the selection.) I’m not sure I can still recommend it, for him. I’m not sure what to say about this book. Which is often better than knowing what to say.

Leave a Reply