Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Way We Live Now

With all the current noise about Dickens, it would be easy to miss the fact that another Victorian is casting his shadow over today's literary landscape. Anthony Trollope's  The Way We Live Now remains the supreme example of the state of the nation novel, a sprawling tour de force with a huge cast of characters and a labyrinthine plot. The shifting viewpoints, keen engagement with contemporary themes, and use of London as a microcosm: this is the model upon which a number of important recent novels have drawn.
  1. The Way We Live Now (Vintage Classics)
  2. by Anthony Trollope
  3. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
  1. Tell us what you think:Star-rate and review this book
With our robber-baron bankers, our financial panics, our privileged political elite and our disenfranchised migrant workers, it can feel as if we are living through a new Victorian era; certainly the narrative mode that Trollope established in The Way We Live Now has seen a renaissance in recent years, and specifically in a certain breed of sweeping, often sentimental London-based novel. While one can find traces of Trollope's ensemble approach to the capital in earlier books – Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Iain Sinclair's Downriver spring to mind – it has taken the boom-and-bust noughties to restore this particular novel to the forefront of our cultural consciousness.Trollope returned to England from Australia in 1872 and, disgusted by the unscrupulousness and greed he found in that particular period of irrational exuberance (one of whose features was easily secured mortgages), he wrote a satire attacking the shady financiers and those who kowtowed to them. The action turns around the banker Augustus Melmotte and some dodgy stock-price manipulation, the society dame-turned-trashy novelist Lady Carbury, the wide-eyed farm girl Ruby Ruggles, the upright young engineer Paul Montague, and a host of other characters who, over the course of more than 800 pages, fight and scheme and fall in love. In the end, the reader's sympathies are so firmly knitted into the narrative that it is something of a wrench to look up from the book and find that these are not our friends, but made-up characters. London novels have never gone away, of course, from Maureen Duffy's  excellent Capital (1975) to Ian McEwan's more recent Saturday. But as the credit crunch hit, with London at its heart, it became clear that few writers had engaged successfully with the financial and economic stories that filled the front pages of our newspapers. And it has turned out to be Trollope who provided the best model for marrying the seemingly irreconcilable worlds that make up a global metropolis like London. Foremost among the neo-Trollopians are Amanda Craig ( Hearts and Minds), Sebastian Faulks (A Week in December) Justin Cartwright (Other People's Money) and now John Lanchester  with his forthcoming Capital. The similarity in subject matter and formal approach of these four novels is uncanny. Each uses a cast of characters drawn from across the social spectrum; each has a racy thriller-ish subplot that hurries the narrative along; each is fascinated with property and money; each takes an essentially tribal approach to London, showing the isolation of the urban condition, and yet counteracts this structurally by using the intersection and (often romantic) coming together of the various strands to give London life a comforting coherence. These novels are beacons against the alienating multiplicity of city life. - Alex Preston (The Guardian 2-13-12)

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