I was in the process of paying for Alberto Manguel's "Curiosity," based entirely on a rapturous review in the Economist, when one of the Book Bin's friendly, helpful clerks, Allison, pointed out that I have been neglecting my "Books on the nightstand," section of the blog—a number of months have gone by. I apologized and told her I would get right to it.
That was weeks ago. And numerous times I meant to set down the novel reviewed below and report on it here. But I didn't want to pull myself away from reading it. As soon as I finished though, just last night, and while it is still fresh in mind, I want to use it to revivify the "Books on the nightstand" section o the blog, where I'll post this, and next week I'll tuck a review of Amanda Palmer's "The Art of Asking."
Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope (Everyman, 1997)
I don't read many novels, because they generally strike me as untrue. Whatever fantasy world is created is pallid compared with reality, the characters jerky with quirks and irrationalities, unbelievable puppets, compared to actual people, moving through un uninteresting tale.
But occasionally a novel grabs me.
This was an improbable choice. Even Adam Gopnik's tribute to Anthony Trollope on his 200th birthday in the New Yorker in early May might not have prompted me to order it. I have an aversion to 19th century British novelists. I think I've read two Dickens novels, Great Expectations, in high school, and A Christmas Carol, several times, and as marvelous as those were, I was happy to leave it at that.
But Gopnik's 2008 essay on Samuel Johnson had set me off on a deeply satisfying journey into Johnson's vastly fascinating world, not only reading the biography he was reviewing—Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin—but tackling Boswell's epic Life of Johnson, a pure joy.
So I figured, he didn't steer me wrong with the Great Cham of LIterature; perhaps I should trust him here, too.
So into Phineas Finn, an 1869 novel about a young Irishman who is put up for a seat in Parliament, his world of ministers and functionaries, plus assorted characters such as Quintus Slade of the People's Banner, one of the greasier journalists to be found in literature, approaching those in real life. There are alluring, strong women characters: Lady Laura Standish, wed to to the rigid Robert Kennedy, and the buoyant Violet Effingham.
The romantic ... well, not a triangle, more like a pentagram, when you include Madame Max Goesler and Mary Flood Jones, his sweetheart waiting patiently back at home—did keep my interest, but I was able to march through its 650 pages mainly due to the book's political tone, which rang a most contemporary note. Here is Finn and his friend Laurence Fitzgibbon debating how a vote will fall between the Tories and the Liberals.
"But the country gets nothing done by a Tory government," says Phineas.
"As to that, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other," replies his Fitzgibbon. "I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power—for patronage and pay."
That could be the Illinois government right now. The cynicism of the book, 150 years old, is startlingly contemporary, such as when the hypocrisy of British leadership is painted as a good thing, at least compared to the sincerity of Americans. In Britain, rancorous Parliamentary debates end with the participants marching off arm-in-arm.
"It is not so in the United States," writes Trollope. "There the same political enmity exists, but the political enmity produces private hatred. The leaders of parties there really mean what they say when they abuse each other, and are in earnest when they talk as though they were about to ear each other limb form limb."
Here is again is Fitzgibbon—who blithely reneges on a loan that Finn has signed for in an act of misplaced trust, causing Finn to be plagued by a colorfully dogged creditor—explaining the candidates for Prime Minister.
"There will be a choice out of three. There is the Duke, who is the most incompetent man in England; there is Monk, who is the most unfit; and there is Gresham, who is the most unpopular. I can't conceive it possible to find a worse Prime Minister than either of the three,— but the country affords no other."
"And which would Mildmay name?" asks Phineas.
"All of them,—one after the other, so as to make the embarrassment the greater."
"Mildmay" points to one of the flaws in the book, Trollope's tendency toward illustrative names. There is the timid Mildmay, the radical Turnbull, the revered Duke of Omnium. Not quite Piers Plowman's wife, Dame Work-While-I-Am-Able, but uncomfortably close.
Still, I found myself eager to get back to the book, the mark of good fiction. Trollope is a first rate writer, tossing off lines that should be epigrams assuming they weren't already when he used them: "But we all know how the man well spoken of may steal a horse, while he who is of evil repute may not look over a hedge."
Or, even better: "After all, money is an accident."
Or, even better: "After all, money is an accident."
Phineas Finn plunges readers into a world that is foreign—after Lady Laura flees her husband, the grim Mr. Kennedy threatens to go to law to drag her back—yet all-too-familiar. There's something reassuring about it. If our leaders are going to be dolts, at least we can comfort ourselves with the realization that we didn't invent the practice. The greatest recommendation I can give is that there is a second book, Phineas Redux and I am going to seek that out and dive in, just for the pleasure of hanging out with Phineas, Lady Laura, Madame Max and the rest of their diverting circle. It is summer, after all.