Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Monday, January 27, 2003  

The novelist Julian Barnes once wrote in a New Yorker essay that he'd never read Vanity Fair by Thackeray, and that he had no intentions of doing so. Barnes's main argument was, among others (I read the essay quite some time ago and have forgotten most of it) that he knew precisely what the novel was about, and its relative importance to and influence on literature, so there really was no need for him to bother with actually reading the thing.

A stupid argument (why read anything then? why read Shakespeare? we already know what the plays are about, right?) and a bloody shame, because I've just started reading Vanity Fair myself. I'm about a hundred of almost seven hundred pages in and am absolutely enraptured. The "bright wit and attractive humour" as Charlotte Brontë put it (not to mention the sharp satire and keen irony) make it so wonderfully addictive, and Thackeray's masterful juggling of his stupenduous cast of characters is a wonder to behold.

One element that I'm finding quite interesting is Thackeray's liberal and unapologetic peppering of the novel with the exotic; from the "wolly-headed" mulatto Miss Schwarz from St. Kitts with her hundred thousand pounds, to the Sedleys's black servant Sambo, a most prominent fixture of their household, to Jos Sedley, just back from India, having curries loaded with green chilies prepared for dinner.

Poor Julian Barnes. He doesn't know what he's missing, though he may think he does.

posted by Jonathan | 8:55 PM 0 comments


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