torsdag 11 oktober 2012

To care and not to care

When reading The Secret History some time ago, I was as I've mentioned earlier afraid that I'd caught revieweritis and that this was the reason why I didn't lose myself in the book at first. Lately, I've had the opposite problem: I'm reading like a teenager, caring overmuch and engaging myself in the fates of minor characters. It happened with Bring Up the Bodies, and then again when I read Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. This seemed the perfect antidote to Bring Up the Bodies to start with. The atmosphere of the said circus (which is more like a mysterious fun fair really, which is fine by me: no clowns and no treacherous dancing horses!) was the main thing, rather than the characters or the fairy-tale-like plot. I initially thought about blogging about the book under the heading "Not quite in love with a fairy-tale".

But then the emotional charge of the novel was ratcheted up. At the end, I really wanted everything to turn out well. Not for the sake of the circus: it sounds like a truly great night out, but everything has its day, and there's little use getting obsessed by even the most magical public entertainment. Nor for the sake of the two protagonists, Celia and Marco, fighting a magic duel on behalf of two scary magicians. Celia is all right, but Marco is a pretty callous piece of work, and they both appear too wrapped up in each other - yes, of course they fall in love eventually - to fully register the unhappiness their manipulations may cause other people. Also, their naïve notion that once their competition is over, all will be well for the loser as well as for the winner and everyone will go out and have cake is irritating (like the scary magicians would let that happen). The reason I wanted things to work out was for the sake of the characters on the sideline whose lives are turned upside down by all the magicking: Marco's hapless ex-but-doesn't-realise-it girlfriend; the farm boy with a crush on a circus girl who gets saddled with a lot of responsibility very fast; and, lastly, the flamboyant circus director Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre who get suckered into hiring Marco as his assistant by magic seduction. I never thought I'd warm to Chandresh as he comes across as rather a pretentious show-off at the beginning, but when a poor chap not only has his creativity halted and his memory shot to pieces at regular intervals but also has to nurse an unrequited passion for years on end, one can't help pitying him. Marco, needless to say, cares even less for his employer's feelings than for his dumped girlfriend's.

Authors have good reason to be miffed at readers who react like this. Minor characters are, as often as not, there to keep the plot moving, and they shouldn't be the reason why one gets disenchanted with the main protagonists. After all, what are Chandresh and Mark Smeaton to me, or I to them, that I should weep for them? One can imagine authors feeling like John Gielgud reportedly did at one time (if I remember the anecdote correctly) when an actor asked him about the "motivation" for his minor role, and he was tempted to answer: "to be a feed for Hamlet". On the other hand, you could see it as a compliment to an author when a minor character of his/hers manages to engage a reader: it should certainly beat the reader not caring at all.

Anyway, it is quite a relief to be reading Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes (of Downton fame) at the moment, a gentle and amusing read which I don't think is in danger of making me care too much for its characters. Then again, I could be wrong: the plot's driving force (estranged friend of the mildly toffy hero) is after all an embittered social climber, and I do tend to have a weakness for those.