Thursday, 20 December 2012

Returning to Hardy part 2 – The Return of the Native

The sky over Egdon Heath is far moodier

I did not read this book. Something far better happened. As if the celestial alignments I’ve never had any truck with suddenly came good, I found an audiobook version of The Return of the Native narrated by Alan Rickman (available on I am far from being the only person to find his voice transfixing; at first it was hard to focus on the meanings of the words rather than just give in to the wolfish growl, but after a couple of hours (and there were 15 in total) I was hooked.

This is a darker novel than The Woodlanders, which I read earlier this year, and dripping with melodrama. I cannot imagine how Hardy’s deliberately overwrought descriptions of the melancholy charisma of Eustacia Vye could ever be translated into a film version, for example – references to Cleopatra and many other exotics burst from the prose like overripe fruit. And yet, as in The Woodlanders, the narrator’s apparent bemusement with her and others who take themselves rather seriously creates a lightness of tone that only makes the tumble into tragedy more affecting when it inevitably arrives. It seems amazing, reading this now against a 21st century backdrop of crime dramas and hard-hitting documentary, that a story in which violence is done only in word and hearts are traumatised through illicit hand-holding can have such a powerful effect.

Another powerful effect for me was the slowness of the listening process. My current reading is almost entirely short stories, which require a different approach – intense reading and then a digesting period, which if forfeited reduces the effect. If I read a whole collection of short stories in one sitting and then try to recall them, many will be lost, and of course the prose is more intense, condensed, too. Being forced to engage with a long, languorous text at slower-than-reading pace was a salve to the mind, and a welcome rhythm.

They (who?) say coincidences may happen in real life but are unacceptable in fiction. Hardy does not rely on too much coincidence, but I was amazed by how much of his plot in The Return of the Native depended on over-hearing. Constantly people lurk in the dark furze on Egdon Heath, or in the hearth nook in The Woman pub, or behind walls or disguises or lanterns, in order to acquire information that will move them to disastrous action. Somehow, though, I was embroiled enough in the story to let each of these incidents go so that I could cringe at the excruciating consequences.

The scene that made me grin most into the faces of strangers as I walked to work, my ears caressed by Rickman’s fricatives, was one in which a game of dice is played on Egdon Heath between the naive Christian, the knave Wildeve, and Diggory Venn the reddleman (who is the quiet catalyst for much of the plot). The stakes are high, but it is the situation that charms: at first they play on a flat stone by lantern light, hundreds of moths fluttering into the light and around their faces. When Wildeve hurls the lantern away in fury but demands to continue the game, they collect handfuls of glow worms from the heath and arrange them in a circle on the stone, stirring them with a stick when their light fades until the reddleman has won all.

If I had to win or lose at dice I’d like to do it by glow worm light, pitted against a man dyed red from head to toe. It will never happen, but listening to this and all the other lost habits of folk conjured in this novel reminded me why Hardy is such a pure pleasure, Rickman notwithstanding.

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