Review: George Eliot - The Lifted Veil

I was always able to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with a book. It's the moment my mind strains to move faster than my eyes while, at the same time, longing to stop and marvel at the view. That feeling, the push and pull of loving a book? I never got it with George Eliot. Don't get me wrong - I like her books quite a lot. So far I've read Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, and admired their construction, their characters, the style - was in awe of them at times, to be honest. I would call her one of my favorite writers. But my appreciation of her skills is still only intellectual. She has never left me breathless. (The only possible exception? The first chapter of Middlemarch. I walked around convinced that I was Dorothea Brooke minus "that kind of beauty" for a full day after reading it.)

I wondered why that was and came to the conclusion that it was probably the way the moral and intellectual themes are sometimes spelled out in her books. It stood to reason. The preachier a narrator gets, the less I enjoy a book, which is precisely why The Mill on the Floss is my least favorite of Eliot's novels. So, I said to myself, what better way to test this theory than by reading a novella that was described to be a. very different from the rest of Eliot's work and b. free of her omniscient (read: know-it-all) narrator? You can see the results below, and they're not at all what I expected.

The Lifted Veil - Summary & Quotes

[land of shameless spoilers. do scroll down if you're not into that.]

The Lifted Veil is written as a deathbed confession, except that its narrator, Latimer, is not on his deathbed yet. He can, however, see the future so he knows that his end is near and inevitable. One month from now he'll die in his office from a heart attack, while his servants are too busy bickering to attend to him. In the meantime, he plans to write the strange story of his life in the hopes of garnering "some pity, some tenderness, some charity" that he feels have eluded him during his lifetime.

Latimer's childhood was the typical lot of that favorite of 19th century novelists - the sensitive misunderstood young man. A loving mother, dead by the time he was seven. A firm, practically-minded father, dismissive of his delicate son. A robust and successful older brother, there to capture all the attention of said father. The extra ingredient in this classic tale? The opinion of a phrenologist, who finds the shape of Latimer's head inadequate and suggests intensive tutoring in sciences to fix the inadequacy. Unsurprisingly, Latimer hates science.

What sets Latimer apart from other artistically-inclined science-averse young men is his gift of seeing the future, the first manifestations of which occur in his late adolescence, While convalescing after a severe illness, Latimer has a vision of Prague, a city he had never seen before but that his family is set to visit. [I shall probably return to that passage in a later post, because it's beautifully written.] He is quite excited about this episode, mistaking it for a production of his long-repressed poetic genius. A second vision dispels this idea, though. Latimer sees himself meeting two women moments before it happens. He is no poet. He is a clairvoyant. 

Magritte - La Clairvoyance
And if that weren't enough, Latimer soon discovers that his unusual sensibility extends to reading minds as well. Paradoxically enough, lifting the veil on other people's thoughts doesn't lead to empathy. Far from making him closer to his family and friends, the constant view into their minds makes Latimer loathe all human interaction:
(...) when the rational talk, the graceful attentions, the wittily-turned phrases, and the kindly deeds, which used to make the web of their characters, were seen as if thrust asunder by a microscopic vision, that showed all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts, from which human words and deeds emerge like leaflets covering a fermenting heap.
Fortunately for Latimer, there is one person whose mind he can't read, and that's his brother's fiancée, Bertha. He promptly falls in love with her, which only compounds the resentment he feels towards his brother. Although he has a vision in which he is married to Bertha and they hate each other, this knowledge of the future doesn't change his feelings. He still wants Bertha, even knowing that their relationship is doomed, for passions and inclinations win over reason each time. The usual refrain of repentance, "had I known...", is found to be a lie. Knowing - lifting the veil between ourselves and the future - does not change a thing:
Yet you must have known something of the presentiments that spring from an insight at war with passion…You have known the powerlessness of ideas before the might of impulse; and my visions, when once they had passed into memory, were mere ideas—pale shadows that beckoned in vain, while my hand was grasped by the living and the loved.
His brother's death in a hunting accident leaves Latimer free to marry Bertha. And as expected, once the mystery is gone, once he is thoroughly acquainted with the "narrow room of this woman's soul," he is repulsed by her. The vision comes true, they now hate each other and Bertha wishes for his death. She also gets a chance to plot for this outcome, for Latimer conveniently loses his ability to read minds.

Through a plot device straight out of Gothic fiction, Berta's plan is exposed when a scientist's experiments on a dying maid have an unexpected result. The maid comes briefly back to life and accuses her mistress. To Latimer, the maid's reactions are more disappointing than Bertha's betrayal, for they prove that even life after death, the last unknown, obeys the laws of human nature: 
Great God! Is this what it is to live again … to wake up with our unstilled thirst upon us, with our unuttered curses rising to our lips, with our muscles ready to act out their half-committed sins? (...) As for me, this scene seemed of one texture with the rest of my existence: horror was my familiar, and this new revelation was only like an old pain recurring with new circumstances.
Separated from his wife, Latimer regains his mind-reading ability. It once again hinders his ability to interact with people, so he lives his last days alone, "with the one Unknown Presence revealed and yet hidden by the moving curtain of the earth and sky". The story ends with the event announced in the beginning: Latimer's death.

My thoughts

I read this looking for something different from George Eliot's usual style. And while I definitely got that - a story written in first person, with paranormal and Gothic elements is pretty far from the usual Eliot piece - I surprised myself by not wanting it anymore. 

The parts that appealed the most to me in this novella were the parts that were most typical of Eliot - the intelligent discussions of an intellectual problem. What are the implications of knowing everything we have traditionally longed to know, the future and the minds of others? Would it truly satisfy our intellect? It seems that the whole pleasure of knowing comes from grappling with the unknown. In the absence of that thrill, all of our spiritual activities would be pointless:
Conceive the condition of the human mind if all propositions whatsoever were self-evident except one, which was to become self-evident at the close of a summer’s day, but in the meantime might be the subject of question, of hypothesis, of debate. Art and philosophy, literature and science, would fasten like bees on that one proposition which had the honey of probability in it, and be the more eager because their enjoyment would end with sunset. Our impulses, our spiritual activities, no more adjust themselves to the idea of their future nullity, than the beating of our heart, or the irritability of our muscles.
But if this thirst for the unknown is the mark of knowledge, perhaps morality is free of it. Perhaps we'd actually be better persons if we could clearly envision the outcome of our actions. To this again, Latimer gives a negative answer: 
We try to believe that the egoism within us would have easily been melted, and that it was only the narrowness of our knowledge which hemmed in our generosity, our awe, our human piety, and hindered them from submerging our hard indifference to the sensations and emotions of our fellows. Our tenderness and self-renunciation seem strong when our egoism has had its day—when, after our mean striving for a triumph that is to be another’s loss, the triumph comes suddenly, and we shudder at it, because it is held out by the chill hand of death.
What's interesting here is that this is clearly the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, the narrator is also pretty unlikeable. Latimer whines, asks for a sympathy that he doesn't extend to others and is very invested in maligning people he doesn't like, particularly his wife. Halfway through the story, you start questioning both his sanity and his morals. (I, for one, wondered about Bertha's side of the story, because this can easily be read as the ramblings of a madman who's gaslighting his wife.) Why, then, should we take his opinion into account?

One reason for it is that the story is constructed in such a way as to validate him. We, as readers, are placed in a position very similar to Latimer's. We have partial knowledge of the future: we know how the story ends, because he tells us from the first paragraphs. We know his innermost thoughts, both good and bad. And if we form expectations about the plot even knowing its conclusion, if seeing inside of his mind makes us judge him and dislike him, then what he said would happen has pretty much happened. To me this was the best aspect of this unusual-for-Eliot narrative form.

What I didn't enjoy about this story was its brief lapse into Gothic fiction. Horror is not my familiar. I don't enjoy Gothic horror. I always find it contrived and annoying, with no exceptions. I got its purpose here, but thought its inclusion - and with so many narrative acrobatics to make it work - cheapened the story.  As the relation between Bertha and the maid developed, shadowed from Latimer's sight, I found myself wishing it would go anywhere other than in the predictable direction. I craved for something more mysterious, blurring the lines between reality and moral allegory, sort of like Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil, or at least for something ambiguous, playing on the tension between horror elements and having an unreliable narrator, like in James' The Turn of the Screw.

Bottom line

Overall, this novella made me long for the old George Eliot. I liked the theme, but kept thinking of how it could have been done differently, better. And while I didn't entirely dislike Latimer - at times, he was quite eloquent - I would still take Eliot's omniscient narrator over him. I'd give this book 3 out of 5 stars. To let Latimer sum it up:
I thirsted for the unknown: the thirst is gone. O God, let me stay with the known, and be weary of it: I am content. 

Where to go from here

I will probably come back to this novella in a couple of posts, because I'm not quite talked out yet. But a tentative reading plan for the next days includes: 
  • some more George Eliot - probably Daniel Deronda or even Middlemarch (it might be fun to compare Lydgate-Rosamund to Latimer-Bertha)
  • Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. I don't remember much of this story, but Latimer's description of Prague made me think of it for some reason, so why not re-read it? 
  • Hawthorne! I only read some short stories of his and liked them a lot. Now that I remembered how cool The Minister's Black Veil was, I might give some more of his books a try.

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