Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Return of the Native

I've asserted before that saying you love Alan Rickman is a non-controversial thing to say, so when I found an audiobook of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native on BBC Audio, read by Alan Rickman, I knew what my next commuting book would be.

Rickman has a wonderfully expressive voice, and hearing it describing Egdon Heath for the whole first chapter of the novel was a fitting introduction to the darkness and isolation of the locale. And the scenery through which I drove seemed similar to me, as "overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent."

The natives of Egdon Heath seem to me like the natives of the place where I'm living. They have their rituals and festivals, they don't always seem very bright, at least to outsiders (witness the continuing coverage of the John Freshwater controversy and the recent vandalism of the local Democratic party headquarters), and they're content to stay in the place they were born, or to return to it after marriage or schooling.

So yes, I identified to some extent with Eustacia, who longs to leave this scenic countryside for the excitements of Paris. I did not sympathize much at all with Clym, the native who, Oedipus-like, comes home to the heath only to end up mostly blind and speaking more loyally about the memory of his mother than to the living woman he has married.

Although of course, his mother is right; Mrs. Yeobright opposes her niece Thomasin's marriage to Wildeve, and she opposes her son Clym's marriage to Eustacia, and if they would just listen to her....well, but they don't.

The novel is full of fascinating characters going about the little tasks of their daily life as if doom isn't just around the corner, culminating with the fashioning of a wax voodoo doll by one of the most rustic and--up to that point--unimportant characters, another protective mother.

Part of the fascination, as usual in a Victorian novel, is the emotional fervency of the characters. You'd almost think that a person who venerates his mother this fervently after her death would have listened to her in life: "It is an unfortunate fact that any particular whim of parents, which might have been dispersed by half an hour's conversation during their lives,
becomes sublimated by their deaths into a fiat the most absolute, with such results to conscientious children as those parents, had they lived, would have been the first to decry."

The heath is such a character in the story that it's easy to imagine--especially having the novel read out loud to you--that its darkness calls up an answering darkness in the characters, a desire to become one with emptiness.

12 comments:

readersguide said...

I have trouble reading Hardy, because you always know it's going to end badly. Yet the scenery is interesting. I think an audio book might be the way to do it, actually. You're already in the car . . . you can't put the book down to go see about something else . . . Hm.

Harriet said...

I wish I'd known about this sooner. I would have picked it up for my trip! Hmm. Download on iPod?

Amanda said...

You know, I don't really like audiobooks, and I've been scared to read another Hardy after Tess 3 years ago. It's not that I didn't enjoy Tess, it's just that it was so dense and every time I think about picking up another Hardy book, I cringe. Even though I'll probably love it in the end. But if Alan Rickman's narrating, this audiobook might just be the way to go...

Amanda said...

Unfortunately, my library doesn't have it. Sigh.

Teresa said...

I love, love, love Thomas Hardy, and I love, love, love Alan Rickman. I've been wanting to reread some Hardy this year, and the thought of having it read aloud by Alan Rickman is just about irresistible. He seems just right for this novel.

It's been years since I read Return of the Native, but what I do remember most strongly about it is feeling sympathy for Eustacia even as I was frustrated with her using people for her own ends. (Really great characterization on Hardy's part, I think.) And you're so right about how the heath itself is a character. Hardy's scenic descriptions always amaze me, but more so in this novel than any of his others. (Tess is still my favorite overall, followed perhaps by Jude.)

M Denise C said...

Alan Rickman . . . Sold!

Trapunto said...

The only thing I don't like about Alan Rickman is . . . his voice (said the fox). To get technical, he has no nasal resonance. To get not technical: sounds phlegmy. I thought he was a great Snape, and I'm glad you've found a reader you enjoy for a worthy book. It makes such a difference!

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, I did enjoy hearing it read to me.

Harriet, I still listen to audiobooks on cd. It's my Luddite tendencies showing, I guess.

Amanda, I found the cd set at a bookstore chain called Half Price Books.

Teresa, Tess is my favorite Hardy novel, too.

I was frustrated with Eustacia's immature, unrealistic romantic longings. Even though I've had similar longings since I moved to Ohio.

M. Denise C, One thing I liked about having this read to me by a Brit is that I learned to pronounce things--like Egdon (said Egg-don) that I never knew how to pronounce when I read the novel to myself.

Trapunto, I love it--you're the first person I've heard disagree on this topic! I can see what you mean; it's what gives his voice such a snide edge sometimes. He did sound more normal--I assume more of his RSC voice--in this recording.

Care said...

Have you seen the movie Bottle Shock? Rickman is awesome and has some great lines.

Jeanne said...

Care, I have Bottle Shock on my Netflix list since the last time I talked about Rickman...every time we see it there we ask each other what it is and then we look it up and remember--guess we should try to get to it soon!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I was just chatting about Thomas Hardy books the other day. I'm not really a fan. In high school I found his writing long-winded and inaccessible. I suppose if I were to try again as an adult, Alan Rickman would be the way to g.

Jeanne said...

Nicole, audiobooks are a good way to experience fiction that has seemed inaccessible to you at any point. As long as you know that Hardy isn't known for happy endings!