I've just read Jude the Obscure, the last of Thomas Hardy's novels. I've been avoiding this novel for years, knowing there are no more. I've kept it as a bit of hoarded chocolate, the same way I purposely avoided becoming too familiar with certain neighborhoods of New York so I could have the pleasure of feeling like a tourist in my own town.
Hardy was a poet; fiction was his day job. By the time he wrote Jude, he was done pandering to the public taste; he could afford to refuse his editor's entreaties to make certain passages more palatable. He was perched on the fin de siècle, watching Victorian England vanish like the mists over Wessex mingling with the smoke of the steam engine. The world was hurtling into industrialization, and its courier, the railroad, is almost a breathing character in this book.
As in his previous novels, people still trudge or stride through the hills and downs, but here they also rush to the station and grab a train just for the sake of an urgent conversation. This is a novel swollen like a fat tick with passionate idealism. The heroine, Sue, who my brothers would have characterized as a prick tease, eschews marriage to her lover on intellectual grounds; she abhors the idea of a contract sealing up love. She and Jude both marry stupidly, become instantly miserable, and torture themselves and each other with their thwarted, destructive, obsessive love. The book ends with a death scene reminiscent of Breugel the Elder's "Fall of Icarus": a tragedy occurring discreetly, at the edge of a canvas teeming with life going on its merry, ruthless way. The public was outraged. They were horrified by lines like this, spoken by Jude: "Wifedom has not yet squashed up and digested you in its vast maw as an atom which has no further individuality." A bishop burned the book. Hardy turned to poetry.
I read this book in an Easton Press edition, with an embossed leather cover, gold leaf-edged pages and a ribbon bookmark. It was hefty and fragrant, and I held it in my lap like a globe, rounded and infinite, populated with thousands of souls. I finished it in a motel room on a rainy day, one of a series of strange, impersonal rooms I've been spending my nights in, as I'm on a book tour promoting my own novel, which also has love, sex, marriage and divorce as its theme. A hundred and nineteen years after Jude got suckered into marriage, bled in a divorce, and then scooped back up like an old piece of candy in the bottom of a purse, the characters in my novel are struggling to adapt to their marriages, to live honestly, to love with integrity.
It never stops. Generation after generation, we bundle up and trudge across the mountain, slip letters under doors, rush to catch trains, entrust missives our lives depend on to untrustworthy strangers, bang out emails and texts and angrily go viral with our heartbreak. A few days after I finished Jude, I read an article in the New York Times about a trend involving couples putting locks on the bridges of Paris as a symbol of their eternal love. Are we so afraid of being abandoned that we can't trust love to ebb and flow, blossom and go dormant and then re-bud? Civilization, like marriage, requires compromise. Requires contracts, written, stamped and filed. Requires that the shapes a bright container can contain (in the poet Roethke's words) must be contained. What haven't we tried? What taboos haven't we broken? We have a whole generation of children raised outside the container, and many of them have re-erected it, craving its context as a bird flies back to its cage or a puppy curls up in his crate. It is a huge universe, and we do what we can to feel safe in it.
These are the things I pondered as I sat in my motel room watching the rain, nursing my post-novel separation anxiety. The previous day I had sat on the porch of a bookstore where I had been invited for an "author event." I sat there for two hours next to a stack of my novels while people shuffled past avoiding my eyes, unless to ask where the bathroom was. When I finally left, the owner said, "There's an art to this kind of thing. You have to engage the public."
The public seems to be very busy reading fan lit soft core porn on their kindles these days. One bookstore owner confided that the sales of that book whose name shall go unspoken paid her rent for three months. Yay team! Let's keep those books coming if they can keep the indies alive. As for me, I couldn't wait to get back to my room. I couldn't wait to find out what would happen to Sue and Jude. I couldn't wait to resume my engagement with Thomas Hardy, whose ideas, language, and intellect were like a box of rare truffles filled with a ganache of raspberry and fig. And now I have eaten the book, and Hardy has left me, and I am bereft.