03 November 2013

Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

I first read this back in 2007 (those lists of books I read in the year do end up being useful; I should stop not doing them) and enjoyed it then, and re-reading it now, I find it just as delightful as before. Maybe I'm overthinking it, but to me, the book is a totally bizarre combination of irony and sincerity. There's plenty of snark in eighteenth-century writing, but this book seems unique in its utterly unstable shifts between seeing its characters as idiots or heroes. I'm still not sure whether we are meant to admire the main character's cheerful equanimity and willingness to forgive those who hurt him, or think he is insane. Is he a wise man, a pretentious blowhard, or just a lucky fool? There's also the novel's form, which on the one hand seems fairly carefully constructed with a 3 part tragic structure and an intricate web of fortuitous coincidences and revealed mysteries, but it is also breezily laden with sermons, political disquisitions (one of which, amazingly, turns out to be delivered by a butler pretending to be the master of the house!), poems, and other random bits of fluff. Time passes in uneven ways; 3 weeks, or even years, will blow by without notice, and then two days will be carefully chronicled. It's a chatty, humorous, and utterly charming book.

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