segunda-feira, 30 de dezembro de 2013

It Takes All Kinds; Jane Austen: The Cool Artist By Charles McGrath

It Takes All Kinds; Jane Austen: The Cool Artist
By Charles McGrath

There are only two known likenesses of Jane Austen, both by her older sister, Cassandra. In one her back is turned, so that we mostly see her bonnet; in the other she is poker-faced and looking askance. ''Of events her life was singularly barren,'' her nephew claimed, and her letters, or those that her family didn't burn, reveal almost nothing of the person who wrote them. Yet the evidence suggests that Austen's life was full of inner drama. She experienced maternal rejection and sibling rivalry; she was unhappy in love and had trouble with relationships; she suffered from writer's block and bouts of depression. And her novels powerfully suggest both a world and a personality that now seems remarkably familiar. Under that bonnet and behind those vacant hazel eyes there burns the first modern sensibility.
It's a sensibility, for one thing, that's fraught with our kind of financial anxiety. Unlike Defoe or Dickens, Austen isn't concerned with extremes of wealth or poverty. What interests her is the way that money underpins the social fabric of a middle class that is otherwise precariously unstable. Money for Austen is both necessary and vulgar, and for that reason it's also sexy. Austen's other great insight is that in such a highly wrought society, the self is necessarily self-conscious and provisional. In the novelists she grew up on, Fielding and Richardson, character is fate: you are who you were born to be. In Austen, who you are is a role you play. (Discomfort with this recognition may account for why, in Austen's oddest and least popular novel, ''Mansfield Park,'' Fanny Price gets so worked up over the issue of amateur theatricals; it's more playacting than she can handle.) Austen's characters, even the most clearheaded and authentic, like Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, are always acting, saying less or other than they mean; and in such a treacherous arena, where a single word or gesture can mean everything or nothing at all, it's not just poor Emma Woodhouse but apparently sensible people like Anne Elliot who are often clueless.
Austen's world (which is to say our world) would be unendurable if she weren't so funny about it, and this, of course, is her most essential invention of all -- her encompassing irony. It's a matter not just of shrewd social observation but also of something brand-new, an ability to stand apart from life even as it's being lived, and a quicksilver narrative technique that puts us almost inside a character's head and then in an instant, with just a word sometimes, darts away to someplace else. Of herself, Austen gives away nothing directly; she's everywhere and nowhere. She was the original master of what we now call ''cool.''
Photo: (Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource)
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