Wednesday, September 02, 2009

God is an Englishman

It is a generalization to be sure, but today's literary novelists work with a much smaller scope than those of the past. The books are generally shorter, with a focus on fewer characters and on a less complex story. There are great exceptions, like Chabon's Kavalier and Klay, but overall, the focus is more on the intense examination of character.

The big writers of the 19th century, from Melville to Trollope to Tolstoy wrote giant novels with epic lists of characters and stories long enough to sustain months of reading. There are downsides of course. How many high school students think of Moby Dick with little more than bitterness at the lengthy asides about whale parts and the business of whaling? My 11th grade teacher was kind enough to let us skip many of those sections, but the book still felt interminably long.

That said, I have had years of enjoyment out of the likes of the Chronicles of Barset or the Pickwick Papers. The usual phrase is that you get lost in these books, which makes them quite like fantasy novels. Fantasy novels create worlds in which you temporarily take residence. Their breed of escapism is one of immersion and the big fat story telling literary novel is the same.

While modernism has dominated 20th century fiction, story tellers held their own as well. Englishman R F Delderfield specialized in the story-telling novel. Out of print for many years, his God is An Englishman is available once again. It is the first of a trilogy of books about Adam Swann, a soldier turned businessman in Victorian Britain.

The story starts after a battle during the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Indian Independence if you prefer) with some jewels falling into Swann's hands. He returns to England with vague plans of becoming a tycoon, probably in rails. His second bit of fortune is his meeting with a station master who tells him the opportunity is in transporting goods where rails can't go.

On a scouting expedition, he meets Henrietta, the daughter of a small town mill owner. She is driven by a desire to escape and she finds it with Swann. The novel is about the rise of his business and the development of their romance.

Delderfield spins his tale slowly and relishes the little details. We hear for example, about how some of Swann's operators won over locals with the capture of an escaped circus lion. Where most authors would be happy for a paragraph length aside to describe the goings on, Delderfield spends a number of pages to relate the humorous anecdote.

If you have an interest in British history, this book will be particularly interesting with its picture of bustling London, the railroads, the smog-covered Lancashire and the still green countryside. Even those who don't will likely appreciate Delderfield's story telling abilities.

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