Recently I came across a paperback of Return of the Native in a second hand bookshop and grabbed it at once. It was a long time since I had read a novel by Thomas Hardy and this was one I had never tackled.
The trouble with reading a lot of modern fiction (especially thrillers and crime fiction which I do love) is that the dialogue and action are all important with virtually no descriptive passages. You are carried along at a helter-skelter pace most of the time as the crime is resolved and the characters play their part for a brief moment. It's the storyline that is important, the special style of the detective and his sidekick and often there is a sameness in the characters making them mere appendages to the required action. Such stories are marvellous when you need something to grab your attention and keep you mesmerised for a while, say at airports, on train journeys or snatched moments of rest in a busy day. But too much of this fast food diet is like eating too many hamburgers. Tasty and filling at the time but not really satisfying or even good for mental and emotional growth. I always feel a need for a little bit of bon cuisine after such a diet, a yearning to delve into something more thoughtful and thought provoking after a few of the fast paced thrillers (though I have been known to live on a feast of Earl Stanley Gardner books for quite a while. Perry Mason is quite addictive!).
I read many of the great English, Russian, French and American classics from ten years old and onwards and that is thanks to my Greek mother who had a wide ranging taste and education. It seems amazing now but as a child I was introduced to Charles Dickens at the age of ten at our primary school. Can you imagine this happening nowadays? David Copperfield was the first literary book I read and loved and it led me to many other wonderful books. We had a splendid local library were we lived then and I haunted it, avid for the good books available. Thankfully I read only classics for years, actually avoiding and even scorning 'modern' writers. But no getting away with it - my daughter was like all our family a great reader and enamoured of crime books in particular and introduced me to crime thrillers. I thank her for it because I enjoy them so much and have since been introduced to other modern writers by her. And some of them use stunning and wonderful opening descriptions. One of my favourites is the writer, Nicholas Evans, (The Horse Whisperer) - just read those first few pages of The Divide - his descriptions of the snow covered mountains are sublime.
|Catherin Zeta Jones as Eustacia Vye|
I say 'thankfully' because the result of all these 'fast food' books is that I do now find it hard work to get into a thick, meaty classic. They can seem so dauntingly slow and long drawn out in the description department and even the dialogue can be hard work. People's conversations in past times weren't as snappy as ours today!
However, I began to read Return of the Native but sadly confess that at first I struggled with the lengthy opening pages of the descriptions of Egdon Heath. (And I still wish they had been cut back by the author- just a little) However, the brilliance of the prose, the flow of dialogue and unusual characters soon drew me into the story and in no time I was totally immersed in the unhappy lives of Eustacia Vye, her lover, Damon Wildeve, Tamsin Yeobright and the native himself, Clym Yeobright. I began to feel more and more that the full, rich descriptions of Egdon Heath, this wild, almost desolate natural surrounding in which these people lived and loved, was as much a character as they were. It formed them and they grew forth from it, part of Nature themselves with the same wild moods and passions that often corresponded to their dramas. Eustacia hated it, hated the Heath and longed to escape it. She saw no beauty in its manifold changes and colours. For her it was a desolation that echoed the state of her own soul. To Clym Yeobright, the heath had grandeur, beauty and a meaningfulness which the city and its bright lights never held for him. Their different aspirations and inner lives were in total opposition and they were destined to drive one another apart. One felt deep sympathy for all the characters in this tale. They suffered as always the pain of misunderstandings and misapprehensions which for Hardy forms the warp and woof of life's dramas.
'The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to waken and listen . Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had awaited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the cries of many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis - the final overthrow. '
The Heath becomes an impassive, impersonal watcher and listener to the little fates of those who live there. It is like some enormous Deity without pity, without anything but being itself for itself. Human lives come and go but it has been untouched almost since the dawn of time. Night, Nature, the Great Mother is the backdrop to most Hardy stories in which the compelling and passionate lives of his characters dwindle into insignificance in the presence of Nature's ancient detachment.
Many of the lines in this book tuned into my own feelings. 'The vision of what ought to have been is thrown aside in sheer weariness and browbeaten human endeavour listlessly makes the best of the fact that is.' Many such passages abound and ring a bell for us. One of the stunning descriptions is of the sound of the night wind blowing through the husks of the dead harebells which can be heard in the immense silence of the heath. Amazing. To spend time listening like this, listening to a silence so profound that the faint sound of these brown husks can be heard like a gentle song.
I feel this is one of Hardy's best novels and I hope you agree.