Wednesday, 27 February 2013

McTeague by Frank Norris

There are many crude elements in McTeague by Frank Norris (1870 -1902) published in 1899. It is roughhewn but the evident native wit and talent is there together with a symbolic boldness and lurid naturalism. A new energy was arising which followed a gaudy trail blazed by Zola. Gissing and Moore also reflect that force in their willingness to write about the lives of those who may be cast into poverty in a trice. Norris had studied painting in Paris for 2 years from the age of 17 to 19, and there of course Zola was an influence. Some of the finest passages in McTeague are descriptive. Like Moore who also spent time at the Academy Jullian, a few years earlier, he had the painterly eye. His street scenes of San Francisco are vividly realised and composed with lots of 'up from’, 'across’, 'across the back yard through a gate’ . Everything is placed.

The day was very hot, and the silence of high noon lay close and thick between the steep slopes of the cañóns like an invisible, muffling fluid. At intervals the drone of an insect bored the air and trailed slowly to silence again. Everywhere were pungent, aromatic smells. The vast, moveless heat seemed to distil countless odors from the brush—odors of warm sap, of pine needles, and of tar-weed, and above all the medicinal odor of witch hazel. As far as one could look, uncounted multitudes of trees and manzanita bushes were quietly and motionlessly growing, growing, growing. A tremendous, immeasurable Life pushed steadily heavenward without a sound, without a motion. At turns of the road, on the higher points, cañóns disclosed themselves far away, gigantic grooves in the landscape, deep blue in the distance, opening one into another, ocean-deep, silent, huge, and suggestive of colossal primeval forces held in reserve. At their bottoms they were solid, massiv
e; on their crests they broke delicately into fine serrated edges where the pines and redwoods outlined their million of tops against the high white horizon. Here and there the mountains lifted themselves out of the narrow river beds in groups like giant lions rearing their heads after drinking. The entire region was untamed. In some places east of the Mississippi nature is cosey, intimate, small, and homelike, like a good-natured housewife. In Placer County, California, she is a vast, unconquered brute of the Pliocene epoch, savage, sullen, and magnificently indifferent to man.

Speaking of San Francisco reminds me that two characters in the novel give vent to that ultimate accolade , ‘outa sight’ which had to my ear a prochronistic sound assuming that it went with ‘flowers in your hair’, ‘lids’ and ‘far out’.

"You ought t'have seen, y'ought t'have seen. I tell you, it was outa sight. It was; it was, for a fact."

Although Norris was quite progressive politically for his time some of his attitudes reflected prejudices which were current and believed to have a scientific basis. Frequently we are told that McTeague’s jaw was a salient feature which implies latent criminality and is a feature of the Lombroso system of criminology. Zerkow Polish Jew rag and bone man is obsessed with the tale of a fabulous dining service of gold that the Colombian maid of all work Maria relates as an event of her childhood. Again and again he asks her to tell him the story until he finally comes to believe that she has it with her still. He marries her in order that he might get his hands on it. When they have a child it dies:

It had not even a name; a strange, hybrid little being, come and gone within a fortnight's time, yet combining in its puny little body the blood of the Hebrew, the Pole, and the Spaniard.

Inferior breed clearly. It’s not the case that Zerkow’s ‘racial predisposition’ is unique, several characters in the novel barring McTeague himself are obsessed with money and gold. His wife saves every cent she can and when she wins $5000 in a lottery it becomes the sacred capital that must not be touched even when the rainy day comes. Rather than give Mac a quarter for trolley fare she makes him walk in the rain. McTeague the poor simple Neanderthal merely wants a giant lacquered gold tooth to hang outside his 'Dental Parlors’ to serve as a shingle.

He is a dentist in a era when oversight of the profession was slack and a handy man could carry out the trade without college training. No first name is given for McTeague stressing the generic perhaps lumpen Irish miner of the 19th.century. His father was an alcoholic miner and he himself is susceptible to becoming whiskey crazed:

McTeague remembered his mother, too, who, with the help of the Chinaman, cooked for forty miners. She was an overworked drudge, fiery and energetic for all that, filled with the one idea of having her son rise in life and enter a profession. The chance had come at last when the father died, corroded with alcohol, collapsing in a few hours. Two or three years later a travelling dentist visited the mine and put up his tent near the bunk-house. He was more or less of a charlatan, but he fired Mrs. McTeague's ambition, and young McTeague went away with him to learn his profession. He had learnt it after a fashion, mostly by watching the charlatan operate. He had read many of the necessary books, but he was too hopelessly stupid to get much benefit from them.

McTaigue is a giant brute of a man that can pull teeth by gripping them between his finger and thumb. He and all about him and their environment is very well realised. It is an very good book, very readable. I don’t do plot points, just read it. His influence was far reaching down I would say even to John Steinbeck.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Convincing! I should read this some time.

Your excerpts make Norris sound like a much better prose writer than Dreiser, an association that probably dampened my enthusiasm for Norris. Now my enthusiasm is drying off. I am not sure extending that metaphor worked.

Anyways, I enjoyed the post!

ombhurbhuva said...

Hi Tom,
Dreiser I read somewhere writes like someone whose native language is not English. Sister Carrie was not particularly good. I seem to remember that it sank in the middle like a poorly baked cake. What Norris achieved before the age of 30 was extraordinary.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Now that sounds like the Sister Carrie I read!

It is the word "naturalism" that constantly tricks me. Writers who fall under that label may have very little to do with each other - I should know that by now, but I keep falling for the con.