In Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life (Ig, Apr.), novelist Erens takes a moving look at the enduring power of George Eliot’s novel.
How did you end up writing about Middlemarch?
I was talking to the editor, Robert Lasner, about Ig’s Bookmarked series. I mentioned that all the books were by and about men—I said you need a few more women. Nine months later, he connected with me about this book.
You write about the life struggles that Eliot’s novel helped you navigate. How did you strike a balance between memoir and close readings?
I wanted to illuminate Eliot, so I would ask myself when rereading, “Is what I have written really serving Middlemarch?” If it wasn’t, I cut it. I also took Steve Almond’s William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life [another title in the Bookmarked series] as a model. That book, which I loved, was both vulnerable and powerful—and kept the focus on Stoner.
You mention that Covid influenced your relationship to Middlemarch—tell me more.
I started the project shortly before Covid, and had no idea going in that Covid would become the context. Everything shutting down was unsettling, but it was an ideal time to be writing. There was quiet. It was a good atmosphere for thinking. Covid was a reminder, too, of the fragility of life and the changes in fortune that can happen at any time. These are themes of Middlemarch. I appreciated Middlemarch all the more during the pandemic, because it spoke so honestly of loss and death, and life not going the way you planned.
In your reading, you emphasize Eliot’s generosity to her characters. Why?
I think the more you have that generosity, the better novelist you are. I’ve always felt enlarged by reading her. It’s exhilarating. It’s what I aspire to in my own writing.
What do you hope your story adds to people’s understanding of Middlemarch?
I want people to read it and see the humor in the novel. It’s a classic, and Eliot has a reputation for gravitas, but it’s a funny, funny book. It’s also a book you can return to at intervals throughout your life and read differently. My hope is that people can be unafraid of Middlemarch. I want to convey that although the novel is 150 years old, it can still mean a great deal to someone born in 1963 or 1983 or 2003.