Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Modern Comedy

by John Galsworthy

(except for the third part which I'd give four stars)

This is the second installment of The Forsyte Chronicles, the series of nine novels and intermediate short stories detailing the history of the Forsyte family starting in Victorian England. The Forsyte Saga, the first installment, includes three novels and two short stories: Man of Property, "Indian Summer of a Forsyte," In Chancery, "Awakening," and To Let. A Modern Comedy continues with The White Monkey, "A Silent Wooing," The Silver Spoon, "Passers By," and Swan Song. The last part is called End of the Chapter and includes: Maid in Waiting, Flowering Wilderness and Over the River.

I read the first three novels in the series and loved Galsworthy's prose, his comments on English customs, manners and society are as adept and entertaining as Austen and his characters as multi-dimensional and thoughtful as Dickens or the Brontes. Soames Forsyte is possessive and depised but at the same time pathetic and misunderstood. Irene, his wife, is tragic, cold, heartless, yet foolish. And all characters are selfish, egotistical and unable to see anyone's point of view but their own. The story weaves throughout the dozen or so characters, examining, poking fun and commenting on each's morality (or lack thereof) that isn't as far removed from our own time as you might think.

Having enjoyed the first three novels I jumped into A Modern Comedy anticipating further exploits and intrigue but although Soames, Annette, Fleur, Irene, Jon, June and Winnifred are all there the first two books are mired in jargon and politics specific to England in the 1920s. Paragraph after paragraph contains references to referendums, elections, strikes, policies and procedures of law that only a reader with a strong historical background could decipher. My edition had no footnotes or endnotes to alleviate the strain of trying to decode dialogue and authorial comments and though at first I worked hard to figure out what was happening politically I eventually realized I could skip half of the stuff being said and just concentrate on the characters and their thoughts and still catch the best part of the work.

Only until the third novel, Swan Song does the story of Jon and Fleur pick up with the degree of interest and artfulness seen in the first installment--finally Jon is back from America with his wife, Anne, where he and Fleur must determine what they will do with themselves. As I mentioned before, the only consistency between characters is that each is entirely selfish and nowhere is this more apparent than in Fleur Forsyte (now Mont). She is detestable but nonetheless fascinating and perhaps because of this the only truly sympathetic characters are her husband, Michael, and Anne Wilmot--though we see so little of her she is a rather flat character.

If you have read The Forsyte Saga and want to find out what happens next, picking up at the end of A Modern Comedy would be the best route. Just skip the first two novels and read the two short stories and final novel and you'll be right on track.


The librarian at home said...

Thanks for the review. I just finished the first 3 books and am starting to read A Modern Comedy. I agree with your assessment of the characters. I had no sympathy for Irene (and I'm not sure why). I will probably wade into the books you mentioned to skip. I also have the interludes so it will make for interesting reading.