A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Learning From Novels: Marie d'Agoult's Nelida

Nelida is a romance novel, published in 1846. So why in the world would I be reading it? Therein lies a story. I’m not just a writer, but also a classical music geek. My official celebrity crush is Franz Liszt, a Hungarian pianist/composer. If you are well-read in music history, you know that Liszt was not just famous for being an unprecedented piano virtuoso, but also one of the most scandalous figures of his time as far as his love-life went.
  This novel was written by his mistress of ten years, the mother of his three children, around the time they finally broke up. It was a bestseller in its day, but probably not because it was a great book.
  So, first, I’ll discuss the novel’s problems. One of the most glaring problems is the main character. Not a good problem to have. Nelida, is impossible for me to connect with. I’ll give you a quick run-down of the plot so you know. Nelida is a ridiculously sweet, ridiculously innocent girl who befriends, in her childhood, a gypsy boy named Geurmann. (And everyone reading the book at the time knew who these two characters represented.) After a little incident with trespassing and cherry-stealing, Nelida is no longer permitted to associate with the low-bred Geurmann.
  Years later, Geurmann re-enters Nelida’s life as a successful artist, who has been preoccupied with Nelida’s portrait for the better part of his career. And, of course, they fall in love, but unfortunately Geurmann, despite his outward appearance of graciousness, is no less an uncultured peasant than he was back in the cherry orchard.
  So, here’s the issue: Nelida has no obligation, or reason to accept any of the catastrophes that proceed to befall her. She simply lacks character to stand against any of the injustice and immorality that she is crushed by. In this sense, she isn’t even as good a character as the author, who was a strong-minded individual, if somewhat nasty at times.
  Here’s the thing—your character has to have a motivation that binds them to their circumstances. For Nelida, it really isn’t love for Geurmann—in fact, until the end, you can’t really be sure that she cares for him at all. I certainly didn’t find him at all likable. Even if your love-interest does turn out to be your villain, your main character must have a reason to like them. Nelida proceeds to be walked over by Geurmann and everybody else, not because she’s trapped in any way, but because d’Agoult wants to be sure we all feel good and sorry for her, and know also, that there’s nothing good in Geurmann (Liszt).
  I was disappointed that neither she, nor Liszt’s personalities were portrayed in the novel. Even with the messy, unrealistic plot, it would have been that much more believable if Nelida had the willpower and fierce pride of Marie, and Geurmann had the magnetism and fiery spirit of Franz.
  Actually, I have to admit, in the last few chapters, she did develop Geurmann more strongly, and he was, at that point, recognizable as Liszt’s more irritating side. Also, he was away from Nelida in those last couple of chapters, which was good, because I really just can’t enjoy reading about her.
  I think separating him from Nelida also did something good for d’Agoult’s portrayal of him. Without her cherubic contrast, the author was able to depict him sympathetically. It shows when an author has some feeling for a character as a person. Even an antagonist is a person. If you have respect for their humanity, they’ll be more real.
  Finally, there were two clichés that d’Agoult impressed me by eluding. First off, Geurmann dies in the end. This is a twist, because, if d’Agoult were going to hold to stereotypes, Nelida would have been the one to go. Killing off Geurmann nicely gets rid of the problem, while not doing what we were all expecting.
  The other thing was, Geurmann didn’t actually die in Nelida’s arms. He went into a coma for a day or two. More realistic, less melodramatic.
  Overall, I wasn’t impressed. But I’ve got to say, it was an interesting read in the historical context.     

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