I stumbled sideways into Thackeray by way of Stanley Kubrick. A Sony Movie Channel documentary on Kubrick made me want to try to watch Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s early 1970s take on the late eighteenth century. The movie is worth your time, but I cannot imagine trying to watch the thing in one sitting(with an intermission, anyone remember those) in the theater. It clocked in at three hours and four minutes and features many long scenes in which not a whole lot of action is happening. Compared with our 2012 attention spans it is seriously lacking—no car chases, no robots.
I watched Barry Lyndon via DVR as a mini-series, about 45 minutes at a time. It is truly unlike any other film I’ve seen. Kubrick’s legendary fastidiousness and eternal shoots deliver a film that really does the best possible modern job of showing what 1770 must’ve looked like. He co-opted camera lenses from NASA and used them at such slow exposures to shoot nighttime indoor scenes in candlelight, which is how it looked back then. As a film it is probably due all plaudits, even if Kubrick did get swamped by Miloś Foreman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at the Oscars that year.
Ryan O’Neal probably does his best work on screen as Redmond Barry Lyndon, the self-aggrandizing Irish rogue, and there were enough snippets of dialogue in the film that obviously came from the book that I decided to read The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray. I somehow avoided reading Thackeray in college, probably because I was a Journalism major besotted with Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut and Lester Bangs, sure in my post modern smugness that all wisdom was only to be gleaned in post 1950 texts. And while this book can’t exactly be called a page-turner, it is a fascinating look back.
Thackeray wrote in the mid 19th century but preferred to write about more romantic times in the century before. Satire in our age is on the de-evolution bend in the curve, particularly in the West, where we’ve had the right to move beyond satire to outright public ridicule and parody. But satire in Thackeray’s age was a means to criticize elites and their bad behavior in a more subtle manner.
In that way, the events of The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon are used by the writer to take down everything from peerages for sale to whoring, drinking and gambling as the “play” of gentlemen.
Barry Lyndon is from the poor relations of an Irish family slowly losing their land to pay their expenses. Through his first love affair with a cousin he ends up dueling an English officer, fleeing to Dublin, gets impressed into Her Majesty’s Service fighting the French in the Seven Years War, deserts, and is captured and impressed into the Prussian army.
Through a sequence of events he ends up escaped and touring Europe with his Uncle the “Chevalier”, and they team up to cheat the gentry at card games. His subsequent attempts to find a rich woman to marry and control take up the rest of the book. He finally succeeds in marrying Honoria, Countess of Lyndon, after a long campaign, and becomes part of one of the richest families in Europe.
Needless to say, his profligacy, drunkenness, gambling and infidelities send it all down a rat hole of debt and debauchery and ruin. Lyndon, in his Memoirs, is always protesting that he has been misunderstood, that the fault is on all of the cads and frauds and treacherous “fellow” members of the ruling class.
Therein lies much of the satire in the book, some of which is no doubt lost on anyone not up to speed with 19th century European politics, like myself. But a world in which political titles are for sale, where deficit spending is privately financed for the opportunity to sieze property and power, where material things and titles matter more than mind body and spirit—that world is very familiar to the modern reader. Thackeray’s various asides about decline in fashion and behavior from one generation to the next ring as true in 2012 as they did in 1844.
One minor aspect of the book I found particularly interesting is that at one point Lyndon attempts to purchase an Irish peerage by funding and raising a regiment of locals to go fight the ‘rebels’ in America. The notion that opposing our glorious American Revolution was merely an opportunity to curry favor with the King in hopes of becoming Viscount Barry Lyndon is amusing, from the perspective of nearly 170 years later.
After the fact I’ve learned that Thackeray based his story on the real life exploits of Andrew Robinson Stoney. As a devotee of non-fiction it’s always encouraging to once again realize that truth is nearly always stranger than fiction.
If you have decided to go outside your literary comfort zone and read something from the nineteenth century I believe you would be entertained by The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon. The movie is very entertaining in its own way. Just don’t try to read or watch either one in a single sitting.