This is the cover of my edition of Vanity Fair.
I have read one chapter of it. It was my Waterloo in a graduate course in English literature at UT-Austin. I fled partway through the semester in 1996. I was a film major; we were required to take a graduate-level course in something not-film. I figured I’d take English literature, being as how I like books. Little did I know that graduate-level English lit is really not about books. What a wretched experience it was.
On top of the completely indecipherable theory, for which I was not only unprepared, but absolutely unwarned, there was Vanity Fair. I could not get anywhere with this book.
For all that, I read a bit of analysis of the book somewhere along the way which changed my understanding of myself and my book. Whoever was writing about Vanity Fair remarked that Thackeray is obsessed with Becky Sharp. Thackeray understands everything there is to understand about her. He doesn’t only know what she would think, feel and say; he knows how she steps down a step, how she lifts a cup, the tilt of her head as she looks around a corner. His process of writing is akin not to creation, but observation.
Here is what I have to say about that: Words like love and obsession don’t really capture the exact nature of the transaction between Thackeray and Sharp. Certainly Thackeray is obsessed with her, and loves her; he wakes up thinking of her, and goes to sleep thinking of her. But these are ordinary things. There is a special character to the description of Thackeray’s possession by Sharp. This type of possession makes Sharp a territory, and Thackeray a map. The map is the same size as the territory. It wafts down onto the territory, its contour lines settling over the real topography of the place, and it dissolves. The map vanishes – Thackeray disappears. He has become eclipsed by Becky Sharp. She replaces him.
I must have read this description after 2005, because I remember thinking when I read it that this was a very good description of my experience of Claire. Writing is not the whole of my life, but in the part of my life that is writing, I have been so utterly mapped to Claire that I don’t exist any longer; she does. I am not a writer, I am the writer of Zanzibar.
What is this like? It is like the best luck in the world. To become totally captured is to surrender ambivalence and doubt, to know always what to do next, and to do it without fear of failure, even in the face of failure itself. It is to become Ruth the Moabite hanging on the hem of departing Naomi, to become Simon and Andrew dropping their nets without hesitation on the shore of the Galilee. In the first and second volumes of Railroad to Zanzibar, Claire depends for intelligence on a Florentine spy, called “fresh-faced Egidio.” Under torture by Claire’s enemies, fresh-faced Egidio responds only, but gladly, “She said ‘follow me,’ and I had to go.”
Egidio says what I have felt – Claire said, “Follow me,” and I had to go.