Review: Obsure, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Read by Michael Ian Black

Obscure by Michael Ian BlackThe last episode of Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure (the premise of which is that Michael Ian Black reads Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure and comments on it as he goes) dropped a few weeks ago, but graduate school hasn’t left me with a lot of time. Now that I’m on break, both from graduate school and work, I have been able to catch up.

I will be honest. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles a couple of years ago and found it so bleak that I wasn’t sure about listening to Michael Ian Black read Jude the Obscure. Hardy can be really bleak. In that respect, Jude the Obscure doesn’t disappoint. However, the communal experience of listening to this book and hearing Michael Ian Black’s reactions to what he was reading transcended the actual text itself and made for one of the most enjoyable “reads” of the year for me.

For those not familiar with the story, the protagonist Jude is born in obscurity to a family with a history of bad luck. He is raised by his aunt, who makes it clear he is nothing but a burden. He dreams of being a scholar one day, and he shows an aptitude for learning. However, he is living in Victorian England and finds it impossible to rise in the world. He winds up married young to a grasping, scheming woman, finds a brief period of happiness and love with his cousin Sue, and suffers devastating loss. The plot is typical Hardy. However, there is something moving and transcendent about Jude’s experience. Jude might be any of us. Jude is any one of us. Michael Ian Black’s reading brought home that point in a way I’m not sure I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read the book in this way.

One thing I loved about Michael Ian Black’s reading is that it started with curiosity, and he remained curious throughout the reading. He frequently brought on guests who might help illuminate issues raised by the book, and when he didn’t know a word or a reference, he looked it up. I felt like I went on a journey with him as a fellow reader. Michael Ian Black doesn’t position himself as an expert. He makes it clear he is reading and reacting to the text based on his own experiences and understandings, and that is probably what is best about Obscure. I found listening to the podcast by turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad, particularly towards the end as Michael Ian Black connects his reading of the book to losses of his own. His interpretation always struck me as spot-on and very honest.

The podcast is worth your time, and if you fall behind, it’s great for bingeing. I really, really hope that Michael Ian Black reads other books like this.

Edited to add: The novel underscored for me again, as if I need more evidence, that literature reflects the human condition. We can find ourselves in it if we take a look, and Michael Ian Black’s reading of this classic novel definitely allowed for that kind of reflection. My friend Robin writes so much more eloquently than I can about literature’s power to show us ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas HardyTess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published by Public Domain Books on December 31st 1969
Genres: Classic
Pages: 411
Format: Audio
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-stars

The chance discovery by a young peasant woman that she is a descendant of the noble family of d'Urbervilles is to change the course of her life. Tess Durbeyfield leaves home on the first of her fateful journeys and meets the ruthless Alec d'Urberville. Thomas Hardy's impassioned story tells of hope and disappointment, rejection and enduring love.

I have had this book on my TBR pile for a long time, but I was finally moved to pick it up by a recent post on my friend Robin’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf. In this post, Robin, who is a college English professor, writes that Tess is “more relevant than ever” as more and more accusations of sexual harassment and rape come to light, and, as Robin suggests, “certain defenders of Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton have avoided examining too closely what transpired.” Robin’s particular genius is in applying literature to the current moment. He’s a master at seeing literature as a mirror that reflects our world today, no matter when it was written. I’d love to be a student in his class.

Tess is often painted as spineless, lacking any ability to stand up for herself whatsoever. I don’t see her that way. She actually stands up for herself quite a lot. But she is also a lower-class woman in the late nineteenth century, so no one listens to her, and indeed, most people seem to feel they can abuse her however they like. I find it odd that most of the reviews and analyses about Tess that I have read refer to Alec D’Urberville’s rape of Tess as “ambiguous.” I suppose it could be ambiguous if you think her repeated attempts to push him away, her repeated refusals of his advances, and the fact that he came upon her while she was asleep and attacked her “ambiguous.” Seriously? People read it and think it might not have been a rape? That’s precisely why this book matters. As a victim, Tess is even hoodwinked into thinking she is at fault, that she is somehow to blame for being raped. That she is a fallen woman. And due to the Victorian notions of piety, everyone from her family to her rapist to the man she ultimately marries treats her that way. It’s maddening. I definitely don’t see her as someone who doesn’t stand up for herself so much as she is mowed over by a great big tank.

I really disliked Tess’s family, who seem to use her and unfairly depend on her financially. I disliked her husband, who is a hypocritical prig (and Tess should have told him to shove it when he finally showed up, but sometimes we do stupid things when we’re in love). And Alec D’Urberville is the ultimate dastardly villain, even twirling a mustache, for crying out loud.

I’m glad I finally read the book. I have been wanting to for a long time, and though the characterization in the novel suffers because Hardy was trying to make a POINT, the beautiful descriptions of the landscape redeemed the book for me.

As usual, Simon Vance is a brilliant narrator. I highly recommend him if you are looking for audio books and are not sure which narrators to pick.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember when this book first went on my TBR pile, but it was probably years ago, so I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

Unrelated: I have a new plugin that allows me to pull some automated data about books I review, but it also changes the layout of posts a bit. If you have opinions about it, please share.

four-stars