This Week in My Classes (November 3, 2008)

In my first-year class, we’re still working on short fiction. Today’s selection was “A Small Good Thing,” by Raymond Carver. One thing I enjoy about intro classes is the chance to dabble in material outside my usual range, and that certainly describes Carver. I find this particular story (the only one of his I really know besides “Cathedral”) very moving, and yet, as I was discussing with my class today, his conspicuously non-literary style makes the move from reading to interpretation initially difficult for me. By non-literary, what I mean is that he writes, with an almost flat affect, strings of fairly simple declarative sentences describing quite ordinary people and objects. It’s not immediately easy to get a purchase on what is important (beyond plot–which in “A Small Good Thing” is a strong factor, as the story turns on a couple of dramatic moments, including a car accident). Of course, what we realize is that the literary effect lies precisely in getting us to notice those ordinary people and objects, and seeing how they become infused with meaning or cease to be ordinary: a birthday cake, a bicycle, a car in a parking lot. I enjoyed reading through the material posted on the New York Times’s ‘featured author’ site for Carver, particularly Jay McInerney’s account of the rigor Carver brought to his teaching:

Though Ray was always encouraging, he could be rigorous if he knew criticism was welcome. Fortunate students had their stories subjected to the same process he employed on his own numerous drafts. Manuscripts came back thoroughly ventilated with Carver deletions, substitutions, question marks and chicken-scratch queries. I took one story back to him seven times; he must have spent 15 or 20 hours on it. He was a meticulous, obsessive line editor. One on one, in his office, he almost became a tough guy, his voice gradually swelling with conviction.

Once we spent some 10 or 15 minutes debating my use of the word ”earth.” Carver felt it had to be ”ground,” and he felt it was worth the trouble of talking it through. That one exchange was invaluable; I think of it constantly when I’m working. Carver himself used the same example later in an essay he wrote that year, in discussing the influence of his mentor, John Gardner. ”Ground is ground, he’d say, it means ground, dirt, that kind of stuff. But if you say ‘earth,’ that’s something else, that word has other ramifications.”

Wednesday it’s Alice Munro’s “The Found Boat” and Friday (for fun, before a long weekend), it’s Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat.” I always find teaching a unit on short fiction a disconcertingly miscellaneous experience, but one hope is that the variety suits the mix of constituencies inevitably present in a first-year class.

It’s still Bleak House in my 19th-century fiction class. In the last two meetings I’ve been working on ways to organize the overflow of information we get in the novel as new plots and characters tumble out relentlessly at every turn of the page. Last time, for instance, we worked on houses and families, with a particular interest in ways the idea of ‘housekeeping’ becomes a metaphor for national concerns as much as domestic ones and small acts like Jo’s sweeping the entry to the paupers’ graveyard become emblems of grace in a corrupt environment. Today we’ll turn from this ‘theme and variations’ approach to the novel’s detection plot, its pursuit of the mystery of Lady Dedlock’s connection to the mysterious law-writer ‘Nemo,’ which provides a strong forward momentum for the novel. We’ll talk about what’s at stake in the contest between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, about the relationship between knowledge and power, or evidence and control, and about sexuality and morality. If I can work it in, we’ll consider the role played by affect or emotion in directing our judgment in the novel. The strongest example will come with Jo’s death later on, but in the installment for today we have what we might consider the emotional case made for Lady Dedlock–for our compassion and forgiveness for her sexual fall:

As Sir Leicester basks in his library and dozes over his newspaper, is there no influence in the house to startle him, not to say to make the very trees at Chesney Wold fling up their knotted arms, the very portraits frown, the very armour stir?

No. Words, sobs, and cries are but air, and air is so shut in and shut out throughout the house in town that sounds need be uttered trumpet–tongued indeed by my Lady in her chamber to carry any faint vibration to Sir Leicester’s ears; and yet this cry is in the house, going upward from a wild figure on its knees.

“O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me, but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, O my child!”

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