This Week in My Classes (February 3, 2010): “words, ingeniously used”

It’s Agatha Christie week in Mystery and Detective Fiction, which means fun times with “words, ingeniously used.” When we start The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the things I point out is that it is published in 1926, so within hailing distance of a couple of other very famous novels including Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Unlike those novels, however, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is rarely assigned in university classes and never (to my knowledge) discussed as a modernist classic–because, of course, it is no such thing. In fact, modernism is probably one reason it’s tricky taking genre fiction seriously as literature, for reasons we spend a little time on. That said, in its own field, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic, and one of the reasons it deserves that status is that it does quite brilliantly some of the things that kind of book is supposed to do, such as giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery without ever, in fact, giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery. You have to be ingenious indeed to tell without telling. It’s fun, once the murderer has been revealed, to go back through the novel and see, not just the clues, but the delicately duplicitous way the story is controlled throughout.

Still, Christie exemplifies ingenuity only in its cunning aspects. For the full experience of language “marked by inventive skill and imagination,” Dickens is your man. I find it hard to talk about Great Expectations without wanting to sound like Dickens, just a little bit, just for the fun of it–so today I found myself helplessly muttering “J-O-Joe!” at odd moments during our class discussion. That’s the comic Dickens, of course, but there’s also the creepy Dickens (“I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community”) and the poignant Dickens (“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts”). Sometimes, the most remarkable thing is his ability to change registers, or even to sound both funny and tragic notes at once. There’s Joe’s hat, toppling hilariously off the mantlepiece like an animated indicator of Joe’s unfitness to be in Pip’s elegant lodgings, and then moments later there’s Joe himself, showing up the superficiality of that very judgment and shaming Pip back into humility with his own “simple dignity”:

‘You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’ meshes. You won’t find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won’t find half so much fault in me if, supposing you should ever with to see me, you come and put your head in at the forger winder and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work. I’m awful dull, but I hope I’ve beat out something nigh the rights of this at last.’

And so, of course, he has.

In my George Eliot seminar, it was week 2 on The Mill on the Floss. I wrote a bit about it at The Valve and don’t have much to add except that reading so much George Eliot at once this term is really bringing home to me how important I think intelligence is to fiction with any real literary aspirations. I’ve quoted David Masson before on the relationship between a novelist’s writing and a novelist’s thinking; here’s the most relevant bit from British Novelists and Their Styles :

the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.

I’m thinking maybe I will found a school of criticism based on this principle. The Massonites? This may be the definitive answer to the whole ‘should aspiring writers go through MFA programs’: no, or at least not too early on, because they should not expect to be taught how to write before they have learned how to think–and think hard. The satisfactions of George Eliot’s novels are certainly not all intellectual or philosophical, but far from agreeing with those who object that the novels are somehow too discursive to be pleasurable, I agree with Henry James’s remark that the “constant presence of thought, . . . of brain, in a word, behind her observation, gives the latter its great value and her whole manner its high superiority. It denotes,” as he says, “a mind in which imagination is illumined by faculties rarely found in fellowship with it.”

3 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes (February 3, 2010): “words, ingeniously used”

  1. Amateur Reader February 4, 2010 / 2:09 pm

    The Masson book sounds tempting. Is it full of that sort of thing, or are you cherrypicking?I'm just beginning to think about a sequel to Sympathy Week. This time the keyword is Complexity. The Masson quotation gets at part of what I'm thinking.Unfortunately, much of the theorizing about literary complexity seems to fall under the categories of structuralism (help!) or semiotics (help, help, help!). Any suggestions?


  2. Rohan Maitzen February 4, 2010 / 4:34 pm

    I'm sending you some more excerpts from Masson via your gmail address. See what you think!Theorizing about complexity. Hmm. I have a colleague who has written a book on difficulty. Is that the same thing, I wonder? I'll ask him for ideas.


  3. Amateur Reader February 5, 2010 / 12:33 pm

    Wow, thanks. Difficulty is certainly a form of complexity.


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