This Week in My Classes: Eliot, Auster, McEwan

There’s a lot of variety in my classes this week. After a short stint with Tony Hillerman in Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’re starting Paul Auster’s City of Glass on Wednesday. I really enjoy the Hillerman story we discussed, “Chee’s Witch”; it presents, in microcosm, some of the larger themes Hillerman takes up in his novels, about competing systems of evidence and explanation, for one thing–does Chee actually believe there might be a witch? We’ve talked a lot this term about detective fiction as a genre that rules out supernatural explanations (the various rules drawn out in the Golden Age explicitly bar them), but Hillerman plays with this conventional expectation, undermining the classic emphasis on ratiocination but keeping it just ambiguous enough, in the story, that we can believe, if we want to, that Chee never really entertains the witch theory–though he studies to be a medicine man later on, so why should we believe that? What’s at stake? That last question makes for an interesting discussion, anyway, especially when “Chee’s Witch” turns on racist stereotypes. City of Glass also undermines or plays with conventions and expectations of the mystery genre, which is why I include it on the syllabus, though I don’t particularly like it, myself.

In British Literature Since 1800, we’re moving further into Atonement. I thought Monday’s class went really well. I began with some pretty open-ended questions about Briony as a character; participation was strong, more than usual, including students who haven’t typically jumped in, and we moved from collecting impressions of her (young, immature, neat, a writer) into questions about her perceptions of what she sees, especially Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain, then in the library, and then of Lola’s assault. Because we’ve been talking a lot about (mis)perception as a central issue in the movement from Victorian fiction into modern fiction, they were primed to see her misinterpretations in relation to the interest in psychology emphasized, for instance, by Woolf in “Modern Fiction,” and to see how McEwan’s presentation of alternative points of view on those key scenes acts as a kind of critique of the potential solipsism of that preoccupation. We got into quite an interesting discussion about how far we can or should judge or blame her for imposing her story on what she sees–a conversation that of course we get to continue, with complications, when they have read to the end of the novel and realize that they are being set up for exactly that struggle between understanding and forgiveness. We also talked about sex, of course: it wouldn’t be an English class if we didn’t, right? But there’s Robbie’s letter, for one thing, forcing the subject into explicitness, breaking through the layers of propriety and repression that characterize so much of the action in that section of the novel (and in so many other novels, of course, as we are insistently reminded). Is his letter obscene, shocking, or threatening, I asked? Of course, being modern young people, they denied its shock value (“maybe in those days” seemed to be the consensus view). Maybe–they did acknowledge that even today, context would matter (“if just some guy sent it to you,” as one of them rightly remarked, “that would be creepy”). I found myself thinking of the scene in The Mill on the Floss in which Stephen Guest kisses Maggie’s inner arm. Again, context matters: it’s a startling and intensely erotic moment not just because ‘in those days’ you didn’t just kiss your fiancee’s cousin’s arm all of a sudden, but because that action is so transgressive and speaks of the strength of the forces social taboos and rituals work to control and organize. (This was one reason contemporary reviewers found The Mill on the Floss so shocking, just by the way–because it conceded so much to the strength of “physiological law.”) There was a lot of intelligent engagement on display, and I left feeling very pleased at my choice of Atonement as our capstone reading for the course. (It’s not easy choosing just one novel to represent ‘contemporary fiction’!) Tomorrow we will be talking about the war section. Again, I’m hoping to keep things open and lively, not least because they are writing papers on the novel and I don’t like to do too much of the organization for them, or leave them feeling they are just reiterating arguments I’ve made. At the same time, I do have some topics I want to focus on, particularly the effect (formally and thematically) of juxtaposing the account of Robbie’s wartime experiences and the almost surreal horror of the Dunkirk scenes against the much more cerebral and aestheticized first part. Is the second section somehow more realistic, or more important? What are the connections, besides the obvious one of plot? Later in the novel Cyril Connolly will tell Briony that artists have no obligation to write about war–but of course, she has, and so have many other writers we’ve read. I had thought of showing the famous 5-minute shot of Dunkirk from the adaptation, but I think time will be too short, because tomorrow will also be course evaluation day–I need all our time next week for peer editing and then (gasp) conclusions and review.

Last but never least, we’re still on Daniel Deronda in the George Eliot graduate seminar. Today we talked quite a bit about the developing contest of wills between Gwendolen and Grandcourt, her fixation on Daniel as priest and confessor, and his increasing involvement with Mirah and Mordecai. Like most readers and critics of the novel, we are struggling with the idealization of Daniel (I wondered aloud today if what we resist is hearing a character say the kinds of things usually reserved for GE’s narrators) and the relationship, whatever it is, between his spiritual yearning and discovery and Gwendolen’s more earth-bound struggles. That part of our discussion will certainly continue next week, when we will have read all the way to the end. And we talked about music, authenticity, national identity, family loyalty, adoption, boa constrictors, and little Jacob’s pocket knife!

7 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Eliot, Auster, McEwan

  1. Sam March 31, 2010 / 2:11 am

    That’s fascinating–do you teach other books that you don’t like? Do you feel like you have to hide your distaste for the Auster book? (I recall that many students look for any excuse to dismissively skim an assigned book, and the fact that their prof doesn’t like the book would be a pretty good excuse.) Do you find you’re less voluble in discussing it?


  2. Rohan March 31, 2010 / 9:05 am

    I absolutely teach other books I don’t like. And when I teach them, I try to inhabit as fully as possible the persona of someone who thinks they are awesome–as you say, students are quite ready to blow them off, without any encouragement from me. One principle I believe in is that it’s my job to teach appreciation, not fandom. I need them to see why a particular book is important or innovative or smart or beautiful, if you approach it from a certain angle. And you have to have a pretty good sense of what something is, I think, before you’re entitled to dismiss it. Not to dislike it: that you can do at any point. But dislike doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation you have with it, and it certainly shouldn’t be in class, which isn’t, after all, a book club (including for me). My responsibilities exceed my personal taste, and it’s good for me, too, not to get complacent. Often, we dislike something because it’s unfamiliar or difficult for us, after all. That said, I do sometimes ‘fess up, eventually, about my objections to something we’ve read, whether to challenge them to talk me around or to raise larger questions about literary judgment or the role of evaluation in criticism. Sometimes, those are the best discussions we have!

    Less voluble? Me? No, that doesn’t happen. 🙂


  3. Bill Benzon March 31, 2010 / 9:11 am

    I read a pile of Hillerman in the early 90s and quite enjoyed them. For what it’s worth, from my old notes (& I hardly remenber the stories themselves, though I’ve got brief notes on some of them):

    Now, what interests me about Hillerman is that, in comparison to other mysteries:

    • the central plot isn’t so steeped in incest,

    • there’s more concern for the affective life of the detective(s),

    especially in the most recent two.

    My question is this: Can we attribute these differences to the fact that Hillerman is dealing with a bi-cultural world? It is as though some of the expressive energy concentrated on the mystery of male/female relationships in the conventional detective story is diffused in the the general ambiance of Hillerman’s bi-cultural narrative.

    Obviously, this is a very tricky business. I have no real sense of how closely the central affective issues are drawn in mysteries. That is, I don’t have any strong sense of what the genre is about. But the issue is interesting.

    I think the bi-culturalism should be taken seriously — note that the Navajo have honored Hillerman. Yes, he is writing novels and that is unambiguously a Western form. But he takes his Navajo characters seriously. And that shows up in the way he handles people’s names. Navajo naming conventions clearly aren’t the same as Western conventions.

    And then there is the matter of witchcraft. It shows up in all of the novels in one way or another. Which is natural enough. And witchcraft is the number one Navajo explanation for trouble in the world. What I’m suggesting is that the mystery focused on affective relationships in standard mysteries gets absorbed into the general ambiance of witchcraft in Hillerman’s novels.


  4. Craig Monk March 31, 2010 / 12:01 pm

    I really don’t care for Auster, either — he’s like the clever student who is concerned only with proving to me that he’s clever — and I debate this matter frequently with one of my colleagues. This isn’t unnatural, of course: shouldn’t we debate things, and how can we debate things if we all agree? (I think that’s part of the contemporary mindset: we talk only with people who reinforce the opinions we have. It’s American talk radio anti-intellectualism at its worse.)

    As for classroom presentation, I don’t teach things because I like (or dislike) them; I teach things that are important to the learning objectives of the course. Over time, I have developed “affection” for virtually all of these texts because of how they demonstrate something or other. But that can be a long way from “like.”


  5. Rohan March 31, 2010 / 12:32 pm

    Bill: That’s an interesting suggestion about the displacement of the “affective” relationships by a different concern. In my own teaching of the genre (and this result of course is a function of the particular examples I have chosen to teach) I tend to focus on the way detection as a way of living in the world (“suspect everyone,” for instance) undermines the normal bases of human relationships. We also talk a lot about ways of explaining “trouble in the world,” and I’m completely with you there about the importance of witchcraft in the Navajo world Hillerman draws. What interests me there, then, is that Hillerman (or Chee, really) is allowing for a different paradigm of explanation than is “normal” or conventional in detection, or at any rate letting it enter into the story without then dismissing it or naturalizing it–as, say, the discovery that the Hound of the Baskervilles is a real dog exposes the wrongheadedness of supernatural explanations, curses, etc. in Holmes’s hyper-rational world. (That example may not be entirely right for my purposes, mind you, as there are moments in Hound in which Holmes at least sounds as if he’s entertaining the ghostly possibility himself.)

    Craig, I agree about being guided by “learning objectives”–except that to some extent, those are things we make up or define ourselves, right? So it would be possible to understand them in ways that suit us best, at least for many of our classes. There’s no objective “objective” for the mystery class that obliges me to teach Auster. For that matter, there’s no objective “objective” for my Brit Lit survey that obliges me to teach anyone in particular! In any case, I think what you are calling “affection” is what I’m calling “appreciation.”


  6. Craig Monk March 31, 2010 / 3:11 pm

    Hi, Rohan,

    I guess I was taking your comment that Auster “undermines or plays with the conventions and expectations of the mystery genre” as some reflection of one of your objectives in that course. I used to teach Tender is the Night as an illustration of modernism’s questioning of linear narrative. While I’d read any Fitzgerald before I’d volunteer to read Auster, I could never argue that TITN is a good book, in the sense that I “like” it. And it’s a good conversation to have with students: I like to move them away from thinking about like or dislike in the “Oprah” sense to consider what you are calling “appreciation.”

    But I think “affection” is still a little different. TITN, not to beat a dead horse, is a book that I first read as an undergraduate. I associate that time with getting turned on to modernism, and I used it in the first modernism course I ever got to teach, solo, as an Assistant Professor. So, I love it like a boozy uncle — in a nostalgic kind of way! But I’d never invite that uncle to dinner with Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner.

    I saw Trevor at CFHSS last weekend: you have such nice colleagues!


  7. Rohan Maitzen March 31, 2010 / 10:51 pm

    You’re right, Craig: I do undertake to explore classics of the genre and then some examples that revise or subvert what are taken to be its major conventions. So once I had read City of Glass I felt some obligation to include it, since it so obviously contributes to that goal. Still, it’s not the only choice I could make, and someone else could (indeed, does) define the course quite differently. I wonder if I’ll develop any affection for it. It’s no boozy uncle, sadly: more the cocky adolescent cousin who has just discovered philosophy and has decided never to wash (or cut) his hair again because that’s so bourgeois!


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