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!