We’re finishing out a four-day weekend here based on a holiday we don’t even celebrate in its hopelessly commercial secular form–Maddie is the only one of us who’d really appreciate Easter Bunny stuff but she’s allergic to both eggs and nuts, so never mind, and just as well too, really. It doesn’t seem like much really went on or got done, but the grown-ups did finish up the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I’d heard buzz about on Twitter from folks including Maud Newton (and Daniel Mendelsohn held it up as a counter-example in his recent smackdown of Mad Men, as well). I was finally motivated to get going on it by Sonya Chung’s post on it at The Millions. We both enjoyed it, which is no small thing considering that I wouldn’t ordinarily ever watch that much football. The characters are engaging and brought to life very convincingly, and there’s plenty of interest in the storylines. But we weren’t swept away by it: it already seems to be falling into the usual TV drama pattern of just one damn plot twist after another–when in doubt, throw in a crisis!–with the additional fairly melodramatic use of the football games to bring things to fever pitch (my husband, who does watch football, was amused that nearly every game was won or lost on the last play, in the final seconds). So far, there’s no sense of a larger project or developing insight of the kind that you get with The Wire or Deadwood, and the premise itself is not as breathtakingly stark and unexpected as In Treatment. I appreciate good storytelling, and I share Chung’s appreciation for the show’s commitment to heartfelt emotion, even to sentimentality. It’s just that now we know it’s possible to do something more ambitious within the same basic structure. I’ll probably watch at least the second season (though I think my husband won’t), to see if it builds over time into something more, or at least to see if my initial attachment to the characters keeps me hooked, wanting to know what happens next.
In the meantime, I’m about 2/3 throug Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and enjoying it a lot–for some of the same reasons I liked Friday Night Lights, actually, including its straightforward commitment to character development and its interest in the dynamics of a tight knit community under pressure. I particularly like Holtby’s narrative voice, which is smart and analytical without being pedantic. The introduction to my (badly proofread) BBC Books edition promptly and plausibly compares it to Middlemarch. If I were writing one of those annoying “X meets Y” jacket blurbs for it I might call it “a post-war Middlemarch written by a socialist Anthony Trollope,” because while it has the wide range of Middlemarch and the sensitivity to the ways multiple stories can be interconnected, it has none of the formal sophistication of the earlier novel: in fact, it is structured very much like Friday Night Lights or any other conventional multiplot fiction, simply moving from focus to focus while progressing more or less linearly towards its conclusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! And in fact it’s a more interesting choice in 1940 than it was in 1860, if only because by then other alternatives had been so abundantly demonstrated, and Holtby’s own awareness of her more immediate literary context is pointed to by conversations within the novel itself about writers including Virginia Woolf. Lauren Elkin has some thought-provoking comments about this at Maitresse, comparing Holtby to Elizabeth Bowen (whom I’ll be reading for one of my book clubs soon, making Lauren’s post doubly relevant!):
It would be a stretch to classify South Riding within the category of modernism. Although they share thematic concerns, Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message. “We are members of one another,” Holtby writes in her prefatory letter to her mother, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8). She is not only referring to members of the same community, of course, but to the community of humanity. Bowen’s citydwellers, on the other hand, feel more alienated than ever, and have an awareness of themselves as estranged from anything as conventional as a community. Communities, for Bowen, are in the process of being dissolved, and there is not much that can be done about it. Bowen’s novels and essays constantly interrogate and ironize concepts like “community,” and “humanity.” Her novels interpret themselves for the reader, her sentences twist in syntax to avoid banality, her young heroines are intensely aware of themselves as young heroines, her novelistic forms double back on themselves. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle call this aspect of Bowen’s work the “dissolution of the modern novel.”
I’m intrigued by the phrase “the possibilities of message,” and I’ll think more about how or whether Holtby’s form is or is not integral to the “message” of her novel as I finish it up–tonight, perhaps!
On a completely different topic–or maybe not, since it’s also about novels and what ideas inform them–I found this discussion with Ian McEwan about books that have influenced his fiction very interesting. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes books about science. An excerpt:
I don’t need to ask what the influence on your novels is here, as science plays a big part in many of them – most noticeably in Solar, but also in Saturday and Enduring Love. What is the nature of your individual relationship, as a writer, with science?
I would like to inhabit a glorious mental space in which books like Slingerland’s would not need to be written. In other words – and this comes back to the notion of mental freedom – your average literary intellectual, just as much as your average research scientist, would take for granted a field of study in which the humanities and sciences were fluid, or lay along a spectrum of enquiry. This is the grand enlightenment dream of unified knowledge. If you think of the novel as an exploration or investigation into human nature, well, science undertakes a parallel pursuit. Of course, much science is concerned with the natural world, but increasingly it has invaded the territory of the novelist. Neuroscience routinely deals with issues not only of consciousness, but of memory, love, sorrow, and the nature of pain. I went to a fascinating lecture on revenge and the reward system by a German neuroscientist a few years ago.
I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science. As if I was being asked why I had a particular fascination for designs of differential gears in old Volkswagens, or car-parking regulations in Chicago in the 1940s. Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.
Finally, once before I posted a sample of one of Owen’s original compositions. If you’re interested, you can follow this link to another, this time the slow movement of the Sonatina for Piano and Violin that was his entry in the composition category at this year’s Kiwanis Festival. It’s an amateur recording of a live performance, so not studio quality, but I think it’s beautiful…