This past week was very busy, which is why I didn’t manage to post this during the week. For one thing, one of the committees that I’m on had to do a series of consultations, which involves both the actual meeting times and a fair amount of correspondence and negotiation getting things set up. Another committee I’m on got an announcement that had extremely worrying implications for our department’s MA program, and until the details got sorted out and corrected, that generated a fair amount of worried conversation and debate. These are important things, even if sometimes they seem, or turn out to really be, tempests in tea pots: one of the things most academics value highly about their work environment is self-governance, and that takes both time and concern to do well.
Then, it’s getting to be reference letter season, for grad school applications and for academic jobs, and I came up on my first few deadlines this week. Just as one example, it took me about two hours to complete a satisfactory draft of one of these letters and then print, scan, and email it according to the directions. Because every single place has a different process , some of them including forms to be downloaded and/or filled in, others requiring hard copies, and still others scanned versions, it’s very hard to create efficiencies: ten letters for the same candidate may all need to be done differently. Also, students have started taking me up on my urging to come and see me in my office to talk about their assignments. I believe very strongly in the value of such one-on-one meetings, but it’s a good thing that so far only about 10% of my 140 students this term have set them up, only because I couldn’t possibly take care of my routine class prep, not to mention my marking, if they all did. I also did some graduate advising work, responding to a revised thesis chapter while also thinking hard about and then trying to address appropriately some really important questions my student is struggling with about her degree program. These are not the kinds of things people outside the academy think about, in my experience, when they talk about our workload: everyone focuses on hours spent in the classroom, and specifically the undergraduate classroom. But taking care of our students (at all levels) involves a lot more than just showing up for class.
Last but not least, I have been working on a review for the November issue of Open Letters Monthly, and although editors get a little leeway in our usual submission deadlines, I really wanted to get it to my colleagues before the end of the week so that I would be sure to have time for revisions. I sent it off late Wednesday night: hooray! And I already have their thoughtful comments back and can tidy it up easily enough in time for the new issue. It’s mostly because I was using all my spare time to do that reading and writing project that there hasn’t been any blogging going on: for the last couple of weeks I really haven’t read anything of substance besides the book for the review (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s newest, Two-Part Inventions) and the books for my classes. What did I think of Two-Part Inventions? You’ll have to wait for November 1 to find out!
And speaking of the books for my classes, what were they, you ask? In my first-year class we’re moving through our ‘introduction to poetry’ unit, gearing up for the first essay assignment. We read ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ for Monday, which gave me some reference points for a later discussion of how to develop a comparative thesis for a close reading poetry essay. For Wednesday, we read Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’ I’m not sure I’d read that poem before this year! I really enjoyed it, both as a poem to read and as a poem to work on in class; there are a lot of striking word choices that were good for provoking discussion–one of my major ‘talking points’ for them so far is “Don’t take the words on the page for granted,” and that’s just easier to do when the words are really unexpected ones! And then on Friday we worked explicitly on how to write essays about poetry. I’m trying to demystify the critical process by focusing on straightforward tasks like note-taking and pre-writing strategies. I have ended up talking a few times about my own writing strategies, including the things I find difficult and some of the ways I try to get past them. As I had a deadline of my own to meet, how to get the writing done was very much on my mind! I hope it’s useful to them to realize that writing is something I do, and struggle with, too.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’ve just finished The Maltese Falcon and started An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I really have nothing new to report about these books or the experience of teaching them, except that I think that this time I’m finally done with The Maltese Falcon, at least for a while. I’m starting to tune out when re-reading it for class, which is not good.
In the Somerville seminar, we’ve finished with South Riding, which generated lots of very lively and interesting discussion right to the end. I’ve been so encouraged by the response to it, and also so engaged by the novel myself, that I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t quite think of another course in which I could reasonably assign it. We used to offer a year-long class called ‘The Novel to 1900,’ which was fun, if challenging to those of us not altogether at home in the 18th century, but even if that was still on the books, which I don’t think it is, 1936 is even more of a stretch than 1908, the date of A Room with a View, which was the novel I used to close the course with. We now have a class called ‘Fiction of the Earlier 20th-Century,’ but it’s not specific to British fiction, and a class called ‘British Literature of the Earlier 20th-Century’ which is, obviously, not just novels. Both of these would be a real stretch for me! And also they are usually offered by the people in our department who do specialize more or less in these fields…though technically I think we do not currently have anyone whose research area is ‘earlier’ 20th-century British literature. The easiest thing to do with anomalous interests such as mine in this cluster of ‘Somerville’ texts is to offer a special topics seminar at the upper level, which is what I’m doing now: to some extent that relieves you from the burden of really wide or deep knowledge. Maybe I’ll put in for one of the more general courses one day, though, just to shake things up.
After South Riding, we started Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph. It doesn’t seem quite as odd to me this time as it did when I first read it, which I hope is a consequence, at least in part, of the work I’ve been doing for this class. But even in the context of my seminar, it’s an anomalous book, not obviously related in theme, style, or structure to our other readings. We have come up with some ideas about ways it relates to them, including its interest in women’s roles and women’s education, and also its attention to the potentially destructive force of sexuality. Each of our other novels, though, at least arrives in front of us with some obvious critical frameworks; each of them belongs to a critical conversation that’s more or less familiar, even if our specific examples are not the most canonical ones. The Constant Nymph does not. Scrounging around for explicit commentary on the novel, I have come up with a few ideas: there’s a lengthy discussion of it in one book on literature of the 1920s as a “sex novel,” for instance, meaning (in the context that book establishes) a novel focusing on a young female protagonist and on female sexuality. That does fit with our general impression that the book is a bit like Lolita–the “nymph” of the title is fourteen when the novel begins and the love interest of a much older man, though he doesn’t exactly act on, or even quite acknowledge, his feelings for her at first. Kennedy herself said the book was meant to explore the conflict between “art” and “culture,” so we’ve been kicking that around a bit. It is unnerving in some ways not to know where I want our discussions to go, what patterns or priorities to pursue. But the class is full of smart, curious people and I think we are doing well trying out ideas and seeing where they take us.
One thing we talked about right away is how obscure this novel is now compared to how famous and popular it was in its early days. One sign of its popularity is that there were three different movie adaptations of it, including one in 1943 starring Joan Fontaine. I was amazed that the trailer for this version turned up on YouTube. Watch it and see if you don’t suddenly want to read The Constant Nymph for yourself! Except that you might end up surprised at just how little the book resembles what you get here.
I hope to get some good extracurricular reading done in the next week or two. I have to, in fact, as both of my reading groups have meetings coming up! For Slaves of Golconda we are reading Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (remember, you can join in if you want!) while for my F2F group we are reading Wide Sargasso Sea, which is one I really should have read before now. I also have to read a PhD thesis for a defense on November 16, and keep up with the books for my classes … should be another couple of busy weeks.
After you posted this, I was lucky enough to find a copy of The Constant Nymph at a book sale. I’ve just gotten around to reading it and absolutely adored the novel. It’s so interesting to read your less-enthusiastic response. Am I missing something I ought to be looking for that could make me enjoy it less? I’m not trained in literature, after all, so I don’t often know what to look for. Or perhaps I enjoy the book so much because I’m a professional musician and Kennedy truly gets the music culture?
Far from offering you ideas to make you enjoy the novel less, I just wish you’d been in class with us to give us your perspective: we actually talked quite a bit about the role of music and musicians in the novel, and it’s not so much that we weren’t enthusiastic as that we were confused — about the novel’s values where music is concerned, for instance. It’s hard to idealize Sanger, and yet there seems to be a strong implication that musical genius is tainted by too close proximity to the commercial aspects of culture. Is Florence wrong to want Lewis’s work heard and appreciated by a wider audience? What does it mean that during that final concert scene, for all the other personal trauma, she is overwhelmed by what she perceives as the greatness of his composition? And so forth. By the end of our time on the novel, I think we were all very engaged in trying to figure it out.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation – or better yet, a part of it! That’s the sort of conversation we academic musicians have quite frequently, particularly my composer colleagues whose careers may depend upon their commercial success. Far from idealizing the obsessive artistry of Sanger’s circus and their circle, I read the novel as presenting two very different but equally valid points of view. The sympathy we’re led to feel for Florence – my Virago introduction actually discussed the expectation that female readers would empathize with Florence as the ideal wife – and her intense and heartfelt experience of Lewis’s music in performance serve to prove the worth of her perspective. My two cents anyway. I feel as if this is a book to which I’ll need to return several times before I have any really confident and coherent analysis.