This Week In My Classes: Falling Back

We set our clocks back an hour on the weekend. Whle I concede that it’ss nice to have it lighter in the morning, I never feel that makes up for how dark it gets in the afternoon, which tends to be my low energy time anyway. In any case, this plus our first flurries of the season makes it impossible for me to keep pretending winter isn’t setting in. I can hardly express what a drag this is on my spirits. Winter increases my stress levels exponentially — mostly because I hate driving in snow and ice. In fact, if I could configure my life so that I never had to get behind the wheel of a car between December and April, I might not mind winter at all. Well, OK, I would still not be a fan of the freezing-rain-sleet-snow mix Halifax specializes in, but it would not fray my nerves or ruin my plans in the same way. On the bright side, I do have a sabbatical next term, which somewhat relieves the pressure, and at this point the worst still lies ahead. In the meantime, we’re not done with the fall term yet.

beckI think things are going reasonably well in both my classes right now. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just finished working through Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists, which provoked quite a lot of discussion this time around. As always, I’ve been meditating on how to change up the reading list for the course’s next incarnation; I think The Terrorists is a keeper, precisely because it gives us a lot to talk about. It is, arguably, somewhat tendentious — I’ve been wondering if I should hold the authors’ Marxism in reserve next time (rather than emphasizing it in my opening lecture) and let the novel’s politics reveal themselves inductively. I don’t find the novel too doctrinaire to be humanly interesting and dramatic, though: I think Sjöwall and Wahlöö successfully walk the line between the picture and the diagram, with Martin Beck himself especially standing between us and a narrow didacticism. Rhea may have a portrait of Mao on her wall, but Beck remains committed to (if ambivalent about) the flawed system he polices. Today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses — time for my annual comment that I’d love to try one of his longer, richer novels, except that this one (like The Terrorists) is always really good for discussion, and always gets singled out in student evaluations as a general favorite.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve moved on to Jude the ObscureJude is usually the last novel I cover in the Dickens-to-Hardy class, so it feels odd that it isn’t this time: we’re following it up with The Odd Women. I made room for Gissing by skipping sensation fiction for the first time I can remember in this course. I kind of miss it, because it’s a lot of fun (I usually assign either Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White), but I’m anticipating a good response to The Odd WomenJude seems to have perked people up, too, which might seem perverse, considering how grim it is, but depression has its own agonistic charms, and the novel also moves much more quickly, and is expressed much more bluntly, than Middlemarch (which, to my delight, thrilled a handful of students but also clearly daunted or deterred a fair number of them). One of the things we talked about today was Hardy’s emphasis on buildings and architecture. The novel is so intensely tactile and visual that I thought it might be nice to put some pictures in our minds’ eyes, so I put together a simple slide show, including these photos from my own one and only (so far) visit to Oxford.



The pulpit at St. Mary’s isn’t, strictly speaking, a Jude landmark, but Newman is one of the ghostly presences Jude communes with on his first night in the city, and I was surprised how moved I was to see where he had preached. The Martyrs’ Cross, of course, is where Sue and Jude first meet — or, more precisely, where Jude first suggests they meet, only to have Sue call out, as they approach it, “I am not going to meet you just there, for the first time in my life!” Jude is definitely not one of my favorite novels, but it is a favorite of mine to teach, because however heavy-handed I find it (and however annoying I find Sue), it is also passionate and occasionally profound, including in the challenge it issues to the more conventional morality of our other readings. Reading it right after Middlemarch also really brings out continuities: they share interests in aspiration and vocation, in hopes crushed, in loves that press against convention, in learning and religion and compassion for flawed, suffering humanity. Middlemarch may seem melancholy in its treatment of these themes, but put Jude up against it and suddenly Eliot’s meliorism seems downright buoyant!

Even though Jude is not our last book, it’s astonishing to realize how close we already are to the end of term: it seems to be rushing past. At the same time, it has felt like a particularly effortful term to me. I can’t remember ever feeling quite so tired after each class meeting: I come back to my office and have to just sit still for a while before I can gather up the energy for my next task. Am I getting old? Well, yes, of course I am … but I hope that the real culprit is the tendinitis that has kept me from my running routine for months now. I am just gradually getting back into a modified exercise program. One reason I have to sit down after class, though, is that standing and pacing (as I inevitably do during lecture and discussion) seems to be about the worst thing for my aches and pains! I’ve been very frustrated that even after diligently following all my physiotherapist’s instructions I am not significantly better and more mobile! I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. I never ran very far or very fast at the best of times, but I would like to get back at least to where I was. I miss the psychological benefits as much as the physical ones. Here’s hoping!

10 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Falling Back

  1. Ludwig Richter November 6, 2014 / 10:07 pm

    The Terrorists–what an interesting choice. I’m currently rereading the ten novels that make up Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Story of Crime. Right now I’m on number eight, The Locked Room. I can see how The Terrorists would spark a lot of discussion. I have one question: what did you mean by walking “the line between the picture and the diagram”?


    • Rohan November 6, 2014 / 11:40 pm

      I debated using one of the earlier ones – I don’t think Roseanna is the best, but several seem like they would teach very well. The Terrorists makes its political points very clearly, though, which has classroom advantages. I wrote a bit about the series as a whole here, in case you’re interested. It’s such a good series, isn’t it? I’ve been so grateful that I was prompted by people (including commenters on this blog) to finally read through it for the first time a few years ago.

      George Eliot said that novels failed if they “lapsed” from picture to diagram — that is, if they lost sight of their aesthetic goals in pursuing their political ones. That has always seemed to me like a fair test for art with a purpose: if the result is too schematic, it isn’t likely to wear well.


  2. Ludwig Richter November 7, 2014 / 1:38 am

    I’d read your piece in the LA Review of Books some time ago. Thanks for sending me back to it. I appreciate your insights into the series. It is a good series. There is so much to say about it.


  3. RT November 9, 2014 / 3:48 pm

    Is Canadian Louise Penny poised to wedge her way into your mystery fiction syllabus? She has been a huge U.S. marketing success; has she been a similar success story among Canadian critics, reviewers, and readers?


    • Rohan Maitzen November 10, 2014 / 10:55 am

      She is certainly very successful and popular here, and her name comes up every time I contemplate adding a Canadian author to my reading list. (So far the only one featured has been Peter Robinson, through a short story in one of the anthologies I’ve used). But the one novel of hers that I have read to the end I found quite formulaic, and every other one I’ve begun I have not found engaging enough to finish. I am on the library waiting list for a couple of her most recent ones and I mean to try at least one more time — but to assign one, I’d have to be convinced not just that they are good of their kind but that they do something interesting enough for the genre that we’ll have something to discuss in class. Simply “being Canadian” is not going to be enough, I don’t think. (Though maybe it should be: I am currently reading a critical book on Canadian detective fiction that seems to make the case, in a variety of ways and with a range of examples, that there are intrinsically different things about how Canadians approach both the genre and some of its central themes — law & order, for instance.)


      • RT November 10, 2014 / 4:48 pm

        Perhaps my question was a bit misleading. I do not consider myself a “fan” of Louise Penny. In fact, I agree with you about the formulaic “quality” of her writing. Popularity, though, sometimes has very little to do with quality, especially in genre fiction. Consider Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, popular writers I cannot tolerate.

        As for the Canadian issue, I think U.S. readers do not know enough good Canadian authors. When we cite Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, we then stumble and stammer as we try to think of other prominent names. Perhaps that is a marketing problem that needs to be corrected.


  4. lawless November 10, 2014 / 11:40 am

    Longtime lurker here who found your blog through Liz McCausland’s. I’d never heard of the Martin Beck books before this; I’ll have to look for them. Crime/detective/mystery is my top genre of choice, with psychological thrillers a close second, but lately I’ve been reading other genres for the lack of books I like in the mystery genre. I find most popular series, especially the hard-boiled ones, boring and without psychological depth.

    In addition, after years of promising myself I’d read it to see what the fuss at the time of its publication was about, I just started Jude the Obscure. (Tess is a favorite of mine.) So now I have the benefit of consulting your blog to see what your class makes of it.


    • Rohan Maitzen November 10, 2014 / 4:34 pm

      Thanks for de-lurking! I think you’ll find the Martin Beck books really satisfying. They don’t feature conspicuous “depth,” and yet as you keep reading they build layers. And they can actually be quite close to thrillers in their suspenseful denouements. Report back! On Jude too. I switched Tess in for my class a couple of years ago, and while I really enjoyed it, the students (with some exceptions, of course) seemed to bog down in it, in a way that I’ve never seen happen with Jude. One sign: during our final “discussion,” there were audible gasps of surprise when I mentioned Alec’s murder — so clearly a significant number had not made it that far! In contrast, Jude moves along quite briskly. But depressing — egad.


  5. Min November 13, 2014 / 1:43 pm

    Fascinating post, largely because your students apparently find ‘Jude’ easier-going than ‘Tess’. That’s a conclusion I came to only recently (ancient late-developer!); these days, Tess is too heart-breaking for me. If she had been the heroine of a French novel, she’d have got away with it (Thérèse Desqueyroux forex), harrumph.
    Bon courage for the exercising, Rohan; the tendinitis is doubtless at the root of your tiredness (although teaching properly is tiring, dammit!).
    PS Not a fan of L Penny either …


    • Rohan Maitzen November 14, 2014 / 9:38 pm

      I think it’s just that Jude is quicker, and in a way more schematic.

      Teaching is tiring, I agree! I think it’s the element of performance. I enjoy it, and yet it takes a great deal of energy to project, and stay alert, and respond to questions or comments that you can never predict.

      It’s interesting how many people have crept out to tell me they aren’t Penny fans. Still, I am determined to finish another of her novels, just to be sure for myself…


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