The three Cs are are Cold, Collins, and Chandler, and I am actually done with all of them now, but I haven’t blogged about my classes since they were all just starting up, so I thought it was time to get caught up. A trace of the first does remain in the form of a minor but lingering cough, but although I did end up having to cancel one day of lectures when I actually lost my voice for a bit, it wasn’t too bad. A number of my students and colleagues have been much sicker, poor things.
I wasn’t really sorry to wrap up our class time on either Chandler or Collins. My patience with both Philip Marlowe and his author was more limited than usual: all those slick similes are really no compensation for the misogyny and homophobia. I think I need to give In a Lonely Place a closer look to see if it would be a more palatable option for my sample of noir fiction. Or perhaps someone would like to recommend a Hammett or Chandler novel (or another hard-boiled writer altogether) that they particularly admire for me to try out? Because I really don’t enjoy this genre enough to want to read widely in it before making a new selection.
I also felt just a bit impatient with The Woman in White, though it is a lot more fun than The Big Sleep. At one point in our discussions this time a student actually asked a question I ask sometimes too about different novels, that could perhaps be summed up as “Are we giving this novel too much credit?” — or “Are we putting more interpretive weight on this novel’s details than they can really bear?” I feel that more with Lady Audley’s Secret (which I think is fundamentally incoherent, or indecisive, about some of its central thematic questions) than I do with The Woman in White, but I think it’s always a fair question to ask. It’s not one that I think can ever be answered definitively either way, but there’s no doubt that some novels seem less in control of their own meaning than others, while some can rather deflate under scrutiny. Some novels, too (as I ended up saying about The Woman in White, though not, if I remember correctly, to the same student) raise a lot of interesting questions or stir the pot in thought-provoking ways without necessarily resolving every aspect.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction we moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of my own personal favorites, partly because the confrontation it builds up to between Cordelia and Sir Ronald is about important ideas as much as about solving a crime. We had our last class on that Monday, and today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses–and after that we have only two more novels and the term is done! It still feels as if we only just got started.
In 19th-Century Fiction we are actually on our penultimate novel, Silas Marner. I’ve been a bit nervous about how it would go, as it starts out pretty slowly and Eliot’s prose requires closer attention than any of our other novelists’. I also haven’t taught it very often–only twice before that I can remember, and never in a lecture class of this sort. Today was “big picture” day so I set up some key ideas and then we began talking about Silas himself, first as he is seen by his neighbors in Raveloe and then as we come to understand him thanks to the narrator’s explanations and commentary. I tried to emphasize the importance of noticing the different ways people arrive at their explanations for what they see, which I think is key not just to the themes of the novel but also to its pacing, in which not much often seems to be happening but we realize, if we know to look for it, that a lot of the action is in perception and interpretation. One student brought up Silas’s beloved pot, which I thought was a particularly nice detail to have picked up on:
Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.
It’s a strangely touching incident that got me thinking again about “Mrs Tulliver’s Teraphim” in The Mill on the Floss. We all need at least something to love, and the reasons we cherish something in particular are often bound up in our most inarticulate yearnings.
So that’s where we are! Snuffles aside, it hasn’t really been a bad term so far, as both courses are pretty familiar. I’ve been able to do some reading of my own, most recently Lincoln in the Bardo, and I just sent off a review of Claire Harman’s Murder By the Book, which was a pretty fun assignment. I’ll be consistently busy between now and the end of term, but not overwhelmingly so, and as I’m on sabbatical next term, I will be able to take a genuine break over the holidays.