This Week Module In My Classes

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Working from home.

I am starting to draft some concrete plans for my fall courses that combine what I’ve been learning about best practices in online teaching with the goals and priorities that have always motivated my pedagogy. One of the hardest parts of this for me turns out to be rethinking the rhythm of my courses now that they will be almost entirely asynchronous.

The key shift seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of days per week, with each class meeting a discrete opportunity to introduce new content, focus on a new (part of a) reading, raise a different set of questions, or practice a specific skill. Instead, we are supposed to think in terms of modules. These may also be weekly–and in fact I do expect each larger unit in my classes to be parceled out across weekly modules to create and sustain a pattern that sets expectations, provides some structure, and keeps us all moving through the term, if not in sync, then in concert. But the modules will not be (should not be, if I understand the guidance correctly) understood as virtual versions of the thrice-weekly meetings but rather as bundles of activities that help students work towards the same goals in a more self-directed way.

I think (though I’m still figuring this out) that this means sorting my typical course activities so that instead of going through them, as I usually do, once each class meeting, we move through them once each module. A typical class meeting in 19thC-Fiction, for example, would be a bit of logistical stuff to start (reminders, announcements, clarifications); then a lecture segment in which I first briefly review what we’ve talked about so far and then introduce some new contexts or questions (historical, theoretical, formal, interpretive); then discussion in which we take that new material and the new section of the novel we’ve read for the day into account. This discussion might just be me doing my best to engage the whole class in talking about the day’s key topics, or it might involve break-out groups looking at specific passages or taking up particular questions and then reporting back to the group and moving on from there. Occasionally (often on the first day of a new novel, for instance) the lecture part is longer and a bit more formal; sometimes, especially towards the end of our work on a novel, we might move almost immediately into class discussion.

Office
I miss my office!

It’s a simple pattern but, in my now fairly long experience, it works well. The opening remarks catch us all up on where we are in the course; the lecture material gives everyone some common ground for discussion; the discussion models the fundamental process of literary criticism, which is to try out your ideas on other attentive readers, see what they say, and refine, correct, or elaborate as needed. (Hello coduction, my old friend!) The three weekly meetings let me dole out the reading assignments so students aren’t overwhelmed (they “just” have to read X amount of, say, Bleak House by our next meeting), a process which also disciplines me and them into paying attention as we go along. Students who fall behind in the reading at least get regular updates on what’s going to matter when they do catch up. And everyone gets a constant dose of enthusiasm for the work–from me, reliably, and, most of the time, from other students.

In a way it is obvious how to manage a similar structure in a weekly module. Every one will open with some kind of greeting and set of announcements and reminders–maybe, if I can face it (pun intended!), by way of a short video. Then there would be one or two elements that do the job of the lecture portions–probably slide shows with voice-overs, probably keyed to reading installments as usual. But here one of my first puzzles arises: do I still break the reading up across the week the way I usually do? or do I just say that for the first Hard Times module, they have to read the whole first half of the novel? The net result would be the same, but the immediate “ask” seems like a lot more if you put it that way. Maybe I could compromise and give them a “suggested reading schedule.” One plan I have is for them to maintain online reading journals, something I’ve done before as part of face-to-face versions of 19thC Fiction: if I tied the requirements for journal entries to specific parts of the novels (the first entry must address an example from Book I, the second an example from Book II, etc.), that might be a useful way to create and sustain some momentum in their reading.

the_new_novelThen, instead of having three distinct conversations about the reading on three separate days (which, again, has always allowed me to pace us, and to model sorting out specific interpretive elements rather than facing everything that’s going on in the novel all at once), we’ll have discussion boards. Presumably, the topics will reflect the same questions I usually set in class, but I’m not sure if I should try to move us through these topics in some kind of sequence across the week, as I would in person, or think of the module as weighted towards reading at the beginning of the week and discussion at the end of the week. Probably the latter–though they might miss getting input and ideas from each other (and from me) earlier in their reading. I don’t want to be micromanaging participation on the discussion boards too much: I’m imagining how strange this all might feel to them, and ideally I’d like it to feel both easy and sort of natural to contribute. Super-rigid requirements (post once by Wednesday, reply once on Thursday, post again on Friday–whatever) really work against that and give me a lot to keep track of.

OUP MiddlemarchI think the next step for me is actually to back away from the overwhelming amount of information and advice I’ve been contemplating about online teaching and go back to my actual teaching notes. Looking at the topics I usually cover with a modular redesign in mind will probably help me realize ways in which these bundles would actually work and think in more concrete ways about just how different the online experience needs or doesn’t need to be. Precisely because I’ve been teaching 19th-century fiction in such a similar way for so long, it is the one that feels the strangest to mess with, but it’s also the one where I have the simplest overall goal–to have the best conversations we can about our readings–and the most faith in the books themselves to get us talking, one way or another. Even if I don’t get everything right on my first attempt to do all this online, at least we’ll still be working our way through Middlemarch!

I would love to hear from anyone with online teaching experience about this weeks-vs-modules question, especially if they have found good ways to make it work with the inevitably heavy reading load for a class on the Victorian novel. I have already cut one novel (we’ll be doing four instead of my usual five) on the expectation that everything is going to take us longer. If there are any students out there who have taken online classes that really worked (or, I guess, didn’t work), I’d also love to know if there was a rhythm to the course that played a part and what level of structure you think would help you stay engaged without making you feel micromanaged.

“A Ghostly Message of Comfort”

himbeergeist

Another nice bit from A Time of Gifts:

“In cold weather like this,” said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost–this crystalline  distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns–or so it seemed after a second glass–like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through snow and ice. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me. This discovery cast a glow over the approach of Linz.

I’m not enthralled by A Time of Gifts overall: maybe I was wrong that vicarious voyages are the right antidote for this strange immobile moment, or maybe it’s just that right now, stalled as I otherwise am, I need the forward momentum of plot to keep my attention reliably engaged. He’s also traveling through landscapes that have never been part of my own imaginative life the way other places (England or Greece or Egypt, for instance) have been: I’ve never had any urge to go to Germany myself, never dreamed of wandering the streets of its cities the way I dreamed of visiting London or York and still dream of one day seeing the Valley of the Kings. Even so, there are many passages that I’m pausing over with pleasure and admiration at Fermor’s descriptions. There are so many odd and striking details here, including his reference to fimbria, which I had to look up and which still seem an odd choice in context. I’m not much of a drinker but I think if I ever saw a bottle of Himbeergeist at the NSLC I might now be tempted by the thought of those “ice ferns” doing their comforting work.

There’s also an underlying story that (so far) lurks mostly in the margins: it’s the 1930s, after all, and he’s traveling through Germany:  he sees plenty of swastikas and Nazi salutes and bars full of SS men happily quaffing beer and singing. A Time of Gifts feels strikingly apolitical compared to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (no, I’ve never finished it!), which of course is a very different kind of book in purpose as well as in style. I don’t know if Fermor stays focused primarily on his personal experiences (including his reflections on landscape, art, and literature) or if the building political pressures of the time make that boundary between private and public life impossible for him to sustain.

“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

Imaginary Interiors

A-Time-of-GiftsFrom Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts:

There were farm-buildings which elms and chestnut trees and birches snugly encompassed and Hobbema-like avenues of wintry trees which ended at the gates of seemly manor-houses–the abodes, I hoped, of mild jonkheers. They were gabled in semi-circles and broken right-angles of weathered brick bordered with white stone. Pigeon-lofts saddled the scales of the roofs and the breeze kept the gilded weather-vanes spinning; and when the leaded windows kindled at lighting-up time, I explored the interiors in my imagination. A deft chiaroscuro illuminated the black and white flagstones; there were massive tables with bulbous legs and Turkey carpets flung over them; convex mirrors distorted the reflections; faded wall-charts hung on the walls; globes and harpsichords and inlaid lutes were elegantly scattered; and Guelderland squires with pale whiskers–or their wives in tight bonnets and goffered ruffs–lifted needle-thin wine-glasses to judge the colour by the light of the branching and globular brass candelabra which were secured on chains to the beams and the coffered ceilings.

Imaginary interiors . . . No wonder they took shape in painting terms! . . . For if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. Those confrontations and recognition scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place.

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Like many readers I know, I have been struggling with my concentration in these pandemic days. This has happened in other, less extraordinary circumstances as well, of course, and usually the cure is as much about finding the right book to break the slump as it is about anything else. With that in mind, I have been casting about for the right book for this moment, and it occurred to me that I should re-start A Time of Gifts, which I had begun long ago and, for no particular reason, put aside. This passage on the happy congruity between the art and the reality of the Dutch landscape was one of the ones I had earmarked before, and I loved it just as much when I came across it this time. It is bound to remind any reader of George Eliot of her wonderful tribute to Dutch paintings in Adam Bede:

It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions . . .

All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.

Woman Scraping Carrots

I was thinking that another way to break up the inertia I’ve been experiencing in my reading and writing would be to approach my blog at least some of the time as more of a commonplace book, to take the pressure off having to say something organized about my reading every time. So there may be more posts coming like this one: just an excerpt or two from whatever I’m reading, maybe with a bit of commentary, maybe without. It’s nice just to share the good bits, I figure–and A Time of Gifts is sure to have many of them.

That Was the Week That Was

Latour reading womanI’m having a hard time keeping track of what day it is, mostly because under the new work-from-home protocol–and the more general stay-at-home order–there’s not much difference between one day and the next. I’ve also stopped doing grocery shopping on Saturday mornings (which had been my routine for more than two decades): now I go mid-week, usually Wednesday, as early as I’m allowed in the store, which means I’m home by 9 a.m. and so, aside from the gradually receding adrenaline from the stress of the outing, it too then becomes a day like every other day.

As these days become weeks and months, I am trying to find a rhythm that brings a bit of order to the passing hours without adding unnecessary pressure, something in between just drifting and trying to enforce a fixed schedule when really there’s no need as long as, bit by bit, the things that need doing get done. Most mornings I spend puttering way on online teaching: reading, experimenting with tools in Brightspace, trying to imagine how else to do what I’ve always done, working through the modules for the online course I signed up for on online course design. Being a student in this course is probably as valuable as anything they are directly teaching me about online learning: I feel first-hand, for example, the importance of engagement, or the discouragement of its lack–so many people enrolled, so few people contributing to any of the discussion boards! I’m trying hard to sustain my positive attitude, or at least to stay practical about what lies ahead even if sometimes my heart just sinks when I think about it or I get swamped with doubt about my ability to do a good job, to make the experience anything like what I think it should be and hope, on my better days, that it can be.

shroudAfternoons are (more or less) for reading. I haven’t posted about any books since The Glass Hotel but that isn’t because I haven’t read any. In fact, I have read four (almost five) books since then, all by P. D. James, because I am rereading her complete works (or all of her mysteries, at any rate) in preparation for writing a piece for the TLS in honor of her centenary. I was really glad that the editors liked this idea: it’s a perfect project for this haphazard summer. I have a lot of ideas about James from having read (and taught) her for years, but I have not had a reason to put those ideas in good order before, and it has also been a long time since I read most of her back catalog. It’s very interesting reading through the books all at once and in order: you quickly notice recurring themes and habits, strengths and weaknesses, and also the way her scope and themes expand. I think (I hope!) that this is a kind of essay I’m reasonably good at, collating and synthesizing across a range of examples; this is also an approach that I think works well for crime series, which are interesting both in their individual parts and as enduring creations that are more than the sum of those parts, often (as in this case) through the story they tell about the central detective  that unifies them. My previous essays on Dick Francis and the Martin Beck books were in a similar vein. I won’t want to anticipate too much of the final product here, but I will probably report back occasionally, partly to keep holding myself accountable! Maybe when I’ve finished my reread I should do another ranked list. My post on the top 10 Dick Francis novels has been my most-read post of all time! 🙂

the-crossingI do have some other books on the go or in the queue. I am about 100 pages into Andrew Miller’s The Crossing, which is the last of the random pile of library books I brought home shortly before the lockdown. It’s good so far in the way his other books were good: meticulous, quietly and a bit ominously atmospheric. I ordered Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian from Bookmark, and it looks very tempting; I pulled Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts from the shelf because I’ve never read it and if there was ever a time to travel vicariously in excellent literary company, this is surely it. My book club “met” on Thursday to discuss Detective Inspector Huss (mixed feelings all round) and there too the idea of being mentally somewhere else appeals: Turkey somehow came up as a preferred destination, so we may do something by Elif Shafak next. I am still struggling a bit with concentration, so although I have John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy still to read from my Christmas stash, I think now may not be the time for something intricately plotted. On the other hand, maybe now is exactly the time for a book that will insist I really pay attention!

ozark3We have certainly been watching a lot of TV: the new season of Better Call SaulThe End of the F***ing WorldLittle Fires EverywhereThe Stranger, Ozark … If we’d known what lay ahead, we might have rationed some of the other shows we watched over the winter–season 5 of Line of Duty, the latest season of Shetland–that we knew to be engrossing. It is a good time to be watching Parks and Recreation for the first time: its gentle, goodhearted humor is a tonic. Sadly, the channel that carried the Great British Sewing Bee and various other painting and craft shows has dropped suddenly from our cable package, just when such low-key distractions would be more welcome than ever, and a lot of the videos on the Youtube channel where I had found the Great Pottery Throwdown are now blocked, which I guess is legitimate but it’s still sad. It was March 8 that I wrote about how “gripped and soothed” I was by shows highlighting creativity and making things: little did I know that would be the last blog post of the Before Times.

So that’s how my week is going–how my weeks are going, as they blur together, weirdly ephemeral and indistinct but also somehow relentless, a foggy procession through time. I continue to be really grateful for Twitter and blogs: reading and talking about reading and knowing that the rest of you are out there too, all of us getting by as best we can and hanging on to the things we care about, including books and ideas and each other.

This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWell, it’s official: Dalhousie’s Fall 2020 classes will be “predominantly online,” the only planned exceptions being specialized programs that rely on “experiential learning” — “medicine, dentistry, select health professions, agriculture.” In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, we were told some time ago to begin planning for an online term: if some miracle occurred and suddenly it was safe to resume business as (formerly) usual, after all, it would have been easier to revert to face-to-face teaching than it would have been to have to pivot the other way. It is definitely helpful to have more certainty, though, especially for our students.

Because planning ahead suits me much better than waiting and wondering, I had already begun trying to come to grips with what it would (now, will) mean to teach my classes online. The first stage was wrestling with my emotions about this. I love teaching–it is my favourite part of my job, sometimes the only part of it that really makes sense to me and certainly the part of it that I am most motivated about. I have always accepted that there are people who do a good job of online teaching and that there are ways to make it a good experience. Still, I have always resisted doing it myself, because I enjoy being in the live classroom so much and because I spend a lot of time online for other reasons and didn’t want to lose one of my main sources of in-person human contact.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingHaving the decision made for me by circumstances hasn’t changed everything about how I feel about teaching online, but it has made a lot of those feelings irrelevant. Also, countering my wistfulness about what we’ll be missing are other, stronger feelings about what we will, happily, be avoiding by staying behind our screens. Every description I’ve seen of ways to make face-to-face teaching more or less safe for everyone involved has involved a level of surveillance, anxiety, and uncertainty that I think would make it nearly impossible to teach or learn with confidence: a lot of what is good about meeting in person would be distorted by the necessary health and safety measures, and even without taking into account the accessibility issues for staff, students, and faculty who would be at higher risk, being in a constant state of vigilance would be exhausting for everyone. Frankly, I’m relieved and grateful that Dalhousie has finally made a clear call that (arguably) errs on the side of caution. Now we can get on with planning for it.

The Student (Dixon)As my regret about the shift to online has been replaced by determination to make the best of it, I’ve also noticed something I’ve seen experienced online teachers point out before, which is a tendency to idealize face-to-face teaching, as if just being there in person guarantees good pedagogy. It doesn’t, of course. In my own case, I know that what I’ll miss the most is lively in-class discussions. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that even the liveliest discussion rarely involves everyone in the room. Of course I try hard to engage as many people as possible, using a range of different strategies depending on the class size and purpose and layout: break-out groups, think-pair-share exercises, free writing from discussion prompts, discussion questions circulated ahead of time, handouts with passages to annotate and share, or just the good old-fashioned technique “ask a provocative question and see where it gets us.” Even what feels to me like a very good result, though, might actually involve 10 people out of, say, 40 — or 90, or 120 — speaking up. Others are (hopefully!) engaged in different ways, and there are different ways, too, to ask for and measure participation than counting who speaks up in class. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I pretended that there wasn’t any room for improvement–and what I want to think about as I make plans for the fall is therefore not how to try to duplicate that in-class experience online (ugh, Zoom!), partly because we are supposed to focus on asynchronous methods but also because maybe I can use online tools to get a higher contribution rate, which in turn might make more students feel a part of our collective enterprise. And, not incidentally, if all contributions are written, they will also get more (low-stakes) writing practice, which is always a good thing, and they will be able to think first, and more slowly (if that suits them), and look things up in the text, before having to weigh in.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)There are other ways in which (and we all know this to be true) face-to-face teaching isn’t perfect, and there are also teachers whose face-to-face teaching does not reflect best practices for that medium. Given these obvious truths, and especially since the shift to online teaching is driven by factors that themselves have nothing to do with pedagogical preferences, I have been getting pretty irritable about professors publicly lamenting these decisions, especially when it’s obvious that they haven’t made the slightest effort to learn anything about online teaching, or to reflect on the limitations of their own usual pedagogy. One prominent academic just published an op-ed in a national paper declaring that online teaching can only ever be a faint shadow of “the real thing”; others have been making snide remarks on Twitter about the obvious worthlessness of a term of “crap zoom lectures” (that’s verbatim) or questioning why students should pay tuition for the equivalent of podcasts. Besides the obvious PR downside of making these sweepingly negative and ill-informed statements when your institutions are turning themselves upside down to find sustainable ways forward, what kind of attitude does that model for our students? The situation is hard, I agree, and sad, and disappointing. But at the end of the day we are professionals and this, right now, is what our job requires. If we value that job–and I don’t mean that in the reductive “it’s what we get paid for” way (though for those of us with tenured positions, that professional obligation is important to acknowledge and live up to) but our commitment to teaching and training and nurturing our students–then, if we can*, I think we need to do our best to get on with it.

Arcimbolo LibrarianAnd happily, though most of us are not trained as online teachers, we do have a superpower that should help us out: we are trained researchers! We can look things up, consult experts, examine models, and figure out how to apply what we learn to our own situations, contexts, pedagogical goals, and values. At this point, that’s what I’m working on: learning about online learning. Yes, I had other projects I was interested in pursuing this summer. In fact, I still do, but I have scaled back my expectations for them, because I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than doing everything I can to make my fall classes good experiences, for my students and also for me. I have the privilege of a full-time continuing position, after all, and my university is making experts and resources available to me–plus there are all kinds of people generously offering guidance and encouragement through Twitter and I have been following up their leads and bookmarking sites and articles and YouTube videos.

I still feel a lot of generalized anxiety about the pandemic–both its immediate risks and its broader implications–but I can’t influence those outcomes, except by following expert advice and “staying the blazes home” (to quote our premier!), doing my part to slow the spread of the virus by doing as little as possible. It’s hard! I am still really struggling with my own feelings of fear and helplessness and uncertainty. But that’s why it actually feels good to focus on this pedagogical work: there is so much about the wider situation that I can’t control, but this effort is up to me. It is genuinely challenging, and I also genuinely like learning how to do new things. Sometimes now I even feel excited about what my classes might be like. After all, I have years of experience forming important relationships and experiencing real community online, through blogs and Twitter and the collaborative work of editing Open Letters Monthly, for example. I believe it can be done! Now, if I can just convince more of my colleagues–and reassure my students–about that …


*I realize not everyone is equally able to do this–those in precarious positions, those with young children who are no longer in daycare or school and who may not have summer camps; those with limited access to technology and other resources. As many people have been discussing, this crisis is highlighting and exacerbating inequities of many kinds, both in and out of the academy. Institutions should be asked over and over what they are doing to address them, and then held to account. For instance, it has always been wrong to assign courses to contingent faculty at the last minute: now it would be simply impossible for them to prepare their materials in a matter of days or even weeks. It’s already clear to me that three months isn’t really enough time!

“The Message on the Window”: Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

glass hotel

A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity. An opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender. A lonely bartender looks up from her work and the message on the window makes her want to flee, because the bartender’s mother disappeared while canoeing and she’s told everyone all her life that it was an accident but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true, and how could anyone who’s aware of this uncertainty … write a suggestion to commit suicide on a window with that water shimmering on the other side, but what’s driving the bartender to despair isn’t actually the graffiti, it’s the fact that when she leaves this place it will only be to go to another bar, and another after that, and another, and another, and anyway that’s the moment when the man, the opportunity, extends his hand.

I was completely gripped by The Glass Hotel and yet I find myself at a loss when it comes to writing about it, not because it was difficult or confusing but because something about it was (for me, anyway) elusive. It is well constructed, in that its different parts, interwoven effectively throughout, tie up in a satisfying way at the end; it is well crafted, by which I mean that it effectively conveys its people, its settings, and its moods in sentences and sections that always kept my attention and sometimes were eloquent, beautiful, or memorable. None of this is meant as faint praise: plenty of novels do not manage nearly so much!

Since I finished reading The Glass Hotel this morning, I’ve been puzzling over why, for all that, it still seemed to be missing something. The best explanation I can give is that by the end of it, I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all. It’s possible that there isn’t meant to be one: perhaps the novel’s unity lies in its emotions, for instance, which did seem to be painted with a common palette of uncertainty, loneliness, and fear, with just the occasional highlight of hope or tenderness.

The biggest story the novel tells, a story which exerts a kind of gravitational pull on its other somewhat disparate people and elements, is that of Jonathan Alkaitis, a charismatic money man whose Ponzi scheme ultimately affects nearly everyone we meet. (He is modeled on Bernie Madoff.) But his financial fraud didn’t seem like a metaphor for anything else and there are no echoes of it in other people’s actions or values: it just is what it is, and has the consequences it inevitably does when it is uncovered. We meet investors and enablers, clients and partners, spouses and friends–the most interesting of whom is the painter Olivia Collins, who has invested all of her modest funds with Jonathan because once upon a time she knew and painted his brother Lucas, who has since died of a drug overdose. She loses everything, as do so many other people; the personal connection makes her betrayal seem particularly unforgivable.

glass hotel2But–why have a painter in this role? Is there something specifically meaningful about her portrait of Lucas? Are we meant to discern a contrast between what she makes (art) and what Jonathan makes, or pretends to make (money)? Is there a further connection along these lines to Paul, brother of Jonathan’s “trophy wife” (she isn’t quite that) Vincent, who is also an artist? Is Paul’s “theft” of Vincent’s archive of videos (repurposing, he prefers to consider it) meant as some kind of analogy to Jonathan’s abuse of his investors’ trust? How does the hotel of the title fit in, besides as a memorable setting? Is it symbolic? (People who live in glass hotels shouldn’t … what?) Is there meant to be a parallel between Vincent’s final moments, as she drowns (this is where the novel begins, so it’s not a spoiler) in the ocean, and the reclusive peace the hotel’s caretaker finally finds? Is the recurrence of drug addiction significant? Why are there so many ghosts? Is the message on the window somehow at the heart of it all? I have a lot of questions!

On the other hand, maybe none of them matter. I read The Glass Hotel almost entirely in a single sitting: it was the most engrossed I have felt in a book in a long time (in that respect, it was right up there with the last 100 pages of The Mirror and the Light). The novel worked for me as a reader, even if, when I sat back to think more about it, it hasn’t proved quite so satisfactory for me as a critic. My very favorite books are ones that make this distinction irrelevant. For me, analysis is not antithetical to pleasure but a pleasure in itself: that’s why I fight so hard against pejorative ‘takes’ on English professors that accuse us of taking all the fun out of reading – they assume such a narrow notion of ‘fun’! I get most excited when a book does all the things I look for–when it gives me all the kinds of fun. If I were on the hook for a ‘proper’ review of The Glass Hotel, my next step would be to reread it with all my questions in mind. Going through that process would either lead me to some ideas about where those ‘missing’ unities could be found (and Mandel is a smart enough author that she may well be doing things I didn’t grasp on a first read)–or to a firmer judgment about how much their absence matters. Absent that obligation, I’ll just stop here.

Skinheads and Millionaires: Helene Tursten, Detective Inspector Huss

TurstenWhen Krister came home at one a.m. the girls were asleep, but Irene was still up. After telling him about Jenny’s troubles and about the impending end to her skinhead period, she tried to seduce her husband. But he was too tired and not at all in the mood. The Christmas rush at the city’s restaurants had begun. She lay awake for a long time, her whirling thoughts of skinheads, millionaires, bombs, murderers, biker gangs, sexual relations between people who shouldn’t be having any, and sexual relations between people who should.

Detective Inspector Huss is either a really awkward and uneven novel or Steven Murray’s translation has not done Helene Tursten justice. I suspect it’s the latter, because through the clunky prose and frequent abrupt shifts of tone and topic, I caught glimpses of both a strong and interesting protagonist and some incisive social commentary reminiscent of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck mysteries. Unfortunately reading Detective Inspector Huss felt like a chore, though–which it sort of was, as I was reading it for my book club. We chose it because we’d all quite enjoyed Tursten’s much more recent An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, which I notice had a different translator (Marlaine Delargy). That might be evidence for  my bad translation theory, or it’s possible that Tursten got better with practice, as Detective Inspector Huss was originally published in 1998 and Tursten has published quite a few novels since then.

Instead of laying out details of the plot (which, after all, are a lot of what would be interesting to discover for yourself if you wanted to read the novel!) I’ll quote the publisher’s blurb, which it touches on the qualities of Detective Inspector Huss that made me think it was better than it seemed:

One of the most prominent citizens of Göteborg, Sweden, plunges to his death off an apartment balcony, but what appears to be a “society suicide” soon reveals itself to be a carefully plotted murder. Irene Huss finds herself embroiled in a complex and high-stakes investigation. As Huss and her team begin to uncover the victim’s hidden past, they are dragged into Sweden’s seamy underworld of street gangs, struggling immigrants, and neo-Nazis in order to catch the killer.

The details of this plot get quite intricate and a bit tedious to follow: each step towards the big ‘reveal’ took (I thought) an unnecessarily long time. One of the reasons for that is what seemed like digressions, though by the end of the novel some of them had been woven into the main case. There’s a subplot about Irene’s daughter Jenny flirting with neo-Nazism, for example, which leads to a fair amount of talk among the characters about young people today and their sense of disconnection from society as well as their distance from the history that is still so present for their elders. One of the more intense episodes involves one of Irene’s colleagues staging an intervention for Jenny in which he reveals that his own mother was conceived during the gang rape of a young Jewish girl, who died giving birth to her. Jenny, who has been raising questions about the reality of the Holocaust, is shaken up by this and by other confrontations with the real implications and horrific consequences of the anti-Semitism she had been brushing off as trivial in the song lyrics favored by her new skinhead pals.

hussThe novel’s central murder plot does not ultimately have anything to do with anti-Semitism or neo-Nazis, but it does have a lot to do with the “seamy underworld” mentioned in the précis. Even the most polished and privileged characters turn out to be at most one or two degrees of separation away from drug dealers, Hell’s Angels enforcers, or (as scary, if less socially contextualized) narcissistic sociopaths. Like the Beck books, that is, and like Henning Mankell’s novels, Detective Inspector Huss shows a pretty unflattering version of Sweden–though it’s no uglier than, say, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or Phonse Jessome’s Halifax. It’s in the nature of police procedurals to emphasize that the city familiar to the ordinary law-abiding citizens and tourists coexists with the grittier and more dangerous one the cops know. Tursten’s Göteborg has just that dual quality.

One thing Tursten’s novel does really well is show what it’s like for Detective Inspector Huss to cross back and forth between these worlds, doing her best to keep up with the needs of her family when she’s at home while maintaining the toughness she needs to take risks and act assertively or even violently at work. Though the style of the book made it hard for me to bring her quite into focus, Irene Huss herself is an intriguing character. She isn’t presented as a “strong female character” in the way that popular culture here would typically do that–which is too often some version of “she’s not like those other girly-girls”. Irene, in contrast, is quite multi-dimensional. Compared to a lot of male cops in this genre–maybe most of them?–she has a pretty good work-life balance and relatively healthy personal relationships. She does struggle sometimes with her family life, especially because of her long hours and the emotional toll her work takes, but she also shows and experiences tenderness. On the job, she is tenacious and professional, mostly managing to keep the stress or irritation she feels to herself. She is brave, even occasionally heroic: at one point she grabs a hand grenade that has been thrown through a window into a shed where she and a colleague are captive and hurls it out again just in time to save them from the explosion; at another point she crashes a patio umbrella through a window to disrupt an ongoing attack and a shard from the glass ends up killing one of the bad guys. Afterwards, however, she feels shock and grief: she is not hardened or numb.  Probably the most idiosyncratic thing about her is that she is a judo expert; her training is a source of personal strength and mental balance.

huss-tvSomething Tursten draws particular attention to is sexism in the police force. Irene herself is aware of and angry about it, but in this book at least she mostly chooses not to confront it directly. In contrast, her colleague Birgitta–who is assaulted by a witness she’s interviewing and then informs their boss Superintendent Andersson that she has also been experiencing ongoing harassment from another officer–has eventually had enough. First, when Superintendent Andersson asks if the witness has annoyed her “in some way,”

She exploded completely. With tears gushing from her eyes, she screamed, “Annoy! He shoved me up against the wall, grabbed my crotch, and bit me on the breast! I think I’m going to report him!”

Andersson hasn’t even had time to respond when “Jonny’s irritating voice was heard from the doorway . . . ‘You probably showed him what you had to offer, eh?'” Quite understandably at the end of her rope, Birgitta “shot across the room like an arrow” and drives her knee into Jonny’s crotch. “Personal best!” she exclaims; “Two guys with blue balls in less than half an hour!”

Jonny is manifestly an asshole, but Tursten also focuses on Andersson’s quieter but in some ways even more harmful sexism. Not only does he fail to hold Jonny accountable in any meaningful way, but he repeatedly thinks to himself that working with “broads” creates all kinds of problems. “The worst thing was that there were more and more of them,” he (silently) complains; “If they chose a male profession, then they had to accept the conditions and the lingo!” But Birgitta’s report, and her expectation that he take action, do shake him up a bit: “She was still standing with a lifeless expression on her face, waiting for his answer. Andersson had an unpleasant feeling of complicity, but in what?”

WatchethBirgitta’s “blue balls” comment is an example of a quality in Detective Inspector Huss that struck me as somehow slightly alien–a reminder that I was reading a book based in a culture that is not my own. The best way I can think of to describe it is that (again, at least in this translation) the novel has a kind of bluntness uncharacteristic of the Anglo-American crime fiction I usually read. It’s not that those books aren’t (sometimes) sexually explicit or graphically violent, or that they don’t often include plenty of swearing. There was just something about the tone or the idiom of the conversations in Tursten’s novel that seemed different, though I have been struggling with how to explain it. Another example: Irene recalls a male colleague who got the mumps as an adult, which caused his testicles to swell up “so grotesquely that he couldn’t walk. Unfortunately, his name was Paul, and he was always called ‘Paul Fig-Ball’ after that.” Poor Fig-Ball comes up a few more times during the rest of the novel and nobody seems to find it in any way an unseemly nickname. (These are just the examples I thought to highlight in my ebook; one problem with this technology is that I can’t flip through the pages easily to find others, including ones that aren’t about testicles! But I know there were many others.)

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I’m curious to find out if anyone else in my book club found Detective Inspector Huss faintly foreign in this way, and also if I am the only one who found the style and construction awkward and stilted. If any of you have read it, or others of Tursten’s novels, what did you think? I found the contexts and characters in this one engaging enough, in spite of everything, that I might be willing to try another in the series, especially since the later books seem to have different translators–including Marlaine Delargy, who made the elderly lady’s misadventures so entertaining.

“A Critical Moment”: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

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All the women in this book thought carefully about the sort of home they wanted to live in. Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages of life, moving there provided each of them with a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is a nice new example of an old form: the collective biography. I really enjoyed reading it: it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time (though not, mostly, the same time) lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.” For some of them, moving to Mecklenburgh Square represented their determination to live up to that insight; others came to this realization during their time there and moved away to fulfill it. Neither of these really describes Woolf’s trajectory: she is at once the best known (and most marketable) of the book’s subjects and the one whose time at Mecklenburgh Square was least significant to her formation as an individual or intellectual.

I knew very little about H.D., Jane Harrison, and Eileen Power before, so their chapters were the most novel and informative for me: Harrison in particular was a very appealing character. I already knew a fair amount about Sayers and Woolf, especially around the specific issues and time periods Wade addresses, though, and so their chapters, while also ably executed, inevitably came across as précis versions of what’s available in the very good options we have for full-length biographies–something that might well also be the case for those who knew the other three from existing treatments such as Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison.

square-2This is not to say that there is nothing original about Square Haunting; Wade has not just done her homework and synthesized her findings but added details and insights of her own. Still, the most original thing about her book is its concept: grouping these five women together because they (more or less) shared an address. Wade makes the most of this geographical link, discussing the history of Bloomsbury in general and Mecklenburgh Square more specifically to clarify what it meant to choose to live there, especially for women moving away–as all her subjects were–from women’s conventional roles and paths. Having rooms of their own was both a vital practical step towards the independence they wanted and a heavily symbolic one, a point Wade makes (inevitably and rightly) with plenty of allusions to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Wade does a nice job drawing out the thematic resonances between her subjects’ lifes and their work. Each in her own genre and with her own particular focus contributed rewriting dominant narratives and expanding our available stock of ideas about how to understand and talk about women who do not conform to them. Harrison, to give just one example,

drew on cutting-edge material evidence from the archaeological digs she’d personally witnessed, and revealed an array of powerful goddesses who once reigned alone over cult shrines . . . but whose ancient worship had silently been replaced by later cults to Zeus, their temples renamed, their powers re-attributed and their legends altered to accommodate the rationalized Olympian pantheon. These new gods, Harrison insisted, reflected not only human form but also man-made hierarchies: their rise was testament to the gradual erosion of women in Greek society.

Her “efforts to reread history through the lens of gender and power” had far-reaching influence, Wade observes:

Her legends of powerful, creative, and vengeful women–and her compelling evidence of the way women have been systematically devalued by centuries of patriarchy–inspired others, over subsequent decades, in their creation of female characters, from E. M. Forster’s Schlegel sisters to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, and D. H. Lawrence’s Brangwen women.

v-woolfHarrison is the “J—- H—-” of A Room of One’s Own:

on the terrace, as if popping out to breathe the air, to glance at the garden, came a bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress–could it be the famous scholar, could it be J— H— herself?

Woolf met Harrison at Newnham in 1904 and “Harrison’s work,” Wade tells us, “gave Woolf a new, subversive model of history which informed all her subsequent novels and essays: one whose revelations offered powerful ‘mothers’ for women to ‘think back through’ and which revealed as man-made–and flimsy–the constructs on which patriarchal society rests.”

Wade makes many more connections than that, both biographical and thematic, and they are all interesting and convincing. Still, by the time I’d finished the book I couldn’t shake the feeling that its organizing premise is a bit thin. Mecklenburgh Square is a clever framing device, but it’s hardly essential to the more substantive discussions Wade gets into about her writers: it’s an excuse or an occasion for the book’s particular biographical studies. Many other women around this time had much in common with Wade’s chosen five, for one thing: Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, for instance, who make occasional appearances but happened to live at a different Bloomsbury address. Again, Wade makes the most of her geographical conceit, and it’s mostly successful. I especially liked her conclusion, with its neat revelation that there is now a room reserved for women students in the exact location (as far as researchers can establish) as Woolf’s study in her home at 37 Mecklenburgh Square, which was destroyed in the Blitz. At other times, though, I thought the effort required to sustain or and justify the book’s concept showed through. Probably because I have spent so much (so far fruitless) time trying to imagine how to package and pitch the kind of literary writing I like to do (including about some of these same writers and questions) I found myself almost more impressed with Square Haunting as a successful publishing concept than anything else–as a lesson in, or a reminder of, what sells: biography, of course, or autobiography or bibliomemoir.

room

The reasons for this are probably similar to the reasons collective biography has always served: we still seek models and exemplars, though now we are more likely to find them in rebels and nonconformists than in the kinds of women celebrated in Victorian examples. The women in Square Haunting serve that purpose for me too, and I have found my own ramblings around Bloomsbury inspiring because for me too it is a place that represents a fantasy of liberation, both personal and intellectual. (As Wade points out, that really is a fantasy now, given what it would now cost to rent or own a flat there: it is no longer hospitable to make-shift bohemianism.) On my UK trip last summer I spent a lot of happy time roaming around and sitting and thinking in both Gordon Square and Tavistock Square, which were Woolf’s addresses at other times in her life. Wade has convinced me I should wander over to Mecklenburgh Square on my next visit, just to complete my tour. What a nice thought: to be a literary tourist again, brushing up once more against the materiality of those whose work continues to expand my mental horizons. As this shut-in time wears on and wears me down, it helps to imagine doing a little more ‘square haunting’ of my own some day.

Gordon-Square

“The Pale Actor”: Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light

mirror-light

He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.

As I made my way through The Mirror and the Light, I found I was nearly as preoccupied with two questions about the novel’s form as I was with its detailed and sometimes mesmerizing chronicle of Cromwell’s last four years: why is the novel so long, and how would it end?*

My question about its length is a genuine one, not (or not exactly) a complaint or criticism. The novel is very long. I think possibly, if there is any way to measure such a thing, it is too long, by which I mean longer than it needed to be–but obviously it is exactly as long as Hilary Mantel thought it should be, and there’s a part of me that finishes that sentence by saying “and she should know.” She’s too smart and too artful a novelist to have left in anything that didn’t serve her purpose as she understood it, and she’s the kind of writer (meticulous, deliberate) who has earned my trust. That, arguably, shifts the burden to me: if the novel seemed too long to me, what was I missing?

henryviiiMy question is not well-posed, perhaps. After all, it’s never actually length that’s the problem when a book seems too long, is it? It’s our experience of that length. Many of my favorite books are as long as or longer than The Mirror and the Light (its pages are not even that densely packed) and sometimes a book with relatively few pages or words can seem slack or be tedious to wade through. My question is really more about what Mantel includes than about how much. Compared to Bring Up the BodiesThe Mirror and the Light felt loosely woven: its nearly 900 pages do at once too much and too little. For around 300 pages in the middle of it, I shifted into what I think of as “maintenance” reading: scanning, rather than scrupulously studying, each page, so as to maintain momentum without (I hope) missing anything significant, slowing down when the action or the prose seemed to intensify. There is a lot happening throughout The Mirror and the Light, but much of this action is on a small scale, like individual threads fraying or breaking on a vast tapestry. Cumulatively, every little bit matters because it contributes to the large-scale catastrophe that is Cromwell’s eventual and inevitable fall, but that big pattern (the final phase of the remarkable rise that began in Wolf Hall and accelerated in Bring Up the Bodies) is what’s important, not the minutiae.

mirror-light-2Why, then, does Mantel include so much of it? Or (to set aside the tired and unhelpful question of authorial intent) what is the effect of her decision to include every little thing–to reject the taut intensity that made both earlier books in her trilogy feel so much shorter, go by so much faster, in favor of this more expansive process? One answer that occurred to me as I neared the novel’s conclusion is that our immersion in the daily nitty-gritty of Cromwell’s life at the peak of his power–the constant demands that he do something, fix something, say something; the endless petty but also perilous contests for political dominance with his rivals and enemies; the fraught delicacy of his dances with Henry’s needy vanity–made his death feel shockingly sudden, even though his eventual fate has always been the one absolute certainty of Mantel’s story. Right to the very moment that he finds himself surrounded, arrested, and imprisoned–the moment that he knows too well is the beginning of the end of his life–Cromwell is in the midst of the complicated business of living. While the dramatic irony that is an inevitable feature of historical fiction always hovers over the novel’s action, the steady hum of everything that’s happening in the moment made me less aware of it, papering over the gap between my knowledge of what’s coming and Cromwell’s ignorance. This effect really heightened the emotional power of the last 200 pages, when his efforts prove (as we knew they would) insufficient to save him.

wolf hall coverAnother way I came to think about the novel’s length: The Mirror and the Life is very much a novel about middle age, a time of life in which (as I am learning) present experiences share mental and emotional space with intense memories of the past and a heightened awareness of the finite future. One reason The Mirror and the Light is longer than Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that it contains (or Cromwell’s consciousness contains) both of them within it. In this final novel Cromwell is not just living through his present but constantly recalling his past, reaffirming his history and identity, puzzling out continuities and discontinuities between the boy he once was and the man he now is–and at the same time he is anticipating what will come next, always with a sense of being surrounded by the ghosts of his past actions and (not incidentally) his past victims. Also, like many middle-aged people he has reached a professional plateau: The Mirror and the Light is about a man at the height of his career but with no options for lateral movement and no possibility of a graceful retirement. All he can do is hang on and try to enjoy the rewards his many years of hard work have brought him, while others eye his accomplishments, underestimate the price he paid for them, and dream of succeeding him. There’s less intrinsic drama in maintaining power than there is in either winning or losing it–hence the feeling, at times, that both Cromwell and the novel are spinning their wheels and getting nowhere. When the likely next step is disgrace and death, though, just staying in place has its own particular kind of dramatic tension, and again, this set-up made the ending all the more

Bring-up-the-BodiesThinking about the novel’s length in these ways reminded me of George Eliot’s comment about Middlemarch: “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly.” It is hard to tell a story that captures the whole scope of life–or, in Mantel’s case, of a particular life–without somehow reflecting that inclusive ambition in your formal choices. Still, my attention and interest did sometimes flag during the frequent scenes of Cromwell and his (few) friends and (numerous) rivals and enemies plotting and nattering and jockeying for position. In contrast, I was riveted by many sections that actually contributed comparatively little to the plot but showcase Mantel’s marvelous writing. Her long sentences are intricately shaped and ornately detailed but always completely controlled:

He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russel to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white or ash; round amber fruits dotted with the grey of his livery, thin-skinned fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon, the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone. You can preserve them whole to last all winter, eat them as dessert, or just sit looking at them in an idle moment: globes of gold in a pewter bowl, black fruit like shadows, spheres of cardinal red.

Some readers might love the political maneuvering and find a long paragraph on plums extraneous, digressive–but I’ll take the plums every time: it’s like a still-life painting in prose, resonant with feeling but under perfect control. Here’s another characteristic example:

mirror-light-1

Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure min, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself–slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well; must I apply to Bishop Stephen, who will tell me how transgression follows me, assures me that my sins seek me out; even as I slide into sleep, my past pads after me, paws on the flagstones, pit-pat: water in a basin of alabaster, cool in the heat of the Florentine afternoon.

For me, passages like these (and the novel is full of them) more than made up for the parts that failed to hold or reward my attention to the same extent, even though, or maybe because, they do little to propel the novel’s plot.

holbein-miniature

The plot of The Mirror and the Light is important, of course. Its most significant and decisive event is Cromwell’s negotiation of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves: Henry’s disappointment in her, his fourth bride, was Cromwell’s ruin. This is a story I know well from other treatments, especially Margaret Campbell Barnes’s in her lovely 1946 novel My Lady of Clevesso I was curious to see how Mantel told it. Like Barnes, she highlights the very plausible point that if either partner in this ill-fated marriage was entitled to disappointment or worse, it was Anne, trundled across Europe to marry a diseased and aging king known for ruthlessly discarding wives he didn’t want. Mantel’s Cromwell does his best to befriend Anne and coach her to please her irascible husband, but Henry’s antipathy (sparked by their unfortunate first encounter at which Henry, in disguise, took her by surprise as she traveled towards London) was worsened by his fascination with pretty young Catherine Howard. One reason I actually would have been happy for The Mirror and the Light to have gone on even longer is that I would have loved to see what Mantel did with Catherine: her Anne Boleyn is the best I ever met in any novel, and her doomed cousin’s fate is at least as grimly fascinating. (They are treated as a pair in Jean Plaidy’s 1949 Murder Most Royal, one of the most-read in my battered childhood collection of Plaidy’s novels.) We don’t get to know Anne of Cleves as intimately as we did Anne Boleyn: Mantel allows her some dignity, but she remains (as she was historically) a fortunate bit player in the larger drama.

catherine-howardWe can’t get close to Catherine, or follow her story to its bloody end, for a very simple reason: chronology. Cromwell’s execution preceded hers, though by barely 18 months. This returns me to the second of my questions about the novel’s form: how would it end? This is obviously not a question about plot; my interest was in the novel’s narration. One of the most discussed aspects of Mantel’s trilogy has been her use of a particularly close form of limited omniscient narration: it is in third-person but as if perched on Cromwell’s shoulder, barely acknowledging that it is not in fact first-person narration, never using the license Austen (to give one example of someone who also loves close third person) sometimes uses in her novels to change point of view once in a while to show us the story’s focalizing character from the outside, or to introduce a bit of information she’s not privy to. (I’m thinking of the rare but vital glimpses we get of Wentworth’s point of view in Persuasion, for example.)

Given her obvious interest in perception, consciousness, memory, and identity, and her obvious desire to bring us as close as she could to the mind whose outward manifestations she’s chronicling, why didn’t Mantel use first-person narration? She set herself the challenge, after all, of making a pretty unsympathetic historical figure–one who made many others his victims–into a character who is engrossing enough for us to care how he lives and dies, and first-person narration is a well-established trick for creating intimacy–sometimes sincerely, sometimes to exploit it to ironic effect (as in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day). The obvious answer is that then The Mirror and the Light would have had to be a ghost story. It is very much a novel about ghosts, and towards the end Cromwell feels their presence as vividly as that of any of his living companions, but it matters that they are dead while he is not, not yet. The novel, and its central subject, are profoundly interested in what happens when you cross over that line, both as a personal question (“He thinks of his daughters Anne and Grace; perhaps he will meet them as women grown?”) and as a religious one. Following Cromwell across the threshold would force answers to these questions and move us into territory that is beyond even Mantel’s exhaustive research. She’s not beyond imagining those answers (see, for example, Beyond Black), but I didn’t find her approach to them very convincing and I’m glad she let our awareness seep away with Cromwell’s, “going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea.” She ends it as she should, with the very last of what “he”– long our eyes and ears, our whole consciousness caught up in his hands–can see, and hear, and feel.

npg-cromwellThe Mirror and the Light starts in the immediate bloody aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, making Cromwell’s own, less refined ending (“they don’t write words on the head of the axe”) a neat formal symmetry. The trilogy as a whole achieves something similar, beginning with Cromwell beaten to the ground by his father Walter, “pulled downstream on a deep black tide,” and ending with Walter’s voice still challenging him to “get up.” Even at the very last, the force of personality Mantel has created for Cromwell is so strong I almost expected that he would, like the case he recalls even as he mounts the scaffold: the Earl of Arundel “was axed down on this spot and his corpse leapt upright to say a Pater Noster. All headsmen … talk of it as a fact.” He doesn’t, of course, and at the last moment Mantel’s third-person narration proves its value as well as its logic, because he slips away and we are left behind. It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell, but she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.


* A postscript to this post: I realize I never really got around to discussing the basic features of the novel–stuff like its plot and characters and religion and politics–with much specificity, but it has been reviewed widely, so if those things are of more interest to you than these ramblings, it’s easy to find someone talking about them. That’s one reason I decided to address these particular aspects of the novel (which for better or for worse are the ones I was thinking most about as I read it and after I finished it) rather than doing more of a standard review post. In case I haven’t quite made this clear, I think it’s a really good novel, even though I ended up skimming some portions of it–not as good as the first two in the trilogy, where I was never tempted to skim, but still better than most novels. If I had to choose, I’d probably pick Bring Up the Bodies as the best of the three. You?