Joining the Dots: Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars

donoghueI gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another to another, jumping between stepping-stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes of light to hook us.

I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were in the writing.

I think Emma Donoghue is a good novelist. She has smart ideas and she has an enviable capacity to execute each new concept she comes up with both efficiently and competently: it seemed like I had only just filed my review of Akin for Canadian Notes and Queries when I heard that The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and Akin wasn’t that long after The Wonder, which I reviewed for the TLS. If my noting that Donoghue is efficient and competent seems like damning her with faint praise, well, you aren’t entirely wrong. What frustrates me is that while all of these novels are fine–I would even say that The Wonder is quite good–they are not great, and yet they somehow give me the impression that Donoghue could write a great novel if she took more time and dug a little deeper. (I’ve read two of Donoghue’s earlier novels, Room and Slammerkin; they too are fine. I think I also read The Sealed Letter; that I can’t remember for sure is perhaps not a good sign for it–or maybe for me!)

stars2Unfortunately, The Pull of the Stars is the least fine of the ones I’ve read: though I was gripped by it at first, by the end I found it quite disappointing. The ingredients are excellent, Donoghue’s research was obviously meticulous, and some moments are really memorable, but as a whole, it just doesn’t work very well. The premise is simple and promising: the novel covers three intense days in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. It follows the grueling and often heroic exertions of Nurse Julia Power, her feisty volunteer assistant Bridie Sweeney, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, an actual historical person who (among other things) was active in Sinn Féin and a fierce advocate for “nutrition, housing, and sanitation for her fellow citizens” (from Donoghue’s Author’s Note). The graphic descriptions of medical crises and procedures–whether for symptoms of influenza or for childbirth–make for grim reading that’s often really absorbing, in a documentary sort of way. Here’s a representative sample:

I considered an enema but decided that she’d been eating so little, there was probably nothing in her bowels. The pangs kept coming every three minutes, a clockwork torture. For all Mary O’Rahilly’s efforts, nothing in her great taut bump seemed to be descending. Could the head be stuck at the pelvic brim? Nothing was changing except that the young woman was getting limper and paler . . . 

From the sterile trays on the high shelf I snatched a long needle, a tube, and rubber bulb syringe. I filled a bowl to the two-pint mark with hot water from the pan, measured the salt in, then brought it down to blood temperature by adding some cold.

When I tied a catgut ligature above Mary O’Rahilly’s right elbow and tightened it until a sky-blue vein stood out, she barely seemed to notice. Obedient to the next contraction, she gripped the roller towel and pushed her stockinged feet against the bare rails. (The pillow had fallen to the floor, but I couldn’t reach it.)

You can certainly picture all of this, just as you can “see” very clearly the whole awful process of her reaching up into a mother’s body to retrieve an unattached portion of the placenta or the awful progression of the influenza as it takes a young woman through the too-familiar stages “red to brown to blue to black.”

stars-audioAssuming you have the stomach for this kind of stuff, and also assuming you have the emotional fortitude to persist with a novel about a pandemic while in the midst of one (that was a close call for me)–if neither of those aspects of The Pull of the Stars puts you off, then what’s not to like? Well, of course you might like it just fine! My complaint is that for most of the book, there’s almost no story, no plot: it’s just a sequence of events. The only shape the narrative has is linear: things happen, one after another, and our small cast of characters reacts, but moving on to the next thing is not the same as going anywhere. Maybe that was a deliberate formal choice, as Julia herself resists the idea that people’s lives have direction or meaning, but for me it made the first three quarters of the novel feel aimless, with no sense that its parts were turning into anything. Then the novel became a love story, a development which seemed so abrupt it felt like an afterthought: there was no groundwork laid for it, no anticipation of it, no thematic reason for it. And then, just as abruptly, the love story [SPOILER ALERT] turns to tragedy, and while we know by then that the influenza can progress with appalling speed, still, it felt unfortunately pat as a way to wrap things up.

hamnet2There are some other threads of interest in the novel, including scathing critiques of the nuns and the abusive girls’ “homes” they run, and Dr. Lynn provides occasions for some bits of political back and forth. Again, these are good ingredients (especially Dr. Lynn, whose biography Kathleen Lynn: Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor sounds well worth reading), but I like a novel to feel, by the end, like something significantly more than the sum of its parts, and I don’t think The Pull of the Stars pulled that off, even though Donoghue joins all the dots neatly enough. If for some reason you are actually in the mood for a novel about the plague, I would recommend reading Hamnet instead: it is original and beautiful and devastating in a way that Donoghue’s novel, well conceived and well written as it is, just isn’t.

“Mellow Music”: Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw


My title comes from one of Walton’s epigraphs and also inspirations for Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH, specifically the famous bit about nature being “red in tooth and claw.” The premise of Walton’s novel, as she explains in her author’s note, is to see “what a world would be like … if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” Picking up on Tennyson’s line about “dragons of the prime” and a passing reference to dragons in Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Walton’s thought experiment recasts Trollopian characters as dragons, complete with scales, wings, treasure hoards, and (best of all) fancy hats. She sets them in motion in a Trollopian plot (close, I think, to the plot of Framley Parsonage, though it has been a long time since I read it, and Tooth and Claw is so much shorter that I assume a lot of Trollope’s subplots are tidied away), complete with contested wills, shifting social classes, unpleasant suitors, sweet love stories, and religious quibbling.

waltonThe result is delightful but (perhaps inevitably) also sort of silly. The incongruity of dragons behaving exactly like Trollope characters is sometimes hilarious and sometimes (for me at least) too much: references to their swirling eyes and burnished scales and “beds” of gold coins made it hard for me to engage with them as characters with the usual kinds of motives and feelings. But there’s also something slyly thought-provoking in Walton’s literalization of the inequalities and hang-ups of the period – or, probably more accurately, of the novels of the period. One clever aspect of Tooth and Claw, for example, is that the female dragons “pink up” when in love – though they may also, and this proves problematic, pink up when approached too closely even by a male they don’t love, and that can have serious consequences for their reputations. It is both appropriate and necessary for female dragons to react this way to their potential spouse – and once married they turn increasingly rosy, a sign of their sexual maturity. Any reader of Victorian novels is familiar with the novelists’ trick of having heroines blush as a delicate sign of sexual attraction or arousal, and also with the impossible trick these heroines are supposed to perform of never desiring except where and when it’s acceptable, staying ignorant and virtuous until the switch is flipped and they go from innocent girl to bride, wife, and mother (and thus, implicitly but by definition sexually active). Navigating this terrain is treacherous for both the heroines themselves and their authors; reconciling sexuality and propriety or principle is a key theme of 19th-century novelists from Austen to Hardy and Gissing. Walton’s spin on this doesn’t tell us anything about it that her Victorian predecessors haven’t explored already, but it’s still ingenious and amusing to follow.

clawAnother smart aspect of Tooth and Claw is its attention to the ways wealth is hoarded and shared (or not shared), so that the powerful elite not only maintain their status but expand it, while the weaker and more vulnerable compete (quite literally) for the scraps. When a dragon dies, for instance, its heirs eat it, their shares apportioned by custom and privilege. Eating a dragon makes the consuming dragon bigger and stronger: thus the laws of inheritance perpetuate inequality. Weakling members of families are also eaten, thus guaranteeing the greater size and strength of the survivors (hello, Darwin); servants who have outlived their usefulness are eaten – and so too, sometimes, are servants who disobey or betray the family they serve. Legal disputes can be settled by combat, with the loser getting eaten – which would certainly have had implications for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce! Again, it’s ingenious, a dynamic of competition and entitlement familiar to readers of Trollope but shown up as more ruthless than Trollope’s gentle satire typically acknowledges.

framleyI don’t think Tooth and Claw is more revealing or insightful, or more critical, about Victorian society than the actual Victorian novelists I know best, but Walton’s novel is a lot of fun to read: it is satisfying in the way that watching any highly original concept be executed well is satisfying. I found it thoroughly entertaining. Her dragons are fearsome but also pretty lovable; she finds a way to make “mellow music” with them. Unlike one of the reviewers quoted on the cover, I didn’t finish it “wishing it were twice as long,” but Framley Parsonage is twice as long and more, and Tooth and Claw did make me think it might be time to reread it.

Under Water: Colm Tóibín, Nora Webster

toibinAt the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want.

Nora Webster is pretty much the opposite of the happy reading places I highlighted in my last post. It’s a novel about grief, though (predictably, from Tóibínmaster of reticence) it is barely, quietly, minimally so. The loss of Nora’s husband elicits no wailing, hardly even any weeping: there is nothing of the tear-jerker about the novel at all. I admit, I was a bit sorry: I have struggled before with Tóibín’s flat affect and this time too I got a bit impatient with the calm simplicity of his sentences. I know that is what a lot of readers (and critics) like and admire about his writing. It’s also more or less what I expect from him now, so at any rate I wasn’t surprised.

brooklynMore than that, it felt to me that Nora Webster uses that characteristic stillness of Tóibín’s in a meaningful way: to reflect Nora’s own emotional state, her feeling that she is both unable and unwilling to rise to the surface and meet the demands and expectations of those around her. It’s her situation that is the cause of her repression, not her character (as is the case in Brooklyn), and so there is more tension behind Tóibín’s precise prose because we see signs of her potential for fierceness even before she begins to recover and show more of it herself. Waiting to see when and how she would break through was interesting in a way that (for me) Brooklyn was not. As the novel went on, I was rooting for Nora to be more and do more, to allow herself to feel; I enjoyed her displays of strength, which made clear that it’s her grief, not Nora herself, that is the problem. 

beethoven-archdukeI particularly liked the way the novel used music as Nora’s way back. It’s hard to write well about music. I think Lynn Sharon Schwartz does it wonderfully in Disturbances in the Field; I hoped for good things from Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul and William Boyd’s Love Is Blind but was disappointed. Tóibín ties Nora’s recovery to her growing engagement with music: her attention to it doesn’t just distract her from her mourning but connects her to the person she needs to become to move past it. She has no particular expertise or sophistication as a listener, but her interest is complete and genuine:

On Sunday morning when the boys were at mass and Fiona was still in bed, she put the record on and studied the photograph on the sleeve, looked at the men with their dark good looks and then at the young woman between them, who seemed happier the more Nora looked at her. She listened to the first movement over and over, relishing the uncertainty of it, as though someone was making an effort to say something even deeper and more difficult, and hesitating and then giving in to a simpler melody before moving out of it again into strange sudden lonely moments that the violin or the cello played with a sadness that she wondered how these three young people could know about.

I’m reasonably certain that the musicians on her LP are Zukerman, Barenboim, and Du Pré: the description of them fits, and also the timing is right – this recording was made in the late 60s. One of the odd things about reading this novel, actually, was that until the explicit references to watching the moon landing, I had forgotten that it was a period piece. Eventually the political events make that hard to miss, and of course once you are thinking about it as historical fiction there are lots of signs and reminders. But I think this potential for slippage between then and now is another consequence of Tóibín’s style and the sparseness of his exposition, and also of the intense intimacy of his subject, which is not really (I don’t think) Ireland or the broader context, though I could  be misreading: one of the reviews quoted on my copy says the novel is “a subtle way to reflect on Ireland’s need to put its own grief into a larger context.” I can’t say that’s wrong, but it didn’t feel that way to me, and I didn’t feel any pressure to read Nora as representative in some way either. To me, the novel was exactly as personal as its title. Maybe that’s a limitation on the book: maybe it keeps it small. There is something constrained about it–but by the end, it also gave me a feeling of space as Nora comes to terms with “the way things had worked out.”

My Happy (Book) Places

devils-cubOnce several years ago I was waiting for my daughter to come out of a medical appointment. The waiting area was, as is typical, neither particularly comfortable nor particularly cheering, and yet when she came out she stopped and exclaimed “you look so happy!” And I was! Why? Because I had just been reading the part of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub in which (if you know the novel, you can probably already guess) our heroine Mary accidentally tells the forbidding Duke of Avon all about the troubles she has been having with his renegade son, the Marquis of Vidal, with whom she has, against all propriety and practicality, fallen completely in love. I say “accidentally” because she doesn’t know that the enigmatic man she’s talking to is Vidal’s father–but we do, or at least we suspect it much sooner than she discovers it, and so the whole conversation is just delicious, for reasons you have to read the rest of the novel to fully appreciate.

ringed-castleLast week, because the new books I had been reading weren’t thrilling me, I decided to reread an old favorite, Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle. I know this novel so well now that sometimes I skim a bit to get to the parts I particularly love. I read quite a bit of it ‘properly’ this time, because it’s just so good, and it helped reconnect me with my inner bookworm. Near the end, there’s a scene in The Ringed Castle that makes me just as happy as that bit of Devil’s Cub (again, readers of the novel can probably guess which one – in fact, when I mentioned this on Twitter Matt did guess right away!). Even more than the scene in Devil’s Cub, this bit relies for its pleasures on everything else that has happened, not just in The Ringed Castle but in the four preceding books in the series–and it is even better when you know the next book, Checkmate, in which the possibilities awakened in those rare moments of levity and delight (it’s a pretty emotionally fraught series, overall) come at long last to fruition.

A_Room_with_a_View“You look so happy”: that’s not the only thing reading can do, and it isn’t always what we want from our reading, but it’s a special gift when it happens, isn’t it, especially these days? I can think of only a few other scenes that have this particular effect on me: the bathing scene in A Room with a View, the evidence-collecting walk on the beach in Have His Carcase, the rooftop chase in Checkmate (so, score two for Dunnett), the ending of Pride and Prejudice, several small pieces of Cranford (the cow in flannel pyjamas!). Of course there are many, many other reading moments that I love and enjoy and return to over and over, for all sorts of reasons, but these are the some of the ones that make me feel as if I’ve turned my face to the sun: warmed, uplifted, delighted. The joy they give me depends not just on the words on the page but on my history with those pages, and also, as with all idiosyncratic responses, on my own history more generally, and on that elusive thing we could call my “sensibility” as a reader. In that moment everything, not just reading, feels as good as it gets. What a comfort it always is to know that I can return to that happy place any time, just by picking the book up again. carcase3

What are the happiest places in your reading? Is there a scene that you know you can always count on to bring you joy, to turn your face to the sunshine?

Weekend Reading: Making an Effort

Woman Reading (Elinga)I can’t post about books I’ve finished this week because I haven’t finished any. I’ve been trying to read–keeping in mind my realization that my life as a whole is better if I do, and also if I then write about what I’ve read. One obstacle has been my eyesight, unfortunately! Happy as I still am with the multifocal contact lenses that make almost every other aspect of my life perfectly visible, apparently my eyes have been changing just enough that now, if I’m wearing them, I find it really hard to focus on books. I can read just fine without the lenses in, but I don’t like to take them in and out, so I’ve been fitting some reading in during the mornings before I put them in to start the rest of my day, and in the evenings when I will still need them a bit later for TV, I am experimenting with some cheap reading glasses–which do seem to help with that near focus, but make me pretty swimmy if I dare to look around and not just stare at the page. I need to see my eye doctor and reassess my options, but I don’t want to have an eye exam (which brings you inescapably up close and personal for quite a long time, if it’s thorough) until … well, until.

bowenSo, one challenge is aging, and there’s not much to be done about that (and it’s only going to get worse, I know!) The other, though, has been the books I’ve been trying to focus on. Both are ones I have wanted to read for a long time, but neither has proved the right book for this moment, although one of them I am still working on. The first one I started this week was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been on my reading wish list for years. It looks great! I am sure it is great! But a couple of chapters into it, I just couldn’t bear it: it was making me feel both bored and claustrophobic. I suspect some of that is a deliberate effect, as it seems to be about a stifling world that tries to stifle people’s feelings. Bowen’s sentences didn’t help. I love Olivia Manning’s description of Bowen’s prose as being like someone drinking milk with their legs crossed behind their head: often, it just seems to be making something that’s actually fairly simple much more complicated than it needs to be! I can and have enjoyed exactly that about Bowen–but not now. Maybe The Death of the Heart will be a good book to read in the summer, on the deck with the languorous pleasure of sunshine to soothe my nerves and no constant fretting about discussion posts ungraded and PowerPoint slides to laboriously create. Back on the shelf it goes, until then.

le-carre-perfectThe other is John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, which I am still working on. I loved the Smiley books so much, and was so engaged by The Little Drummer Girl–how could I not want to read the book Le Carré himself considered his masterpiece?  I acquired it in a flush of enthusiasm after reading the others, started it–and did not like it at all. Then I started it again, months later–and still could not get a grip on it. I took it off my shelves when I put Bowen back, because it seemed like the opposite kind of book and so I thought it might work where The Death of the Heart hadn’t. My hope is that if I can just get further in this time, I will figure it out, by which I don’t mean the plot (which I expect will be as twisty as always) but the voice and the style and the mood. It feels really different from the other Le Carrés I’ve read: it is more fragmented, more arch and nasty, and less (so far) morally serious. I know a lot of people argue that life is too short to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying, and this is a case in which I have obviously agreed so far, quitting it for other books that I liked better. I am not an absolutist about finishing every book you start–but I have, often enough, found that persistence can pay off, and I believe, too, that good books sometimes teach us how to read them, and it’s a lesson that can take more than a few chapters. I want to stick with it this time, just to give it a real chance. (Any admirers out there who would like to encourage me in this effort? Please chime in!)

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYSo that’s where I am this week! I have been thinking a lot about posting more in my once-usual “this week in my classes” series but I can’t seem to get past the twin obstacles of my classes no longer being distinguishable “events” and of all the work for them already being done by computer, which makes reflecting on them by writing about them on the computer a lot less appealing, for some reason. I have a rambling post partially drafted about the other topic that has been much on my mind: realizing that by the time we are back on campus, I will be among the most senior members of my department, not by age but by longevity. In fact, by July 1 2022, I will have only one colleague still around who has been in the department longer than I have. What does–what should–this mean to how I go about my work, or how I think about it? I don’t really know, and I thought that writing about it might help. Maybe it will! We’ll see. In the meantime, things go on exactly the same as they have for months and months. Vaccines are coming, but very slowly–as is spring. Reason for optimism on both counts, but what’s still required above all is patience, and after a year of this, I sometimes feel I have to dig pretty deep for that.

Recent Reading: Gyasi & Rooney

gyasiI continued trying harder this week to do better reading, choosing books that I hoped would bring more or different rewards than my recent rather desultory choices of mysteries and romances. I had mixed success in terms of immediate satisfaction–I didn’t have a lot of fun reading either of the novels I finished this week, but both were thoughtful books that led to thought-provoking experiences.

First up was finishing Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I had started a few weeks back and set aside when I realized I had to dig in on the Balkan Trilogy if I was going to write my TLS piece about it in anything other than a total panic. That I hadn’t really felt the pull of it in the meantime and chose, when I felt free to do more personal reading again, to read other things is symptomatic of my relationship with the novel. I was interested in it from the start, and once I went back to it I remained interested in it until the end, but even though I found the story of Gifty and Nana a sad and sometimes harrowing one, the novel never gripped me emotionally: I felt at a distance from its (and their) feelings. I think some of that might be the result of deliberate choices on Gyasi’s part: Gifty’s voice, for example, is often quite detached, and her interests, at least as she articulates them, are often  intellectual or philosophical. She is processing trauma and grief in that way, by asking questions about what things mean and also by turning her family experience into something she can investigate – however imperfectly – through science. Her experiments are a way of managing what happened with her brother’s addiction and death, of trying to convert something that makes no sense to her into something wholly explicable.

The other crucial layer of the novel is her struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with both Nana’s addiction and her own scientific predilections. This made perfect sense as part of Gifty’s personal journey, but there wasn’t much in it that interested me very much, partly because, as a life-long atheist, I can enter only theoretically or hypothetically into someone’s crisis of faith. If it’s going to feel important to me, I need to have a really strong sense of what makes it so difficult to let go of the religious side — or what makes it so important to hang on to it — not in terms of an argument about it, but in terms of the power it has for the character: what does it offer them, or has it meant to them, that a life without religion cannot? There are definitely literary texts that convey this urgency to me (the first writer who comes to mind is actually Hopkins, whose “terrible sonnets” I find extremely powerful–or Tennyson’s In Memoriam) or that tell a story about how faith matters in such a way that, although it is very much not my own world view, I find it compelling nonetheless. I just didn’t have that response to Transcendent Kingdom, which offered neither the intensity of a vicarious religious experience nor any novel insight into either belief or unbelief. Here’s a representative passage with Gifty reflecting on the relationship between faith and science:

gyasi2This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.

As a description of a character’s point of view, this is fine–good, even. As a commentary on the relationship between science and religion, though, it seems pretty perfunctory and not at all memorable. (I think the novel, or Gifty, also underestimates the capacity of godless people to find meaning and even wonder in the world: Gyasi relies too much on a reductive opposition that she then, unsurprisingly, can’t reconcile or overcome in any profound way.) Maybe it’s as simple as the difficulty of incorporating philosophy into fiction. A “novel of ideas” is one of the hardest things to write without being either didactic or obscure–and while also fully dramatizing the concepts behind it.

NPThe other novel I read this week was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, after finishing the extraordinarily intimate and touching series. I have thought a lot about how watching the adaptation first (something I rarely do) affected my reading of the novel. The most important thing is that it inspired me to read the novel at all: after giving up part way through Conversations with Friends because I was “bored stiff with the process of reading Rooney’s prose,” I had assumed Normal People was also not for me. I’m still not sure what I think about it qua novel, because the whole time I was reading it, I could hear the lines in my head as delivered by the actors (the script is extraordinarily close to the novel–a sign, in some ways, of exactly what I don’t like about Rooney’s style–shouldn’t there be more sense of something lost in the translation to a different medium, the way no 19th-century novel is ever as good in the adaptation because, among other things, you inevitably lose the narrator?).

That said, Normal People is not quite as minimal as Conversations with Friends: there actually are some conspicuously written moments: flashes of gorgeous metaphors (“Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings,” for example–not the narrator’s own words, but Connell’s, rare evidence of the gifted writer he is supposed to be), or observations, contexts, or or internal reflections that at most we can only infer from the many long silences in the adaptation. Still, the sentences overall have the same flat affect and monotonous tone that alienated me from her earlier novel–except when I “listened” to their soft Irish lilt. Could it be that the accent makes all the difference? Not for everyone, obviously, as Rooney has been widely acclaimed. Why did I need the text on the page translated into talking before I could feel it? Because I definitely did feel Normal People. In fact, I felt so sad when I finished it I could hardly get back to my to-do list for the day. I did not find the adaptation so devastating, even though it covers so precisely the same ground. There was just so much tenderness in it: the way they looked at each other, which is described in the novel too but so sparingly you have to take the intimacy on trust, while on screen, you can see it, even when (especially when) they aren’t touching or talking. (They both give such good performances.)


Did the series bring something to the novel that isn’t actually there? Or did it bring out something I might have missed if I’d read before watching, because the novel isn’t written in a style I like? Whatever it was, I found that I was willing to believe in depths behind the boringly minimal prose of Normal People that I couldn’t feel or believe in when I tried Conversations with Friends.

toibinNext up, I think, is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and then probably Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, which I couldn’t resist when I saw it in the selection of March sale books at the King’s Bookstore. Plus I’m also, always, reading for class as well: in the ‘Woman Question’ seminar, we are doing a poetry cluster in the upcoming module, after wrapping up The Mill on the Floss this week, so that will be a change of pace; and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are starting Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Because I’ve assigned (as recommended for online courses) quite a bit less reading in both classes than I usually do, I am a bit wistful about what we aren’t covering, but all indications are that this kind of paring back is the right move–and I guess all things considered, I’m not really sorry given how laborious other aspects of online teaching continue to be.

“Rests in the Gap”: María Gainza, Optic Nerve

optic-nerveMaybe it had something to do with my footwear, but this time it was fireworks, what A. S. Byatt calls “the kick galvanic.” It reminded me that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you. And that the tiniest thing can make the difference.

Optic Nerve is a generic hybrid: part memoir, or perhaps (as it’s subtitled “A Novel”) what we now call “auto-fiction”; part personal essays (or is that aspect intrinsic to the concept of auto-fiction?); part art history; part art criticism (or at any rate part commentary on art).

I had trouble, as a reader, unifying these parts. I found many–though not all–of the personal and family anecdotes interesting and most–though still not all–of the explorations of particular artists and their works engrossing and thought-provoking. I liked the surprises that so many of Gainza’s stories, about herself or about art, delivered; I liked the sense that we were wandering through a kind of gallery of her life that in its turn had doors that opened onto the lives of artists.

What I liked best was the way she showed me paintings. I frequently wished the book included color plates so I could see for myself, so that I could try looking at them through the lens of her writing. Happily, of course, having the internet at my fingertips made it easy to supplement the prose with the visuals, but it didn’t seem ideal to have to take my attention away from the book to do that. I wonder why it wasn’t possible to open each chapter with an illustration: would it have been too expensive – for the publisher and thus the potential purchasers of the book? or is there some way in which the book does not want us to do this?

optic-nerve-2What I didn’t like: Optic Nerve felt really miscellaneous. Its unifying force is Gainza herself, or the narrating version of her, I suppose, but I often found myself puzzled over what else bound together the specific elements she included in each chapter. Sometimes I could see it, or sense it (the chapter about her brother and El Greco, for instance, which turned on ideas about religion, and – I think – on tensions between ascetism and sensuality), but most of the time it seemed random. Was I not reading or thinking hard enough, or was that fragmentation deliberate? Maybe the idea was precisely to scatter our focus, or to reflect the ways our lives are not in fact neatly organized around common themes–or to match her commentary on art, which emphasizes that we should, or always do, feel first and think later. I would have liked a bit of guidance about this from the book itself.

Two chapters – or, really, two painters – made the strongest impression: they are the ones I couldn’t read more about without an image search. In both cases it was because of how Gainza wrote about their paintings. Here she is on Courbet’s The Stormy Sea (Mer orageuse):

A foamy roller breaks against rocks in the foreground; at the horizon, the sea and sky meld into one; and in the top half of the picture the sky is packed with bulging pinkish clouds. This oil on canvas from 1869 is close to one meter high and one meter wide, just right to hang on my chimney breast, if I had one. How lovely it would be to watch a fire burning beneath such a sea! Every time I look at it, something inside me becomes compressed, a sensation between my chest and my throat, like a small bite being taken out of me. I have learned to respect this twinge, to pay attention to it, because my body always works things out before I do. Only afterward does my intellect draw its conclusions.


Here is some of what she says about Rothko:

People say you have to approach a Rothko in the same way you approach a sunrise. The work has a clear beauty, but that beauty can be either sublime or decorative . . . Perhaps there is something spiritual in the experience of looking at a Rothko, but it’s the kind of spiritual that resists description: like seeing a glacier, or crossing a desert. Rarely do the inadequacies of language become so patently obvious. Standing before a Rothko, you might reach for something meaningful to say, only to end up talking nonsense. All you really want to say is “fuck me.”

Light Red Over Black 1957 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

One more sample, from the section on El Greco:

One winter’s night, an icy wind began to blow through his paintings. The space inside them grew constricted, and his figures, as if to adapt to these new climes, hollowed themselves out and lengthened upward.

Optic Nerve is not the kind of book I usually seek out, and the discomfort I felt with its form (or formlessness) confirmed my typical hesitation. I liked these passages (and others) so much, though, that reading this book also made me think I should overcome those hesitations more often–that I should take more reading risks. It’s true that some of my best reading experiences have been with books that are not at all, at least at first glance, my usual kind of thing (Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden, for example–I still don’t really understand why I felt such a strong compulsion to buy it!). On the other hand, my irritation when I take a risk and hate the result is immense! That perpetual struggle to weigh risk and reward is one reason the Rothko chapter affected me so much. His is exactly the kind of painting I ordinarily have no time for, but Gainza made me really want to look at it–she made me want to go to MOMA or the Tate and stare at the real thing, wish that I could have gone to the MFA in Boston to try their experiment in “seeking stillness.”

Maybe what I should really read is not more generically miscellaneous writing but more good art criticism–and yet what Optic Nerve proposes, or maybe proves, is that “good art criticism” is a function of the observer, that the optic nerve is part of the whole person. I may find the whole idea of auto-fiction both incoherent and solipsistic, but genre labels aside, in that respect at least Gainza’s book makes perfect sense.

Recent Reading: Stuttering A Bit

Manning WindmillIt’s not that I haven’t been reading. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I reread all three novels in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, which is, cumulatively, over 900 pages. This is because I’m going to be writing up something about them for the TLS to mark the nice new reissues by Windmill Books. What exactly I’m going to say is something I’m still working out: the problem is not too few ideas but too many, given what strange and fascinating and provoking books these are. But because I have a formal writing project to do about them, I won’t be adding anything about them here. (I blogged about the whole batch years ago when I first read them, and I also reviewed Deirdre David’s outstanding biography of Manning for Open Letters Monthly.) Also for a review, I read The Appraisal and Deceptions by Anna Porter, two mystery/thrillers set in the very fascinating (under)world of buying and selling fine art masterpieces. My review will be out in Canadian Notes & Queriesdeceptions soon: the tl;dr version (though it’s actually quite a short review anyway!) is that they are good and have real historical and moral depth behind the genre-fiction surface, especially through the way their stories reach back to Hungary’s fascist and Soviet-dominated past. My mother kindly just shipped me her copy of Porter’s memoir The Storyteller, apparently out of print now, which I am looking forward to reading.

bakerI’ve done some other reading “just” for myself and it’s really here that I’ve felt that things are not going so smoothly. The books have been fine. Well, two of them have been fine: Jo Baker’s The Body Lies and Kate Clayborn’s Love At First. Baker’s is the next one we’ll be discussing in my book club: because we are all tired, stressed, and distracted, people wanted something plotty, and I took on the job of rounding up some crime fiction options that looked like they would also be “literary” enough for us to have something to talk about. I think we chose reasonably well with The Body Lies: it purports to be a novel about both violence against women and about how that violence is treated in so much crime fiction, meaning it has a metafictional aspect that adds interest beyond the novel’s own story. I finished it quickly, because I found it quite engrossing, so that’s a good sign in a way–but I also finished it unconvinced that it had avoided the trap of reproducing the things it aims to critique. I read it too soon, as we won’t be meeting up for a while, so I’ll have to reread at least part of it before our discussion to refresh my grasp of the particulars: I’ll come to that rereading with this question top of mind.

clayborn loveI was really excited for the release of Love At First because I am a big fan of Clayborn’s previous novels: they are in the relatively small cluster of romance novels that I have appreciated more the more often I reread them (which in this case has been quite frequently), because she packs a lot into them. That complexity, which can make them seem a bit cluttered at first, turns out (for me at least) to give them more layers and more interest than I often find in recent examples of the genre, which are either too thin and formulaic to sustain my interest or try too obviously to check off too many boxes, making them read like they were designed by focus groups, rather than emerging in any way organically. I really enjoy the intense specificity of her characters and their lives, including their work, which she pays a lot of attention to (yay, neepery). I feel a bit deflated by Love At First, because it seemed – while both very sweet and very competently written and structured – a lot less interesting and a lot less intense than the others. For the first time reading Clayborn, I felt I was reading something almost generic: the story goes through the motions rather than jumping off the page. I’ll reread it eventually: maybe I will find more in it then. I did like it! But I had hoped to really love it, and I didn’t–at  least not at first. 🙂

weinbergAnd speaking of books I don’t love, I have stalled half way through Kate Weinberg’s The Truants. It showed up on my radar around the same time I was looking into The Body Lies and they seemed so well paired that I ordered them both at the same time. Now I wonder what got into me: I started, hated, and quickly abandoned Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and everything about The Truants (including many of the blurbs!) signals that it is in the same vein. There’s nothing wrong with it qua book; it seems deft and clever and (like The Body Lies, but in a different way) it is also aiming at something metafictional through its engagement with Agatha Christie and ideas about how crime fiction works. But I can’t stand academic stories that turn on cults of personality around professors, which are creepy and and antithetical to everything I believe about teaching, not to mention about student-teacher relationships (hello, Dead Poets Society, which once upon a time I found enthralling but now consider kind of appalling). Also, while I try not to hold academic settings up to reductive standards of realism — and I’m also aware that I don’t understand the British system being portrayed very well, so I can’t actually be sure if I’m right when my reaction is “but this isn’t what we do!” — it gets distracting when the scenarios seem too far off. I have not so far managed to get genuinely interested in any of the characters, which means I keep not picking the book up to read further, which in turn means I’m also not picking up anything else because I feel as if I should finish it first. That’s a foolish “should,” I know, though I am by habit and on principle someone who does mostly try to finish the books I start, in case they get better or I figure out how to read them, both things that have happened often enough to make me hesitant to toss things aside. I’m not going to toss this one aside, or at any rate I’m not going to put it in my malingering “donate” stack (how I wish the book sale was once again able to accept donations, as this stack is getting kind of large!). Instead, I’m going to put it back on my Mysteries shelf and try it again another time.

macke woman readingI think I need to read something richer and more challenging to turn things around — and to do that I need to stop making excuses about distractions or poor concentration. Reading, including reading well, is a decision we can make, I honestly think, and it’s not just that I feel disappointed in myself when I’m not doing it; it’s also that my life overall feels worse without it. One of my favorite quotations is from Carol Shields’ wonderful novel Unless: “This is why I read novels: so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.” My current unrelenting monologue (like most people’s these days, I expect) is not a particularly sustaining one: I need reading to give me other stories to think about. I need blogging for the same reason, I find: it is still the only writing I do that feels genuinely my own. This is not by way of making some kind of bold resolution about either reading or blogging, but it actually helps just putting into words why I hope I will be doing more of both.

Revisiting Mrs. Tulliver’s Teraphim

millonflossAs my ‘Victorian Woman Question’ seminar makes its way through The Mill on the Floss, I am very much missing the opportunity to engage in face to face discussion with everyone. It’s a novel that provokes delight, frustration, sorrow, and thought in so many ways–that raises so many complications for us, thematically and formally: it feels more difficult to choose topics and shape conversations for our online version of the class for The Mill on the Floss than it has felt for some of the other novels I have taught this way in the last few months, including (perhaps surprisingly) Middlemarch. But of course the novel itself is as wonderful as usual, and our readings for this past week included one of my favorite incidents: Mrs. Tulliver’s poignant attempt to hang on to her “chany.” It moved me even more this time: as the one-year anniversary of our COVID-inflicted isolation approaches, the things that connect us to each other and to our histories seem to me to be carrying more and more emotional weight. Here’s a post I wrote about Mrs. Tulliver’s “teraphim” almost a decade ago.

Durade GEOne of the many things that make reading George Eliot at once so challenging and so satisfying is her resistance to simplicity–especially moral simplicity. It’s difficult to sit in judgment on her characters. For one thing, she’s usually not just one but two or three steps ahead: she’s seen and analyzed their flaws with emphatic clarity, but she’s also put them in context, explaining their histories and causes and effects and pointing out to us that we aren’t really that different ourselves. Often the characters themselves are in conflict over their failings (think Bulstrode), and when they’re not, at least they can be shaken out of them temporarily, swept into the stream of the novel’s moral current (think Rosamond, or in a different way, Hetty). But these are the more grandiose examples, the ones we know we have to struggle to understand and embrace with our moral theories. Her novels also feature pettier and often more comically imperfect characters who are more ineffectual than damaging, or whose flaws turn out, under the right circumstances, to be strengths. In The Mill on the Floss, Mrs Glegg is a good example of someone who comes through in the end, the staunch family pride that makes her annoyingly funny early on ultimately putting her on the right side in the conflict that tears the novel apart.

Penguin MillThen there’s her sister Bessy, Mrs Tulliver, who is easy to dismiss as foolish and weak, but to whom I have become increasingly sympathetic over the years. Mrs Tulliver is foolish and weak, but in her own way she cleaves to the same values as the novel overall: family and memory, the “twining” of our affections “round those old inferior things.” In class tomorrow we are moving through Books III and IV, in which the Tulliver family fortunes collapse, along with Mr Tulliver himself, and the relatives gather to see what’s to be done. The way the prosperous sisters patronize poor Bessy is as devastatingly revealing about them as it is crushing to her hopes that they’ll pitch in to keep some of her household goods from being put up to auction:

“O dear, O dear,” said Mrs Tulliver, “to think o’ my chany being sold in that way — and I bought it when I was married, just as you did yours, Jane and Sophy. . . . You wouldn’t like your chany to go for an old song and be broke to pieces, though yours has got no colour in it, Jane–it’s all white and fluted, and didn’t cost so much as mine. . . . “

“Well, I’ve no objection to buy some of the best things,” said Mrs Deane, rather loftily; “we can do with extra things in our house.”

“Best things!” exclaimed Mrs Glegg with severity, which had gathered intensity from her long silence. “It drives me past patience to hear you all talking o’ best things, and buying in this, that, and the other, such as silver and chany. You must bring your mind to your circumstances, Bessy, and not be thinking of silver and chany; but whether you shall get so much as a flock bed to lie on, and a blanket to cover you, and a stool to sit on. You must remember, if you get ’em, it’ll be because your friends have bought ’em for you, for you’re dependent upon them for everything; for your husband lies there helpless, and hasn’t got a penny i’ the world to call his own. And it’s for your own good I say this…”

Unable to believe she will be parted from her things, poor Mrs Tulliver brings before them “a small tray, on which she had placed her silver teapot, a specimen teacup and saucer, the castors, and sugar-tongs.” “‘I should be so loath for ’em to buy [the teapot] at the Golden Lion,’” she says, “her heart swelling and the tears coming, ‘my teapot as I bought when I was married…’”

Eliot DrawingEarly in these scenes Maggie finds that her mother’s “reproaches against her father…neutralized all her pity for griefs about table-cloths and china”; the aunts and uncles are pitiless in their indifference to Bessy’s misplaced priorities. I used to find her pathetic clinging to these domestic trifles in the face of much graver difficulties just more evidence that she belonged to the “narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate”–the environment that surrounds Tom and Maggie, but especially Maggie, with “oppressive narrowness,” with eventually catastrophic results. She also seemed a specimen of the kind of shallow-minded, materialistic woman George Eliot’s heroines aspire not to be. But she’s not really materialistic and shallow. She doesn’t want the teapot because it’s silver: she wants it because it’s tangible evidence of her ties to her past, of the choices and commitments and loves and hopes that have made up her life and identity. She’s not really mourning the loss of her “chany” and table linens; she’s mourning her severance from her history.

Tower MugI think I understand her better than I used to, and feel more tolerant of her bewildered grief, because I have “teraphim,” or “household gods,” of my own, things that I would grieve the loss of quite out of proportion to their actual value. They are things that tie me, too, to my history, as well as to memories of people in my life.  I have a teapot, for instance, that was my grandmother’s; every time I use it, or the small array of cups and saucers and plates that remain from the same set (my grandmother was hard on her dishes!) I think of her and feel more like my old self. I have a pair of Denby mugs that were gifts from my parents many years ago, tributes to my childhood fascination with English history: one has Hampton Court on it, the other, the Tower–these, too, have become talismanic, having survived multiple moves. If I dropped one, I’d be devastated, and not just because as far as we’ve ever been able to find out, they would be impossible to replace. “Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction,” remarks the narrator with typical prescience, shortly before financial calamity hits the Tullivers, but there’s no special merit in “striving after something better and better” at the expense of “the loves and sanctities of our life,” with their “deep immovable roots in memory.” Sometimes a teapot is not just a teapot.

Originally published on Novel Readings November 11, 2011.

“That terrible ungrateful age”: Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island


We should recognize that it’s not easy to cross the last frontiers of that terrible ungrateful age without having anyone to confide in: neither a friend nor a relative! Then, for the first time in my life, I truly felt the bitterness of being alone.

Arturo’s Island was my book club’s choice to follow Lampedusa, which we all loved so much that we wanted to stay longer in Italy, if only in our imaginations. We thought a real Italian book would give us something different than another book just set there, and we were right: Arturo’s island is nothing like the languorous, sensual, sun-drenched Italy of so many English novels. There is plenty of passion, but it is all ugly, uncomfortable, awkward, confused, confusing passion–that is to say, it is the passion of male adolescence, and being immersed in it for 350 pages is anything but a holiday in the sun.

I really disliked reading Arturo’s Island. I don’t know if I would have stuck with it, if it hadn’t been for my book club. It may be (and I think we ultimately concluded that it is) a “good” novel, in that it does what it sets out to do (as far as we could discern what that was) really effectively. It seems fully committed to its own unpleasantness and to Arturo’s emotional disarray. It does not do any of the formal or literary things that would have lessened the impact of Arturo’s account of his youthful errors and offenses, from his vaguely loutish behavior to his obsession with and eventual cruelty to his young stepmother, from his hero-worship of his horrible father (his father is really really horrible, in general and to Arturo) to his murderous thoughts about his tiny stepbrother. There is no retrospective narration to show us how he has learned and grown: there are a couple of comments that tell us he has grown up and away (“Later, when we’re old, I know, such tragedies are, more than anything, comic; and, If I like, now, at a distance, I, too, can laugh”) but nothing frames his nasty story, nothing softens it, nothing excuses it. We get no post-childhood, post-island Arturo to show us either that he never really got over his turbulent past, with all the freedom a boy could want but none of the love, or that he found the nurture and maturation he needed somewhere else.

arturo smallWe thought that absence of solace or redemption had to be deliberate: that Morante had to be setting us up to see how wrong Arturo is, and to infer explanations and justifications (perhaps) for his wrongness, without ever letting us escape from it. Assuming the goal was immersion, emotion, and discomfort (with a significant tincture of pity, because Arturo really has a pretty deprived and distorted life) it’s a novel that is very good by the Lewes Standard (matching means to ends, a measure of greatness I derive from GHL’s assertion that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”). There are some other good things about the novel, too. The descriptions of the island are full of vivid details, and you really get a strong sense of Arturo’s strange life there, running wild and shaping his own strange identity from his father’s books. It’s also (and again, we thought maybe this was purposeful) a powerful antidote to sentimental or picturesque notions of Italy: it makes sense to me that the novel as Elena Ferrante’s endorsement, as her novels too (IMHO etc.) are ugly and unsentimental and driven by raw emotion–and, as Arturo’s Island is (at least implicitly), highly critica of certain strains of macho Italian masculinity. No flowery Tuscan hills here; no operatic gorgeousness; no above all, no love.

So: an interesting, unsettling, reading experience – and a very good discussion, because we all had quite strong, complicated, and sometimes contradictory reactions to the book, which I guess makes it a good choice even though I didn’t like it!