The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on this day in 1843, so it seems like an apt time to say a little about Samantha Silva’s homage to that holiday classic, Mr. Dickens and His Carol. I actually read Silva’s novel with the intent to review it more formally, but two different plans for that fell through. Frankly, I was relieved both times, because I didn’t–don’t–have that much to say about the novel! It’s inoffensive. It’s moderately diverting. It’s a nice idea. You should reread A Christmas Carol instead.

The thing is, they called Dickens “The Inimitable” for a reason. Love him or hate him, he’s a writer who absolutely revels in what words can do, and who takes risks and leaps with them, who frolics and freaks out with them, who tries every trick he can think of to make us laugh and tremble and cry with them. His is an aesthetic of excess, of extravagance, both structurally and emotionally, and I know plenty of readers who get impatient with it, or worse. I myself am actually a late convert–and there’s still plenty of Dickens I haven’t read–but I’ve come to cherish him for just that sense that he’s absolutely throwing himself into his writing, giving it, and thus giving us, everything he’s got. As I wrote a few years ago, when David Copperfield saved me from a reading slump, “his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination.” It can be intoxicating.

Nothing about Mr. Dickens and His Carol is intoxicating. It’s a perfectly fine story in which the writing of A Christmas Carol itself becomes the means of saving both Dickens and Christmas. Inevitably, Silva’s writing is pedestrian by comparison with her predecessor’s. When at long last the redemptive tale is written and then read aloud to the rapturous delight of Dickens’s audience,

Dickens bowed, long and low. His heart was thundering inside him, too, louder than all the clapping, which seemed not to subside at all. He needed the moment. It was as if he’d come to the crest of a great mountain peak and, though panting and spent, could see all the world. And how vivid a view. Even the Turkish carpet under his feet was every color imaginable, an alchemy of alum, copper, and chrome mied with madder root, indigo, poppy, and sage. What magic there was all around him. Words were inadequate, but all he had. He didn’t know where they came from or why, but it was how we told one another what the world was and might be. Who we were, and might become. It was the only magic he had. Everything else was faith.

Fair enough. But here’s an example of the real magic he had:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperatures always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purposes, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. . . .

I could go on–Dickens certainly does (“and on and on and on,” I imagine the nay-sayers muttering)–but I’m sure you already see the difference. One writer is competently telling a story; the other is having a grand old time. “I know that of late I’ve pitied myself a poor man,” says Silva’s Dickens to his long-suffering wife Catherine,

–poor in love, in riches, in prospects. But I’ve learned, in these days of your absence . . . that whatever I suffered was a poverty of my own vision.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart,” exclaims Dickens’s redeemed miser,

and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

And then discovering he does indeed have a precious second chance, he is “checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had every heard”:

Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to his window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

Only one of the two novels feels like a revelation.

It is of course not fair to insist that someone writing about Dickens should try to write like Dickens. The results would probably be pretty awful, actually, so Silva was almost certainly wise just to write her own novel in her own way. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, though, to expect that a novel so heavily invested in another writer’s work will engage with it in some transformative way: even if that endeavor too is likely to fail (or at any rate I don’t know of many great examples, and I can think of some really dreadful ones) at least the attempt will be more interesting–and I just didn’t find Mr. Dickens and His Carol particularly interesting. There are aspects I would have tried to make more sense of for a more formal review, such as how consistent it is to make the story of Dickens’s Christmas redemption turn as much on the commercial success of his new book as on any spiritual revelation–but I don’t think much would really have come of that exercise.

On its own terms, though (and I honestly don’t mean to be damning it with faint praise) Mr. Dickens and His Carol is readable and kind of charming, and it has stretches of prose that, if not truly Dickensian, are still wonderfully tactile and evocative:

The night was an embroidery of stars on a taffeta sky so blue it bled all the black away. No more drab-colored December fringed with fog. The even of Christmas week burst into the world, clear and dry, the streets one continuous blaze of ornament and show. . . . Shops sat in their best trim under bright gaslights turned all the way up, with evergreen plumage four stories high, like a great forest canopy. There were great pyramids of currants and raisins; brown russet apples and golden bobs, Ribston Pippins and huge winter pears; towers of jams, jellies, and bonbons; solid walls of sardines, potted meats, bottled pickles, drummed figs. . . . Over grappling horses’ hooves, roaring drivers, and chaffering dealers, rose the harmonies of an oboe, French horn, and flute, warbling a pastoral Christmas tune.

All of London seemed set upon suffering gladly a sprinkle of brotherly this and that, but cheer most of all.

And the novel is sometimes even touching, as Dickens struggles through his writing slump and emerges–thanks to some visitations of his own and some hard-won insights into his own life–renewed and filled with the spirit of Christmas: “He turned his face to the star-kissed winter sky, from which tiny, glittering snowflakes began to fall. He couldn’t have been happier had he been transported to Paradise.” Silva says in her Author’s Note that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter”–and the sincerity of her appreciation for Dickens and his brilliant little Christmas ornament of a book is palpable and more than a little heartwarming.

This Week In My Classes: Social Justice and Warriors

Although it is often difficult to concentrate on reading fiction right now, amidst the clamor of current events, it is also the case that current events have their usual uncanny way of making some of the novels I’m reading seem more important than ever.

Take Bleak House, for instance, which we have just wrapped up in 19th-Century Fiction. As I mentioned in my post about teaching Hard Times last March (remember last March, when the possibility that Mr Bounderby would actually win the U.S. presidency seemed absurd?), there are plenty of reasons to look skeptically at Dickens’s approach to the problems of the day. Jo is every bit as safely pathetic a focus for our reforming zeal as Stephen Blackpool, for instance, and as much an argument for preserving ignorance and poverty (so as not to spoil instinctive virtue) as Joe Gargery in Great ExpectationsBleak House may focus eloquently on dysfunctional systems, but it returns us repeatedly to well-meaning individuals as our best hope for change, keeping its political radicals securely on the margins (in the form of, for example, Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the insufficiently respectful ironmaster) while idealizing benevolent paternalism (in the form of, among others, Mr. Jarndyce — who is never held accountable by anyone for his enabling of the odious Mr. Skimpole). It mercilessly satirizes women who care about causes more than about their children — and that’s not all.

Yes, yes, I am well aware: for all these reasons and more, Dickens is not the ideal standard-bearer for today’s resistance. (And that’s just with respect to his fiction, without even getting into his moral failings as an actual man and how they ought to figure in our reading of his novels.) But (as I also said about Hard Times), I think there are things about both the arguments and the affect of a novel like Bleak House that could (maybe even should) trump those objections — especially now. I’m not saying these are just petty quibbles, but there are times when picking fights with people who in their own way are fighting on your side can seem counterproductive. As a friendly cynic standing next to me at the recent Women’s March rally said during one of the speeches, “That’s the thing about coalitions: you probably won’t all agree on everything.”

Bleak House, for instance, is eloquent about the ethical obligations of both a shared society and our common humanity. One particularly brilliant thing about the novel is the way it formally enacts the interconnectedness of even the most seeming disparate elements of its complex and widely dispersed universe. “What connexion can there be,” asks the third-person narrator, at once coy and portentous,

between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

The answer Bleak House makes over and over is not just that everyone is connected but that it is both morally and practically destructive to act is if they aren’t — to pursue only narrow self-interest, or single-minded partisanship. Dickens may wring every possible tear out of Jo’s story, but his cry that such children are “dying thus around us every day” is meant to compel his readers out of their comfortable chairs and into constructive action. Esther may be a cloying embodiment of every Victorian cliché about woman’s nature, but Lady Dedlock’s story is a devastating indictment of some of those very ideals, some of which (such as the sexual double standard) are not ones we can complacently claim to have left behind. Bleak House is a novel obsessed with getting us to care about how other people — people unlike ourselves — live, and how they die, and what we might have to do with them. It champions the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the unloved; it makes us feel, over and over, that the best thing anyone can possibly do is — quietly, unassumingly, tenderly — offer whatever help they can, whenever they see the need.

Bleak House is and does more than this, of course. It is a dramatic detective novel, a shameless melodrama, a somewhat peculiar and repressed romance, a vast compendium of images and objects and whimsy and tragedy and sheer, delirious delight in language. It contains multitudes! What moved me particularly about it this time, though, is something not quite reducible to its many component parts, to its characters and events … something like its spirit, or its heart. Heartsick as many recent events have made me, I’ve never felt less inclined towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever its justifications. Maybe Dickens hadn’t worked out the best way to make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, but reading Bleak House you can sure tell that’s what he wanted to do, and wanted us to do. Right now, I’ll take it.

The other novel I’ve been working on for class is Valdez Is Coming. It is a pretty different reading experience in almost every way, but it too turns on questions about what’s right and what’s fair, and about when and where to draw the line in the face of an injustice. “Why do you bother?” Valdez is asked about his quest to get restitution for a widow whose fate nobody else cares about because she’s Apache and her dead husband (though shot by Valdez himself) was the victim of their unrepentant racism. “If I tell you what I think,” he replies, “it doesn’t sound right. It’s something I know.” By that time we know too why standing up to the men who mocked him, shot at him, then crucified him when he asked for justice is something he has to do. It’s about not letting them win, yes, but that outcome matters because of who they are, and who he is — and, if we’re on his side, who we want to be, and how we want the world to be. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are” he tells his antagonist during their final showdown. Valdez (true to his genre) proves who he is through action, including a lot of violence. (I wouldn’t like this novel as much as I do if this violence were treated differently — simply as action, for instance, or drama — but Leonard imbues it with moral and even existential meaning.) A lot of us are thinking, now, about what actions we can take, in our world and in our own quieter way, to prove who we are.

This Week In My Classes: Ups and Downs

The past couple of weeks have felt pretty hectic to me, mostly because any time you teach a new course, or just new material, you have to build up all its materials from scratch. This term it’s Pulp Fiction that needs, well, everything! Not only do I not have any lecture notes to draw on for most of the readings (but boy, am I looking forward to our weeks on The Maltese Falcon, which I have taught before!) but I have no pre-existing handouts, worksheets, tutorial plans, or essay topics, and also not many strong instincts about what kinds of exercises or discussion questions or essay topics will get good results. You can only find that out by making some stuff up and seeing how it goes, which means inevitably there are some hits and some misses. I never usually finalize a lot of course materials in advance, because I want them to develop organically — to be responsive to discussion, and to my ongoing discoveries about what’s interesting or useful, but at this point I have a lot of files I can draw on for ideas for my standard teaching assignments. All I have for Pulp Fiction is my preparatory research and my best guesses!

That said, I think it’s going reasonably well, especially now that the initial anxiety of the start of term has faded and I’m trusting myself and the class more to generate ideas and work with them together. I lectured a bit too much at first, but our last couple of sessions have been about as lively as I usually expect from a class at that level and of that size (it’s settling down to about 80 students). So far we’ve read four short stories, three of them westerns, and today we start work on Valdez Is Coming, which will also be the focus of their first longer assignment. One pedagogical challenge for me is that the characteristic style of the western does not lend itself very well to the kind of close reading strategies that I usually focus on in introductory courses. I’m not saying it’s impossible — just that it has been harder to find passages that seem likely to reward that kind of attention, mostly because the prose is very terse and often very literal, and the stories are quite action- and character-driven. Usually by this point in the term I would have spent quite a bit of time on figurative language, and so far all we’ve really seen examples of is a bit of potential symbolism and some strong imagery, especially of the landscapes. I suppose this is more revealing about what I’m typically reading (or urging them to read) for than anything else: I am having to retrain myself to think about action and dialogue more, and about things like sentence length and rhythm and pacing.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly through Bleak House. They seem to be hanging in there! In this class too I have felt myself falling into too much lecturing, but I have been consciously working on balancing that out with some much more open-ended sessions. I feel as if lecturing in a more orderly way can be an important part of our work on a novel as long and complex as Bleak House, where a risk for newcomers to the novel is getting overwhelmed by minutiae: I try in my lecture segments to give them big grids or maps on which they can later place specific characters or incidents as they arise, or rise to prominence. I also try to plant interpretive seeds in the form of questions to be followed up on as they read further. That way, when we do approach topics through discussion, they will already have been thinking about some of them on their own — which usually seems to work!

Today’s installment of Bleak House was Chapters 46-54, which include the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn and then Inspector Bucket’s investigation, culminating in the dramatic “reveal” scene in which we find out that [redacted] is the murderer. In the same sequences, Bucket tells Sir Leicester the story we already know about Lady Dedlock’s past. One of the big surprises of the novel is that these revelations bring out the best in Sir Leicester, who until that moment has seemed little more than a buffoon, a walking anachronism. His one redeeming feature has been his devotion to his Lady, and now we see that this, at any rate, is neither foolish nor superficial, but comes from everything that is best in him. As he looks out the window of his ancestral home, bewildered and hurt at the vision of “thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him,” because of his wife’s disgrace, it is she to whom “he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms”:

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

These are also the chapters in which Dickens gives us one of his most tender and pathetic deathbeds (“The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end”), and I am always touched to tears by it, but Sir Leicester’s yearning heart touches me as much, perhaps because it feels like such a generous moment, not just on Sir Leicester’s part, but on Dickens’s, to allow something so beautiful to come from such a ridiculous source. As much as the stalwart assistance of Mrs. Bagnet in negotiating on Mr. George’s behalf, or the staunch friendship of Liz and Jenny, who have only each other for comfort, Sir Leicester’s compassion reflects the hope that permeates Bleak House — that against the mud and the fog and the bleakness of it all, we can set the equally pervasive possibility of kindness and love.

This Week In My Classes: Hard Times – for these times


Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

Dickens’s subtitle for his 1854 novel Hard Times was “for these times.” I can’t remember another occasion teaching this novel when it has felt so much as if it is also for these times: in the U.S., especially, where Mr. Bounderby is running for president, and Gradgrinds dominate state houses and the governing boards of public universities. There’s a lot not to like about Dickens’s approach to the ‘condition of England’ question but my reservations about, for instance, his anti-union stance and the unbearably condescending (if also unbearably touching) presentation of Stephen Blackpool seem less important right now than his urgent call to readers to resist the dehumanizing influences of greed, materialism, suspicion, and general Gradgrindism. Is there a more stinging and eloquent indictment of these tendencies than his memorable description of Coketown in the chapter aptly called “The Key-Note”?

Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

Is there a more despicable figure imaginable than Mr. Bounderby, with his insufferable, dishonest cant about his own prowess?

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

“You may cut the piece out with your penknife if you like, Tom. I wouldn’t cry!” exclaims Louisa after Bounderby kisses her on the cheek, and the violence of her antipathy seems if anything inadequate to the rage and disgust we feel on her behalf at his creepily pedophiliac obsession with her. Such a grotesque predator should have nothing, be nothing, count for nothing — and the genius of Hard Times is that it makes us feel how horrible it is that such a man gets any kind of respect, and lets us enjoy seeing him exposed for the repellent bully he is.

The novel also, in more subtle and moving ways, unfolds the tragedy of Gradgrindism, personified in Tom’s dishonor and Louisa’s collapse. Here the conversion of Mr. Gradgrind himself holds the novel’s most significant promise: that the unnatural domination of fancy by fact can be overcome by pity and love — that humanity is greater and stronger and more beautiful than is dreamed of in the Gradgrind philosophy, and that if we can all be brought to laugh and cry together, we can save it.

If only real life gave us the same satisfaction, the same hope. Dear reader — let it be so!


This Week In My Classes: Lots of Reading

It’s not so much that we are doing a lot of reading this week in particular, but that cumulatively by now, in both classes, we have done a lot of reading. I like this middle phase of term: the logistical confusion of the first couple of weeks is behind us, the frameworks for our class discussions have been established, we have a body of completed work to lean on (bounce off?) as we move along — and the end of term is still far enough away that we aren’t distracted by planning for it.

greatexpectationsIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve finished our first two novels, Villette and Great Expectations. Although Villette is a fascinating novel, I had more fun (rather to my surprise) rereading Great Expectations. I’ve read and taught it so often that my own expectations were kind of low as we started it up, but I fell right into it, especially the climactic confrontation between Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham after Pip’s world has been up-ended:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

I know some people recoil from Dickens’s rhetorical excesses and emotional manipulation, and when my defenses are up I can feel the same impatience. But he’s also better than any other novelist I know at ripping the bandage off our wounded humanity and creating moments as morally thrilling as this one. There’s also something fantastic (in both senses of that word) about just how fearless his language and his stories are: his relish for both is practically tangible.

I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot in the context of the ongoing discussions about YA fiction: why, for instance, should Henry James be the touchstone for grown-up reading? There’s a quality in Dickens that runs afoul of that rarefied, over-intellectualized ideal, but Christopher Beha’s description of the rewards of reading James (and other “adult” fiction) describes Great Expectations astonishingly well:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us.

One of the things we discussed in our last session on Great Expectations is whether it’s worth having made Pip’s mistakes, having suffered as he suffers, because in the end he is capable of narrating the novel — something Joe, for all his admirable qualities, could never do. Dickens, in other words, has built his own novel around just that trade-off between pleasures that can “easily be enjoyed by a child” and hard-won moral and literary maturity. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Beha’s commentary on James (though I’m on record as not finding James that pleasurable to read — for me, he’s more on the mortgage-payment side of adulthood): I’ve just been thinking Dickens has a more interesting role to play in this conversation than he is usually given (in Beha’s essay, a passing reference to him as someone who wrote “inviting, event-packed novels”).Oxford

Next up for us in this class: Middlemarch. As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to this! I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and talking about Middlemarch, but I haven’t actually reread it patiently for a while. I started on it this morning while the class was writing their short test on Great Expectations, and even as I winced watching Dorothea be so, so wrong, I was reminded all over again how funny the first few chapters are.

houndIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve wrapped up not only The Moonstone but Sherlock Holmes and a sampler of other great detectives as well (we read one story each by G. K Chesterton, R. Austen Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle). Today we started our discussion of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I enjoy using Christie to spark discussion about canonicity: I point out that despite being possibly the best-selling novelist of all time, she has no literary standing compared to her contemporaries Henry James, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which gives me a chance to suggest that modernism set a lot of the terms for discussions of literary merit that we now often take for granted. This means talking about things like linguistic or syntactical difficulty, which on the face of it, Christie is having none of: her prose is remarkably lucid. Next time, though, when all is known, we’ll go over just how tricky she actually is — telling us everything while keeping everything from us. Is this its own kind of difficulty, or is it just trickery, and if so, is that somehow a lower order of skill? To some extent I am playing devil’s advocate in asking why she should be taken any less seriously than Woolf: for me, conversation about Christie flags pretty quickly once the game is played out, and for my money there are other mystery novelists who are a lot more interesting to think about. But she’s excellent of her kind, and I think it’s worth provoking a conversation about whether it makes sense to value some kinds more than others. This is the “genre fiction” version of the YA debates, of course.

Once we wrap up Ackroyd, it’s midterm time in this class, and then we turn to Hammett and Chandler.

This Week In My Classes: Moving Right Along!

We seem to have passed that tipping point past which we hurtle towards the end of term. I feel as if it was only just the weekend, and tomorrow it will be Friday again! Happily, it will also be the Friday before a long weekend, which will give us all time to catch up, or rest up, a bit.

beckIn Mystery & Detective Fiction it continues to be a good term. For whatever reason, I have one of the most lively groups I’ve had in that class, with 15-20 students who pitch in regularly to discussion. In a class of about 80, that’s a pretty good percentage, especially considering that larger classes can themselves be intimidating. It makes the class time go by very fast, and it keeps me on my toes: the closer I stick to the notes I’ve brought in, the less likely I am to be asked a question I can’t answer easily enough, whether it’s about a detail of the plot or a broader issue of interpretation. In my own rereadings I don’t (I can’t) pay equal attention to absolutely everything, and I’m usually focused on the elements that are most important to what I’m planning to talk about. The more open the conversation, the more likely, in contrast, that I’ll discover what I don’t know, or know enough about. I like it, even if it’s sometimes disconcerting. I hope my having to say, occasionally, “Actually, I don’t know,” or “I really can’t remember — can anyone help me out by finding a relevant passage?” doesn’t undermine my students’ confidence in my expertise. Besides, keeping the plot of The Big Sleep straight is hard enough that Chandler himself couldn’t do it, right? This week we’ve wrapped up our discussion of The Terrorists, and tomorrow we start on Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. In what’s probably becoming a boring refrain about readings for this class, I’ve been wondering for ages about switching it out for one of his longer, richer ones — but Knots and Crosses is usually a crowd-pleaser, and I do enjoy working through its Gothic twists and turns.

In 19thC Fiction from Austen to Dickens we are almost done our time on David Copperfield. It was a rocky start, but the last couple of classes have felt better to me, not just because the level of participation has been higher but because my own sense of what I want us to get out of the conversation is also improving. It has been feeling like a somehow spongier novel to work with than Bleak House or Great Expectations, and though I thought I had a lot of ideas about it, I haven’t been entirely clear in my own mind about how to bring them into focus. The further we read, though, the clearer Dickens’s own patterning becomes, and that has helped. Tomorrow we will have read up to the end of the amazing chapter called “Tempest,” so I’m going to focus on the three major crises of this installment (**spoiler alert**!): Micawber’s take-down of Uriah HEEP, Dora’s decline and death, and Steerforth’s drowning. We’ll talk about them as things that have to happen for David to complete his development — but why? I’ve got some suggestions about Steerforth and Heep as important examples of “not-David”: reflections of David himself that he has to outgrow or reject, figures of what he isn’t, or doesn’t want to be. (There’s plenty of critical writing about this that has been helpful to me as I’ve thought about this, including Oliver Buckton’s essay on ‘Homoerotic Secrets in David Copperfield” and Tara MacDonald’s on ‘race, sexuality, and Uriah Heep‘). As for Dora, I think it’s painfully obvious that she’s not the mature choice for David (some students have already expressed their shock that he actually marries her, instead of realizing his mistake in time). So we’ll talk about his love for her as evidence of his ‘undisciplined heart,’ I expect; I’m interested in why she’s presented with so much pathos and tenderness, too, rather than satirically, given how bad a choice she is. I expect we’ll tie his feelings for her into his love for Steerforth. There is something precious and beautiful in these mistakes, I think: just because childish love is not right (and may even be destructive) doesn’t mean the world would be a better place if we were all smart and knowing and invulnerable to error. My idea for our final class, next Wednesday (after the long weekend!) is to go through some of the claims made for David Copperfield in the context of ethical criticism, looking especially at work by Martha Nussbaum and Marshall Gregory, so trying to get at the value Dickens places on Dickens’s loving mistakes should be good preparation.

Maclise DickensI will be a bit relieved to be done with David Copperfield and on to North and South, which I know much better, but I do relish the challenge of working up a new novel, and I do think, too, that I should assign it again before too long, because teaching it is definitely a learning experience for me as well as for the students. I like the open-endedness of working through a novel without a strong pre-existing interpretation or set of priorities, but it is also hard to lead a discussion without being entirely committed to a particular direction! The ideal class discussion is a good blend of purpose and freedom: next time I think I will get closer to that.

The other major assignment I had this week was presenting to our graduate students’ professionalization seminar, something I also did last year (which prompted this post on whether graduate students should blog). I think it went fine! I have lots to say, and there was plenty of discussion and, as far as I could tell, interest. One thing I found myself stressing that I don’t remember feeling as strongly about last year was that there is exciting literate life outside the academy. My understanding is that the majority of our current cohort of MA students are not heading into PhD programs, and of course PhD students too need to be thinking about non- or alt-academic routes. Lately I have heard from quite a lot of students that they think about doing at least an MA because they want to continue the serious discussion of literature that they have enjoyed as undergraduates. So a new part of my “thinking of going to grad school?” talk is “but you don’t have to be in school to do that”! I don’t think I would have really understood that myself, despite having grown up among passionate readers, if it weren’t for the time I’ve spent among bloggers and reviewers in the last few years.

Weekend Reading: I laughed, I cried, I’d read it again!

And that was just the first book I read this weekend …

Maclise DickensI was right that David Copperfield not only gave me great pleasure while I was reading it but restored my flagging enthusiasm for reading more generally. I finished it over the weekend and loved almost every minute of it.

The big setback for me is always Agnes. Dora is insufferable, but the poor thing is set up as a mistake, not an ideal, which is some compensation — and her final chapter still makes me cry, which is kind of embarrassing, but there we are. Agnes, on the other hand, with that damn finger pointing ever upwards: what kind of an alternative is that? Agnes had me wondering, actually, where the (good) sexy is in Dickens. He’s good at lechery, here exemplified by the horror that is Uriah Heep (and there’s the pedophiliac Bounderby in Hard Times as another example of just how creepy Dickens can make lust). He’s good at treachery, here epitomized by Steerforth’s fatal seduction of Little Emily. And he’s brilliant at childish innocence (Dora) and shining purity (Agnes). But healthy adult sexual desire (you know, the kind both parties are pretty excited about) is harder to spot. It’s pretty broadly hinted at that Agnes is wounded by David’s long insistence on seeing her as a sister, but there’s nothing like Dinah’s blush to make sure we understand the nature of her feelings, while David’s feeling for Agnes never seem other than worshipful admiration. Even though they seem better matched than David and Dora, there’s still something awkward about them as a married couple.

However. Whatever reservations I had about the women in David Copperfield were more or less overwhelmed by the many hilarious and touching and vindictively gratifying parts we are treated to as the novel draws to a close–Mr. Micawber’s denunciation of Uriah Heep, for instance, which (like so much in Dickens) is absolutely best read aloud. And the chapter “Tempest” is just splendid, with no “Dickens being Dickens” apologia required.

Unfortunately, though I was energized by David Copperfield to do a lot more reading this weekend, it was just this book that really excited me. I skimmed through Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I had picked up at the library because it is supposed to be very funny and at the time I felt I could use a good laugh. Meh. At most I got a couple of chortles out of it. Since I have never liked Saturday Night Live and never been tempted to watch 30 Rock, I guess I should have known better.

faultinstarsThen I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It went very quickly and I quite enjoyed it: I was engaged from the beginning by the narrator’s voice and the quick pacing and the blend of humor and pathos. But though I thought it was quite good, it also seemed to me a little too self-consciously smart — not just Hazel and her hyper-articulate friends (after all, such teenagers do exist — around here, most of them end up enrolling in the King’s Foundation Year Program, where they continue to talk pretty much like Hazel and Augustus) but the novel as a whole, including the metatextual interaction with An Imperial Affliction. That layer (along with the wry humor of the characters) kept the book from descending into bathos, but it also kept me at kind of an emotional distance: I was not one of those who wept copiously through the final chapters. In fact, a bit to my surprise it didn’t make me cry at all, and here I’ve just confessed to crying over Dora! After I finished it I reread a lot of the discussion of it in this year’s Tournament of Books. I haven’t read many of the other contestants, but I admit I share the feeling expressed by some commenters there that YA literature, however good of its kind and for its intended audience, shouldn’t really compete in the grown-up leagues. And yet it made it to the finals, so what do I know, right?

Finally, I tried a few more chapters of May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster. Though I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sarton, it just has not been going very well: I’ve been finding it prosy and portentous. The narrator insists a great deal that Jane, the spinster of the title, is magnificent, but I’ve been getting no authentic sense of that myself. I like the formal conceit, with the attention to Cam’s problems writing Jane’s life story as a novel. And I like the idea of taking us through so many important historical moments from the perspective such an unusual and individual experience. But with my time running out for summer reading, and with the new term looming along with deadlines for reviews and essays and book clubs, I’ve decided to put this one back on the shelf for now. It’s just not ripe yet (or I’m not). I’m certainly not giving up on Sarton, though: I long to get my hands on Journal of a Solitude.