This Week In My Classes: Finishing Touches

Today was the last day for my fall term classes, which means the last meeting altogether for two of them. One of them, Introduction to Literature, continues in January, when I will also be adding another round of The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy–a very different round, just by the way, from the last one, since not one of the books will be the same and a couple of them are ones I’ve never, or very rarely, assigned before. But I can’t think about that now! That’s next term … and tempting as it is to wander away from the remaining obligations of this term, they do still have to take precedence.

In Intro it was our third editing workshop of the term: we’ve been doing one before each due date. The last two were peer editing, but today they did reverse outlines, using a worksheet I adapted (with acknowledgment) from this useful one prepared for the Writing Center at U of T Scarborough. The only real change I made, besides some tweaks to the explanations to fit our particular assignment, was to add a space between the block for each paragraph for them to put in a transition word or phrase indicating the logical relationship between the paragraphs. I think peer editing has its uses, but it often seems like the blind leading the blind, and I’ve seen papers turned in with crazy problems that peer editors apparently were fine with–so I wanted to focus on their ability to scrutinize their own writing and judge its strengths and weaknesses for themselves. I think it was an effective exercise for turning up problems: certainly they did not simply fill in the blanks and try to leave early! These essays are due in their final versions on Wednesday, so that will be my next big job this week.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction I gave a review lecture, a useful thing, I think, for reminding them about the specific material but also, and more important, for going once more through some of the framing ideas and unifying themes of the course. It was also our last chance to talk about Devil in a Blue Dress. I think it works reasonably well to incorporate comments on the novel into the review session, but I do feel we ended up giving it short shrift, so maybe next time around I’ll be sure to allow one more class on it. After my talk we used the review handout I’d prepared for some Q&A, so students could ask about the material they felt least certain about and get help from their classmates as well as from me. And that’s that, until we meet again for the final exam next week. A handful of students are doing the optional final essay instead, due the same day as the exam, so that’s a lot of what I’ll be doing next week.

In The Somerville Seminar, we had our last round of Pecha Kucha presentations today. Five in one class is too many–not because we ran out of time for the presentations, but because it didn’t leave us much time for discussion after each session. I had originally planned for four a day but we all felt the end of term crowding in on us so I proposed starting them a bit later and tightening up the schedule. Overall it was still probably the best choice, but next time I do them I will allow more space around the presentations. I do think I’d like to use them again as an assignment, though. They were really well done, and though the format does impose constraints that can seem artificial, the dynamic is very different than with standard PPT slides or with other kinds of student presentations. The brisk pace keeps everyone’s attention, and the emphasis on graphics to illustrate concepts or support ideas, rather than using slides as alternative versions of the same things being said aloud, made the experience much more entertaining. The strict time limit moderated by the impersonal settings on the computer also frees me from having to be the Presentation Police. It’s very stressful to see someone running over time and crowding out whoever comes next, and to have to choose between letting them go on and publicly calling attention to the problem by stopping them. The most anyone ran over this time was about 10 seconds. So at this point I’m a fan of this new style, and as for substance, well, it’s amazing how much information and insight you can fit into 6 minutes and 40 seconds if you really think about it.

I felt quite distressed last week as I felt the wiki projects for the seminar were not coming together–despite (she says defensively) my having warned them and warned them about not putting off collaborative work until the last minute, and my having stressed as much as I possibly could that this kind of project is best done in small increments rather than large doses, including regular ‘gardening.’ As I watched the daily reports come in from PB Works, I knew that many (though certainly not all) of the students had nonetheless been putting off their contributions. Facing that reality, and taking into account that the projects for the course were not familiar kinds–for them or for me–and that thus perhaps we had all underestimated how much time it would take to do them well, I took a very rare step for me and acted on the regulation that allows a change to course requirements with a strong vote in favor by the class. I put up a proposal for an alternative plan removing one of the course requirements, and it did get basically unanimous support. There were a few complications, and for a while I regretted having even raised it as a possibility, but we got it all sorted out, so now my only regret is having waited as long as I did to propose it. As I said to the class, I really do believe it was possible to complete all the originally planned components, but this way I hope that everyone will do better work and feel better about it too. There will be more weight, now, on the wiki projects–and reading and evaluating the final product will be my other significant work after the deadline passes next week.

So now I have a very short window between wrapping up the classroom work and getting in my first batch of assignments. I have reference letters to do and department minutes to write up, and a plagiarism hearing, and a dentist appointment! Not all fun and games, in other words. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get in a little Christmas shopping too. Then I’ll be in what we on Twitter fondly (?) call #gradingjail. In the meantime, also, I have finally begun Anna Karenina, because I’ve been craving some really good reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Outlaws on Parnassus

Preparing for reading The Constant Nymph in my Somerville Novelists seminar, I was intrigued to learn that in her Times obituary Margaret Kennedy was accorded little significance as a novelist while her book on the novel, The Outlaws on Parnassus, was considered her greatest literary contribution. I promptly ordered it from interlibrary loan, and it arrived just in time for me to take a look at it before we wrap up our discussions on Friday.

First published in 1958, The Outlaws on Parnassus harks back to works like E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel rather than anticipating the more theoretical wave of criticism to come. It’s an idiosyncratic book, including  taxonomies of forms and styles along with reflections on the role of the novel and of the critic. Kennedy begins from the point that the novel is a “late arrival” and thus does not have a clear, established place among the other older arts. The relatively low and ill-defined status of the novel is one factor, she proposes, for the dearth of serious criticism of the novel; the other is the perceived redundancy of such criticism given the apparent ease of both reading and writing novels: “The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious and as making more strenuous demands upon him.” Novelists, too, she thinks, are uneasy about where they fit and what their work is worth.

I enjoyed her analysis of the fundamental problem confronting the would-be critic:

It is a great misfortune for any human activity if the Greeks, as was seldom the case, had no word for it. The chances are that it will stagger through the ages shackled by ambiguities, since it never got itself thoroughly defined at the start. The most useful words in which to discuss it are missing, and there is no original debate to which any dispute can be referred.

In a discussion of the drama, for instance, it is always possible to ask what Aristotle meant by irony, pathos, the unities, and the protagonists. Since he never deliberated upon the novel we do not know what meaning he would have attached to a plot or a story save in relation to tragic drama. If he did not define these things, who can? Who should?

Who should, indeed? The Outlaws of Parnassus is, of course, Kennedy’s own contribution to defining “these things” plot, story, narrative voice all get some attention, with examples drawn from Homer to Austen to Scott to Tolstoy to Joyce. Kennedy’s approach is pluralistic: she focuses on what different strategies enable, or on when and why various trends emerged, rather than declaring any of them preferable. A sample from her chapter “The Language of Thought”:

Scott, when he wrote this passage [from Waverley], would not have maintained that it was an accurate transcription of thought. He had taken some trouble to convey the state of mind. The soliloquy is addressed to the victim, which is obviously right. We are told that the dying man’s whisper rang continually, like a knell: “Ah, Squire! Why did you leave us?” The paternal fields have been identified as a boyhood memory for both of them, and a picture conjured up of a cottage and bereaved friends: “old Job Houghton and his dame” to whom the penitent has promised to be kind if he ever gets home. In 1814 no novelist would have thought it necessary or possible to do more. Few would have done as much.

By 1914 it was felt to be necessary, and possibilities were therefore explored. Writers using an orchestra of minds to tell their story for them were obliged to consider, not only the exact language of the mind, but the variety of language, as used by different minds. A technical device developed which has sometimes been called “interior monologue.” It is a soliloquy purporting to be bounded entirely by the thinker’s character, idiom, vocabulary and range of expression.

As a device it bristles with problems. . . .

After discussion of, among other things, Molly Bloom’s “reverie at the end of Ulysses,” Kennedy returns to Scott to note that when most fully possessed with a character, as she thinks he was with Jeanie Deans, exceeds “the conventions of his age” and “indicates those small, subtle changes of style and vocabulary,dictated by mood, which are the essence of the whole business; he indicates them with a certainty for which many a writer in this century, grinding out interior monologue, might envy him.” That’s the kind of moment that made The Outlaws on Parnassus winning for me–it’s not that Scott is good only insofar as he anticipates later fictional priorities, but that he’s not to be underestimated because these were not routinely his priorities.

Kennedy gets kind of snarky when she gets to the more self-conscious era of the modern novel, especially when talking about novelists who focused making the novel “professional” or “serious.” About James, Moore, and Conrad, she notes,

All three were tremendously interested in the theory of the novel; they believed that a writer ought to be able to determine in advance what a good novel should be, instead of writing one, as their forbears had done, in the hope that it would turn out to be good.

Things only got worse as novelists decided that their watchword, their measure of good, serious art, should be “integrity”: “The fact that bad artists can have it too was not so generally recognized.” Shes impatient with attempts to distinguish on this basis between potboilers and real novels, or between art and non-art, an effort she sees as a diversion from the critic’s real task, which is “to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good.” Attempts to delimit the field of art a priori, on the basis of intentions, are fundamentally mistaken; as she says with admirable understatement, “It is not by a yard-stick of intentions that we can measure the distance between East Lynne and Middlemarch.”

However, the twentieth century saw the rise of “dogma” about “the only possible and permissible way” of writing novels. She looks at “naturalism,” for instance, which she sees as having given novelists new tools and ways “to say some things which had not been said before” (a good thing) but which, taken as dogma, could also lead novelists into error: “at length it became clear that there is no intrinsic magic in the formula . . . a formula can beget nothing on the imagination.” The alternative to the dogma of naturalism or realism is what she calls “the novel of egocentric perception.” Here her touchstone text is Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction,” which she quotes at length, including the “gig lamps symmetrically arranged” bit. Rather than insisting on scrupulous fidelity to external details, the novelist wedded to this dogma “bases all on the writer’s own feeling . . . [and] shuns the external.” This too is an enabling dogma in the right hands (“by its first advocates [the Bloomsbury Group] it was regarded as a formula for the rare, the gifted, the chosen few”). But as with realism, egocentrism — however excellent in theory –could be only as good  in practice as the individual novelist:

Amongst novelists the good news spread that they need no longer provide plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, nor catastrophe in order to get top marks. Many adopted the new method who had never got nearer to Bloomsbury than Clapham Junction. They did not see why they should not be as rare and gifted and chosen as anybody else.

The failures of “writers who should never have attempted the method” incited a backlash and “the dogma collapsed so suddenly that those who had put their shirts on it had no resource save to declare furiously that the whole art of the novel must be, in such cases, defunct.” Yet Kennedy believes that “frontier land between the novel and poetry” which “the novel of egocentric perception” had explored was worth the risks and rejoices that such experimentation had made it possible for novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty to have “a large public.” Pluralistic, as I said, a point that is reinforced by her chapter “The Choice” which surveys formal options available to novelists (with examples from Richardson, Fielding, Homer, Bennett, and Bowen) and concludes:

In making a possible list for the attic these questions can be put: Why was the form chosen? Did it suit the material? Did the author appear to understand it? Had he the gifts required by those who use it? Is any departure from it deliberate, an experiment, or merely an indication that he did not perceive its limitations? Upon the answers will depend the sheer readability of the book in thirty years’ time. Whether, even it is readable, it will be read, is another matter. That depends upon content. He need not sign his own death-warrant in advance. If he does so sign it, however striking the content, to the attic he will go.

One way this commentary seems relevant to the reading I’ve been doing for my Somerville seminar is precisely that point about choosing the form to suit the material: one of the most useful critical pieces I’ve read is an essay on Winifred Holtby and Woolf (previously discussed here) that points out that by the time Holtby wrote her novels, there were clear stylistic and formal alternatives to the social realism she chose.

There’s much more of interest in this little volume, including a chapter on didacticism in fiction (charmingly titled, “Anyway, I think so!”), another on ethics, another  on “Faking” (including a bit on famous writers who produce a “Reputational Novel,” one written only “because he thinks that his reputation demands another addition to literature”). But I’ll take my last excerpts here from her concluding chapter on “The Goosefeather Bed,” in which Kennedy takes up arms against “the appearance of a new critical term: the serious novelist.” In this chapter she laments the tendency of critics to set aside “the labour of identifying and defining the good” in favour of guaranteeing a writer’s seriousness, defined largely in opposition to his commercialism. “Seriousness” used to be a meaningful term, she says, but now is little more than a good conduct prize, indicating “a miserable decline in critical standards.” In fact, Kennedy argues, there ought to be no such distinction between types of novels, all of whom “share the great goosefeather bed of General Fiction.” What seems to bother her most, again, seems to be the idea that you can or should discriminate between kinds of novels or novelists, rather than between good and bad novels. She urges as broadminded a concept of fiction as possible, on the grounds that it is ultimately the freedom from rules, constraints, and categories that

enabled novelists in the past to write as they pleased, under a label which might be inadequate but which never quenched those who had no mind to be quenched. It never fettered or silenced the giants who won for the novel a whom on Parnassus, and to whom it owes liberty and dignity.

This Week In My Classes: Meetings, Deadlines, Poems, Mysteries, and Nymphs

This past week was very busy, which is why I didn’t manage to post this during the week. For one thing, one of the committees that I’m on had to do a series of consultations, which involves both the actual meeting times and a fair amount of correspondence and negotiation getting things set up. Another committee I’m on got an announcement that had extremely worrying implications for our department’s MA program, and until the details got sorted out and corrected, that generated a fair amount of worried conversation and debate. These are important things, even if sometimes they seem, or turn out to really be, tempests in tea pots: one of the things most academics value highly about their work environment is self-governance, and that takes both time and concern to do well.

Then, it’s getting to be reference letter season, for grad school applications and for academic jobs, and I came up on my first few deadlines this week. Just as one example, it took me about two hours to complete a satisfactory draft of one of these letters and then print, scan, and email it according to the directions. Because every single place has a different process , some of them including forms to be downloaded and/or filled in, others requiring hard copies, and still others scanned versions, it’s very hard to create efficiencies: ten letters for the same candidate may all need to be done differently. Also, students have started taking me up on my urging to come and see me in my office to talk about their assignments. I believe very strongly in the value of such one-on-one meetings, but it’s a good thing that so far only about 10% of my 140 students this term have set them up, only because I couldn’t possibly take care of my routine class prep, not to mention my marking, if they all did. I also did some graduate advising work, responding to a revised thesis chapter while also thinking hard about and then trying to address appropriately some really important questions my student is struggling with about her degree program. These are not the kinds of things people outside the academy think about, in my experience, when they talk about our workload: everyone focuses on hours spent in the classroom, and specifically the undergraduate classroom. But taking care of our students (at all levels) involves a lot more than just showing up for class.

Last but not least, I have been working on a review for the November issue of Open Letters Monthly, and although editors get a little leeway in our usual submission deadlines, I really wanted to get it to my colleagues before the end of the week so that I would be sure to have time for revisions. I sent it off late Wednesday night: hooray! And I already have their thoughtful comments back and can tidy it up easily enough in time for the new issue. It’s mostly because I was using all my spare time to do that reading and writing project that there hasn’t been any blogging going on: for the last couple of weeks I really haven’t read anything of substance besides the book for the review (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s newest, Two-Part Inventions) and the books for my classes. What did I think of Two-Part Inventions? You’ll have to wait for November 1 to find out!

And speaking of the books for my classes, what were they, you ask? In my first-year class we’re moving through our ‘introduction to poetry’ unit, gearing up for the first essay assignment. We read ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ for Monday, which gave me some reference points for a later discussion of how to develop a comparative thesis for a close reading poetry essay. For Wednesday, we read Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’ I’m not sure I’d read that poem before this year! I really enjoyed it, both as a poem to read and as a poem to work on in class; there are a lot of striking word choices that were good for provoking discussion–one of my major ‘talking points’ for them so far is “Don’t take the words on the page for granted,” and that’s just easier to do when the words are really unexpected ones! And then on Friday we worked explicitly on how to write essays about poetry. I’m trying to demystify the critical process by focusing on straightforward tasks like note-taking and pre-writing strategies. I have ended up talking a few times about my own writing strategies, including the things I find difficult and some of the ways I try to get past them. As I had a deadline of my own to meet, how to get the writing done was very much on my mind! I hope it’s useful to them to realize that writing is something I do, and struggle with, too.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’ve just finished The Maltese Falcon and started An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I really have nothing new to report about these books or the experience of teaching them, except that I think that this time I’m finally done with The Maltese Falcon, at least for a while. I’m starting to tune out when re-reading it for class, which is not good.

In the Somerville seminar, we’ve finished with South Riding, which generated lots of very lively and interesting discussion right to the end. I’ve been so encouraged by the response to it, and also so engaged by the novel myself, that I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t quite think of another course in which I could reasonably assign it. We used to offer a year-long class called ‘The Novel to 1900,’ which was fun, if challenging to those of us not altogether at home in the 18th century, but even if that was still on the books, which I don’t think it is, 1936 is even more of a stretch than 1908, the date of A Room with a View, which was the novel I used to close the course with. We now have a class called ‘Fiction of the Earlier 20th-Century,’ but it’s not specific to British fiction, and a class called ‘British Literature of the Earlier 20th-Century’ which is, obviously, not just novels. Both of these would be a real stretch for me! And also they are usually offered by the people in our department who do specialize more or less in these fields…though technically I think we do not currently have anyone whose research area is ‘earlier’ 20th-century British literature. The easiest thing to do with anomalous interests such as mine in this cluster of ‘Somerville’ texts is to offer a special topics seminar at the upper level, which is what I’m doing now: to some extent that relieves you from the burden of really wide or deep knowledge. Maybe I’ll put in for one of the more general courses one day, though, just to shake things up.

After South Riding, we started Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph. It doesn’t seem quite as odd to me this time as it did when I first read it, which I hope is a consequence, at least in part, of the work I’ve been doing for this class. But even in the context of my seminar, it’s an anomalous book, not obviously related in theme, style, or structure to our other readings. We have come up with some ideas about ways it relates to them, including its interest in women’s roles and women’s education, and also its attention to the potentially destructive force of sexuality. Each of our other novels, though, at least arrives in front of us with some obvious critical frameworks; each of them belongs to a critical conversation that’s more or less familiar, even if our specific examples are not the most canonical ones. The Constant Nymph does not. Scrounging around for explicit commentary on the novel, I have come up with a few ideas: there’s a lengthy discussion of it in one book on literature of the 1920s as a “sex novel,” for instance, meaning (in the context that book establishes) a novel focusing on a young female protagonist and on female sexuality. That does fit with our general impression that the book is a bit like Lolita–the “nymph” of the title is fourteen when the novel begins and the love interest of a much older man, though he doesn’t exactly act on, or even quite acknowledge, his feelings for her at first. Kennedy herself said the book was meant to explore the conflict between “art” and “culture,” so we’ve been kicking that around a bit. It is unnerving in some ways not to know where I want our discussions to go, what patterns or priorities to pursue. But the class is full of smart, curious people and I think we are doing well trying out ideas and seeing where they take us.

One thing we talked about right away is how obscure this novel is now compared to how famous and popular it was in its early days. One sign of its popularity is that there were three different movie adaptations of it, including one in 1943 starring Joan Fontaine. I was amazed that the trailer for this version turned up on YouTube. Watch it and see if you don’t suddenly want to read The Constant Nymph for yourself! Except that you might end up surprised at just how little the book resembles what you get here.

I hope to get some good extracurricular reading done in the next week or two. I have to, in fact, as both of my reading groups have meetings coming up! For Slaves of Golconda we are reading Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (remember, you can join in if you want!) while for my F2F group we are reading Wide Sargasso Sea, which is one I really should have read before now. I also have to read a PhD thesis for a defense on November 16, and keep up with the books for my classes … should be another couple of busy weeks.

South Riding: They like it! They really, really like it!

I’ve just finished rereading South Riding, ready for our final discussion of the novel in the Somerville seminar tomorrow. I was caught up in it both intellectually and emotionally, more than I was when I first read it last spring. Rereading made the subtleties of the novel’s construction more apparent: the sophisticated way Holtby weaves together the stories of her vast array of characters, the tensions between their disparate visions for their own lives and the life of their community, the ironies of unintended consequences, the conflicts between political commitments and personal affections, the books each named for a council committee. More apparent also this time was the role of the communal events (concerts, festivals)  in returning us over and over to the intermingling of these lives and values. Though there are strong personalities that dominate the novel, it is, ultimately, a social novel, and our realization that even the strongest individuals cannot really shape their own destiny–cannot control either the forces of history or the forces of their own nature–is shared, in the end, by Sarah Burton, who in a different novel would be the heroine but here learns to subordinate her ego to a communal story.

I think she also learns to accept that there are currents in life outside her control. I wrote before of my dissatisfaction with Sarah’s discovery of her love for Carne. I still find it melodramatic in its presentation, but on this reading I had more ideas about how it belonged, thematically, to this novel. Sarah arrives in South Riding keen to bring reason to bear in the service of progress and reform. In a pivotal exchange with Mrs. Beddows, she asserts,

I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.

Mrs. Beddows feels “sorry for the wilful unbroken girl before her.” South Riding is partly the story of how Sarah’s will is broken, and I’ve been thinking that her love for Carne is one of the ways that happens. Love – passion – desire – is not reasonable; it cannot be brought neatly under our control. It is, I think, shown as part of the natural world, in which raw forces like sex and death wreak havoc on well-laid plans. Many of the novel’s subplots, in fact, show people’s lives similarly wrought upon by their intractably physical elements: people get sick, they get pregnant, they inherit ‘tainted blood,’ they die. Sarah knows that Carne represents, politically, everything she opposes, and yet she loves him. Her feelings are characterized, in one of Holtby’s characteristically dry chapter titles, as a form of temporary insanity. In her conversation with Sarah after Carne’s death, Mrs. Beddows helps her to see that love carried her past their ideological differences: it was a response to Carne’s full presence and complexity as a human being. “He was everything I dislike most,” exclaims Sarah, ” – reactionary, unimaginative, selfish, arrogant, prejudiced.” “He may have been all that you say he was,” responds Mrs. Beddows,

but he was much more. He was courageous and kind and honest. He was, in dealing with people, the gentlest man I ever knew. He knew all about loving. . . . He never ran away from failure; he never whined, never deceived himself, never blamed other people when things went wrong. In the end – it’s not politics nor opinions – it’s those fundamental things that count – the things of the spirit.

Without suggesting that specific policies don’t matter, Holtby advocates the primacy of humanity over ideology. That’s an ideal, she suggests, for how we live our individual lives, but it’s also the model she endorses for civic government, because, in the novel’s simplest and most compelling idea of all, we’re all in it together. Thus Sarah’s conclusion:

She was one with the people around her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them. Those things which were done for them – that battle against poverty, madness, sickness and old age – was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.

We end not with Sarah’s love for Carne, but with her love for the South Riding.

South Riding has been a hit with the class. Frankly, I’ve been both pleased and a little bit puzzled by their outspoken enthusiasm. It’s buoying, for sure, not just for me, but especially for them, given that before long they are going to be deep into their independent reading projects, and I think their expectations are now higher about what they might find as they explore other books that they hadn’t heard of before. The things they like about the book include its range of characters, its political and social engagement, and its dry humor. I was worried that they would find the novel too diffuse, but they’ve talked a lot, with enthusiasm, about the frequent changes in perspective and how Holtby keeps shifting and complicating how we see people and situations. We can’t ever rest in simple judgments, seems to be the message they are taking away from that. The introduction of the love plot provoked a lot of discussion, but mostly they had accepted Sarah’s declaration less skeptically than I had. To be fair, it’s prepared for by a broad hint on the back cover blurb, as one student pointed out with justifiable annoyance. But they liked the frankness of Sarah’s confrontation with her feelings and the way her love contradicts her political principles. I’m curious to find out how they react when they see how things turn out! It is certainly not a conventional romance plot.

It’s great that they like it and are really energized to talk about it. I know I won’t have to carry the discussion tomorrow! But at the same time, I am reminded why I usually try to set the terms of my classes to rule out a lot of talk about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking.’ I have allowed, even encouraged, them to explain why they like South Riding, partly because it’s so clear that they do and it’s interesting to know why. And their positive response to the book is clearly motivating them to think about it and ask questions about it and make connections and generally be good readers of it. Yet there’s also a temptation for them to use the book they do like as a stick to beat the books they didn’t like as much or didn’t find as easy to appreciate–that is, both of the other books we’ve read for the course.* There’s a risk in setting up South Riding as a standard for success, as if other books that have very different aims and methods are not as good in some absolute way: for our purposes, that’s not a very productive way to proceed. It encourages complacency about their own preferences and interpretations and reading habits, which is just the kind of thing I’m guarding against when I worry that I’m not challenging my own reading of Gaudy Night. I’m certainly not sorry that so many of them seem so fired up about South Riding. I’m just going to do my best to channel the resulting energy back into ideas about why Holtby’s form and style serves her ideas so well, while Brittain and Sayers are doing other kinds of things.

*I can’t help but reflect that this is how I sometimes use Middlemarch. Ahem. But my purposes here are not the same as my purposes in the classroom. If I were teaching Madame Bovary I would save the possibility of a comparative critique of that kind for the very last day. The rest of the time would be all about appreciating Flaubert for being Flaubert. Honest!

This Week In My Classes: Good, Better, Best!

We’ve almost settled into a routine in my three classes, I think. The one I feel least certain about is my section of Intro. I think we’re doing OK, but I wonder if I made things a bit too intense at the very start of term as I focused on establishing expectations and framing our work as the preliminary stages in mastering a discipline. In my defense, I can say that the course is supposed to be a ‘writing across the curriculum’ offering and thus is supposed to teach writing in the context of training as a literary critic. But since I have a whole year to work with this group, I could have spared a bit more time, maybe, for getting-to-know you kinds of things. Well, we have the rest of the year to keep getting to know each other, and as far as I can tell, they are a nice group and seem willing to do what’s asked of them, and quite a few also seem willing to contribute to discussion already. Next week I’ll see if I can lighten things up a bit.

Mystery and Detective Fiction seems fine too. It’s a much bigger class (around 90) but a reasonable number of people are putting their hands up and saying smart things, and considering we’re working through The Moonstone, which is our longest and most formally complicated book, I’m hopeful that as we move into more accessible ones it will get more lively. The Moonstone is always such fun; though I occasionally wonder if I can make it through the sessions one more time (I think I’ve taught it for at least one class pretty much every year since 2003), once it’s underway I really have no complaints. I can’t imagine doing this particular class without it: I’ve rotated in different titles for many of the other subgenres I cover, but The Moonstone is a fixture.

Of greatest concern to me as this week began was how the first discussions of Testament of Youth would go in my Somerville Novelists seminar. I am so pleased to report that they have gone extremely well! Or, at any rate, that I have thoroughly enjoyed both preparing for them and participating in them–and judging by the level and the quality of the students’ participation, they too are finding plenty to interest them. Hooray! For each class there are three students bringing what I call “Start-Ups”: handouts with two questions and two passages they’ve chosen, to start up our discussion. We take a few minutes at the beginning of class to go through them (I used to require students to post them before the class so their classmates could come prepared, but I learned that invariably, students didn’t do that, or if they had, they still liked having the handout). Then we just go where people want to go.

We’re nearly half way through the book at this point–we’ve just passed Roland’s death–and so the personal drama has become more gripping, and we’ve started sorting out some of the ways she tells the story to make particular kinds of points. Last class, for instance, we talked about her idealization of Roland and how he becomes the embodiment of everything the war destroyed, and we also talked about the attention she pays to the physical bodies of the soldiers she nurses and how for her, that becomes a way of recognizing and valuing the physical side of her love for him. We’ve noticed the ways she emphasizes her feminist principles and the tensions this creates not just in the story she’s telling (for instance, she and Roland are reluctant to announce their engagement because they resist the conventional implications of marriage) but also in how she tells it (is her idealization of Roland perhaps symptomatic of an anxiety about having become one of “those women” she initially disparages, who have love and marriage and children as their first priorities?). We noted how strongly she dichotomizes first her provincial experience and her dreams of Oxford, and then the academic life at Oxford and the harsh realities of war: she seems to approach the world in terms of such antagonisms, and she also always wants to end up where the action is. We’ve talked about her desire to be taken seriously as an individual, not belittled or constrained as a woman, and then about Testament as a way of asserting serious value for a woman’s experience of war; we’ve talked about the frequent exchanges she and her male friends have about courage, and about the different ways they seek to overcome their fears and prove their valor. There’s more, too, but you get the idea: everyone’s noticing lots of interesting things, and we’re working out connections and trying to see where they take us. I’ve done a reasonable amount of steering and also of trying to abstract from particulars to draw out their implications, but there’s been no need for me to step in and fill awkward silences. Here’s hoping the energy continues, and that it motivates everyone to get busy with the wiki projects, which we’ll be focusing on pretty soon.

“I believe we are lost”: Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is as bleak and compelling a version of the “lost generation” narrative of World War I as I’ve read so far. In fact, Paul Bäumer, the novel’s narrator, comments explicitly, repeatedly, and bitterly on the chasm between the generation fighting in the trenches and the older generation far away from the front lines. “We agree that it’s the same for everyone,” Paul and his comrades conclude;

not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.

Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Though the novel is replete with vivid vignettes, from the tedium of training to the camaraderie of trench life and the horrific chaos of bombardments, the most poignant moments arise when the young men (and they are so very young, most of them, just the age of so many of the first-year students I’m about to meet) reflect on the war’s catastrophic effect on normalcy:

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled–we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.

They can’t even imagine what they will do when it ends: even if they are lucky enough to survive at all, much less intact, what’s the value of a life from which all meaning has been stripped? The physical violence ultimately comes across as peripheral–collateral, even–to the other damage they endure:

The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.

Battle is terrible, but it allows no time for reflection; Paul (and the reader) hurtles along, transformed from a thinking being to a “wild beast”:

We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. . . . [C]rouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.

 It’s when you stop to think that the true madness of war overwhelms you, because of course it is against men that you fling your bombs, and only the decisions of other men far removed from the consequences have turned ordinary people into enemies. “Just you consider,” observes Paul’s mate Katczinsky,

“almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are just labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchman as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

But it is dangerous to think this way, or to think at all, as Paul discovers during a turn guarding a group of Russian prisoners. In the trenches, the enemy is abstract until he is upon you, and then your common humanity becomes irrelevant in the desperate struggle to survive. But face to face, what you perceive is “the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men”:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

Paul pulls himself up short here: “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.” Yet he realizes, too, that he needs these thoughts: “I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended.” Though it is these thoughts that make the war unbearable, it is also these thoughts–these moments of recognition–that he hopes give him “the possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.”

Human feeling surfaces again when, hiding in a shell hole during an enemy attack (and how odd and salutary it is, just by the way, to be on the German side for once in my reading), Paul stabs a Frenchman who tumbles in on top of him. He had expected this moment, prepared for it (“If anyone jumps in here I will go for him … at once, stab him clean through the throat so that he cannot call out; that’s the only way”), but he is not, in fact, prepared (how could he be?) for this moment when killing becomes intimate. He strikes without thinking and feels “how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.” The man does not die, however–at least, not at once, and Paul is trapped in the shell hole with a man who now seems, not his enemy, but his victim. This way, indeed, lies the abyss:

These hours. . . . The gurgling starts again–but how slowly a man dies! For this I know–he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. . . . By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. . . . every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

 At last he dies: what a relief! “I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.” At least his dying was a distraction: “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts.” Insanely, pathetically, beautifully, he tells his dead companion what he is thinking:

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

After he finally brings himself to leave the shell hole, Paul is restored to reason (or what passes for it during war) by Kat showing him the snipers gleefully picking off enemies. “What else could you have done?” ask his friends. “That is what you are here for.” “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,” Paul says; “After all, war is war.”

That simple tautology says everything that is to be said, and at the same time it says nothing, offers no meaning, no consolation. There is nothing to be said, Paul thinks, as, recovering from a wound, he looks at the wreckage of young lives passing in a ceaseless stream through the hospital:

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

 Paul’s testimony–Remarque’s novel–shows that too, with harrowing simplicity. For Paul (for Remarque) war is definitive. It is everything. Beyond it, for those who have experienced it, there is nothing:

And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

I have been interested in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for many years, but I’m reading it at this particular moment as part of my preparation for my Somerville Novelists seminar. It is an example of what Testament of Youth is not: a soldier’s story, a first-hand (if fictionalized) account of fighting and survival and tactics and rations and brothers in arms. It is the masculine story of the war, and as many of the critics I’ve been reading point out, that’s the valorized story, the “authentic” one. Brittain knew these aspects of the war only second-hand, through the letters she received from the front and through her experience as a nurse. There are many points of convergence, though. Above all, both tell a story of lost innocence. And both focus almost exclusively on the personal, on individual disillusionment, devastation, and loss–but both lead us towards political conclusions by making it impossible to understand what cause could possibly be worth such a price. Outside their books, we might well feel there’s an argument to be had about that. Reading them, though, it’s hard to do anything but mourn.

My Somerville Summer Continues: Course Planning!

I continue to read both primary and secondary sources in preparation for my fall seminar on “The Somerville Novelists.” Most recently I’ve been going through Holtby’s Women and a Changing Civilization and Brittain’s Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II, as well as reviewing some of their journalism: my idea at this point is to launch the course with some excerpts that will both give a sense of their voices and use their own work to set up some of the major themes and contexts, from the history of women at Oxford to the relationship between gender and literary form. Ideally, the bits and pieces I choose will show off their personalities and get the group excited to learn more about them. Then I think we’ll read a small sampling of some relevant critical writing, again to set up themes and contexts and to give us some frameworks for discussion going forward into our four common texts: Testament of YouthSouth RidingGaudy Night, and The Constant Nymph.

I often organize my upper-level seminars around group presentations, usually one for each major reading, with individual reading responses and final papers for the other assignments. This time I’m thinking that one major component will be a collaborative wiki: given the relative obscurity of our readings, I think it’s apt (and hope it will be motivating) if we think about the class as an opportunity for genuine knowledge creation, building what might actually be a resource for other people interested in our authors and topics. I’ve used wikis in a larger lecture class before (following very much the model used by Jason Jones, described here) but that was less about generating ideas (though I hoped there would be some of that, and there was) and more about recording and synthesizing. In this case, with a smaller group of more advanced students, I imagine deciding as a group, after we’ve been reading and talking for a while, what kinds of information and what kind of organization will best serve what we are thinking and talking about. I’ll have to frame it carefully to make sure we have a shared sense of what we hope to accomplish and how their contributions will be evaluated–that’s going to be the tricky part, balancing what I want to be more open-ended and creative participation with the pragmatic bottom line that I have to give them grades and my expectations thus need to be clear and specific.

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