Tuesday Miscellany & Links

That last post on my grandmother turned out to be a bigger project than I anticipated when it crossed my mind to do it–rounding up the scrapbook and letters, then scanning some of the old pictures. It was fun, though fun of the inevitably bittersweet kind that comes from remembering someone very dear. Once it was finally ready to post on Thursday, I had run myself out of time for that night, and then came a run of other distractions so that really all weekend I hardly got any reading done: Friday I spent doing some spring cleaning and cooking in preparation for having a few friends over, then I hauled myself out of bed on Saturday earlier than was entirely desirable (not that we’d been drinking wine or anything…) because Owen had to report by 8:30 for the Math Olympiad (where he and his partner handily came first in Grade 8). Saturday night my husband and Maddie arrived home from a week in Florida, so there was a lot of catching up to do–including the shows saved up on the DVR! More miscellaneous activity on Sunday, including various errands in preparation for my own trip this week, to Boston–so still not much reading. Not last night either, as Owen was performing in the Kiwanis Festival Gala Concert–where his newest piano composition, “Hypnotic Suggestion,” had its world premiere.

Yesterday I was back in the office for a few hours, though, and I finished up The Locked Room, which was the last of the Martin Beck books I hadn’t yet read. I’m working on a short piece about these books for another purpose, so I won’t go into detail about it here except to say that this one is particularly clever in its engagement with one of the classic mystery puzzles–you could do a whole paper, or at least a lengthy riff, on the significant differences between this particular locked room case and those in other kinds of detective stories. The other thing of particular note is that The Locked Room contains by far the funniest chapter in all 10 books, a unique combination of slapstick comedy and violent mayhem. Are there any laugh-out-loud funny chapters in Henning Mankell’s books? Not in the two I’ve read. I’ve set myself a perverse little challenge for the piece I’m writing on the Beck books, which is to see if I can write the whole piece without any references to either Mankell or Stieg Larsson–or, for that matter, to “Scandinavian” or Nordic crime fiction as a general category. Sure, there’s a bandwagon right there, but that doesn’t mean I have to jump on it! I want to see if I can talk about the books looking straight at them instead of treating them as antecedents or precedents. [That said, if you want  a great link round-up for recent reviews in or on this territory, check out the Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog.]

I’m about half way through Vera Brittain’s A Testament of Friendship and, primed by Carolyn Heilbrun’s introduction as well as a lot of Brittain’s own remarks, finding it really engaging as a portrait of women’s friendship that has no truck with the cliches about competition, cattiness, or jealousy that make up the usual tropes for such stories. I was interested to find Brittain opening it by invoking Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. That relationship, and that biography, are now seen as more problematic than they clearly seemed to  Brittain: some have read Gaskell as (accidentally) revealing antagonism or rivalry towards Brontë, for instance, and even if you take her to be sincerely defending her friend, there are moments when you wonder if she’s really doing Charlotte any favours by contextualizing her ‘coarseness’ in order to excuse it, rather than rejecting that entire conversation as inappropriate. I wonder if anyone has reread Brittain’s account of Holtby as being not altogether friendly after all. After I finish the book, I will peer around. I don’t see any reason to bring a hermeneutics of suspicion to it, myself: so far, certainly the aspect of it that I like most is what appears to be a wholly sincere and generous spirit of admiration. Thinking about the rarity of representing female friendship has also prompted me to think more about my own friends and what they have meant to me, which is a lot.

The other book I have on the go is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, despite all the positive press and awards and so forth, but I was peering at it in the store and had a gift card in my pocket, and you can predict the rest. A couple of chapters in, I’m liking it fine, though I have yet to discover why people think it is quite so special–but two chapters is hardly decisive. It will be my airplane reading en route to Boston. No point packing any more books, though, because one of the first places I’ve been promised by my cruise director for this trip is the Brattle Bookshop–which sounds like the sort of place I will be lucky to escape with fewer than five additions to my TBR pile. I believe we are also stopping in at the Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center, and there may be an expedition to the Trident Booksellers and Cafe as well.

Clearly, I’m in a kind of limbo period here with my reading and writing. Luckily, there are others who can offer you more substance and provocation than I can right now. For instance, over at Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader finally got around to Gaskell’s North and South. There’s a little grumbling at first, but as always, he has astute and unexpected ideas about what makes the novel interesting and sometimes even excellent as well. At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove convinces me I should give Willa Cather a try, writes thoughtfully about what critics do all day, and responds to Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women:

I was sorry to see Staal’s tendency to dismiss the latter stages of her course because they were more theoretically demanding, less obviously relevant to her own experience. I’ve always found them some of the most compelling parts. And come on, girls! Are we really going to wimp out here just because something is hard? Absolutely not. If feminism is going to come good on all its hopes, there is still tough work to be done deep in the hearts and minds of women, where perfectionism, compulsive compliance, guilt, responsibility and self-esteem create some pretty toxic combinations. That’s a feminism course I’d love to teach myself. But in the meantime, to catch up on the history of feminism to this point, I thoroughly recommend Stephanie Staal’s book.

Teresa at Shelf Love writes about writing about books, including a number of links worth following up; Annie at Senior Common Room has a very interesting post on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth; at the New Yorker’s Book Bench, the ‘Ask an Academic’ feature addresses boredom (the work under discussion as well as its author’s anticipated next project, on sentimentality, reflects a trend I have observed to do studies, not of things or substances, which were trendy for a while, but abstractions or concepts–I have a colleague working on a book about ‘grace,’ for instance).  There are lots more interesting posts out there but I have to get back to organizing for my trip! I don’t expect to be posting here while I’m away, but there may be the occasional Twitter update.

Monday Miscellany: Friday Night Lights, South Riding, Ian McEwan, & a Musical Bonus

We’re finishing out a four-day weekend here based on a holiday we don’t even celebrate in its hopelessly commercial secular form–Maddie is the only one of us who’d really appreciate Easter Bunny stuff but she’s allergic to both eggs and nuts, so never mind, and just as well too, really. It doesn’t seem like much really went on or got done, but the grown-ups did finish up the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I’d heard buzz about on Twitter from folks including Maud Newton (and Daniel Mendelsohn held it up as a counter-example in his recent smackdown of Mad Men, as well). I was finally motivated to get going on it by Sonya Chung’s post on it at The Millions. We both enjoyed it, which is no small thing considering that I wouldn’t ordinarily ever watch that much football. The characters are engaging and brought to life very convincingly, and there’s plenty of interest in the storylines. But we weren’t swept away by it: it already seems to be falling into the usual TV drama pattern of just one damn plot twist after another–when in doubt, throw in a crisis!–with the additional fairly melodramatic use of the football games to bring things to fever pitch (my husband, who does watch football, was amused that nearly every game was won or lost on the last play, in the final seconds). So far, there’s no sense of a larger project or developing insight of the kind that you get with The Wire or Deadwood, and the premise itself is not as breathtakingly stark and unexpected as In Treatment. I appreciate good storytelling, and I share Chung’s appreciation for the show’s commitment to heartfelt emotion, even to sentimentality.  It’s just that now we know it’s possible to do something more ambitious within the same basic structure. I’ll probably watch at least the second season (though I think my husband won’t), to see if it builds over time into something more, or at least to see if my initial attachment to the characters keeps me hooked, wanting to know what happens next.

In the meantime, I’m about 2/3 throug Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and enjoying it a lot–for some of the same reasons I liked Friday Night Lights, actually, including its straightforward commitment to character development and its interest in the dynamics of a tight knit community under pressure. I particularly like Holtby’s narrative voice, which is smart and analytical without being pedantic. The introduction to my (badly proofread) BBC Books edition promptly and plausibly compares it to Middlemarch. If I were writing one of those annoying “X meets Y” jacket blurbs for it I might call it “a post-war Middlemarch written by a socialist Anthony Trollope,” because while it has the wide range of Middlemarch and the sensitivity to the ways multiple stories can be interconnected, it has none of the formal sophistication of the earlier novel: in fact, it is structured very much like Friday Night Lights or any other conventional multiplot fiction, simply moving from focus to focus while progressing more or less linearly towards its conclusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! And in fact it’s a more interesting choice in 1940 than it was in 1860, if only because by then other alternatives had been so abundantly demonstrated, and Holtby’s own awareness of her more immediate literary context is pointed to by conversations within the novel itself about writers including Virginia Woolf. Lauren Elkin has some thought-provoking comments about this at Maitresse, comparing Holtby to Elizabeth Bowen (whom I’ll be reading for one of my book clubs soon, making Lauren’s post doubly relevant!):

It would be a stretch to classify South Riding within the category of modernism.  Although they share thematic concerns, Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message. “We are members of one another,” Holtby writes in her prefatory letter to her mother, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8). She is not only referring to members of the same community, of course, but to the community of humanity. Bowen’s citydwellers, on the other hand, feel more alienated than ever, and have an awareness of themselves as estranged from anything as conventional as a community. Communities, for Bowen, are in the process of being dissolved, and there is not much that can be done about it. Bowen’s novels and essays constantly interrogate and ironize concepts like “community,” and “humanity.”  Her novels interpret themselves for the reader, her sentences twist in syntax to avoid banality, her young heroines are intensely aware of themselves as young heroines, her novelistic forms double back on themselves. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle call this aspect of Bowen’s work the “dissolution of the modern novel.”

I’m intrigued by the phrase “the possibilities of message,” and I’ll think more about how or whether Holtby’s form is or is not integral to the “message” of her novel as I finish it up–tonight, perhaps!

On a completely different topic–or maybe not, since it’s also about novels and what ideas inform them–I found this discussion with Ian McEwan about books that have influenced his fiction very interesting. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes books about science. An excerpt:

I don’t need to ask what the influence on your novels is here, as science plays a big part in many of them – most noticeably in Solar, but also in Saturday and Enduring Love. What is the nature of your individual relationship, as a writer, with science?

I would like to inhabit a glorious mental space in which books like Slingerland’s would not need to be written. In other words – and this comes back to the notion of mental freedom – your average literary intellectual, just as much as your average research scientist, would take for granted a field of study in which the humanities and sciences were fluid, or lay along a spectrum of enquiry. This is the grand enlightenment dream of unified knowledge. If you think of the novel as an exploration or investigation into human nature, well, science undertakes a parallel pursuit. Of course, much science is concerned with the natural world, but increasingly it has invaded the territory of the novelist. Neuroscience routinely deals with issues not only of consciousness, but of memory, love, sorrow, and the nature of pain. I went to a fascinating lecture on revenge and the reward system by a German neuroscientist a few years ago.

I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science. As if I was being asked why I had a particular fascination for designs of differential gears in old Volkswagens, or car-parking regulations in Chicago in the 1940s. Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.

Finally, once before I posted a sample of one of Owen’s original compositions. If you’re interested, you can follow this link to another, this time the slow movement of the Sonatina for Piano and Violin that was his entry in the composition category at this year’s Kiwanis Festival. It’s an amateur recording of a live performance, so not studio quality, but I think it’s beautiful…

Weekend Miscellany: Books, Music, and Sunshine

There are crocuses up, the Public Gardens are opening Wednesday, and I bought fries and sat outside the public library to eat them this afternoon: it’s official, spring is here. What a relief. It wasn’t a particularly severe winter, by east coast standards, but it was still tough enough for this recovering Vancouverite. Being on sabbatical definitely made it less stressful than usual, though. If it were an option, I’d happily teach two of my five courses in the spring and summer sessions as a regular thing and use winters as my research terms. I could hibernate with my books, and then emerge, refreshed, into the sunshine and share that restored energy with my students! But this year, at any rate, I’ll just be sharing it with … well … you! And with my friends at OLM, when I trek down to Boston for our editorial summit and general festivities in May.

I have been doing some fairly miscellaneous reading in the last few days. After finishing Noah’s Compass, I picked out the first volume in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath. I wasn’t swept up into it in quite the way I expected to be, but as I read on and also read a bit about the series, I realize that my expectations were not quite right (this seems to be happening to me a lot lately!). I thought it would be more sweeping, more melodramatic, maybe, or epic. Instead, it is quietly lyrical in its descriptive passages but otherwise more direct emphatic than poetic or emotional–except in some of the more heated dialogue, when characters are often described as “screaming,” which shocks me every time because that’s just not the register things have been proceeding in. Not that there’s not plenty of action in the novel, but it just happens in very direct, almost blunt, way, so that when something really shocking happens (like attempted rape, or someone being urged, successfully, to stab herself to death!)  it’s particularly shocking because it’s just there, happening. I’m not explaining this very well, am I? There’s something of the same flatness in the prose style that is striking in the Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read recently, and again I wonder whether it’s the effect of translation, or an effect of a different set of literary traditions and conventions that affects the tone. It’s also winter a lot in this book, as in the Beck mysteries–but at least here spring does come! I was surprised at the sexual directness of the story. I’m going to move on to the second and third ones soon and then write them all up in a bit more detail.

I’ve also been working through Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. I was considering reviewing it for Open Letters, but the prospect of writing about this book in any detail makes me tired and irritable. I didn’t dislike it as much as William Deresiewicz did, but my marginal notes have a lot in common with the ones he rattles off in the first paragraph of his stinging review at Slate. It’s rambling, occasionally charming, occasionally extremely tedious, and always strangely evasive; its conclusions are vaporously insubstantial and wholly unrevelatory. I’m starting to think it’s a mistake for anyone to generalize about “literature.” The effusive blurbage on the volume also adds substantially to my cynicism about the publishing business (or at least its marketing side). I’m just not sure it’s worth my weighing in on it: I don’t think it really deserves much attention, well-intentioned and sincere as it clearly is, and I’m not sure what I in particular could add to it, or to discussion of it.

I realized that I have read shockingly little Victorian fiction since my sabbatical began, and one of my ambitions for some time has been to fill in some obvious gaps, so I’ve started Our Mutual Friend. (I did read this once before, but long ago–for my own undergraduate Victorian fiction course, in fact–and I barely remember it, despite having written my term paper on it. “Archipelagos of Meaning: Language in Our Mutual Friend.” Thanks for asking.) It’s interesting how strange and experimental Dickens’s language seems after reading a lot of contemporary novels. As book ordering deadlines for the fall term loom, I’m also wondering if I should shake up my reading list for my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ which I’ve done with the same reading list several times. The novel I’m thinking of mixing in is Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower, but I’ve never read it (only about it), so I probably should do that before I go commiting myself! Any other suggestions?

I also need to make decisions about the detective fiction class, so now I’m reading Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which so far I am really impressed with. If I do add it, I think I’d back off switching to The Big Sleep and stick with The Maltese Falcon, though, as I don’t think I want to be teaching three new books in the second half of the term. If I go through with my plan to assign one of the Martin Beck series, I still have to decide which one; I found the last two in at the library this afternoon, so I’ll read them and then make up my mind. I’ve been struggling to find an anthology for the class that includes all the short fiction I want. I’ve used the Longman anthology for a couple of years but it was not popular with students and included a fair amount of secondary reading which I don’t tend to assign. I thought I’d switch back to the Oxford Book of Detective Fiction, but I notice it does not include any Poe (??)–I guess I can link to online sources, but when you use an anthology, it would be nice if it had all the readings you wanted in it! There’s a cute little Everyman ‘pocket’ anthology that’s not a bad choice but why are the contents in reverse chronological order? Once upon a time I used a nice little Penguin book of classic crime fiction that suited perfectly, but of course it’s not available anymore. I think the Oxford is the winner, partly because it has a good selection of recent and international stories.

Finally, I just got Jill Barber’s new album, Mischievous Moon, on iTunes and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I also thoroughly enjoyed Chances. It’s not a sound for everyone (my husband doesn’t like her voice at all), but I love the retro vibe, the melodies, the husky voice, the whole sensibility. If you like a little something gently jazzy to go with your glass of wine after dinner, I highly recommend either one.

Worth a Look or Listen: Louis Menand, Philosophers and Fiction, and the Dangers of Theism

I haven’t been keeping up my “Weekend Miscellany” posts for a while, so here’s a bit of a miscellany for a Tuesday evening instead:

At Open Letters Monthly, Laura Tanenbaum reviews Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

The basic facts will likely be familiar to current or recent graduate students: graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before, especially in the humanities, nearly half in some fields like English drop out before completion, and many of those who do finish will not find tenure-track positions. To his immense credit, and unlike many critics, Menand recognizes that making graduate school more demanding or raising barriers of entry will only exacerbate the problem. Instead he suggests a shorter time to degree, with the completion of an academic article taking the place of the dissertation. He argues this on humanitarian grounds, but then notes the institutional pressures that demand a large pool of graduate students and underemployed PhDs as cheap labor.

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers writes about philosophers and fiction:

Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.

Further to his comments, I’ll add that I’ve done some work myself at the intersection of philosophy and literary studies, and I’ve found that many philosophers cannot, or at least do not, understand the textuality of literature. Even Martha Nussbaum, whose Love’s Knowledge is a kind of manifesto for making philosophy literary, or reading literature philosophically, sometimes lapses into readings that extract dicta about how to live rather than finding literary form itself, and the experience of that form, meaningful. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, is harder than it sounds. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of essays on or around this topic in the excellent journal Philosophy and Literature.

And at Common Sense Atheism, another Professor Maitzen is interviewed on, among other things,

  • how many theistic defenses don’t make sense given the demographics of theism
  • how Christian theism leads to twisted morality
  • the problems with free will theodicies
  • the incoherence of ‘Ultimate Purpose’

In my wholly unbiased opinion, the interview is well worth a listen, not least for its articulate explanation of why, “though it’s an extremely popular view that atheism is bad for morality, … it seems pretty clear that theism is what’s bad for morality,” for its crushing judgment of a recent Christian best-seller (“it’s the most intellectually shallow, childish, morally frivolous novel I’ve ever read”), and for its Utopian vision that “maybe the blogosphere can help us where the schools evidently have failed us.”

You all keep busy with these while I go put together my lectures for tomorrow! I hope to be able to do some book blogging myself again soon; I just finished Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, for instance, and am about half-way through Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

Weekend Miscellany: Niffenegger, Dickens, P. D. James, and Dracula

I’m definitely interested in reading Audrey Niffenegger‘s new novel, Fearful Symmetry. I began The Time Traveler’s Wife with some trepidation, worried that it would be something along the lines of Diana Gabaldon’s (to me, mysteriously) best-selling ‘Outlander’ series–escapist romantic fiction in with people in historical Hallowe’en costumes (admittedly, I read only the first one). I was taken aback by the gritty realism of Niffenegger’s novel, and indeed how she managed to make a story with such an implausible premise seem so intensely believable I couldn’t say. The central love story itself had, perhaps, the wish-fulfilment aspect of any story about a love that endures for all time (or through all times), but it didn’t strike me as at all sentimental in its presentation. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review of Fearful Symmetry, which sounds similar only in refusing conventional (real) limits on our present existence:

Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839, is perhaps the most famous of these parklands and a popular tourist attraction now. It is home to the remains of Karl Marx, Radclyffe Hall, Michael Faraday and the Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, among many other luminaries. It represents lives, secrets and stories jumbled together, the path through them determined by proximity and the tastes of the individual tour guide. In that way, it is like a novel.

Audrey Niffenegger makes the most of Highgate in a bewitching new novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” which proves that death (as one currently popular saying goes) is only the beginning. That’s true for Elspeth Noblin, who dies of cancer at age 44 after declaring: “A bad thing about dying is that I’ve started to feel as though I’m being erased. Another bad thing is that I won’t get to find out what happens next.”

A lot happens next, and a very unerased Elspeth participates in much of it, for there is a ghostly and passionate life after death: conflicts, like spirits, live on. Buried in Highgate, just over the fence from her former apartment, Elspeth’s corporeal self has left behind an estranged twin sister, a younger lover whom she promises to haunt and a valuable estate that now belongs to her nieces, also twins, living in America. She stipulated that they can collect only if they move into her flat for a year and keep their parents out. Her reasons will be explained if Elspeth’s lover, Robert — a neighbor and Ph.D. student writing an obsessive history of Highgate — can bear to read the diaries she’s left him. (read the rest here)

On another topic, some time ago in the Guardian Jon Varese (of the Dickens Project, and also a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Cruz) wrote a little piece asking why we still read Dickens (his answer comes by way of one of his students: “My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student, whose essay I was reviewing for a writing contest. ‘We need to read Dickens’s novels,” she wrote, “because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are'”). I was looking over that post again for other reasons (among them, that I’m currently teaching Great Expectations) and I was struck by the high quality of the comments thread that followed. One factor may have been Varese’s generous and patient responses: it’s obvious that he wasn’t doing a ‘post and run’ but was attentive to and genuinely interested in the debate he had begun–which ended up being, I think, quite a bit more interesting than the original post.

Sarah Weinman alerted me to these interviews with P. D. James, who apparently has a non-fiction work on detective fiction forthcoming (Talking About Detective Fiction). Though I found The Private Patient uninspiring, I am an admirer of James’s approach to detective fiction and regret having taken An Unsuitable Job for a Woman off the syllabus for this year’s round of Mystery and Detective fiction, not least because I appreciate the opportunity to discuss James’s idea that you can root genre fiction in the work of the great social realists of the nineteenth century (she points to Trollope and George Eliot as key influences) as well as in the more obvious progenitors of detective fiction (Poe and Wilkie Collins, for instance). For some time there was a lecture of hers available through the Smithsonian Institute (sadly, last time I checked the link was disabled) that was a delightful mix of erudition and wit. James has never offered any apologies for writing genre fiction, instead speaking often and eloquently about the liberty that choice has given her, by providing a clear scaffolding for the plot, to explore other aspects of fiction including setting, theme, and character. I’ll certainly be looking out for Talking About Detective Fiction. Here’s a snippet from the Telegraph article:

She has a crack at explaining the genre’s appeal in Talking about Detective Fiction, an idiosyncratic and entertaining primer written at the suggestion of the Bodleian Library, which is publishing the book and to which James is donating hardback royalties. It is not a comprehensive history – she does not read much contemporary crime fiction apart from books by Ian Rankin and her old friend Ruth Rendell – but an imaginative response to some of her favourite authors.

The 89-year-old Lady James is trying to recall what first drew the teenage Phyllis, along with millions of other readers in the Thirties, to the so-called Golden Age detective stories.

“Those books suggested we live in a moral, comprehensible universe, at a time when there was a great deal of disruption and violence at home and abroad, and of course the ever-present risk of war. And we live in times of unrest now, so perhaps we may soon enter another Golden Age.”

Finally, at InfiniteSummer.Org, the organizers of this summer’s mass (?) reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are turning to Bram Stoker’s Dracula for their next group read, I guess in the spirit of “and now for something completely different”! I’m not sure how I’m going to manage reading along, what with the readings for my classes and the other usual rush of teaching tasts that pile on in October, but the recent flurry of discussion here and at The Valve about literary merit, the alleged “extra-literary” priorities of academic critics, and so on–much of it begun with some snide remarks about Dracula–has piqued my interest in rereading the novel, which I haven’t read in probably 20 years and never officially ‘studied.’ I’ll put up some remarks, if I can, as I read along. It looks as if there will be some quite interesting material posted at the host site; they began with an introduction by well-known Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller. I’m on Chapter 3 so far and if I had a complaint, it would certainly not be that the book is dry, boring, or badly written, but that its literary investment is made in prurience and what (with a hopelessly high-Victorian prejudice, I suppose) I consider “base” emotions.

Weekend Miscellany & Recent Reading

Weekend Miscellany: some things that have caught my eye in recent Internet ramblings:

Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (via). I agree with Open Letters‘s Sam Sacks that Epstein’s generalizations about the Victorians are tired (“The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature”… ), though I think Epstein may to be trying to convey what the Bloomsbury-ites thought of them, rather than what he himself takes to be the case, as he moves on to praise the progress we have made from such Bloomsbury-inspired stereotypes. Sacks suggests that “when Epstein moves on to discussing George Eliot, he does fine”; I’d say there too, though, Epstein could do better. It’s tedious, for one thing, that he leads with a discussion of her appearance, complete with Henry James’s infamous insults (imagine a sentence along the lines of “A short, homely man with bulbous eyes, Charles Dickens nonetheless charmed audiences with his impassioned readings…”–why do so many people feel it necessry and appropriate to lead off with comments on her looks?). What can he mean by his remark, after noting that George Eliot was not a supporter of female suffrage (she was not much of a supporter of universal male suffrage either, it’s worth keeping in mind), that “George Eliot’s feminism was of a superior kind”? Superior to what? It sounds as if he might mean she wasn’t one of those shrill political types. He refers to Eliot as a “Zionist,” but as the work of Nancy Henry and others shows, it is tricky to use that term as if it applied in her moment as it came to later on.

George Eliot goes on Oprah: I’ve often thought Oprah should take on Middlemarchfor her Book Club, but its emphasis on failed ambition and entangled idealism would rather undermine her show’s relentless emphasis on overcoming obstacles and triumphing over “this petty medium.” As I always figure that the more people who read it the better, I’ll be interested (in sort of a “bystander at an accident” way) to see if this producer and those who read along find the expeience rewarding.

At ReadySteadyBlog, Mark Thwaite asks his readers to name “academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience.” As he asks, “who is doing it for you?” I think in principle any academic could “speak beyond the academy” if you follow Mark’s lead in looking to academic books for insights on literary figures or topics of special interest; academics who write deliberately for a non-academic audience would be a much smaller group.

Reviews are piling up of Sarah Waters’s new novel, TheLittle Stranger. I don’t need to read any of them to know I want to read the novel, but this piece by Waters herself on the novel’s background and relationship to Josephine Tey’s classic The Franchise Affair really whetted my appetite for it. (via)

N+1 takes a couple more shots at bloggers (“Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness.”) even while admitting that there can be a “special eloquence” in the “speech-like qualities” of on-line writing (though that eloquence doesn’t really count, it turns out, as “the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time”). With 76 million blogs ongoing (or whatever the current estimate is), any claims about what they are like “on the whole” must be a difficult thing to ascertain. I wonder how many blogs the author read to come up with this generalization.

Recent Reading

Two of the books I finished recently are so dissimilar in tone and style–indeed, in almost every way–that it comes as a surprise to me to discover, on reflection, that I think they are pursuing a very similar idea. The books are Nawal El Saadawi‘s Woman at Point Zero, first published in 1973, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker prize in 1984. El Saadawi’s novel is the fictional equivalent of repeated slaps in the face, if such startling, painful moments could also somehow be imagined as poetic. Brookner’s novel, in contrast, is subtle, patiently nuanced, and faintly sardonic. How can I say that the blunt first-person narrative of an Egyptian prostitute on death row for murder and a cool first-person account of a British romance novelist vacationing in Switzerland after leaving her fiance at the altar have anything in common? Perhaps the connection is a tenuous one, but both books seem to be fundamentally about the relationship a woman has with herself, and how that relationship is compromised and challenged by the sexual politics–the distribution of power, including physical and economic but also social and cultural power–of her world. Both bring these compromises and challenges into focus by emphasizing their protagonists’ struggles to discover their own identities and maintain their integrity, even when (especially when) that means disregarding how they are looked at by others.

El Sadaawi’s protagonist, Firdaus, fails: her courageous attempts to reinvent herself, to believe in herself and the possibility of her own economic, moral, and sexual freedom, are repeatedly–relentlessly, shatteringly–defeated. The cyclical structure of the novel, in which the same language (assuming the translation is accurate) is repeated for different incidents as if to prove no real progress has been made, that the core crisis remains literally identical, gives a formal pattern to this defeat. It would be an understatement to call this an angry book: to borrow from Matthew Arnold, it is full of “hunger, rebellion, and rage.” It is an activist book, a book designed to smack you out of your complacency. It is interesting to compare it, as I inevitably did, with Ahdaf Souef’s novels, which seem to speak from another world entirely. The timing makes some difference, though I wonder how much: is Firdaus’s experience impossible two decades, three decades, later? Today? How much of the difference between Soueif’s confident, ambitious women and El Sadaawi’s Firdaus is economic or class-based? The novel has been described as fable-like; it may also be that it is meant to transcend its time and place, to speak very fundamentally to the subjection of women, or of the roots and effects of all oppression.

Brookner’s protagonist ends her novel with no triumphant resolution but with a questing sense of possibilities. She has rejected two relationships that promise her social security, protection from the slights and indignities she faces daily and fears will overtake her as she ages: now she must discover what it is like to live on her own terms. To be sure, her situation is dramatically more secure than Firdaus’s, though in both cases money is seen to be key to both security and autonomy (“money is what you make when you grow up,” she tells a less independent companion). She faces no physical violence, no overt discrimination–but nonetheless she has difficulty imagining happiness for herself without love.

Hotel du Lac is the first Brookner novel I’ve read. I enjoyed the language a lot: it was descriptive but restrained. It opens with shades of grey that become thematically apt too, for the repressions that limit its protagonist’s expressiveness. I liked the “vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore”–that image of anaesthetic is proleptic of the life Edith might have. The novel surprised me repeatedly, not with big shocks or twists, but just by not being or saying quite what I expected. It felt like an Edwardian novel; I kept picturing its characters dressed like those in The Enchanted April (they use words like “smocks”–do people say that anymore?). But then someone said something about deconstruction and signifiers and I was reminded of its more contemporary moment. I wonder if the historical ambiguity created by its tone was deliberate, or if I just missed some basic clue as to when exactly its action takes place.

I’ve also recently read Emma Darwin‘s The Mathematics of Love, a novel which weaves together a historical with a modern plot. I thought both parts of the novel were individually well done, though the more contemporary (late 70s, so not really contemporary) part was more compelling. The 19th-century part was written in a more formal style, but that seems like an unnecessary artifice. Perhaps one reason Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novels read so well is that although she seeks out 19th-century slang and provides plenty of allusions and contextual details, she does not try to sound “Victorian” (which to so many seems to mean “stuffy”). I didn’t think Darwin brought the two stories together effectively: the interest of her 20th-century protagonist, Anna, in her 19th-century protagonist, Stephen, was never well-motivated. I liked the way she used photography as a device for evoking the strangely palimpsestic character of historical sites and stories, caught in time, leaving impressions that may be sharp or blurred, suggestive or specific, visible or even tangible to successive generations of viewers. The battlefield reminiscences are vivid, and the aftershocks of war provide another common element between the two plots, as do the various love stories that ask us to consider why we love who we do, what love is, and how we suffer for love. Just because I also read it recently, Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter is the inevitable comparison for this book: with Donoghue’s novel, I couldn’t see what it was about beyond the story it told, while with Darwin’s, I felt it was about a number of things but not integrating them in a fully satisfying way. But I liked it enough that I might try her second novel, A Secret Alchemy–also because it has been a long time since I read any Richard III-related novels.

Catching Up

Somehow I always forget how busy May is! There’s a lull after winter term grading is finished and then administrative tasks need doing–year-end committee reports and so on–and then the current crop of MA students heads into their thesis-writing phase, meaning draft chapters start coming in for comments. Last week we also had two Ph.D. students doing their comprehensive exams; I was involved in one as the student’s supervisor, so there was the exam itself to write and then the written portions to read, followed by the three hour oral exam; as Graduate Coordinator, I also chaired the second exam. Graduate admissions is an ongoing process, too, still involving an assortment of calls and emails and paperwork. In between these tasks I’ve been working on my paper for ACCUTE. Then there’s family life, too: a highlight last week was going to the Neptune Theatre’s production of High School Musical with my daughter–that was a lot of fun (Maddie was especially excited that the cast hung around in the lobby after the show to sign autographs). Last but not least, we’ve been watching the third season of Deadwood, which of course is “just for fun,” but I defy anyone to make it to Episode 6 or 7 without feeling a pretty strong compulsion to see how it all turns out. (It’s an extraordinary show, though I think I still rate The Wire higher.)

Anyway, no wonder I haven’t felt I could afford time for blogging, though I have been keeping an eye on my blogroll and in particular on this discussion at The Valve because one of my ACCUTE events is a lunch-hour session on academic blogging. (It strikes me that hopes or expectations for the potential of this form to shake things up in academic publishing have declined since The Valve was launched with this post–the premises and arguments of which I still find important and convincing.)

I’ve done a little reading, too (you always need something on the go to read with your morning tea, waiting for appointments, and so on!). One regrettable choice was Kate Jacobs’s The Friday Night Knitting Club. I wanted to like this one–just as I want to like the Elm Creek quilting series, and just as I do like leafing through quilting magazines, especially the kind featuring profiles of shops and the women who gather there. It’s some kind of fantasy of community and creativity, I think, of working all day with friends and having something beautiful to show for it. I do a little inexpert quilting, and have tried my hands at knitting too, and there is a simple satisfaction for me in the tangibility of the work; perhaps that’s part of the appeal too, as a contrast to the vagaries of academic and intellectual work. In any case, The Friday Night Knitting Club will teach me never again to buy a book with an endorsement from Glamour (“The book’s great–worth reading now!”). The best word I can think of for the writing is “cheap.” The plot pulls every predictable ploy: someone gets cancer, someone gets pregnant (guess which two major events are poignantly juxtaposed…), someone visits a wise old Scottish grandmother–who doesn’t talk anything like a wise old Scottish grandmother, unless unbelievably platitudinous advice is somehow authentic Scots wisdom:

‘You’ll have lots of questions to answer as you get older. Who you are. Who you want to be. What you think about things. Like politics. And romances. And whether you’ll speak out or keep your mouth shut. It’s always a challenge to work out the best way to live your life, and as much as everyone tells you what to do, ultimately how you do things is up to you.’

Offset short sentences bearing nuggets of painfully obvious insight or laboriously heavy-handed emotion are the author’s trademark:

It was only when the job was almost done that it hit her: a person didn’t return home to the Upper East Side from a building site in Park Slope, Brooklyn, via the West Side.

James must have made a special trip.

Just to see her.

Phew. That stinks.* I actually find this kind of book obliquely insulting to women (to whom, of course, it is exclusively marketed, I’m sure). And yet, apparently it was a New York Times bestseller, so I suppose I can only lament the laziness of taste and discrimination that makes something like this a success.

Now I’m reading Emma Donoghue‘s The Sealed Letter. I wasn’t wild about Slammerkin, but the premise of this novel is a good one and the reviews (including this one in the Globe and Mail) made it sound both intelligent and entertaining. So far, it’s just OK. One problem for a Victorianist is that much of what is provided as context in the novel (a bit woodenly, at times) is pretty familiar stuff, from the members and activities of the Langham Place group to the peculiarities and injustices of Victorian divorce law. Donoghue also does not seem to be using her historical materials to any strong thematic purpose: the novel is about the Codrington case, but what else is it about? As a chronicle of a broken marriage, The Sealed Letter is a pale shadow of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (see, for instance, here, here, or here), in which the breakdown of the Trevelyans’ marriage becomes part of a complex commentary on Victorian gender relations and marriage in the context of larger problems of distribution of power and authority. Also, who needs Crocker when they have Bozzle? As for neo-Victorian predecessors, well, (so far, again) Donoghue does not seem to have the gift of either Michel Faber or Sarah Waters for evoking the period in a profoundly contemporary but yet deeply convincing way. The greatest specific weakness I feel in the book is the friendship between Emily “Fido” Faithfull and Helen Codrington: they seem wholly dissimilar, and their interactions have a forced intensity that I find unmotivated by what we know about them (so far). Still, it is an interesting and fairly well-written book.

Next on my TBR pile: Emma Darwin’s The Mathematics of Love. But in the meantime, I’ll be grappling with the details of In the Eye of the Sun as I put the last parts of my argument into (I hope) coherent form for the conference. Note to me: there’s no shame in writing about short books…


*Does this count as the kind of “evaluative criticism” Nigel would like us to do more of? 🙂

Weekend Miscellany: Richard III, Lit Crit, Lit-Blogs, and Zombies

At the Globe and Mail books site, Margaret Cannon reviews a new Ricardian novel that sounds like it might be a fun addition to my collection: A Secret Alchemy, by Emma Darwin (“yes, an offshoot of that Darwin”).

Also at the Globe and Mail, P. D. James answers readers’ questions; here’s a reply that is pertinent to the discussion I’m having in my class on mystery and detective fiction about Golden Age puzzle mysteries and their limitations:

P.D. James I agree that few contemporary mysteries concentrate on logical deduction from physical clues. This was much more popular in the so-called Golden Age of Agatha Christie. Today we concentrate more on clues arising from character. In The Private Patient, Dalgliesh discovers such clues when he visits the victim’s house and has access to her papers. Even so, I doubt whether he would have been able to make an arrest if the killer hadn’t acted so spectacularly at the end of the book. But what does remain important is fair play. The reader who concentrates on solving the mystery should never be left feeling that some vital information was available to the detective and not to him. We should never need to ask, “How on earth was I expected to know that?” But I think that today, for many readers, solving the crime is less important than being engaged in an enthralling and well-written novel.

At (or in, depending on your medium) the TLS, Josh Cohen reviews Enthusiast!, by David Herd:

Woven into the book’s readings is a potent polemic against the assault daily perpetrated against enthusiasm by the bureaucratic mindset of the modern university. The imposition on literary study of alien measures of output, quality and aims blocks creative modes of circulation and exchange, insinuating bureaucracy into the very heart of the pedagogic relationship.

At Blographia Literaria, Andrew Seal has some interesting reflections on tendencies in ‘lit-blogging,’ particularly about the way its strengths (“the diversity of its members and the diversity of their interests, the ability to stage open-ended dialogues or discussion”) could be channelled to do more than increase awareness and thus choice. Perhaps, he proposes, lit-bloggers could provide more guidance, or at least more reasons for different choices:

Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge; instead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out, an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.

The Little Professor helps us see the full potential of adding zombies (though I admit I share Steven Beattie’s feeling that this may be going too far.)

At the Guardian, Ian McEwan writes eloquently on John Updike:

The Updike opus is so vast, so varied and rich, that we will not have its full measure for years to come. We have lived with the expectation of his new novel or story or essay so long, all our lives, that it does not seem possible that this flow of invention should suddenly cease. We are truly bereft, that this reticent, kindly man with the ferocious work ethic and superhuman facility will write for us no more.

(And yet the excerpts he quotes fail to persuade me to read more Updike than I have already.)

Weekend Miscellany: Wisdom, Paul Auster, Chess Novels, and the NYTimes 100 Notable Books

Update: Further to my remarks on tiring of over-hyped new books, hooray for the folks at The Millions for these remarks, and for their plan to have their contributors share “the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date”:

There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library. (bookmark this post to follow the series)

Morris Dickstein is eloquent on “why literature still matters” (though I wonder about the rhetorical valence of that “still”):

We readers and critics do what we do because we love it, but also because it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions. No two readings of a genuinely significant book, no performances of a living play, are ever quite the same. When they work their spell, they enfold us in an action that is radically provisional, not easily paraphrased, open to interpretation — and therefore to the unexpected. Since literature resists closure, our work — which is not exactly work — remains open-ended, with no real endgame. Always provisional, never definitive, this wisdom is our special form of knowing. (read the rest here)

Just in time to help me prepare for teaching City of Glass next term, Michael Dirda writes up Paul Auster in the NYRB:

Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by “certain philosophical questions about the world,” in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life’s overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness. . . .

Some of Auster’s tics or techniques—the incestuous literary connections, the skewed autobiography, the ambiguous blurring of fact and fiction, the pervasive fatefulness—might sink any ordinary novel from sheer portentousness. And portentousness, as well as sentimentality, has been a criticism regularly leveled at his work. At its best, his tone is unruffled, meditative, intelligent, yet sometimes it does grow gravely august, both orotund and oracular. His characters are all too often the playthings of invisible forces; and the most trivial action—answering a telephone, buying a blue notebook—can bring about the most improbable and dire consequences. What may look like chance is usually kismet, and to Auster New York really is Baghdad on the Hudson, an Arabian Nights world of omens, shifting identities, unexpected windfalls, improbable meetings, wildly good and bad luck, and all those sudden peripeteias that seem more the stuff of melodrama than of modern fiction. (read the rest here)

As my earlier post on Auster reveals, I’m not sold on ingenuity and metatextuality as a basis for great literature. I was recently exposed to another “novel” that made me even more dissatisfied with what seems like the substitution of intellectual games and hyper-cleverness for the humanity of art….Well, for people who like that sort of thing, I’m sure this is just the sort of thing they like.

The yearly orgy of “best of” lists is underway; the New York Times offers its list of “100 Notable Books of 2008” here. Pat Barker’s Life Class, Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News and Richard Price’s Lush Life are three from the fiction list that I hope to get around to. I’m actually feeling a bit tired of reading much-hyped literary newcomers that disappoint (more about that when I get around to writing up my own “year in reading” post). My Christmas wishlist this year is heavy on more classic titles (like a little thing called War and Peace that I really should have reread in a good translation long ago).

And in a more idiosyncratic vein, at the Washington Post we get a list of novels for “chess enthusiasts (and those who love them).” My son is an avid chess player (and former provincial champion), but at 11 I don’t think he’s quite ready for any of the books described here. Still, it’s worth noting them down in case the enthusiasm endures. A commenter already mentioned Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which was the one book I could think of with a chess-driven plot. Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles all feature chess-y titles, and some chess games are played (one, memorably, with live ‘pieces’), but they aren’t really about chess in any particular way.