Piffle: Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

“If anybody every  marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely.

Strong Poison was the first Peter Wimsey novel I ever read. It was the right one for me to start with, as it is the first one that features Harriet Vane, who is superb from the first moment we meet her; I went eagerly on to read (and have since reread many, many times) the rest of the Peter-and-Harriet sequence: Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. I used to reread Strong Poison pretty regularly too, as the tattered condition of my copy testifies, but I haven’t gone back to it in ages–decades, perhaps. Rereading it this time, I felt the usual nostalgic pleasure in revisiting something once loved and still familiar in almost every word, but I was also surprised that it had inspired me to read on in the series.

It’s not just that now I have much less patience for elaborate but very unlikely crimes and protracted displays of ingenuity in their investigation: it’s that I can’t imagine that I ever liked this Peter Wimsey at all. How was I not then, as I am now, both horrified and creeped out by his opportunistic, entitled, manipulative “courtship” of Harriet? “When all this is over,” he says to a woman he is meeting for the first time and who is currently on trial for murder and thus facing the death penalty, “I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.” It’s inexcusable, and it’s exactly right both that Harriet refuses him every time he returns to visit her in prison, update her on her case, and press her once more to consent to his proposal, and that at the end of the novel he slinks away without facing her.

Of course, Sayers herself realized the same thing: as she explained, what began as a simple enough plan to marry Peter off went completely off the rails when her two-dimensional chatterer came face to face with a woman of substance and complexity. Before she could let Harriet say yes, she had to reinvent Peter as a man of a very different kind while also giving them both, but especially Harriet, time and space to recover from his first ridiculous, blundering advances. Only then could they develop (and could we believe in) a relationship based on genuine respect, intellectual camaraderie, and love. The process begins in Have His Carcase, reaches its triumphant conclusion in Gaudy Night, and then carries on with mixed success in Busman’s Honeymoon.

I think because I rarely read the pre-Harriet Wimseys (I’m not even sure I’ve ever read them all) and hadn’t read Strong Poison in so long, I’d forgotten just what a long journey Peter makes across the sequence. It’s not that there’s nothing at all interesting or redeemable about him in Strong Poison, but he is conspicuously more shallow than in Gaudy Night, in which he can deliberately put on or take off the aristocratic buffoon persona that nearly defines him here. What really bothered me this time, though, was his abuse of Harriet’s confinement and vulnerability to press his attentions on her. “Do please stop asking me,” she says near the end of the novel:

“I don’t know. I can’t think. I can’t see beyond the–beyond the–beyond the next few weeks. I only want to get out of this and be left alone.”

That seems more than fair! He’s harassing her. She can’t get away, what with being in prison and all, and for all she really knows, if she keeps rejecting him he’ll stop detecting for her. It’s true he’s preeningly self-conscious about the awkwardness of the situation, but by far the most insightful thing he says about it is the last line of the book: “I intend to marry the prisoner,” he tells his family … “if she’ll have me.” It is, and should be, up to her–and he’s right to be worried.

If Peter is the worst thing about Strong Poison (and I say this as someone who considers the Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night very nearly the perfect man), Miss Climpson and her “Cattery” are the best. Smart, resourceful, intrepid spinsters working covertly in the service of justice: wouldn’t that make a splendid TV series? The first episode could be Strong Poison, just so we have the fun of following Miss Murchison’s adventures in the lawyer’s office and then Miss Climpson’s star turn as a medium. After that, though, Peter could be a minor character, which frankly, if we’re in the world of Strong Poison, is as much as he deserves.

Posted in Sayers, Dorothy L. | 4 Comments

“According to the Peruzzi”: Antonio Pennacchi, The Mussolini Canal

I make no claim to be telling you God’s own truth, the perfect and absolute truth which is known to Him alone. I’m telling you the truth according to the Peruzzi, as my uncles told it to me, as they themselves had lived it. To hear the other side of the story, and about other people’s rights, you’ll have to talk to them. From us, all you’ll hear about are our own.

I’m not really sure I deserve to write a blog post about The Mussolini Canal: I skimmed a fair amount of it, which may or may not be a better thing to do with a book you’re struggling with than simply giving up. I’m a big believer in persisting to the end of a book if you possibly can, not least because more than once in my own reading experience a book has grown on me, or I’ve grown into it, so that by the time I’ve finished it I am engrossed in ways I didn’t initially think possible. Sometimes, too, persistence in itself feels like progress–now at least you know, if only in a preliminary way, what the book is. For all I knew, reading The Mussolini Canal would be like that: just because by page 200 I was restless and irritable with it didn’t mean that by page 500 I wouldn’t be glad to have stuck with it!

But I wasn’t glad. Maybe it’s because I started skimming, which really only “helps” if you’re just trying to keep up with the plot, and The Mussolini Canal (despite being a book in which a great deal happens) is not at all a plot-driven book. Rather, it is a digressive family history with a narrator who sounds like a garrulous old man at a bar: “What–you don’t believe me? You think it sounds like the stuff of fiction, that it’s impossible that someone like Rossoni should have put himself out for the likes of them?” 

It’s a history well worth telling: the narrator’s family, the Peruzzis, are peasants who are early supporters of Mussolini and end up being relocated as part of his massive project to drain and farm the Pontine Marshes. Through the stories of the many (but, for me, often indistinguishable) members of the Peruzzi family, Pennacchi takes us through a big stretch of modern Italian history, from the rise of fascism to the end of World War II. Because the focus is always on the Peruzzis, it’s history up close and personal, with family feuds and village rivalries and petty acts of greed or revenge folding into the bigger national narrative.

It’s great material, and (in theory, at least) a great strategy, too, made especially interesting because it puts us, with the Peruzzis, on the wrong side of history, not heroically resisting tyranny but, without quite meaning to or really understanding, enabling and cheering it on–until the tide turns, and the Allies land, and everything is ruined: “the Mussolini Canal itself beggared description.” The problem, for me, wasn’t with the story but with its telling, which is one almost continuous and, to me anyway, fairly shapeless monologue, going around in circles and off on tangents–our narrator goes on for several pages about “privies,” for instance, and about road construction and paving, and about beekeeping. There are two full pages on how to make cappelletti, starting with killing and plucking the chickens and ending with Christmas dinner.

Some readers would revel in all of this. I’ve read other books that are garrulous and digressive and reveled in them myself: indeed, I rather specialize in them! But The Mussolini Canal just didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if my own poor concentration was cause or effect here, but for me all this miscellaneous stuff overwhelmed not just the Peruzzis but even Mussolini himself: it drowned out the human drama, and it muffled, instead of humanizing, the historical drama.

That said, even as I worked here on writing up my failure to read the novel well, it started sounding more interesting than I thought it was while I was actually reading it. This too is something that often happens! In fact, this blog has a lot of skeptical posts about books or authors that made a bad first impression but which I ended up learning to appreciate much better over time and rereading, and also through writing about them. The Mussolini Canal was highly recommended to me by someone who is a really smart and insightful reader: he clearly found things in it that I didn’t. (Perhaps reading it in the original Italian, as he did, made a difference?) Right now I can’t imagine rereading The Mussolini Canal, but I’ll certainly hang on to my copy, just in case.

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This Week In My Classes: After This, The Deluge!

I was talking with some colleagues last night and we all agreed that it is going to be hard to regain the momentum we’ve lost in our classes after this unusually long fall break–it’s extended because today is a holiday “in lieu of Remembrance Day.” A fall break itself is a relatively new thing: last year was the first year Dalhousie worked it into the schedule (adding a day or two at the beginning and end of the semester to make up for the “lost” time). I was (indeed, I am) a bit skeptical about it in some ways, especially pedagogically, but it certainly has been nice to have my schedule ease up for a bit, and I’m sure our students have been grateful too to have the day-to-day pressure lifted. But when we go back, will we find ourselves restored and energized, ready to throw ourselves back into the work that remains, or will we be sluggish and struggle to get going again?

I am certainly hoping that students in Close Reading have used some of their extra time to catch up on reading Middlemarch. It seemed pretty clear to me before the break that only a handful of them were really in the game during class discussions. I don’t know if the proportion of students who are engaged with the novel is actually that different from last year, but it has felt harder to me to draw people out, or in, and naturally I have been brooding about why. Is it me? Is it them? It’s both, no doubt–there’s always that mysterious classroom alchemy. (Maybe I can blame our windowless concrete block room, too, just a bit? It does have such a gloomy aspect.) The resistance I often experience to the novel in Close Reading is also, I think, partly a function of the class being one none of the students chose in order to read Middlemarch in particular (or any other 19th-century fiction): it’s a program requirement, a hoop to jump through. When I assign it in the ‘Dickens to Hardy’ class, at least nobody can claim they didn’t expect to read any long books! I do sometimes point out to students in Close Reading who say Middlemarch is too long to read in a one-term class that in my other one-term class it is one of five Victorian novels . . .

Anyway,  I hope those who needed it have take this opportunity to catch up, and that our  class discussion on Wednesday, which will be our last on the novel, shows the results. I’m keeping my own lecture notes for that day to a minimum to make sure there’s enough time and flexibility for the things they want to talk about. After that, we will be hurtling towards the end of term: their Middlemarch assignments are due next Monday, when we will also be starting The Remains of the Day, which is our last reading and, with Middlemarch, the subject of their term papers.

In Austen to Dickens, we’ve got a couple more sessions on North and South – which I also hope students will have caught up on! Then it’s time for Great Expectations, which is our final book in that class. The students who chose Jane Eyre for their first paper will be submitting them this week: there are a lot of them (for some mysterious reason, Vanity Fair was not as popular a choice!), so I’ll be busy marking these and then the North and South tests and papers, and then we are on to proposals for final essays and/or preparation for the final exam.

The end of term always feels like a mad rush for all of us. We have  had such a mild fall that I think it added to the illusion that we were somehow still just starting up: both the time change (which means dark afternoons) and the precipitous drop in temperatures have shifted us abruptly into more wintry conditions. From the relative quiet of our last day off, it’s hard to imagine getting it all done, but somehow we always do!

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Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

One year ago this week, the members of my promotion appeal panel wrote up their final decision: in their view, my file (“with its heavy reliance on non-peer-reviewed on-line venues”) had not met the requisite standard and therefore “promotion to full professor is not merited at this time.” Though they claimed to “see merit in reaching beyond the confines of the academy,” overall they confirmed what President Florizone’s earlier letter had told me: if I wanted professional advancement, I needed to “focus [my] efforts on seeking peer-review of [my] work.” In other words, as I wrote at the time, I needed to “get back in the box.”

Well, I have not taken their advice–not just because I still believe they and the others along the way who insisted on the primacy of peer review were at best misrepresenting and at worst disregarding explicit university policies, but also because, inadvertently, they, and the whole unpleasant process, helped clarify something for me. I don’t want professional advancement. Or at least I don’t want it more than I want to keep trying to succeed on the terms I have set for myself. I was (unfortunately) seeking validation, but I wasn’t asking permission–and the doubts about my abilities, accomplishments, and prospects that were sown in my mind over that grimly discouraging 18 months are finally being overcome by my growing confidence about and satisfaction with my work as a literary critic on my own terms.

It’s still a slow and incremental process: I have more than once, in conversation, compared my efforts to build up my portfolio of work and thus my credibility in that role (for which my academic credentials mean relatively little) as being on a hamster wheel. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to depend on the results financially–but at the same time that also means I am doing this work alongside the other demands of my job. I’m increasingly happy with the results, though, especially now that they include a couple of pieces that reflect me more personally–that came out of my own strong interests and let me show a bit more of my own style and personality as a writer.

One of these is coming out in the next issue of Tin House: for their regular “Lost & Found” feature, I wrote about Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in the context of my experiences as a student at UBC and my interest in the gendered relationship between history and fiction. The other is my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which was published in this week’s issue of the TLS. I’ve written a lot of things over the past decade that I am proud of, many of them in Open Letters Monthly but also here on my blog and in a range of other publications on and off-line. What’s especially gratifying about these two recent pieces is that they are essays, rather than reviews, that I successfully pitched them to these well-respected and widely-read venues, and that both I and my editors are very pleased with how they turned out. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee anything about what will come of the next idea I have for something to pitch, but it does give me courage to keep looking for ways and places to write that let me express myself more as a reader and critic.

In other words, a year after a fairly crushing blow to my career and (not incidentally) my self-esteem, I’m doing OK, even well. (Today was certainly an excellent day! There’s nothing like being included in the TLS’s podcast to make you feel like you really are participating in the “wider conversation about books.”) Soon after receiving the letter telling me that my appeal had been denied, I resolved to stay on the path I had chosen, even if it meant the end of any lingering academic ambition: as I said in my post last year, “an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?” In the last 12 months I think I have actually done more to advance both the university’s profile and its central mission–“the increase of knowledge and understanding”–by doing what I have done than I would have by devoting myself to the kind of research and writing that would (eventually) lead to peer-reviewed publication. So I don’t feel that I am being unprofessional! I’m just not limiting myself to the rigid, narrow-minded, and insular definition of my profession that was advanced and enforced by the university’s gatekeepers. They can keep their “past practice”: as Aurora Leigh says, “I too have my vocation–work to do”–and books to read, and criticism to write, and also, most important of all, classes to teach.

And with that, I’d best get back to it: I’ve got another 1600 words due on two books about Golden Age crime fiction in a week or so, not to mention the rest of both Middlemarch and North and South to reread for next week.

Posted in Academia, Personal | 6 Comments

“Resurrection of the Ordinary”: Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.

I was actually tempted to take my title and epigraph, not from Housekeeping, but from Middlemarch:  “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” Because the awkward truth is that while throughout my reading of Housekeeping I could tell that it is very fine, I could not feel that about it at all: for whatever reason (“It must be my own dullness,” as Dorothea says), though I was struck again and again by the beauty or resonance of a moment or a sentence in the novel, as a whole it left me unmoved, disengaged.

The title I did choose for the post reflects what I took to be one of the novel’s central impulses, one that becomes increasingly explicit towards the end as the rhetoric rises (and becomes more overtly religious). The story and its people are so odd, though, that I am not entirely convinced that they and their lives count as “ordinary,” or as “fragments of the quotidian,” to use another of Robinson’s nice phrases. The novel is more a study in eccentricity–though perhaps to see it that way is to be too much like Lucille, the sister who strives for normalcy, who sacrifices family for order and conventionality. Maybe in trying to read it as a novel about the grace to be found in the everyday I was making a category mistake, thinking it belonged with, say, Kent Haruf’s Benediction rather than with … what?

That I thought Housekeeping was meticulously and often beautifully written became (and here I flaunt my own eccentricity, I suppose) an annoyance rather than a compensation. It felt too written, too self-conscious, and fell (I thought) into portentousness, rather than profundity, in its epigrammatic perfection: “Perhaps memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well”; “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow”; “By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it.” Wise? or just oracular?

The house, the lake, the bridge: I glimpsed their symbolic potency, but they did not converge for me into a thrilling whole. I felt the tragedy of Ruthie’s losses, and the truth of Sylvie’s argument that Ruthie “should be sad,” and that therefore they should stay together, not be “helped” by separation: “There is no other help. Ruthie and I have trouble enough with the ones we’ve already lost.” I was never there with them in the moment, though. I was reading the wrong book, I think, looking for something that was simply not what Robinson was offering me. My disappointment–my loss, perhaps.

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This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

I am, mostly, but today I had my doubts about my students, many of whom seemed pretty tired and some of whom I’m reasonably certain were also (probably not unrelatedly) too behind on the reading to have anything to say in class.

That’s OK: it happens, especially around this time of term. It is startling to realize how far through the term we are, actually. We had an unusually warm October, and I think all the pleasant, sunny weather contributed to the sense that we were still in the opening phases. But here we are on November 1, and by the time we get back from our protracted study break (all of next week, plus the following Monday ‘in lieu of Remembrance Day’) we will be hurtling towards the end of it.

So what are we keeping up with? Well, in Close Reading we are working our way through Middlemarch. By today’s class everyone was supposed to have read to the end of Book V, which includes my favorite chapter (42) as well as the chapter in which Casaubon asks Dorothea to promise that if he dies, she will “carry out my wishes … avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” It’s a painful moment for Dorothea, who is confronted with an impossible moral choice. (See for here for a more detailed commentary on that choice and its tangled ethics.)

I was worried going into class this morning because I spent most of Monday’s class talking at the students instead of with them. Sometimes when I’m teaching this novel, which I love so much and know so well, I have trouble getting out of my way — and out of theirs! I had been fretting, leading up to Monday’s class, because of the long break we’re going to have before we come back and finish our work on the novel, and I overcompensated. (In my defense, I think I did a pretty good job explaining the novel’s intricate structure with the help of my “Skwish” toy.) Today, however, I asked them to generate topics for discussion and then we just worked through the ones we had time for, with some left over for Friday’s class. One of the things we talked about was that terrible promise and why she should or shouldn’t (or, must or must not) say yes to it; one of the things I was asked to do next time was explain the Raffles connection, which I will certainly do.

So that class went better than expected, but then my afternoon class went a bit worse: participation was pretty minimal (though everything that was proffered was really useful) and there was a lot of that whole “look down intently at your book every time she asks a question” thing that clearly signals “don’t ask me! don’t even look at me!” Again, that’s fine–up to a point! Everyone’s busy and reading for my class can’t always be everyone’s top priority, even if it is North and South. I was disappointed, though, because usually it’s a class favorite and today’s was a good installment, taking us right through the strike to the remarkable scene on the steps of Marlborough Mill:

Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop — at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot — reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

We didn’t actually discuss that scene today, partly because it was clear a lot of them weren’t ready, but we did lay the groundwork, talking about Margaret’s character and her difficult transition from her idyllic country home to the bustle and jostle of Milton-Northern, and about her ability, as a sympathetic outsider, to bridge the gap between the classes caused by misunderstanding and (as they see it) antagonistic interests. She’s not perfect herself, so we are looking at how her Milton experience begins to change her from someone who takes her own preeminence for granted and disdains “shoppy people” to someone eager to be engaged with the industrial world that initially horrifies her. The reeducation is mutual, of course, so eventually (when everyone’s caught up) we will also talk about the changes wrought in Mr. Thornton by Margaret’s influence.

This is just our classroom work, of course. For all of us there are also papers and midterms, and we’re getting into reference letter season, and I’m reading a PhD thesis chapter, and there are committee meetings … I admit I was a bit scornful about having a fall reading week when it was first discussed, but I’m looking forward to the break in the routine, not least because on top of everything else I have some writing deadlines coming up! It’s busy, but mostly it’s a good kind of busy.

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“Detaching the Threads”: May Sarton, A Reckoning

sarton-reckoningYes, Laura thought, it’s like a web. Whatever the secret, the real connections, we are inextricably woven into a huge web together, and detaching the threads, one by one, is hideously painful. As long as one still feels the tug, one is not ready to die.

I don’t think May Sarton is a very good novelist, and yet I seem to keep coming back to her fiction. Like the other novels of hers that I’ve read, A Reckoning has moments of tender, meditative loveliness–and yet (also like the others) it is curiously artless, even occasionally clunky. For all its faults, I was engrossed and moved by it, perhaps because (again, also like the others) it is palpably sincere, and also questing. I don’t know if this will make sense, but there’s something very human about Sarton’s novels: they seem very much the product of a person thinking things through. If her results were more aesthetically impressive or perfected, they might be better novels in some sense, but I’m not sure that would be an improvement–at least, not for me.

A Reckoning is the story of Laura Spelman’s death. When the novel begins, she has just been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. She is only 60, but she doesn’t really feel robbed of time: in fact, she thinks she has lived a full and complete life. What she wants now is to live through her dying on her own terms, which at first she thinks means without involving anyone else; soon, however, it becomes clear that this plan was misguided, partly because she quickly becomes too weak to care for herself, but also because she realizes that her death is not exclusively her own event. It inevitably affects everyone else in her life, from her children and grandchildren to the young woman whose novel she has been working on for her job as an editor at Houghton Mifflin.

“It is then to be a reckoning,” Laura thinks to herself in Chapter 1: with the time she has left, she wants to focus on what really matters, which means thinking about her life and the people in it and trying to figure out “the real connections.” As Laura sees it, it’s not a time for making amends or healing wounds: she is not sorry to leave her mother behind, for example. In her reveries, she ends up focusing particularly on women–those she has known and loved, especially her childhood friend Ella, but also women in the abstract, as she muses on the difficulties they face and the new opportunities she now sees for “sisterhood” (the novel was first published in 1978). Thinking about her sister Jo, who loved another woman but decided it was “more than I could handle ever again … and in my world too dangerous,” Lauren observes,

‘What I begin to see–Jo’s visit somehow clinched it for me–is that women have been in a queer way locked away from one another in a man’s world. The perspective has been from there. Jo thinks of herself as a man. All that is changing and perhaps women will be able to give one another a great deal more than before.’

She doesn’t mean sexually, though a recurring element of the novel is that times are changing for gay people in particular (the novel she’s editing is a “coming out” novel, and Laura continues working with its anxious author after leaving her job because she thinks it’s an important book). More generally, she thinks women no longer see each other primarily as rivals, and that this frees them up to be friends in an empowering and comforting way. “I think this whole journey towards death has been in a way joining myself up with women, with all women,” she tells Ella, whose visit finally releases Laura from the tug of life.

There are lots of small interesting things along the way to Laura’s death, many of them spinning off from this attention to women’s relationships, but also comments about families and marriage and, of course, about dying. Sarton shows Laura gradually receding from the world around her. It’s not portrayed sentimentally or euphemistically, but for all the details about nausea and coughing up blood, it’s also not a catalog of medical horrors. Laura is very aware of her illness as a physical encroachment on her body, but Sarton gives us the story of her death primarily as a mental and emotional journey. “It seems as though a person dies when he is ready,” the caregiver Laura hires explains to her when Laura asks her to share what she knows about death. A Reckoning follows Laura as she readies herself. More touching and, I thought, more profound than the goodbyes to other people are the moments in the novel that are just about Laura taking a few last opportunities simply to be herself (an ongoing theme of Sarton’s writing), listening to the music she loves, drinking in the beauty of spring flowers:

It had smitten her like love, with a poignant ache in all her being. She turned her head so she could see the light shining through the daffodils and watched it turning the petal’s flesh to a transparency, more alive than stained glass. Brahms and daffodils–life–life.

We know from Sarton’s memoirs and diaries that this is where she too found life, and no doubt that is why she writes about it so well on Laura’s behalf as she lies facing death and listening to Mozart:

Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. What had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervour to the very end.

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