“Educated to Tragedy”: John Le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

drummer-girl1She was entering by degrees exactly that condition which Joseph had predicted. She was being educated to tragedy, and the tragedy absolved her of the need to explain herself. She was a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass, into a land where merely to be present was to be part of a monstrous injustice. She had joined the victims and was finally reconciled to her deceit.

At first, reading The Little Drummer Girl, I really missed Smiley. It’s not just that he is a great character–original, distinctive, and perversely inviting. It’s also that for all his gloom (and perhaps in part because of it) he is the moral center of his novels, dogged in his determination to rest what he can of righteousness out of circumstances that make it not just inaccessible but nearly inconceivable. The books are melancholy because they occupy such disillusioned territory, and because in spite of that, there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for) as a government agent. Because he is what he is, we mourn his losses and failures and betrayals of principle.

In The Little Drummer Girl, though, we are surrounded not by operatives but by ideologues, and at the center of it is only Charlie–vain, impulsive, erratic, susceptible. It’s true that she is also smart, courageous, and determined, but to what (or whose) ends? For some time, as I read the novel, I was frustrated by her. Not only is she a kind of character I almost instinctively dislike, but she did nothing to anchor the novel morally. She never really does, but by the end I came to see her instability as essential to the role she plays, both in the novel’s elaborate scheme of deception and in its treatment of the political conflict it engages us with. She herself can’t belong to either side or neither side could use her–and that means Le Carré can use her to move our sympathies back and forth between them.

drummer-girl2Talking about our sympathies seems almost out of place, though, which is something else I found interesting about The Little Drummer Girl. It seems to me to be fairly careful about laying out the arguments for both sides, allowing neither Israel nor the Palestinians the moral high ground. Joseph is a crucial device in this respect, for us and for Charlie. As he lays out the case for Palestinian resistance, building the elaborate fiction that she will inhabit as a double-agent, she marvels “at the paradoxes of a man who could dance with so many of his own conflicting shadows, and still stand up.” Later, playing the part he has written for her, it is Joseph who begins to feel to her like the fiction, while the role he created becomes her reality:

Day and night, therefore, she strove–for Michel, for her own mad sanity, for Palestine, for Fatmeh and for Slam and the bombed children in the Sidon prison; driving herself outward in order to escape the chaos inside; gathering together the elements of her assumed character as never before, welding them into a single, combative entity. . . .

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

Horrors on one side, atrocities on the other, and between them we have Joseph, who knows it all but is clear about where his loyalties lie, and Charlie, whose allegiance is never truly political but always personal. For her, as her handlers expect and devise, the double-edged story they devise for her becomes its own justification and necessity:

So it went on, one argument predicating another, until the only logic was the fiction, and the fiction was a web that enmeshed everyone who tried to sweep it away.

Her relationship with Joseph becomes so closely overlaid with her role as Michel’s lover that sometimes I almost forgot, as she almost does, which man she has in fact longed for, talked with, slept beside, trusted.

A bit like Edward Waverley in Waverley, Charlie is useful because she needs to be educated into the conflict she finds herself in the midst of. By the end of Scott’s novel, however, Waverley’s enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause has been played out, and both the danger and the romantic allure of Fergus and Flora have been relegated to a picturesque past. I don’t think Le Carré takes sides so clearly in The Little Drummer Girl. I suppose we might assume that the side Charlie is “really” on is the right side; some evidence on that side would be that she does persist in her undercover mission, and also that no matter how roused her passions are on behalf of her Palestinian contacts, she still turns to Joseph (including, in what I thought was the novel’s weakest moment, at the very end). But you could also argue that her intense reaction after the job is done–her disgust with them all and with herself–is a criticism, a rejection, of their purposes, or at least of the means the Israelis have accepted to their ends, and also that everything she has seen for herself justifies the resistance they have provoked. In his introduction, Le Carré himself describes Charlie as “torn to pieces by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”

drummer-girl3Given the ruthless and destructive behavior the novel shows by both “peoples” in pursuit of the justice they claim, is the novel’s message about the Israel-Palestine conflict “a plague on both their houses”? That angry impatience doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the novel, which is relentlessly grim but also (and in this it definitely reminded me of the other Le Carré novels I’ve read so far) almost clinical. The characters frequently get heated but the novel remains coolly descriptive, not moralizing or judgmental. Everyone running Charlie, Israeli or Palestinian, is just doing what they think must be done: if there’s some other way forward, some better ought arising from the is of both recent history and current circumstances, nobody in the novel is talking about it. There’s certainly no thread of wistful “can’t we all just get along” idealism: this is not the kind of novel that “puts a human face” on a political problem in order to urge reconciliation. At most, it does this through negative example and by proxy, through Charlie–but I’m not sure we can take her case as a lesson about how innocents suffer: “And you are the same English,” Khalil says quietly, when the crisis has come, “who gave away my country.”

“Disconcerting Clarity”: John Le Carré, Smiley’s People


He was in late age, yet his tradecraft had never been better; for the first time in his career, he held the advantage over his old adversary.

On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man; and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was eminently familiar.

[Warning: This post contains spoilers!]

In his preface to my edition of Smiley’s People, John Le Carré says that he intended the novel to be a “requiem” to George Smiley, a fitting send-off to a character he loved but was ready to leave behind. It certainly has the feeling of a fond but mournful farewell–not just to Smiley but to the motivating conflicts and underlying values that both previous books in the trilogy have explored. They too are not simplistic celebrations of the ideological antagonism of which Smiley and his colleagues are agents, of course, but by the end of Smiley’s People there is no possibility of fanfare for even the most exhilarating victory: there’s only futility and an unhappy recognition of kinship across lines of enmity that once seemed definitive.

smiley-people-2The enemy here is once again the shadowy figure known as “Karla.” For Smiley, as Le Carré makes very clear, the pursuit is as much personal as political. “It’s to do with the people who ruined Bill Haydon,” he tells Ann in a scene full of devastatingly understated emotional pain–but he is thinking, “who ruined you.” Later, waiting to see if Karla will take “the last step,” Smiley rehearses the case against him:

He thought of Vladimir and Otto Leipzig and the dead Kirov; he thought of Haydon and his own life’s work ruined; he thought of Ann, permanently stained for him by Karla’s cunning and Haydon’s scheming embrace. He recited in his despair a whole list of crimes–the tortures, the killings, the endless ring of corruption–to lay upon the frail shoulders of this one pedestrian on the bridge …

To get to that point Smiley has in fact triumphed, but the story of his success is as sad as it is thrilling, as the complicated entanglement of agents and double-agents, watched and watchers, enforcers and dissidents, gradually simplifies into the story of a father and daughter.

smiley-guinessEvery element of the case is shot through with moral and emotional ambivalence. The high point of the novel–the turning of one of Karla’s agents–wins Smiley the admiration of his people, reported to us in elegiac retrospection:

Once again, Toby insists on bearing witness here to Smiley’s unique mastery of the occasion. It was the strongest proof yet of Smiley’s tradecraft, says Toby … that throughout Grigoriev’s protracted narrative, he never once, whether by an over-hasty follow-up question or the smallest false inflection of his voice, departed from the faceless role he had assumed for the interrogation. By his self-effacement, Toby insists, George held the whole scene “like a thrush’s egg in his hand.” The slightest careless movement on his part could have destroyed everything, but he never made it.

But this long and gripping scene, this relentless demonstration of Smiley’s self-control and skill, is at the expense of “a humane and decent man caught in the net of events beyond his understanding or control,” and in the service of a quest to ruin another man by using his “one great love” against him. Smiley has long been driven by Karla’s “absolutism,”

which at least gave point to the perpetual chaos that was life’s condition; point to violence, and to death; … Karla, for whom killing had never been more than the necessary adjunct of a grand design.

Against this, he had imagined himself hampered “by doubt and a sense of decency.” Now he sees another Karla, “the Karla flawed by humanity.” Who, now, is the absolutist, the fanatic?

smiley-people-3As Smiley awaits the resolution of his quest, which he has undertaken in defiance of changed policies and protocols, under the shadow of “complete deniability” from the higher-ups, because this, this, is what they had once staked everything on, because this is the man against whom he has defined himself–as he stands in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, that relentless symbol of everything that divides his side from the other side–Smiley knows that if he wins this game he has made the difference between them irrelevant. “I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred,” he reflects, “and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.” And so he finds himself, against all odds, perhaps against all reason, hoping that Karla will not cross, or will not make it: “Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not his own.”

But Karla does cross, only that too is not a triumphant moment. “One little man, hatless, with a satchel”: is that, in the end, what it has all been about? No, of course, as the grim checkpoint, with its “halo” of light on the Western side and its sharpshooters on the other, reminds us. Waiting, watching, however, Smiley finds it impossible to think of Karla only as the agent of a murderous state. “He did not want these spoils, won by these methods,” he thinks,  and Le Carré leaves us too feeling dissatisfied at the ongoing paradox that some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for. “What shall it profit a man,” as the Bible verse has it, “if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Yet Smiley too is both man and operative; his actions in Smiley’s People are not aberrations but the fulfillment of his life’s work, the perfection of its intrinsic contradictions and longstanding moral dilemmas. In this requiem there is no note of redemption: there’s only resignation and regret. “You won, George,” says his old friend Peter Guillam. “I suppose I did,” is Smiley’s perfectly equivocal reply.

“This Time By Words”: Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End


Three excerpts from an unwilling elegy.


We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,


How can anyone believe that one day he was here and the next day he was gone?

Yet how can one, I thought. How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end? And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?

How good you are, Nikolai said, at befuddling yourself.


You write fiction, Nikolai said.


Then you can make up whatever you want.

One never makes up things in fiction, I said. One has to live there as one has to live here.

Here is where you are, not where I am. I am in fiction, he said. I am in fiction now.

Then where you are is there, which is also where I live.

Some books are too hard to write about. Imagine how hard this one was to write: if you think about that while you’re reading it, you might have to stop, as I nearly did. I liked this review by John Self, in the Irish Times. This one by Rachel Veroff in the LARB is good too.

“Someone Always Pays”: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage


We believed we could talk this out, reasoning our way through this. But someone was going to pay for what happened to Roy, just as Roy paid for what happened to that woman. Someone always pays. Bullet don’t have nobody’s name on it, that’s what people say. I think the same is true for vengeance. Maybe even for love. It’s out there, random and deadly, like a tornado.

I was irrationally surprised at how personal a story An American Marriage tells. I say ‘irrationally’ because it’s right there in the title, after all! Still, the novel’s premise made me expect something different: less about love and more about injustice, less time at home and more time in court and in prison. One of the novel’s underlying ideas is that you can’t separate these things: of course everything in the book that is personal is also political, everything that happens to its central characters and especially to Roy cannot simply be called ‘private life’ as if the action of the novel isn’t directly affected by larger public and systemic forces. What happens to Roy in prison, too, though we see very little of it directly, affects the whole direction of his character when he is released. “Roy,” Celestial says,

“Tell me the truth. Would you have waited on me for five years?”

He twitched that same shrug. “Celestial,” he said, like he was talking to someone very young, “this shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Roy’s laconic response is all the more powerful for its lack of hyperbole. There it is: the persecution, injustice, and suffering Roy has endured is not personal but representative–and yet he experiences it as a specific individual, as do his family and friends, and that’s what the novel is about.

But something in the balance between this story and the actual plot of An American Marriage seemed off to me. Roy’s imprisonment turns out to be little more than a device, a galvanizing force for the development of a fraught love triangle. The novel handles his time ‘away’ almost lightly, and mostly indirectly, with an epistolary section in which a lot of what matters can’t be or isn’t talked about. Then when he comes out we are propelled into Celestial’s ethical quandary, as she chooses which of the men she loves she will stay with. In fact, a lot of the argument is about which of the men she loves she should stay with: although both men at several points remark that she is nobody’s property, one thing that bothered me is the pressure on her–not just from them but, I felt, from the novel itself–to choose rightly between them. There’s more emphasis on what her choice means to and about Andre and Roy than on what Celestial really wants–although, to be fair, that’s partly because she too seems preoccupied with herself in relation to them. Maybe, the novel seems to be saying, what you want doesn’t matter as much as what you owe someone else, particularly the person you said your marriage vows with. But I found the almost talismanic force attributed to marriage by many characters in the novel uncomfortable and constricting, even though by the end of the novel its grip on Celestial has been loosened.

An+American+MarriageThere was also something uncomfortable for me in the way gender roles were defined in the novel, especially by Roy. It’s tricky, of course, with first-person narratives, to figure out how or if a book is asking us to step back from a character’s attitudes. I didn’t think, though, that Roy’s view of women as men’s saviors was set up as clearly problematic, though it certainly struck me that way. “The vast generosity of women is a mysterious tunnel, and nobody knows where it leads,” Roy says near the end. “Sometimes,” he also remarks, “the only thing that can cure a man is the inside of a woman, the right woman who does things the right way”; he credits the woman he sleeps with right after his release from prison as having “showed me how to be myself again.” “It wasn’t purely sexual,” he insists, but that’s about all we’ve seen of it. Like marriage, sex seems to be given some kind of prevailing power to define or assert character and value.

These problems converged for me in the final scene with Roy and Celestial, in which she has taken him back and they are about to have sex. Roy ultimately refrains on the grounds that even though she is “offering herself to me like a banquet prepared in the presence of my enemies, like a flawless red pear,” she isn’t really truly willing: he recognizes that she is taking him back and “offering herself” because she believes she is obliged to, not because their marriage still means to her what it means to him. He’s not wrong–“I have to do this,” she tells Andre when she sends him away–but I had a hard time receiving this moment as the ethical turning point it was presented as. That he pushed her this far (and that she acquiesced) made me wonder what they (and possibly Jones) think love is, especially because not that many pages before he leans over her in bed saying “I could take it if I wanted to.” “A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way,” Celestial said just before that, as he led her through the house to bed:

Could I deny Roy, my husband, when he returned home from a battle older than his father and his father’s father? The answer is that I could not.

Her callback to the systemic and historic problems that instigated their personal catastrophe is powerful but also disturbing. Surely the real answer is that she can, and that if she wants to, she should. It can’t be that both she and Roy think the price she should pay for the racism that puts him in jail is her autonomy.

oprah-and-jonesThe ending of the novel backs away from this tangled web of private and personal claims and answers Celestial’s question in a better way. Arguably, it repudiates the claims Roy made on her as well as her belief that love and marriage create not just ties but debts, and perhaps also asserts the primacy of the individual life as the right measure of ethical standards. (I’m not sure about these interpretations, though.) Overall the resolution seemed right to me; less so, the terms of the preceding debate itself. And that debate seemed to me the most interesting thing about the novel: it is artfully constructed, but the different narrators didn’t sound markedly different from each other and there didn’t seem to be a strong artistic reason to do the prison term through letters, though I’d be interested to know if anyone else saw something thematically resonant in that formal choice. It’s a very readable novel, perfectly pitched and crafted to provoke discussion about Celestial’s choice. (Presumably that’s some of what made it a perfect Oprah choice.) But by the end I thought the whole was, somehow, less than the sum of its parts.

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)


On First Looking Into Wilson’s Homer

odyssey-wilsonI have finally read Homer’s Odyssey. More precisely, I have read Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, which has been widely praised for its immediacy, accessibility, energy, and contemporaneity. These qualities–particularly the last–made it, I think, at once the best and the worst translation for my first experience with this classic text.

Yes, first. I have never so much as taken an undergraduate course in Classics. Everything I know about the Homeric epics has come to me indirectly, from other sources, mostly because I needed context for something else. For instance, I have often taught Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which has meant poking around to get a sense of how Tennyson is interpreting the story and its characters; I have also taught other epic poems, such as Aurora Leigh, which has meant familiarizing myself with some basic ideas about epic form and conventions and the expectations that go with them. I also know, and feel as if I have somehow always known, bits and pieces about the stories I have now read for myself–about the Cyclops, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis, and the lotus eaters (though that’s also because of Tennyson again), and faithful Penelope weaving and waiting. This vague but wide-ranging familiarity testifies to Homer’s pervasive cultural influence.

an-odyssey-coverYet actually reading Homer for myself never felt like a powerful imperative. Perhaps it should have. I was part ashamed, part irritated when I saw this comment on Daniel Mendelsohn’s Facebook page, when he had kindly shared a link to my post on his wonderful ‘bibliomemoir’ An Odyssey: “amazing that he [sic] has never read the Odyssey (but teaches Middlemarch) and by all accounts, probably never will. Oy.” The list of things I haven’t read is always going to be longer than the list of things I have and I don’t think the Odyssey would even be a Humiliation contender these days — or would it? It’s not as if the ancient classics are part of the core curriculum any more–not, as far as I know, at any level. Still, I can understand thinking that someone with my job might have filled this gap by now, just as I can see why it might shock some people (oy!) that I have only ever read snippets of the Bible. These are foundational cultural texts: maybe it is not enough just to know about them, although I honestly can’t think of a way my own specific work has been the worse for it.

In any case, the buzz around Wilson’s new translation inspired me to fill this lacuna in my education. I actually bought the handsome paperback some months ago, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I settled in to read it. I was a bit anxious about whether I would be up to the task (it’s always a bit intimidating, isn’t it, reading one of the Great Books for the first time?), which is one reason I had been putting it off, but I decided to take the same approach I did a few years back with Moby-Dick (it’s about whales) and let myself just read, not trying to “get” everything but rather just to get acquainted with it all. And all things considered it went really well! I could follow and enjoy the stories; the ‘ring’ structure was not, after all, very confusing; I frequently got caught up in the action and the drama; some of the trickery made me chuckle; the horrific violence made me shudder; the long-awaited reunions were worth the journey. moby-dick-penguin

I am pretty sure that I have Wilson’s translation to thank for the ease with which I engaged with the Odyssey at this fairly basic but still essential level. Nothing, in her version, really gets in the way of the story-telling: not diction or syntax, and also not notes–which are sparse (presumably because the introduction is very thorough) and kept at the end, for minimal distraction–or any other scholarly apparatus. The whole presentation is clean and crisp and transparent, like much of the language Wilson chooses. What more could a first-time reader ask for a tale so rich and various and strange than that it be made so rhetorically painless and thus so readily consumed?

But that same simplicity and directness, that commitment to an accessible contemporary idiom, meant that, for me, it was hard to get any sense of the poem’s greatness, or, to put it slightly differently, to recognize the Odyssey‘s greatness as a poem. A bit too often for my liking, the language crossed the line from clear and direct into mundane and banal. Sometimes the result was bathos; other times it was just incongruity. One example of many comes from Book 8, when Odysseus is challenged by the Phaeacians to participate in various sporting competitions:

                                 I am only
concerned that one of you may win the footrace:
I lost my stamina and my legs weakened
during my time at sea, upon the raft;
I could not do my exercise routine.*

waterhouse suitorsAnother example, less jarring rhetorically but more disorienting emotionally, came after the appalling violence of Book 22, which Wilson’s bluntness made remarkably vivid. Here is a bit of that, to show how powerful the translation can be–this is Telemachus overseeing the deaths of the women who “lay beside the suitors”:

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap–
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

This brutal work done (and Melanthius also punished as a collaborator by having his genitals ripped off and fed to the dogs–yikes!), Telemachus turns to his nurse Eurycleia and asks for her help gathering what he needs to “fumigate the house”:

She answered with affection,
‘Yes, dear, all this is good. But let me bring
a cloak and shirt for you. You should not stand here
your strong back covered only with those rags.
That would be wrong!’

It’s a reasonable concern, I guess, but not only is her indifference to the suffering he has just caused chilling (though suggestive, I suppose, as a signal about its possible righteousness) but her lines are so bland they trivialize an otherwise climactic moment. They made me burst out laughing at what is surely not supposed to be a funny moment, and that happened pretty regularly as I read through the poem.

There are certainly passages of great eloquence and high drama, and a few that are melodious and even beautiful, such as this bit of Book 7, from the description of “the house of King Alcinous”:

Outside the courtyard by the doors there grows
an orchard of four acres, hedged around.
The trees are tall, luxuriant with fruit:
bright-colored apples, pears and pomegranate,
sweet figs and fertile olives, and the crop
never runs out or withers in the winter,
nor in the summer. Fruit grows all year round.
The West Wind always blows and makes it swell
and ripen: mellowing pear on mellowing pear,
apple on apple, grapes on grapes, and figs.

“Mellowing pear on mellowing pear”: I like that, maybe because it sounds like something Tennyson would write! I liked a lot of the poem, really–maybe even most of it. Flipping back through it to choose my examples I paused at a lot of passages that drew me quickly back in. But I also ran right back into ones that fell flat: Penelope saying “since a god / has made you speak out about these future labors, / tell me what they involve. I will find out / eventually, and better to know now”; Laertes telling Odysseus that if he’d only had a chance to fight the suitors himself, “I would have brought so many of them down, / you would have been delighted!” There’s nothing wrong with these lines, of course, or anyway not anything definitive, but to me they sound like ordinary conversation, not extraordinary verse.

aurora-leigh-oxfordI commented on Twitter that reading this translation made me think of Wilde’s quip “Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” I also noted that as an admirer of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s self-consciously contemporary epic Aurora Leigh I am on shaky ground when it comes to complaining that poetry is too prosaic. “There are cases,” noted an early reviewer of Aurora Leigh with some acerbity, “in which Mrs. Browning has broken loose altogether from the meshes of versification, and run riot in prose cut up into lines of ten syllables.” “Is that poetry?” demanded another; “Assuredly not. Is it prose? If so, it is as poor and faulty a specimen as ever was presented to our notice.” EBB’s mission statement for her own epic comes in Book V of Aurora Leigh. “If there’s room for poets in this world,” she declares (“I think there is”),

Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.

Her solution, that is, to bringing the epic up to date is to claim it for herself: not to translate it but to transform it. Wilson is up to something different and perhaps more difficult: to bring an epic from another age into our own in language that (as her Translator’s Note thoughtfully and convincingly explains) reflects at once her modernity and Homer’s strangeness, to bring the Odyssey as close to us as possible while also reminding us of its difference and distance from our world:

My use of contemporary language–is meant to remind readers that texts can engage us in a direct way, and also that it is genuinely ancient.

My wish for language with more of the qualities she deliberately rejected (“grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated”) reflects on me, on my expectations and desires and, no doubt, my limitations more than anything else. I hoped for a transcendent experience, a thrilling one; I got an interesting and engaging and surprising one, and also, occasionally, a disappointing one. Maybe one day I’ll read the Odyssey again in another translation and see if I like that experience better or worse. As George Eliot says in Middlemarch, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending: at least now I’ve started on this voyage.

*June 12 update: Coincidentally (or possibly not, as someone tagged her in a related tweet to me yesterday, something that, just by the way, I personally avoid doing with authors, for my sake and theirs), the same day I posted this Emily Wilson wrote a thread on Twitter about her translation of this line. It is, as you’d expect, interesting and convincing about her reasons, though it does nothing to change my skeptical response to the line’s poetic affect (or lack thereof).

The Years: Woolf’s Interesting Failure

oup-the-yearsI’m about three quarters of the way through my second reading of Woolf’s The Years. It is still pretty slow going for me, slower than before even because instead of wondering what the heck is happening (or, as more often seems to be the case in the novel, not happening) I am trying to figure it out with the help of the various sources I’ve been reading around in and also the amply introduced and copiously annotated Cambridge edition–of its 870 pages, only 388 are actually The Years. That’s not really a sufficient excuse for my not having read once more to the end, though: the truth is that The Years engages me much more in theory than in practice. I quite like reading about it, but I (still) don’t much like reading it.

I don’t think The Years is a failure because I don’t enjoy it, however. I am pretty careful about not assuming my own taste is a reliable measure of literary quality! (Just what is a reliable measure of literary quality I’m not sure anyone knows, but that’s another matter. Or maybe not, as the rest of this post may show.) I think it’s a failure partly because Woolf herself thought so: “Its going to be pretty bad, I’m certain,” she wrote in her diary about the book’s impending publication; ” … but at the same time I myself know why its a failure, & that its failure is deliberate.” But I don’t think we know exactly what she meant by calling it a “deliberate” failure. In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee offers a plausible explanation:

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society.

Notice, though, that Lee doesn’t quite allow the novel to be a straight-up failure: instead, she ends up proposing a neat fit between form and theme that actually makes it sound like The Years is kind of a success–a successfully imperfect artistic representation of a broken society.

Penguin YearsI would explain the novel’s failure on similar terms as Lee but with less subtlety: The Years is a failure because (deliberately or not) Woolf’s theory of the novel (including “her feeling that art should subsume politics”) was genuinely incompatible with her aims for this particular novel. She wanted (and this is pretty clear from what I’ve read of her diaries around this period) to write a “novel of purpose” (defined by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose as a novel “that sought to intervene  in the contemporary world”). It seems plausible, and some scholars make this connection explicitly, that she was motivated to breach the wall between art and politics because of Winifred Holtby’s analysis of her fiction, as well as because of her own ongoing anger about social and political circumstances. She wanted to make a decisive move into the world of facts: “what has happened of course,” she writes in her diary in 1932, “is that after abstaining from the novel of fact all these years … I find myself infinitely delighting in facts for a change, and in possession of quantities beyond counting: though I feel now and then the tug to vision, but resist it.” Unable, quite, to abandon her conviction that fact and fiction are not truly compatible, she began her new novel as a hybrid form, a “novel-essay” called The Pargiters, but over the course of the next few years she excised (or, as she put it, “submerged”) the explanatory portions: “What I want to do is reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.” The essay impulse was redirected into Three Guineas, and the novel portion became The Years.

claybaughI’m not saying anything original about that process, which is well known. I’m just trying to clarify why I think (and why I think Woolf thinks) the result is a failure. “How to do that will be one of the problems,” she comments in her diary early in the writing process; “I mean the intellectual argument in the form of art: I mean how give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art? These are rich hard problems for my four months ahead.” My take is simply that she did not solve these problems, or she refused to solve them, because she could not reconcile her means with her end. To put it bluntly, she could not bring herself to write the kind of fiction that would get the job done. Fiction can’t intervene effectively in contemporary life if nobody knows what you mean by it. Burying the meaning, as she did (“the rest under water”), however artistically consistent, is polemically (politically) stifling, or at least muffling. Obscurity is incompatible with activism.

I’m not saying The Years is not an intervention in contemporary life; I’m saying it is a failed intervention. There’s plenty of critical commentary now explaining (or purporting to) the political implications of the ellipses and gaps and silences and lies in The Years; there are critical editions that fill in the explanations Woolf did not (would not) provide for her many brief and often oblique references to historical and current events and controversies. The novel itself, however, utterly fails to convey the relevance (and sometimes barely even registers the presence) of this material. Though The Years actually sold reasonably well (apparently because people mistook it for a “family saga,” which it kind of is and really isn’t), there’s no evidence that it was hailed on publication as a radical critique of patriarchal norms, militarism, or anything else. “No one,” Woolf wrote, as the (generally positive) reviews began to appear, “has yet seen the point–my point.”

honourable-estate.jpgThough  Holtby may be the pivot on which Woolf’s failure turns, it’s Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate, not Holtby’s South Riding, that provides the most illuminating comparison to The Years, because it illustrates the perils of doing just what Woolf wouldn’t do: explaining everything. Where The Years (as many critics have noted) takes but subverts the form of the family saga, Honourable Estate embraces it. It covers nearly the same span of time as The Years and many of the same issues (the suffrage movement, the war, challenges to patriarchal dominance in the family, the hazards of sexuality, especially for young women, etc.). I wrote about Honourable Estate here before (here and here). If anything, my estimation of it as a work of art has gone down since that initial assessment, which is saying something considering I described it then as “effortful and long-winded.” Everything Woolf wanted to lurk below the surface of the action is in plain sight in Honourable Estate. It is the fictional equivalent of an earnest and well-researched but badly acted docudrama with mediocre production values. It is fairly interesting as a dramatization of social movements, with characters designed to exemplify its conflicts; there is some effective scene setting and some good description. But its purpose is so clear and its movement so plodding that it has almost no life as a novel.

The_YearsHere’s just one of many potential examples showing how differently these novels approach the same material. Both include sections that take place in 1908, the year of the great “Women’s Sunday” demonstration for women’s suffrage. In its explanatory note for the 1908 chapter of The Years, the Cambridge edition tells us that “the WSPU adopted purple, green and white as its official colours in this year, and in June held a 300,000-strong ‘Women’s Sunday’ rally in Hyde Park.” In the novel itself, Rose Pargiter arrives to visit her sister Eleanor with “a scratch on her chin”; “she had been holding meetings in the North,” we’re told, and a bit later,

They began to discuss politics. She had been speaking at a by-election. A stone had been thrown at her; she put her hand to her chin. But she had enjoyed it.

“I think we gave ’em something to think about,” she said, breaking off another piece of cake.

She ought to have been the soldier, Eleanor thought.

The Cambridge edition offers nearly two full pages of notes explicating this short scene, including information about Ethel Smyth, the model for Rose; details of the WSPU’s political activities; and details about the influence of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on Woolf’s “thinking on women, militarism and suffrage activism.” (Of course, The Faerie Queene! What, that isn’t what came immediately to mind for you when you read that passage?) There is no mention at all in the novel of the Hyde Park rally.


Nearly four full pages of Honourable Estate, in contrast, are taken up with Janet Rutherford’s attendance, first at the march (“walking, in her capacity as unrepresented taxpayer, just behind the Fulham Prize Band”) and then at the demonstration:

Standing stiffly to attention with her banner, Janet felt deliriously dizzy as her senses absorbed the compelling animation of that vital stream. Looking at the throng surging back and forth to the boundaries of the Park, she shared the exhilarating consciousness of the individual lost in the mass, the glory of anonymous effort and sacrifice.

“This,” she reflected excitedly, “is the invincible force which is going to count! The contemptuous smiles that greeted us from windows and balconies represented a traditional, unreasoning antagonism which cannot stand for ever against this united determination!”

“We are out to win the vote!” exclaims one of the speakers; “We are effecting a complete revolution in the whole conception and attitude of men to women and of women to their own womanhood!” “The attitude of men to women! Yes,” thinks Janet, eagerly listening, “it will be harder to change that than to get the vote. Will it ever alter widely, and if so, how soon?” The final part of the novel, as I described in my earlier post, gives a moderately positive answer: “‘To-day men and women, but especially women, live in a very different world from that of 1870, or 1900, or 1910.”

pride-and-prejudice-penguinIn that earlier post on Honourable Estate I discussed Marion Shaw’s essay “Feminism and Fiction between the Wars: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf,” saying that it “cautions us (me!) against underestimating the art of a novel like Honourable Estate.” Throwing that caution to the wind, I will say frankly that I think Honourable Estate is not a good novel (see, I knew we’d work our way back to the problem of measuring literary quality). It just seems so painfully obvious from start to finish! On its own terms, though, I’m not sure it is actually a failure. Unlike Woolf, Brittain had an uncompromised mission as a novelist. In her own foreword to Honourable Estate, Brittain explains,

I have tried to leave a truthful impression of certain changes and movements–and especially of the social revolution that has so deeply affected the position of women and their status in marriage and other human relationships … I have not sought to draw conclusions so much as to give imaginative life to the struggles, doubts, fears, misgivings and experiments of men and women passing through a period of rapid and momentous transition in manners and morals.

George Henry Lewes said Jane Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given that description of Brittain’s goals–which conspicuously do not include beauty of language, formal innovation, or other qualities we might simply call “aesthetic” ones–it is possible that she too qualifies as a great artist. (The argument pro or con would presumably stand or fall on that phrase “imaginative life.”)

Penguin-RomolaWhat an uncomfortable conclusion, though: even if I’m reluctant to let Woolf (or Austen) set the evaluative terms, I find it hard to concede that literary merit consists solely of doing  whatever it is that you set out to do. I have argued (at some length!) about Romola that its failure was a sign of George Eliot’s ambition and thus ought to be cherished: “If consistent “mastery” requires playing it safe, perhaps we should actually consider failure part of, rather than a problem for, our standard of artistic greatness.” I’m not sure I feel the same way about The Years, but I do find its failure more intellectually interesting than Brittain’s (arguable) success.

As for which book I’d rather reread, well, at this point it’s a tie: I still haven’t finished reading either of them for a second time.