Reading Lists: Refreshed!

stack-of-booksBook orders for our fall classes are due by April 1. It’s not a hard and fast deadline, but earlier orders make things easier for the bookstore staff and also enable them to organize book buybacks from students for texts that will be assigned again next year. In theory (though things have not always worked out this way) it also means that if there is some kind of supply problem with a fall book selection, they and thus we find out in plenty of time to choose an alternative. So I do always try to meet the deadline! The problem is that it comes up right when the current term is at its most hectic, which is one reason it is tempting to default to the same reading lists (or very close to them) that I used last time around–and that, in turn, is why I have made it one of my priorities this term, while I’m on sabbatical, to see what else I might assign.

This is an ongoing process for my Winter 2020 courses (British Literature After 1800 and 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens): I have some ideas, but I’m still thinking, including about just how much change I can realistically handle all at once! For my Fall 2019 courses, though, the die is now cast.

laura-feminist-pressFor Pulp Fiction, I have changed two of the three novels on the list (I’m keeping the short readings the same, so as not to overwhelm myself with new prep!). The first two times I taught it, we read Valdez Is ComingThe Maltese Falcon, and Lord of Scoundrels. I was actually very happy with this list for my purposes: they are all terrific novels, exemplary of their genres but also thought-provoking in their particulars, and the sequence was unified by their engagement with problematic models of masculinity. In practice, however, things did not go as well as I would like. For one thing, Valdez Is Coming was not popular, and it also proved difficult to use for exercises in close reading: there’s a lot going on but it’s subtle, more below the surface than on it, which fits the book well but gave students a lot of trouble. The Maltese Falcon raised different problems: I had more plagiarism cases involving students’ writing on it than I’ve had (to my knowledge, of course) for any text I’ve ever assigned in first year. As a result, I have replaced both of these books: this time our representative Western will be True Grit* and for noir we will read Vera Caspary’s Laura. I have a lot more work to do before I’m ready to teach either of these, but I know already that there will be ripple effects across all of our discussions and assignments because they are both written so differently from the books they are replacing. There is still an underlying thematic link, but it too is different: the new sequence highlights women who break the rules, or upset their prescribed roles.

Blanche on the Lam.2My other fall term course is an upper-level seminar on Women and Detective Fiction. I have put three new books on the syllabus for this iteration, replacing Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (which many of the students will have studied with me already in the detective fiction survey), Katherine Forrest’s Death at the Nightwood Bar, and Prime Suspect with Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, and Katherena Vermette’s The Break. The result is a more diverse list of authors and also (and relatedly) a change in the underlying conceptual apparatus of the course, away from a narrow focus on women as detectives and towards an exploration of how women writers also interrogate or subvert other aspects and tropes of the genre, from point of view to women’s conventional roles as victims or femme fatales. Neely and Vermette in particular also complicate the classic detective story’s commitment to closure, going further than the other readings to challenge the possibility of a real or meaningful “solution” to the crimes they address.

hughes2I feel good about these decisions, but I also have some concerns about taking on so much new material. More specifically, I’m worried that the new books for Pulp Fiction will actually prove more difficult for first-year students, not least because of their idiosyncratic first-person narrators–one of my tasks now is to think through their challenging aspects and provide my students with the right tools and approaches to have a productive discussion about them. I was very comfortable with my old reading list for Women & Detective Fiction–too comfortable, of course, as I realized. Now, however, I am anxious about how to handle the difficult scenarios presented in both In A Lonely Place and The Break and about equipping myself to address the appropriate historical and critical contexts for Neely and Vermette responsibly. But there’s plenty of time between now and September to do this work, and at least now that the book orders are placed my attention will no longer be “dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” but focused on these particular books.

*No sooner had I pressed ‘publish’ on this post then I got an email from our bookstore saying they aren’t sure True Grit will be available! The best laid plans etc. etc. but we’ll see.

“This Past”: Bart Van Es, The Cut Out Girl

cut out girlAs with the earlier news that Lien stayed with the neighbours, this information comes as a shock. So there were other Jews in hiding right where Lien lived on Algemeer. When she meet Maartje or Hester Rubens, as Lien must have done if she stayed here in this house, she could have had no idea of who they really were. The notion that Bennekom was a Jewish refuge comes as a total surprise to me. I have spent a lifetime visiting this village and, even now, though I have talked to my mother and her family about the work that I am doing, no one has ever mentioned this past.

Bart Van Es’s The Cut Out Girl is remarkable as much for Van Es’s thoughtful diffidence as a narrator as it is for the story he so carefully pieces together for us, a story that includes both intimate and often heartrending details about individual lives as well as broader historical explanations about the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. On the train home after a day of research in the National Archives, Van Es begins “to question myself about the work I am doing:

Lien asked me about my motivation. There are so many stories like hers and, besides, the bare facts have already been recorded for the Shoah Foundation archive, which was set up by Steven Spielberg soon after he completed his film Schindler’s List back in 1994. Is there anything that I could add to that?

It’s a fair question–what more do we need to know?–but also, as his book goes on to show, the wrong question. There are always more stories to be told, or more ways to tell the stories; we can never work too hard to counter the dehumanizing mass persecution and murder perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators by giving the people they persecuted and murdered the kind of dedicated attention Van Es gives Lien.

van-esVan Es pursues Lien’s story initially because it is also the story of his family: his paternal grandparents sheltered Lien, absorbing her into their family in Dordrecht as the lives of Jews in the Hague, where her parents lived, became increasingly precarious. One of the most painful documents in a book full of wrenching details is the letter Lien’s mother wrote to the unknown recipients of her 9-year-old daughter in August 1942. “She has been taken from me by circumstance,” wrote 28-year-old Catherine de Jong-Spiero;

May you, with the best will and wisdom, look after her. . . . I want to say to you that it is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father and that, in the moments of sadness that will come to her, you will comfort her as such.

Catherine died in Auschwitz in November 1942; her husband died in Auschwitz in February 1943. Lien survives, but the story of her relationship with the Van Es family is a complicated one and full of different kinds of sadness beyond the one her mother no doubt foresaw most clearly. For one thing, she has to leave them and go into hiding elsewhere when her secret identity gets out. Then, when the war is over and it is time to reunite hidden children with their families, the Van Esses turn down Lien’s initial request to return to them. Though they change their mind and take her back, that first rejection is a significant blow to a young girl already at a loss to know where she belongs. Eventually Lien and her foster parents break ties altogether; when Bart meets Lien for their first interview, it has been thirty years since the breach.

took-heromaThe Cut Out Girl alternates chapters about Lien’s experiences during the war with chapters recounting Van Es’s research, including interviews with Lien herself, visits to archives and to places Lien lived while in hiding, and meetings with everyone he can find with something to tell him about Lien or about occupied Holland. He shows us Lien as part of the bigger picture, as one girl among many thousands, but also as profoundly individual, as a very particular young girl suddenly removed from everything familiar and having, over and over, to adapt to new people and new expectations, all under a cloud of fear and secrecy. The people who took care of her also are presented with great distinctness. Because most of what he knows about them comes from Lien, it is easy to lose track of the courage these people showed and the fear they must have felt for themselves. Though, as some of their actions show, they were far from perfect, still they rose to the moral occasion at great personal risk and they and people like them saved thousands of lives. “At least 166 Jews spent time in hiding in Bennekom,”  Van Es learns, for instance, “a village of just 5,000, and more than 80 per cent of them survived. This is the opposite of the national picture.” It is hard not to be awed at the actions of Jan and Dieuke Heroma, for example, key parts of a large network “constructed to resist the Nazis.” It was Mrs. Heroma who came to take Lien away from her parents, cheering her on the train to Dordrecht with funny place names: “Double Sausage Street,” a road called “Behind the Wild Pig.” Nothing about the kindly face shown in this photograph of her seems extraordinary, but that’s one of the points a story like Lien’s makes for us: ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.

lienThe Heromas’ antagonists are those like Harry Evers, one of many Dutch police officers who eagerly enforced Nazi policies, tracking down Jews to meet “the targets set by their German masters.” Evers too is otherwise ordinary, “unremarkable, modestly educated, fond of a drink …. not especially political.” He turns in the opposite direction to Mrs. Heroma, though, joining the Fascist Union and then flourishing in the Political Police, tracking and capturing the same people the Heromas and their allies are working so hard to protect. Van Es goes through boxes of files about Evers, including hundreds of witness statements about his appalling actions. “As I read these things,” Van Es comments quietly, “I think of Lien in hiding.” He tells us about one particular case very close to hers but with a different ending. Miepe Viskooper, age 7, was also sent by her parents into hiding with sympathetic people, in the hope that she would be safe. Discovered, Miepe is caught by Evers and his colleagues as she tries to run from them: “Evers came in right behind her, pointing his revolver, shouting ‘It’s the choke hole for you’ at the little girl.” She was brought to join her parents, who had also been arrested, at Westerbork. “As I read this,” says Van Es,

I think of my own wife and children and imagine that unwanted reunion. I can see the smile of recognition on the face of the child.

Miepe’s father survives, “but he returned to Holland alone.”

As a story of loss and survival during the Holocaust, The Cut Out Girl is engrossing, moving, and sometimes surprising and infuriating. Lien’s particular hardships, it sadly turns out, go beyond the loss of her parents and her constant danger and displacement: there are other villains in her world besides the Nazis and their agents. All the traumas of her childhood play a part in the complications that develop in  later years between her and the Van Esses, and Lien also implicates Henk Van Es, the man she calls “Pa,” Bart Van Es’s grandfather, in a further offense, recalling a terrible day when “before she knows what is happening, he is kissing her and stroking her hair.” It is another later incident, though, a seemingly innocuous miscommunication, that leads Lien to write what her foster mother Jans Van Es calls “the terrible letter,” which in turn prompts Jans to sever ties with her. Lien spent years after that, Bart learns, trying to come to terms with her own history and her relationship with the earlier generations of his family.

Bart-Van-EsThe Cut Out Girl is not a triumphant story: one thing it drives home is that survival by itself is only part of the battle. On a personal level, though, it does end on a hopeful note: Lien has found happiness in a new phase of her life, and gradually new bonds are being formed between her and the family she was first pasted into then cut out from. There is something lovely about the book’s cautious movement towards this happy ending and the self-effacing way Bart reveals that, in ways he could never have anticipated, his work finding out Lien’s story has done more than fill in a gap. The process has led him to think hard about history but also about his own immediate family, especially his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie. Van Es never presents himself as any kind of heroic discoverer: he is learning as he goes, about himself as well as about Lien.

This inviting diffidence–this care to avoid grandstanding or moralizing–extends to his understated observations about parallels between the time he is researching and the time in which he is doing the research. A different (a worse) book might have made this the pitch. Instead, Van Es just quietly points them out as they occur to him, and as a result their implications linger. Driving to Bennekom one night in 2015 he hears on Dutch radio the news of the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which is followed by comments and speeches connecting the attack to the shooting of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. As he drives along,

the radio shifts to a panel discussion in which the phrase ‘Islamic fascism’ recurs. Tomorrow there will be new developments in Paris: a siege at a kosher supermarket that ends in more killings, this time directly targeting Jews. As I pick up speed in the darkness, I am struck again by the obvious overlap between the present epoch and the last one: absurd conspiracy theories, economic recession, and a loss of faith in moderate politicians, who seem to many people to be irrelevant and corrupt. The little car pulls past container lorries that carry goods into Europe: fridges, televisions, furniture, plastic shoes. From the look of these roads nothing is left of the old Europe, but its ghost remains.

Dordrecht-Town-CanalThere have been some shifts, though, some changes in who is feared or hated and how. One day, looking for the exact location of Lien’s first residence in Dordrecht, Van Es realizes his pacing and staring have attracted attention from the current residents: “a middle-aged man in a kameez comes towards me, asking suspiciously, with a heavy accent, what I am doing. . . . ‘You ought not to be spying on people,’ the man tells me.” As he walks away, Van Es is

reminded of the obvious fact that the Muslim community, in terms of the hatred directed towards them, is probably closer to the Jews of the previous century than any other. There are no easy parallels but, all the same, the language of Geert Wilders (whose Party for Freedom has hit 15 per cent in national elections) has an air of the 1930s to it . . . He has spoken of the threat of an ‘Islamic invasion’ and wants no more Muslims to enter the country at all.

50 people were murdered in New Zealand yesterday by someone wielding the same hateful rhetoric along with his high-powered weaponry. Thinking of the suspicion and scrutiny the new inhabitants of the Bilderdijkstraat endure, Van Es is ashamed that he came by “pointing a camera, only to look and not tell.” The project he is there to further, though, is surely part of the larger responsibility we all have not to look away, and then to reflect on the meaning of what we have seen.


“There Is Only Us”: Sarah Perry, Melmoth


I do know this. There is no Melmoth, no wanderer, no cursed soul walking for two-thousand years towards her own redemption–there is nothing to fear in the shadows on Charles Bridge, in the jackdaws on the windowsill, in the way the shadows on the wall seem sometimes blacker than they should (you are nodding–I know it–you have felt these things too!). No, Thea, there is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen–bear witness to what must not be forgotten.

Melmoth is that rare thing: a thoroughly entertaining novel of ideas. While in some respects it is a deliciously fearless pastiche of Gothic novels (its title harks back to Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer, which is also constructed as a series of documents and framed narratives), it balances its more fantastical elements with sections of grimly compelling historical testimony about the worst human beings are capable of. Through the narrative of Joseph Hoffman, we see hatred, prejudice, and betrayal in Nazi-occupied Prague; the account of Sir David Ellerby bears chilling witness to the evils of religious persecution in 17th-century England; in her diary, a young girl in 1930s Cairo records the story of a nameless Turkish bureaucrat whose “inconsequential” paperwork has genocidal implications:

The memorandum was drafted, and approved, and signed in triplicate; it was signed by his superiors, and by his superiors’ superiors. By morning it awaited attention on desks further afield than Nameless himself had ever traveled; within the week those black marks on that white paper became deeds, not words, and 235 Armenian intellectuals were deported from Constantinople to Ankara.

Later it becomes “necessary to devise a practical means of moving ten thousand Armenians into the interior, where they could do no mischief.” As the new plan unfolds, Nameless and his brother Hassan are at once willingly complicit in and willfully oblivious to the evil they do. But here, and in every horror story Perry’s novel incorporates, there is an unrelenting witness:

“Brothers,” she said. She lifted the bundle she held and crooned to it. “Brothers, didn’t you expect to find me here? Don’t you know me? Don’t you know my name? I, who saw your mother’s pain as she gave birth? Didn’t you see my shadow on the page as you went about your work? Didn’t you feel me at your shoulder as you sharpened your pens into knives?”

“Did you think I wouldn’t see?” she whispers as they shrink in horror from her and from what she has shown them; “Did you think there was no witness?”

melmoth-maturinIt is Melmoth who is with them, as she is with Joseph and every other malefactor in the novel, including its unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose guilt over a secret from her past has driven her to live a life of penance and self-deprivation. Her crime is betrayal on a small scale, personal rather than political or historical, but then, as Melmoth’s various stories emphasize, even the greatest moral catastrophe is in fact an accumulation of individual acts, and no amount of privacy or secrecy can salve the guilty conscience. Melmoth is at once a legend and a projection of that conscience. Joseph Hoffman learned her story from his teacher, Herr Schröder. Melmoth was one of “a company of women” who found Jesus’s tomb empty after the crucifixion and then saw him resurrected, but Melmoth denied what she had seen:

Because of it she is cursed to wander the earth without home or respite, until Christ comes again. So she is always watching, always seeking out everything that’s most distressing and most wicked, in a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress. In doing so she bears witness, where there is no witness, and hopes to achieve her salvation.

It is not in your hour of greatest need that Melmoth comes to you, but in your worst hour, when you are most wicked and thus most alone, and she tempts you to join her in her lonely wandering: “So she comes to those at the lowest ebb of life, and those she chooses feel her eyes on them.”

serpentI won’t give away the different ways this sad and creepy story intertwines with the personal and historical narratives that add up to Melmoth the novel, but I will say that I found it wonderfully effective. Though the concept itself is intrinsically melodramatic, as is appropriate to the novel’s Gothic legacy, Perry’s use of it is restrained and she keeps her supernatural wanderer mostly on the margins: a doubt, a shiver, a shadow, a movement of the curtains, a feeling of being followed. The novel itself is not restrained, though: I remarked on Twitter that I was tired of elegant minimalism and looking for writing that showed some writerly glee, and Matthew Reznicek was right that Melmoth shows exactly that.

I also won’t give away the ending, but I thought the final pages implicitly grappled with the question raised by the quotation I chose as my epigraph here: Is there really any witness besides us, and if there isn’t, should it matter to our morality? They also leaven the Gothic darkness with a shimmer of light:

There is something there–something in her, fluttering, weak, making itself felt. She thinks of the box beneath her bed, and its remnants of the time when she had lived. Then she thinks also of another box, another girl–a lid lifted, and all the world’s wickedness let loose. But something had remained then–hope, very small, very frail, like a white moth looking for a flame.

The novel ends with the kind of flourish that might all too easily seem cheap and gimmicky–but I loved it, partly because it is risky, and because it’s fun and playful and also dead serious. It fulfills the spirit of the rest of the novel by drawing us directly into its world–which is, after all, our world. “Dear heart,” she says to us at last; “I’ve watched you so long. . . . won’t you take my hand?” The answer to Melmoth has to be no, but to Melmoth, for me it was an enthusiastic yes–and a somewhat surprised one, as I am not ordinarily enamored of Gothic fiction and as a result, and because I did not love Perry’s previous novel, The Essex Serpent, I had put off reading it. I’m so glad I finally did.

Fruitless or Fallow: On Being ‘Unproductive’


One of the frustrating things about the way productivity is typically measured in academia is the near exclusive focus on outputs: what counts (what can be counted) is the product of our reading and thinking, not the process. One side effect is that this makes it risky to change directions, because it takes time to explore a new field and figure out the contribution you can make to it, time that might end up looking “unproductive” on your c.v.–which then becomes a mark against you when you are up for professional evaluation.

anthologyI have first-hand experience of this. After I earned tenure on the basis of my scholarly work on 19th-century women historians, I did some hard thinking and decided I did not want to work on that material any more. It just did not feel very important or interesting to me, so while I could imagine (and in fact had put together some preliminary outlines for) new projects in that field, I decided to take advantage of the security of tenure to do something that mattered more to me–something that felt more urgent–which was the work I went on to do on ethical criticism. I eventually published two peer-reviewed essays based on this work, one in Philosophy and Literature on Martha Nussbaum and the “moral life of Middlemarch” (in 2006), the other in English Studies in Canada on Victorian ethical criticism (in 2007). A further result of this reorientation of my research was the edited volume of Victorian criticism I published with Broadview in 2009.

These are the tangible–countable–results, but I would say that the effect of this work on my teaching was every bit as important as these “outputs,” particularly the conceptual framework I developed for Close Reading–a course I offered for the first time in 2003, when it was required of all majors and honours students in the department and have taught six or seven times since then, meaning its effect has been “incalculably diffusive” (to quote from Middlemarch, which I boldly made the centerpiece of the course). I think it’s fair to say, though, that all of my teaching since then has been affected by the reading and writing and thinking I did about ethics and literature starting in 2000, when my tenure was awarded and I could approach my research in less instrumental ways. The questions I pursued about the nature and purpose of criticism also played a significant role in my eventual decision to start blogging and begin writing for non-academic audiences: I actually consider this later period the most productive of my entire career.

fallow-fieldNow consider how that phase of my scholarly life was described in the letter denying my promotion appeal. The committee’s assessment was that my record showed “limited scholarly activity between 2000 and 2005” followed by a “second burst of scholarly output.” Where do you suppose they think that “burst” came from? It came from giving myself time to read, think, and write–and it’s worth keeping in mind that I was in fact writing both of the articles that I’ve mentioned well before their actual publication dates, because the academic submission process takes forever. During those years I also gave conference presentations related to my ongoing research and attended a symposium on literature and ethics in Australia convened by a prominent scholar in the field. This is all scholarly activity! It is “limited” only in the sense that it was preparation for the “output” to come rather than (mostly) measurable outputs in the moment.

The same committee described my career as having “long periods with few scholarly publications.” The validity of this description depends on how you define “scholarly.” They were particularly exercised about the period between about 2010 and 2016 (when they issued their verdict). It is true that during this period I published only one article in a conventional peer-reviewed journal, and it turned out they didn’t think this article counted as peer-reviewed because it was solicited by the editor for a ‘forum’ rather than double-blind peer reviewed (if that’s the actual standard for what counts, they should also have discounted my academic monograph). My arguments that projects and publications during this period, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs website and my many essays and reviews on 19th-century literature–or, for that matter, essays like the one I wrote on Gone with the Wind, another example of the ways my research on ethical criticism infused my critical work–are indeed “scholarly” clearly failed to persuade them. (In fact, in the one comment that probably still rankles the most from that whole process, they said that apparently what I had decided to do instead of scholarly publishing was to “write about books and elements of popular culture that interest her”–which is an odd way to say “invite a wider audience to understand George Eliot’s secular ethics” or “explain Anne Brontë’s devastating critique of toxic masculinity in an accessible way”).


Anyway! My aim here is not to relitigate that dispiriting process (sorry–obviously I am not over it yet) but to highlight the way its professionally powerful agents explicitly devalued time I spent changing and growing as a scholar. That time without new publications was anything but unproductive–but that attitude towards time spent not writing, or more accurately not (visibly) publishing, is pervasive. I am free from overt professional consequences at this point: I’m not applying for promotion again, so I have the extraordinary privilege of being able to define productivity on my own terms. (If we just keep going through the motions, then what is tenure even for?) Even so, I find it hard to shake off the guilt and anxiety that comes with not, right now, knowing what my next “output” will be. I said before that one of my key goals for my sabbatical was to work this out, and I have been trying to, I promise! But after all this time, and especially after the emotional and psychological drubbing I took during that promotion process, the little creatures Jo Van Every calls “gremlins” can get awfully noisy and discouraging. As much as any specific reading and writing I am doing, I am spending time right now trying to give myself permission for some quiet time, some “unproductive” time–because while I know I need to let the ground lie fallow for a while, I’m afraid that from the outside that looks (and from the inside it can also feel) as if my time is not being well spent.

Cover2An important step in this process was self-publishing my (non-academic) essays on George Eliot. This was not an easy or entirely happy decision, but I thought I needed to do it so that I could move on, and to some extent this strategy has worked: it is now pretty clear and not entirely disappointing to me that it’s time to stop focusing on George Eliot and write about something else. At least I have something to show for my years of effort. Also, I’m not giving up on George Eliot altogether! In fact, I have one (last?) essay I am currently writing that I hope might find a home somewhere during this, her bicentenary year, plus I am preparing a paper for presentation at the upcoming George Eliot conference. (I am so excited about going to this!) I will keep teaching her and will write about her again if the right occasion or invitation arises. Having given up on a cross-over book, though, and with no incentive to contribute anything to the academic literature (the MLA Bibliography calls up 4,254 results for ‘George Eliot’ – that seems like plenty), all that remains would be constantly searching for a ‘hook’ to pitch, and that approach (for reasons I will probably be talking about at the conference) just seems wrong to me.

southridingOne way to think about where I am now is that I am having the critical and scholarly equivalent of a “but why always Dorothea?” moment! This is a good thing, or it will be, and I do have some ideas about which direction to go in. I’ve been reviewing things I’ve read and written about over the last decade or so, and it quickly became clear to me that the work I did that excited me the most was the reading (or was it research?) that I did on the ‘Somerville novelists.’ This did have some measurable outputs already (though not of the kind that really “count”): a new course, offered only once so far but perhaps one I could try again soon, a large number of blog posts, an essay at 3:AM magazine on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf, and a “listicle” on Vera Brittain at For Books’ Sake–which in turn led to a very pleasant dinner with Brittain biographer Mark Bostridge when he passed through Halifax. I loved working with this material, for its own sake and because it did not seem to be already overworked: the MLA Bibliography, for example, turns up just 49 entries on Winifred Holtby, 71 on Brittain, and 17 on Margaret Kennedy. Dorothy Sayers has a somewhat more intimidating 334 hits–but that’s still a long way from Eliot’s 4000+ or Virginia Woolf’s 7232. This is a crude measure, of course (countable things!) but it does suggest there’s room in those conversations for someone else and that figuring out what they are and how I might join in will be a manageable task as well as an interesting one. brittain

I suppose there’s nothing really surprising about this new plan, but I personally have been surprised at how much mental effort it has taken to stop doing one thing–to accept that I’m stopping, that it is no longer going to be my priority–and to start doing something else. Now I need to grant myself time to do it, to accept that this next phase, though it may feel aimless at first or not look productive, will be necessary to my next “burst” of activity the same way those post-tenure years were essential to my transformation from one kind of scholar into another. I know how lucky I am to be able to take this time: I wish all scholars could reclaim their time in this way rather than chasing metrics and measures of productivity that (ironically) actually discourage innovation by making it so risky to stop and think.

“One Long, Melancholic Story”: Anna Burns, Milkman


It was as if the electric lights were turned off, always turned off, even though dusk was over so they should have been turned on yet nobody was turning them on and nobody noticed either, they weren’t on. All this too, seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was the constant, unacknowledged struggle to see. I knew even as a child – maybe because I was a child – that this wasn’t really physical; knew the impression of a pall, of some distorted quality to the light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come, the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail. The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it …

Milkman is about, or is at any rate set during, the Irish Troubles, but although this context pervades every moment, every action, every thought and feeling of the novel’s narrator, and although the novel powerfully conveys the trauma and tragedy of living in the midst of this very specific kind of hatred and violence, I ended up thinking that the Troubles are in some ways the least interesting or important aspect of the novel. It seems pretty clear that Burns offers Milkman to us as something besides just a novel about the Troubles, not to diminish them but to lift them out of history and perhaps also out of Ireland, to make sure that we aren’t left with any comfortable sense that the kind of trouble they were about, or that the novel is about, is safely in the past, or only in Ireland.

One obvious strategy–which was irritating and distracting at first but quickly settled into familiarity–is the way Burns avoids naming names. She doesn’t name her characters, so among others we have the narrator herself, known to us only as “middle sister,” and then also “maybe-boyfriend” and “first sister” and “third brother-in-law” and “wee sisters” and “tablet girl” and “real milkman.” Burns also doesn’t name the city, or the country, or the political or religious antagonists; instead we have the “defenders” and the “renouncers” of the state, the paramilitaries, the districts, the faiths. It is easy enough to fill in the specifics for ourselves, but this tactic of not naming lets the significance of the story float beyond them. The novel is intensely and often painfully about England and Ireland, Protestants and Catholics, the police and the IRA, loyalties and threats, reprisals and knee-cappings and ‘kangaroo courts,’ but it is also universal, because what’s at stake in it is hope and innocence and beauty and love. (If that makes the novel sound corny or cliched, it shouldn’t, because it isn’t.)

ivanhoeAnother element of the novel that presses us to think about a conflict more abstract than its historically specific one (although of course that in some ways was always about abstractions too) is the emphasis on the narrator’s “reading while walking.” As she makes her way around the city, she focuses not (as far as she can help it) on her immediate surroundings but on her books, preferably 19th-century novels. The first time the ominous Milkman pulls up beside her, for example, she is reading Ivanhoe. The narrator knows that in doing this she is “losing touch in a crucial sense with communal up-to-dateness and that that, indeed, was risky.” She is seeking not so much escape as neutrality: reading is a form of withdrawal, a way of refusing or rejecting the whole otherwise intractable situation around her. This is why her reading while walking provokes what initially seems like a disproportionate amount of criticism. Not taking sides is not an option in her world, where nothing is exempt from partisanship–as she and we realize when maybe-boyfriend, a car enthusiast, gleefully shows off his acquisition of a bit of a dismantled Bentley only to be confronted about whether he also got “the bit with the flag on it.”

The narrator’s “longest friend” explains the problem:

It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lucubrations. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. . . . They don’t like it.

There may be ways, I suppose, in which hostility to this version of the life of the mind makes literal sense in Milkman’s historically specific context, with its connotations of economic elitism and political disengagement as well as its withdrawal into an anti-social form of privacy. It seemed to me, though, that Burns is also using the narrator’s reading and the opposition to it metaphorically in ways that the narrator herself suggests when she responds to her friend by demanding “Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” The alternatives stand for two very different ways of being in the world. There are lots of possible ways to unpack the opposition encapsulated by Semtex on the one hand and Jane Eyre on the other: one way that I don’t think fits is to say that the novel pits art against politics, but it certainly does question whether artistic and imaginative freedom can flourish in an atmosphere of repression and terror, however putatively noble the aims.

oxford jane eyreThe opposition there is also a gendered one, and this is another way that Milkman felt universal (or at least mobile) as well as historically specific. Its central plot is only ambiguously about the actual politics of the Troubles, but it is very clearly a plot about sexual predation and sexual politics. I found the way the narrator loses control of her own story particularly chilling: her frustration that the Milkman’s interest in her negates her own agency, her fear and confusion at his insistent pursuit, her struggle to limit its ramifications, the seeming impossibility of even identifying him as a threat when, as she repeatedly complains, anything short of a physical attack will not be legible to anyone else as the danger she knows it to be. His hints about car bombs connect this story directly to a particular place and time, but her decision not to go running alone anymore is one most women who run can immediately relate to.

There’s a lot else going on in Milkman, but the last thing I’ll talk about here is the narrator herself. I think she’s another device that keeps the novel from being read as a straightforward historical novel. In some respects she is a typical first-person narrator, by which I mean the narration is in her voice and thus reflects her character and her perspective. Her narration was quite immersive, though the circuitous structure sometimes made it hard to follow (it could reasonably be described as stream of consciousness). But as my earlier quotation from her friend shows, her voice has qualities that, to me anyway, seem also to remove it from middle sister, or at least to make it clear that we are not getting an “authentic” version of her voice and story but a highly and deliberately artificial one. “Lucubrations”? Really? Who says that? Surely not her childhood friend who’s just chatting with her in the bar. Again, there are probably ways to make literal sense of this: the story is clearly told after the fact, though we don’t know how much after or much about what has happened in between the Milkman saga and the telling of it. Perhaps the hyper-articulate language signals the narrator’s development into someone who has joined exactly the literary world that her friend deplores. (This would be the “growing into the novelist” effect we get in many other first-person novels, such as Great Expectations or David Copperfield.) We don’t know who middle sister has become, though, so for me this seemingly uncharacteristic diction gave an air of unreality to the story that, again, kept me thinking about else it is about.

I found Milkman really engrossing. I can see why it got talked about as difficult, but I don’t think it is, really, once you get used to the nomenclature–and provided you pay close enough attention that you arrive back in the moment with middle sister after she has gone off on one of her circular excursions about who people are or what has led up to current events. The tension about what exactly Milkman is up to and what the consequences will be makes the novel gripping, but I thought overall it was as melancholy as it was suspenseful: every aspect of the narrator’s world is infected by the violence around her, and there’s an overwhelming sense of loss and waste and futility. While the Irish Troubles are the immediate focus–the occasion for the novel’s evocation of this “human darkness”–they are not the only time and place to have seen such trouble. In this way, the novel seemed to me to be about what Dorothea in Middlemarch rather hyperbolically calls “all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth.”

“Who Is Kim?”: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

broadview-kim“Hai mai! I go from one place to another as it might be a kickball. It is my Kismet. No man can escape his Kismet. But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib”–he looked at his boots ruefully. “No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.

I read Kim because it–and Kipling more generally–seemed like a gap in my knowledge of “my” field. It seemed plausible to me before I read it that I might add it to the reading list for my course in the late(r) 19th-century novel (though strictly speaking, Kim is a 20th-century novel, as it was originally published in 1901). Without knowing much specific about it, I did know that it was about an English boy growing up in India and thus about empire and colonialism and national identity (again, strictly speaking, Kim turns out to be Irish, which is of course relevant to those themes as well). It is indeed about those things. I imagined it was some combination of adventure story and Bildungsroman–and, again, it is indeed both of those things. I also imagined it would be lively and entertaining to read. Hmmm.

oxford=kimI guess it was lively and entertaining, occasionally, and it was also occasionally beautiful and poetic, and funny, and suspenseful. But I also found it something of a slog to get through, mostly because so much of the dialogue is a wearying blend of theatrical posturing and archaisms. The latter, and perhaps also the former, are meant (I assume) to give the language a “foreign” air so that we know the characters are not actually speaking in English–and there are also idioms and allusions drawn from the characters’ various cultures and languages that add to the effect. A small sample, from the first chapter:

“But I now see that he was but sent upon a purpose. By this I know that I shall find a certain River for which I seek.”

“The River of the Arrow?” said Kim, with a superior smile.

“Is this yet another Sending?” cried the lama. “To none have I spoken of my search, save to the Priest of the Images. Who art thou?”

“Thy chela,” said Kim simply, sitting on his heels. “I have never seen anyone like to thee in all this my life. I go with thee to Benares. And, too, I think that so old a man as thou, speaking truth to chance-met people at dusk, is in great need of a disciple.”

Perhaps it doesn’t seem so bad in a snippet, but I found it pretty tedious and sometimes just hard to follow when it goes on (as it often does) for pages. I suppose I would get better at it, feel more at home in it, with practice. I don’t find Scots dialect in Scott particularly hard to follow, after all–and I have even made a case for the value of an estranging idiom in Romola. I really did have a hard time with it here, though.

penguin-kimOn the other hand, I loved Kipling’s scene setting, which is vivid and concrete and rich in detail. From the crowded streets of Lahore to the mountains of Tibet, he shows us the sights, and conjures up the sounds and smells of the landscape as well. “This was seeing the world in real truth,” Kim thinks as he looks around one bright morning on the road:

this was life as he would have it–bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right-and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.

(As a side note, Kim is the only novel from the period that I can think of in which characters are so regular and explicit about cleaning their teeth! They mention it a lot.) Here’s another nice bit:

So they travelled very easily across and among the broad bloomful fruit-gardens. . . . After long, sweet sleep under the dry stars cane the lordly, leisurely passage through a waking village–begging-bowl held forth in silence, but eyes roving in defiance of the Law from sky’s edge to sky’s edge. Then would Kim return soft-footed through the soft dust to his master under the shadow of a mango-tree or the thinner shade of a white Doon siris, to eat and drink at ease. . . .

These are the kinds of passages I found myself flagging as I went along, not the ones about Kim’s involvement in the Great Game or the lama’s ruminations on the Way or the Wheel of Life, or the elaborate schemes and ruses and quackery of Hurree Babu.

vintage-kimKim himself is a bit of a delight. I was disappointed that the novel ended so inconclusively, without clearly answering his oft-repeated question about his identity. Reading the very thorough introduction to my Broadview edition by Máiri ní Fhlathúin, I was not surprised to learn that this “unsatisfactory” ending has “proved amenable to many readings, and resistant to any conclusive interpretation”; the readings she summarizes focus primarily on how or whether Kim’s Indian and British identities are reconciled, whether he turns away from or is subsumed by his role as an agent of empire. His relationship with the lama is very sweet, though I personally found the lama kind of tedious (I have limited patience for “holy men” unless they do worldly good, and in my admittedly limited experience of Buddhism I have never found it particularly congenial).

I think Kim would be really interesting to teach, not least because (as Máiri ní Fhlathúin discusses) it is controversial as a novel about the British in India, vulnerable to charges of perpetuating orientalizing stereotypes and colonial attitudes but also defensible as a sympathetic and not uncritical exploration of a time of complex intersections between East and West. Also, the storytelling is great sometimes, and Kim’s charm, fearlessness, and ingenuity make him a very appealing protagonist. I would have to learn a lot to teach it well, but that’s really not a disincentive. What is, is my concern that students would have the same trouble I did persisting with it. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has taught or studied it, or just enjoyed reading it. Do I overestimate the problem? Perhaps (at least as likely) I underestimate the difficulty of, say, Dickens’s idiosyncratic dialects or Eliot’s carefully rendered midlands speech: Kim’s linguistic peculiarities may be no greater than these, only less familiar to me, and so not likely to be any more off-putting to students, in this respect at least, than Silas Marner or Hard Times.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own

tomalinI don’t read a lot of memoirs, or a lot of biographies. The autobiography of renowned biographer Claire Tomalin, however, was so interesting that it made me think I should read more widely in both genres–starting, perhaps, with some of Tomalin’s own biographies, none of which I have read. Recommendations, anyone? I’m thinking perhaps The Invisible Woman, her book about Dickens and Nelly Ternan.

I did not initially find A Life of My Own that engaging. Tomalin’s account of her parents and her childhood was fine, but it seemed somewhat perfunctory, and in fact throughout the book, with rare exceptions, I was frustrated at the “one thing after another” minimalism of it: events unspooled steadily and were recounted without much commentary and in a consistently even (I might even call it flat) tone. This coolness was particularly jarring to me when Tomalin got to the details of her marriage to journalist Nick Tomalin. Nick was not always faithful, but he expected Claire to behave otherwise and reacted badly when he learned she had “embark[ed] on an affair”:

I was standing alone in the kitchen one evening when he came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face. I ducked. His blow broke the wooden bar that held the roller towel on the larder door, where I was standing–I have kept it ever since as a reminder.

“After this,” she remarks laconically, “I had to expect violence from Nick when he was angry,” and a few pages later she recalls an occasion on which “he hit me so hard across the face with the back of his hand…that I needed stitches in my lip for the cut made by his heavy wedding ring.” Perhaps it’s unreasonable for me to expect these shocking details to sound more shocking in the telling, rather than quite so matter of fact. Claire and Nick did separate, but they also got back together eventually, and when she talks about his death (he was killed by a Syrian missile while on assignment in the Golan Heights in 1973) the good memories certainly seem to outweigh the bad for her: “Whatever the failings of both of us in our marriage, it felt now as if the sun had been eclipsed.” Relationships are complicated, and people’s choices often reflect those complications. Maybe Tomalin downplayed the violence (though obviously she did not omit it) because she had, much earlier, made the choice not to let it define their marriage.

tomalin-2Tomalin’s personal life was complicated in other ways too. She and Nick had four children. The youngest, Tom, was born with spina bifida. One of their daughters, Susanna, fell into a deep depression during her first year at college. “The transformation in her was unfathomable,” Tomalin writes:

The child who had amazed and delighted me for twenty years seemed as though she had been wrung out until almost nothing was left but a small husk of herself. Nothing in her life had prepared us for the change. Susanna had always delighted in the world and expressed her joy in every discovery she made, whether it was a new landscape or a new food, a freshly encountered poem or a painting. Now she seemed almost to have forgotten who she was or how to be.

Susanna eventually succeeded in committing suicide. Tomalin’s heartbreak is clear and poignant here:

None of the warnings I had been given were enough. Clearly she needed much more care than we were able to give her, and to be watched over in a way that I had not done, nor perhaps would I have been able to. Now I know we should have protected her fiercely, and that had we been given more and better advice, we might have saved her.

She writes at length about Susanna’s strength and beauty and pleasures, as if to counter the tragedy of her daughter’s death with the many other facets of her life: “She lit up our lives with her intelligence and generosity.”

tomalin-3Tomalin’s personal life is only one aspect of A Life of My Own. Through it all she’s working, making her way through the literary world. Much of this material is, again, a somewhat perfunctory rehearsal of what happened when, with a lot of names dropped (which is totally fair, of course, since what’s she going to do, not mention the many famous writers who were in her orbit?). I was always glad when she let herself be a bit more expansive about her work as a writer and editor. About her aspirations as literary editor of the Sunday Times, for instance, she writes:

I knew that literary pages are supposed to make bestsellers, but I wanted mine to cut across the bestseller culture, to draw attention to the unexpectedly good, the unknown writer with something new to say, the odd, the difficult but worthwhile. And whatever passion was left in me, I was passionate about making our book pages the best in the business.

After she left the Sunday Times writing biographies became her main occupation. “Working on a biography,” she comments,

means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life–that at least is my experience. You have gone in too deep to cast them aside. You will have looked into the context of their lives in every aspect, examined their family backgrounds, their beliefs, their tastes, their eccentricities, their friends and enemies, their ambitions, achievements and failures, their quirks and mysteries, their betrayals and unhappiness, their political allegiances, their medical histories, their finances, their children, their reputations both in life and posthumous. You will have been surprised by them, maybe disappointed, amused, amazed. Your interest is so strong it can be called a passion.

These were the parts of the book I liked the best: there is an energy to them that just seemed missing from the more straightforward autobiographical parts. I would have liked more sense of passion from her own story–I wonder if it comes through more strongly in her biographies of other people. It may also be that the book of hers I should actually follow up with is not The Invisible Woman or another biography but Several Strangers, which is a collection of her literary writing.

tomalin-invisibleFrom a more personal standpoint, what resonated most with me in A Life of My Own is Tomalin’s comment about how late she actually began focusing on the biographical work for which she is now best known. “My story should be cheering,” she says, “to anyone who is finding it hard to establish a career they find congenial. . . . I was in my mid-fifties before I could concentrate on full-time research and writing.” Obviously she had a very significant career up to that point, and the experience and perhaps especially the connections she made working at the heart of London’s literary scene not only counted for a lot in themselves but meant she was exceptionally well positioned for a next phase that would probably be much more difficult for someone else. Still, it is indeed cheering, as I look towards my own “mid-fifties,” to think that what feels like a plateau might in its own way, for my own life, actually be a launching pad for some new work I have yet to do.