In Brief: Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

eileenI didn’t like it. In fact, I really didn’t like it. The comparison to Shirley Jackson on the cover tempted but misled me: there’s nothing sly or subtle in this novel, nothing to make you start and look again, or laugh then shudder and look away, the way you have to with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only reason I can think of that Eileen was nominated for prestigious prizes including the Booker is that in the rush to free women writers and female protagonists from the stifling obligation to be nice and likable some people have concluded that being mean and unlikable is an aesthetic virtue in and of itself. I have written about this trend a couple of times before: here, comparing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (which I disliked for some of the same reasons I disliked Eileen) to Barbara Pym’s (much better) Excellent Women, and here, attempting to parse the Ferrante phenomenon. I don’t object in principle to novels preoccupied with anger, vomit, and excrement, and I don’t demand carthasis or epiphany as my reward for being vicariously immersed in them, but I would like some sense that they mean something, or that the novel somehow takes us beyond them. Eileen (like Eileen) is just nasty for nastiness’s sake. Who needs that? Not me.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong. Did I miss some redeeming subtlety, some glints of humor, some pay-off for 260 pages of graphic unpleasantness?

Posted in Moshfegh, Ottessa | 3 Comments

Home and Away: Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief

I wonder if I would have liked No Great Mischief more if I’d never moved to Nova Scotia. Then its invocation of the landscape and culture of Cape Breton might have appealed to me as much as any other intensely local fiction does: I might have appreciated unreservedly its artfully crafted sentences offering a vicarious journey into an unfamiliar place, its tender but unsentimental portrait of the people who live there and love it, its artful and often touching intertwining of stories about the past and the present. No Great Mischief does offer these things, and I did understand, as I read it, why it is so admired.

The problem I had, though, is that No Great Mischief seemed too much part and parcel of the things I don’t like about Nova Scotia, things that from a distance might be engagingly quaint or exotic but that up close I have found wearing, even alienating: clannishness, insularity, a backwards-tugging resistance to change, hostility to outsiders. Soon after we bought our first house in Halifax, one of our watchful neighbors commented “you’re not from around here, are you?” That there’s even a common expression for people like us (“come-from-aways”) perhaps says enough. And there’s not just suspicion and resentment of new people who arrive: there’s also perpetual mourning and resentment about Maritimers who go away, whether they choose to or have to, and a reflexive and (in my experience, anyway) largely unjustified insistence that this is the best place on earth, with the best people. “We’re the salt of the earth!” declared one of those same neighbors–neighbors who watched thieves make off with the newly planted flowerpots from the front of our house and didn’t interfere, note the license plate, or knock on our door to give us a heads up. (We have since moved.) 

It’s not that there aren’t good things about life in Nova Scotia. Over time (and I’ve been here 23 years now, so nearly half my life) I’ve learned to appreciate and even cherish many aspects of it. We’ve also met many lovely people–though it’s interesting how many of the ones we are friendliest with have also come from away. But No Great Mischief is basically a paean (if a somewhat melancholy one) to Cape Breton and its way of life. That its narrator, one of several Alexander MacDonalds in the novel, has moved on (he is a successful orthodontist in Ontario) seems to him something faintly sorrowful, even a little bit shameful, as if his profession is somehow less authentic than fishing or mining, or his modern urban life, with its comforts and conveniences, is somehow a lesser life than his parents’ or grandparents’ back on the island. These attitudes are not unique to the Maritimes–somehow, city-dwellers and urban professionals never seem to count as “real” citizens the way farmers do–but they are certainly conspicuous here.

Unfortunately, then, in spite of its admirable literary qualities including its quietly powerful evocation of place, No Great Mischief grated on my nerves, precisely because it is so invested in the fixity of Maritime culture and its fixation on its roots. For a short novel about contemporary Canada, No Great Mischief sure dedicates a lot of space to Culloden and Glencoe and Killiecrankie, and everywhere our Alexander goes he runs into yet another member of clann Chalum Ruaidh (there’s a lot of Gaelic in the novel too). Not that there’s anything wrong with all of this! It’s just that in my experience it is a nicer world to visit as a tourist (fiddles and bagpipes and tall ships, oh my!) then to live in as an outsider. Sure, the cashiers at Tim Hortons call me “honey” and “sweetie”–but I’ve found people in New York or Vancouver or London just as helpful and friendly, and beneath the surface display of folksiness here there can be a deeper layer of suspicion. (In case it doesn’t go without saying, #notallMaritimers, your mileage may vary, etc.)

As I was reading No Great Mischief I found myself thinking a lot about my own upbringing, which was quite unlike Alexander’s. That difference might, I suppose, be another contributing factor in my resistance to the novel (and to this region). I don’t just mean the geographical differences, though there’s no question that to me the North Shore Mountains will always look more beautiful and lift my spirits higher than anything here. For one thing, my immediate family was (is) the opposite of sprawling. The only relative I knew well outside of my parents and two siblings was my paternal grandmother; although she came from a large family, we had very little contact with any of its other branches, and my mother’s relatively small family was far away. Our family life revolved almost exclusively around the five of us: we did a lot of activities together, and we developed an array of family traditions, especially around holidays, that gave us a strong but highly specific and idiosyncratic sense of continuity and identity. It is inconceivable to me that I would ever run into anyone else anywhere in Canada and feel an immediate bond, as happens to the novel’s many MacDonalds. We enjoyed a kind of self-sufficiency that in retrospect was quite empowering (my siblings and I are nothing if not self-directed) though it may also have allowed us a little too much freedom to cultivate our eccentricities. (Our significant others are banned from commenting on this point!)

At the same time, in other ways my upbringing was anything but insular, as the interests, activities, and friends we were engaged with were more global than local. One thing we were all involved in one way or another, for example (not always actively or voluntarily, as my brother would attest) was international folk dancing, which meant that we were very aware that different places in the world had rich and complex histories as well as their own traditional music, dances, and food. Many of the people we met through folk dancing were from these other countries, too, which made the cultural diversity of the world something real and embodied for us, not just an abstraction or a spectacle. I don’t mean to idealize this somewhat peculiar if often delightful subculture–just to observe that it arises from and cultivates people’s interests in how other people live in the world. My own most sustained form of involvement was my participation (along with my father’s) in a Greek performing group called the Philhellenic Dancers: the leader was Austrian, his wife was Irish, and the rest of us came from many places–some were even actually Greek! Here we are at Greek Day c. 1985, festive if blurry:

Besides folk dancing, there were other ways in which my childhood attention was drawn outwards: classical music, which brought us into contact with a lot of different musicians, again mostly from elsewhere; reading, which for me, for whatever reason, rarely meant reading Canadian literature; travel, which for us was limited and not glamorous, as we mostly went camping, but was as likely to take us south into Washington State and Oregon as north up the B.C. coast. The U.S. border crossing was familiar and easy in those days: we used to drive all the way to Bellingham, WA just to go to Baskin Robbins, before it opened in Canada. My mother was American (she hails from New Hampshire – live free or die!) and my sister and I were both born in the U.S., so although I knew it was a different country, I didn’t think that difference mattered very much. I still find eastern Canada more foreign than I ever did Seattle! Winter, hockey, Tim Hortons: out here these are assumed to define the Canadian experience, but I knew nothing of them. Vancouver itself I experienced as a place where people from all over came and went–again, I don’t want to idealize the city or gloss over its faults and complexities, which are naturally much more apparent to me now than they were then, but for better and for worse I was raised when multiculturalism was the buzzword and that’s what I thought I saw and what I thought was good. (For some reflections on ways the feel-good message of multiculturalism obscured lessons I should have learned about the history of my own country, see this post.) The cumulative effect of all of these factors is that while I love and miss Vancouver, I feel tied to it individually, not because I developed a strong sense of regional identity.

All of this is by way of saying, not that my own background is the “right” way, but that because of it the close-knit but wide-ranging family depicted in No Great Mischief and the constant pull they all feel back towards a specific history and a particular place both seemed somewhat claustrophobic to me, and that my personal experience has made me skeptical of the hold a certain idea(l) of the Maritimes still has. To be fair, MacLeod’s novel is not naively nostalgic and he doesn’t unreservedly romanticize the world or the people he depicts. The novel is structured, after all, around the consequences of an act of tragic violence that is itself the result of a clash between two strongly defined and irreconcilable group identities. There and in the historical allusions lurk powerful warnings against holding grudges or deciding people’s worth because of who you think they are, because of an inability to move on, or past. Still, those larger implications seemed to me not nearly as important to the novel’s affect and ethos as the idea that there is only ever one place where you really belong and it isn’t for everybody. 

I realize that I’ve given hardly any actual details about and no specific quotations from MacLeod’s novel. It turns out that’s not what I felt like writing about! If you’re interested in a proper review of No Great Mischief, here’s the New York Times review from 2000, which seems a judicious one to me, and here’s a pretty warm one from Quill and Quire.

Posted in Halifax, MacLeod, Alistair, Personal | 7 Comments

“The Antagonism of Valid Principles”? Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire


“But, is it the fact that this antagonism of valid principles is peculiar to polytheism? Is it not rather that the struggle between Antigone and Creon represents that struggle between elemental tendencies and established law by which the outer life of man is gradually and painfully being brought into harmony with his inward needs? Until this harmony is perfected, we shall never be able to attain a great right without also doing a wrong. . . . Wherever the strength of a man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon.” – George Eliot, “The Antigone and Its Moral” (1856)

I found Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire persistently interesting and often gripping, but by the end I felt dissatisfied with it. Its moral significance–its importance as an interrogation and dramatization of what Eliot calls “the antagonism of valid principles”–depends on our being convinced that it is about a struggle between two principles worth fighting for, perhaps not equally worthy, but each comprehensible as righteous. That means, in particular, in Shamsie’s retelling, that we have to be (nearly) equally engaged by both Aneeka (Antigone) and Karamat (Creon)–and for me these were the two least consistent and compelling characters of the five whose perspectives Shamsie’s novel gives us. Home Fire worked well for me as a highly topical drama about family and politics, but I thought it ended in melodrama, not moral revelation, and that diminished its impact and my admiration.

home-fireI should say, as a disclaimer, that I am not at all an expert on Sophocles’ Antigone: though I have known the play’s basic story for many years and seen one production of it, my sense of what it’s fundamentally about depends almost entirely on Eliot’s commentary on it, which I have thought about often as an interpretive key to her fiction, especially The Mill on the Floss. So it is entirely possible that Shamsie has captured nuances of its characters’ principles and actions that make her retelling accurate in ways I can’t see–or, alternatively, that she has up-ended key elements of it for her own purposes in ways that, again, I can’t grasp the significance of. That said, I think it’s fair to expect the novel itself to convince me of the urgency of its central conflict, and it just didn’t. Most importantly, there’s nothing in Aneeka’s relationship with her brother before his recruitment as a terrorist that made her final vigil by his body seem like an inevitable and principled result: her love for her twin was never depicted in a way that gave it tragic potential. Further, her relationship with Eamonn was deceitful and manipulative from the start, and the novel did not convince me that she had come to love him sincerely enough to justify either his sacrifice or her final gesture. As a result, the novel’s final image, though poetic, range false to me.

Karamat, in his turn, came across as mostly self-serving and opportunistic–too much of a politician and not enough of a statesman. “It is a very superficial criticism,” Eliot remarks, “which interprets the character of Creon as that of a hypocritical tyrant, and regards Antigone as a blameless victim”:

The exquisite art of Sophocles is shown in the touches by which he makes us feel that Creon, as well as Antigone, is contending for what he believes to be the right, while both are also conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves open to just blame for transgressing another.

I’m not sure Shamsie satisfies this proposed standard in either case, actually. As far as I can recall, Karamat never declares an overarching principle: it’s Isma / Ismene who advocates accepting the law, even if it’s unjust, and while she has her part to play, I don’t think she represents the crucial countervailing force in the conflict. Aneeka declares that her principle is justice for her brother, but does Parvaiz’s story justify her stance? His is perhaps the most important and complex one in the novel, both politically and personally, and it is well told: it explains but does not excuse. But what justice is Parvais due–or denied, except by his killers, whose ruthlessness prevents him from trying to undo his own terrible mistake? It’s not just that burial does not carry the same symbolic weight for me as for the original Antigone–that as Eliot says, “we no longer believe that to neglect funeral rites is to violate the claims of the infernal deities.” I accept that her “we” is not in fact universal, but I didn’t feel that Shamsie sufficiently motivated Aneeka’s commitment to burying her brother: it seemed to come almost out of nowhere.

Then there’s the question of what exactly Parvaiz has done and what consequences are in fact just. Is his regret sufficient to win him our sympathy? Where is the point of no return, if there is or should be one? Shamsie makes this question somewhat easier by keeping Parvaiz on the sidelines of the violence he “only” edits and promotes. We also see how quickly he realizes how profoundly mistaken he was (“he knew by then the nature of the joyless, heartless, unforgiving hell-hole for which he’d left his life”) and how trapped he is by then. Though it would of course not have fit the Antigone model, it might have been more interesting if he had come back alive and forced the kind of difficult reckoning with culpability on all sides that the Omar Khadr case did (though of course there are some significant differences, including that Parvaiz is not a child and joins the terrorists willingly and, more or less, knowingly).

home-fire-2Home Fire is a good contemporary novel and its central theme of conflicting loyalties, especially tensions between personal feelings and legal, political, and moral obligations is interesting and obviously topical. I didn’t find Shamsie’s prose particularly artful: on the back cover Aminatta Forna is quoted as calling it “simple” and “lucid” but I would describe it as flat and sometimes awkward, if also sometimes rising to eloquence. I have complained before, though, about novels that make great, or at least memorable, sentences too much of a priority, putting style ahead of substance, and so that Shamsie’s prose is, well, prosaic is not a fatal flaw for me. Neither, really, were the somewhat flimsy grounds (in my view) for the novel’s cataclysmic finish. Maybe I would have felt less disappointed in it if the Antigone allusions had been more subtle and thus I hadn’t expected the novel to be not just a good read (which it certainly was) but also deeply unsettling and morally challenging. The equally cataclysmic ending of The Mill on the Floss is (Henry James’s obtuse reading notwithstanding) prepared for by every previous moment in the novel: that’s why it’s tragic as well as radically dissatisfying. Home Fire, in contrast, seems to rely on its classical inspiration to suffuse its own details with meaning, and the result is unsatisfying in a different, less radical, way.

Posted in Shamsie, Kamila | 2 Comments

It’s June Already? Taking Stock

Bluhm PergolaAs a member of Jo VanEvery’s Academic Writing Studio (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you need a bit of structure, encouragement, and/or advice), I receive her helpful weekly newsletter by email. Last week’s had the timely subject heading “It’s June! You Are Not Behind,” and included the calming observation that “you may not be where you thought you’d be or where you wanted to be on the 1st of June. But you are where you are.” I thought I’d use this post to follow her advice and take stock of where I am and where I should be going next.

Jo’s not wrong when she says “June may have snuck up on you.” One reason June’s arrival can feel sudden and thus disconcerting for me is that it follows immediately on May–which is obvious, of course, but here’s the thing: every year it seems as if May should be the real start of the summer writing season, but every year I realize, as if for the first time, that May is actually the end of the previous academic term, and the transition to the summer. Exams finished here in late April, and though my only exam was relatively early, the practical result was not that I could get my marking done sooner but that the 90 exams came in while I was also receiving final papers in both courses. April was nearly over by the time I had filed my grades. Then there is always a flurry of committee meetings. In the English Department, they usually culminate in our annual May Marks Meeting, which requires a lot of preparation from the Undergraduate Committee, which I am on. The work is mostly done by its chair (not me right now, happily), but in consultation with the other members.  Because our department underwent a review this year (an institutional requirement involving both internal and external reviewers), and because of the wave of retirements we are experiencing, we also held a full-day “retreat” to talk about the kinds of stress our program (and faculty) are under and how we might respond.

ScreamFor me personally, the “retreat” (how I hate that term, which falsely suggests there’s something soothing about being closeted for hours with my colleagues and having to talk about fraught topics about which in some cases we profoundly disagree) was extremely stressful and undid some of the progress I’d made, post-promotion-debacle, towards restoring my trust in our collective operations and feeling once more like I have some kind of intellectual home here. I know it was undertaken with the best of intentions, but my experience of the day was that the event, which was pitched as an opportunity for “open” discussion, ended up feeling uncomfortably like an occasion to push us in a pretty specific direction–one much more aligned with the “skills” argument than with the actual content (for want of a better word) of what most of us study and teach. We’ll see how this plays out, and I may also be reacting to the loudest and most persistent voices rather than to any genuine underlying consensus that this is how we should seek to define ourselves–but I certainly left in a hurry and in a funk at the end of the day, and it has taken a while for the bitter aftertaste to wear off.

oup-persuasionAnyway, Jo recommends taking stock of what we did accomplish in May, and dealing with meetings and administrative tasks was a big part of that. I also completed the final draft of a report: I was part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ internal review committee for the King’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction (spoiler: overall, it’s a great program). I returned comments on a Ph.D. thesis chapter. I’ve written a couple of reference letters. I submitted three writing assignments, all relatively short but each posing its own kinds of challenges: an “In Brief” review for the TLS, a review for Quill & Quire, and a guest post for Sarah Emsley’s series “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” (it will be up on her blog later this month). My post for Sarah is pretty personal, which actually made it harder to write, for reasons that are explained, at least by implication, in the post itself.

82780-eliotdrawingOne of the things I’d intended to do in May is work out a definite plan for some larger writing projects to focus on over the summer. For some reason I have found this very difficult to do: I have sketched out and even done scraps of writing for a lot of possibilities but I have struggled to commit to any one of them. I have continued to explore places to pitch pieces that aren’t book reviews, and I have some ideas I like, as well as a firm commitment to doing a piece for The Reader, a publication I have long admired for its combination of sophistication and accessibility. I really want to get back to writing about George Eliot; I think what I may need is to stop focusing on venues for a while and just write, the way I could when I always had the option of running something in Open Letters Monthly. Trying to think of the pitch first becomes an exercise in self-defeating second-guessing. Getting going on this–whatever it turns out to be–is a top priority for me this month.

English-Bay-RocksThese are all work things, and of course that’s never everything that’s going on. Maddie had her wisdom teeth out on May 18th, for example, and that meant a week or so of disruption (and a lot of smoothies) while she recovered, but she is basically better now. As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking a drawing class; I’ve been feeling much better about it since I learned it was okay to copy pictures, which removes a lot of the frustration of trying to get proportion and perspective right on my own. I’ve been enjoying my practice sessions a lot more, as a result, and that in turn is building up my confidence–I even sat on our back deck on the one really hot day we’ve had so far and tried to draw the trunk of our big elm tree (not bad) and our small stone wall (not so good). After my initial discontent, I am now definitely glad I decided to try this. In addition to the intrinsic satisfaction of creating something (not that copying is that creative, but it’s a step towards it!), I often spend a lot of time alone, especially in the summer, and being able to bring along my sketch pad and pencils to someplace like Point Pleasant Park or the Public Gardens will be a nice substitute for company.

obrien-chairsLast but not least, Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs ended my reading slump; I picked up Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen on the weekend and feel excited to start both of them–though right now I’m actually reading Ann Cleeves’ Thin Air, to see if I like the books Shetland is based on as much as I liked the series. (So far, I don’t.) I’ve realized that getting out of the reading doldrums is not just important for me personally: I rely on my underlying enthusiasm about reading to keep me motivated about my writing projects, most of which now are done not because of any external demand but because I want to do them, because I think they matter in some way. When I feel myself getting bored or disillusioned or disconnected from the current literary conversation, it gets much harder to see why or how I should contribute to it.


So: that was May. Jo is right: it’s useful to reflect. Though there were long spells last month when I felt extremely grim and unproductive, it turns out I still got quite a lot done, which is reassuring, but that there are also things I really want to do next, which is bracing.

Posted in Personal, This Week In My Classes | Leave a comment

“Full of Cries”: Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs


‘What a book that would have been, your beloved, Sarajevo, with its eleven thousand, five hundred and forty-one empty red chairs, including the little ones for the children. In our quasi-mysticism, that surely has not completely abandoned you, the book you will never write will be full of cries. The lamentations of the dead, seeking their others in the underworld, not knowing if those others are already dead, or still in the zone of the living. Yes, a Book of the Night. As you exit the world stage, with the Angel of Death waiting to settle your account, or as you put it to the children in the forest, earlier today, for the cosmic payback for evil that has been done, even you will tremble.’

The Little Red Chairs is a somewhat unsettling blend of realism, fable, and morality tale. At first it reads like a familiar kind of ‘life in an Irish village’ novel, with its cast of quirky characters, most of them with a shading of poignancy. Into the village, Cloonoila, comes a stranger–again, a familiar move, with its hint of fairy tale or parable–whose disruptive force initially seems benign, even welcome. He advertises himself as a healer and sex therapist, and for one villager in particular, Fidelma, stifled in her marriage and grief-stricken by her inability to have a child, these are exactly the services she needs. From Dr. Vlad, as he is known, she receives treatment, then companionship, and finally something that seems like love–which would be a good thing for Fidelma, except that we know something she doesn’t: Dr. Vlad is not an eccentric New Age healer with the instincts of a poet but a wanted war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia.

O’Brien’s dramatic irony creates suspense, as we wait for the revelation of Dr. Vlad’s real identity, and also discomfort, as we watch Fidelma’s intimacy with him grow. There isn’t any ambiguity about his monstrosity: the novel is not about the difficult possibility that his humanity still has a claim on us in spite of the evil he has done. There is no redemptive arc for Dr. Vlad, no interest in parsing the potential for sympathy even for the worst of us, though as Dr. Vlad himself proposes once in conversation with Fidelma, that is one thing that a novel can do:

They discussed the Russian writers, she sometimes having copied out a paragraph to read to him and one day he put it to her that the reason they loved books was because the crimes in people’s hearts were rendered more fatefully and more forgivingly in literature.

By the end of The Little Red Chairs, when we have been reminded in harrowing detail about the horrors of the Bosnian war and heard Dr. Vlad’s appalling testimony in his own defense at his trial in the Hague, forgiveness seems both impossible and beside the point. Forgiveness, after all, keeps the story centered on the perpetrator, and though Dr. Vlad is a major character, The Little Red Chairs is not his novel: it’s Fidelma’s.

red-chairsIt’s not just Fidelma’s, though, and here again O’Brien’s narrative choices are interesting. Though there is some shifting around of perspective in the first section, the movement of the novel is fairly linear until Dr. Vlad’s identity is revealed and he is arrested. One of the consequences of his discovery is an attack on Fidelma so horrific that it was difficult for me to read to the end of the few pages it takes up. It is not the first scene of appalling violence in the novel, but it is by far the most immediate and personal. It changes everything–not just Fidelma, now herself a kind of casualty of war, but the novel. From this point on it follows Fidelma’s attempt to make a new life for herself away from Cloonoila, but rather than focusing on her singular experience it folds in other stories of victims and refugees from violence.

Ultimately I thought The Little Red Chairs felt a bit miscellaneous, but I am also not sure what kind of unity or resolution a novel with these ingredients could have that wouldn’t feel pat. Is there a lesson to be learned from Fidelma’s experience? It can’t be “don’t trust strangers,” because even though Fidelma was catastrophically mistaken, there’s no way she could have known and no way to live in constant suspicion of monstrosity that wouldn’t almost certainly make the world a worse, rather than a better, place. It might be “you will answer for your crimes,” as the passage I chose for my epigraph suggests (it is a speech made to Dr. Vlad in a dream, which gives it something of the force of a prophecy)–except that the novel is populated with people for whom there seems to be no justice or redress, including Fidelma herself.

The novel’s title is an obvious place to look for answers about what it all means. It alludes to the memorial to the victims of the siege of Sarajevo: one red chair for each of them, including 643 for the children. Here’s a photo, from the site Remembering Srebrenica:


It’s a powerful memorial, the individual chairs taking on significance and resonance as the scale of the tragedy accumulates but each of them still clearly representing one particular life lost, one unique story of suffering and death. Parts of The Little Red Chairs do mimic this structure. During the trial, for example, after the prosecutor lays out a summary of

the thousands of civilians arrested, brutalised, killed, the tens of thousands uprooted by force, the hundreds of thousands besieged for months, years, killing sprees, cyclones of revenge, detainees held in dreadful places of detention and hundreds executed

three individual cases are presented, “selected from the mass of evidence.” Their personal details turn statistics into stories. Similarly, at the refugee center where Fidelma works, people tell their stories of horror and displacement and escape. One of them is Bosnian, but they come from all over, so perhaps one implication is that in a way, the whole world is like Sarajevo. When it’s Fidelma turn to speak, she struggles to explain what happened to her. “It turned out that a new man came amongst us in the guise of a prophet,” she says, “but he had done appalling things.” He ruined her life, but like the others whose stories she hears, she is now building a new one from the ruins.

Posted in O'Brien, Edna | Leave a comment

Drawing, Frustration, and the Art of Pedagogy

I’m just over half way through the ‘Drawing for Beginners’ class I signed up for, and as some of you may have noticed on Twitter, I have been feeling quite frustrated about the way it is going so far. I am trying to learn lessons from my frustration, but despite how ready a few people have been to suggest this, I honestly don’t think a fair conclusion is that I am receiving some valuable schooling about my own teaching. Rather, my frustrations mostly reinforce my own pedagogical strategies and priorities. They may not be perfect, and I may not implement them perfectly, but as far as they–and I–go, I think I have the right idea. *

I’m not frustrated that, after just three weeks, I still can’t draw well. I was prepared for it to take a while, and plenty of practice, for me to get any better! I’m frustrated because so far, I don’t much sense of how to improve, except to keep drawing badly until eventually, somehow, I’m drawing better. Although we have done a bit of work on explicit techniques, such as shading, we’ve mostly just been told to draw things, either from life or by copying or finishing other drawings or pictures, and reassured (if that’s the right word) that we’ll get better with practice. To me, that seems more or less the pedagogical equivalent of my putting a poem in front of someone and saying “here, write about this,” without explaining at all what “this” is, or being more specific about what I mean by “write about,” or breaking the task down into its component steps.

Maybe there isn’t an equivalent way to break down the process for learning to draw. Or maybe the direction to “look closely and draw what you see” (including if it’s upside-down) is closer than it feels to my frequent instruction to “read carefully and comment on what you notice.” I recognize that there isn’t really a way to built up a collective sense of how to do the work, the way we do in my classes through discussion of our readings. Our instructor doesn’t demonstrate our tasks for us: I don’t know if it would help if she did. In any case, I do realize that just as ultimately there’s no substitute for actually putting some words in order and seeing what they say, there’s no alternative to making marks with your pencil and seeing what they look like. In a way, what counts as success in drawing is clearer: your picture either looks like its subject or it doesn’t! That sense that there is a “right” result is one of the things I’ve been finding stressful–ironically, perhaps, I know my own students sometimes feel annoyed that there isn’t one right interpretation, or one perfect way to write their essays.

I’m also frustrated because I haven’t really been enjoying myself. I thought (foolishly, perhaps) that there would be something freeing about this experience. In part, I blame Lynda Barry! You’d never know from Syllabus that drawing can be really hard work: she makes art seem so joyous and self-criticism seem counter-productive. The goal of getting the drawings exactly right has been one of the things stifling my joy. I know that we aren’t in fact expected to get them right yet, of course: we’re just learning. Still, when there’s the shoe right in front of me, and then there’s my deformed rendition of it in my sketchbook, it’s hard to hang on to Barry’s injunction that it’s fine to be bad at things. There was a bit of a mismatch, too, between what I thought I was signing up for and what we discovered on the first day was going to be the emphasis of the class: the flyer did not specify life drawing or portraiture, but that turns out to be what our instructor is focusing on. Faces are really hard! Asking a rank beginner to draw eyes just seems like a recipe for discouragement–especially if the originals belong to Julianna Margulies.

Last night, though, I actually had fun for very nearly the first time, because we worked for a while on landscapes. They seem much more forgiving subjects than people, at least if you aren’t trying to incorporate architectural structures or to get every feature precisely accurate. Though my trees look pretty spindly and my mountains are, shall we say, impressionistic, still, it is recognizably a picture of trees and mountains, and it didn’t feel wrong to improvise a bit when I found the original drawing I was copying hard to reproduce. My fantasy about being able to draw has a lot to do with sketching expeditions to picturesque locations in Victorian novels and very little to do with portraiture; working on this picture, for once I could imagine being happily ensconced somewhere picturesque myself, sketchbook and pencils at the ready.

It isn’t that I don’t want to be more skillful, but as a beginner, and an anxious perfectionist beginner at that, I found the experience of drawing more loosely very helpful. I do want to master (or at least improve at) the more technical aspects, and obviously I’ll never do good landscape drawings if I don’t. It was just a relief to do something besides trying and failing to draw perfectly realistic eyes, hands, or shoes–something that allowed for a bit more creativity. It restored my enthusiasm for this experiment!

*Update: It’s actually mystifying to me that anyone would think this is some kind of “gotcha” moment for me: I have written a lot here over the years about my strategies for helping students past their difficulties in my own classes, I’ve never imagined they don’t experience frustration, and I’ve reflected explicitly on the value for me, as a teacher, of being a beginner at something myself–including in the context of my decision to take this drawing class. And yet I have had just that response more than once, including moments after I shared the link to this post.

Posted in drawing, Personal | 5 Comments

The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Drabble


Jane Austen recommended three or four families in the Country Village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. . . . A few families in a Country Village. A few families in a small, densely populated, parochial, insecure country. Mothers, fathers, aunts, stepchildren, cousins. Where does the story begin and where does it end?

Margaret Drabble makes it pretty obvious that she intends The Radiant Way as a continuation of the 19th-century novel tradition. Like Jane Austen, she focuses on a few interconnected families whose personal lives are fodder for her wry wit and social satire, but The Radiant Way is also very much a social problem or ‘condition of England’ novel, full of details about the political and economic circumstances that shape and often distort its characters choices. Austen’s fiction is of course highly political, but most often in implicit or subtle ways. You never get passages like this one in an Austen novel:

On a more public level 1980 continues. The steel strike continues, a bitter prelude to the miners’ strike that will follow. Class rhetoric flourishes. Long-cherished notions of progress are inspected, exposed, left out to die in the cold. Survival of the fittest seems to be the new-old doctrine. Unemployment rises steadily, but the Tory Party is not yet often reminded of its election poster which portrayed a long dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working.’ People have short memories, many of them are carried along with the new tide. They are fit. The less fit get less and less fit, and are washed up on the shore.

marybartonAs this passage illustrates, The Radiant Way is about the condition of England in the 1980s, and its treatment of that era matches, rather than counters, what it suggests is the spirit of the age: it is (mostly) satirical, snide, cynical, bitter. I wonder if that is why it seemed to me so much more dated than, say, Mary Barton, with its heartfelt appeals to our common experiences and better natures. There is something naive, of course, about Gaskell’s novel, and many of her attitudes are outdated. Maybe I just prefer her kindness and optimism to Drabble’s somewhat ruthless explication of people’s weaknesses and compromises. The extent to which her analysis is still painfully current, too, shows that if anything she was prescient about the corrosion of the welfare state, the devaluation of art and education, and the instability of love as a foundation for happiness. Maybe I just wish it were dated.

radiantway1I read The Radiant Way for my book club (it’s our follow-up to The Group). I’ve read it once before, years ago, but I barely remembered it, and most of it felt quite unfamiliar to me this time. The one aspect that came rushing back to me as soon as it was mentioned was the bizarre subplot about the “Hampstead Horror.” Why should this novel feature a serial killer? The murder in Mary Barton is integral to its story about class conflict; its consequences and its resolution are both devices for addressing the underlying social and moral problems Gaskell suggests need fixing. I find it harder to reconcile the melodrama of the Hampstead Horror with the rest of Drabble’s novel, even though eventually it does become part of the main plot. What kind of device is it for her–what thematic purpose does it serve? I expect this is something we’ll discuss.

Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Radiant Way, but I did appreciate how wordy it is, and how crafty Drabble is with words. Her prose is dense but still very rhythmic; it is self-conscious and sometimes arch, but also kind of stabby, in a pleasurable way. She’s very good at families and their discontents; there’s a dinner scene in which the conversation is brilliantly awkward. What was missing, for me, are the qualities I like best in the tradition she is at once invoking and updating: warmth, kindness, pathos, good humor. In this respect it reminds me of David Lodge’s Nice Work, an even more explicit homage to the 19th-century condition of England novel that I also, on rereading, found clever but dated. For better and for worse, I find more of what I want in the earlier books…which I suppose explains why Victorian, not modern British, fiction is my area of specialization!

(The title of this post is a play on the title of the course I teach frequently on “The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens.”)

Posted in Book Club, Drabble, Margaret | 5 Comments