P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

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This Week In My Classes: #amgrading

IMG_6321Last week and this week, actually. That’s not quite all I’ve been doing since classes wrapped up on April 10: there has been a spate of committee work, and also (one of the less pleasant features of this time of term) some academic integrity hearings, which take up a fair amount of time. Then on the home front, Maddie was in her high school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, which had its four-performance run April 19-21, so in addition to ferrying her to and from rehearsals and doing what I could to mitigate the stress on her schedule in other ways, I’ve also been to two performances–which, on the bright side, was the most fun I’ve had in ages. (In case you know the musical, she played Mrs. Tottendale, with great comic flair. The whole cast was great, actually, as was the production, especially the costumes.)

I’d say the end is in sight, though still further away than I’d like. I am making good progress on the second of two batches of essays; then I have two (out of three) sections left to mark on the Pulp Fiction exam. I have high hopes that it will all be done and I’ll have final grades filed by the end of this week–though if I’m right and I’m coming down with the cold that Maddie sadly got just as the show opened, it might be harder and thus slower going. Tonight is not a good night to do any more of it, though: I’m exhausted, because we were up at 4 a.m. to get Maddie onto a flight to Washington D.C. She is spending a whirlwind three days there with her I.B. History class. I’m envious: I’ve only been to Washington once and barely had time to get started on the sights.

holy-ordersI’ve been too busy and distracted to settle in for any intense reading, though I did join a few Twitter friends in reading The Warden last weekend. Then I had to take all the books off my mystery bookcase (we needed to move it out of the way temporarily, to do a household project) and in the process of sorting them I was reminded how long it has been since I read most of my P. D. James collection. I’ve put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back on the reading list for Mystery & Detective Fiction in the fall, so it seemed like a good time to revisit one or two. As a result, I’m happily rereading Death in Holy Orders, which turns out to follow very well on The Warden as it has a number of explicit references in it to  Barchester Towers. James herself said she saw the 19th-century novelists as her predecessors more than the Golden Age mystery writers, and in a book like this, that genealogy is clear. There are plenty of murderous moments in Trollope but his world is (mostly) too genial a place, his morality too committed to shades of grey, to allow for outright irremediable violence. (There are exceptions, of course). Like Trollope, James is very good at depicting institutions, with all their intricate politics and emotional dynamics. She’s also exceptionally good at setting, something I emphasize when we discuss Unsuitable Job (where the beauty of Cambridge makes a poignant contrast to the horrors of the novel’s central crime). After reading several hastier or lazier stylists in this genre recently, I am appreciating the leisurely pace of her descriptions, along with the meticulous depth of her characterizations. I don’t like all of her novels equally, but when she is good, she’s very very good.

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“Baby Teeth”: Lynda Barry, Syllabus

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Daily practice with images both written and drawn is rare once we have lost our baby teeth and begin to think of ourselves as good at some things and bad at other things. It’s not that this isn’t true . . . but the side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it. A certain state of mind . . . is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered and for most people, it stays that way for life.

The drawing class I’ve signed up for begins in about ten days. When I first mentioned on Twitter that I might do something like this, to be honest I wasn’t that committed to the idea: I was just floating it. But making a possibility public inevitably makes it more real, and the feedback I got was so encouraging that my motivation increased and I started looking around in earnest for plausible options. The one I settled on is called “Drawing for Adults.” Though the description explicitly promises that no experience is necessary, as it gets closer I get increasingly anxious about it, because as far as I’ve ever discovered I have absolutely no talent for drawing, not to mention no skill at it.

barry-making-comicsI am glad, therefore, that one of the tips I got on Twitter (initially from Dorian, then endorsed by others) was to look at Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus. I wasn’t really sure what kind of book it was, but I have great faith in Dorian’s recommendations, so I promptly put a hold on it at the library and I’ve had it on loan ever since. My first reaction to the book was bewilderment. I do not have a good working relationship with graphic novels, and while Syllabus is not a novel, it is definitely a graphic something. (Syllabus reproduces and lightly contextualizes Barry’s teaching notebooks for courses she offered at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she runs the Image Lab.) Worse (I thought), it doesn’t even tell a story, so there isn’t even a narrative thread for a text-bound person like me to cling to. Every page seemed chaotic! I had no idea where to look first, or next, or after that. Finally, Syllabus focuses (I thought) on drawing comics, which isn’t really the kind of drawing I’m interested in.

syllabus-imageStill, my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to stop trying to figure the book out (which is a hard habit for an academic and literary critic to break!) and just browse around in it for a while to see what it might have to say to me. It turns out it did speak to me: both to the part of me that wants to, but is afraid to, put pencil to paper and draw something, but also, and perhaps more significantly, to the part of me that writes stuff. This is because Syllabus isn’t just a book about drawing comics: it’s a book about creativity more generally, about the interaction between our conscious (and often inhibiting) thoughts and our unconscious mind, and about the way our fears of doing something badly hold us back from discovery and improvement–and also just from the potential fun and rewards of artistic self-expression.

Syllabus is loosely about these things, because it is not a textbook or a scholarly study (although Barry alludes to several of these, including especially Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, the introduction to which–following Barry’s instructions to her students–I have downloaded as further reading). This looseness, which frustrated me a lot at first, is actually what ended up making Syllabus accessible to me, because it let me just focus on comments or ideas or exercises that resonated with me and then sit with them for a bit. Then I carried them with me as I went through the book again from the beginning, and a lot more of it (including its seeming disorder) made more sense to me.

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Syllabus includes a lot of different interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking elements, many of them not really suited for direct application to my own classroom or working / writing life–though it’s possible I underestimate the ways I could incorporate sketching, concentration exercises, or notebooks into my pedagogy. What I liked best about it was the way Barry directly addresses our (OK, my) fear of putting things out into the world that (other people might think) are not very good. This does not mean I don’t think we should strive to do the best work we can–but especially at the beginning of a process, or during a creative process, focusing on external judgment or validation, or even focusing on our own critical responses, might stop us from even beginning. “When we are in the groove,” Barry says, for example,

we are not thinking about liking or not liking what is taking shape, and it isn’t thinking about us either. . . . Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.

“Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists,” she remarks in a later section, “can keep us immobilized forever.  Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.” I don’t see this as insight or advice that commits us to the kind of “half-assed” model of creativity championed by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. At least as I see it, it’s one thing to find the courage to start, to take chances, to see what answer comes to us, as a project takes shape; it’s quite another to quit working on it when we know it’s only “good enough” instead of as good as we can make it. Where along that spectrum we’ll stop with any particular project will, of course, depend on its purpose in our lives.

barry-good-badOne particular bit from Syllabus that I know I will keep thinking about is the one I chose as my epigraph for this post, about abandoning activities we are bad at. I’ve often thought that one of the best things about advancing through life, and particularly through one’s education, is the freedom you gain to abandon things you dislike and/or aren’t good at. As I’ve often said to my own children, one of the best things about university is that you can finally choose your courses to play to your interests and strengths. It’s not that I don’t think we can get good (or at least better) at things: I wouldn’t be a teacher if I believed that! I believe in program requirements, too, because that’s how we discover what else we might be good at, or want to be good at, or just put a lot of effort into. (That’s how I became an English major, after all, with lasting consequences!) Still, I was very glad to leave some kinds of effort and attention behind me (I’m looking at you, calculus!). I hadn’t really thought about the way this process, while it enables you to flourish in your chosen domain, can also end up making you more risk-averse, or reinforce reductive narratives about what you are in fact “good” at.

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It has occurred to me before that there is pedagogical value in being, once again, a beginner at something. (Appropriately, in this context, those reflections were prompted by my struggles to read graphic fiction well.) That is certainly what I’ll be at my drawing class. Syllabus gives me a bit more courage to face it, and some useful ways to talk to myself about it. I’ve also had a little fun already drawing some self-portraits “in the style of Ivan Brunetti,” which she proposes as “a quick and workable alternative to stick figures.” This alone could mean a significant improvement in the illustrative (?) sketches I sometimes make on my classroom whiteboards! I admit I really hope, though, that my teacher doesn’t start by asking us to draw Batman.

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Reading ‘The Warden’

 

Posted in Barry, Lynda, graphic novels | 3 Comments

“The Luckiest Man in All of Russia”: Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Mishka opened the door to the stairwell, but then paused. Having taken a moment to look over the kitchen with all of its activity and abundance, to look from gentle Andrey to heartfelt Emile, he turned to the Count.

‘Who would have imagined,’ he said, ‘when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.’

Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is elegant, reserved, and slightly stuffy–it is, in other words exactly like its protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov. Though he is not the novel’s actual narrator, its third-person narration has exactly his precise, self-consciously courtly tone:

At five o’clock on the twent-first of June, the Count stood before his closet with his hand on his plain gray blazer and hesitated. In a few minutes, he would be on his way to the barbershop for his weekly visit, and then to the Shalyapin to meet Mishka, who would probably be wearing the same brown jacket he’d worn since 1913. As such, the gray blazer seemed a perfectly suitable choice of attire. That is, until one considered that it was an anniversary of sorts–for it had been one year to the day since the count had last set foot outside of the Metropol Hotel.

But how was one to celebrate such an anniversary? And should one?

The Count’s world has shrunk to the size of the Metropol because he has been placed under house arrest there, declared a “former person” for writing (or so the authorities think) a poem judged counter-revolutionary. The central conceit of the novel is that the hotel is at once a microcosm of the larger world from which the Count has been banished and a shelter from it. The small attic room that becomes his quarters when he is displaced from the luxurious suite he once occupied is “without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, with those four walls the world had come and gone.” People of all kinds pass through the Metropol and become his acquaintances, friends, and allies, even though he is now the head waiter in the hotel’s fine dining room rather than a celebrated guest. Watching these relationships gradually knit together into a subversive conspiracy delicately orchestrated by the Count is one of the many pleasures of the novel’s final section.

Before he, or we, can get to that point, there are decades to pass in which the Metropol’s front door remains (with one dramatic exception) an impassable threshold. They are turbulent times in Russia (the Count is escorted back to the Metropol for his imprisonment in 1922, and the novel ends in 1954); one of the most interesting things about A Gentleman in Moscow is how thoroughly but also how indirectly, almost glancingly, it engages with the events of this period. Even as we, along with the Count, are constantly reminded of how much the world outside the hotel is changing, he is by fiat, and we are by art, always at one remove from events. World War II happens entirely off-stage, for example: the novel jumps from 1938 to 1946, though it pauses there for two retrospective pages on Operation Barbarossa, from Hitler’s ambitions to “secure Moscow within four months” to the Germans’ chastened retreat from the outskirts of Moscow in 1942.

Throughout the novel, the vicissitudes of history are recounted with the same wry detachment as the whimsical particulars of the Count’s life in the Metropol:

Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.

In addition to starvation in the countryside, the famine of ’32 eventually led to a migration of peasants to the cities, which, in turn, contributed to overcrowded housing, shortages of essential goods, even hooliganism. At the same time, the most stalwart workers in the urban centers were wearying under the burden of the continuous workweek; artists faced tighter constraints on what they could or could not imagine; churches were shuttered, repurposed, or razed; and when revolutionary hero Sergei Kirov was assassinated, the nation was purged of an array of politically unreliable elements.

Towles flirts with disaster, I think: if it were less finely handled, this prose–clearly meant to evoke the dignity of a statelier past, to grace even the grimmest details with a redemptive dash of charm–could seem not just affected but intolerably twee. I’m not 100% sure it quite escapes this fate: the style of the novel could charitably be described as “mannered.” For me, two things kept it from becoming irritating and allowed it instead to be both lovely and sad. One was the close proximity of the narrative voice to the Count himself: the Count is–increasingly, as the novel goes on, but self-consciously throughout–identified with a vanishing past. While inevitably, as it is his novel, that past is often viewed nostalgically, the novel as a whole laments the brutalities of the new regime without being reactionary. In fact, the push and pull between tradition and change, continuity and transformation, not just in Russia but in life itself, is one of the novel’s central themes: it is debated by characters as well as embodied in the Count’s changed life and the ebb and flow of society in the Metropol. “One can revisit the past quite pleasantly,” as the Count eventually reflects, “as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.”

The second saving grace for me came, perhaps paradoxically, from the elements of tragedy that provide a sobering contrast to the novel’s overall lightness of touch and spirit. They are few but powerful, and their intensity brings out the poignancy of the Count’s own situation, at once condemned and privileged to be an onlooker. Even the most intimate and rewarding of his relationships within the Metropol are constrained by his confinement–though Towles does a nice job making sure the possibility of a single hotel as a whole world doesn’t feel entirely metaphorical, a process that starts with the Count’s apprenticeship to his young friend Nina early in his enforced residency. Nina too is mostly stuck within the hotel’s limits, but she has learned to make the most of it:

Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.

Nina does not, ultimately, live in the Metropol that long, and certainly not as long as the Count, but her lessons transform the Count’s experience, as does the very different legacy she later bestows on him in the form of her daughter Sofia. And it is Sofia who, in her turn, finally motivates the Count–this “proper, proud, and openhearted” man–to carry out his own personal revolution against the diminished life he has not just endured but done his best to fill with meaning and small moments of rescued beauty.

Posted in Towles, Amor | 10 Comments

This Week In My Classes: Looking Ahead

20180404_120119-1As if things in this term’s classes aren’t busy enough (and about to get busier, as next week I get in both sets of term papers and give the final exam for Pulp Fiction) but book orders for next fall were also due. It’s not a set-in-stone deadline, and quite reasonably a lot of my colleagues put it off until the summer, but I’ve actually been playing around with possible book lists for my Dickens to Hardy class since Austen to Dickens wrapped up last term, so I figured I could at least get that one settled.

You can see in the photo above which choices I made. The course title makes both Dickens and Hardy obligatory, of course. I don’t have to unify the reading list around a theme, and I didn’t used to think about that at all: I just picked 5 (or, years ago, 6) novels that represented a range of forms and authors. Last term Austen to Dickens was just “5 books I really like,” and as always, plenty of interesting comparisons emerged from their juxtaposition. But for Dickens to Hardy in Winter 2017 I picked books about “troublesome women”–Bleak HouseAdam BedeCranford, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Clearly, they are all troublesome in different ways, though having three novels explicitly about “fallen” women was particularly interesting.) That was fun, so this time I’m flipping it and choosing books about “men in trouble”: again, their troubles are of different but sometimes related kinds. I don’t usually include two “short” novels, but both David Copperfield and The Woman in White are pretty long, so this way the overall reading load seems reasonable. I wonder what unexpected insights juxtaposing these particular books will shake loose! That’s the fun of teaching the two 19th-century fiction courses so often but never in exactly the same way.

20180404_125241In the end I also submitted my book order for Mystery and Detective Fiction today. If I’d waited I might have made more changes to what has become my ‘standard’ book list for the course, but though I have been considering some more recent Canadian books for inclusion, I wasn’t completely convinced either of them would work well in class (not every book does, which is something I think about a lot) and so as I was in the mood to cross this task off my list, I went with the usual suspects. The one change from the course’s last incarnation is that I’ve switched out The Terrorists and put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back in. I think The Terrorists is brilliant, and it usually provokes good discussion (though some students understandably find it heavy-handed by the end). But I also really like Unsuitable Job and have missed it.

woolfThose are my only two courses for the fall and then I’ve got a half-year sabbatical next winter, so that’s it: my book orders for next year are done! For the first time in a long time I’m not teaching a first-year class in 2018-19. I’m glad, not because I don’t enjoy teaching introductory classes but because I want to think carefully about which one I’ll teach next, and especially about whether I’ll put in for Pulp Fiction again. We recently revised our suite of first-year classes, which means that the two that used to be my standard offerings (our full-year Introduction to Literature and our half-year Introduction to Prose and Fiction) aren’t options any more. Pulp Fiction is still on the books, and I’m certainly not ruling it out. In many ways I have really enjoyed teaching it: conceptualizing my approach to it was intellectually challenging, as was choosing my readings and preparing materials on them. If I do teach it again, though, I probably don’t want to use all the same novels–and even with different ones, I think I might still miss teaching a different kind of readings. Introductory classes are the only place I get to play with writers like John Donne and Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Alice Munro and Carol Shields. There’s lots to say about the books I’ve assigned in Pulp Fiction, no question, but after going through them twice I can’t imagine sustaining my own interest in them at that level of detail for another round–which is not something I’ve ever felt about “Death Be Not Proud” or A Room of One’s Own. Anyway, I’m glad to step off that particular moving sidewalk for a bit. I’ll have to put in my 2019-20 course requests in the fall, and I’m sure a first-year class will be among them, but I’m going to think hard about which one it should be.

And that’s all the time I have for dreaming about the future! The next two to three weeks will be focused entirely on this term’s courses.

 

 

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Briefly: John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

schoolboyThe Honourable Schoolboy itself is anything but brief, and that turned out–more or less–to be my problem with it. Of course, I am no stranger to long books, and I would never use scale on its own as a measure of literary merit. I’m also very aware that one person’s “too long” is another person’s “wonderfully immersive” or “lavish” or whatever. The question has to be whether, for you as a reader, the pay-off is proportional, or whether the book’s scope (whether broad or narrow) is the appropriate means to its ends. George Eliot said of Middlemarch, “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly”: I have decades of experience now at explaining why I think she’s right about that, not to mention how we can approach Middlemarch so as to appreciate how she uses all the space she claims for it. The conspicuously shorter Silas Marner, in contrast, is pretty much perfect as it is. Being long, or being short, is not in itself either a necessary or a sufficient condition for admiration or pleasure.

So why did I conclude that The Honourable Schoolboy is too long? Because by about half way through it, everything about it felt just slightly off balance to me: the pacing, the descriptions of setting and context, the twists and turns of the plot. Scenes sometimes seemed to be in real time, with no detail or comment apparently too incidental to be omitted or left to our imagination. Scenery and contexts were described in wonderfully specific, tactile detail, especially on some of the trips Le Carré takes us on through chaotic cities and countrysides fraught with menace–but after a while I felt that both we and the plot were bogging down in reportage. In his 1989 introduction, Le Carré says that this is the first of his novels written “on location” and on the basis of his own personal experience as “a field reporter”:

Thus when Jerry Westerby, my hero, takes his taxi-ride to the battle front a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, and involuntarily finds himself behind Khmer Rouge lines, I was sitting much where he sat, drumming my fingers on the same dashboard and offering the same prayers to my Maker. When Jerry visits an opium den or entrusts himself to the flying skills of an intoxicated Opium pilot in an aeroplane that would not have passed muster in a scrap auction, he is the beneficiary of my own timid adventurings.

schoolboy3I can imagine that having taken these risks to get so much material, a writer would want to make use of it all! But maybe that personal investment also worked against him, making him reluctant to leave anything out, or unable to choose between what he knew and what his story actually needed.

There were definitely things I liked about The Honourable Schoolboy. Jerry Westerby himself is at the top of that list: he’s a very likable character, and as the potential conflict between his mission and his feelings came into focus, I shared his mingled anxiety and urgency. The novel didn’t seem fraught with the same degree of moral seriousness I liked in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though, and it didn’t turn on itself with the same painful astuteness, the poignant undermining awareness that all this jockeying for position and maneuvering for knowledge and power may in some intangible but inevitable way be self-defeating for those who want to think of themselves as the good guys. Westerby is certainly one of the good guys (he is honourable, as the title suggests). That he can’t succeed or survive in the game is certainly an indictment of it, but I had a harder time here fixing on just what the lesson of his failure is, for us or for Smiley.

schoolboy2The other thing I really liked about The Honourable Schoolboy is Le Carré’s prose–which might seem contradictory, given my complaints about the novel’s length, but that just goes to show that good writing isn’t everything! Here’s just one example of the kind of sharply evocative description that is over-abundant in the novel:

The grass at Happy Valley Racecourse must be the most valuable crop on earth. There was very little of it. A narrow ring ran round the edge of what looked like a London borough recreation ground which sun and feet have beaten into dirt. Eight scuffed football pitches, one rugger pitch, one hockey gave an air of municipal neglect. But the thin green ribbon which surrounded this dingy package in that year alone was likely to attract a cool hundred million sterling through legal betting, and the same amount again in the shade. The place was less a valley than a fire-bowl–glistening white stadium one side, brown hills the other–while ahead of Jerry and to his left lurked the other Hong Kong: a card-house Manhattan of grey skyscraper slums crammed so tight they seemed to lean on one another in the heat. From each tiny balcony, a bamboo pole stuck out like a pin put in to brace the structure; from each pole hung innumerable flags of black laundry, as if something huge had brushed against the building leaving these tatters in its wake. It was from places like these, for all but the tiniest few that day, that Happy Valley offered the gambler’s dream of instantaneous salvation.

Le Carré is a genius at finding the apt metaphor, the telling detail, the reported smell or sound that somehow conveys the feeling of a place or a moment. I’m learning (belatedly, obviously) that in his best books he combines that luxurious gift with an equally brilliant knack of maintaining suspense and pace across a very complex plot. In The Honourable Schoolboy he doesn’t quite manage to do that–which makes it, not a bad book, but not as good a book as it could have been. I know I’m not alone in thinking that: other Le Carré fans have chimed in to say they agree about Schoolboy and to promise better things from Smiley’s People. And so, I’ll read on!

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This Week In My Classes: Some Good News

daffodilsThe good news isn’t specifically about what’s happening in my classes this week (although I hope there is some connection): it’s good news about my teaching more generally. This week I learned that I am this year’s recipient of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Regular readers of Novel Readings will know that I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into my teaching. (Novel Readings itself includes an extensive archive of that process over the past decade.) Teaching is one of the most demanding parts of my job, and sometimes one of the most frustrating, but it is also the part that is most rewarding and that seems likely to make the biggest difference in the world–not in any big, cataclysmic way, but in the “incalculably diffusive” way so beautifully invoked in the Finale to Middlemarch. Precisely because its effects are so variable, so diffuse, and so intangible, teaching is a very difficult process to measure–and to measure the success of. The recognition by my peers and my students that this award represents is thus especially precious, a rare marker on a long, winding, and often foggy road.

cassatGiven the role that Novel Readings has played in my teaching life–as a vehicle for reflection and a place where I have both shared and received ideas and encouragement about teaching–it is gratifying to know that my blogging was part of the case made on my behalf, and that my success at generating “conversations both within the university and in wider circles” was cited by the committee that selected me to receive the award this year. I started blogging about pedagogy when this kind of outward-facing work was still relatively uncommon for academics and was (as it still largely remains) not entirely congruent with the university’s standard operating procedures. I have found it intrinsically valuable, for the process itself and for the conversations and communities it has brought me into. For that reason alone I would keep it up in any case, but I admit it is nice to have some institutional recognition that it contributes to our core mission.

On a more personal note, as most of you know the last couple of years have been a bit rocky for me professionally; as a result I have often found myself, both professionally and psychologically, in either a defensive or a defiant posture. I’ve been nominated for this teaching award before, and I didn’t have any particular reason to think that this time would be the charm. Still, I figured that if I wasn’t the one this time, at least I wouldn’t be any worse off than before. I underestimated, however, just how much better it would make me feel to actually win it. It feels great! It’s easy to tell yourself (again, defensively or defiantly) that you don’t need anyone’s approval to keep doing what you think is worth doing as well as you can do it, but that doesn’t mean approval isn’t nice to have.

peacockAnd it has felt even better sharing my good news and basking in people’s happiness on my behalf. I got a lot of help from my friends, both online and off, when things went badly for me; now everyone has been wonderfully supportive about this good news. Social media certainly has its down sides (as we are only too well aware at this point), but there’s also something magical about the way it creates a vast web of connections–intangible perhaps, but still very real–between so many people across such distances. I hesitated before putting my good news out there in case it seemed self-aggrandizing, but I’m so glad I did. Why should we be afraid to invite a bit of cheering for our accomplishments, after all?  I was reminded of one of my favorite points from Molly Peacock’s wonderful and inspiring book The Paper Garden. Peacock emphasizes how much her subject Mary Delany benefited from the “applause” of her friends, which spurred her to further artistic accomplishments. “Compliments,” Peacock observes, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” She describes Delany as pinning her friend’s admiration “to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron'” so that in later life, when she needed it, she could “[dress] herself in its esteem.” I will certainly draw strength in the future from the praise of my friends, colleagues, and, especially, my students.

Thank you very much to everyone who wrote in support of my nomination, and to everyone who has celebrated this good news with me.

 

Posted in Peacock, Molly, Personal, This Week In My Classes | 9 Comments