June 7, 2009

Weekend Miscellany & Recent Reading

Weekend Miscellany: some things that have caught my eye in recent Internet ramblings:
Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb's new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (via). I agree with Open Letters's Sam Sacks that Epstein's generalizations about the Victorians are tired ("The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature"... ), though I think Epstein may to be trying to convey what the Bloomsbury-ites thought of them, rather than what he himself takes to be the case, as he moves on to praise the progress we have made from such Bloomsbury-inspired stereotypes. Sacks suggests that "when Epstein moves on to discussing George Eliot, he does fine"; I'd say there too, though, Epstein could do better. It's tedious, for one thing, that he leads with a discussion of her appearance, complete with Henry James's infamous insults (imagine a sentence along the lines of "A short, homely man with bulbous eyes, Charles Dickens nonetheless charmed audiences with his impassioned readings..."--why do so many people feel it necessry and appropriate to lead off with comments on her looks?). What can he mean by his remark, after noting that George Eliot was not a supporter of female suffrage (she was not much of a supporter of universal male suffrage either, it's worth keeping in mind), that "George Eliot's feminism was of a superior kind"? Superior to what? It sounds as if he might mean she wasn't one of those shrill political types. He refers to Eliot as a "Zionist," but as the work of Nancy Henry and others shows, it is tricky to use that term as if it applied in her moment as it came to later on.

George Eliot goes on Oprah: I've often thought Oprah should take on Middlemarchfor her Book Club, but its emphasis on failed ambition and entangled idealism would rather undermine her show's relentless emphasis on overcoming obstacles and triumphing over "this petty medium." As I always figure that the more people who read it the better, I'll be interested (in sort of a "bystander at an accident" way) to see if this producer and those who read along find the expeience rewarding.

At ReadySteadyBlog, Mark Thwaite asks his readers to name "academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience." As he asks, "who is doing it for you?" I think in principle any academic could "speak beyond the academy" if you follow Mark's lead in looking to academic books for insights on literary figures or topics of special interest; academics who write deliberately for a non-academic audience would be a much smaller group.

Reviews are piling up of Sarah Waters's new novel, TheLittle Stranger. I don't need to read any of them to know I want to read the novel, but this piece by Waters herself on the novel's background and relationship to Josephine Tey's classic The Franchise Affair really whetted my appetite for it. (via)

N+1 takes a couple more shots at bloggers ("Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness.") even while admitting that there can be a "special eloquence" in the "speech-like qualities" of on-line writing (though that eloquence doesn't really count, it turns out, as "the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time"). With 76 million blogs ongoing (or whatever the current estimate is), any claims about what they are like "on the whole" must be a difficult thing to ascertain. I wonder how many blogs the author read to come up with this generalization.
Recent Reading

Two of the books I finished recently are so dissimilar in tone and style--indeed, in almost every way--that it comes as a surprise to me to discover, on reflection, that I think they are pursuing a very similar idea. The books are Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero, first published in 1973, and Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker prize in 1984. El Saadawi's novel is the fictional equivalent of repeated slaps in the face, if such startling, painful moments could also somehow be imagined as poetic. Brookner's novel, in contrast, is subtle, patiently nuanced, and faintly sardonic. How can I say that the blunt first-person narrative of an Egyptian prostitute on death row for murder and a cool first-person account of a British romance novelist vacationing in Switzerland after leaving her fiance at the altar have anything in common? Perhaps the connection is a tenuous one, but both books seem to be fundamentally about the relationship a woman has with herself, and how that relationship is compromised and challenged by the sexual politics--the distribution of power, including physical and economic but also social and cultural power--of her world. Both bring these compromises and challenges into focus by emphasizing their protagonists' struggles to discover their own identities and maintain their integrity, even when (especially when) that means disregarding how they are looked at by others.

El Sadaawi's protagonist, Firdaus, fails: her courageous attempts to reinvent herself, to believe in herself and the possibility of her own economic, moral, and sexual freedom, are repeatedly--relentlessly, shatteringly--defeated. The cyclical structure of the novel, in which the same language (assuming the translation is accurate) is repeated for different incidents as if to prove no real progress has been made, that the core crisis remains literally identical, gives a formal pattern to this defeat. It would be an understatement to call this an angry book: to borrow from Matthew Arnold, it is full of "hunger, rebellion, and rage." It is an activist book, a book designed to smack you out of your complacency. It is interesting to compare it, as I inevitably did, with Ahdaf Souef's novels, which seem to speak from another world entirely. The timing makes some difference, though I wonder how much: is Firdaus's experience impossible two decades, three decades, later? Today? How much of the difference between Soueif's confident, ambitious women and El Sadaawi's Firdaus is economic or class-based? The novel has been described as fable-like; it may also be that it is meant to transcend its time and place, to speak very fundamentally to the subjection of women, or of the roots and effects of all oppression.

Brookner's protagonist ends her novel with no triumphant resolution but with a questing sense of possibilities. She has rejected two relationships that promise her social security, protection from the slights and indignities she faces daily and fears will overtake her as she ages: now she must discover what it is like to live on her own terms. To be sure, her situation is dramatically more secure than Firdaus's, though in both cases money is seen to be key to both security and autonomy ("money is what you make when you grow up," she tells a less independent companion). She faces no physical violence, no overt discrimination--but nonetheless she has difficulty imagining happiness for herself without love.

Hotel du Lac is the first Brookner novel I've read. I enjoyed the language a lot: it was descriptive but restrained. It opens with shades of grey that become thematically apt too, for the repressions that limit its protagonist's expressiveness. I liked the "vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore"--that image of anaesthetic is proleptic of the life Edith might have. The novel surprised me repeatedly, not with big shocks or twists, but just by not being or saying quite what I expected. It felt like an Edwardian novel; I kept picturing its characters dressed like those in The Enchanted April (they use words like "smocks"--do people say that anymore?). But then someone said something about deconstruction and signifiers and I was reminded of its more contemporary moment. I wonder if the historical ambiguity created by its tone was deliberate, or if I just missed some basic clue as to when exactly its action takes place.

I've also recently read Emma Darwin's The Mathematics of Love, a novel which weaves together a historical with a modern plot. I thought both parts of the novel were individually well done, though the more contemporary (late 70s, so not really contemporary) part was more compelling. The 19th-century part was written in a more formal style, but that seems like an unnecessary artifice. Perhaps one reason Sarah Waters's neo-Victorian novels read so well is that although she seeks out 19th-century slang and provides plenty of allusions and contextual details, she does not try to sound "Victorian" (which to so many seems to mean "stuffy"). I didn't think Darwin brought the two stories together effectively: the interest of her 20th-century protagonist, Anna, in her 19th-century protagonist, Stephen, was never well-motivated. I liked the way she used photography as a device for evoking the strangely palimpsestic character of historical sites and stories, caught in time, leaving impressions that may be sharp or blurred, suggestive or specific, visible or even tangible to successive generations of viewers. The battlefield reminiscences are vivid, and the aftershocks of war provide another common element between the two plots, as do the various love stories that ask us to consider why we love who we do, what love is, and how we suffer for love. Just because I also read it recently, Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter is the inevitable comparison for this book: with Donoghue's novel, I couldn't see what it was about beyond the story it told, while with Darwin's, I felt it was about a number of things but not integrating them in a fully satisfying way. But I liked it enough that I might try her second novel, A Secret Alchemy--also because it has been a long time since I read any Richard III-related novels.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

"their popularity is no index of their worthiness," a prestigious literary journal publishes. Ya don't say? But it's bloggers whose "ideas are commonplace"!