July 31, 2008

Mysterious Reading Update

I've begun working my way through some of the books I'm considering as additions or alternatives in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course (thanks to everyone who offered suggestions and advice). So far, I'm not sold on any of the ones I've read.

I really didn't enjoy Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers: like Miriam, I found it nearly "unreadable," perhaps, as she proposes, because of a poor translation, but also I didn't like either Wallander or the crime story particularly. To be sure, I don't have to like a book to assign it, but then I need to see it as offering something important and new to the class, and I already have an example of a gloomy police procedural featuring a dysfunctional, divorced, hard-drinking detective. I also don't have to assign the first book in the series and maybe they get better, so I'll probably browse a couple more to test this first impression.

In a strange way, I did enjoy Chester Himes's A Rage in Harlem, which is certainly one of the more surprising books I've read in any genre. It's not really a detective novel: I think it's best categorized as a "caper" story, or, as one reviewer in the cover blurb says, a "mayhem" story. It is grim and violent but surreally comic at the same time. One of the more spectacular scenes is a car chase through Harlem featuring a hearse loaded with a dead body and a trunk supposedly containing gold ore. An excerpt will give a sense of Himes's striking, high-velocity prose as well as the outlandish character of the novel:
When Jackson took off in the big old Cadillac hearse down Park Avenue, he didn't know where he was going. He was just running. He clung to the wheel with both hands. His bulging eyes were set in a fixed stare on the narrow strip of wet brick pavement as it curled over the hood like an apple-peeling from a knife blad, as though he were driving underneath it. On one side the iron stanchions of the trestle flew past like close-set fence pickets, on the other the store-fronted sidewalk made one long rushing somber kaleidoscope in the gray light before dawn.

The deep steady thunder of the supercharger spilled out behind. The open back-doors swung crazily on the bumpy road, battering the head of the corpse as it jolted up and down beneath the bouncing trunk.

He headed into the red traffic light at 116th Street doing eighty-five miles an hour. He didn't see it. A sleepy taxi driver saw something black go past in front of him and thought he was seeing automobile ghosts. . . .

"Runaway hearse! Runaway hearse!" voices screamed.

The hearse ran into crates of iced fish spread out on the sidewalk, skidded with a heavy lurch, and veered against the side of the refrigerator truck. The back doors were flung wide and the throat-cut corpse came one-third out. The gory head hung down from the cut throat to stare at the scene of devastation from its unblinking white-walled eyes. . . .

Jackson went along 95th Street to Fifth Avenue. When he saw the stone wall surrounding Central Park he realized he was out of Harlem. He was down in the white world with no place to go, no place to hide his woman's gold ore, no place to hide himself. He was going at seventy miles an hour and there was a stone wall ahead.
The climactic scenes involve a gender-bending character named Billie:
She was a brown-skinned woman in her middle forties, with a compact husky body filling a red gabardine dress. With a man's haircut and a smooth, thick, silky mustache, her face resembled that of a handsome man. But her body was a cross. The top two buttons of the dress were open, and between her two immense uplifed breasts was a thick growth of satiny black hair.
Billie knows how to defend her own:
She put her whole weight in a down-chopping blow and sank the sharp blade of the axe into the side of his neck with such force it hewed through the spinal column and left his head dangling over his left shoulder on a thin strip of flesh, the epithet still on his lips.

Blood geysered from red stump of neck over the fainting girl as Billie dropped the axe, picked her bodily in her arms, and showered her with kisses.
It's all sort of awesomely horrible. Honestly, I wouldn't know where to start if I were teaching this novel. But my curiosity about Himes is certainly piqued, so I'm going to look into his novels that focus more clearly on his detectives, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones.

Stylistically, I'm impressed at what I've read of Yasmina Khadra's Double Blank, one of the few of his detective novels I found at my public library. (I actually don't read much literature in translation, so here and with the Mankell I was puzzled at where to lay the blame or credit for the qualities of the prose, but since I would have to work with the English version, what matters in the end is how well it reads.) But it takes me so far afield from what I usually teach in terms of historical and cultural context that I think it would be difficult for me to do an adequate job of it.

So: more to read, more to think about. In the meantime, I've also learned of what looks like an excellent anthology to consider as an alternative to the one I've been using, the Oxford Book of Detective Stories: the Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. Just going by the product description, it seems to have a good selection of primary material but also an interesting array of critical supplements. It's not clear to me yet that it would be available for my class in an acceptable format. Perhaps its limited availability in Canada explains why I hadn't turned it up before, though it is not a new volume.

July 29, 2008

Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede (Chapters 36-48)

This week’s installment of our summer reading project at The Valve brings us to the emotional and moral climax of Adam Bede. This is a section full of pathos, suspense, and melodrama as we follow Hetty on her journeys in hope and despair, as we see the painful process by which Adam and our other friends at Hayslope are brought into knowledge and suffering by “the terrible illumination which the present sheds back upon the past,” and as we go with Dinah into Hetty’s dark cell. How far do the lessons we have been offered about sympathy and forgiveness move us past the horror of this moment:

‘I hadn’t got far out of the road into one of the open places, before I heard a strange cry. I thought it didn’t come from any animal I knew, but I wasn’t for stopping to look about just then. But it went on, and seemed so strange to me in that place, I couldn’t help stopping to look. . . . And I looked about among them, but could find nothing; and at last the cry stopped. So I was for giving it up, and I went on about my business. But when I came back the same way pretty nigh an hour after, I couldn’t help laying down my stakes to have another look. And just as I was stooping and laying down the stakes, I saw something odd and round and whitish lying on the ground under a nut-bush by the side of me. And I stooped down on hands and knees to pick it up. And I saw it was a little baby’s hand.’

How far, also, is the dramatic turn of events at the end of Chapter XLVII a break from the novel’s program of realism? I’m also interested in Bartle Massey’s role in this section as well as Mr. Irwine’s, and in the structural symmetries of many of the scenes here to earlier ones. As always, everyone is welcome to pitch in on these or any other topics as the comments thread unfolds at The Valve.

July 27, 2008

Summer Re-Run: Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

My new reading right now is mostly samples of the books I'm considering for my Mystery and Detective Fiction course, and I don't have much to say about them at this point, so I thought that over the next couple of weeks I'd re-post and lightly update a couple of earlier things that otherwise would just be languishing in my archives. I have a few more regular readers now than I once did (hey, any number is greater than zero, right?), so, as the networks say, some of them may be "new to you." I'll write new posts too, of course.

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

(originally posted March 5, 2007)

I've been eagerly waiting for the paperback edition of this novel, as I am a big fan of Fingersmith (such a smart novel, artistically and intellectually) and was thoroughly entertained by Tipping the Velvet. The Night Watch too was easily readable, deceptively so, I've ended up thinking, as I moved through it smoothly only to arrive at the end feeling quite dissatisfied with how I had read it. The backwards chronological structure, for instance, seemed an artificial device, until on a bit of reflection and then with some help from some of the novel's reviewers, I began to think more about ways it suits the kind of character development Waters seems to be engaged in: it's a kind of up-ended Bildungsroman in which rather than seeing people growing into themselves, we peel back the layers of their past experience to see what lies beneath the people they have become. Now I wonder if there isn't a way in which Waters's approach has, perversely almost, a strong forward momentum for the characters, as we realize how complex and contingent their 'current' identities are and how much they (or their situations) have changed over time: instead of seeing them as having arrived, we see them as poised just ahead of their next transformation: their next relationship, their next disappointment or tragedy, their next moment of hope. At the same time, the glimpses of beauty and hope (such as Helen's face at the end/beginning) are so overlayed with our knowledge of change and (usually) destruction that the overall effect seems more disheartening than otherwise: it's too bad, I kept thinking, that this moment here had to turn out the way I already know it did. One reviewer commented that the novel needed to be read twice, and I certainly expect it will seem quite different on a second reading, as the characters' experiences that are presented so elliptically in the first section will feel much more concrete. I like the simplicity of Waters's prose--also deceptive, as the novel is clearly the result of much research and is effortlessly laden (if that's not oxymoronic) with period details. But I would also appreciate some exposition, a thicker layer of narrative commentary, even some philosophizing! Waters's touch is so light that I find it hard to be sure what she thinks is important about the moment she has chosen, or why she develops the kinds of characters and linkages she does. Why write about the 1940s now, for instance? 'Showing' is all very well, but (and perhaps this is just the Victorianist in me) I like the author to collaborate more actively with me on these questions; otherwise I have the sensation of having seen or felt a series of images and moments, but I have not grasped a strong idea. For this, a little 'telling' would be in order.

Update: Having recently read Affinity, I'm all caught up on Waters now.

July 22, 2008

Adam Bede at The Valve: Book Four (Chapters 27-35)


Our group reading of Adam Bede continues at The Valve. This week's installment includes the immortal Mrs. Poyser having "her say out":
"Yis, I know I've done it," said Mrs Poyser, "but I've had my say out, and I shall be th' easier for 't all my life. There's no pleasure i' living, if you're to be corked up for iver, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel."

To which any one of us who has ever been accused of speaking out of turn (or just speaking too much) can say a hearty "hear, hear!"

Now, too, we've reached, not the crisis of the book, but a crisis at least, as Arthur's guilty secret comes out and he and Adam face off "with the instinctive fierceness of panthers."

One of the most compelling aspects of this volume for me is Arthur's growing realization of one of GE's most stringent moral laws: you cannot escape your deeds:
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts, which constitutes a man's critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character. There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change; for this reason--that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right. . . . Europe adjusts itself to a fait accompli, and so does an individual character,--until the placid adjustment is disturbed by a convulsive retribution.

She returns to the fatality of action in Romola--
Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness.

and again in Middlemarch--
1st Gent. Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves.
2nd Gent. Ay, truly, but I think it is the world
That brings the iron.

How often, in George Eliot's fiction, do past deeds return to haunt, confound, or indict those who seek to leave their pasts behind? Your own actions are her version of Nemesis, as many critics have pointed out; when disaster comes, most of the time you have only yourself to blame--or, yourself and the particular "combination of outward with inward facts" that has created the context in which your actions became inevitable. Often, though, she embodies that doom: Baldassare confronts Tito, Raffles returns to Bulstrode--here Hetty and her unborn child represent Arthur's moral degradation. One explanation that is sometimes given for the length and detail of George Eliot's novels (in which, as has been pointed out here, there is often a long, largely discursive prelude to any distinct event) is that these outward and inward circumstances need to be established fully enough that we can appreciate the causes of the action, as well as anticipate the consequences. This is her idea of determinism, summed up by George Levine (in "Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot," PMLA 77:3, 1962) as an "idea-simple at bottom but leading to enormous complications-that every event has its causal antecedents." Here's a bit more of Levine's explanation of this theory:
George Eliot saw a deterministic universe as a marvelously complex unit in which all parts are intricately related to each other, where nothing is really isolable, and where past and future are both implicit in the present. Nothing in such a universe is explicable without reference to the time and place in which it occurs or exists. This suggested that one can never make a clearcut break with the society in which one has been brought up, with one's friends and relations, with one's past. Any such break diminishes a man's wholeness and is the result of his failure to recognize his ultimate dependence on others, their claims on him, and the consequent need for human solidarity. For George Eliot, every man's life is at the center of a vast and complex web of causes," a good many of which exert pressure on him from the outside and come into direct conflict with his own desires and motives.

Of course, as Levine discusses in detail, this view went hand-in-hand for her with a stringent commitment to individual responsibility. Interestingly, Levine uses Adam Bede to illustrate this point:
The point is that although every action is caused, few causes are uncontrollable in the sense that no effort to alter them can succeed. As long as the cause is not a compulsion, that is, as long as it is not physically impossible or excessively dangerous to will differently and as long as one is not so mentally ill that one cannot will differently even if one wants to, one is responsible for his actions. To take an example: in Adam Bede, Arthur Donnithorne was free to avoid the circumstances which drew him into sexual relations with Hetty Sorrel. He was aware that he should have told Mr. Irwine about his feelings, but he chose not to. And even though he was helped in avoiding confession by Irwine's overly decorous refusal to make him talk, Arthur was under no compulsion to be silent. At one point in the conversation between Arthur and Irwine, Irwine figuratively and implicitly makes the distinction between cause and compulsion. Arthur says to him:

"Well, but one may be betrayed into doing things by a combination of circumstances, which one might never have done otherwise." "Why, yes [Irwine replies], a man can't very well steal a bank-note unless the bank-note lies within convenient reach; but he won't make us think him an honest man because he begins to howl at the banknote for falling in his way." (Ch. XVI)

The bank-note's presence, that is to say, is one of the causes of the theft, but there is nothing in its presence serving as a compulsion to make a man steal it.

This is one line of interpretation we might wish to pursue, but as always, questions and comments on any topic are welcome.

In case anyone needs reminders or is joining in a bit belatedly, the overall schedule is here. Previous discussions have covered Chapters 1-5, Chapters 6-11, Chapters 12-16, Chapters 17-21, and Chapters 22-26.

July 21, 2008

Novel Readings are Good for You

The Globe and Mail's books section this weekend includes an "endpaper" by Liam Durcan touching on some of the recent research into the benefits of reading fiction:
In a recent study conducted by University of Toronto psychologists, subjects who read a short story in The New Yorker had higher scores on social reasoning tests than those who had read an essay from the same magazine. The researchers concluded that there was something in the experience of reading fiction that made the subjects more empathetic (or at least take a test more empathetically). The study provided some proof for what has often been intuitively argued: Fiction is, in some very important ways, good for us. (read the rest here)
I'm reasonably confident that the "University of Toronto psychologists" involved would include the authors of the interesting blog On Fiction. Inquiring into the and why of these effects, Durcan also cites Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction, which explores literary reading in the context of developmental psychology, particularly "theory of mind":

Zunshine, who is part of a growing school of cognitive literary theorists, goes so far as to describe the novel as a "sustained theory of mind exercise." As we read the multilayered intentionalities of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, we not only experience complex and contingent mental states, but we evaluate them as well, and as the narrative moves forward, we use our skills as mind readers, constantly testing our hypotheses about this fictional world and its experimental personalities.

Using Nabokov's Pale Fire as an example, Zunshine relates how severely our theory-of-mind abilities can be tested and how ably we respond when she describes the creeping unease and perverse thrill, well known to any reader, that come with the unmasking of an unreliable narrator. The ambiguities and psychological nuances that characterize fiction provide an unrivalled training ground for our abilities as readers of mental states.

Durcan raises the inevitable and important point that, while "a taste for fiction" may contribute to the development of empathy and thus, we might hope, morality, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for either: "the list of highly cultured and well-read despots is depressingly long." (Richard Posner emphasizes this problem in "Against Ethical Criticism,"responding to Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, the latter of whom in particular has made strong claims, in works such as Poetic Justice, for the social and other goods that reading fiction might enhance.) Nonetheless, as Durcan concludes,

Fiction offers the transformative experience of getting out of our heads and into the head of "the other." And from that privileged vantage point, anything is possible. Perhaps even the chance to see ourselves more clearly.

One of the strongest proponents of this theory is, of course, George Eliot:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Her novels, which she called "experiments in life," are also experiments in bringing about such "transformative" experiences by knocking her readers askew from their usual "vantage points" and into the heads of others.

I do think one of the challenges of these hopeful approaches to fiction is figuring out how it matters which fiction in particular people read. Even empathy, after all, is not a universal good; I'm reminded of Wayne Booth's comments on Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur (in The Rhetoric of Fiction):
The book is a brilliant culmination of more than a hundred years of experimentation with inside views and the sympathetic identification they can yield. It does, indeed, lead us to experience intensely the sensations and emotions of a homicidal maniac. But is this really what we go to literature for?
A fair question! And presumably it also matters how we read what we read--an inquiry which might go some way towards explaining the "cultured despots" phenomenon.

July 19, 2008

Mysterious Reading Plans

As I've remarked a few times in recent posts, I'm hoping to shake up the reading list for my class on Mystery and Detective Fiction. I introduced it in 2003, and the major texts have been basically the same each time I've taught it: some Poe and Conan Doyle and various other short fiction, depending on the anthology I've got; Collins's The Moonstone, Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Sue Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi, and Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses.

I've been having a hard time choosing additions or alternatives, partly because I'm not really an avid reader of mysteries (too often I find them formulaic or gimmicky, or too grim) so the work of filtering out the good or the significant is unappealing. My own taste tends to wordy, British-style character-driven ones, but between P. D. James, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, and Ian Rankin, I don't run out of books to read, and when I want something pithier, well, Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis too keep providing me with new ones (just this weekend I whipped through Now and Then, and last weekend it was Spare Change). I've picked up some new authors recently: I like Deborah Crombie well enough, for instance, and for no good reason there are a lot of Reginald Hill titles I haven't read yet, so I've done some catching up. And I keep up with Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, though I have been finding them kind of flat lately. But what I feel I need for my course is not more of the same kinds already represented on my syllabus but more variety, and some indication of new directions the genre might be going, and no matter how many titles I bring home to take a look at, few leap out as significant or interesting enough to put on a syllabus. So I've solicited (and received) suggestions a couple of times here and asked around among my mystery-reading friends and family, and I've also been browsing a lot online, where of course there are many sources of information and recommendations, including the excellent blogs Petrona and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. I had in mind a more diverse list of writers, perhaps something Canadian, perhaps something from the vast array of 'international' crime writers. Here is a list of the titles or authors I've come up with from which I hope to draw my new material:
I've gathered most of these titles up from the public library and plan a serious course of crime reading over the next couple of weeks (when I'm not reading Adam Bede, of course!). I remain open to suggestions!

The other thought I've had, as I work my way through The Wire (just wrapped Season 3), is that it would be exciting and appropriate to work TV in somehow. I've included Prime Suspect I in my seminar on Women and Detective Fiction, including this summer, and not only do the themes and action of the series work extremely well with the overall interests of the course, but the shift in genre and medium gives us a lot more to think and talk about. Crime shows are certainly a staple of television drama--but how can it be done? Also, of course, as a television (or film) critic I am a rank amateur, so how could I be sure to do it well?

July 17, 2008

Peeping into Victorian Writers' Rooms

Like the Victorian Peeper, I enjoy the Guardian's series on writers' rooms. On her site, she has kindly assembled a list of the featured Victorian Writers' Rooms, including "The spartan shed behind a modest house in Ayot St Lawrence, built on a platform that rotated with the sun, in which George Bernard Shaw churned out his voluminous correspondence" and "the 'perfection of warmth, snugness, and comfort' that was the Haworth Parsonage parlour in which Charlotte Brontë wrote," as well as the rooms of "Contemporary writers of particular interest to Victorianists."

I looked around online a bit to see if I could find any images of George Eliot's rooms to add to this collection, but I couldn't seem to come up with one, though I learned that the museum in Nuneaton, Coventry has a "recreated drawing room" in which "they display her grand piano and writing desk."

I find it interesting the particular kind of attachment different writers inspire in their readers. George Eliot certainly has many devoted readers (and a virtual visit to her grave provides evidence that they can be as passionate or as sentimental as, say, the average Bronte devotee--and, as a side note, apparently indifferent to the irony of leaving Bible verses as tributes to a famous non-believer). But I think it's safe to say that she is not cherished by the general reading public the way Dickens is, or the Brontes are, and certainly not the way Jane Austen is. If the threatened promised big-screen version of Middlemarch ever comes out, maybe there will be a wave of Eliot-mania. But then, she was ambivalent about popular success herself, remarking in a letter that "if too many people like my novels, I must be doing something wrong."

Inquiring Minds Want to Know...

...why the recent flurry of Google searches for "humanism in Charles Dickens" from locations in India? Yes, I admit I peer at my 'Visitor Information' intermittently, mostly as a reality check (it keeps me humble!), but also because it's interesting to see what posts or topics bring people by. Some time ago, for example, I noticed that a number of people searching for Margaret Oliphant ended up here, probably, I speculated, because there just aren't that many other internet sources on her. Being flagged by Footnoted or by better-known bloggers has also brought over readers. But for this trend, I have no explanatory hypothesis. Still, since it took a long time to write up my posts on that topic, I'm happy to think somebody somewhere might be finding them interesting or useful--provided, of course, that they are also giving appropriate credit in their citations.

July 15, 2008

"Ruined by the Academics": More on the Decline of Criticism

At The Guardian, John Sutherland adds to the chorus of lamentations about the death of literary criticism:
The UK has always had the world's liveliest and most expansive lit-crit pages. A new book over here can hope for reviews in a dozen or more places in its first couple of weeks. It's not just the (former) broadsheets, the nationals, the weeklies and the "heavies". For my money, some of the fizziest reviews in London will be found in David Sexton's Monday Evening Standard (always something pleasantly malicious), Private Eye's "Bookworm" (where an anonymous DJ Taylor wields his assassin's hatchet) and the Camden New Journal. (You don't believe me? Pick up a copy next time you're in NW1. It's free.)

But this traditionally vibrant sector, with its myriad outlets, is on the wane. Terminally, it would seem. Pages are falling away, like leaves in autumn. They used, for example, to call the literary pages in the New Statesman "the back half". Now it's "the back sixth (in a good week)". Why is lit-crit - as a main item in our cultural diet - going down the tubes?
Among the "hypothetical answers" he proposes to his own question, we get the familiar one, "blame the blogs" ("The most plausible explanation for hard-print lit-crit melting faster than the Arctic icecaps is flickering on the screen in front of you. . . .As literary pages have withered, literary blogs have bloomed"). And the "Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English LIterature at University College London"* also blames "academics"--but not, as is more usual, because of jargon-bloated prose, incessant politicization, or refusal of evaluation. Sutherland argues, rather, that academics were discovered by literary editors to be cheap sources of labour, "that would write for pennies, had oodles of spare time and could spell":
At the TLS party a couple of weeks ago, I overheard this paper's senior political correspondent, Michael White, in conversation with the TLS editor, Peter Stothard. Having recently done a couple of pieces for Stothard's journal, White asked - in evident perplexity - "Can anyone actually live on reviewing?" No, Stothard conceded. Staff journalists can, but not freelance reviewers. For pointy-headed profs, it doesn't matter. Many would sell their children into slavery to pay for the privilege of a lead piece in, say, the Saturday Guardian Review. Unfortunately, excellent value (ie dirt cheap) as they are, academic reviewers come with heavy baggage. They can be dull. Really dull.
How unfair--one of my children, at most, at least for the Guardian Review. (For the TLS, on the other hand . . .) And my head's not really that pointy. And I'm not dull. Well, rarely. OK, define "dull." Does going on and on about Trollope qualify?

Meanwhile, Chris Routledge at The Reader Online points out a recent Guardian feature that once again pits bloggers against critics:
It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. . . .

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London's Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene's film reviews and Kenneth Tynan's first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

'We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,' says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, 'and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.'

Such discussions have been going on for a while now; I think Chris is entirely right when he says,

I can’t help feeling that this is a non-argument. Either ‘old media’ will ‘get’ the Internet or it won’t (as it happens I think The Guardian/Observer does). It’s more likely to end up being about what the words are printed on than it is about who wrote them and why.

The problem is not one of form; it's one of filtering. It takes time, patience, diligence, and discernment to distinguish among the vast number of blogs offering criticism and commentary of one kind or another; the challenge is that there's no established review process to create evaluative hierarchies or provide qualitative guidance (no, Google Blog Search does not count). But, as many have pointed out, it's not as if there aren't trashy print publications too, some of which sell millions of copies. Sure, it is discouraging to read ignorant nonsense parading around as serious criticism, but the best response seems to me to encourage what Sewell, above, calls "skilled onlookers" to show the value of their expertise, not to encourage a seige mentality. And, of course, many print publications are in the blogging game now, including The New York Times and the TLS. It was never an either/or option.

*from the author blurb on How to Read a Novel

July 10, 2008

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

Bel Canto is a beautiful, poignant, and fragile novel about the beauty, poignancy, and fragility of art and love. The simplicity of its narrative suits the underlying simplicity of its ideas: that music can transcend differences, for instance, or that art and love and beauty matter and should be nourished and shared.

In the early parts of the novel, these insights, which sound hackneyed stated so baldly, nonetheless come upon the characters as surprises borne in upon them by the extremity of their circumstances. Even Mr. Hosokawa, whose love of opera brings soprano Roxanne Coss to the party aborted so dramatically when the guests are taken hostage, has a complex life to which music can be only an accessory, an indulgence that makes a gift of a few days home with food poisoning: "He remembered this time as happily as any vacation because he played Handel's Alcina continually, even while he slept." The party itself is a business occasion: Mr. Hosokawa is "the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan," and "the host country" hopes he can be seduced into investing, perhaps even building a factory. Only Mr. Hosokawa is there only to hear Roxanne Coss sing--and as it turns out, only he is there for the right reason, the only reason that matters. And yet, her singing propels the other guests beyond business to love:
They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist's chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.
In retrospect, we realize that this transformation captures the essence of the novel. But because this moment of intense aesthetic and erotic passion coincides with the moment the terrorists cut the lights, it initially seems associated with weakness or vulnerability, especially as the guests continue applauding. This impression builds as the guests in their party finery are surrounded by gun-toting guerillas who first take rough command of the house and then order their hostages to lie down; the guests are relieved, "like small dogs trying to avoid a fight." Easy oppositions lurk, ready to cheapen the novel's effects: music, refinement, civilization, under siege by bullets, brutality, savagery.

But (and what do we expect, in a novel called Bel Canto?) the music connects, rather than divides, guests from intruders. Quickly we learn, for example, that the uneducated terrorists ("No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way . . . No one having explained anything") have been emotionally overwhelmed (or is it undermined?) by listening to Roxanne Coss from their hiding places in the air-conditioning vents:
When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn't true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.
And so it begins: an impossible, unrealistic, dream-like sequence in which, bit by bit, the underlying humanity of each character surfaces. The stale-mate of the hostage-taking, which maroons many men, one woman, and two girls of wildly different nationalities, backgrounds, and characters in a bizarre suspension from ordinary life, gradually liberates them to seek new loves, mostly of music, but also of each other; it's a brave (but, we always understand, endangered) new world in which the worst come to lack conviction and the best discover their passionate intensity.

The sad but fundamental implausibility of all this requires that we suspend not only our disbelief but, to some extent, our critical faculties, liberating ourselves, you might say, to test and extend the limits of our own artistic sensibilities, to consider seriously, for instance, that song might, in its own way, be wielded as a weapon against petty tyranny:
In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo [a leader of the terrorists], who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxanne Coss . . . stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. . . . All of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear . . . .

Roxanne took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. "Tell him," she said to Gen, "that's it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment."
How can it work? What can such a threat possibly mean to a man such as General Alfredo? Even he does not know, for the music has "confused him to the point of senselessness." The stupidity of opposing art with violence incapacitates the Generals, as General Benjamin points out when they consider how to reassert complete control:
"If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day."

"Try it first with a bird," General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. "Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn't know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic."
However artificial the forms of art may seem (and surely opera is among the most contrived), over and over here the association is with nature, with transparency, with revelation. One of the loveliest epiphanic moments, less melodramatic than Roxanne's confrontation with Alfredo, is Kato's ascension from "a vice president at Nansei," a man known "for being very good with numbers," to pianist and accompanist. Kato's playing of Chopin brings the young fighter Carmen to a new life; another terrorist, Cesar, is inspired and finds his own voice. Love and beauty are contagious in this novel. We are all either musicians or music-lovers, Patchett seems to be saying: isn't that enough to allow us to live together?

Even within the novel, though, the answer has to be that it is not enough, and the certainty of tragedy on an operatic scale haunts the novel from the beginning. This is one cause of what I referred to as the novel's fragility: it imagines impossibilities, dreams and hopes drawn from yearnings its readers may well recognize from their own encounters with art, especially with music, but its characters recognize, as do we, that theirs is not the real world. We are reminded of this by the recurrent visits of the Red Cross negotiator, Messner, painfully aware that the military is literally undermining the paradisaical garden in which hostages and terrorists play soccer. He knows, and they know, and we know, that they can't in fact live there forever, despite Carmen's prayer that "God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone."

On the novel's own terms, this kind of fragility adds to the beauty and poignancy of the situation: like fine lace or delicate filigree, the loves that form inspire a protective tenderness, a desire to save them from tearing or breaking. I think there is a further kind of fragility to Bel Canto as well, though, that is potentially more problematic because it arises from the novel's deliberate distancing from history and politics. Take the refusal to place the novel in any particular time or place. As I noted, it's always just "the host country"; the terrorists' grievances and demands are boilerplate, even stereotyped; the government is an implacable yet vague force against them. This separation from real-world politics is necessary to preserve the fable-like sensibility of the novel, yet it undermines its credibility and perhaps even its own arguments: the solution the novel implicitly proposes is, after all, to real-world problems, isn't it? But to imagine a way out of them, it has to leave them altogether behind, or reduce the conflict to the simplistic oppositions between beauty and power, art and guns, that seemed to have been avoided earlier: the only difference at the end is that by and large the terrorists too have been converted, seduced away from politics by love and opera. The novel also skips over any possible association of music in general and opera in particular with history or politics. Verdi, for instance, to whom Mr. Hosokawa is so loyal (Rigoletto is his first opera, and he "never forgot the importance of Verdi in his life") was a hero of Italian nationalism; crowds at his funeral procession sang the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Opera may once have been a popular form, but today too it is inseparably associated (however justly or unjustly) with cultural and economic elites of just the kind attending the party at the Vice Presidential mansion. Do these considerations matter to the affective or aesthetic aspects of opera? I'm not sure, but there's something a bit naive and wishful about ignoring them completely in a novel that pits opera against so many of the brutalities and vulgarities of modern life. This naivete is echoed in the extra materials at the end of my edition, which include a piece by Patchett called "How to Fall in Love with Opera":
The fact is we need opera. We especially need it now. It is an enormous, passionate, melodramatic affair that puts the little business of our lives into perspective. . . . Opera, more than any other art form [really? even novels?] has the sheer muscle and magnitude to pull us into another world, and while that world may be as fraught with heartache as our own, it is infinitely more gorgeous.
As a life-long opera lover* who loves to bliss out to the Sutherland-Horne recording of "Mira, O Norma," of course I agree. But I recognize that my bliss is based on escape, and while it may be escape into something transcendent and "gorgeous," I'm not comfortable using it to measure the rest of my life.

And, speaking of being a life-long opera lover, I thought Bel Canto betrayed some signs of its author having (as she admits) come to opera relatively late. For one thing, Roxanne Coss's repertoire is entirely predictable, from "O Mio Babbino Caro" to the "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka. I suppose familiar tracks were meant as a way to make the novel's emphasis on opera (to some, as initially to Patchett, an esoteric expertise) user-friendly. Still, the risk is that the transcendent aesthetic moments in the novel approach cliche to the knowledgeable reader. (My own operatic taste is quite mainstream, but even I might have sought out arias with more thematic resonance--facing Alfredo with "Vissi d'arte" instead, for example, an area which does come up later on but more incidentally). Patchett points to Renee Fleming as one of her favourite singers ("I came to believe that Renee Fleming was the living embodiment of art"), a feeling I certainly second, but like Mr. Hosokawa, she shows little historical reach in her other recommendations, and even Fleming, whose voice is certainly beautiful, is no better to my ear, and maybe not as breathtaking, as early recordings of Leontyne Price or Montserrat Caballe. But here, of course, I'm heading well away from the novel (and into the dangerous waters of opera fandom, where everyone notoriously steers by their own stars).

The final weakness I felt in the novel was its epilogue. Patchett should have had the courage of her operatic predecessors and ended with her catastrophe, which I found painful, shocking, and inevitable. Tragic operas don't rescue you from the emotional impact of their conclusions. Alfredo does not find consolation in Flora's arms for the loss of Violetta; Rodolfo has no second chance at love after Mimi's death; nobody responds to Pinkerton's anguished cries of "Butterfly!" as he rushes upon her corpse; Amneris does not force open the tomb and give Radames a second chance he wouldn't want anyway. Operatic love is total; there are no compromises. Perhaps Patchett could not accommodate this aspect of opera into her utopian vision, but the result of the epilogue for me was not the sustenance of hope but the bathos of anti-climax.

That said, I carried Bel Canto around for several days after I finished it. I wanted to read parts of it again and again; I needed to think about it; and I was sorry it ended, sorry its dream was over.

*Life-long, you ask? Not really an exaggeration: I still cherish an LP of highlights from La Traviata I got for my 5th birthday and had signed by La Stupenda herself in 1976 (I was 9).

July 9, 2008

The Murmuring of Innumerable Bees

NAVSA has posted the preliminary program for this year's conference, to be held in November at Yale University. Am I the only academic who gets overwhelmed and depressed when reading through such listings? It's not that I object to any (or most, at any rate) of the specific papers on the program. I can at least imagine finding them individually interesting; I'm sure they are all being prepared with due diligence and will make the requisite microcontributions to our insight into Victorian literature and culture. But a conference program on this scale (and the MLA program is much, much worse, in this respect) represents the roar on the other side of silence, doesn't it? Pause for a minute and just think about all those people out there working on all those highly specialized topics, beavering away partly for the love of it but mostly because their professional lives depend on it. I count over 75 panels, each with 3 or 4 speakers, which means, well, a lot of papers--and this is just one meeting of just one subfield of our "discipline." OK, probably I'd find this scenario less demoralizing if my own submission had been accepted (wow, if there was room for over 200 papers on the program, my proposal must really have stunk! but I don't know how or why, because I didn't get any feedback on it). But if my other recent conference experience is anything to go on, participating doesn't do much to make it all seem more worthwhile or necessary (except, again, professionally--which isn't nothing, it just sometimes seems backwards, that is, shouldn't the research be the reason for the profession and not the other way around?).

July 8, 2008

Read On: Adam Bede Chapters 17-21

Our Adam Bede reading project at The Valve continues; this week's installment includes the famous Chapter 17, with its credo of realism:
All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children--in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.... [D]o not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world--those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common, coarse people, who have no picturesque, sentimental wretchedness! It is no needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things....
Comments welcome.

July 6, 2008

Best Canadian ...

(cross-posted to The Valve)

There has been a lot of CanCon around this week, what with the holiday formerly known as 'Dominion Day' and all.* So, for instance, the Globe and Mail ran a story about revising the canon of great Canadian novels.

Thirty years ago dozens of scholars, critics, authors and publishing types gathered for four days in Calgary for what was billed as the National Conference on the Canadian Novel. Organized by the University of Calgary in association with publisher McClelland & Stewart and Dalhousie English professor Malcolm Ross, the conference, a raucous and controversial affair, became famous for two things. The first was the publication of the results of a ballot mailed earlier to participants in which they were invited to choose "the most important 100 works of Canadian fiction" according to three categories: "major," "significant" and "secondary importance." The second entailed the selection of "the 10 best Canadian novels yet written." Critics decried (and continue to decry) its attempt to create a literary consensus as both a misguided nationalist holdover from the 19th century and a rank marketing/promotion stunt on behalf of M & S's New Canadian Library, which Ross founded in 1958 and which, at the time of the Calgary conference, had more than 150 "classics" in print as paperbacks. (Ross later described Calgary as "the most painful experience" of his career.) The NCL still exists, winnowed down now to 110 titles. However, while the notion of "literary excellence" continues to hold sway, notions of a fixed canon or canons, of "shared literary values," are pretty much in tatters. Even in 1978, as one participant in the Calgary conference observed, "we know that literary reputations are not built and perpetuated by any lists."

Still, lists are fun. Or they can be, if undertaken in a spirit of play and gamesmanship.

And so, with this in mind, The Globe and Mail thought it might be, well, fun, or at least interesting, 30 years on from the Calgary conference, 50 after the creation of the NCL, to come up with a new Cancon semi-canon - or should that be Can-on? - for the first decade of the 21st century.

My colleague Dean Irvine was among those consulted, and there has since been some spirited discussion on our DalNews site, with lots of further nominations.

I'm not about to volunteer a competing list--first, because I'm not nearly as well-informed or up-to-date about Canadian fiction as any of those called on, and second because, like them, I find the process of canon-formation more interesting than the end result in any case (there's nothing like having to choose between unlike alternatives to focus the mind). Still, as some evidence of my citizenship, I'm pleased to say that I could name a handful of Canadian novels I particularly like that I didn't spot on anyone else's list (though I wouldn't necessarily make a pitch for any of them as one of the 10 best): Audrey Thomas's Intertidal Life, for instance, has long been a favourite of mine; though perhaps by now the novel has become cliched, I still have a strong visceral response to Timothy Findley's The Wars; and I thought Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park was rather extraordinary. Now I definitely want to read Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Overall, though, I seem to consider the Canadian fiction I read as simply keeping company with my other books, rather than as a category (or canon) apart; I don't feel a strong sense of my own identity being tied up in it either.

For no reason I can really think of, I have a more fiercely loyal relationship to a number of Canadian films. Maybe that's because many Americans have read at least some Canadian authors, but very few have seen Canadian movies? I don't know. In any case, here's my list of my own idiosyncratic top 5 in this category:
Bye Bye Blues: This beautifully filmed, bittersweet film, one of my all-time favourites Canadian or not, tells the story of a woman who returns to her home town on the prairie while her husband is a POW; to support herself and her child, she begins singing in a blues band. The film deftly illustrates the challenges women's wartime activities posed to conventional gender roles. It's also a love story, sort of, with no Hollywood-style magical thinking at the end.

Jesus of Montreal: There are scenes in this film that have haunted me since I first saw it in 1989; no doubt the emotionally wrenching soundtrack featuring Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and the Pergolesi Stabat Mater is part of what makes it so unforgettable. Courtesy of YouTube, here's a teaser:

The Barbarian Invasions
: Sex, cancer, philosophy...what more could you want?

Who Has Seen the Wind: Is it because I'm not from the prairies that I am more moved by seeing them than by reading about them? This movie contains the saddest scene ever. I'll just say it involves a birthday party and a large tray of uneaten sandwiches.

My American Cousin: I'm pretty sure this is not a great movie. My father spent youthful summers picking fruit in the Okanagan Valley, and we used to vacation there every year, usually at Lake Osoyoos, so one reason I feel attached to this film is simple nostalgia. But it has a certain naively quirky charm, plus there's a girl in it who went to my highschool.
Finally, my top Canadian song, in an outstanding performance:

Would anyone else like to highlight any of their Canadian favourites, in any category?

*Gosh, I'm sure glad Wikipedia included that helpful disambiguation note; I would have looked a right fool toting those dominoes around.

July 3, 2008

Barenaked Ladies Rock...for Kids!

Here's a recommendation for those of you out there with little ones: the Canadian rock group Barenaked Ladies has released their first ever kids' album, Snack Time! I'd recommend it for "Crazy ABCs" alone ("A is for Aisle, B is for Bdellium, C is for Czar..." through "P is for Pneumonia, Pterodactyl, and Psychosis" to the end--as they say, everyone knows Apple, Ball, Cat!). And "7 8 9" is awfully clever. ("1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10--WHAT ABOUT 9?!" I'm not telling, but I bet your 6-year-old knows what happened.) My in-house expert (seen below) also gives a big thumbs-up to "Pollywog in a Bog" and "The Ninjas":
The Ninjas are deadly and silent
They're also unspeakably violent
They speak Japanese; do whatever they please,
And if you tear off the masks they'll be smiling.
Is it just me, or is there something very ... Canadian ... about this album? ("I don't want to be a bother, / But I think you're in my seat.")

(Rockin' to "Eraser")