October 29, 2008

Recent Reading: Three Novels by Lady Novelists (None of Them Silly)

I mentioned one of these novels, briefly, before: Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park, describing it as "a very angry book, bitter even," and asking whether its manifest bitterness arise from "the realization that social and material privilege make anger seem petulant (such spoiled children, her women seem!)." My retrospective reflections on it have not led to answers about how far it is in fact angry and how far it is a satire on unearned anger. It's certainly an uncomfortable book and one wholly lacking in sentimentality about either marriage or motherhood:
She was in her car, cruising through the rain along the High Street while the turbid seas of Arlington Park parted before her. It was nine-fifteen. Her husband had left the house punctually at eight, and her daughter Jessica was at school by nine; she had a feeling of rapid ascent, as though the members of her household were sandbags she was heaving one by one out of the basket of a hot-air balloon.
It is also an intensely written book, to borrow an expression I recently read used to describe the language of Bleak House--and in fact, Arlington Park at times displays a verbal quality that approximates the Dickensian, in the elaborate opening set piece describing the rain that falls all night across the tony suburb, for example:
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flower in the arid starlit sky. They came over the English countryside, sunk in its muddled sleep. They came over the low, populous hills where scatterings of lights throbbed in the darkness. At midnight they reached the city, valiantly glittering in its shallow provincial basin. Unseen, they grew like a second city overhead, thickening, expanding, throwing up their savage monuments, their towers, their monstrous, unpeopled palaces of cloud.
Perhaps fortunately, though (as this kind of thing is really hard to do persuasively, if you aren't actually Dickens and a genuis), the style is much sparer for most of the novel, though still frequently striking in its images. I was struck by the praise for Cusk's "fearlessness" and "honesty" in the reviews, and I think one thing that drew me to the novel was interest in just what she was being so brave about. I guess I don't really see it. Is the myth of either maternal or marital bliss still potent enough that it takes courage to imagine women inhabiting their domestic roles angrily or selfishly? I suppose it's a kind of anti-chick-lit novel, in which materialism is neither benign nor entertaining and neither Mr. Right nor the right address brings a fairy tale ending--and it acknowledges moments of exhiliration, enough, perhaps, to leaven the whole.

Penelope Lively's Perfect Happiness is written much more delicately--it seems less of a performance. Moon Tiger has been on my top-10 list for many years, but I think this may be the first of Lively's other novels that I've read. It actually surprised me by seeming indistinguishable in tone, scope, and what I might call "depth" from the better novels by Joanna Trollope (Marrying the Mistress, for instance): it focuses on a momentous time in a particular small cluster of intersecting lives and neatly, with precision but without flourish, works through the nuances and complications. I expected something more, somehow, and yet I thought it was both sensitive and intelligent.

I really wanted to like Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Apprentice. (Why, you ask? Well, I'm an amateur quilter myself, and also it's almost winter, so I will need comfort and distraction--something to read that's cozy but not romantic sounds perfect, and there's a whole series of these, plus actual quilting books.) I almost succeeded in liking it, too, but I had to work against the bad writing (Chiaverini explains too much, for one thing, as if she thinks her readers can't infer anything at all or need to be walked from one piece of furniture to another every time her characters move across the room). There's nothing wrong with the structure in theory, including the division of the narrative into present-day action and reminiscences, but the back story felt incredibly laboured to me. The explanations of quilting seemed forced, though maybe to someone who knew absolutely nothing about the processes or patterns it would be interesting to learn about all this. Would it have been more effective, maybe, to include a 'Quilting Primer' as an appendix rather than incorporating quilting lessons so literally and in so much detail into the body of the novel? The characters, too, seem well-enough conceived and organized, but the characterization seemed so forced. Oh, and while I'm complaining, the language is surprisingly unimaginative: eyes shine, resentments smolder, stomachs tighten, memories are recalled with pangs. Maybe Chiaverini hits her stride further along in the series--and in fact I like the general idea here enough to try another one or two, and without quite the cringing feeling I sometimes get from other kinds of chick-lit (which this undoubtedly is, though of a more domesticated variety than Sophie Kinsella or her ilk). The focus on women's friendships (quilting bees, of course, lend themselves--or could--to nice metaphorical development with respect to women's support networks as well as other kinds of social cooperation) and women's arts (also a theme here, also laboriously developed) just seems less ... icky ... than the other stuff often does. (Quick update: I pulled 'How to Make an American Quilt' from my shelf on my way out this morning--I have only vague recollections of reading it before, but the critical praise it received makes it sound more like the 'great American quilting novel' than this one.)

So: a rather miscellaneous group of books, but they've all been sitting in a "TBB" pile for a while (To Be Blogged, of course) so I thought I'd write them up. The artificial exercise of working with them as a group has made me think a bit about the arbitrariness of categories such as "women's writing," or "women writers," ones we often have recourse to in the academy (for instance, I regularly teach a graduate seminar on "Victorian Women Writers"). I usually draw attention to the problem of that arbitrariness, not least because many of the women writers I teach explicitly wished for their sex not to be a factor in the consideration of their artistic accomplishments. And why should we assume that writers have anything in common because they are of the same sex? At the same time, with the 19th-century writers, I propose there is some justification for grouping them together because, after all, as women they did have some things in common, including the social, legal, and political conditions of their lives and work, and their inevitably vexed relationship with literary traditions (sweeping statements, I know, but useful, and certainly true in their broad outlines). I don't know if I could make any such claim about this little cluster of more contemporary writers, or if my sense that doing so would be misleading (and pointless to boot) reflects back in any way on how I approach the 19th-century material. Something to think about, maybe. Or maybe this is just too random a selection of reading to mean much anyway.

October 27, 2008

Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog.

No, that's not today's prediction from Environment Canada (though there is something implacable about today's weather, even if it's not yet November). This week in one of my classes, it's time for Bleak House--by comparison with which, nothing else I'm doing at work really matters. The introduction to our Oxford World's Classics edition remarks that the opening 'set piece' is 'too famous to need quotation.' Well, I don't know about that, especially because I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating. Here are the first four paragraphs, then (three of them composed entirely, it's worth noting, of sentence fragments).
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time--as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Sure, there's plenty to be remarked about this passage, beginning with its literary virtuosity and metaphoric ingenuity. Dinosaurs and compound interest? Snowflakes in mourning? 'Fog' used 13 times in one paragraph? Gas that's 'haggard and unwilling'? I'm reduced to the exclamatory mode some critics objected to in James Wood's How Fiction Works: "What a piece of writing that is!" It puts to shame other writers called 'Dickensian' for no apparent reason except that they write multiplot novels with quirky characters and lots of emotion. There's also its extraordinary efficiency at launching both governing ideas and dominant images of the vast novel it introduces; fog, mud, and infection order the thinking of Bleak House as much as webs do the same for Middlemarch. But really, the point of this passage is just to read it, to experience it, and then to carry the impression of it with you as you read on. (Is this response 'aesthetic'? I'm not sure, or at least I'm not sure I could separate my admiration for the literary features of this passage from my sense of its ethics--or, better, its ethos.)

Today I'll give a brief introduction to Dickens and some context for the first publication of Bleak House. Then my chief concern is to help my students find some reading (and note-taking) strategies to make their experience of the novel rewarding, which means helping them organize the mass of material (and the array of characters) they will be rapidly confronted with. We'll do some 'getting to know you' work first of all: who do we meet in each of the first few chapters, and how are they connected? I'll encourage them to keep a list of characters in each plot or location and to draw lines between them as relationships are discovered. They will have a chaotic criss-cross of lines before too long, which of course is the point--everything and everyone is connected, as Dickens challenges us to realize with his disingenous questions in Chapter 16:
What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of sunshine on him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!
My other main strategy is to get them thinking in terms of themes and variations. Today, for instance, we'll look at how many ways the idea of housekeeping is refracted across the different story lines. Finally (though this is certainly not my last priority) I will try to convey, and make contagious, my enthusiasm for Dickens's language in the novel, and to get them thinking about how his literary strategies (including the kinds of wild metaphors we get in the first few paragraphs) are important to his conception of the 'condition of England question,' and to his answer to it.

October 24, 2008

Falling from Grace

From JBJ at 'The Salt-Box': "Any time I teach Middlemarch, I can’t help but think that reading other writers is a kind of fall from grace." I hear you...and I'm sad not to be teaching it in any of my courses this year. Luckily I have a whole graduate seminar on George Eliot to look forward to next year. That course is always a humbling experience, because George Eliot and her novels are so much smarter than I am. But a reader's reach must exceed her grasp, or what's this whole business about, after all? JBJ quotes Mr Brooke on pigeon holes (lovely). As small compensation for having no better reason to quote from the novel right now, here's another nice bit from not much further along, in which Celia shares the news of her sister's engagement with the inimitable Mrs Cadwallader:
"My dear child, what is this? -- this about your sister's engagement?" said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"She is engaged to marry Mr. Casaubon," said Celia, resorting, as usual, to the simplest statement of fact, and enjoying this opportunity of speaking to the Rector's wife alone.

"This is frightful. How long has it been going on?"

"I only knew of it yesterday. They are to be married in six weeks."

"Well, my dear, I wish you joy of your brother-in-law."

"I am so sorry for Dorothea."

"Sorry! It is her doing, I suppose."

"Yes; she says Mr. Casaubon has a great soul."

"With all my heart."

"Oh, Mrs. Cadwallader, I don't think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul."

"Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now; when the next comes and wants to marry you, don't you accept him. . . . However, Casaubon has money enough; I must do him that justice. As to his blood, I suppose the family quarterings are three cuttle-fish sable, and a commentator rampant."

George Eliot, comedian.

October 21, 2008

This Week in My Classes (October 21, 2008)

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, we're doing Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": in other words, it's 'unreliable narrator week,' in honour of which here's the poem we looked at in class yesterday to brush up on our sensitivity to how a character reveals itself through language:

The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
Who says poetry isn't fun? (Well, OK, most of our students, sadly, but you see how wrong they are!)

In 19th-Century Fiction, it's week two of Jane Eyre. I admit, after teaching this novel almost yearly since 1995, I find my interest in it sometimes flags a bit. Also, it's a novel on which so much critical work has been done that (as I've remarked here before) it starts to seem futile to talk about it any more. But I'm giving it a fairly scrupulous re-read this time around (true confessions--sssh!--sometimes now, when I'm teaching a very familiar novel, I just brush up on the important parts) and once more I'm caught up in the energy and drama, the affect, of the novel. Who wouldn't thrill to the proposal scene, for instance--

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!”

“As we are!” repeated Mr. Rochester — “so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms. Gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!”

or to the saving vision that leads Jane from her great temptation:

That night I never thought to sleep; but a slumber fell on me as soon as I lay down in bed. I was transported in thought to the scenes of childhood: I dreamt I lay in the red-room at Gateshead; that the night was dark, and my mind impressed with strange fears. The light that long ago had struck me into syncope, recalled in this vision, seemed glidingly to mount the wall, and tremblingly to pause in the centre of the obscured ceiling. I lifted up my head to look: the roof resolved to clouds, high and dim; the gleam was such as the moon imparts to vapours she is about to sever. I watched her come — watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart —

“My daughter, flee temptation.”

“Mother, I will.”

As part of my effort to 'make it new,' I'm working up some lecture / discussion notes for tomorrow focusing on religion in the novel; this is hardly a subtle aspect of it, but usually I have set aside explicit attention to it in favour of other issues.

October 19, 2008

A Gentle Weekend Meme (Pass It On!)

I've never done one of these before, but I saw this little Q&A going around at a couple of other blogs (e.g.) and thought it was a nice way to find out about what people are reading. So here are my answers; maybe some of you will post yours, either here in the comments or over at your own blogohomes.

What was the last book you bought?

The (New) Quilting by Machine. Crafty Christmas projects loom, and I recently had to give back the (old) version of this to its real owner. At $4.99, who could resist?

Update: Make that Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. Note to me: All children's birthday parties should be held just across the business park from a large bookstore, so that parents have an excuse to browse for two hours before picking their kids up again. On the other hand, I see that if I had bought it online, I could have saved $5.

Name a book you have read MORE than once.

Since I reread books for a living, I'll recast that question and name some books I consider my 'comfort' books--ones I reread often because I like where they take me. Actually, even that could be a long list, but here are some perennial favourites: Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years; Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs; Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night; Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

I'm not sure about the "fundamentally" part here, but every time I read Middlemarch it challenges me to approach my life differently--better, I'd even say.

How do you choose a book? e.g. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews?

Recommendations play the largest part for me now, as I've become a bit cynical about reviews.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

Fiction. But I like fiction that has the ring of truth (whether historical, personal, psychological, moral, or other), and I also have a long interest in the instability of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

Yes, exactly.

Most loved/memorable character?

Dorothy Sayers's Harriet Vane, and Dorothy Dunnett's Philippa Somerville.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Defining "nightstand" a bit broadly to include the table by my favourite reading chair, the extra little shelf on my desk at home where I stash my overflow "TBR" pile, and my literal nightstand--and ignoring books that are there only because I have to read them for work--I see Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children; Frank McCourt, Teacher Man; W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz; Penelope Lively, Perfect Happiness; Ahdaf Soueif, Mezzaterra; and Vikram Seth, Two Lives.

What was the last book you read?

I finished Richard Price's Clockers last night. I didn't actually like it that much. I wonder if it would have captured my imagination more if I hadn't watched all five seasons of The Wire so recently.

Have you ever given up on a book halfway in?

There are a couple of books I've started recently and not persevered with, but usually I don't like to think of it as "giving up": sometimes it's just not the right time to read a particular book, so it goes back on the shelf to ripen. Recent examples include When We Were Orphans and A Suitable Boy: I look forward to reading all of both of them eventually. I did give up on a few of the books that I tried out for my mystery class, including Helen Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss and both Henning Mankell books I started. I can think of at least one book I sort of regretted reading through to the end: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.

October 15, 2008

Pedagogy, Evaluation, and What We Look for in 'the' Novel

(cross-posted to The Valve)

Recent threads at The Reading Experience (including this acrimonious one launched by Dan's blunt denunciation of Dostoevsky's "cheap tricks" and "unrelenting tedium") have had me thinking (again, and see also these posts) about the problem of literary evaluation. In The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald declared that "The first step in reviving [the critic] is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. . . . [I]f criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative." As I've said before, I'm skeptical about this idea that aesthetic evaluation is the obvious fix for whatever ails academic criticism at the present time:
Once you've acknowledged the 'problematics' of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what [McDonald] proposes is the common reader's key question ("Is this book ... worth my attention and my time?")? For what it's worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).
This time around, I'm particularly thinking about whether, or how far, my work as a teacher has committed me, not to relativism (which is where some people assume my reservations about 'literary merit' lead me) but to a kind of pluralism by which it's not comparative measures of 'worth' that matter but seeking out the measures that fit the particular case. One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms--trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence ("good novels do this"), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from--and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge--the ones we've just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it's difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It's only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.

Here's another excerpt from a book I'm reviewing, itself written with a pedagogical purpose, that illustrates what I mean by "seeking the measures the fit the particular case." The authors have just argued that the "complexity" in Jane Eyre is limited to Jane herself, and that as characters get further "removed from Jane's immediate concerns," they become increasingly "flat and stereotypical"; the extreme example is Bertha Mason, whose representation is marked by "familiar, and often virulent, national and racial stereotypes." The authors note that the novel "has been justifiably criticized for its reliance on these stereotypes." Though they acknowledge the grounds for these criticisms, they go on to rule them out of order:
Their use in the novel . . . is part of a larger pattern of flattening out the social world beyond the circle of Jane's own immediate concerns. Jane Eyre, in other words, is simply not the place to look for compelling social portraiture or profound insight into social relations--any more than, say, Scott is the place to look for compelling psychological depth. (74)
In other words, objecting to Bronte's 'flattening out,' even of Bertha, is a category mistake: it's not the kind of novel in which Bertha gets her own 'complexity,' but rather is the kind of novel in which Jane's complex interiority is (nearly) all that matters.

One thing I find thought-provoking about that particular example is that (quite deliberately, I think) it sets two approaches against each other, one that reads from the inside out (setting interpretive limits based on the work's nature, as it were), the other that brings a template of expectations to the novel and applies it as a test (a great deal of recent academic criticism could be seen as pursuing this latter course). So far at least, in this book (again, one with an overt pedagogical mission), the former approach is promoted and, as it happens, the novels defended against detractors. In the chapter on Scott, for instance, the authors cite Henry James's famous criticism that "the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame." The authors reject James's metaphor, which prioritizes and thus seeks "the portrait of an individual":
But what if the subject Scott wishes to paint is not an individual human being, but instead . . . the way individuals interface with society and history? What if he wishes to reveal human nature, not from the skin in [as, they reasonably imply, James prefers], but from the skin out? then what James calls the "frame" . . . might bge more important than the individual. (37)
James's theory of the novel, in other words, results in an inappropriate reading. I haven't reached the chapter on Trollope yet, but I wouldn't be surprised (or it wouldn't be out of place) to find a similar objection to James's dislike of Trollope's narrative intrusions. In his 1883 retrospective on Trollope, James protested against his "little slaps at credulity":
As a narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere; to insert into his attempt a backbone of logic, he must relate events that are assumed to be real. This assumption permeates, animates all the work of the most solid story-tellers; we need only mention . . . the magnificent historical tone of Balzac, who would as soon have thought of admitting to the reader that he was deceiving him, as Garrick or John Kemble would have thought of pulling off his disguise in front of the footlights.
Here, James confidently asserts that there is a right and a wrong way to write fiction--and Trollope is simply making a mistake when he "winks at us and reminds us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing." But what if Trollope is not trying to write a Jamesian (or Balzacian) novel and failing, but writing a Trollopian novel? (I objected to a similar habit in James Wood's How Fiction Works, in which at times a teleological theory of the novel seems to me to short-circuit Wood's readings of fiction that 'works' differently than his favourites: '"Progress!" he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: "In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot." But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing?') If we allow the author what James, in a more pluralistic moment, called his "donnee," then we have to think about Trollope's narrator quite differently, in terms of what it "animates."

Now, I wouldn't want to say that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism. I think it's also important to consider that not all novels read on their own terms get more, rather than less, attractive and compelling. Further, there's lots of room for debate when it comes to defining what those terms are--to return to the Jane Eyre example above, I can certainly imagine someone disagreeing with the dodge that makes Jane's attitude to Bertha relatively insignificant in terms of the novel's overall themes or literary strategies. The starting point for that discussion, though, would not be "great novels are of X kind; Jane Eyre is not of that kind; therefore Jane Eyre is not a great novel." Not least because no two novels are the same (including among nineteenth-century "realist" novels, often the straw examples for 'smug moderns' in the blogosphere), that discussion seems, inevitably, to lead nowhere.

Suppose, however, that you take the attitude sometimes expressed by Dan Green in his posts, and certainly expressed by some of his commenters--that philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects. Then suppose you read a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important: Middlemarch, for instance, or to take an example in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive, Mary Barton. (I think the assumption that we have aesthetic experiences that aren't bound up in what, for shorthand, I'll call the ideas of a novel is highly problematic, but I'll set that aside for now.) A reader committed to McDonald's "aesthetic evaluation" might well reject these novels as poor examples of the genre. But it could be argued that such a reader is simply making a category mistake (as James is with Scott or Trollope) and thus doing a bad job of reading (and thus evaluating) the books. As a teacher, I would not let such a mistake alone but would instruct the student who faulted Gaskell, for intance, for sentimentality, to consider the kind of book she's writing--the purposes she has for her novel--and then how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those purposes. My purpose would not be to coerce the student into liking Mary Barton, but to help him or her achieve an appreciation of Gaskell's accomplishment--an understanding of what the book is and does. That, to me, would be the basis of any responsible literary criticism. Even on aesthetic grounds, I would want to take into account the contingency of different standards, too, and to consider whether our affective response to something like John Barton's death isn't also a matter of art.

I'm not altogether sure where I am going with these ruminations. I guess I'm wondering about the relationship between what I'm calling the "pedagogical" habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes. How typical is this pluralistic approach, among teachers or among readers? Is there a way in which such an approach really does disable evaluation? Or is it the means for an informed evaluation? Does evaluation inevitably imply prescription about what "the" novel should do, or what readers should prefer? What are the limits of the kind of sympathetic, 'from the inside out' reading strategies promoted by Case and Shaw's book (which I find wholly congenial)?

October 14, 2008

This Week Instead of Radio 2

I promise: I won't keep obsessing on the evisceration of good programming on CBC Radio 2.* It's just that I'm still in the "anger" stage of the grieving process for an old friend. Still, as I remarked recently, there is a plus side, which is returning to my stash of old opera tapes. This morning in my car I was blasting a recording of Joan Sutherland, Alfredo Kraus, and James Morris in Lucia live at the Met in 1982. Here's the Sextet from that production, courtesy of YouTube (a bit scratchy, but you get the idea). Sure, Sutherland (at 56) is past her prime here (next week, maybe I'll get out my 'bootleg' tapes of her 1959 Covent Garden performance), but she still handles the trills and ornaments better than pretty much anybody else, and she knocks the big high notes right out of the House. Plus the excitement of performances like this comes in part from the tremendous appreciation expressed by the audience: I think I enjoy the applause almost as much as the singing (sadly, the YouTuber cuts it off). I have been listening to Lucia for many years and know almost all the words, including to the Mad Scene, and another fun feature of listening to it in my car is singing along in the security that nobody can actually hear me--my childhood dreams of being an opera singer came to less than nothing, but I can croak "Il fantasma, il fantasma" with the best of them.

*It's not that I like only classical music and opera. My own playlists include plenty of jazz, rock, pop, Broadway, folk, and 'world,' especially Greek and Balkan music. But I can get other kinds of music anywhere else on the radio (and often more listenable stuff than what I'm catching when I flip past CBC these days), and I don't mash them all up into one jarringly unpredictable playlist.

October 13, 2008

Critical Limitations

I couldn't have said this better myself. In fact, in the introduction I wrote for my forthcoming anthology of 19th-century novel criticism, I didn't say it better myself, though this is pretty much what I was getting at:
In the early twentieth century, . . . [a] more "professional" and more self-consciously theorized discourse about novels arose, as part of the movement whereby authors of "modern" fiction (above all Henry James) attempted to break free from the line of fiction it is the purpose of the present book to illuminate. This more "professional" kind of criticism became, with the passage of time, the basis for criticism of the novel as it was presented to students in schools and universities. It was useful for many purposes, among them a focus on the craft of the novel, on how novels create their effects. But a criticism based on a set of aesthetic priorities that were developed as part of a rebellion against the nineteenth-century social novel would seem likely to have certain limitations for those who want to understand nineteenth-century novels, not leave them behind.
That, and the nineteenth-century critics who came before didn't do such a bad job understanding "the nineteenth-century social novel" either.

October 10, 2008

This Week in My Classes (October 10, 2008)

Thankfully (which is appropriate, as we head into the Thanksgiving weekend), things were a bit quiet in my classes this week--for me, at least. The students in my intro class are working on their first formal papers, so we spent Monday's class talking about how to develop a good thesis and argument for their assignment and then 'worked' a couple of sample passages from Night so that they could see how to put the literary vocabulary they've been learning to use. They had a draft due on Wednesday, and we did a peer-editing session. While I always hope they find the editing itself valuable, one of my main goals is quite practical: students often (for good and bad reasons) don't start serious work on an assignment until very close to the due date, and then they print it out and hand it in as soon as it reaches the required word count. By forcing them to do a draft a week before the final deadline, I've given them the gift of time to rethink and revise. Many of them won't take advantage of this, but those who do will be glad. Today I set aside our class hour for individual meetings--also a good opportunity for them, and I admit it's nice not to have to be ready with lecture material for 9:30 a.m.

In my 19th-century fiction class, we wrapped up Vanity Fair on Wednesday. I offered up my theory of the novel as a deathbed revelation for its readers: it is full of characters who realize too late, if at all, the vanity of their lives ("all of us are striving," as Lord Steyne says, "for what is not worth the having"). If only they had read Vanity Fair! The gist of my argument is in the post I made at The Valve a week or so ago. I handed around an excerpt from Robert Bell's well-known criticism that "More light and air would have rendered [the novel] more agreeable and more healthy," along with Thackeray's response that making the novel lighter and airier would have defeated his purpose of leaving everyone dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction (as I also argue about George Eliot's problematic endings, especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch) is essential if one of your goals is to stimulate your reader to moral or social action. What possible call is there, after all, at the end of Pride and Prejudice, to change anything in yourself or the world? Lizzie is the best and she gets the best guy and the best house. OK, Lydia's stuck on the margins with Wickham, but she deserves it...and so on. But when the ending disappoints, we are prodded to asky why that is the best that could happen, who's to blame, and what part we might have played in it. About half of my students are writing papers on Vanity Fair (the other half already wrote on Persuasion), so I set today's class hour aside for consultations as well. Strategic, don't you think, given how unlikely good attendance is on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend? And in fact, several of them did come by for advice. Next week, on to Jane Eyre--dedicated to Thackeray, which is always worth some class discussion, given how dissimilar the novels are.

October 8, 2008

Dear CBC Radio 2,

Thanks! Now that all the music you play during the times I used to listen to you (morning drives to work and school, afternoons home from work and school) is pretty much ****, and because I have only a cassette deck in my car, I've had to go back into my stash of old tapes, most of which are recordings from old broadcasts of 'Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.' Recently I've been playing a 1990 performance of Semiramide with Lella Cuberli, Marilyn Horne, and Samuel Ramey in the big parts. As a lifelong Joan Sutherland fan, I tend to find most other performers disappointing in roles like Semiramide, and Cuberli certainly has nothing like Sutherland's ability to throw off miraculous flights of coloratura. But she's an energetic singer with a rich enough tone to stand up to Horne's big voice. Horne (though not, as the NYT reviewer points out, in her prime by this time) is still spectacular, and of course Ramey booms out his part with his usual resonance and vigor. You never played much opera except on Saturday afternoons anyway, so now that you don't play much else that I want to listen to, there will be some compensation in dusting off these old goodies. Still, if you want to restore your old shows (and let Tom Allen get back to his old form), that would be great.


A Former Listener in Nova Scotia

P.S. Some of us are working between 10 and 3. People who aren't retired like classical music too, actually. And kids, who are in school during those hours (and not, sadly, learning much about classical music there).

P.P.S. If anyone wants to hear a bit of Semiramide, I found a great clip at YouTube of Sutherland and Horne singing the Act III duet.

October 5, 2008

Weekend Miscellany

For some reason, this weekend has felt particularly miscellaneous--something about the combination of a clutter of family chores and projects (groceries, laundry, a trip to the library, a swimming lesson, a chess tournament) and a clutter of 'homework' (tests and reading responses to mark, handouts and worksheets and overheads and lecture notes to prepare, emails to answer, and of course books to read). And yet there's still time to look around a bit, and even read a little just for fun.

I've been really enjoying the back issues I ordered of The Reader. I got No. 17 (especially on women writers) and No. 27 ("The Reader Tries for Happiness"); highlights for me include, in No. 17, Josie Billington's "Why Read Mrs Gaskell Today?" and Jane Davis's "Letters from the Hidden Life" (primarily on reading George Eliot's letters," in No. 20, Raymond Tallis's "Concerning Saturday: Does Implausibility Matter?" (though I disagree with his criticisms), and in both, the "Ask the Reader" Q&A section. I've just downloaded No. 30 and look forward especially to reading Philip Pullman on "The Storyteller's Responsibility" and Tessa Hadley on "Crying at Novels" (download it for yourself here).

I just finished Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park. I'd like to write more about it than I have time for, as it raised many questions for me--some of them about myself, as it struck me as a very angry book, bitter even, and yet even as I chafed at how improper the anger seemed in some ways (given how privileged the protagonists all are), I sympathized with it too. Does the bitterness arise from the realization that social and material privilege make anger seem petulant (such spoiled children, her women seem!) even when there is genuine cause? Is the book satirizing its women for wanting even more than they already have, which is considerable? Or is it acknowledging dark truths about what lies beneath the surface of privilege? It's interesting how many of the critics quoted in the blurbs use words like "fearless" and "frank," as if the stories resonated with them as well, spoke out in some way they think others (other women in particular, I suppose) are too polite, too self-conscious, too shamefaced, or too repressed to do.

I'm reading Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children now as my "fun" book--alternating it, quite jarringly, with Clockers. The Emperor's Children is leaving me a bit cold so far.

I've ordered Auster's City of Glass for my detective fiction course. I conferred with a helpful colleague who has more 'postmodern' experience and expertise than I, and he says it has been very popular with students when he has taught it--including in his first-year class. Now I'm looking forward to the intellectual challenge of learning about it and making it work in my own class, especially since I know I can go next door and get ideas from him. I really appreciate all the suggestions I got while I was thinking about this. If I do the course again in 09-10, I may revamp the reading list altogether to incorporate more of them.

October 2, 2008

George Levine on Vanity Fair

Unsurprisingly, eminent Victorianist George Levine writes well about "Vanity Fair and Victorian Realism" in his newly released How to Read the Victorian Novel:
In refusing the satisfactions of closure, Thackeray is implicitly affirming the importance of the realist enterprise; in rejecting the comic ending and the possibility of a satisfactory conclusion ("Which of us is happy in this world?" the book's final paragraph asks), Thackeray is, with some fatigue, turning away from the literary forms that in fact give spine and structure to his own enormous book. Thackeray arrives at what might be seen as the ultimate attitude of the realist, something like contempt for the impossible enterprise and for the fantasies to which it aspires.
I'm reading the book in order to review it along with Harry Shaw and Alison Case's equally new Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Austen to Eliot. So far I'm impressed with both books, though both also leave me puzzling a bit about their function. If I assigned either one as a companion in my 19th-century fiction class, for one thing, there wouldn't be much need for me to be in the room! Case and Shaw more clearly have a student reader in mind: their language is deliberately non-technical and their tone is companionable and relaxed. (Perhaps their analysis also reads comfortably to me because Shaw was my thesis supervisor and I had the pleasure of working as the TA for his 19th-century fiction class once: the approach and the examples in many cases are familiar to me.) Levine's text is denser and more overtly engaged with recent theoretical and critical approaches. I happily anticipate having my own ideas and habits refreshed as I work my way through both books.

When I get my hands on Philip Davis's forthcoming Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, I think Blackwell Publishing will have met all my needs.