October 29, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (I)

In 1871 an enthusiastic young reader named Alexander Main received George Eliot's permission to publish a collection of inspirational excerpts from her works; the volume was put out in 1872 by her usual publisher, John Blackwood (who nicknamed Main "the Gusher"), under the title Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot. As I make my way through Middlemarch yet again, I sympathize with his project: I am, as always, struck repeatedly by the sheer pleasure the novel affords, precisely because it is so wise, witty, and tender. It's endlessly tempting to grab anyone who happens to be nearby and say, "just listen to this bit!" Alas, too often there's nobody nearby, or at least nobody with time and attention to spare. But on the internet, there's always somebody around--or at least so I can fondly imagine. So, as a self-indulgent supplement to my teaching posts, I'm going to do a little series of favorite "wise, witty, and tender" excerpts as I go along. I hope that they will give you, too, some pleasure, whether by reminding you of your own experience of reading Middlemarch or by introducing you to some more of the reasons why so many people love this novel. The challenge will be choosing just one or two excerpts for each category!


I'm overwhelmed by choices here, from the epigrammatic to the philosophical and reflective. For now, here are passages representing each of those extremes:
Mr Bulstrode had also a deferential bending attitude in listening, and an apparent fixed attentiveness in his eyes which made those persons who thought themselves worth hearing infer that he was seeking the utmost improvement from their discourse. Others, who expected to make no great figure, disliked this kind of moral lantern turned on them. If you are not proud of your cellar, there is no thrill of satisfaction in seeing your guest hold up his wine-glass to the light and look judicial. Such joys are reserved for conscious merit. (Ch. XIII)

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman's "makdom and her fairnesse," never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of " makdom and fairnesse " which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman's glance. (Ch. XV)

One of the great delights of reading Middlemarch aloud is that for some reason doing so really brings out the humour of the novel, which ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to wryly acerbic, from rueful to pointedly cruel. First honours in this category has to go to Mrs Cadwallader, who has the privilege of delivering most of the novel's best one-liners. Here she is, with her straight man, Sir James Chettam, on the Reverend Mr Casaubon (whose 'family quarterings,' she earlier proposes, must be 'three cuttle-fish sable and a commentator rampant'):
'He has got no good red blood in his body,' said Sir James.

'No. somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,' said Mrs Cadwallader.

'Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying?' said Sir James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an English layman.

'Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of "Hop o' My Thumb," and he has been making abstracts ever since.' (Ch. VIII)
Mr Brooke runs her a close second, though his comedy is largely inadvertant and thus puts us in a more Austen-like attitude of knowing superiority (which, of course, is entirely compatible with warm affection). Who could resist the picture of his talking theology with the erudite Mr Casaubon, telling him 'that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact; and as to refusing an acre of your ground for a Romanist chapel, all men needed the bridle of religion, which, properly speaking, was the dread of a Hereafter'? The narrator is relentless about Mr Brooke's vagaries, but never harsh. After all, aren't we all foolish and inconsistent in our own ways? Here is her commentary, for instance, on Mr Brooke's cheerful anticipation that Casaubon is likely to be made a bishop:
And here I must vindicate a claim to philosophical reflectiveness, by remarking that Mr. Brooke on this occasion little thought of the Radical speech which, at a later period, he was led to make on the incomes of the bishops. What elegant historian would neglect a striking opportunity for pointing out that his heroes did not foresee the history of the world, or even their own actions? -- For example, that Henry of Navarre, when a Protestant baby, little thought of being a Catholic monarch; or that Alfred the Great, when he measured his laborious nights with burning candles, had no idea of future gentlemen measuring their idle days with watches. Here is a mine of truth, which, however vigorously it may be worked, is likely to outlast our coal.

But of Mr. Brooke I make a further remark perhaps less warranted by precedent -- namely, that if he had foreknown his speech, it might not have made any great difference. To think with pleasure of his niece's husband having a large ecclesiastical income was one thing -- to make a Liberal speech was another thing; and it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.

Finally, I have to make a little room for Celia, who has cracked me up several times already, on her own or with the narrator's help. Here's Celia discovering that even Mr Casaubon has his human side (she's contemplating the miniatures of Mr Casaubon's mother and Aunt Julia):
'The sister is pretty,' said Celia, implying that she thought less favourably of Mr Casaubon's mother. It was a new opening to Celia's imagination, that he came of a family who had all been young in their time--the ladies wearing necklaces. (Ch. IX)
Doesn't that capture perfectly the solipsistic attitude of the young towards their elders? I remember my grandmother once saying, quite tartly, that what young people don't realize when they look at 'some old man' on the bus is that he has already done everything they are doing, or are dreaming of doing--'sex and everything!' (Whether Mr Casaubon has sex is a topic for another post.)


Though Middlemarch is full of tenderness towards its people, one feature of George Eliot's writing for which she was justly beloved in her own time was her evocation of the English landscape. Her descriptions of the countryside are suffused with the affection her characters, too, feel for the places that are bound up with our most precious memories, "dear," as she says here, "to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood":
The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape, almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the gray gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls -- the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father's knees while he drove leisurely. (Ch. XII)

October 26, 2009

This Week in My Classes (October 26, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction it's (finally) time for Middlemarch. I've posted pretty often about teaching Middlemarch (see, for instance, here, here, and here), and you can hear me talk (fast) about it here, too, in an interview with fellow blogger and bibliophile Nigel Beale. For something just a bit different this time, I thought I'd post the PowerPoint slides I used for my introductory lecture today. The file conversion seems to have affected the layout and font color for the worse, but the slides illustrate my initial approach, which is to woo students into being interested in the novel by way of, as I say, "The Interesting Life of Mary Ann Evans." In the spirit of one of her contemporaries, who regretted the way her husband John Cross's biography took the "salt and spice" out of her "entirely unconventional life," I show them just what a remarkable (and spicy) person she was--so that they will read the novel with more appreciation for the ways in which it, too, is "entirely unconventional."

GE Slides

In Victorian Sensations, we're starting up with Ellen Wood's East Lynne, the last in the sequence of four primary texts for our course before we turn our attention to critical work (both 19th-century and current) and then to Fingersmith. When I've taught East Lynne before, I've found myself preoccupied with questions of literary evaluation (see here, for instance). For whatever reason--perhaps because I've just been over similar ground in working my way through Aurora Floyd--I'm less interested in that question at this point than I am in just thinking about the book on its own terms. What is it interested in? What is it up to? (I realize that it can sound odd to attribute agency to a novel, so another way of asking these questions would be by way of the novel's implied author.' I think the result is the same, though: you are trying to figure out how literary strategies and devices, from plot and character through setting, imagery, metaphor, theme, and so on, are being used to achieve effects or communicate ideas--aesthetic, political, or other.)

On this reading so far, East Lynne strikes me forcibly for its interest in money. It is almost as specific as a Jane Austen novel about the financial situation of its characters, especially the spendthrift earl who has somehow managed to burn through enough capital to have underwritten an income of L60,000 / year--at a time when, as the footnotes to our edition tell us, a middle-class family needed something like L300 / year for a comfortable life. Even accounting for inflation, that makes Mr Darcy look shabby, and yet Lord Mount Severn has not only spent it all, but left absolutely nothing for his angelically beautiful, sweet-eyed, if brunette, daughter Isabel. So pinched for cash is Isabel that after his sudden death she doesn't even have enough to move to her new home, where she will be living on the charity of the new earl and his wife. The smitten lawyer Archibald Carlyle tries to help by dropping a crumpled L100 note on her lap as she drives away. The ambiguity of this gesture (is it romantic? chivalric? forward, even vaguely compromising?) nicely represents the complex interrelationships in the novel between emotions and economics. When he eventually proposes, it's as much to save her from physical as well as financial vulnerability as anything, and in fact what he offers her, explicitly, is the chance to return to her former home as its mistress--that is, he offers her security, as well as his love (which we are led to believe is really a kind of infatuation--"Beware your senses, Mr. Carlyle," the narrator warns). She admits she does not love him (she too is infatuated, with the handsome ne'er-do-well Francis Levison, who fortunately, or not, is not the marrying kind, as he is quick to warn her--we know he would feel differently, of course, if she still had her fortune). So she trades her self for his money, a transaction that in some contexts, in some novels, is shown up as little better than prostitution. We might even think of Austen's Charlotte Lucas in this way (how much money would you consider reasonable in return for sleeping with Mr Collins?)--but both Austen and Wood are clearly pragmatists, refusing the most stringent moral judgment because they, and their novels, are so aware that their women simply can't afford (literally) to be squeamish.

October 22, 2009

"The True Genius of Her Writing"

Putting together some introductory notes for next week's Middlemarch lectures, I was reminded (by Rosemary Ashton's excellent biography) that Marian Evans's 1855 essay "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming" was the piece that convinced her 'husband,' George Henry Lewes, "of the true genius of her writing." Ashton suggests the essay "has one of the most arresting openings in all periodical literature--though she acknowledges it lacks the devastating brevity of Francis Jeffrey's "This will never do" (about Wordsworth's The Excursion). What it lacks in "succinctness" it makes up in venom:
Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.
The essay's conclusion does little, if anything, to soften the sting of her analysis, though it does return us to something more like the meliorative tone we expect from the novelist who would later anatomize the troubled conscience of the evangelical Mr. Bulstrode so much more compassionately, if no less stringently:
Before taking leave of Dr. Cumming, let us express a hope that we have in no case exaggerated the unfavourable character of the inferences to be drawn from his pages. His creed often obliges him to hope the worst of men, and to exert himself in proving that the worst is true; but thus far we are happier than he. We have no theory which requires us to attribute unworthy motives to Dr. Cumming, no opinions, religious or irreligious, which can make it a gratification to us to detect him in delinquencies. On the contrary, the better we are able to think of him as a man, while we are obliged to disapprove of him as a theologian, the stronger will be the evidence for our conviction, that the tendency towards good in human nature has a force which no creed can utterly counteract, and which ensures the ultimate triumph of that tendency over all dogmatic perversions.
Much as I enjoy the pungency of her rhetoric, I like even better the idea of a romance nourished on such intellectual substance. I'm not the only one (though perhaps I am rare in appreciating it without irony?)--from Cynthia Ozick's "Puttermesser Paired," we get this picture of modern lovers inspired by "the two Georges":
They read until they were dried up. They read until their eyes skittered and swelled. The strangeness in it did not elude them: where George Eliot and George Lewes in their nighttime coziness had taken up Scott, Trollope, Balzac, Turgenev, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, Madame d'Agoult (Lewes recorded all this in his diary), she and Rupert read only the two Georges. Puttermesser discussed what this might mean. It wasn't for "inspiration," she pointed out--she certainly wasn't mixing herself up with a famous dead Victorian. She was conscious of her Lilliputian measur: a worn-out city lawyer, stunted as to real experience, a woman lately secluded, eaten up with loneliness, melancholia ground into the striations of her face. The object was not inspiration but something sterner. The object was just what it had been for the two Georges: study. What Puttermesser and Rupert were studying was a pair of heroic boon companions. Boon companions! It was fellowship they were studying; it was nearness.

October 20, 2009

This Week in My Classes (October 20, 2009): Secrets and Lies

It's another week of sensation fiction, with the last two class meetings on Lady Audley's Secret in 19th-C Ficton and on Aurora Floyd in Victorian Sensations. I'm still puzzling my way through this round of Aurora Floyd. I wrote a bit about it at The Valve: my conclusion is, rather inconclusively, that the novel is both bad and good, depending on how or why you read it.

Outside of the classroom, I'm busy marking a set of papers, with another (but thankfully smaller) set coming in on Friday--and then another next Wednesday, all of which will get terribly in the way of my reading of Wolf Hall. For pedagogical reasons, I'm a fan of frequent shorter assignments; I think it benefits class discussion and attendance, too, when everyone is writing something on every book we read. The result, though, is that I have papers in pretty constantly throughout the term. Luckily I seem to have done pretty well staggering the dates in my two classes for once. I'm experimenting this term with doing all of my marking electronically, mostly to save paper. I like it better than I thought I would: I'm so accustomed to working on a computer ow that it actually feels easier, and also somehow less demoralizing, to have the papers in a virtual folder on my virtual desktop rather than a paper one on my actual desktop. I can comment in more detail because typing is fast and space (and legibility) is not an issue; I get less physically tired, too. The only clunky part is downloading the files from Blackboard and then uploading them again, one at a time, once I've put my comments on. It seems as if you should be able to open the document in a window inside Blackboard, mark it up, and then just close it again. But if the students just paste the text in to the box in the Assignments section, there appears to be no way for them to format it properly (which does matter, if you are trying to teach conventions for quoting and citing) or for me to mess with the submission. Maybe I'm just not seeing how to do this: I should ask the fine folks at ProfHacker for tips!

October 16, 2009

This Week in My Classes (October 16, 2009): Aurora Floyd

It's all Mary Elizabeth Braddon all the time, this week. Having just finished discussions of Lady Audley's Secret in my upper-year seminar on Sensation Fiction, we've begun our work on it in my 'regular' 19th-century fiction course. In the meantime, in the Sensation Fiction seminar, we've moved on to Braddon's second blockbuster success, Aurora Floyd. Judging from the students questions coming in for their letter assignment in the novels class, LAS is as popular as always: there's a reason, or two or three, that it was a bestseller in its own day, after all, and perhaps readers haven't changed that much in the intervening century and a half.

I've written before in this series about Lady Audley's Secret, including as recently as last week, so I'll focus on Aurora Floyd for this instalment. It's a novel I don't know nearly as well myself as LAS, having read it only a couple of times all through and taught it only once before. It's an odd book, uneven, even somehow ungainly. It seems to want to be something more than it is: where LAS rushes ahead with a sort of gleeful pleasure in its own tawdry excesses, Aurora Floyd manifestly aspires to something more than straight sensation, and even its sensational elements are conceptually more complex and thus more interesting than those in its famous predecessor.

What I mean by that is that while LAS makes the most of the shocking inconsistency between Lucy Audley's angelic appearance and her fearful capacity for deceit and violence, the most surprising thing about Aurora Floyd is that she is depicted as strong-willed, passionate, even sexual, and yet not villainous. Her youthful error of running off with her father's handsome groom ("wonderfully and perfectly handsome--the very perfection of physical beauty, faultless in proportion, as if each line in his face and form had been measured by the sculptor's rule, and carved by the sculptor's chisel. . . yet it is rather a sensual type of beauty") does not disqualify her from marriage to an excellent husband (of course, it should have, seeing as how the result is bigamy and all, but my point is that other than that small technical problem--which, to be perfectly fair, is accidental, as Aurora believes her first husband to be dead--Aurora is a good wife for John Mellish). Sure, she loves riding horses, and even betting on them, more than is strictly proper, but again, this aberration from conventional feminine propriety does not signal her incompatibility for the role of "heroine" of the novel. To some extent, she is tamed and chastened by the disasters that follow from her early indiscretion, but she is only "a shade less defiantly bright" at the end. So while in LAS Braddon panders to, or at least takes advantage of, fears of powerful women who pursue their own desires rather than subduing them, in AF she tries, I think, to complicate questions of feminine nature and identity by creating a protagonist who is neither angel nor demon, but something more complexly human.

That said, there are many irritating features of the novel, though I have had a hard time deciding why I don't tolerate , from this author or in this book, literary strategies I don't object to in others. For instance, I find Braddon's narrative intrusions too intrusive in Aurora Floyd; they strike what seem like false notes, creating awkward shifts in register. Is there something inept about them, or is my response conditioned by my expectations for 'sensation' novels--e.g. that they should not even try to be realist or philosophical novels? Braddon is not an exceptionally gifted stylist in any case: there's nothing distinctive about her prose, though as I remarked last week about LAS, it can be very effective in creating certain kinds of moods or pictures. She can't resist heavy-handed foreshadowing ("That home so soon to be desolate! -- with such ruin brooding above it as in his darkest doubts, his wildest fears, he had never shadowed forth!"). Still, it's a perpetually interesting book, not just at the level of plot (it develops into a murder mystery) but in terms of its manipulations of literary and social conventions and tropes.

October 11, 2009

Book Reviews

As it happens, just before I read Peter Stothard's post about the 'decline' of the book review I had finished my weekly browse through the book section of the Globe and Mail and wondered aloud to my husband what it is that makes this, which should in theory be my favourite section of our "national" paper, so unengaging for me week after week. Or, to look at the question from a slightly different angle, what makes me read a review? I don't pretend to have a theory about the big picture, but I'm a reasonably bookish person, after all. I wonder, if enough of us bookish types went through this mental exercise and wrote about it, if we might be able to provide some suggestions for those poor struggling editors!

Basically, I think there are really only two reasons I read a book review.

The short version:
  1. I'm interested in the book.
  2. I'm interested in the reviewer.
The long version:

I will pretty much always read a review of a book that's somehow on my radar, a book I'm already interested in. This, however, is a useless principle to guide the editor of a book review section. Given just how many books are published and just how diverse individual readers' interests and tastes are, it is impossible for a book section to cater to every reader's idiosyncratic taste on a regular basis. Indeed, from this perspective, we should probably be more surprised when there is a review we want to read than when there isn't! Further, while it would be nice for me, in a way, if there were a review section that perfectly reflected my existing taste and interests, on the other hand it would discourage me from challenging my taste and trying new things: my reading life would stagnate. Still, choice of books is surely an issue; I was struck by Stothard's comment that the TLS reviews a lot of books nobody else does, and perhaps the predictable focus of so many mainstream publications on the same 'best-selling' titles is one of the problems. Stothard touches on debates about including 'popular' titles along with the more seriously (or at least aspirationally) literary; I'm too much of an outsider to the realities of publishing to know for sure, but I wonder if Dan Brown (to give just one example) is worth reviewing in the NYT, not just because, well, because, but because the vast majority of his readers surely don't care what the NYTimes has to say about his books anyway, while the majority of NYTBR readers don't care about Dan Brown. But here, I'm just guessing. If I had any suggestions, it would be, aim higher, not wider. If you try to be all things to all people, you become something like the horrible mish-mash that is now CBC Radio 2. People will tune in--or browse your pages--to see if there's something they like, but they won't love and value and (most important) fight for you if you don't stand for anything in particular.

The second reason I'll read a review is that it is by a reviewer who has caught my interest and earned my respect by his or her critical (or other) work. Given the impossibility (and undesirability) of a review section focusing exclusively on books I already know I want to know more about, I need the lure of good writing and good thinking: a distinct, engaging critical voice. I want a lot less plot summary than I'm usually offered, and a lot more critical reflection on the book, whether it's providing historical or literary contexts or doing a more thematically-focused close reading. While I can be caught up in a critic's more personal approach, I generally prefer to read criticism that does not tend towards the autobiographical (as I've said before here, I don't like critical approaches that assume it's all about the reader). In the past I have pointed to some of the early work of James Wood as exemplary. Here's a bit of what I wrote about his review of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go:
He also takes Ishiguro's offering and gives it a different kind of life: the conversation is not over when the book ends, and Ishiguro's is not the final word. Now we see something that Ishiguro has shown us, or as he has perceived it, and we can talk about it too. Ishiguro has described the novelist's work as a way of saying "It's like this, isn't it? Don't you see it this way too?" (I'm paraphrasing)--and so when he's done talking, we see what we think, or say something back. But Wood is also interested in the novel as an art form, in how and why specific kinds of narration, for instance, create certain effects, or generate (or control) affect and emotion. The trained eye sees better, understands the alternatives better. In the mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon," there's a wonderful episode in which a geologist is assigned to train the astronauts to collect rock samples from the moon. The crucial step is getting them to see, not just undifferentiated rocks, but specific kinds of rocks that tell their own stories and accrue meaning and significance through their shapes, composition, and location. Critics (any experts, really) help less experienced readers in the same way, telling them some of the things they can look for and why they might be interesting. They train you in appreciation and make you excited about the aesthetic and intellectual experience of reading attentively.
A great review has the effect of bringing something into focus for you, like a microscope bringing out the details on a biologist's slide. Mind you, this effect is most powerful in retrospect, once you have read the novel for yourself, though a compelling review also gives you a preliminary (not definitive) guide to carry with you on your first reading, a sense of what you might be looking for, or at, against which to test your own perceptions. A good review gives you a lively sense of what it is like to be involved with the book. Strong subjective opinions or idiosyncratic taste are fine-- and certainly preferable to the unbearable blandness of something like the Globe and Mail's weekly survey of recent crime fiction, which basically tells you over and over that this book is (or, occasionally, is not) a lot like the author's other books--provided those idiosyncracies do not simply stand as dogmatic and limiting assertions but provide the motivation for searching and self-conscious analysis (not, again, of the critic, but of the book).

As I concede the point about which books are reviewed, then, for me the success or failure of a book review section really hangs on the quality of the writing and thinking it offers. On average, I find the Globe reviews trivial and uninteresting. I wonder about the wisdom of their apparent editorial policy of inviting so many creative writers to review each other's work. There is such a thing as expertise in criticism, and it does not necessarily coincide with the skills and experience (or interests) of novelists or poets. (On the other hand, as I'm well aware, those with the most expertise about literature, namely academics, can be woefully bad at the journalistic skills of brevity--ahem--and wit, not to mention clarity.) I wonder too if the editors sell their audience short, or if their fundamental mistake or futility is just trying to be all things to all people, trying to find that elusive 'common reader' with no distinctly defined tastes or preferences and no patience for the kind of (sometimes excessively) specialized coverage of the TLS.

In any case, I don't find there is any shortage of good reviewing going on. It's just that not much of it is going on in newspapers, from what I can tell. I read all of Adam Roberts's reviews at The Valve, not just out of team spirit, but because even when he writes about books I'll almost certainly never read, he's interesting about them (see his recent comments on Wolf Hall, for instance, or on Byatt's Booker contender The Children's Book). I'm looking forward to Steve Donoghue's forthcoming full-length review of Wolf Hall at Open Letters, too, not least because his brief but pithy posts on the excerpts which appeared in the New York Review of Books in the summer were what first put the book on my own radar. Both writers convey a strong sense of their own reading personalities (which are, I think, quite different) while giving me plenty of ideas about the book in question. There are all kinds of smart, interesting people writing about books informally in blogs and more formally in online publications: the downside here is the difficulty of finding the kind of informed, substantial commentary that rewards careful attention, the way the best print criticism also does. I don't have a suggestion here, except perhaps that print editors should keep exploring online reviewing, as the rest of us do, looking for voices that are distinct and engaging and well-informed. At the very least, they could expand their blogrolls. Bookslut and Maud Newton are not the only games in town.

So, the rest of you? Any ideas about what book review sections could or should do differently? How do you feel about the review section of your local paper--if it even still has one?

October 10, 2009

William Boyd, Any Human Heart

I almost didn't finish reading William Boyd's Any Human Heart. By about 200 pages in, I was tired of Logan Mountstuart, his personality, and his life. He seemed archly insouciant, pretentious, insubstantial--as did the novel's conceit of following this unappealing person through the 20th century, punctuating his episodic memoir (the novel consists of his journals, 'edited,' complete with footnotes, editorial commentary, and an index) with encounters with Woolf and Joyce, Hemingway and the Duke of Windsor and Picasso. Here's a typical diary entry:
Tuesday, 4 March

We dined at Luigi's and went on to the Cafe Royal. It was busy, full of unfamiliar faces. Spotted and spoke with Cyril [Connolly] and Jean who were with Lyman? Leland? [unidentifed]. They left shorty after. Then Adrian Daintrey[22] came in with a party in evening dress--which included Virginia Woolf[23], smoking a cigar. I let them have our table and during the general milling around that took place I introduced Freya to Woolf. 'Are you two here alone?' she said to Freya. 'What a ghastly crowd. How it's changed.'

'We were here with Cyril Connolly, a moment ago,' Freya said.

'Was his black baboon with him?' VW asked.

Freya didn't know what she was talking about.

'His little gollywog wife.'

I turned to Freya. 'Now you understand Mrs Woolf's reputation for charm.' Back to VW. 'You should be ashamed of yourself.'

We strode out and when we reached home had our first serious row. Freya was a little shocked at VW's spite. I said you would never imagine the person who wrote all that lyrical breathy prose was steeped in such venom. 'At least she writes,' Freya said, without thinking. But it cut and so we looked around for something to fight about and duly found it. Now I'm writing this, about to go to sleep on the sofa, and I can hear Freya sobbing next door in the bedroom.
And so it goes, documenting Logan's haphazard journey across the century. He's a novelist, a journalist, a sort-of spy, an art dealer, a husband, a philanderer, a father. He meets Joyce in Paris, Hemingway in Spain, Frank O'Hara in New York. He is a kind of picaresque Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern, take your pick), always present, always involved, never really very important or impressive. He spends two years as a prisoner of war--in Switzerland! Somehow, that detail of his WWII escapades seems to me to capture something fundamental about how his life is conceived and presented in this novel, that he should parachute into Europe on a secret mission but to a neutral country, and end up so unheroically, and so diverted from the course of history that he doesn't even know when the war has ended. It would be a comic incident (even Logan, mystified as he is by his internment, never seems to fear he will meet a terrible fate at the hands of the Swiss), if his return to action weren't marked by a family tragedy. His story oscillates between such turns of good and bad fortune...and that uneven, unpredictable alternation of good and bad, happiness and grief, begins after a while to reveal itself as the underlying logic of the novel. As Logan reflects, near the end of his life,
That's all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up - look at the respective piles. There's nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man's condition, as Montaigne says.
As I realized Any Human Heart was not going to shape its protagonist's life into something more definite, but would just keep on going with it, right to the end, I began to fall under its spell. I didn't like Logan much more later in the novel than I had at first, and certainly he never achieved the level of moral self-reflection you might hope for if the novel were of a different kind (a Bildungsroman, for instance). The novel is a bit like David Copperfield, but without the benefit of hindsight in its narration, or of real personal growth in its action. But at the same time, the relentless forward movement of time itself has a kind of narrative to it. At one point Logan heads "to the passport office to collect [his] new passport, valid for another ten years":
In 1965 I'll be fifty-nine and the thought makes me feel faint. What's happened to my life? These ten-year chunks that are doled out to you in passports are a cruel form of memento mori. How many more new passports will I have? One (1965)? Two (1975)? Such a long way off, 1975, yet your passport life seems all too brief. How long did he live? He managed to renew six passports.
I thought that was a beautiful moment; it was certainly the moment at which I began to read without impatience, with a quickened interest in following Logan's life the rest of the way. He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures. His most lasting relationship is with himself (he dies alone), but he has the great gift of "genuine love" for three other people, a love that brings him to another brief but beautiful insight:
As I write this I feel that draining, hollowing helplessness that genuine love for another person produces in you. It's at these moments that we know we are going to die. Only with Freya, Stella, and Gail. Only three. Better than none.
I finished the final journal entry, which is touching but unsentimental, very happy to have persisted with the novel. I was with Logan emotionally in a way I never would have predicted from my initial response. I'm not convinced, though, that the set-up, the elaborate pretense of authenticity, was necessary. The apparatus (explanatory prefaces, footnotes, index) seems gratuitously metafictional. We can suspend our disbelief readily enough when reading a novel cast as a diary (or as letters, for that matter); we don't need to pretend we can read it because it was prepared for publication. I suppose this framing material does enhance the novel's emphasis on Logan as a witness to history, something he himself becomes more self-conscious about, naturally enough, later in his life when having known Hemingway, or met Woolf, or been sketched by Picasso, confers on him a kind of status, as if he's a walking relic. But it still felt artificial to me and even, at times, detracted from my unfolding sense of commitment to the individual voice speaking through the journals.

October 6, 2009

This Just In: Local Victorianist Is Earnest and Moralistic!

I've posted some reactions to the early chapters of Dracula at The Valve. Now I'm going to clutch my crucifix and await my fate.

October 5, 2009

This Week in My Classes (October 5, 2009): It's Sensational!

In 19th-Century British Fiction, we're wrapping up our discussions of Great Expectations this week. I've written before about teaching this novel. Here's a bit from that post, in which I focus on Pip's moving speech to Estella after he learns Magwitch is his true benefactor and Estella, though she "cannot choose but remain part of [his] character, part of the little good in [him], part of the evil," is not destined for him after all:
Contemporary novelists are often described as "Dickensian," usually for writing long, diffuse novels with lots of plots and characters and a bit more emotional exhibitionism than is the norm in 'serious' fiction. I rarely think they deserve the label, because to me it's moments such as this one, combining dense symbolic allusiveness, rhythmic and evocative language, high sentiment, and urgent moral appeal--all bordering on the excessive, even ridiculous, but, at their best, not collapsing into it--that distinguish Dickens from other novelists. I'm not sure any modern novelist takes such risks.
I've been thinking even more this time about the "risks" Dickens takes, his excesses of both language and imagination. They press us so far beyond the realistic, in almost any sense of that elusive term. Take Miss Havisham, for instance. There's really no excuse for Miss Havisham: to be confronted with her is to be challenged to forget plausibility--to abandon, not just suspend, disbelief. Less a woman than a grotesque embodied symbol of life without love, a kind of moral and emotional zombie, she is also a key agent of the plot, with completely commonplace control over money and property. What kind of undead figure has its own lawyer? So she exists in a strange liminal zone between human and inhuman, until woken to her own tragedy, and the tragedy she has spawned in Estella ("I am what you have made me!") by witnessing Pip's suffering:
'What have I done! What have I done!' She wrong her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again. 'What have I done!'

I knew not how to answer, or how to comfort her. That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride, found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will reverse that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equallywell. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?
Miss Havisham cannot survive this ordeal by moral revelation, which, in truly Dickensian fashion, leads to a literal conflagration of the "rottenness" and "ugly things" that made up her perverted identity. Pip's ability to feel compassion for this creature who has captured and ruined his own best hopes and feelings is one of the signs that he is on his way to being, not the Pip who turned his back on Joe, but the Pip who has the ethical sensibility to narrate Great Expectations.

In Victorian Sensations, we've finished with The Woman in White and are nearly done with Lady Audley's Secret. When I wrote about this novel before (in the context of a different course), I remarked, "It is always a bit discouraging to me how popular this novel is with my students, full as it is of cheap tricks and thoughtless language." My feelings are a bit more complicated this time. Lady Audley's Secret is certainly in the category of 'novels I teach largely for reasons other than their overt literary merit': even acknowledging the difficulty of defining that quality with any specificity, I do chafe at the excesses of Braddon's writing--they aren't the imaginative or linguistic excesses of Dickens but the novelistic equivalent of using a lot of exclamation points or TYPING IN ALL CAPS in an email. "We get it!" I want to say (no doubt, of course, many readers feel the same about Dickens). Here's a sample, for instance, from a conversation between Our Hero, Robert Audley, and his BFF George Talboys. Robert has recently convinced George to come and visit Audley Court to meet his uncle, Sir Michael Audley, and his pretty, young, golden-haired new wife. George has been feeling melancholy since learning that his pretty golden-haired wife died (hmmmm) just before his return from three years in Australia.
'I'm not a romantic man, Bob,' he would say sometimes, 'and I never read a line of poetry in my life that was any more to me than so many words and so much jingle; but a feeling has come over me since my wife's death, that I am like a man standing upon a long low shore, with hideous cliffs frowning down upon him from behind, and the rising tide crawling slowly but surely about his feet. It seems to grow nearer and nearer every day, that black, pitiless tide; not rushing upon with with a great noise and a might impetus, but crawling, creeping, stealing, gliding towards me, ready to close in above my head when I am least prepared for the end.'
As Miley Cyrus might say, d'ya think something bad might lie in his future? And is it just me, or is it hard to maintain literary decorum with a hero named 'Bob,' as in this immortal line, "'I trust in your noble heart, Bob'"?!

And yet there are sections of this novel that are as good as most others I've read. In particular, this time through, I was struck by how effectively Braddon evokes the psychological restlessness, even instability, of Lady Audley as she waits for what she hopes (or possible, just a little, fears) is the news of Robert's death. Spoiler alert: she has double-locked his door at the inn and then set the place on fire, and we get this striking image as she leaves the scene of the crime:
Sir Michael's wife walked towards the house in which her husband slept, with the red blaze lighting up the skies behind her, and with nothing but the blackness of the night before.
It's a nice touch to identify her by the status she has risked so much to achieve, but also to hint, with the "blackness" ahead of her, that despite the devastation she has now wrought, her future contains nothing "but the blackness of the night." Then follows a long chapter of waiting, a damp listless day with no outlet for Lady Audley's energies by "to wander up and down [the] monotonous pathway" in the courtyard of her luxurious home. The day ekes itself out:
Sir Michael's wife [again, nice] still lingered in the quadrangle; still waited for those tidings which were so long coming.

It was nearly dark. The blue mists of evening had slowly risen from the ground. The flat meadows were filled with a grey vapour, and a stranger might have fancied Audley Court a castle on the margin of a sea. [This image ominously echoes Robert Audley's earlier dream of Audley Court 'rooted up . . . standing bare and unprotected . . . threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved.'] Under the archway the shadows of fast-coming night lurked darkly; like traitors waiting for an opportunity to glide stealthily into the quadrangle. [Again, this image harkens back to an earlier one, in which the history of Audley Court is associated with secrets and conspiracies. Traitors to what, we might ask at this point?] Through the archway a patch of cold blue sky glimmered faintly, streaked by one line of lurid crimson, and lighted by the dim glitter of one wintry-looking star. [In Robert's dream, the only stars are those in the eyes of 'my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. See how completely this very suspenseful moment builds on images and ideas from earlier in the novel?] Not a creature was stirring in the qudrangle but the restless woman, who paced up and down the straight pathways [ones she has, metaphorically, strayed from quite a bit by this point!], listening for a footstep, whose coming was to strike terror to her soul. She heard it at last!--a footstep in the avenue upon the other side of the archway. But was it the footstep?
To find out whose footstep it was, you'll have to read the book yourself! My point here is that this seems to me very effective writing--effective, that is, as a means to its end, which is suspense, to be sure (and if we are too easily dismissive of plot when we make up the terms for 'literary merit,' what, if any, room do we make for suspense?) but also the elaboration of a range of images, symbols, and ideas--that Lady Audley's very presence on those "straight pathways," for instance, represents a catastrophe for the 'house' of Audley. This section also effectively complicates the previously two-dimensional morality of the novel: the anxious activity of Lady Audley shows her to be more than "just" a villain, no matter how resolutely Robert seeks to contain her in that role. An actress, an infiltrator, a subversively ambitious woman who will not stop at anything to keep the gains she has made--but still capable of feeling "terror" in her soul as she awaits confirmation of her crime. Shortly, she will also give an account of her life and motives that forces the reader (if not necessarily her audience within 'story space') to entertain the possibility that she acts in self defense, or at least, like Becky Sharp (an obvious progenitor), she is simply using the limited means available to her, as a woman in a profoundly patriarchal world, to get--and stay--ahead. It's provocative stuff, and entertaining, and if it's inconsistently crafted (and, as I tend to think, inconclusively 'argued'), it succeeds at what it seems to set out to do. I suppose that's one definition of 'well-written.' Indeed, that's George Henry Lewes's definition: he describes Jane Austen as the "greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end."

And that idea of "mastery over the means to her end" brings me to something I hope to write more specifically about soon, namely, how fast I think we (should) move, when the question of "literary merit" comes up, from the aesthetic to the ethical. Even supposing we could arrive at some resilient definition of good writing, it would have to (I think) make something like Lewes's dodge here from the suggestion of universality implied in "mastery" to the issue of writing suited to a particular "means." That's why we can call both Dickens and Ian McEwan "good" (accomplished, skilfull, successful) writers. But at some point in that discussion, the question surely arises: how do we judge the ends? As Orwell famously said, "the first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up":
If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, "This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman [well, OK, that makes me uncomfortable, though he does go on to suggest this book burning may be a mental, rather than a literal, result]. Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

October 4, 2009

Weekend Miscellany: Niffenegger, Dickens, P. D. James, and Dracula

I'm definitely interested in reading Audrey Niffenegger's new novel, Fearful Symmetry. I began The Time Traveler's Wife with some trepidation, worried that it would be something along the lines of Diana Gabaldon's (to me, mysteriously) best-selling 'Outlander' series--escapist romantic fiction in with people in historical Hallowe'en costumes (admittedly, I read only the first one). I was taken aback by the gritty realism of Niffenegger's novel, and indeed how she managed to make a story with such an implausible premise seem so intensely believable I couldn't say. The central love story itself had, perhaps, the wish-fulfilment aspect of any story about a love that endures for all time (or through all times), but it didn't strike me as at all sentimental in its presentation. Here's an excerpt from the New York Times review of Fearful Symmetry, which sounds similar only in refusing conventional (real) limits on our present existence:
Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839, is perhaps the most famous of these parklands and a popular tourist attraction now. It is home to the remains of Karl Marx, Radclyffe Hall, Michael Faraday and the Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, among many other luminaries. It represents lives, secrets and stories jumbled together, the path through them determined by proximity and the tastes of the individual tour guide. In that way, it is like a novel.

Audrey Niffenegger makes the most of Highgate in a bewitching new novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” which proves that death (as one currently popular saying goes) is only the beginning. That’s true for Elspeth Noblin, who dies of cancer at age 44 after declaring: “A bad thing about dying is that I’ve started to feel as though I’m being erased. Another bad thing is that I won’t get to find out what happens next.”

A lot happens next, and a very unerased Elspeth participates in much of it, for there is a ghostly and passionate life after death: conflicts, like spirits, live on. Buried in Highgate, just over the fence from her former apartment, Elspeth’s corporeal self has left behind an estranged twin sister, a younger lover whom she promises to haunt and a valuable estate that now belongs to her nieces, also twins, living in America. She stipulated that they can collect only if they move into her flat for a year and keep their parents out. Her reasons will be explained if Elspeth’s lover, Robert — a neighbor and Ph.D. student writing an obsessive history of Highgate — can bear to read the diaries she’s left him. (read the rest here)
On another topic, some time ago in the Guardian Jon Varese (of the Dickens Project, and also a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Cruz) wrote a little piece asking why we still read Dickens (his answer comes by way of one of his students: "My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student, whose essay I was reviewing for a writing contest. 'We need to read Dickens's novels," she wrote, "because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are'"). I was looking over that post again for other reasons (among them, that I'm currently teaching Great Expectations) and I was struck by the high quality of the comments thread that followed. One factor may have been Varese's generous and patient responses: it's obvious that he wasn't doing a 'post and run' but was attentive to and genuinely interested in the debate he had begun--which ended up being, I think, quite a bit more interesting than the original post.

Sarah Weinman alerted me to these interviews with P. D. James, who apparently has a non-fiction work on detective fiction forthcoming (Talking About Detective Fiction). Though I found The Private Patient uninspiring, I am an admirer of James's approach to detective fiction and regret having taken An Unsuitable Job for a Woman off the syllabus for this year's round of Mystery and Detective fiction, not least because I appreciate the opportunity to discuss James's idea that you can root genre fiction in the work of the great social realists of the nineteenth century (she points to Trollope and George Eliot as key influences) as well as in the more obvious progenitors of detective fiction (Poe and Wilkie Collins, for instance). For some time there was a lecture of hers available through the Smithsonian Institute (sadly, last time I checked the link was disabled) that was a delightful mix of erudition and wit. James has never offered any apologies for writing genre fiction, instead speaking often and eloquently about the liberty that choice has given her, by providing a clear scaffolding for the plot, to explore other aspects of fiction including setting, theme, and character. I'll certainly be looking out for Talking About Detective Fiction. Here's a snippet from the Telegraph article:

She has a crack at explaining the genre’s appeal in Talking about Detective Fiction, an idiosyncratic and entertaining primer written at the suggestion of the Bodleian Library, which is publishing the book and to which James is donating hardback royalties. It is not a comprehensive history – she does not read much contemporary crime fiction apart from books by Ian Rankin and her old friend Ruth Rendell – but an imaginative response to some of her favourite authors.

The 89-year-old Lady James is trying to recall what first drew the teenage Phyllis, along with millions of other readers in the Thirties, to the so-called Golden Age detective stories.

“Those books suggested we live in a moral, comprehensible universe, at a time when there was a great deal of disruption and violence at home and abroad, and of course the ever-present risk of war. And we live in times of unrest now, so perhaps we may soon enter another Golden Age.”

Finally, at InfiniteSummer.Org, the organizers of this summer's mass (?) reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest are turning to Bram Stoker's Dracula for their next group read, I guess in the spirit of "and now for something completely different"! I'm not sure how I'm going to manage reading along, what with the readings for my classes and the other usual rush of teaching tasts that pile on in October, but the recent flurry of discussion here and at The Valve about literary merit, the alleged "extra-literary" priorities of academic critics, and so on--much of it begun with some snide remarks about Dracula--has piqued my interest in rereading the novel, which I haven't read in probably 20 years and never officially 'studied.' I'll put up some remarks, if I can, as I read along. It looks as if there will be some quite interesting material posted at the host site; they began with an introduction by well-known Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller. I'm on Chapter 3 so far and if I had a complaint, it would certainly not be that the book is dry, boring, or badly written, but that its literary investment is made in prurience and what (with a hopelessly high-Victorian prejudice, I suppose) I consider "base" emotions.

October 1, 2009

Trollope at Open Letters

I wrote a little piece on 'reading Anthony Trollope' for Open Letters Monthly which has now gone 'live' in their October issue. Come check it out (the folks at the New Yorker's Book Bench did and liked it!)--and while you're over there, read around in the rest of the issue, which, as usual, is full of lively and interesting material.