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.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I was wondering about that. I'm only through Chapter 3, too, but I keep thinking "So, when does it get bad?" Maybe that's me being snide. Some of the writing is even good, very good.

So since you've read it before, you knew about Dracula's "long white moustache"? That threw me for a minute. I'm still not used to it.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I remember shockingly little about that earlier reading, including the moustache. I agree it rather goes against all the casting choices made in the last century! It doesn't sound particularly fearful. And wouldn't it get, you know, bloody, at mealtimes? But otherwise, you couldn't ask for a creepier villain.

Jeanne said...

The Time Traveller's Wife didn't manage to explore either the nature of time travel or how the character of the traveler was affected by it enough for my taste. I think it's the most over-rated book of the past few years.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Jeanne, that's interesting; I really enjoyed it--but I wasn't blogging then, so I have no record of any more specific (or, perhaps, reflective) details.

Veronica Abbass said...

"We need to read Dickens's novels," she wrote, "because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are."

The comment above is also the perfect answer to why we still read Shakespeare's plays: "because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are."

However, speaking of Dickens, has anyone read _Drood: A Novel_ by Dan Simmons and narrated by a jealous and bitter Wilkie Collins?