December 30, 2009

Novel Readings 2009

It's time for my annual review of the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I'm most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

1. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost. This book made by far the strongest impression on me of any I read this year. Devastating though it is, it also manages to be surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes even comical. Mendelsohn manages to be self-reflexive about his research and writing, about his own assumptions and limitations, without ever compromising his dedication to reaching after the truth of the story he is telling or his respect for the suffering of those whose story it really is. It's a remarkable accomplishment.

2. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. I ended up enjoying this novel as much for the way it implicitly chastised me for my own assumptions (about fiction, about families) as for the story it told. I'm happy to say that Santa (OK, my mom) sent me Sugar Street and Palace of Desire for Christmas, so I'll be reading--and, I expect, writing about--Mahfouz again in 2010.

3. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although (as I say also in my original review) I don't think this is actually a great novel by literary standards, and in retrospect I feel my own emotional reaction to it was the result of some heavy-handed narrative and ideological manipulation (pain! suffering! injustice! misogyny!), it's impossible to ignore the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and misogyny of the world it fictionalizes.

4. Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran. Unlike A Thousand Splendid Suns, Rooftops of Tehran is not a sensational or particularly populist treatment of its material. It reaches across cultural differences to tell a story of yearning and love, emphasizing feelings that are universal, if differently embodied or characterized based on circumstances. At times a bit heavy-handedly pedagogical, it still avoids the trap of what I am now thinking about as 'moral tourism': it isn't an Iran packaged for mass consumption and political ends, but something more inward-looking and sincere.

5. Charlotte Bronte, Villette. This year's choice for our summer reading project at The Valve, Bronte's perverse exploration of thwarted desire, religious conflict, surveillance, and narrative unreliability offers all kinds of fun and surprises, especially for those who think the Victorians were all naive realists. (D'oh! But there really are people who think that. In my experience, many of them are specialists in late 20th-century fiction whose favourite straw man looks a lot like Trollope, but doesn't have his metafictional savvy.)

6. Ian Colford, Evidence. Understated, even insidious, these stories leave their mark on your consciousness, like inky thumbprints.

7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. It seems somehow significant that I quoted from this novel instead of writing much about it. It's not that there aren't ideas in it, or that its form and technique isn't inviting to criticism, but for me this was a reading experience that was very much about easing up my critical grip (which seemed to be deforming my reading) and savouring the tactile quality of the language. My feelings about this book were also much affected by my thoughts about a special student, Samantha Li; I only wish I had read it before it was too late to talk to her about it.

8. William Boyd, Any Human Heart. Dear students: The main character in this book is not at all "relatable." Guess what--that doesn't matter! You don't have to like him (though by the end I was fond of him after all, as you are of someone you've known their whole life). You just have to go along, feeling the pulses of his idiosyncratic life and personality. He has no special insight, into himself or any larger contexts; he isn't even especially charismatic. But, as George Eliot points out in Adam Bede, most of the people around us are nothing special--we need to adapt our aesthetic to that reality, and it turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

9. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall surprised me by not resembling any other historical fiction I've read. For one thing, there is almost no exposition. Mantel's trick of referring to Cromwell throughout as "he," though it does create the occasional awkwardness, also creates an oddly intimate atmosphere: we are with him, in close proximity, as if standing by his shoulder, but there's a little separation remaining. First-person narration would have overcome it, but then I think the novel would have felt more artificial, and the emotions would have had to run higher--a mistake in a novel remarkable for its restraint (yes, even at 650 pages, it feels tightly controlled). And the language: it is crafted with the precision of Ian McEwan's prose, but with a higher sheen of poetic possibility. Here's a little bit that describes and exemplifies the novel's characteristically taut balance of eloquence and repression:
There's a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.
The central conflict is not Henry VIII against God, or fate, or his wives, for denying him a son, or Anne against Katherine, or any of the other stock melodramas of Tudor fiction (and television), but Cromwell, the self-made man, the accountant, the bureaucrat, the statesman, the pragmatist, the modern man, against extremism, privilege, waste, indulgence--and especially against Thomas More, who delights in torturing heretics and seeks a pointless (to him, a martyr's) death.

10. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Is it wrong to make something so beautiful out of material so terrible? Is terrorism really analogous to vandalism? Both obliterate the beauty (realized or potential) and the creativity of humanity.

This year I'll skip over the list of low points. There weren't many, happily--most of the other books I read were in the OK - to - mediocre range, which only irks me when they win awards.

In last year's post I noted the expansion of my blogging horizons that came with the invitation to write for The Valve. This year I have been pleased to contribute to Open Letters: I'm glad they made room for my piece on Trollope among their many astute and engaging essays and reviews, and I've got a little thing on Felix Holt appearing in their January 2010 issue, so stay tuned for that.

Looking ahead, I'm anticipating an unusually busy term coming up, with three classes including one all-new one and some new kinds of assignments. Still, I hope to have time to keep up my usual series on teaching, and also to fit in some reading for myself. Looking over my year-end posts for 2007 and 2008, it is notable how such 'pleasure' reading feeds into my research and teaching (the leading example being Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun, which went from being just another book I'd read to the lynchpin of a reconceptualized research program). Perhaps something I read in 2010 will end up turning me in another new direction, or adding in some other unanticipated way to my life. But in any case here are some of the books I'm most looking forwarding to reading or re-reading:
  1. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. It's great to feel so confident that a book will be both extremely smart and extremely entertaining.
  2. Hilary Mantel, A Place of Great Safety. Speaking of confidence, Wolf Hall gave me confidence in Mantel as both a stylist and a historical novelist.
  3. Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street and The Palace of Desire.
  4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf.
  5. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
  6. War and Peace. Somehow, it didn't get read in 2009, but I'm sure it will be there for me when I'm ready for it.
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. I'm going to keep putting this on my TBR list until I actually read it.
  8. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I haven't read this since my undergraduate Victorian fiction class in 1989. Once every twenty years seems like a minimum for what I remember as one of the best of Dickens.
  9. George Eliot, Romola. I've assigned this for my graduate seminar on George Eliot this term. It was a tough call between it and Felix Holt, but Romola has been on the back burner the longest. When it is good, it is very, very, very good. When it is bad, characters say things like 'You are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni.'
  10. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry. All appearances (and movie adaptations) to the contrary, The Time Traveller's Wife is a gritty, suspenseful, intellectual romance. Sure, you have to accept a wacky premise, but for me at least, it was worked through with surprising toughness. So I'm game to see how Niffenegger follows it up.
  11. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. Because you told me to!

December 27, 2009

Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea

The subtitle of Three Cups of Tea is "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time." What I found moving and inspiring about this book, however, is that Mortenson's mission was not to promote peace but to provide education, not to bring an agenda (even one as benign-sounding as peacemaking) to the villages of the Karakoram region but in response to a profound desire he meets there and answers. To put it another way, he does not set out to shape the region to his interests, or American, or 'Western,' interests, as the subtitle misleadingly implies, but rather listens to the villagers who become his friends and mentors and then sets out to bring them what they want, for themselves and especially for their children.

During Mortenson's first stay in the village of Korphe in 1993, after a failed attempt to climb the mountain known as "K2," Haji Ali, the chief of the village, takes him to see where the children go to study:
He was appalled to see eighty-two children ... kneeling on the frosty ground, in the open. Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson's eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn't provide a teacher. A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford. So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind. . .

After the last note of the [Pakistani] anthem had faded, the chldren sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they'd brought for that purpose. The more fortunate . . . had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. 'Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?' Mortenson asks. 'I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa [his recently deceased sister]. I knew I had to do something.'
Three Cups of Tea is the record of what he did, and his accomplishments are truly astonishing. Working single-mindedly and also, for some time, more or less single-handedly, he raised the money for the Korphe school first and then gradually expanded his efforts (and, even more gradually, his resources) until eventually the Central Asia Institute he created, launched by a $12,000 check from a single generous donor in response to Mortenson's first fundraising efforts, became a substantial organization that has built, to date, 130 schools. Small amounts of money (by Western standards) were more than matched by the investments of time, labour, and passion made by the local people who worked with Mortenson to realize, not Mortenson's vision, but their own.

Hushe School Inauguration, Pakistan
Image Courtesy of Central Asia Institute

One of the most memorable scenes comes as the Korphe school is nearing completion. A local strong-man, Haji Mehdi, shows up with his "henchmen," all carrying clubs, and declares Mortenson an "'infidel [who] has come to poison Muslim children, boys as well as girls. . . . Allah forbids the education of girls. And I forbid the construction of this school.'" Haji Ali squares off against him and eventually agrees to Haji Mehdi's terms, which are that he turn over the twelve best rams in the village to save the school. "'You have to understand,'" Mortenson explains, "'in these villages, a ram is like a firstborn child, prize cow, and family pet all rolled into one. The most sacred duty of each family's oldest boy was to care for their rams, and they were devastated.'" But they bring the rams and Haji Ali hands them over to the blackmailer without a word and then "herd[s] his people toward the site of the school."
'It was one of the most humbling things I've ever seen,' Mortenson says. 'Haji Ali had just handed over half the wealth of the village to that crook, but he was smiling like he'd just won a lottery.'

Haji Ali paused before the building everyone in the village had worked so hard to raise. It held its ground firmly before Korphe K2, with snugly built stone walls, plasted and painted yellow, and thick wooden doors to beat back the weather. Never again would Korphe's children kneel over their lessons on frozen ground. 'Don't be sad,' he told the shattered crowd. 'Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today. Now our children have education forever.'
Later, he shows Mortenson his Koran, which he cannot read, and tells him, "'This is the greatest sadness in my life. I'll do anything so the children of my village never have to know this feeling. I'll pay any price so they have the education they deserve.'"

Mortenson was working on schools and, eventually, other projects in this region long before it became the focus of world, and especially American, attention after September 11, 2001. In fact, he was in Pakistan on 9/11, when he gets the news from his host that "'A village called New York has been bombed.'" On September 14, he and his colleague George McCown attended an opening ceremony for another school, in Kuardu village, at which Syed Abbas, an important Shia leader in the region, gives the keynote address:
'Today is a day that you children will remember forever and tell your children and grandchildren. Today, from the darkness of illiteracy, the light of education shines bright.

'We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today, as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, the women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans, do not do so in the name of Islam. By the grace of Allah the Almighty, may justice be served upon them. . . .

'These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to bring our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own? Fathers and parents, I implore you to dedicate your full effort and commitment to see that all your children are educated. Otherwise, they will merely graze like sheep in the field, at the mercy of nature and the world changing so terrifyingly around us.
Syed Abbas closes with a wish that the people of America would see into the hearts of his people,
'and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.'
A lot changes, for Mortenson's work and for the regions he works in, after 9/11, and Three Cups of Tea chronicles the increasingly politicized and then militarized context, the danger and suffering caused by the war, and Mortenson's attempts to explain what he knows (and loves) about the region to everyone he can reach. That education is a vital part of any long term solution, not just to the poverty of the villagers, but to the region's stability and resistance to extremism is obvious to him and thus becomes a major part of the story he tells and, eventually, almost perversely, Al Qaeda provides Mortenson's ticket to success. Suddenly, everyone is interested in those mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Mortenson's school projects catch the sympathetic imagination of enough of the American public that the CAI really takes off. He stays doggedly independent, though, refusing any government money, for instance, because he knows that such an affiliation would undermine the trust he has built up through nearly a decade of close personal contact.

The larger socio-political argument for Mortenson's work is compelling, but the heart of his project is really what an opportunity to go to school can mean for a village, or even more, for a particular student: it's the students scraping out their lessons in the dirt who inspired Mortenson to help them, not some grandiose theory about reconciling East and West. Haji Ali's granddaughter Jahan is one of those students in Korphe. Later, after becoming "one of the Korphe school's best students," she interrupts a meeting Mortenson is having with the village elders to demand he fulfill another of his promises, to help her realize her dream of becoming a doctor. "'I'm ready to begin my medical training,'" she announces, "'and I need twenty thousand rupees.'" Journalist Kevin Fedarko was there:
'It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life,' Fedarko says. 'Here comes this teenage girl, in the center of a conservative Islamic village, waltzing into a circle of men, breaking through about sixteen layers of tradition at once. She had graduated from school and was the first educated woman in a valley of three thousand people. She didn't defer to anyone, sat down right in front of Greg, and handed him the product of the revolutionary skills she'd acquired--a proposal, in English, to better herself, and improve the life of her village.'
With help from the CAI, Jahan pursues the next level of her studies in the nearby city of Skardu. She flourishes, and as her horizons broaden, so too do her ambitions:
'I don't want to be just a health worker. I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive, and look over all the health problems of all the women in the Braldu. I want to become a very famous woman of this area. . . . I want to be a . . . "Superlady,"' she said, grinning defiantly, daring anyone, any man, to tell her she couldn't.
It's impossible not to agree with Mortenson: "Five hundred and eighty letters, twelve rams, and ten years of work was a small price to pay . . . for such a moment." And yet it seems important not to forget that though Jahan may indeed be breaking traditions, defiantly daring men in particular to stop her, it was those very village elders, and especially her own grandfather, Haji Ali, whose vision and persistence first brought Mortenson to her.

I thought Three Cups of Tea was overwritten: the descriptions are excessive, the prose sometimes heavy-handed and tendentious. I also wonder about the long passages of dialogue, even speeches, that appear to have been remembered with uncanny precision despite the hectic circumstances of the moment and the passage of time. The story itself, however, is intrinsically so interesting, and such a testimony to the ability of a single person to move mountains (a metaphor that, perhaps inevitably, is exploited endlessly because of Mortenson's climbing background) that it's a great read nonetheless. I challenge any of you to read it and not end up, as I did, making a donation. Yes, it is a good thing to promote peace. But whatever the other results, it's an intrinsically good thing for children to have a clean, safe place to learn, and a particularly great thing for girls to have an equal share in this opportunity.

Girls study in outdoor school, Afghan refugee camp, Pakistan
Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

December 24, 2009

This Term in My Classes: "Thank you for such an odd yet interesting course!"

As of late yesterday afternoon, I had finally filed all of my grades for my fall term course: a late exam (December 18th) proved both a blessing (because I had time to finish up other things in the meantime) and a curse (because I couldn't wrap things up sooner even if I wanted to). I know that writing exams is very stressful, so I'm always touched when a student takes a precious minute or two to include a little "thank you" or "happy holidays" message to me at the end. There were several of those this year (and thank you, too, if any of you are reading this, and enjoy your well-earned break!), including the one quoted in the title to this post. As you can imagine, it gave me pause. "Odd yet interesting"? Of course, I'm glad it was interesting, but I wish I knew what was odd about it. Like the frequent comment on my course evaluations that I am "so organized," this one makes me wonder just what my colleagues are doing, which in turn makes me think about how hermetically sealed our classrooms are, at least to each other. I haven't had a colleague sit in on one of my own classes since I was compiling my tenure dossier nearly a decade ago; I've observed teaching demonstrations by job candidates and sat in once or twice at the request of a graduate student or junior colleague also working on his or her teaching dossier, but that's it. Although teaching is done in front of an audience, when I think about it it is a strangely isolating experience also: you prepare alone, by and large, you carry out your plans as best you can and measure your success, or not, against your own standards and intentions, then you shuffle back to your office and get ready to do it all over again. Inevitably, after you've been doing it for a while, you find strategies (and handouts, and assignments, and textbooks, and so on) that you like and because there aren't that many opportunities to compare what you are doing to what other people are doing, you start thinking of yourself as the norm--until you discover that, at least to someone, you seem "odd"! Actually, now that I think about it, last year I got a very nice card from a wonderful Honours student who also made a remark that made me wonder about myself: to paraphrase, she said that I had shown her that there were "other ways" of studying literature. Other than what?

Hazarding a guess, it has something to do with my attempts to talk about literature as something of personal and moral significance. I end my Victorian novel classes, for instance, after reviewing the historical and literary contexts we have studied and the major thematic and critical arcs of the specific texts, with a little speech about the conviction most Victorian novelists display that we, the readers, are where the real action has to go on: not only do they engage us in the novels, with strategies such as intrusive narration and direct address to us, the 'dear readers,' but they frequently point to public apathy, indifference, ignorance, or prejudice as the source of their characters' difficulties. Lydgate's failure? Dorothea's unhistoric life? We made it possible, with our pettiness and self-absorption. Jo's death? Well, aren't they "dying thus around us every day"? The whole of Vanity Fair? Isn't that where we live? I wrote a bit about these 'closing perorations' last year:
A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral "labour of choice" we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.
When I describe myself as a 'Victorianist' these days, I don't really mean 'someone who is immersed in scholarship about Victorian literature and culture' (in fact, I confess my interest in 'Victorian Studies' as a field has been steadily declining, to the point that for the first time in almost twenty years I have changed my settings for the VICTORIA listserv to "digest"--though I still consider this list exemplary for its wisdom, generosity, and collegiality, I'm just not engaged with the topics it covers). I mean something more like 'someone who embraces some key Victorian ideas about the novel in particular, and about literature more generally.' Maybe, again, just guessing, this is what seems 'odd' or different. But without knowing what other people do or say in the classroom, I can't be sure.

Otherwise, things have wrapped up without incident this term. The Victorian Sensations seminar picked up a lot of momentum towards the end, or so I thought. I had to put in some strenuous work for a while, especially when we turned our attention to contemporary criticism, but it seemed to pay off, and the discussions in our last couple of weeks showed that, despite what I thought was a stuttering start, everyone had accumulated a range of good critical strategies and contextual frameworks for discussing our primary texts, including the two I consider the most interpretively elusive, Aurora Floyd and East Lynne. And the Victorian novel class (odd though it may have been) seemed typical enough to me. I do think, though, that it might be time for me to re-imagine it, as I have been teaching the two 'halves' of it more or less the same since 2003. I enjoy both the Austen to Dickens and the Dickens to Hardy versions a lot; I vary the texts at least a little every time; and I have used a range of assignment structures. It's great to have notes and handouts ready to be tweaked and reused. But I think it's starting to make me a little intellectually lazy, knowing so well what I want to do or say with each novel, or at any rate each author. I have no idea how else to run the courses, but next year, for the first time since 2003, I'm not teaching either of them--in fact, we're hiring a sessional to cover them, as I'm on half-sabbatical starting in January and will be doing other teaching in the fall. So between now and September 2011, maybe I'll get some new ideas. Maybe I should sit in on some colleagues' classes, too, and see what they do. I bet in their own ways, they are odd too, but it would be nice--and probably instructive--to see what the difference is.

December 20, 2009

Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing

The Mistress of Nothing won this year's Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. I haven't read any of the other contenders, but if The Mistress of Nothing is really the best of the bunch, I shouldn't bother, because it is a pretty mediocre novel.* I love the idea of it, which is why I ordered it even before the GG results were announced; it's just bad luck (mine and Pullinger's both--not that she has any stake in what I thought of her book) that I reread Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love not long ago and it does so many similar things with so much more richness, and then so much more besides.

The Mistress of Nothing tells the story of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon's maid Sally Naldrett, who on a trip to Egypt with her mistress in the 1860s falls in love with their Egyptian dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh. Pullinger sets up Sally's predisposition to love all things Egyptian by making her a regular visitor to the British Museum's Egyptian Sculpture Gallery:
I have my favourite . The first time I saw his shapely long face I thought he was a woman. But no, he's a man, a colossal Pharaoh. Almond eyes, kohl-rimmed like a cat's; I would run my hand along his cheek if I could reach that high, over his lips, down to his great chin, feeling the stone bones beneath the smooth cool stone skin. I stare at him, and he stares back at me. I laugh at myself: he's the man of my dreams.
You can probably predict how this fantasy plays out, but in case you can't, here's Sally's first impression of Omar:
He was a bit younger than me, perhaps in his mid-twenties, though it's hard to tell. He was slender - all Egyptian men are slender, except when they are prosperous and very fat. He was neatly dressed, his clothes well cared for and tidy. Like most Egyptians he was clean-shaven and his skin was exceptionally smooth-looking. He reminded me of someone and this feeling nagged at me until I remembered: the man I used to visit in the Museum. My stone Pharaoh. I felt hot suddenly, and my throat tightened, and my heart skipped a beat.
"Man of my dreams"? "my heart skipped a beat"? This is award-winning literary language? Throughout the novel, in fact, the prose is uneven, with nicely evocative moments undermined (as the description of the stone Pharaoh is) by wooden exclamations insisting too hard on the obvious, forcing emotional intensity where it should arise from the situation, as here when Omar reveals to Sally Lady Duff Gordon's sentence on Sally for having Omar's child:
'Abdullah must go to my wife Mabrouka in Cairo and you must return to England.'

In that moment, my life was ruined. With her words, relayed to me by my lover, I was destroyed.
Or, again here:
My Lady did her utmost to make sure my marriage day was as penitential and joyless as possible, but she did not succeed. My heart flew that day, and uncontainable joy bubbled up insde me. Truth be told, I could not have cared less about the ceremony and its trappings, Egyptian or English. Omar and I were married!
This kind of naivete would be tolerable if it were Sally's alone, and we had reason to feel the novel as a whole distancing itself from her, but there are no traces of skepticism about this voice except insofar as Sally eventually discovers herself to have been deceived about the extent of Omar's love and loyalty. Sally continues to narrate in the same wooden way right to the end ("As I made my way through the streets, I felt him behind me and all the warnings I had ever had about being alone in a city at night rushed up to overtake me").

And yet what I wanted from Pullinger was not less prose, but more (if also better). The novel is desperately thin on context and character development and thus on motivation--which becomes a fatal flaw at the novel's turning point, Lady Duff Gordon's complete rejection of Sally after the exposure of her relationship with Omar. This development is totally unprepared for. Well, to be fair, we are prepared for it by both the jacket blurb and the first chapter, which begins, "The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human. . . . When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her" (and so on for a whole paragraph). But as this rejection is the pivot on which not just the plot turns but also the whole idea of the book (according to the GG site, "realizations about the nature of power - its seductiveness, its elusiveness and its ability to alter the soul in manifold ways"), we need to feel it as something profoundly meaningful, revelatory even. Sally's relationship with her mistress is clearly intended as one that (temporarily) transcends conventional class boundaries, but we have not experienced their bond as something extraordinary enough or deep enough that Lady Duff Gordon's reversion to strident authoritarianism and prudery feels anything but arbitrary, necessitated by the facts of the case but not by the accumulated pressures of the novel. Why should she turn on Sally so abruptly and completely? We never get an explicit answer, and we don't know Lady Duff Gordon well enough to infer one. The absence of reason could be made meaningful by linking it to questions about human nature, repressed female rivalries, the corruption of class privilege, the threats of colonial resistance, or really anything provided it arose from the personal and historical situation of the characters, but it just happens and so it feels (despite apparently being the truth) like nothing more than a plot device. Omar's choice of Lady Duff Gordon over Sally is similarly overdetermined and underdeveloped: we don't know him, either, well enough to grasp why he would love her, marry her, protect her, and then turn away from her to serve his own self-interest.

The novel is just too thin. Historical fiction can founder, to be sure, on heavy-handed exposition, but The Mistress of Nothing moves so briskly along that instead of being elliptical or evocative (which I gather is the usual intention with contemporary fiction with this kind of sparse declarative style) it feels perfunctory: have to get them to Egypt, have to get them to Luxor, must stop at some pyramids and see some crocodiles, be sure to bring up the tensions between the peasants and the khedive. The landscape is mentioned more than described. The Valley of the Kings gets most of a paragraph. I find it baffling that Anthony Sattin, who literally wrote the book on the Victorians in Egypt, would say that Mistress of Nothing "brings 1860s Cairo and Luxor to life, not as an Orientalist fantasy, but as they might actually have been." There are a lot of period details, but as with the descriptions of the Egyptian landscape or historical sites, their sensory impact is minimal (this is one respect in which The Map of Love seems to me far more successful). Did Pullinger deliberately avoid giving her novel depth or breadth from fear of its looking like a historical blockbuster rather than a 'literary' novel? Or was she impatient to get to the end of the interesting true story she had decided to retell? It certainly felt like the latter, especially towards the end of the novel, which has an implicit "and then, and then, and then" rhythm. Nothing is lingered over, and to this reader anyway, that's a shame when the material (historical, geographical, even, potentially, thematic) is so rich. A particularly intense moment of disappointment for me was the throwing off of the stays. Clearly, this is, or should be, a compellingly symbolic moment: the constraining, "heavy-boned" stays represent all the social and other constraints of their old life in England, while their embrace of Egyptian-style clothing signals the transformation of their life and values by their experiences. But it's only page 52, and we haven't seen life in England in enough detail to appreciate why it needs to be thrown off (does Pullinger assume that her readers will take for granted that Victorian England is disposable?) much less what it is exactly about Egypt that they should want to put on. It's also done very theatrically (how far can we trust Lady Duff Gordon's flamboyant gestures?) but the possibility that it is not a sincere or profound change is not explored. What we do get, rather inexplicably, is an assertion from Sally about how this change in her mistress's outfit changes their relationship:
My Lady cast off her English clothes and it was as though in that moment our relationship shifted as well, in some unspoken, unpredicted way. I was not her equal, I was part of her routine, part of her life, my care for her so intimate that it was as though I was part of her body - a hand, perhaps. A foot. Something indispensable, to which you do not give much thought. But from that moment hence, things shifted between us, and life changed.
Yes, well, if you say so--and you do, insistently and yet unconvincingly.

And what about Orientalist fantasies? There's no question that Sally's romance is with an idea of Egypt, embodied (as shown in the sculpture passages above) in Omar. The novel might have taken this up as a problem, showing Sally replacing her fantasy with a more complex and realistic idea of modern Egypt. A bit of this does go on, as she and Lady Duff Gordon get interested in agriculture and politics. But Sally remains prone to generalizations about all things Egyptian, or to predictable effusions such as "Egypt is sleeping, as it has slept for millenia."

Leafing through the book one more time, I am reminded that it's not all bad but in fact contains some bits of fine writing and tells a story that is intrinsically interesting. In the end, though, I just don't think it does justice to its own raw materials, and also I think that "some bits" of good writing are not enough to earn it a major literary award. Some of the very best bits in fact are in the letters of Lady Duff Gordon (published as Letters from Egypt), so I have downloaded them from Project Gutenberg to take a further look. I had high hopes when I ordered The Mistress of Nothing that it might be substantial enough to become part of whatever exactly the project is that I'm doing on Ahdaf Soueif, Victorianism, and postcolonialism. But it really doesn't say enough, about the Victorians in Egypt, about English writing about Egypt, about gender or class in these contexts, or about the novel as a form that is significant to our understanding of other times or places or people.

*I kind of doubt that it was, as Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness was a finalist. Perhaps the jury decided Munro had won enough prizes already this year?

December 17, 2009

File under "Education, Idealism About"

A snippet from Felix Holt, the Radical, which I have recently been poring over on behalf of a small project for Open Letters:
All life seemed cheapened: as it might seem to a young student who, having believed that to gain a certain degree he must write a thesis in which he would bring his powers to bear with memorable effect, suddenly ascertained that no thesis was expected, but the sum (in English money) of twenty-seven pounds ten shilling and sixpence.

December 14, 2009

Reading Slumps and Other Blogging Blocks

I've been in a bit of a blogging slump lately. Part of it is just that it's that crazy end-of-term time. Not only are there this term's courses to wrap (which, thanks to a very late exam, I won't be able to do until next week), but next term's courses are looming, and any "extra" time I might usually take to do some posting is getting eaten up by seasonal events--with my son now in junior high, that means two holiday concerts, for instance, and then this weekend my daughter's piano teacher held an end-of-year student recital. With family and close friends all approximately 14 days away by Canada Post, there's also the effort (mostly cheerful, if sometimes a bit frantic) to get Christmas gifts organized and shipped off--a task I completed with one final order in to Amazon.Ca last night, hooray. Friday is the last day of school for the kids, so there's an incentive to be well ahead on, well, everything, before the madness family fun begins. And I'm working hard on another piece for Open Letters in between marking papers and fussing with Blackboard sites.

Another significant factor in the blogging slump is that I've also been in a bit of a reading slump. I finished Wolf Hall a while back and thought it was surprisingly good (I know, I shouldn't be surprised if a much-hyped award-winning book by a serious author is good, and yet ... more about that later). But as more and more smart and interesting reviews came out from other sources, I got discouraged about pitching in my own two-cents worth (if I had, I think the only thing I would have emphasized that didn't seem to get a whole lot of play is how intensely written a book it is, and how much, too, it seemed to take up an obliquely Scott-like interest in the neutrality of history, by which I mean that like Waverley, Wolf Hall evokes a moment of historical transition, particularly towards a more secular, political (dare I say, modern?) world, and makes the movement feel inevitable, avoiding either nostalgia or triumphalism, something played out on the pulses of people who manage to feel extraordinarily real--a task in which much contemporary historical fiction fails, about which, also, more in a bit). Anyway, I didn't review it, and since Wolf Hall, I really haven't read anything that I wanted to write about. Ian Rankin's The Complaints was OK, well-conceived, typically well written and plotted, but nothing special. Really, by the time I finished it, I had almost forgotten it wasn't a Rebus novel, so similar were the unifying issues and themes and also the central characters (hmm, a personally troubled cop who pushes the boundaries of his job? where have I read about that before?). Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent looked really enticing, but I didn't find the central love story very convincing, the politics seemed evasive, and I got annoyed with the interspersed tale-spinning (though I realize this idea of how stories are woven together was meant to be a key idea about the book). I tried Detective Inspector Huss for the second time and still didn't make it past Chapter Three because the writing (or at least the translation) was so wooden. And now I'm nearly finished Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing and I'm so disappointed in it that although I think I will do a full write-up of it soon, because it is, or could have been, pertinent to the thinking I've been doing about Ahdaf Soueif and Anglophone representations of Egypt (but The Map of Love is so much better) I'm not looking forward to the exercise. The gist of the review will be (unless something changes in the last 20 or so pages) that the book is far too thin, the characters underdeveloped and thus their actions desperately unmotivated, and the cliches in both plot and writing deeply distressing--not least because about two days after I ordered the book (which looked so perfect for me!), it won a major literary award here in Canada.

I think I may be wrong to wait for a book I want to blog about. For some time I disciplined myself to write up everything I read, just to get the practice and to see what I had to say as a reviewer (rather than an academic). Almost always, I did find something to say, and the mental challenge as well as the writing experience was usually exhilirating. And really good books, or even really interesting books, are few and far between. So I'm going to try to get back into that habit. But in the meantime, I'm going to try to finish that little essay for Open Letters, as I promised to have it ready by tomorrow, mark as many papers on Jude the Obscure as I can bear, and try not to panic that in less than a month, I have to give some kind of a lecture on Romanticism and sound as if I know what I'm talking about. Wish me luck!

December 6, 2009

Christmas Music

For me (as for many people, I'm sure) one of the things I like best about the holiday season is its music. I grew up in a house full of all kinds of music, and for about six years I worked part time (and sometimes full time) in what we then called a 'record' store, The Magic Flute, which specialized in classical music. Getting out the Christmas records was part of an elaborate set of holiday rituals and meals in my family, beginning with our 'Advent' brunch the first weekend in December (Eggs Benedict) and culminating on New Year's Eve (Chicken Florentine and PĂȘches FlambĂ©es, followed by charades and then banging pots and pans on the front porch when we heard the ships in the harbour signal midnight). For probably a decade, somewhere in between these dates my parents hosted a big carol singing party and pot-luck dinner: as their friends are all both musical and great cooks, this was always a joyful occasion! Music was either playing or being played (and sung) nearly all the time, so it's no wonder that hearing carols now brings back a lot of memories--some more specific than others. For instance, we usually sang 'Children, Go Where I Send Thee' driving back over the Lions Gate Bridge from my grandmother's house in West Vancouver after Christmas dinner (we loved Odetta's Christmas Spirituals). A highlight of the carol sing event was always 'The Carol of the Bells' with all its parts. I used to take Joan Baez's Noel up to my room when I wanted some quiet time. As a die-hard Joan Sutherland fan, of course I had her Christmas album, and though sometimes I admit her operatic flair is too much for the simpler songs, her version of 'O Divine Redeemer' still brings tears to my eyes. (I met her once--but that's a story for another post.) And of course we had many traditional choral albums, and the Canadian Brass, and Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives singing 'A Holly Jolly Christmas,' and a great LP with "Mr Pickwick's Christmas" on one side and "A Christmas Carol" on the other, read by Ronald Coleman and Charles Laughton (and how fabulous to discover that this is still available! I highly recommend it).

At The Magic Flute, Christmas was a big season, of course. My fellow employees and I used to shudder at the first playing of the Bach Choir Family Carols because we knew we would hear it probably 3000 times before the doors closed on Christmas Eve. The year Kathleen Battle's A Christmas Celebration came out, it sold like crazy; I recommended it to one woman who came back the next year and sought me out specially to tell me how much she loved it (I love it too, especially its version of 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,' though lately I have been listening more to the Christmas album Battle recorded with Christopher Parkening, Angel's Glory, which includes what I consider the most beautiful recording of 'Silent Night' ever made). One of the biggest issues every year was which recording of Messiah to recommend. Opinions were always divided between 'original' and modern instruments; the version with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner was a big seller. To soothe our nerves during quiet spells, my colleague Mandy and I used to slip on George Winston's December.

Music is still essential to all holiday festivities, as far as I'm concerned. We got out our current stash of Christmas CDs this weekend. A lot of my old favourites are in the collection, along with ones that evoke holiday memories for my husband (Andy Williams, for instance, and Jo Stafford). We enjoy the Boston Camerata's Renaissance Christmas and the hyper-traditional O Come All Ye Faithful with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge; On Yoolis Night by the Anonymous Four will undo any damage wrought by long days at work--or at the mall, which is equally likely this time of year. There are now, too, albums that evoke memories, not of our childhoods, but of our childrens', such as Loreena McKennit's To Drive the Cold Winter Away and Sarah McLachlan's Wintersong. We have rituals of our own, including decorating the tree while listening to Michael Bawtree's wonderful recording of A Christmas Carol (available only by private sale at this time, as far as I know)--and when we gathered this morning for our own 'Advent' brunch, the first thing we did was to put on some Christmas music.

I do think sometimes about the potential incongruity of an atheist embracing Christmas. But then I think of all the sacred music--and art, and architecture--that brings so much aesthetic and emotional pleasure, and I feel reassured that there is no hypocrisy in loving the music even though I do not believe in the specific doctrines it sometimes expresses. After all, when the overall worldview for so long was overwhelming theistic, it is inevitable that art and music should have taken religious form; to turn our back on these great achievements because they belong to a different mentalite is to turn our back on the past simply for being the past. I think, too, of George Eliot's attitude, expressed implicitly and explicitly in so much of her fiction--that, as she wrote in a letter in 1874, "the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human." I feel the same about the "Christmas" spirit: it's really just the human capacity for love, charity, forgiveness, and generosity (not to mention reverence, sacrifice, and inspiration) that's being celebrated, with nothing supernatural about it. The feelings evoked by carols such as 'Silent Night,' 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,' or 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' (to mention just a few of my personal favourites) are really no different from the feelings evoked by any beautiful music, and the fundamental ideals of peace on earth and goodwill to men do not in fact require (and may even be hindered by) the specific myths of the Christian tradition. And yet that tradition (as GE acknowledges) for centuries provided a key framework for the development of these ideals (if not their perfect realization--indeed, quite the contrary, as history shows). And so I'm quite comfortable with the secularization of Christmas, which seems to me consistent with the goal of recognizing in ourselves--claiming for ourselves--those qualities most important to making the world a better place. It's not God who blesses Tiny Tim, after all, it's Scrooge! Why tie ourselves to the Christian calendar, then? Well, just as Christian traditions were superimposed on pagan and other rituals, so too our modern values and ideas are incorporating old ways and turning them to our own purposes. And the music really is beautiful--so I sing along, rejoicing.

What about you? What holiday albums bring back your fondest memories? Is there a song or a singer you can't do without at this time of year?

December 3, 2009

This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2009)

There's less than one week of classes left in the term--amazing, because it seems like just a moment ago that I was printing off my introductory handouts, getting familiar with the A/V setups in new classrooms, and luring my students through our first readings. I think it's the relentless need to keep looking towards the next thing (you walk out of your last lecture on North and South, say, and your mind is already buzzing with preparations for your first class on Great Expectations) that makes teaching terms go by so fast. It has felt like a fairly busy term, which is a bit nerve-wracking when I consider that I'm only teaching two classes, both of which are repeats and so I have quite a lot of notes and handouts I can reuse--but next term I have three classes, including one brand new one covering all kinds of material I have never taught before and one graduate seminar for which the expectations and demands are different and harder than u/g lecture courses. Pause for deep breaths . . . but before I get there, there's still work to be done for this term.

In 19th-Century Fiction we're working our dreary way through Jude the Obscure. For some reason I'm feeling more kindly towards Hardy's prose this time. Usually I find him a fairly clunky stylists, blunt in his statements and awkward in his development of both plot and character. But this time I am appreciating the pithiness of his declarations, which gives the novel a polemical cast quite different from our other readings (even though, at heart, most of them have also been polemical, or at least didactic). Here he is describing Jude's marriage to Arabella, for instance:
And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till deathtook them, they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.
Of course, this intrusive commentary ensures that we have the opportunity to be surprised, to look at what is more typically treated as a culminating romantic moment ("I do!") as a misguided attempt to fix in rigid form something that, as the novel will repeatedly emphasize, is naturally wayward--and to make compulsory feelings, and expressions of feeling, that ought to be (as Sue will later argue) wholly voluntary. That marriage itself is (at least potentially) immoral, rather than a solution to, or a guard against, immorality is one of the radical proposals of this novel. Thus, for instance, Jude's reunion with Arabella near the end of Part Third has the feeling of an adulterous liaison, even though she is his legal wife; thus, too, Sue's declaration to Phillotson, her legal spouse, that for her to live with him on "intimate terms" given her feelings for Jude "is adultery, in any circumstances, however legal." It's an argumentative book, pressuring us intellectually into emotional reactions that run contrary to a number of both literary and social conventions. Hardy's language, if not especially elegant and only rarely poetic (in descriptions of landscape, for instance), is effective for that purpose. "Yet he perceived with despondency that, taken all round, he was a man of too many passions to make a good clergyman; the utmost he could hope for was that in a life of constant internal warfare between flesh and spirit the former might not always be victorious"--even if we read this as Jude's language, it's stilted, almost pedantic, and yet it makes perfectly clear that a central problem, for Jude and for the novel, is that 'warfare between flesh and spirit,' and there's something to be said for clarity.

Yesterday we spent some time on stones and buildings. I came at this topic by way of Ruskin's Stones of Venice and the idea that architecture can be "read" as expressing the spirit or values of an age (I tried an analogy also to Carlyle's "Clothes Philosophy," though I ended up feeling that trying to explain what he means by that makes things more, rather than less, confusing). This is not a subtle aspect of Jude (as I've already suggested, this is not a particularly subtle book in any respect): arriving in Christminster, which Jude has long dreamed of as an "ecclesiastical romance in stone," he reads the "numberless architectural pages around him." His work as a stone mason repairing the "rottenness of the stones" is at once practical and symbolic; we considered some of the ways it represents his attempts to realize his dreams even as he learns that the walls around him are keeping him out. We also considered the ways walls and stones and buildings come to represent the burdensome weight of the past, and I proposed some comparisons to the concept of history in Middlemarch, where success seems to lie more in acknowledging, understanding, and developing from the past, rather than rejecting it. Indeed, Eliot's strongly organic view of history and society make the idea of escaping from the past not just illogical but dangerous (those who ignore their roots are bound to trip over them), whereas in Hardy, the wish seems to be to emerge somehow free from the coercive pressures of the overhanging ages. Mind you, Hardy too does not suggest that such an escape is possible--but for him, I think that's a tragic impossibility.

In Victorian Sensations we've wrapped up our discussions of Fingersmith (such a smart book, as well as a thoroughly gripping read, even after multiple times through it). It really does provide an excellent conclusion to a course in which we have considered not just a series of primary texts in sensation fiction (the 'inspiration' or generic genealogy for Fingersmith) but a series of literary historical and critical questions about the genre, its subversive potential or ideological limits, its revisions (or not) of gender identities and class boundaries, its fears, threats, and promises, and its implications for questions of canonicity and literary merit. Waters seems clearly to have considered most of these things too, and to have written many of them into her own book. I don't think it's just a pastiche or a period piece, though: one of the reasons sensation fiction has become such a hot area of critical inquiry in recent years is surely that its issues remain ours, and Waters is also engaging in a very contemporary way with problems about writing, gender, and authority, about sexual identities, about eroticism and pornography and exploitation, and about distinctions between genre and 'literary' fiction. Every one of her novels has given me that satisfying sense of reading something that has ideas at its heart. I can't wait to read The Little Stranger--it's at the top of my Christmas wish list!

In Victorian Sensations Wednesday's and Friday's classes this week are devoted to student presentations. I'm using an assignment sequence I've used once before with (I thought) great success. I have some reservations about how it is going this year, and I can't really put my finger on why it has seemed so much more difficult. I thought, in fact, that I had prepared for it better and provided clearer instructions this time around, and yet . . . But Wednesday's presentations certainly included a lot of good material, and evidence of good thinking and research; I hope Friday's will too.

December 1, 2009


for Ric--little arms!

Forget Jane Austen's History of England. . . Introducing, for the first time ever in digital form, The Princess Who Went to England -- also partial, also prejudiced, with even fewer dates, and with a surprise ending!

(technical hint: clicking on the image brings it up full size)

See? I bet you hadn't anticipated the war. And how postmodern is it to end, and then to end again?

Bonus Feature: Lucia Di Lammermoor in a nutshell:

More real posts soon.

P.S. Princess Margaret is still a chicken; she had a lovely time in England this time too.