February 24, 2010

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures

In a word, unremarkable.

I suppose it should be no surprise that the majority of books I read are not that good. If writing a great book were easy or common, we wouldn't have the concept of a masterpiece--or of 'the canon,' for that matter. Still, it's always a disappointment when a book seems really promising, and comes trailing clouds of good reviews ("a stunning story, compassionately reimagined," says the back jacket of this one, and "thoroughly absorbing ... a moving story"). I'm left wondering if the reviewers read the same book, or if, perhaps, they haven't really read very many books--or very many really good books. At least this one hasn't won any prizes--yet.

Like The Mistress of Nothing (speaking of mediocre but prize-winning books), Remarkable Creatures is a good idea poorly realized. In fact, I put off reviewing it for a week or so after finishing it because I felt so weary at the thought of saying pretty much the same kinds of things. So, I'll say them more briefly. This novel too is based on a real-life relationship, and one that has every ingredient you need for a compelling and evocative story, including unusual characters participating in one of the great intellectual and spiritual shifts of recent centuries. It's about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot (the former, of course, much better known). So we have women engaged in hands-on scientific inquiry at a time when such conduct is hardly ladylike, and we have the unfolding crisis of faith by way of the ancient specimens they collect. But too much is insisted on that ought to emerge from the situation and characters, too much is wooden that ought to be natural and thrilling, too much--and yet too little--is said. Chevalier tries to evoke the trauma and exhilaration of discovery, of the vast expansion of the historical horizon and the destabilizing of comforting certainties about the world and our place in it, that was part of the intellectual life of the nineteenth century, but the result is endlessly unconvincing and mechanical, to my ear at least. Here's Philpot, for instance, contemplating a fossil find:
If it was not a crocodile, what was it? I did not share my concern about the animal with Mary, however, as I had begun to on the beach, before thinking the better of it. She was too young for such uneasy questions. I had discovered from conversations I had about fossils with the people of Lyme that few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God's will rather than find a reasonable explanation that might challenge previous thinking. Hence they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative: that it was the body of a creature that no longer existed in the world.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. It was not fair to bring Mary to the edge with me.
It's not terrible, but it's also not either moving or evocative. The language (again, as in Mistress of Nothing) is flat and stilted., with that odd uncomfortable formality that (second-rate) historical novelists seem to believe will convince us that they are bringing us back in time. The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can't do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry:
"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
That's how you bring us to the edge of that cliff with you.

February 22, 2010

Novel Readings Discovered by the Spammers

For the first time since I started this blog three years ago, I've been spammed to such an extent that I've turned on comment moderation. I've always felt that this step slows down discussion--which is hard enough to generate as it is--but it's certainly preferable to having the comments sections littered with links to pornographic sites or essay mills. So, my apologies to the real readers and writers out there for what I hope will be short delays between when you post your thoughtful remarks and when they appear here.

February 18, 2010

More of Woolf on the Victorians: "an abandonment, richness, surprise"

I think I must be on the verge of a breakthrough in my relationship with Virginia Woolf, a writer I have been interested in, drawn to, even, for many years but whose fiction nonetheless I haven't seemed able to read. I know my way around A Room of One's Own pretty well, and I have thoroughly appreciated a number of Woolf's essays and reviews. I love the crackling intellect of her critical writing, the combination of wit and tenderness she shows, her appreciation of writers whose aesthetics seem so wholly unlike her own (she writes wonderfully about EBB, for instance, as well as George Eliot). I blame only myself for my inability to reach further into her creative work, and I was pleased when I finally read all of Mrs Dalloway last summer. There at least, the ice is broken: now that I am acquainted with that novel, I can develop a deeper relationship with it, by rereading it and thinking more about it, and reading more of what other people have written about it. I've begun Hermione Lee's much-praised biography, and look forward to finishing it. So far, though, I like listening to Woolf's own voice the best, and so it seemed more than serendipitous to find three volumes of her letters and the final volume of her diary on the discard table at the public library on the weekend. Maybe Woolf "unfiltered" is the right next step for me. And just dipping in to the letters, immediately I came across this:
I don't know that I had anything very definite in mind about dialogue--only a few random generalisations. My feeling, as a novelist, is that when you make a character speak directly you're in a different state of mind from that in which you describe him indirectly: more 'possessed,' less self-conscious, more random, and rather excited by the sense of his character and your audience. I think the great Victorians, Scott (no--he wasn't a Vn.) but Dickens, Trollope, to some extent Hardy all had this sense of an audience and created their characters mainly through dialogue. Then I think the novelist became aware of something that can't be said by the character himself; and also lost the sense of an audience. (I've a vague feeling that the play persisted in the novelist's mind, long after it was dead--but this may be fantastic: only as you say novelists are fantastic.) Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest--the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.

This is all rather incoherent, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite. At the same time I do feel in the great Victorian characters, Gamp, Micawber, Becky Sharp, Edie Ochiltree, an abandonment, richness, surprise, as well as a redundancy, tediousness, and superficiality which makes them different from the post Middlemarch characters. Perhaps we must now put our toes to the ground again and get back to the spoken word, only from a different angle; to gain richness, and surprise.

I wish you'd look one day and see if there is any sense in this.
First, this letter makes me want to talk to her: she just sounds so lively and interesting and well-read and curious! Second, I can't think of any contemporary author I've heard or read an interview with who has anything like this kind of critical or literary-historical perspective; like Eliot and James, Woolf is a novelist-critic, and that may account for the intellectual rewards of their best writing (fictional and critical). Finally, this is the first thing I've read in about a year that actually made me want to read a work of recent criticism: Steve Ellis has a recent book called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians that I'm going to sign out of the library today.

February 12, 2010

Finishing A Suitable Boy

"I hate long books," says Amit Chatterji, Lata's poet-suitor, near the end of A Suitable Boy:
"the better the worse. If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for a few days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."
It's impossible not to realize this is Seth's sly joke, not at the expense of, but on behalf of the reader who has read this far (page 1371, to be precise) in A Suitable Boy. It closes the self-referential frame begun with the epigraph, a little ditty called "A Word of Thanks," which concludes,
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.
As Seth clearly anticipated, the novel's length is a major feature of any conversation about it. For many, it is a disincentive to even starting it; for some, including me the first time I tried it, it becomes an obstacle to finishing it. Now, having read to the end of its 1474 pages, I feel obliged to address the question whether it needed to be so long: is its bulk a necessity, or even a strength?

Thinking about this question, particularly after Seth's own allusion to Middlemarch, I'm reminded of George Eliot's comment about that novel: "I don't see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly." Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life," and among its ambitions is clearly coverage of a broad but complexly intermingled portion of English society at a carefully particularized moment in history. Her achievement is enormous, but not, of course, comprehensive, as many critics have pointed out; as I have often remarked to my students, the novel might have been longer still if she had carried her theory through to its fullest realization. As it is, because of her interest in representing so many elements of her story from multiple perspectives, she concedes some horizontal reach in favour of the three-dimensional structure I have inelegantly called the "giant hairball" effect. Here too, of course, the limit on the scale of the text is set only by her not in fact trying to give us everyone's perspectives on everything. "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending," she reminds us in the Finale, and with that principle in mind, we can read Middlemarch as itself revealing as many limits as insights, and leaving us with the challenge of reading the world as it has taught us. The scope of the novel, though, ensures that we realize the scope of the problem and the effort of the solution: though Book 1 is called "Miss Brooke," there's so much more in Middlemarch that we can hardly make the mistake of considering her errors of perception idiosyncratic personal ones, or of imagining she can take some simple, heroic step to find happiness, regardless of historical or social contexts. You need a long book to do these things effectively.
Dickens's best long books also justify themselves by their ideas about the world they depict. One of the governing ideas of Bleak House, for instance, is relationships--often unknown or underappreciated--between people of all kinds in all places, separate by vast differences in wealth and situation, family and education, philosophy and values. That we are all, in effect, one human family is a simple idea but one that increases in potency the more dramatically its reach is extended--from Lady Dedlock, say, brightly illuminated in the glare of fashionable society, to poor Jo the crossing sweeper. To assert the connection is one thing, and Dickens's narrator does this, but by populating the novel so densely Dickens gives his social message emotional resonance.
Thackeray, too, inVanity Fair . . . but you get the idea. Abundance in a novel reflects abundance in life; artfully deployed, it gives us both ideas and feelings about that abundance and our own relationship to it, and at its best, a long book reflects its ideas in the way its abundance is structured into a unified whole. And these are just the intellectual aspects. Despite the popularity of James's infamous line about "loose, baggy monsters," long books can be enormously satisfying, both formally and aesthetically. They also occupy mental and physical space in our lives so that we develop a special relationship with them, with the world into which we go when we read them. Here my chief example would be Trollope: immerse yourself, as I did one sabbatical, in the whole Palliser series, or the Chronicles of Barset, and you feel as if you are living two lives, one with your actual family and friends, the other with your friends in this enormously specific alternative universe (as Hawthorne said, Trollope's world seems "as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of"). Escapism? Perhaps, but another way to think of it is as vicarious living, including plenty of exercise for our moral imaginations.
OK, so. What about the length of A Suitable Boy? Does the novel satisfy the standard set by these illustrious predecessors of the doorstopper form? Do its ends justify its means? I would say, mostly yes. Of the novelists I have named, Trollope seems closest in spirit to Seth, whose reach, like his, is primarily horizontal. The novel's principle seems to be inclusivity: in brief, Seth hates leaving things out. The relatively large number of major characters in the novel is itself a bit startling, though the family trees provided are helpful here. But then there are the relatively minor characters, dozens of them, and the crowds of incidental figures, and, literally, the crowds. Then there's the historical detail. There isn't a lot of straight exposition, but there are long sections of political wrangling, most of which require at least some contextualizing (though one striking feature of the novel, I think, is how much it opts not to explain). And there are details of other kinds, too, crowding the book: clothes and books and food and drink (lots and lots of food, and many, many drinks) and religious rituals and holidays, both Hindu and Muslim. And cricket. And shoe-making. And curriculum wars in the English department. And singers and songs and musicians--and their instruments. Of course, any novel interested in time and place has to include details, but the overall impression of A Suitable Boy is of crowds of them, not noisily clamouring for attention, but filling every available space, as if somehow the book is a tangible object, like Meenakshi's lacquered box, overflowing with sights and sounds and smells (the tanneries!). Did it always seem artistically controlled? No, not always, but I would be hard pressed to single out any expendable piece: once begin trimming and tidying, and where to stop, after all? Life is cluttered: why can't that be an artistic rationale?
With so many characters, plots and stories, too, are abundant. Here Seth's control is more overt, as the story of Lata's quest (or, more accurately, her mother's quest) for "a suitable boy" provides a unifying structure used, I thought, to lovely dramatic purposes at times, as when the three top contenders--Kabir, Amit, and Haresh--meet up, quite unaware of their status as competitors for her favour. The rituals that open and close the novel also show its underlying tautness: major events (birth, marriage, death) do give shape to our lives, much as we like to insist that plots are all impositions, and yet life itself presses on, as does the momentum of the novel even as its central mission is resolved (how, I won't tell you--read the 1474 pages for yourself!): "You too will marry a boy I choose," says Mrs Rupa Mehra on the first page, and "You too will marry a girl I choose," she says on (almost) the last one. (Would I read A Suitable Girl? You bet I would.)
As I neared the end, though, the unity I felt the most strongly, and found the most poignant, was precisely the one best supported by the risky choice of putting so much into the novel: that principle of inclusivity is itself, I think, a theme of the novel, perhaps its main idea. Everyone is in it together. Seth's inclusivity reflects what the novel shows as the greatness but also the curse of India (India as he depicts it, of course). Often, people in the novel are, or feel, deeply divided by their differences: the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, including some horrifically violent ones, are the most serious examples, refracted much more delicately through Lata's lingering conviction that Kabir can never truly be "suitable." Others are good friends in spite of their different religions--Maan and Firoz, for instance. That difference seems insignificant to us and them, until they are caught up in larger events that remind them (and us) that it means life or death when they are among those who define their communities by exclusion rather than inclusion. Many scenes in the novel--such as the ultimately disastrous attempt by the Raja of Marh to raise the Shiva-linga and install it at the new temple being built basically right beside the Alamgiri Mosque, or the earlier riot sparked by the same awkward proximity, or the painful memories of Partition, which haunt Hindu and Muslim characters alike--evoke the human cost of intolerance, even as the same neighbouring sites of worship have the potential to represent the peaceful alternative. By the end of the novel, the relationship I felt exemplified its most cherished possibility was that between Mr. Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib, though I can't point to its key moments without giving away some of the more dramatic events of the novel. Their story reminds us forgiveness is essential to friendships that persist over time and in the face of violence and difference, an idea that is easily extended from their particular case to the larger context.
As for Lata's final decision about marriage, well, you don't think I'm going to give that away, do you? After all, one of the most important reasons to read 1474 pages is to find out what happens. I will say, though, that I was surprised at first, and then pleased. Her choice is not conventionally romantic, or unconventionally heroic; it's not a triumphant conclusion for her, but she rides away into a future that felt true to what she had learned from participating in the complicated panorama of A Suitable Boy.

February 10, 2010

This Week in My Classes (February 10, 2010)

Don't let the lack of new posts between last week's teaching update and this one mislead you: there has been plenty of novel reading around here lately! Specifically, I have finished A Suitable Boy--yes, just a few short weeks after deciding it would be the perfect complement to a term already well-stocked with loose baggy monsters. It became a thoroughly enjoyable and often surprisingly poignant reading experience (and there was some melodrama and some humour in there too), and I hope to write a proper post about it soon. For now, though, here's what I've been doing for my day job:

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after Monday's midterm (too short, apparently, as over half of them were done well before time was up), we've moved on to hard-boiled detective fiction. For today we read Chandler's great essay "The Simple Art of Murder" and Hammett's "The Gutting of Couffignal." This stuff will really wake you up when you've been reading Agatha Christie for a while. Though it's not at all to my personal taste, I get pretty energized teaching it, partly from the intensity of the language and the fast-paced plotting, and partly, I think, from exactly that contrast between the world Hammett puts us in and the much more artificial world of the puzzle mystery. I am also (nearly) convinced that puzzle mysteries, though far less graphically violent, are far more morally problematic. Even Poirot's sombre analyses of the corrupting effects of small moral lapses on ordinary men--blunting their moral fibre, as he says of Dr. Sheppard--are not sufficiently weighty to compensate for the essential frivolity of the murder story itself, the insouciance, for instance, with which Poirot seats himself in the very chair where Ackroyd's body was found as he works out possible theories of the crime. I think Chandler is right when he argues that such works have little to do with live as it is lived--or, more important, with violent death as it is died. But the degree to which we accept violence by our hard-boiled protagonist because we accept the ends he serves does, itself, become problematic, as I know we will discuss more next week with The Maltese Falcon (yes, I faltered in my resolution to replace in with The Big Sleep).

In my George Eliot seminar, we've moved on to Romola, which I am thoroughly appreciating now that I've made it through the painfully ponderous early portion. And, having described it that way, I should add that we talked quite a lot in class yesterday about the challenge of reading it, yes, but also about the effect of struggling through so much information and about the thematic and generic purposes it serves. As I recall, George Eliot said (in a letter, I think) that she hoped to create as rich a sense of the Florentine context as she had of the environment of St. Ogg's in The Mill on the Floss. How do you achieve such a goal, so that your characters can be seen to move in a milieu that is richly historically specific and also intensely local and personal--so that their language, values, and behaviour belong, as it were, to their place and moment--when that milieu is not already familiar to your readers? Though (as we also discussed) there seems to be even more pressure in Romola than in her earlier novels towards the universal or mythic, all of the characters embody their characteristics in ways that are entirely within realistic parameters (OK, until we get to the very end, but that's next week). It's fascinating how she takes her favourite abstractions (egotism and altruism) and makes them more concrete by associating them with major intellectual strains of Renaissance humanism, on the one hand, but also fanatic Christianity on the other: the impulses may transcend history, but their expression is determined by history, or constrained by it, and so in a way we are being prepped for Dorothea's inability to express her heroic spirituality in the ways that Romola can. Last week we talked a lot about Maggie's moral appeal to Stephen Guest: "'If the past is not to bind us, where should duty lie?'" And here we have Tito, who personifies just the moral unmooring that results when you cut ties to the past--or try to. Of course, you can't escape your past, and in Romola we are reminded of that with the thrillingly literal clutch of Baldassare's hand on Tito's arm. Romola herself is, surprisingly, not that prominent in the first half of the novel. Our installment for this week ended just as her alienation from Tito begins to undermine her dreams for fulfilling herself through marriage; next week we will be able to consider the various ways in which she (or George Eliot) attempts to imagine a different future, even a different identity, for her that will satisfy her ardent soul (yes, she's another one of those).

In British Literature Since 1800 we are finishing up Great Expectations this week. The students are also hard at work (or so I hope) on their first major assignment for me. I'm rather proud of its design, though I have not given it before and so I won't know whether it takes them where I hope they'll go until I see the results late next week. In brief, it's an annotated bibliography, but it's tailored to a general topic which they are then supposed to shape as they build the list of sources. In the end, they will submit a list of their "best" (most relevant) sources, but also a narrative of how, through the process of the research, they identified their narrower topic and then pursued it. It's the backstory of an essay, as I told them. I'm not actually having them write the essay, though their commentary will include a preliminary working thesis. Too often when I've assigned essays on Great Expectations students in past classes have skipped the preparatory stages and turned in plagiarized papers. But the thinking and reading and researching part is every bit as important as the final "writing it up into an essay" stage, so that short-cut is not only dishonest, since it isn't their essay, but irrelevant. I'm hoping that by emphasizing this part of the exercise they will really feel that difference. Also, one of the course objectives is research skills (citation and stuff), so I wanted an assignment that would really highlight research as a process, as well as giving lots of practice in the fun stuff like MLA style.

All that and A Suitable Boy too. No wonder I'm feeling a bit run down!

February 3, 2010

This Week in My Classes (February 3, 2010): "words, ingeniously used"

It's Agatha Christie week in Mystery and Detective Fiction, which means fun times with "words, ingeniously used." When we start The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the things I point out is that it is published in 1926, so within hailing distance of a couple of other very famous novels including Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Unlike those novels, however, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is rarely assigned in university classes and never (to my knowledge) discussed as a modernist classic--because, of course, it is no such thing. In fact, modernism is probably one reason it's tricky taking genre fiction seriously as literature, for reasons we spend a little time on. That said, in its own field, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic, and one of the reasons it deserves that status is that it does quite brilliantly some of the things that kind of book is supposed to do, such as giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery without ever, in fact, giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery. You have to be ingenious indeed to tell without telling. It's fun, once the murderer has been revealed, to go back through the novel and see, not just the clues, but the delicately duplicitous way the story is controlled throughout.

Still, Christie exemplifies ingenuity only in its cunning aspects. For the full experience of language "marked by inventive skill and imagination," Dickens is your man. I find it hard to talk about Great Expectations without wanting to sound like Dickens, just a little bit, just for the fun of it--so today I found myself helplessly muttering "J-O-Joe!" at odd moments during our class discussion. That's the comic Dickens, of course, but there's also the creepy Dickens ("I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community") and the poignant Dickens ("Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts"). Sometimes, the most remarkable thing is his ability to change registers, or even to sound both funny and tragic notes at once. There's Joe's hat, toppling hilariously off the mantlepiece like an animated indicator of Joe's unfitness to be in Pip's elegant lodgings, and then moments later there's Joe himself, showing up the superficiality of that very judgment and shaming Pip back into humility with his own "simple dignity":
'You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain't that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th' meshes. You won't find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won't find half so much fault in me if, supposing you should ever with to see me, you come and put your head in at the forger winder and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work. I'm awful dull, but I hope I've beat out something nigh the rights of this at last.'
And so, of course, he has.

In my George Eliot seminar, it was week 2 on The Mill on the Floss. I wrote a bit about it at The Valve and don't have much to add except that reading so much George Eliot at once this term is really bringing home to me how important I think intelligence is to fiction with any real literary aspirations. I've quoted David Masson before on the relationship between a novelist's writing and a novelist's thinking; here's the most relevant bit from British Novelists and Their Styles :
the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.
I'm thinking maybe I will found a school of criticism based on this principle. The Massonites? This may be the definitive answer to the whole 'should aspiring writers go through MFA programs': no, or at least not too early on, because they should not expect to be taught how to write before they have learned how to think--and think hard. The satisfactions of George Eliot's novels are certainly not all intellectual or philosophical, but far from agreeing with those who object that the novels are somehow too discursive to be pleasurable, I agree with Henry James's remark that the "constant presence of thought, . . . of brain, in a word, behind her observation, gives the latter its great value and her whole manner its high superiority. It denotes," as he says, "a mind in which imagination is illumined by faculties rarely found in fellowship with it."