May 30, 2008

Some People Read Scott, Anyway!

My previous post inspired Amateur Reader to reflect on the joys and challenges of Scott, with engaging posts on The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Redgauntlet so far:
The word that Scott can't escape is "slack". Rarely is he in a hurry to get anywhere, so he requires patience, perhaps too much at times. The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency.
But AR acknowledges the charms of Scott's inefficiencies, giving due attention, for instance, to Madge Wildfire in Heart of Midlothian and Wandering Willie's Tale in Redgauntlet. I think we agree that there's more to life than "push[ing] the story forward." (In a comment at AR's place, I tried to imagine Dickens being efficient. Sometimes perhaps writers should do things just because they can--Joe's hat falling off the mantel in Great Expectations, or the head of Charles I in David Copperfield. Constrain that imagination and maybe you don't get Krook's spontaneous combustion, or Miss Havisham and her wedding cake....)

Another interesting comment: "Honor and loyalty - Scott returns to this theme repeatedly. Perhaps one reason we do not read Scott so much now is that we our ideas about honor have changed too much since Scott's time." Scott isn't afraid to showcase virtue, either: I'm thinking of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian, almost certainly too steadfast to be the heroine of a novel by any other 19th-century novelist.

Still, the evidence of my very small sample (including those commenting at WutheringExpectations) is not overwhelming in Scott's favour. No question, he's not a crowd-pleaser, but I'm reminded of the annoying ads for local brewery Alexander Keith's: "Those who like it, like it a lot!"

May 26, 2008

Who Reads Scott Anymore?

Skipping back along a chain of links this morning, I found myself at this article in "The Reader Online" by Brian Nellist, a long-time member of the English faculty at the University of Liverpool (and, among many other things, co-editor of the edition of Margaret Oliphant's Hester that I recently used in my graduate seminar on Victorian Women Writers). Titled "People Don't Read Scott Anymore," the article pushes off from the scene of Mr. Ramsey reading Scott in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, in which "Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page." "The answer to Tansley’s taunt," Nellist proposes,
is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading.
He follows this up with a fascinating and detailed account of the experience of reading Scott, particularly The Antiquary, the novel Mr. Ramsey is reading in To the Lighthouse. Some samples:
Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. . . .

Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. . . . Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t.
The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

And now here's the question: Is it true that people don't read Scott anymore? I admit I haven't read The Antiquary, but I've read a modest number of Scott's novels and until this year have persisted in including Waverley on the syllabus every time I teach the early 19th-century novel course here. My special affection for this smart, funny, poignant, satirical, self-conscious novel was begun and fostered by my studies with Harry Shaw at Cornell, and repeated re-readings and, especially, re-teachings have only enhanced the pleasure I take in it (though, sadly, I can't be as confident about the pleasure my students have taken in it, though I have found that you can predict someone's overall success in the course pretty well from whether they 'get' the humour in Waverley). My favourite exam "sight passage" (future students take note) is from the end of Chapter 16:
[Waverley] had now time to give himself up to the full romance of his situation. Here he sate on the banks of an unknown lake; under the guidance of a wild native, whose language was unknown to him, on a visit to the den of some renowned outlaw, a second Robin Hood perhaps, or Adam o' Gordon, and that at deep midnight, through scenes of difficulty and toil, separated from his attendant, left by his guide. -- What a variety of incidents for the exercise of a romantic imagination, and all enhanced by the solemn feeling of uncertainty, at least, if not of danger? The only circumstance which assorted ill with the rest, was the cause of his journey -- the Baron's milk-cows! This degrading incident he kept in the background.
Waverley and the excesses and errors of his "romantic imagination" obviously provide much of the comedy, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the novel (along with the Boring Baron of Bradwardine)--I always recommend to my students that they count the number of times "our hero" trips, falls down, or is carried injured or unconscious away from some potentially heroic situation. But the best scene for grasping what I take Nellist to be talking about, in terms of Scott's engagement with the past, is Fergus's trial, including Evan Dhu's heart-stoppingly sincere offer of his life in exchange for his feudal master's:

Evan Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court, and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The Judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed. ‘I was only ganging to say, my lord,’ said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, ‘that if your excellent honour and the honourable Court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and no to trouble King George’s government again, that ony six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye mysell, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.’

Notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a sort of laugh was heard in the court at the extraordinary nature of the proposal. The Judge checked this indecency, and Evan, looking sternly around, when the murmur abated, ‘If the Saxon gentlemen are laughing,’ he said, ‘because a poor man, such as me, thinks my life, or the life of six of my degree, is worth that of Vich Ian Vohr, it’s like enough they may be very right; but if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.’

There was no farther inclination to laugh among the audience, and a dead silence ensued.

(Haven't read it? You really should! Here's an etext, though you'll probably want an edition with lots of notes.)

Let's see: I've also read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, The Talisman, Kenilworth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, and Redgauntlet (on which I actually published an article once). That's not really very many, considering the man's vast output, but I'd consider it a good sampling. I am also the owner of a battered copy of Quentin Durward inscribed to my grandfather as a Christmas gift in 1910, from the boys' school he attended. (I'm guessing that he was more excited about Quentin Durward than he was the volume of Mrs. Hemans's poems they gave him in 1912 "for good conduct"!)

So, what about it, dear readers (to use a very Victorian address)? Do people read Scott anymore? What Scott have you read, what are your favourites, and what would you say is special about the experience he offers us as readers?

May 25, 2008

Zadie Smith on George Eliot: the "Secular Laureate of Revelation"

In The Guardian this weekend, there's a nice long piece by Zadie Smith on George Eliot. (Thanks to Nigel Beale for making sure I didn't miss this.) Though I would quibble over some details (I don't agree, for instance, with the characterization of Middlemarch as "messy"), I am impressed at the level of detail and thoughtfulness in Smith's discussion. She starts with Henry James's assessment of the novel--well-travelled territory, but she finds her own way through his specific obtuseness about the significance of Fred Vincy. "[Y]ou can see why Henry didn't have much time for Fred," she says, but she offers a compelling analysis of Fred's significance to both the philosophy of the novel (which she carefully addresses in terms of Eliot's affinities to Spinoza) and to its form, in which there are of necessity many centers, not just one. A sample:
Fred is in love with a good girl; a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Casaubon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him ("She is the best girl I know!") - and he's right. Of all of them Fred has neither chosen a chimerical good, nor radically mistaken his own nature. He's not as dim as he seems. He doesn't idealise his good as Dorothea does when she imagines Casaubon a second Milton, and he doesn't settle on a good a priori, like Lydgate, who has long believed that a doting, mindless girl is just what a man of science needs. What Fred surmises of the good he stumbles upon almost by accident, and only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is in possession of no theory to impose upon it.
A bit later on,
If Fred didn't love Mary, he would have no reason to exercise his imagination on her family. It's love that makes him realise that two women without their savings are a real thing in the world and not merely incidental to his own sense of dishonour. It's love that enables him to feel another's pain as if it were his own. For Eliot, in the absence of God, all our moral tests must take place on this earth and have their rewards and punishments here. We are each other's lesson, each other's duty. This turns out to be a doctrine peculiarly suited to a certain kind of novel writing. Middlemarch is a dazzling dramatisation of earthly human striving.
I don't feel Smith is as smart about the form of Middlemarch as she is about some of its themes and philosophical interests. Near the end she remarks that the novel "seems to hint at those doubts in the efficacy of narrative that were to follow in the next century. Why always Dorothea, why heroes, why the centrality of a certain character in a narrative, why narrative at all? Eliot, being a Victorian, did not go all the way down that road." I don't see "why narrative at all?" as one of Eliot's questions--which may, perhaps, have something to do with being Victorian, but Smith's phrasing has the patronizing undertones of modernism. Eliot was not trying to get away from narrative (is that even possible?) but to revise it, and particularly to get away from linearity (which may, in fact, be what Smith means by "narrative"). She tackles the problem Carlyle identified (a century before the "next century" Smith refers to) about the "efficacy of narrative"--"narrative is linear, action is solid"--with a construction full of complex returns, repetitions, and doubling back, as well as the famous shifts in point of view epitomized, as Smith notes, in the question "But why always Dorothea?"

I also think Smith is not being careful enough when she moves, at the end of her piece, to make Middlemarch a stand-in for a totalizing category of the "19th-century English novel." Middlemarch does things no other novel did in the 19th century. But so, in a very different way, did Vanity Fair or Bleak House or Barchester Towers. She wants to lump them all in together for her own polemical purposes, to reject what she sees as a lingering Victorianism and call for something new:
That 19th-century English novels continue to be written today with troubling frequency is a tribute to the strength of Eliot's example and to the nostalgia we feel for that noble form. Eliot would be proud. But should we be? For where is our fiction, our 21st-century fiction?
These objections seem a bit odd coming from someone who has often been labelled "Dickensian," though (as I've briefly discussed before) this label seems only loosely applicable in her case. What exactly does she mean by it? Presumably she means that many novelists today use techniques and conventions also used in the 19th century--but surely this does not a 19th-century novel make. Victorian novelists have been understood as writing historical novels about their own present--this investigative impulse may also continue in the work of contemporary novelists. But the world itself has changed; isn't there novelty in that alone? Eliot talks about the effects of a "microscope directed on a water drop"--but changing the slide, while keeping the equipment, is not necessarily a conservative or nostalgic choice. You use the tools you need to get the job done. Can't novelists read their world and craft their insights into narrative without losing credibility? To me, this call to 'make it new' is an unnecessary polemical flourish at the end of a good piece, the most important talking point of which should really be,
It's a mistake to hate Middlemarch because the pollsters love it. That would be to denude oneself of one of those good things of the world that Spinoza advised we cling to.

May 23, 2008

The Death of the Critic, Reprise

Bill Benzon kindly pointed out this Salon piece to me:
Louis Bayard: The signs are ominous, Laura. Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land. All the indicators suggest that America's critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species.

Or maybe something a little more than endangered, judging from the title that's just come across our desks: "The Death of the Critic." Ronan McDonald, the author, is a lecturer in English and American studies at Britain's University of Reading, and he's particularly exercised by what he sees as the loss of the "public critic," someone with "the authority to shape public taste." It's only in the final chapter that the mystery behind the critic's disappearance is solved. The culprit is none other than ... cultural studies! (With a healthy assist from poststructuralism.) By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function -- the right to say this is good, this isn't, and here's why.

So, Laura, it seems that, if we aren't quite dead, we critics are on something like life support.

Laura Miller: I suppose it's only natural that McDonald, being an academic himself, would blame the academy. He believes that substantive scholarly criticism acts as a foundation for serious non-scholarly criticism -- such as reviews and essays in newspapers and magazines -- lending credibility to the idea that criticism (specifically, literary criticism) is a job for trained experts. When academia falls down on the job of, as you put it, saying what's good and what's not, then all criticism starts to look arbitrary and dispensable. We don't have celebrated "public critics" now because critics don't care about the public, not because the public doesn't care about critics. What do you think: Is criticism responsible for its own demise?

I didn't see any great revelations in their discussion, but there are some good moments. Here's one I liked:

Bayard: I like that phrase "go home with" because, when I think about the critics I love the most, they're not necessarily the ones I agree with, they're the ones I'd like to date. I argue with them, but when they're gone, their music is still bopping around in my brain. Many years ago, Susan Sontag, in "Against Interpretation," argued for "an erotics of art." Is it time now for an erotics of criticism? Instead of bemoaning the decline of literature, should we be doing a better job of showing people what they're missing: the excitement of unexpected insights, the thrill of new voices, the sex of ideas? That sounds like a lot more fun than figuring out which fiefdom we're going to defend in the Theory Wars. (I've a hunch Ronan McDonald would be on our side.)

Miller: You're right! Why pillory theory, when even the people who used to espouse it are saying it's dead? Let's talk about what makes for a good critic. I often think that there are two kinds: the ones whose taste I find simpatico -- the ones I come to for recommendations on what to read -- and the ones who are themselves terrific writers, irrespective of what they recommend. Sometimes there's an overlap, but not often.

There are critics, like Wood, that I go out of my way to read, although I have no intention of ever opening the books they tout. That's indicative of an additional aspect to criticism besides evaluation (which McDonald wants to bring back to academic criticism) and interpretation (that is, elucidating the work and its many meanings, which we could use more of in journalistic criticism). It's the literary worth of the criticism in and of itself, and the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work.

Yes: "the chance to see a sophisticated reader at work"--that sums up a lot of the pleasure I too take in reading James Wood. And they also offer a couple of unusually reasonable remarks on the usual straw targets, bloggers and English professors:

Bayard: Yeah, the blogosphere is the elephant in the room that McDonald never really gets round to discussing, but to my mind, it's a far more pressing issue for criticism than theory is. Why pay a professional critic to evaluate something when you have a gazillion volunteer evaluators ready to fire off at any given moment? . . . I myself don't have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn't qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I've learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism. [that "believe it or not" seems gratuitous --why should it be hard to believe?]

Miller: . . . It hardly matters whether or not an English professor actually likes to read novels and poetry, does it? Books are the salt mine, and the academics are the miners. If anything, literary enthusiasm can be a detriment if your job is to prosecute books for their ideological crimes. When even English professors won't stand up for literature, is it any wonder it's failing? [Sigh!]

But in reply, Bayard: Well, it's been a while since I was in college, but I do remember professors who loved English literature every bit as much as I do, so I don't want to tar the whole profession out of hand. [Whew! Because I'm pretty sure some other people would be right there with feathers to finish the job!]
I wrote up some thoughts of my own about McDonald's book here. McDonald and I share an interest in reviving the role of the "public critic," but I can't quite get on board with his emphasis on evaluation as the necessary method. I give some reasons for that here, in response to an inquiry from Nigel Beale--and, more facetiously, here!

May 20, 2008

Reading George Eliot Well

(cross-posted to The Valve)

I've been rereading Edward Dowden's 1872 review essay on George Eliot and appreciating it very much. For no other reason than that, here are some excerpts (think of them as teasers for my forthcoming Broadview anthology).
When we have passed in review the works of that great writer who calls herself George Eliot, and given for a time our use of sight to her portraitures of men and women, what form, as we move away, persists on the field of vision, and remains the chief centre of interest for the imagination? The form not of Tito, or Maggie, or Dinah, or Silas, but of one who, if not the real George Eliot, is that “second self” who writes her books, and lives and speaks through them. Such a second self of an author is perhaps more substantial than any mere human personality; encumbered with the accidents of flesh and blood and daily living. It stands at some distance from the primary self, and differs considerably from its fellow. It presents its person to us with fewer reserves; it is independent of local and temporary motives of speech or of silence; it knows no man after the flesh; it is more than an individual; it utters secrets, but secrets which all men of all ages are to catch; while, behind it, lurks well pleased the veritable historical self secure from impertinent observation and criticism. With this second self of George Eliot it is, not with the actual historical person, that we have to do. And when, having closed her books, we gaze outward with the mind’s eye, the spectacle we see is that most impressive spectacle of a great nature, which has suffered and has now attained, which was perplexed and has grasped the clue--standing before us not without tokens on lip and brow of the strife and the suffering, but resolute, and henceforth possessed of something which makes self-mastery possible. The strife is not ended, the pain may still be resurgent; but we perceive on which side victory must lie.

This personal accent in the writings of George Eliot does not interfere with their dramatic truthfulness; it adds to the power with which they grasp the heart and conscience of the reader. We cannot say with confidence of any one of her creations that it is a projection of herself; the lines of their movement are not deflected by hidden powers of attraction or repulsion peculiar to the mind of the author; most noteworthy is her impartiality towards the several creatures of her imagination; she condemns but does not hate; she is cold or indifferent to none; each lives his own life, good or bad; but the author is present in the midst of them, indicating, interpreting; and we discern in the moral laws, the operation of which presides over the action of each story, those abstractions from the common fund of truth which the author has found most needful to her own deepest life. We feel in reading these books that we are in the presence of a soul, and a soul which has had a history.

At the same time the novels of George Eliot are not didactic treatises. They are primarily works of art, and George Eliot herself is artist as much as she is teacher. Many good things in particular passages of her writings are detachable; admirable sayings can be cleared from their surroundings, and presented by themselves, knocked out clean as we knock out fossils from a piece of limestone. But if we separate the moral soul of any complete work of hers from its artistic medium, if we murder to dissect, we lose far more than we gain. . . .

Of rights of man, or rights of woman, we never hear speech from George Eliot. But we hear of the duties of each. The claim asserted by the individual on behalf of this or that disappears, because the individual surrenders his independence to collective humanity, of which he is a part. And it is another consequence of this way of thinking that the leadings of duty are most often looked for, not within, in the promptings of the heart, but without, in the relations of external life, which connect us with our fellow-men. Our great English novelist does not preach as her favourite doctrine the indefeasible right of love to gratify itself at the expense of law; with the correlative right, equally indefeasible, to cast away the marriage bond as soon as it has become a painful incumbrance. She regards the formal contract, even when its spirit has long since died, as sacred and of binding force. Why? Because it is a formal contract. “The light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary, because they had ceased to be pleasant, would be the uprooting of social and personal virtue.” Law is sacred. Rebellion, it is true, may be sacred also. There are moments of life “when the soul must dare to act upon its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in the face of a law which is not unarmed with Divine lightnings--lightnings that may yet fall if the warrant has been false.” These moments, however, are of rare occurrence, and arise only in extreme necessity. When Maggie and Stephen Guest are together and alone in the Mudport Inn, and Maggie has announced her determination to accompany him no farther, Stephen pleads:--“‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us to each other is too strong to be overcome: that natural law surmounts every other; we can’t help what it clashes with.’ ‘It is not so, Stephen. I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty. We should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’” . . .

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” As the life of the race lying behind our individual life points out the direction in which alone it can move with dignity and strength, so our own past months and years lying behind the present hour and minute deliver over to these a heritage and a tradition which it is their wisdom joyfully to accept when that is possible. There are moments, indeed, which are the beginning of a new life; when, under a greater influence than that of the irreversible Past, the current of our life takes an unexpected course; when a single act transforms the whole aspect of the world in which we move; when contact with a higher nature than our own suddenly discovers to us some heroic quality of our heart of the existence of which we had not been aware. Such is the virtue of confession of evil deeds or desires to a fellow-man, it restores us to an attitude of noble simplicity; we are rescued from the necessity of joining hands with our baser self. But these moments of new birth do not come by intention or choice. . . .

. . . All that helps to hold our past and present together is therefore precious and sacred. It is well that our affections should twine tenderly about all material tokens and memorials of bygone days. Why should Tito keep his father’s ring? Why indulge a foolish sentiment, a piece of mere superstition, about an inanimate object? And so Tito sells the ring, and with it closes the bargain by which he sells his soul. There is, indeed, a noble pressing forward to things that are before, and forgetting of things that are behind. George Eliot is not attracted to represent a character in which such an ardour is predominant, and the base forgetting of things behind alarms and shocks her. It is noted, as characteristic of Hetty’s shallow nature, that in her dream of the future, the brilliant future of the Captain’s wife, there mingles no thought of her second parents, no thought of the children she had helped to tend, of any youthful companion, any pet animal, any relic of her own childhood. “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her, and never cared to be reminded of it again. I think she had no feeling at all towards the old house, and did not like the Jacob’s ladder and the long row of hollyhocks in the garden better than any other flowers--perhaps not so well.” Jubal, after his ardent pursuit of song through the world, would return to Lamech’s home, “hoping to find the former things.” Silas Marner would see once more the town where he was born, and Lantern Yard, where the lots had declared him guilty. But Hetty is like a plant with hardly any roots; “lay it over your ornamental flower-pot and it blossoms none the worse.”

This is the life we mortals live. And beyond life lies death. Now it is not hard to face it. We have already given ourselves up to the large life of our race. We have already died as individual men and women. And we see how the short space of joy, of suffering, and of activity allotted to each of us urges to helpful toil, and makes impossible for us the “glad idlesse” of the immortal denizen of earth. . . .
I feel about this commentary the way I have felt about some of James Wood's reviews: it offers a sympathetic, rather than a suspicious or symptomatic reading, one that helps us move into the artistic, intellectual, moral, and emotional world created by the author, clarifying, amplifying, and illustrating what's on offer there. There is something to be gained by reading with the grain sometimes. And there are some real critical insights here, too: for instance, Dowden's idea of the authorial 'second self' anticipates by nearly a century Wayne Booth's concept of the 'implied author.' I like the way Dowden insists on the significance of Eliot's dramatic and aesthetic form, even as he acknowledges and then dedicates much of his analysis to her ethics. He shows the stringency of the demands she makes, explicitly on her characters and implicitly on her readers, to let go their "baser self." He also helps explain why Eliot's novels are not easy fodder for Hollywood adaptations: love is too often not the answer, or not the right answer, or not the only answer.

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

Some support for George Eliot's view that, "among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous":
We cannot think that he will live as an English classic. He deals too much in accidental manifestations and too little in universal principles. Before long his language will have passed away, and the manners he depicts will only be found in a Dictionary of Antiquities. And we do not all anticipate that he will be rescued from oblivion either by his artistic powers or by his political sagacity.
The author in question? Charles Dickens. (The source is an 1864 essay by Justin McCarthy.) Another potential lesson here? Evaluation is a risky critical mode.

May 18, 2008

50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

This week in the Globe and Mail's "50 Greatest Books" series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen's famous remark about her "little bit of ivory (two inches wide)" and claiming that Austen "shoved aside" broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:
We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that's all she knew. And yet ... Austen's family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin's husband guillotined in the French Revolution....Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience--the fact that a woman's station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)
I agree entirely that "Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age" and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting "in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness" (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the "talky, civilized celebration of minds" that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason "this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life." But to describe Elizabeth's achievement strictly in terms of "her fidelity to herself" is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel's revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her "happiness," for instance, is part of Elizabeth's great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against "the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune." Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth's ringing declaration that she owes no "reference" to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine's appalled demand "Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?" is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth's reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pas to a tradesman’s daughter. (interest caught? read the rest here--you won't regret it, all 90o pages of it...)

Austen's delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy's benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates "from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley" (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine's world.

"How much more interesting their life together promises to be," Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, "than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors." Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be "turgid": it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy's romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy--again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls "payback."

May 17, 2008

Blogging, Criticism, Reviewing

A recent discussion at The Reading Experience raises questions related to some I have raised before here and have been thinking about a lot again as I try to imagine how best to direct the energy I have put into blogging--issues such as whether 'litblogging' is at its best when used as a form of literary journalism or reviewing (focusing on the new), what kind of writing about 'classic' or old literature has appeal or relevance to modern readers, whether (or how) blogging can also serve as a medium for popularizing or making literary expertise accessible, or whether there really is any comfortable middle ground between academic specialization and standards and the interests and habits of common readers. From Dan's original post:
What the litblogosphere promises to offer is the possibility of multiple sources of well-supported reviews and commentary (many more than have been available in print publications, whose numbers are only continuing to decline, anyway), which can only enrich the discussion of current fiction (and poetry) and in turn encourage writers to believe their work is getting serious attention.
And from the comments that followed (all are excerpts; other comments also appear in the original thread):
Which is precisely why I grumble over the fact that an awful lot of Litcritbloggage (not the majority, probably, but a worry-worthy chunk) seems wasted on texts long-established in reputation (and thoroughly colonized by academics; in some cases for centuries), not to mention being relatively impervious to casual analysis. (Steve Augustine)

But has it ever occurred to you that people who blog about texts that are "long-established in reputation" do so because they are new to them? Because they didn't read them in school? And that the odds that they have been exposed to much of the critical apparatus is rather small? Are you suggesting that one should first read all the extant literature before deciding whether something ought to be blogged? (Richard)

Bloggers discover as we discover (not everyone's put paid to the canon the way you have); their essential charm (I think it's charming) is that they flatten the mountaintop elevating the critic-priest above the rabble and allow us to watch them form and respond to ideas. In other words, their discovery of Austen or James at the age of X is crucial to *them*, if not to us, it provides answers to questions *they've* wondered about, fills holes in *their* knowledge that they (well, some of them) are happy to admit to having had. I don't think it's necessarily a critical form, I think it's often a form of self-expression, and I suppose that to gripe about someone's preoccupation with Thomas Hardy when there's so little attention going to Jerome Charyn is to cast that someone in a role they haven't sought out. (Chris)

I find classics blogging among "serious" litbloggers (ie, those positioning themselves to take the baton when periodical print collapses) relatively useless; not because of the medium, but because there are already metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis of Shakespeare, Homer, you name it, in print. Seeing centuries-old opinions on Hamlet rehashed (or mutilated) online in a not-entirely-serious fashion doesn't float my boat. If I have to read civilian (non-academic) takes on Hamlet, I prefer to read something that Anthony Burgess or Victor Pritchett or George Steiner sweated over for weeks or months... otherwise, the results are fairly back-to-High-Schoolish...I'd just like to see more critical litbloggers who take themselves seriously step up to the plate and provide more of the kind of content that *really can* give the best of what we called "print" (past tense because I'm thinking of a Golden Age) a run for its money... (Steve Augustine again)
I certainly agree with those who don't think there's any call to be prescriptive about these issues: individual motives for writing and reading blogs vary widely, and the distinctive features of the form are precisely its accessibility to all (internet-connected) people and its adaptability to all voices, styles, and agendas. The questions I raise above, then, really have to do with my own interests and aspirations as a blogger and a critic: what can or should I in particular be writing out here, particularly if I want to identify this blog as part of my professional work in more than a very peripheral way? I'm not an expert on, or even an avid reader of, contemporary fiction, particularly of the more experimental kind for which Dan Green is such a persistent advocate. I can contribute only as an amateur reviewer, then, where new releases are concerned, and while I enjoy writing up comments on my recent reading and sometimes feel I have found something of interest to say, I can't afford the time (and lack much incentive) to turn these posts into genuine thought-pieces. I'm in a better position to talk knowledgeably about Victorian fiction, but Steve is certainly right that there are "metric tons of readily accessible critical analysis" on all the classic texts, including any on which I feel qualified to opine. So here my contributions will be better-informed, but they are not likely to be especially original--meaning the key issue becomes purpose and audience. If I aim for the kind of originality necessary for a scholarly publication, I'll be back to writing esoterica for fellow academics, and the claustrophobia that practice induced was what drove me to the blogosphere in the first place. But is it any more useful or productive--any more of a contribution to literary understanding--to add my own 2-cents worth to what's already available to a general reader (including on the internet) about Middlemarch or Jane Eyre? Someone like Michael Dirda or James Wood has the 'street cred' (or market appeal) to do this (though I'm currently reading Dirda's Classics for Pleasure and I think the same questions could quite reasonably be asked about the need for or value of his contribution as well). I think a key point, made by a couple of the comments quoted above, is that the classics are in fact new to everyone at some point, so there is genuine pedagogical value in critical material that helps them make the most of their reading experiences. In the classroom (or in the right internet context) there's always a good reason to explain (again) ways of reading and thinking about Middlemarch...

I realize that this is to put a fairly solipsistic spin on a more abstract discussion. But, hey, this is my blog, after all! Here are earlier some of the versions of this semi-internal debate, showing that, after over a year of blogging (and blog-reading), I have not moved very far ahead on these questions:
Literary journalism differs from literary criticism, it is usually assumed, in being prompted by an occasion needing a fairly prompt response to give it relevance. Criticism takes more of a long view. But without that occasion, that immediacy, what appeal does criticism have for the non-academic reader, especially in a medium like the internet? Is there an audience online for writing about Dickens or George Eliot? And what could be said that would matter, or appeal? The kind of stuff that gets written for academic audiences apparently (unsurprisingly) alienates almost everyone else, while the kind of stuff that gets written for popular audiences often seems trivial or redundant to those who read the academic stuff. And yet...books such as John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel or Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer do get published, so there is presumably some interest out there in enhancing one's experience of reading "the classics." One approach might be to look for the contemporary relevance in past authors, as I attempted to do with my paper on George Eliot as "Moralist for the 21st Century." But that means only highlighting authors and texts that lend themselves to modern purposes, which gets pretty tendentious and unsatisfactory pretty fast. ("The Occasion for Blogging," May 24, 2007)

Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there's presumably no longer any question of reviewing them--or is there? Actually, that's an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a 'classic' be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. ("More on the Purpose of Criticism," June 20, 2007)

The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen's account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there's not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers' attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can't find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on 'writing for readers,' but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen's words, "frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value," I'm going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus--ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation. ("Professors, Start Your Blogs...," July 18, 2007)

One aspect of this situation that I've been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It's difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. . . . Further to that last point, I'm starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into 'bookish' and 'academic'--and the academic ones really don't seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc....) I 'm thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled 'A Literary Organ,' after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren't really equipped to jump in--and there too, I don't see that much discussion, to return to my first point. ("If a Blog Falls in the Forest," October 22, 2007)

May 11, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Orientalism, Psychology of Fiction, Frowning on Smiley

At the TLS, Robert Irwin (the author of Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents) reviews two other recent works of Orientalist revisionism, Daniel Martin Varisco's Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid and Ibn Warraq's Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism:

So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely “speaking truth to power”.

It is unlikely that the two books under review, both of which present damning criticisms of Said’s book at length and in detail, will change anything. (read the rest here)
A new blog, OnFiction, will focus on the psychology of fiction. Contributor Keith Oatley (author of the very interesting re-vision of Middlemarch, A Natural History, as well as a great many scientific papers and books) offers this interesting suggestion for what makes a 'great' novel:
From the point of view of the psychology of fiction, one of the criteria that may distinguish great novels from those that are merely entertaining, is that a great work is not about persuasion. There is no mental coercion of the reader to run only on rails laid by the writer. Of course there is structure, with settings, characters, conversation, and events, but along with these a great novelist offers what D.W. Winnicott, in his book Playing and reality, called a "potential space between the individual and the environment," a space in which the reader's imagination can expand, and in which, as the reader takes up the words of the writer, the experience of the book can become the reader's own. George Eliot's Middlemarch is one of the world's great novels because the author offers the reader exactly this kind of space-in-between.
(Looking up A Natural History at Chapters in order to insert the link, I find that my tentative plan to assign it for a graduate seminar on "Middlemarch in/and the 21st Century" (along with Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun) will be complicated, if not foiled, by finding it apparently out of print.)

I happened upon a site called Open Letters Monthly; one of their reviewers really hated Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel:
Great Books was a bestseller, and many more books have since sprouted in the rut it plowed, with names like Book Lust, The Literary 100, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, and so on, each offering go-get-‘em homilies about Western classics, and each, it more and more appears, aspiring in a ponderous, paginated way to be a blog. We can vainly hope that the low point of this trend was realized in 2005 with Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, in which the author reads 101 randomly chosen books and then, for no special reason, tells you what she thinks is wrong with them. This book is solely predicated on Smiley’s environmentally unsound conviction that whenever she happens to write something, no matter how trivial or self-involved it is, trees should die so that it may see print. One of the unexplored virtues of the blog may be its role in obviating bad or negligible books by acting as a valve for our more egregious writerly chatterers—in any case, if ever anyone needed a benignly ignorable blogspot account, it’s Smiley. (read the rest here)
A much more favorable review of Smiley can be found on this "benignly ignorable blogspot account," right over here. In the meantime, I have ordered the Michael Dirda volume also mentioned in the Open Letters review, Classics for Pleasure, and will eventually review it here in my 'books about books' series.

May 10, 2008

Olivia Manning, The Fortunes of War

This two-volume set is actually a sextet of shorter novels, the first three comprising The Balkan Trilogy, the second The Levant Trilogy. According to my Penguin editions, Anthony Burgess described this series as "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer." The war in question is, of course, the second World War, but if Burgess's remark leads you to expect a sweeping war-time saga full of action, heroism, drama and suspense, you'll be surprised--as I was. In the first volume, set first in Romania and then in Greece, our protagonists are at the periphery of the conflict, which is spreading through Europe and gradually encroaches on their lives without ever directly reaching it, as they leave both Bucharest and then Athens on the eve of German occupation. All of the motley array of characters are versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bit players with no important part to play in the real story, except that theirs is the story, and it's not comic--or tragic, either. (Some textual evidence that Manning herself conceived of her characters in this way comes in the Coda to The Levant Trilogy, in which she compares them to "the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy"). The novels unfold in a strangely muted register that matches the characters' global insignificance even as the interest, and pathos of their circumstances and their endearing and irritating individual characteristics eventually win us over to believing in and caring about them.

I was fascinated with the picture Manning offers of the British abroad in this particular historical moment; the novels are highly autobiographical, or at any rate follow closely the historical and geographical situations she and her husband experienced, and Manning was clearly an astute observer of the both the local and the expatriat cultures she participated in. She is particularly understated and yet pointed (if that's not too paradoxical a description) about the anti-Semitism in Romania, illustrating its character and effects while keeping its worst realities just off-stage. The horrible truths are shown most explicitly through the story of the banker Drucker, whose son Sasha the Pringles eventually shelter in their flat. Imprisoned by the Romanians ostensibly for trading in currency on the black market but really, it is clear, for the crime of being a rich Jew, he is eventually released for trial, and Harriet Pringle goes on Sasha's behalf to get a look at how he has fared:
Harriet, who had seen Drucker only once, ten months before, remembered him as a man in fresh middle age, tall, weighty, elegant, handsome, who had welcomed her with a warm gaze of admiration.
What appeared was an elderly stooping skeleton, a cripple who descended the steps by dropping the same foot each time and dragging the other after. The murmurs of 'Drucker' told her that, whether she could believe it or not, this was he. Then she recognised the suit of English tweed he had been wearing when he had entertained the Pringles to luncheon. The suit was scarcely a suit at all now....
From the bottom step he half-smiled, as if in apology, at his audience, then, seeing Harriet, the only woman present, he looked puzzled. He paused and one of the warders gave him a kick that sent him sprawling over the narrow pavement. As he picked himself up, there came from him a stench like the stench of a carrion bird. The warder kicked at him again and he fell forward, clutching at the van steps and murmuring "Da, da," in zealous obedience.
Harriet's specific emotional response is not elaborated on, and why should it be? We have, presumably, shared it, and we understand her decision, arriving home, to "deceive Sasha. He was never likely to see his father again." She reports only "'Your father looked very well,'" and that kind, protective lie speaks eloquently of the destructive inhumanity of the truth. Key moments of high suspense or emotion are treated in this cool, matter-of-fact way throughout, as when the Pringles arrive home to find that Sasha has been taken in a raid:
The bed-covers were on the floor, and as Harriet piled them back on to the bed, the mouth-organ fell from among them. She handed it to Guy as proof that he had been taken, and forcibly. Under the bed-covers was the forged passport, torn in half - derisively, it seemed.
Remembering her childhood pets whose deaths had broken her heart, she said: "They'll murder him, of course."
The next day, "Harriet [is] surprised that she felt nothing." The risk, in both her consciousness and the narrative, seems to be that, in such circumstances, the only options are feeling nothing or being overwhelmed with feeling. Cumulatively, though, for this reader anyway, the effect of the persistent resistance to melodrama is a story nearly stripped of its human essentials and thus of a sense of what the novels stand for in the face of totalitarianism. Towards the end of their stay in Athens, for example, a major character whose quirks and (mis)fortunes we have followed since the first pages is unexpectedly and unnecessarily shot, more or less accidentally and at random. Is it because destruction and death are always at the margins of their lives, because the war has taken normalcy from them, that his companions feel more inconvenienced than anything else?
The manager agreed to let the body rest for the night in one of the hotel bathrooms. The four friends followed as it was carried away from the terrace and placed on a bathroom floor. As the door was locked upon it, the all clear sounded. The manager, offering his commiserations, shook hands all round and the English party left the hotel. Alan, hourly expecting an evacuation order, had decided to spend the night in his office. Ben Phipps, on his way to Psychico, dropped the Pringles off at the academy.
Pop psychology terms like "coping strategies" come to mind: these non-combatants are struggling for survival themselves, but their enemies are not the Nazis so much as the moral and social rootlessness they experience, with military victory, and thus the survival of their 'home' countries and values, uncertain, and with reminders of their own mortality and insignificance nearly constant.

In this context, Guy Pringle is a fascinating figure (though I don't see why he's the one Burgess highlights as "one of the major characters in modern fiction," given the much greater priority given to the experience and perspective of his wife). Guy is a lecturer in English literature notable for his expansive energy, which in The Balkan Trilogy he invests in two major theatrical productions. The one treated in most detail is an amateur production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a project for which he recruits many of the other major characters--but, tellingly, not Harriet, with whom he declares he cannot work, because she will not take him or his effort seriously enough. His goals include raising the morale of the British residents and their friends in Bucharest as well as asserting the importance of British culture and history in the face of the military setbacks that have eroded the nation's stature abroad--they are, after all, on the losing side at this point. The German Propaganda Bureau keeps a map in its window indicating German advances across France with "broad arrows." "For Bucharest," we are told, "the fall of France was the fall of civilization....With France lost, there would be no stay or force against savagery....the victory of Nazi Germany would be the victory of darkness." In this context, Guy's preoccupation with his play is suggestive of fiddling while Rome burns, and yet at the same time it seems defiant, an assertion of the value of art and beauty and imagination. Emerging from the theatre, the audience learns that Paris has fallen: "Chastened, they emerged into the summer night and met reality, avoiding each others' eyes, guilty because they had escaped the last calamitous hours." They have been experiencing freedom of the mind, the kind of freedom that these novels make you feel is the most to be cherished in wartime. And yet where is the heroism in going to the theatre while around you suffer millions unable to escape in the most literal way?

Ambivalence to Guy's cultural projects, and indeed to Guy more generally, intensifies in The Levant Trilogy, written more than a decade after The Balkan Trilogy but picking up the story of most of the same characters as they move through another phase of displacement, this time in Egypt. Harriet's relationship with Guy has always been strained by his inability to put her needs even on the same level as the demands placed on him by everyone else he knows, as well as by his own obsession with his work. Harriet's discontent takes concrete form occasionally, as in a near-romance that evolves in Athens in the third novel of The Balkan Trilogy. In The Levant Trilogy, we see more of Harriet's efforts to develop an independent identity in the face of Guy's physical and emotional absence. In this series, though the war is brought much closer, through the character of Simon Boulderstone (is the redundancy of his surname significant?), with whom we travel to the front at last. Simon comes literally face to face with the horrors of the desert campaign:
Before him was a flat expanse of desert where the light was rolling out like a wave across the sand. Two tanks stood in the middle distance and imagining they had stopped for a morning brew-up, he decided to cross to them and ask if they had seen anything of the patrol or the batman's truck. It was too far to walk so he went by car, following the track till he was level with the tanks, then walking across the mardam. A man was standing in one of the turrets, motionless, as if unaware of Simon's approach. Simon stopped at a few yards' distance to observe the figure, then saw it was not a man. It was a man-shaped cinder that faced him with white and perfect teeth set in a charred black skull. He could make out the eye-sockets and the triangle that had once supported a nose then, returning at a run, he swung the car round and drove back between the batteries, so stunned that for a little while his own private anxiety was forgotten.
We see, too, that the violence of war has the capacity to reach 'civilians' with no easing of its horrors. Very early in this volume, for instance, a child is brought in who has been killed by the explosion of a hand grenade he picked up while playing in the desert. In what may be the most surrealistically gruesome and disturbing scene I've ever read, his distraught parents refuse to interpret the signs that he has been fatally wounded and attempt to revive him by pouring gruel into a hole blown into his cheek: "The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child into his arms, said, 'He wants to sleep. I'll take him to his room.'" His death prompts Harriet to think of "all the other boys who were dying in the desert before they had had a chance to live. And yet, though there was so much death at hand, she felt the boy's death was a death apart." Suffering was nearby throughout The Balkan Trilogy, but here we live in a community of the physically and spiritually wounded.

Yet even as the action and emotion of this trilogy had an intensity not often displayed in the earlier volume, it also seemed to me more directed at the unfolding of interior dramas for the characters, many of whom are struggling to define themselves against the expectations of others, or in the absence of well-defined or well-understood roles for themselves in the war-time conditions and foreign locations they are negotiating: Simon himself, for example, who has come to Egypt in part to follow in his brother's footsteps, or Harriet, who eventually hitches a lift into Syria in an attempt to claim some meaning for herself beyond being Guy's wife. Guy's obtuseness about Harriet's independent needs is highlighted more specifically here and his incessant busyness seems more irresponsible than it did in the first volume, perhaps because it's not seen as serving any greater purpose. The one major cultural event ends...unexpectedly...without any of the triumphant possibilities of Troilus and Cressida, though perhaps it has as much symbolic significance of its own, maybe even marking a rejection of the idealism that Guy represented.

I haven't really reached many interpretive conclusions about these books, but I have a lot of lingering questions. How far, for instance, do these books seek simply to chronicle how people lived through the exile from home and from normalcy imposed by the war, and how far do they prompt us to think about the global conflict as a reflection, an externalization, of abstract forces and values playing out on a personal scale as well? Is Manning's understated style itself some kind of statement about the limitations of aesthetic responses to catastrophe, or about the necessity we are under of living life on our own small scale, however grand the larger narrative? Is Guy offered up as the embodiment of some essentially British quality, and if so, how far is it critiqued and how far accepted or encouraged?

May 8, 2008

Virtual Roundtable on Hamlet Tonight

From Nigel Beale @ Nota Bene Books:
Please know that I am, as you read this email, hosting an online roundtable discussion of Hamlet. Participants are as follows:

Ed Champion, Filthy Habits

Sarah Weinman, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

Anne Fernald, Furnham

Amateur Reader, Wuthering Expectations

Initial take on Act 1 has just been posted. Commentary on the rest will appear within the next 48 hours. Discussion will continue throughout the weekend. Please, take the three hours required to reread the play (you won't regret it), and pull up a chair in the comments section.
Great idea, Nigel; I hope you get some good discussion.

May 7, 2008

A Note on Course Evaluations as a Guide to Future Conduct

They don't help (much). Here's why...

Should I change the reading list next year?
"There were a LOT of texts. Too many, really. It was impossible to keep up with the readings."

"It would have been interesting to add a few more books...I found the course load light enough that a few more (enjoyable) readings wouldn't have been oppressive."

"I loved the Moonstone--everything comes back to that."

"I really enjoyed the Moonstone; I thought it was the most interesting and hard to figure out."

"Great reading list except for the Moonstone. It was too long and boring."

"I think one of my favourite books from this course is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

"I thought Roger Ackroyd was unfair and not a clear example of Christie's usual style."

"Knots and Crosses a bit freaky."

"Do not drop Knots and Crosses, best book I have ever read."

"I found it more stimulating to examine actual books and stories rather than musty old course books." [?]
I know I talk quickly, but how much of a problem is that, really?
"Her lectures were indecipherable because of how rapidly she spoke."

"Maitzen speaks too fast. Slowing down would be helpful to take clear notes."

"I found the lectures interesting and stimulating (I didn't fall asleep in class once)."

"I do not think you talk too fast. I thoroughly enjoyed this class and look forward to taking classes taught by you in the future."

"I actually liked Maitzen's upbeat, fast-talking teaching style. It kept me from being bored and it kept me really listening."

"She spoke too quickly at times; it was difficult to take notes in this manner."

"I do not find she speaks too quickly. People need to take more condensed notes."
What about the assignment structure and methods of evaluation?
"Assignments are a great way of getting us to think about the material. 75-word limit was also a good challenge."

"I liked the way we had two assignments, and the in-class quizzes definitely were motivation to stay on track in class."

"I think the homework assignment format should be re-evaluated."

"The assignments were short and concise while still being challenging, which was a nice change from lengthy papers."

"Your response to the first assignment was completely inappropriate and extreme, you wasted 2 classes and called the class 'illiterate.'"

"I particularly appreciated the amount of time you dedicated to correcting in class the mistakes made on assignments. It genuinely helped and clarified my understanding of good writing!"

"She gives great constructive feedback on assignments and even gives us exercises that would help with our assignments."

"Actually enjoyed quizzes, felt questions were fair."

"For the quizzes I felt that there were too many questions on what were sometimes subtle statements made in class."

"Increase the value of attendance."

"Unsympathetic with the occasional absence."

"Group work was a nice change of pace."

"I hate group work and found those classes monotonous and unhelpful."
And the intellectual substance?
"Maitzen posed questions that forced you to think!"

"Extremely interesting books were featured and taught in an intellectually stimulating manner."

"Often lecture topics were repetitive or had little to do with the day's reading."

"Lectures were quick-paced and extremely informative. I never wanted to miss a class because so much material was covered in each lecture."

"Feminism within the texts wasn't over-emphasized."

"TOO MUCH FEMINISM. This isn't gender studies."
So, overall how did I do?
"The teaching was mediocre."

"One of the best profs I have had at Dal."

"No complaints."

"Pretty successful."

"Sort of funny."

"A great prof, very funny."

"Dr. Maitzen is a superstar!"
Anything else to add?
"Thanks for keeping a blog--helps with some insight from time to time."
I think the problem should be obvious. It's not that the feedback isn't welcomed or taken seriously, but if it's not at all consistent, it's hard to do anything in particular in response!

I should say (just for the record) that these are not the actual questions on our departmental course evaluation forms; these are the things I worry about as I look ahead to next year's classes. I specifically asked them about the fast talking, as it has come up a few times in my evaluations before. All of the responses, though, are taken verbatim from the forms.

Speaking of Updated Classics...

...apparently Ellen Page has been signed to star in a new film version of Jane Eyre:

BBC Films has signed the 20-year-old Halifax native in the latest adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel, with Page in the lead role.

The movie, scripted by Moira Buffini, still doesn't have a director or lead actor.

Page has become a Hollywood darling of sorts after being nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as a wise-cracking pregnant teen in the comedy Juno. The movie captured a best screenplay Oscar for Diablo Cody.

This would mark Page's first period piece. Bronte's 1847 book chronicles the melodramatic love story of a governess and her employer, Edward Rochester.

It's a piece of literature that has become a popular screen adaptation, with more than a dozen productions created for both television and cinema.
Any nominations for her leading man? Colin Firth, anyone?

I just hope they keep a lot more of Bronte's dialogue than adaptations of the novel usually do. It's much more crackling than the stuff the screenwriters usually come up with.

Update on New 'World's Classics' Edition

Further to Miriam's comment on my previous post about the re-launch of the Oxford World's Classics edition, my OUP rep tells me that "the cover art and ISBN will change but the pagination will remain the same." The exceptions, of course, will be books coming out in entirely new editions (the OUP blog post indicates, for example, a new edition of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--which, for a change, I am not actually teaching next year.)

In other news, I'm (obviously) in a bit of a posting slump. I blame the end of classes, which, for all the relief it brings, also sucks the life out of this job for me. I'm thinking about ways to liven things up again, though, at least until my spring session class begins in June. Maybe another modest series, something along the lines of "favourites from my bookshelf," or "favourite literary moments" with glosses. We'll see. (Any ideas? Any preferences? Anybody out there?)

May 1, 2008

Updated Classics

At the TLS, Margaret Reynolds calls our attention to the relaunch of the Oxford World's Classics editions. The article includes a survey of some available editions of Jane Eyre. A sample:

Oxford World's Classics
Jacket Clean and striking but she's too sulky.
Introduction By Oxford prof Sally Shuttleworth. Covers all bases and is excellent on the ending.
Text Based on first edition of 1847. Actual print a bit small.
Extra material Plenty on the text and publication of the novel.
Price £5.99. Good value.

Penguin Classics (Black)
Jacket A painting by Millais. Jane would never have worn this dress.
Introduction By novelist and critic Stevie Davies. Very good on the political context.
Text Revised edition of 1848, with some emendations. Clear print.
Extra material Chronology, notes and “Opinions of the Press”.
Price £5.99.

Vintage Classics
Jacket Clever, intriguing and spot on for the story.
Introduction No.
Text Based on the revised edition of 1848. Nice print.
Extra material Little life of Charlotte. Quote from Sarah Waters: "One of the most perfectly structured novels of all time". Meaning?
Price £5.99. Hmm.

I'm not entirely sure that this is quite the information I need to make my selection. Let's see: put me down for one copy of the sulky version with the introduction that "covers all bases" (I'm sure I usually miss one or two in my lectures) and one copy with the "clear print" for my aging eyes... Also, a testimonial about novel structure from the author of Fingersmith is good enough for me! The slide-show of the various covers is nice. I'd like to point out a good option that gets no mention at the TLS:
Broadview Edition
Jacket excellent-- see illustration at right
Introduction by Richard Nemesvari (my near neighbour, at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish): thorough and interesting.
Extra material is Broadview's specialty; in addition to the introduction and a chronology of Charlotte Bronte's life and publications, this edition includes selected correspondence as well as contemporary pieces on governesses, girls' education, race, and empire
Price Wow--only £4.99! ($12.95 US or Canadian)
Further information on the OUP relaunch is to be found at the OUP blog, where "Senior Commissioning Editor" (now that's a title) Judith Luna explains,
We wanted a new look that would be fresh and contemporary and appeal to general readers and browsers who might previously have thought Oxford World’s Classics were a bit too academic for them. So we have a clean white title panel, and white back and spine, and we have chosen dramatic crops of appropriate illustrations to intrigue and entice the reader. We also wanted a sense of continuity with the old look, so we have retained a red strip at the top of the spine and back cover, and added a tantalizing detail from the cover image in a small thumbnail on the spine (older readers may remember that we used to have a similar feature on a previous incarnation of the series, but at the bottom of the spine, not the top). We also chose a new typeface for the cover, Capitolium, a modern take on classic lettering, based on classical Roman inscriptions and Renaissance calligraphy and designed by Gerard Unger. The insides of the books are unchanged, and we will continue to publish high-quality editions and translations with outstanding introductions and notes at truly affordable prices, editions that are designed to satisfy the needs not just of students, but of the lively general reader as well.
Since I've already ordered my fall term books, including many World's Classics titles, I'm relieved to hear that the "insides are unchanged," though it strikes me, given this, that they are rather encouraging (or expecting) people to judge a book by its cover. Still, I'll be jealous if my students all have spiffy new covers on their books while I'm still wielding my battered old versions. (Hint to OUP reps: send Maitzen new desk copies...) (On the other hand, replacing all the post-its in my teaching copies would be a lot of work. There are a lot of them, because I consider it one of my primary obligations when teaching, say, Bleak House, to be able to find key passages quickly. Browsing through 900 pages muttering "I know it's here somewhere" wastes a lot of class time.)