December 27, 2008

Novel Readings 2008

One of the best features of blogging is turning out to be the record it provides of my reading experiences. 2008 doesn't seem to have been my most rewarding year of novel reading (being on sabbatical for part of last year accounted, in part, for the greater number and variety of books I went through in 2007), but there have certainly been highlights. Some of my most stimulating reading in 2008 was re-reading, and some was non-fiction. Here's my look back at the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I'm most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:
  1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Without a doubt, this was my favourite new novel of the year: exquisite, finely tuned art about the beauty, value, and fragility of art.
  2. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Though the prose throughout these books is consistently, almost perversely, flat, I found the series consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of ordinary, flawed, but mostly likable people trying to organize meaningful lives for themselves amidst the constantly unfolding chaos and danger of war. The understated style comes to seem appropriate for characters who are never really dramatic, always on the periphery of the 'real' action and yet, of course, always the protagonists of their own stories.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede. I hadn't read Adam Bede in a couple of years and have never paid it as much attention as my favourite George Eliot novels. When it emerged as the front-runner for our summer reading group at The Valve, I was uncertain how things would go, if relieved to be on somewhat familiar territory. In the end, I gained a greater appreciation of the uneven beauties and oddities of the novel. I also found it constantly stimulating seeing how other readers responded to it and learning from the range of approaches and expertise that inflected their readings. Of the many memorable passages, this is the one that I find has echoed in my mind since we wrapped things up:
    "It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love."
  4. James Wood, How Fiction Works. Though my assessment of this much-hyped book from today's most talked-about literary critic was not altogether positive, Wood is certainly an inspiration to anyone who would like to see the gap between academic and public criticism bridged without false populism.
  5. Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. Like How Fiction Works, The Death of the Critic stood out in my reading year more because of the conversations it generated than because of its intrinsic merits. I'm still thinking about the emphasis McDonald (and others) places on evaluation as the key to critical relevance, and I'm still inclined to think that people's everyday reading practices have at least as much to do with ethics (broadly construed, as Booth does in The Company We Keep). Eventually I hope to make this case--and, further, the case for ethical criticism as a useful framework for public criticism--in a careful way.
  6. The Reader. I've been so happy to discover this excellent publication from The Reader Organization. I first came across it through this article on Scott and have since read several back issues and both of the issues made available as PDFs for download. I've been promised that a two-year subscription is part of my Christmas haul this year, and I really look forward to keeping up with its stimulating blend of intelligent but accessible literary analysis, readers' reports, and new fiction and poetry.
  7. Vanity Fair and Bleak House. The enormous pleasure and challenge of teaching both of these books in the same class nearly compensates for an academic year in which I am not teaching Middlemarch even once (I'll have to make up for that in 2009-10).
  8. The Wire. OK, it's not a novel...but it was certainly one of the most enthralling narrative experiences of my year, and in its social and thematic ambition and its attempt to convey the connections between multiple layers of a complex socio-economic world and a sprawling cast of characters, it has much in common with the 19th-century 'condition of England' novels.
  9. Two recent additions I haven't had time to write up properly: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and One Good Turn. I first read the former on the way home from a trip to Sydney. I'm not a happy flier and I was fairly well medicated, which must be why I didn't appreciate it much at the time and wantonly gave it away on landing. After hearing a number of people speak very highly of both of Atkinson's mysteries, I got One Good Turn from the library last week and enjoyed it so much that I picked up a new copy of Case Histories, which I just finished reading and found thoroughly impressive.
Books I could have done without (happily, a shorter list than last year's):
  1. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. There's a good book--even a good series--to be had from the materials in this creepy thing. Maybe the sequel will abandon the cheap thrills in favour of intelligent plotting and character development.
  2. Paul Auster, City of Glass. Actually, I wasn't sure which list to put this one one. I hated it and yet I thought it was very smart, and I'll be teaching it in April. Wish me luck!
Books I'm most looking forward to reading in 2009:
  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. Yes, this was on my books to read in 2008 list too. I don't blame the novel at all for my failure to get through it; I was enjoying it, but other things intruded and my attention wandered.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. My Christmas wish list this year reflected a certain impatience with hot new books that rather disappointed; War and Peace is one of those Great Classics that I have read only once (years ago, trying to look smart) and have often thought I should read properly. Now I have it in a highly praised new translation and I'm excited to get started.
  3. John Galsworth, The Forsyte Saga. This is another from my wish list. I've never read it, but it looks like just the kind of thing I'll enjoy.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. See above.
  5. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. I read this many times in my youth, but it was part of our family library and since I moved away from home I've never owned my own copy. Now I do!
  6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. For someone who teaches a course on detective fiction, this one is probably my "Humiliation" winner. I'm tiring a bit of The Maltese Falcon, so I figure it's time I tried the other obvious one.
Not directly related to reading novels but of much significance to Novel Readings in 2008 was the invitation I received to become a contributor to The Valve. It has been invigorating, if sometimes intimidating, to share my posts with a wider audience and to participate in the lively exchanges that go on among the diverse community of readers and thinkers that write and comment there.

I have no bold new plans for Novel Readings in 2009 except to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who came here to read or comment!

December 22, 2008

Winter Day Miscellany

1. Winter's here.
2. We spent a fair part of today with no power. Brrrr.
3. Happily, I got some of these for Christmas and they are very cozy.
4. Also happily, I had this to read.

December 19, 2008

Chime in on "The Chimes"


To be honest, "The Chimes" has left me a bit at a loss, and so I'm looking forward to hearing reactions from others. My biggest confusion was over Trotty himself: what did he do to deserve these terrible visions of deprivation and depravity, and what is he supposed to do about them? His sin appears to be his loss of faith in humanity:
'Unnatural and cruel!' Toby cried. 'Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It's too true, all I've heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We're Bad!'

He has to learn to blame nurture, rather than nature:
'I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.'

But because he's really such a kindly fellow himself, and so powerless that his error can hardly do any damage, while his redemption can hardly do any good, he seems a far more artificial device for this re-education project than Scrooge does. The story's didacticism, in other words, seemed to overpower its aesthetic conception and thus blunted its emotional effects: it was always already about me (and you), not about Trotty, and unpleasantly so, as the underlying assumption about me (and you) is that we will blame and despise desperate mothers who make their terrible way towards the river to take "the dreadful plunge."* In short, I didn't like it that much overall.

Still, it's Dickens, and he can't help being brilliant, at least fitfully. My favourite bit was definitely the opening of the third quarter--yes, the bit with the goblins:
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron–girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl. He saw the air thick with them. He saw them come and go, incessantly. He saw them riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active. Stone, and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them IN the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands.

He saw these creatures, not only among sleeping men but waking also, active in pursuits irreconcilable with one another, and possessing or assuming natures the most opposite. He saw one buckling on innumerable wings to increase his speed; another loading himself with chains and weights, to retard his. He saw some putting the hands of clocks forward, some putting the hands of clocks backward, some endeavouring to stop the clock entirely. He saw them representing, here a marriage ceremony, there a funeral; in this chamber an election, in that a ball he saw, everywhere, restless and untiring motion.

OK, help me out: is "The Chimes" better than I think? What struck you most about it?

*A much better example of a 'fallen woman' story, just btw, is Elizabeth Gaskell's "Lizzie Leigh."

December 17, 2008

Napoleon was Defeated at Watergate...

...and George Osborne died during the civil war. Jane Austin eloped with a married man, Charle's Dickins wrote Bleak Houses, and Maggie Tulliver doesn't share the values of her aunts the Duncans. Night is a non-fiction novel, realism is when you decide to write realistically about reality, and unreliable narration is when you don't believe what you are saying.

Yes, I'm grading exams.


December 11, 2008

The Little Child Had Come to Link Him Once More with the Whole World

No, not that child, though there is a seasonal allusion. I'm rereading Silas Marner and finding it every bit as good a secular fable for the holidays as A Christmas Carol--better, even, as the inspiring transformation of a lonely and bitter miser in this case is entirely the result of human accident, agency, and love. Here's poor Silas, bereft at the loss of his gold:
Silas spent his Christmas-day in loneliness, eating his meat in sadness of heart . . . . In the morning he looked out on the black frost that seemed to press cruelly on every blade of grass, while the half-icy red pool shivered under the bitter wind; but towards the evening the snow began to fall, and curtained from him even that dreary outlook, shutting him close up with his narrow grief. And he sat in his robbed home through the livelong evening, not caring to close his shutters or lock his door, pressing his head between his hands and moaning, until the cold grasped him and told him that his fire was grey.
It's no supernatural visitor, but a golden-haired child who stirs "old quiverings of tenderness" in Silas's bruised heart, animates his past, present, and future, and restores him to the human community:
[I]n this way, as the weeks grew to months, the child created fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation. Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude--which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones--Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movement; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an every-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward . . . . The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, re-awakening his senses with her fresh life . . . and warming him into joy because she had joy. . . .

In the old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.

December 5, 2008

Recommended Reading

By popular demand--or, at any rate, at the request of 'Robby Virus,' of Blogging the Canon, one of my favorite sources for lively commentary and good drinks recipes--here is the list of 'recommended further reading' I offered to the students in my 19th-century fiction class at the end of term.

If you liked Persuasion:
  • other Austen novels, but especially Pride and Prejudice (you never know, some of them might not have already read it)
  • for a similar combination of delicate social satire and affectionate domestic comedy, try some Trollope; I have a fondness for The Warden, but Barchester Towers is also manageable in length and delightful
  • for a novel that combines an Austen-like sensitivity to social and moral nuances with an intellectual range closer to George Eliot's, Elizabeth Gaskell's last novel Wives and Daughters
  • for fun, Bridget Jones's Diary (smarter and wittier than the adaptation)
If you liked Vanity Fair:
  • Tom Jones, if you have the patience for it
  • Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (Lizzie Eustace, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O'Hara should be in some kind of "Literary Diva Survivor" show)
If you liked Jane Eyre:
  • Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in some ways, I think this is a better-crafted and more subtle novel than Jane Eyre, with all its melodrama)
  • Charlotte Bronte's Villette, another one of those novels that ought to put paid to the idea that nineteenth-century fiction is all about naive realism
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, if melodrama is what you like best
  • Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it
If you liked Bleak House:
  • other Dickens, of course, especially Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit
  • or, if what you liked about it was its social conscience, then Gaskell's Mary Barton
  • or, if what you liked about it was its capaciousness, then Trollope's The Way We Live Now or He Knew He Was Right, for more multiplot madness
If you liked The Mill on the Floss:
  • Middlemarch. Actually, no matter what else you like, my recommendation is that you read Middlemarch.
  • Daniel Deronda, because once you're done reading Middlemarch you'll be temporarily dissatisfied with every other author, so you'll go looking for more George Eliot to read.
  • Felix Holt (see previous comment)
  • Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles
And some recommended neo-Victorian novels, if you're interested in what smart contemporary novelists have done with this legacy:
  • Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  • Byatt, Posession and Angels and Insects (the latter might be of particular interest to the scientifically inclined)
  • Waters, Fingersmith (just go read it!)
  • Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that may actually deserve the adjective "Dickensian"

December 4, 2008

Ring in the Holidays with "The Chimes"


It’s that time of year again--you know, the time for “paying bills without money,” for “finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer,” and, of course, for re-reading A Christmas Carol. But wait: we all know (or think we know) A Christmas Carol. What about Dickens’s other Christmas stories? I’ve actually never read them, and I’d like to. I thought I’d start with “The Chimes,” which is short and appears, promisingly, to involve goblins. It’s easily available in electronic editions (here and here, for instance); some contextual information and the illustrations are available here. At The Valve, I've proposed a miniature version of the Adam Bede project we did in the summer. I’ll post a reminder there in a week or so, and then somewhere around December 19 or 20, post a few comments and/or questions and see who comes to the party. If you think the story will go down easier with a little “Smoking Bishop,” here’s the recipe. Everyone's invited; bring a friend! Or post on your own blog and we'll make a decorative blog-link chain.

Wordpress Experiment

I'm not much of a "techie," and I also generally use technology as a convenient support for my "real" work, rather than as an end in itself, so I'm always looking for the easiest ways to get things done. Currently I use FrontPage for making my departmental web pages, but I like the convenience of web-based tools, so I was wondering about adapting a blog site into a more general home page, perhaps even phasing out my Dalhousie-based page. One option is to add Google Pages to this site, but for no reason I can really articulate, I kind of like having a little distance between this place and my other sites. Also, I gather Google Pages is sort of on hiatus until Google Sites is up and running. Anyway, I have been poking around with Wordpress a bit and figured out enough to build this little site. Does anyone have any particular thoughts about or experience with using Wordpress that they'd like to share, or any different suggestions? I admit, I started this site on Blogger for the simple reason that it was the one I had heard of, back in the day. Also, is there a way to use something like Wordpress but have it come up at my "myweb.dal" URL?

December 3, 2008

This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2008)

Both classes met just once this week, for "Exam Review and Conclusions" in both cases. Although reviewing for finals is of course important, lately I feel compelled also to offer what I only half-jokingly describe to my colleagues as "closing perorations"--remarks aimed at drawing out, or drawing together, the major intrinsic motives for our work in the class. The accounts that follow here are reconstructed from my lecture notes and retain the...looseness...of that genre.

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, I returned us to our course epigraph, taken from Ian McEwan's essay "Only Love and then Oblivion": “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” A major point I tried to drive home over the term is that (literary) reading and writing have never usually been intended as ‘academic exercises’—writers use literary and rhetorical strategies to further ideas and achieve effects in the real world, by changing the way people see the world, or think about the world, and thus the way they act in the world. It is possible to conceive of all of the readings we did as outreach projects of this kind, though their strategies have ranged from the very direct and overt (such as Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech) to the subtle, even ambiguous (Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” for instance, an invitation to her readers to acknowledge the ‘grandeur’ of life in its smallest forms—but to what ends?). Even the aesthetic and affective aspects of our readings alter our perception of the world around us, as well as our experience of and in it.

We particularly worked on understanding the tools of a writer’s trade, from argumentative strategies to rhetorical and literary devices, so that we could talk about how we got the ideas we did from them, how they made these ideas memorable, or thought-provoking, or persuasive. We worked on distinguishing between better and worse readings of their works—better readings being those that account most fully and accurately for the material in the text--and we discussed the concept of "coduction," a coinage by Wayne Booth that describes the way we test, modify, and improve our readings by conversation with other readers.

What in particular did we study? We worked through our lists of the "Elements of Prose" and the "Elements of Fiction," learning terms and definitions for key techniques. We need to know enough about writing styles and techniques to test and explain our interpretations, which can be wholly inaccurate if, for instance, we fail to recognize irony (as in Swift’s “Modest Proposal”) or unreliable narration (as in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”). In some cases historical context is also crucial: you can’t work appropriately with Wiesel’s Night, for instance, without understanding, first, that it is a version of his own life story, and second, that his story is an individual piece in the larger story of the Holocaust--which itself, of course, is part of a number of still larger stories including the history of Germany as a nation, or the history of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere—which is also an important part of the story of TheRemains of the Day. Sometimes literary history is a great aid to our understanding: the history of different literary genres, for instance (such as the short story) or argumentative styles (such as oratory or rhetoric) can help us appreciate about how our individual examples work with or against literary conventions (such as the way female gothic texts--"The Yellow Wallpaper," say--use but also subvert the traditional gothic mode). And information about individual writers can help us understand texts that might otherwise be obscure in their purposes or styles, and illustrate the point that writers too work with the kind of knowledge (the sense of options) that we developed in this course (self-consciously placing themselves into genres, traditions, and also historical and political moments).

The larger context for this work is my hope that our readings and discussions encourage the students to think about writing and literature as in some way relevant to their own lives. The aim is not to turn them on to any particular writer or form, but to demonstrate that the process of engaging with writing (both fiction and non-fiction) matters because writing is one of our sites of interaction with each other. The larger aim, then, is to experience something of the variety of conversations that people have about prose and fiction and learn what is necessary to participate in these conversations in a responsible, well-informed, and rewarding way.

In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, I remind the class that I opened the course with review of some of the pejorative stereotypes associated with the Victorian age in general and Victorian literature in particular (assisted by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). As I explained at that time, the object of the course was not so much to disprove or dispel myths and stereotypes as to complicate them and rethink them. In fact, to some extent, I embrace and advocate a specific aspect of the stereotype, namely earnestness--which I believe is important, Oscar Wilde notwithstanding.

I chose an array of novels that in some sense do represent the “Victorian” qualities of social and moral earnestness—though, in their sheer variety of style and approach (narrative techniques and structures, plots and characters, tone, humour, ‘flavour’), I think they make it more difficult to generalize (pejoratively or otherwise) about Victorian literature. All of our books in their own ways ask us to get worked up about “the way we live now”—using fictional techniques (intrusive narration, direct address, thematization, multiple narrators, sensationalism, comedy, pathos…) and artistry to engage us. Even in our ‘lighter’ books, this preoccupation with social conditions and the need for or conditions for change helps explain the stereotypical association of Victorianism with ‘earnestness.’ But where the issues are important ones (marriage, morality, authority, the status of women, class conflict, conflicts between duties to ourselves and duties to others, care for the weak and suffering and ill...)—where the stakes are so high, being earnest surely seems appropriate, if not essential—what would it mean, after all, to take these issues lightly? To me, that quality of earnestness, then, is nothing to be ashamed or apologetic about, but is part of the appeal of Victorian novels, as is the way that the great 19th-century novelists combine it with great humour, charity, curiosity, and formal innovation.

A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral "labour of choice" we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.

And then, in an equally Victorian spirit of optimism, I conclude with a list of more 19th-century novels for future reading.

Now, on to exams!