May 31, 2009

Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran

In a talk at the American University of Cairo on "the image of the Arab in Western Literature" (linked here), Ahdaf Soueif emphasizes the limited range of character types (and particularly the limited kinds of agency) allotted to Arab characters even in literary fiction celebrated in the West for its sympathetic portrayal of Arab cultures and perspectives. (Two of the novels she focuses on are Robert Stone's Damascus Gate and Richard Zimler's The Search for Sana.) Although she stresses that the life work of Arab writers is not to represent themselves or their world to the West, she does also suggest the value of contributions by those at the "touching point" between cultures, particularly Arab-American writers and artists, many of whom, as she says, have "come out" since 9/11 to declare and explore their dual identities. I'm sure she would agree that her argument can be expanded from strictly Angl0-Arab encounters to "touching points" between the West and Iran: as a member of the so-called "Axis of Evil," Iran is more likely to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or demonized in the popular imagination (at least in America) than most of its neighbours.

In the interview with Mahbod Seraji provided at the end of Rooftops of Tehran, the novelist addresses this problem directly:
'As for current Americans' misconceptions about Iran, I see a lot of misrepresentation in the media. Because the governments of Iran and the U.S. don't get along, we tend to mischaracterize the people of Iran as evil. The media immediately conveys images and information that dehumanizes the Iranian people. Likewise, we're encouraged to forget that our so-called enemies have feelings and are capable of love and friendship. We see them as so dissimilar, we can't imagine that we may actually have a lot in common.'
Rooftops of Tehran is clearly offered as a corrective to these tendencies, an alternative representation of "the people of Iran" that emphasizes "common" human feelings and experiences: Seraji says that "love, hate, humour, friendships are universal qualities shared by people of all nations." But, as he also remarks, "our cultures influence the ways in which we may respond to situations": how we express love, hate, or friendship, for example, or what we find funny, will vary based on the world we live in, the values we are taught, and the examples set by those around us. Further, love, hate, and friendship may sound like highly personal experiences, but as Seraji's novel highlights, even the most intimate relationships are lived in political contexts, affected by who has power and the ends towards which that power is directed. Rooftops of Tehran suggests that abusive power--political tyranny--warps people's lives and characters by constraining, sometimes brutally, their individual desires. Though the love story at the heart of the novel may in some respects demystify Persian culture for North American readers because its basic ingredients seem so familiar (boy meets girl and falls in love, but girl is engaged to boy's friend and mentor, boy nurtures forbidden passion, etc.), key plot developments including the horrific act at the novel's center defamiliarize this world again, because their extremity is so difficult to translate, to explain, outside the context of pervasive and arbitrary oppression that frames the superficial normalcy of the characters' lives. Yes, they love and hate, tease and bully, read and study, dream of becoming teachers or engineers--but the alley where they play out their lives and loves is subject to surveillance and invasion by the Shah's secret police, against whom there can be no protest or recourse. Though it is a romance, then, Rooftops of Tehran can't help but also be a novel of political protest, not just against the Shah's regime but against the Western powers, especially the US, that support it.

Seraji remarks the disbelief expressed by his American college classmates in the 1970s when he told them about the CIA's involvement in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953: "half of the class accused me of lying because 'the American government just doesn't do bad things like that.'" Inevitably, part of his project in the novel is pedagogical, not just about Iran and the life and traditions of its ordinary people, but about how they perceive America and why. Historical and political information of this kind is difficult to integrate elegantly into fiction, especially when, as here, the focus is personal and style is spare, with little exposition. Seraji feeds us tidbits through his characters, as when the protagonist, Pasha, recalls his father saying of the SAVAK, "They live among us, work with us, come to our homes for dinner, participate in our happiness, mourn our losses, and then someday you find out that they have a second job working for the most loathed agency ever created in this country, thanks to the Americans and their CIA." Pasha's mentor, known as 'Doctor,' "used to say that Mossadegh's overthrow was the biggest American foreign policy blunder in history. 'No one in the Middle East will ever again trust the Americans and their phony guardianship of democracy,' he declare[s] angrily." Though Pasha dreams of studying in the US, Doctor's fate teaches him to "'hate the CIA'" as well: "'They're responsible for Doctor's death, and the deaths of all the other young people executed by the Shah.'" To me, these conversations seemed artificial, though part of that may be simply the difference between a culture in which politics are literally a life and death matter and my own world, in which we take our freedoms so for granted that only a bare majority turn out to vote--or my own circle, more narrowly, in which politics are rarely discussed, much less heatedly. Still, if these moments are dubiously effective aesthetically, they certainly offer the novel's target audience a different perspective on America's international role.

And yet for all this, Rooftops of Tehran is not primarily a political novel. It conveys a strong sense of Persian culture, particularly in the ways it differs from Western norms. Again, some of the information is conveyed a bit awkwardly, as when Pasha reflects,
We Persians are not sophisticated when it comes to dealing with pain. I've heard that people in the West, especially in the United States, seek therapy when they experience emotional traumas. Our therapist is time. We trust that time heals everything, and that there is no need to dwell on pain. We don't seek psychological treatment because we're not as fragile as the Westerners, or so we claim. . . . We bring solace to our hearts by displaying our emotion.
His father explains "the intensity of our mourning" as a historical phenomenon:
'A recurring theme in our history has been the massacre of our people, in what are now forgotten genocides at the hands of invaders like Alexander of Macedonia, the barbarian who burned down Persepolis; the Arabs, who brutalized our nation for hundreds of years; and Genghis Khan, who in the thirteenth century slaughtered three million of our citizens. . . . Our only recourse in the face of unpardonable evil has been to wail inconsolably.'
There is a great deal of mourning and wailing in Rooftops of Tehran; what is unexpected about it to Western sensibilities is not grief in the face of suffering and loss but the extent to which that grief is expressed through the tears of the male characters in particular. Seraji explains that Iran is one of "what the experts call 'Affective' cultures," while North Americans live in "'Neutral' cultures"--and thus "would come across as cold and unfeeling to the people in the Affective cultures." Again, then, we return to the point that universal emotions have historically and culturally specific expressions; though at times (as above) a Western reader may feel at the receiving end of a lecture from the course Seraji says he teaches called "Understanding Personal and Cultural Differences," overall the novel is quite effective in bridging those differences by evoking those common human feelings. And in the end, Rooftops of Tehran is as much a romance, a love story, as anything else--a love story, and the story of the elusive quality referred to repeatedly in the novel as "That." If love is threatened, often destroyed, by the oppressive conditions in which Pasha and his friends must shape their lives, "That" (a potent, if often latent, blend of courage, independence, loyalty, and resistance) defines the alternative to tyranny and flourishes (like the red rose Pasha plants in honor of his murdered mentor) despite--or even, perversely, because of--the arid and unforgiving environment in which it is planted.

May 26, 2009

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch


As I have posted several times here (and there) about my unfolding project on Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun, I thought it was only fair to post the conference paper I delivered on Sunday at ACCUTE, which is the first concrete result of the research and thinking I have done so far. Tempering justice with mercy, I won't put the entire paper, especially because I can't figure out how to put only the first bit on my front page. The paper was written to be read aloud, and the time limit was strict (20 minutes): both of these requirements have certain effects on both style and substance. Beyond that, I have only myself to blame. In italics is some material I wasn't sure I'd have time to read (mostly, I didn't). And so, without further hemming and hawing...

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch

Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun has been called ‘the Egyptian Middlemarch,’ a comparison invited by its numerous intertextual gestures towards George Eliot’s masterpiece—most conspicuously, its epigraph is the famous 'squirrel's heartbeat' passage. Critical work on the novel so far has focused on Soueif as a postcolonial writer and thus on her Arab or Egyptian perspective, on issues of national identity or the possibilities of “cultural dialogue” (Massad 74), and on her works as examples of cultural and linguistic hybridity (Darraj, Malak). Though I believe that these are not just inevitable but also illuminating approaches to Soueif's fiction, including In the Eye of the Sun, I also think it is important not to limit the range of questions we ask of a text because it appears to fit into a particular category (in this case, the postcolonial novel). In doing so we risk enacting a kind of literary essentialism by which our interpretation of a text is determined by the geographical origins of its author. Priya Joshi notes that the “persistent critical reference to writing from once colonial lands as postcolonial” may inhibit attention to their particularities:
When does it end? For how many years after empire ends does writing have to be “post” before it can become itself? . . . does it ever end or does all literature from once colonized lands always bear the stamp that comes with the appellation “colonial”? . . . The danger, therefore, of preserving any part of the term “postcolonial” is that it ultimately eviscerates the possibility of conducting a historically grounded or specifically directed study. . . . (233)
A particular danger seems to me to be that reading a text as “postcolonial” means fixing it in a certain relation to the world, and especially to the literature of the “colonizer”--often viewed within postcolonial studies as “a vehicle for imperial authority” (Tiffin et al.). The work of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and many others on the ways 19th-century novels are “implicated” or even complicit in imperialism, for instance, has established a near-normative paradigm that predisposes us to find a confrontational (or at least corrective) relationship between a “postcolonial” author or critic and any given Victorian text he or she might invoke. I will argue that Soueif's allusions to Middlemarch work against this oppositional paradigm. Rather than writing back against Eliot's novel, Souief writes with it, sharing and extending some of its central ideas about how we perceive and live in the world, ideas that are not determined by national identities or other historical contingencies but appeal to “a commonality of human experience beyond politics, beyond forms” (In the Eye of the Sun 754). The two novels coexist, that is, in a literary version of the space defined by Soueif in her non-fiction writing as the 'mezzaterra,' or common ground. There, “differences [are] interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities” (Mezzaterra 7).

I'm going to use the rest of my time to bring out what I see as “affinities” between Eliot's novel and Soueif's. I'll start with some basic information about Soueif and In the Eye of the Sun (assuming that most of you are familiar with Middlemarch). Like Asya al-Ulama, the protagonist of In the Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif was raised and educated in both England and Egypt. Though she began publishing fiction (written in English) as early as 1983, In the Eye of the Sun was her first full-length novel. It attracted a lot of mostly positive attention from high-profile critics including Edward Said (in the TLS), Frank Kermode (in the LRB), and Hilary Mantel (in the NYRB). Essentially a Bildungsroman in its structure, the novel is heavily autobiographical. Like Soueif, Asya, the child of Cairo University professors, is raised in a cosmopolitan milieu in which English language and culture are as familiar as Egyptian or Arabic. Also like Soueif, Asya aims to follow her mother into the University's English Department (“To hear her father when he had to give his occupation for some form or another say 'University professor,' you would know for sure there was no other job in the world worth having” [450]). While an undergraduate at CU she falls in love with Saif Madi, older, worldly, self-confident. Though Asya somewhat inexplicably adores him, from the beginning there are hints that all will not go well with them: Saif makes Asya feel tongue-tied, naïve, inadequate (“I talk plenty to everyone else, but he seems so clever, I just don't want to look stupid in front of him by saying something not particularly profound” [107]); to suit his taste, she begins choosing clothes that are “much more subdued,” mostly beige (227, cf 651). One of their most serious early conflicts is on an unexpected subject. “'What was the argument about?'” Asya's mother asks Asya's friend Chrissie:
'It was about George Eliot, Tante'
'George Eliot? ... But why were they arguing about George Eliot?' 'I think Asya was saying she was a great writer and he was saying she wasn't.'
'I thought you were supposed to care about literature. [Asya protests]. . . And anyway that wasn't what it was about, it was about him. He hasn't read her and yet he can sit there and say she's not worth reading. If it's not Sartre or the Spanish Civil War or Camus or someone he already knows than it's worth nothing. . . . I thought he was...available to—to life. But he's got a closed mind. He actually makes me think of that passage where she says Mr. Casaubon's mind is like a—an enclosed basin. (298)
As Asya says, George Eliot is here really just the occasion for one of a series of struggles between Asya and Saif that, whatever their explicit topic, really turn on Asya's right to her own point of view. The alienation between them worsens during the years Asya is in England studying (as Soueif did) for her Ph.D.; for Asya, the failure of their sex life (in nine years they never fully consummate their marriage) becomes both symbol and symptom of the deeper failure of intimacy between them.

Disillusioned by the realities of both her married life and her (dull and unrewarding) scholarship, Asya resolves to resign herself to her narrowed lot, to
create meaning in her life by striving to be the best person she can, not in the ways that appeal to her, not by spooning aid porridge into the mouths of rows of starving children or bringing comfort to shrapnelled soldiers or . . . or writing Middlemarch, but in the more difficult way that has been allotted to her—for the moment—and to draw strength that while she is doing her best for those whose lives most immediately touch her own, she is not at a standstill; she is working towards making her own life the way she wants it. (462-3)
But Asya finds renunciation “á la Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke” very difficult (303), and eventually in her frustration and loneliness, she begins an affair with an English business student, Gerald Stone. Characters from 19th-century novels continue to serve as her reference points:
You've committed adultery, you've done it, [she reflects after her first night with Gerald] you've joined Anna and Emma and parted company forever with Dorothea and Maggie—although Dorothea would have understood—would she? Yes, she would; she would not have approved, she would have urged her to renounce, to stop, to send him away—but she would have understood; she had a great capacity for understanding. (541)
The affair is sexually liberating for her, but unfortunately Gerald proves shallow and emotionally parasitic. Eventually she confesses the affair to Saif; although she insists it is meaningless and Gerald is “irrelevant,” Saif is outraged, and the resulting conflicts, some of them violent, destroy the remnants of their marriage. Asya eventually does complete her doctorate and then returns to Egypt, not only to teach English literature, but to work with a program offering sex education and birth control to Egyptian village women.

Aside from Soueif's intertextual allusions, there's not a lot in In the Eye of the Sun that brings Middlemarch immediately to mind. Their plots have little in common besides the bad marriages. Futile scholarship is another shared element, though, as Said remarked, “in many ways Asya is her own Casaubon” (her Ph.D. research, for instance, is essentially a key to all metaphors, and she stores her index cards in stacks of boxes reminiscent of Casaubon's pigeonholes [379]). Both are very long books! But other overt parallels are hard to discern. The novels diverge most significantly in their forms. Middlemarch, of course, presents a web of complexly interrelated plots and characters unified by the narrator's sage moral, philosophical, and historical commentary. The novel's subtitle, 'A Study of Provincial Life,' indicates its aspirations to breadth and objectivity. As my overview of In the Eye of the Sun shows, Soueif's novel in contrast is intensely personal, a priority also reflected in its form—as a Bildungsroman, it focuses almost entirely on Asya and is told almost entirely from Asya's point of view. No narrative interventions put her experiences in broader perspective.

These differences might seem like indications that Soueif rejects the premises of Eliot's formal choices: that comprehensive understanding (promised via multiple plots) and universal norms (established via the narrator's commentary) are discredited in Soueif's postmodern, postcolonial world. If this were the case, we would, I think, be led towards an interpretation of In the Eye of the Sun as an example of postcolonial 'talking back,' or at least revision, asserting difference, contingency, and resistance in the face of imperialistic presumptions of universality. Such a reading would be consistent with Amin Malak’s claim that “dislocation between the realm of Western literature and the reality of the Middle Eastern world constitutes a leitmotific feature that runs throughout Soueif’s fiction” (134).Yet these conclusions seem inadequate to the actual uses of Middlemarch (and, just btw, other “Western” texts) in Soueif's novel and to the similarities in theme and ethos that the novels manifest despite their surface differences.

For instance, though In the Eye of the Sun is far more focused on one individual life than Middlemarch, Asya's story is carefully placed and contextualized historically. The Six Day War breaks out as Asya studies for her university entrance exams in 1967; as the novel proceeds we learn of Nasser's sudden death and the decline of his version of pan-Arabism; we watch the dawning of the Sadat era; we hear about the beginnings of civil war in Lebanon; we witness, on Asya's return to Cairo in 1980, the increased Islamist influence signalled particularly by the presence in her classroom of veiled students. The stories of Asya's friends and family also put human faces on regional conflicts and politics: her friend Chrissie loses a lover in the 1967 war; her friend Noora marries a Palestinian, Bassam, and as a consequence is disowned by her family; her sister Deena's husband Muhsin ends up in the infamous Tora prison for leftist activism against Sadat's government. Malak points to this integration of “the private history of a woman and her family with the political history of the nation” (146) as a typical feature of postcolonial writing; a Victorianist would also readily identify it as a form of the “history by indirection” typical of novels by Scott, Thackeray or George Eliot, which also portray and thematize intersections between private and public life, between the individual and the historical.

I'd like to walk through two more examples of subtle but persistent thematic congruity between In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch, both of which, I think, further discourage an oppositional or postcolonial reading of the relationship between these two novels and move us towards the idea of a literary mezzaterra or common ground...

[Here I move into a comparison of the passages I looked at in this post, arguing that although they seem very different, overall both novels move us towards the same conclusion: that sympathy is the antidote to cruelty or suffering, on whatever scale. Then I argue that, while urging the necessity of acknowleding that everyone has, as Eliot's narrator says, "an equivalent center of self," the novels also dramatize the necessity of acknowleding your individual needs, a particular challenge for the female protagonists.]

One answer to the question “why always George Eliot,” then, is that despite their different origins and contexts, and despite the conspicuous differences in the particulars of their novels, there are strong affinities between Soueif's vision or ethos in In The Eye of the Sun and Eliot's in Middlemarch. I suppose this might seem an unremarkable conclusion, given that Soueif signals as much by her choice of epigraph (!). But in fact in the context of postcolonial discourse there is something unexpected about it. It points us towards a theory of literary relations according to which Middlemarch need not be read as the Western text and In the Eye of the Sun the Eastern—or Middlemarch need not represent Victorian literature, or English literature, or colonial literature and In the Eye of the Sun need not be, or stand for, Egyptian, or Arabic, or post-colonial perspectives. This need not be seen as returning us to a problematic universalism. For one thing, both Soueif and Eliot are too intensely conscious of the role of history in determining character and values. Instead, I want to come back to the notion of the mezzaterra, an arena in which “differences are foregrounded against a background of affinities.” Said concludes his review of In the Eye of the Sun with a question that (especially coming from him) cannot be seen as wholly rhetorical: “Who cares about the labels of national identity anyway?” (19). Soueif's sympathetic invocations of Middlemarch (or, I would also add, her entirely non-ironic choice of a line of Kipling for her title) show setting aside such labels, including the label “postcolonial,” lets us focus on things we share (including our global literary inheritance) and thus “inhabit and broaden the common ground”(Mezzaterra 23). (Said: “In fact, there can be generosity, and vision, and overcoming barriers, and, finally, human existential integrity.”)

May 21, 2009


Well, my time is up: tomorrow I leave for my nation's capital to attend the yearly conference-formerly-known-as-'The Learneds'. (I actually sort of wish that was still its name.) I have completed a version of my paper, which I will read to the 2 other members of the panel and the 4 or 5 other people foolish or obsessive (or kind) enough to attend a 9:00 session on Sunday morning. I had the same time slot the last time I gave a paper at ACCUTE and there were about 9 people there--a bit anticlimactic, given the amount of stress I experience in the lead-up to these events. But 9 interested people is better than 50 inattentive ones, as any teacher knows, and I appreciated the comments and questions. I did make 25 copies of my handout. I'm a Victorianist: optimism is my thing. I've flagged a number of other sessions I hope to attend, mostly on 19th-century topics. I'm also holding an informal lunch-hour session on academic blogging (this is the downsized version of my failed blogging panel). Lurkers: please come! You don't have to reveal your mysterious blog-world identities. As this will be my first visit to Ottawa, I'm also planning to look around off-campus a bit; my hotel is not far from Parliament Hill, and also, if I read Google Maps correctly, not far from the Byward Market. Maybe I can get one of those Obama pastries! I'm also looking forward to dinner and lots of good book chat with Ottawa's own Nigel Beale, and an evening with a dear friend who recently relocated to Ottawa from Vancouver.

I'll probably post a version of my paper at The Valve, either while I'm in Ottawa or after I get back. I'm a bit nervous about putting it up over there because I know there are some people who really know a lot more than I do about some of the things I try to talk about in it. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I'm the only Valve-er who has read In the Eye of the Sun, so I have an edge in that respect. It would be interesting, I think, to see if I get more useful feedback from the in-person discussion or the bloggers.

May 18, 2009

Catching Up

Somehow I always forget how busy May is! There's a lull after winter term grading is finished and then administrative tasks need doing--year-end committee reports and so on--and then the current crop of MA students heads into their thesis-writing phase, meaning draft chapters start coming in for comments. Last week we also had two Ph.D. students doing their comprehensive exams; I was involved in one as the student's supervisor, so there was the exam itself to write and then the written portions to read, followed by the three hour oral exam; as Graduate Coordinator, I also chaired the second exam. Graduate admissions is an ongoing process, too, still involving an assortment of calls and emails and paperwork. In between these tasks I've been working on my paper for ACCUTE. Then there's family life, too: a highlight last week was going to the Neptune Theatre's production of High School Musical with my daughter--that was a lot of fun (Maddie was especially excited that the cast hung around in the lobby after the show to sign autographs). Last but not least, we've been watching the third season of Deadwood, which of course is "just for fun," but I defy anyone to make it to Episode 6 or 7 without feeling a pretty strong compulsion to see how it all turns out. (It's an extraordinary show, though I think I still rate The Wire higher.)

Anyway, no wonder I haven't felt I could afford time for blogging, though I have been keeping an eye on my blogroll and in particular on this discussion at The Valve because one of my ACCUTE events is a lunch-hour session on academic blogging. (It strikes me that hopes or expectations for the potential of this form to shake things up in academic publishing have declined since The Valve was launched with this post--the premises and arguments of which I still find important and convincing.)

I've done a little reading, too (you always need something on the go to read with your morning tea, waiting for appointments, and so on!). One regrettable choice was Kate Jacobs's The Friday Night Knitting Club. I wanted to like this one--just as I want to like the Elm Creek quilting series, and just as I do like leafing through quilting magazines, especially the kind featuring profiles of shops and the women who gather there. It's some kind of fantasy of community and creativity, I think, of working all day with friends and having something beautiful to show for it. I do a little inexpert quilting, and have tried my hands at knitting too, and there is a simple satisfaction for me in the tangibility of the work; perhaps that's part of the appeal too, as a contrast to the vagaries of academic and intellectual work. In any case, The Friday Night Knitting Club will teach me never again to buy a book with an endorsement from Glamour ("The book's great--worth reading now!"). The best word I can think of for the writing is "cheap." The plot pulls every predictable ploy: someone gets cancer, someone gets pregnant (guess which two major events are poignantly juxtaposed...), someone visits a wise old Scottish grandmother--who doesn't talk anything like a wise old Scottish grandmother, unless unbelievably platitudinous advice is somehow authentic Scots wisdom:
'You'll have lots of questions to answer as you get older. Who you are. Who you want to be. What you think about things. Like politics. And romances. And whether you'll speak out or keep your mouth shut. It's always a challenge to work out the best way to live your life, and as much as everyone tells you what to do, ultimately how you do things is up to you.'
Offset short sentences bearing nuggets of painfully obvious insight or laboriously heavy-handed emotion are the author's trademark:
It was only when the job was almost done that it hit her: a person didn't return home to the Upper East Side from a building site in Park Slope, Brooklyn, via the West Side.

James must have made a special trip.

Just to see her.
Phew. That stinks.* I actually find this kind of book obliquely insulting to women (to whom, of course, it is exclusively marketed, I'm sure). And yet, apparently it was a New York Times bestseller, so I suppose I can only lament the laziness of taste and discrimination that makes something like this a success.

Now I'm reading Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter. I wasn't wild about Slammerkin, but the premise of this novel is a good one and the reviews (including this one in the Globe and Mail) made it sound both intelligent and entertaining. So far, it's just OK. One problem for a Victorianist is that much of what is provided as context in the novel (a bit woodenly, at times) is pretty familiar stuff, from the members and activities of the Langham Place group to the peculiarities and injustices of Victorian divorce law. Donoghue also does not seem to be using her historical materials to any strong thematic purpose: the novel is about the Codrington case, but what else is it about? As a chronicle of a broken marriage, The Sealed Letter is a pale shadow of Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (see, for instance, here, here, or here), in which the breakdown of the Trevelyans' marriage becomes part of a complex commentary on Victorian gender relations and marriage in the context of larger problems of distribution of power and authority. Also, who needs Crocker when they have Bozzle? As for neo-Victorian predecessors, well, (so far, again) Donoghue does not seem to have the gift of either Michel Faber or Sarah Waters for evoking the period in a profoundly contemporary but yet deeply convincing way. The greatest specific weakness I feel in the book is the friendship between Emily "Fido" Faithfull and Helen Codrington: they seem wholly dissimilar, and their interactions have a forced intensity that I find unmotivated by what we know about them (so far). Still, it is an interesting and fairly well-written book.

Next on my TBR pile: Emma Darwin's The Mathematics of Love. But in the meantime, I'll be grappling with the details of In the Eye of the Sun as I put the last parts of my argument into (I hope) coherent form for the conference. Note to me: there's no shame in writing about short books...

*Does this count as the kind of "evaluative criticism" Nigel would like us to do more of? :-)

May 6, 2009

The Other Sides of Silence

I've begun trying to organize my ideas about In the Eye of the Sun. At this point I'm finding that the questions and confusions in my head about the novel's relationship to Middlemarch are increasing rather settling into some kind of order. I'm hopeful, of course, that this mental chaos, while disconcerting this close to my conference deadline, is evidence of the interest and complexity of the interpretive project I've undertaken, as well as of the wider range of ideas I've brought to my latest re-reading of Soueif's novel thanks to my excursions into postcolonial theory, modern Egyptian history, the story of Cairo University, and other materials directly by or about Ahdaf Soueif. I often reassure my thesis students that things inevitably get messy for a while, especially in the 'discovery' phase, when you are moving past the provisional hypotheses of your research proposal and actually looking at how the pieces you've assembled relate to each other and finding out the 'unknown unknowns' (a much-derided phrase I've always felt some sympathy for, despite its source, as one of the great challenges of research is precisely that you don't always know what you don't know until your work is well underway).

In any case, one thing I do know at this point is that time constraints--not just for the writing of the conference paper, but also for its presentation--mean I couldn't address all the potential angles that have occurred to me even if I did sort them all out. So my main task in the next couple of days is setting the limits for this version of the paper, which I hope over the summer to develop into the fuller, more wide-ranging form envisaged in the proposal I submitted. I'm thinking right now of focusing quite specifically on the novel's most overt gesture towards Middlemarch, which is its epigraph, taken from the famous 'squirrel's heartbeat' passage in Chapter 20:
...and we do not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
There are a number of passages in In the Eye of the Sun which (on my reading, anyway) invoke a "roar ... on the other side of silence," but it is not easy to see just how they engage with this moment in Eliot's novel--whether, for instance, they reflect, extend, or critique it. Here is one such passage, for example, from Part VI of Soueif's novel. It is 1971 and the protagonist, Asya al-Ulama, is with her friends studying for their exam in 20th century poetry. One of the company is Bassam, a Palestinian; thinking about his experience of "living under occupation" leads Asya to a wider meditation on "all those bruised people: Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and of course the Jews themselves," and then on "all the things that are happening right now ... as they sit here studying for their poetry exam:"
secret deals being arranged in government departments, counterdeals in secret service meetings, ignorant armies moving silently by night,* people being thrown out of their houses, babies being tortured, people being tortured--this is the point where Asya's mind starts to do a loop. People being tortured. Right now. As we sit here. Tortured. And what do we do? We go on studying for our exams. . . . But what else is to be done? What can be done? Can you get up right now and rush off to some prison -- assuming you know where one is -- and hammer at the door? ... No. No, well, of course not, that's stupid -- and yet how can you just go on sitting here while someone somewhere is having live wires pushed up his rectum, his teeth pulled out of his head, her vagina stuffed with hungry rats, or having to watch her baby's head being smashed against the --

Asya jumps up. She always jumps up when she gets to this bit. Now she goes out on the balcony and stands holding on to the stone balustrade and breathing fast and looking at the lights of the Officer's Club. She daren't look up at the sky because the darkness and the stars will make her think of how the earth is a tiny ball spinning round and round in space, and space is something she cannot even being to imagine.
When these panics come over her, Asya copes by trying not to think. It is easy to see not just the comfort but the necessity of being, as Eliot concludes even the best of us is, "well wadded with stupidity."

Both passages turn on the possibility of being overwhelmed by too full an awareness of suffering in the world. But the specifics of that suffering seem very different. Dorothea is sad in Chapter XX because she has married the wrong man, because the "new real future which replaces the imaginary" for her is such a disappointment. The narrator acknowledges that her situation is commonplace and that to see it as a tragedy requires a recalibration of "tragic" to accommodate something so unexceptional. Much of the moral pressure of Middlemarch is precisely in this direction: towards extending our sympathies to those suffering through the petty trials of "ordinary human life." The novel, we might say, encourages us to listen for the squirrel's heartbeat, to risk casting off some of that protective padding (constituted largely of egotism), as Dorothea, in her sorrow, is just beginning to do:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness that is no longer reflection but feeling -- an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects -- that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.**
On the other side of silence in Middlemarch, then, we have a vast accumulation of "equivalent centre[s] of self," and the roar we hear (if, unlike Mr Brooke, we go "too far") is a cacophony of personal feelings.

In contrast, in In the Eye of the Sun we hear "men from the Muslim Brotherhood [who have been] pumped up, blown full of water," and then jumped on and exploded--screams of literal, physical (not metaphorical, moral, or spiritual) pain. Such acts are, indeed, unthinkable, and yet they are part of the everyday reality of Asya's world: not of her everyday experience, of course, but part of the news she reads, the stories and rumours that circulate among her friends and family, the fears and motivations of people she knows. It is possible to find Dorothea's "faintness of heart" at learning of Mr Casaubon's deficiencies trivial by comparison to the sufferings enumerated in Asya's versions of "Hamlet-like raving" about "all the trouble of all the people in the world" (Middlemarch Chapter 77)--and if In the Eye of the Sun were a different novel overall, I think this contrast might propel me towards a reading of it as critical of Middlemarch, taking the passage from Chapter XX as its epigraph in an ironic spirit (at best) and trying to show up the political inadequacy of its highly "self"-centered morality. I don't think this is how the epigraph is in fact refracted through Soueif's novel, though. My task for work tomorrow (if our ritual departmental "May Marks Meeting" allows) will be trying to explain why... I think it has something to do with the interplay of personal and political in both cases (both exemplify what Jerome Beatty calls "history by indirection"), and with the specific relationship of Dorothea and Asya to their husbands (within story space) and to the form of their novels.

(Trying to put even this much into something clear enough to post has been very helpful: I feel that I have, at least provisionally, cleaned up a little of the mess.)

*I just caught the echo of "Dover Beach" here, another tempting bit of intertextuality. That's what I mean by things getting messier.
**Middlemarch is such a wonderful book.

May 1, 2009

Who Cares Who Killed ... Whoever It Was?

I've just finished reading the latest releases by two of my favourite mystery novelists, P. D. James's The Private Patient and Elizabeth George's Careless in Red. (I know they've been out for a while; I was waiting for the paperback editions.) Both books are better than fine as examples of their type--though George is in fact American, both authors write what we could call highbrow British police procedurals, leisurely in pace, attentive to setting, driven by character more than plot. Both write well; James's prose is more economical, while George's would (IMHO) benefit from more stringent editing, but both offer their readers intelligent complexity of language and thought. The depth of character and theme both achieve justifies James's repeated assertion that crime fiction provides a useful structure for the novelist without necessarily limiting the literary potential of her work.

Yet for all their virtues, I found myself unexpectedly dissatisfied with both of these novels, for reasons that are based in their form. Often in my course on mystery and detective fiction we talk about the limits working in this genre sets on certain literary elements, chief among them characterization. A mystery novelist can not afford to mine the depths of her characters as long as they are suspects in the case. This technical limitation is most apparent in writers of 'puzzle mysteries,' such as Agatha Christie, but even with writers who develop their people quite fully, as James and George do, an element of opacity is required, not just about their actions, but about their feelings and values, else we will know too quickly "whodunnit." (There are exceptions, of course, as when some of the novel is openly from the point of view of the criminal, though often then we have inside knowledge without knowing the character's outward identity.) The same limits do not, however, apply to the detectives--which is one reason, as historians and critics of the genre have pointed out, for the appeal of the mystery series. Across a series of novels, we can come to know the detectives very well, and a developmental arc much longer than that of any single case emerges. Though the case provides the occasion, after a while the real interest lies with the detective.

That, I think, is very much what has happened with both James's Adam Dalgliesh and George's Thomas Lynley. Every one of their books is populated by a new array of people, but they are the ones with whom we have longstanding relationships--remarkably longstanding, indeed, as James has been publishing Dalgliesh mysteries since Cover Her Face in 1962, and the first Lynley novel, A Great Deliverance, was published in 1988. And though Dalgliesh and Lynley have always been complex and interesting protagonists, in recent books so much of significance has happened in their lives that I turned to these latest instalments motivated far less by curiosity about the latest corpse than by the desire to know how things are going with them. While actually reading the books, I took a fairly perfunctory interest in the investigations but I was keenly interested in what came to seem the regrettably few sections focusing on, for instance, Dalgliesh's relationship with Emma Lavenham (and not just because it's a little victory for English professors everywhere). The real novelistic potential of The Private Patient emerges, I think, in the scene in which Emma confronts Dalgliesh in his professional capacity and we see, fleetingly, the difficulty that even these two extremely intelligent and independent people might have reconciling law and love, justice and humanity. But this material is not developed, and in fact the novel in which it does become the focus would have to leave the genre of detection quite far behind. (Gaudy Night is a rare example of a novel that I believe successfully balances human and literary interests with mystery elements, partly by integrating the case so thoroughly with the personal aspects of the story and making both the detection and the romance converge on the same themes.) Careless in Red spends more time on Lynley's personal situation, but again his struggle to move forward after the tragedy of two novels ago (see how I'm avoiding spoilers, in case anyone hasn't already read this excellent series?) is subordinated to the case at hand--though George does set the case up with thematic echoes of his tragedy.

I can hardly fault either author for the relative weight they give to the professional, rather than personal, business of their characters. That's the kind of book they have undertaken to write. Also, as their protagonists are professional detectives, policing is integral not just to their work, but to their identities. But I do wonder if even James, the acknowledged Grande Dame of the genre, hasn't finally shown us the end point (dare I say the dead end?) of a commitment to this genre. Just introducing the kind of story arcs they have given their protagonists recently suggests that James and George might be chafing at the constraints of detective fiction, wanting to write a straight novel of psychological and moral development, a novel in which incident is second to character, a novel squarely in the tradition James has always claimed as hers--that of Austen and George Eliot and Trollope. At any rate, that's the kind of novel I find I wish they would write. Over the years they have succeeded in getting me quite emotionally involved in the lives of their main characters (and not just Dalgliesh and Lynley, either, but Kate Miskin, Barbara Havers, Simon and Deborah St. James...). The corpse and suspects, however, are never more than passing acquaintances.

On a somewhat tangential note, I was struck reading The Private Patient by the elegaic note on which it ends, in a passage which also echoes the wonderful 'squirrel's heartbeat' passage from Chapter XX of Middlemarch:
She thought, The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all the earth's living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.
Though of course I would not rush to assume that a character's views are those of the author, it is hard not to read this final paragraph from a novelist who has spent nearly five decades telling us about "deeds of horror" as a reminder, even a consolation, that even in a murder mystery, death need not define life.