August 28, 2009

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

"So many people know these horrible stories by now," Daniel Mendelsohn reflects near the end of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; "what more was there to say? How to tell them?" The Lost itself is, of course, his answer.

This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn's quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendelsohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood ("Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?"), from photographs ("killed by the Nazis," his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: "I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, 'Oh, no!'"), from letters ("The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters," writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).

Only once he makes it his mission to fill in the gaps in his knowledge does Daniel realize, over the course of many years and many interviews with surviving "Bolechowers," in America and Australia, Israel and Denmark and Poland, that he "knew" almost nothing. Indeed, The Lost is in large part a meditation on what nobody knows, what nobody can know: not just the facts, what happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters ("such darling four children," Schmiel writes in 1939, in one of his desperately dignified letters to his American relatives, asking for money and help to get his family "away from this Gehenim," this Hell), the facts of their deaths, but also their lives. Who were they, these six people, now almost as lost (as Mendelsohn ruminates near the volume's close) as the many millions who, before them, lived and were lost into what is now history? What can we really know of them, or say about them?
For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won't and can't be; all that will be lost, too . . . everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back. . . .
And of course that is what Mendelsohn himself has done, to look back, to see "not only what was lost but what there is still to be found." Though his initial interest is in just how his lost relatives died ("we did end up finding out what happened to Uncle Schmiel and his family--by accident," he tells us early on), his preoccupation becomes something at once more expansive and more elusive: their lives, their experiences, their identities--what they lost, in becoming no longer "themselves, specific" ("I was reminded the more forcefully," he says at a crucial moment of discovery, "that they had been specific people with specific deaths . . . they were once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths") but only six of six million, lost in the sheer magnitude of the loss of which their own deaths were specific only to them.

Mendelsohn's refusal to take over their specificity, to presume to know them or speak for them, for me was one of the most impressive features of the book. Even when he reconstructs likely scenarios, he frames them with a respectful uncertainty. How presumptuous, after all, to think we can stand, vicariously, in the place of his sixteen-year-old cousin Ruchele, killed in Bolechow's first official Aktion. "I have often tried to imagine what might have happened to her," Mendelsohn remarks, "although every time I do, I realize how limited my resources are." Not only is the evidence fragmentary and unreliable, not only can "memory itself . . . play tricks," but "there is no way to reconstruct what she herself went through." Still, he tries, drawing on his own interviews with survivors and witnesses but also from documents in Yad Vashem, but never presuming to know what was really only Ruchele's knowledge ("It is indeed possible that," "if she survived those thirty-six hours," "with what thoughts it is impossible to know," "Did she hear it? . . . We cannot know.") "That is the last we see of her," he says at the end of this section; "although we have, of course, not really seen her at all." The sense of loss at this point is acute: the waste, the horror, the mystery, the finality of death.

These and the many other, often quite extended, meditations on the limits of our historical knowledge risk bringing a degree of narrative self-consciousness to The Lost that could turn it too far towards Mendelsohn himself. If the book had become more about the storytelling than the stories, I would have liked it far less, but I never felt that the humanity of his family was put second to intellectual gamesmanship or philosophical speculation. Even the long sections of biblical exegesis are woven, always, into his thinking about what might have happened, what it all might have meant or be made to mean, what larger (cyclical, universal) stories these individual stories might in their own ways reiterate. There are high stakes involved in his project, and his insistence that it matters how much we know, where our information comes from, how we piece it together into something meaningful--the effort he puts into questioning or undermining or revising what he learned during his interviews and travels--keeps alive for us that history is made as well as lived by human beings whose complexity cannot be reduced and should not be underestimated. Not that he is a relativist about truth: it matters deeply to him to reach as close as possible to what really happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters. The moments at which he comes physically closest take on a special poignancy because as he stands there--for instance, in the kestle, box, not kessle, castle, where Schmiel and Frydka hid for months, and "the material reality" allows Mendelsohn "to understand the words at last"--he is most sharply aware he will never know, really: "those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me."

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that "it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family." Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally "specific" are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, "born Grunschlag," who once dated Ruchele:
I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why--because you remember the date so specifically--why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele-->Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.
There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn's strategy of frequently spiralling away from the "main" narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others--or if we do, we are soon chastened:
As I looked I suddenly felt foolish for asking Mrs Begley to look in her book [of the victims] for my relatives, whom I never knew and who meant something rather abstract for me at that point, when so many of hers, so much closer to her, were there too. . . .

Then she took a breath that was also a sigh, and started telling me her own stories of slyness and survival, and other stories, too. Of, for instance, how, successfully hidden herself, she had bribed someone to bring her parents and in-laws to a certain place from which she would take them to safety, . . . and how when she arrived at this rendezvous she saw a wagon filled with dead bodies passing by, and on top of the pile of bodies were those of the elderly people she had come to rescue. . . .

And then she added this: Because she herself was in danger, was "passing" at that point, she couldn't allow herself to betray any emotion when she saw the bodies of her family passing by in the wagon. . . .
Mrs Begley's story of "passing" (You see, I was fair, and I spoke German) points to another issue Mendelsohn confronts, as a researcher and storyteller: all those he interviews are, necessarily, survivors. So not only do they (like Mrs Begley) all have remarkable stories of their own to tell, of hiding and running and starving, of those who helped them, or didn't, but they also could not have been witnesses ("Had he seen [Ruchele] being taken? I stupidly questioned. He laughed grimly. If I would have seen her, I would have been dead too!"). One of Mendelsohn's aunts, asked by her inquisitive relation for details of her own birth, replies, "I'm not going to tell you when I was born because it would have been better if I'd never been born", and we realize that though the survivors were not lost in the same way as Ruchele and Frydka and Schmiel and Ester and Lorka and little Bronia, still, they lost everything they had and are lost as well. "'Well,'" says Jack Greene, "'think of Bolechow. Of six thousand Jews, we were forty-eight who survived.'"

August 24, 2009

Recent Reading: Lodge and Lively

I enjoyed both David Lodge's Deaf Sentence and Penelope Lively's Cleopatra's Sister. Both take what turns out to be a deceptively light tone to explore ideas that are actually quite serious and interesting.

Deaf Sentence lures us in with the funny side of deafness, particularly the misunderstandings, frustrations, and mishaps that arise from Desmond Bates's attempts to carry on as if he can hear what someone says. Drawing on his own experience, Lodge is very specific about the technical options available to those struggling with hearing loss, including about their inconveniences and shortcomings. But as he remarks early on, deafness is not, really, very funny, and even as he points to the greater pathos conventionally attached to blindness, he frequently invokes the suffering of famous "deafies" including Philip Larkin and, of course, Beethoven, to illustrate the deprivation and isolation that follows from losing one's connection with the sounds of the world. There are a lot of pretty lame puns (of the "deaf in Venice" variety), but the wry chuckles they invite also prove a kind of trickery, as the most common slippage is between "deaf" and "death," and that relationship turns out to be the central one in the novel: death is, after all, our ultimate "sentence," the ultimate end to conversation and relationships. Everything comic in it thus becomes infused with tragic potential: as we age, the novel incessantly reminds us, we lose things--our hearing, our coordination, our minds, control over our bodies, our friends and families, ourselves. There's nothing really very funny about any of that. As Desmond concludes, "'Deafness is comic, blindness is tragic,' I wrote earlier in this journal, and I have played variations on the phonetic near-equivalence of 'deaf' and 'death,' but now it seems more meaningful to say that deafness is comic and death is tragic, because final, inevitable, and inscrutable." The novel, then, explores the uneasy borderland between the comic and the tragic, or perhaps the uncomfortable proximity between the two (the most slapstick comedy depends on the wince of pain, after all). Deafness functions as a comic device, but also as a metaphor for our inevitable isolation from other people, which culminates in death:
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Philip Larkin [ Desmond reflects], the bard of timor mortis.
Deaf Sentence is not, I think, an altogether successful novel. Its various parts did not feel well integrated. The apparent main line of the plot, for instance, about the wacky graduate student with her morbid project on linguistic analysis of suicide notes, leads to some funny scenarios. But as the rest of the novel, especially the decline of Desmond's father, took on substance, I had trouble understanding what she really contributed. Like many of Desmond's little set pieces about contemporary life, technology, and politics, the trip to Auschwitz seemed more like something Lodge himself wanted to say than something that had to be in the novel. Of course, the Auschwitz excursion is relevant to the theme (if that's the right word) of death, but its gravitas seemed excessive for the rest of the book, though I thought Lodge's writing during that section was among the best in the novel--strong, spare, and evocative, whereas much of the rest of the novel is a bit too prosy and self-indulgently academic (the academic narrator / protagonist can take the blame, of course, as all this is in character, but still...).

Overall, though, I appreciate that this novel is about something. I've been thinking lately (for another project) about David Masson's line that "the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists" (and, as a contrast, Henry James's objection that in George Eliot's fiction "the philosophical door is always open" and letting in a cooling draft). Events strung together do not make a great novel, though they may make a briefly entertaining one (take note, writers 0f popular historical fiction). It is much more rewarding, as a reader, to feel engaged with a view of the world and how we live in it, whether the emphasis is primarily ethical, aesthetic, political, or something else. Kazuo Ishiguro made a comment in an interview that I like a lot, about fiction being "an appeal for companionship in experiencing life," with the author implicitly saying, "it's like this, isn't it? do you see it this way too?" You can agree or disagree, but either way, you're in a good conversation. Lodge is not playing with any particularly obscure or profound ideas, I don't think, but he's trying to see and say something about where we stand in relation to other people, and what the inevitable end of our life means, or might mean, or should mean, for how we think about ourselves and how we act. In doing so through a (more or less) comic novel, perhaps he's also suggesting we not take these problems too seriously, not so seriously, anyway, that they prevent us from enjoying life's absurdities.

Cleopatra's Sister is another novel thinking about things. In this case, Lively is preoccupied with the issue of contingency: why one thing and not another? She plays out variations on this theme elegantly across the different aspects of the novel, from the big evolutionary questions confronted by her paleontologist protagonist Howard Beamish, to the day-to-day incidents of chance that drive lives forward--Howard's discovery of his first fossil, for instance, which turns out to initiate a life-long interest and thus his career. How far are we responsible for our own lives? is probably the novel's central interest. Co-protagonist Lucy Faulkner, for instance, works hard to develop her credentials as a journalist, but many of her professional advances result from her being in the right place at the right time. If she seizes the moment, is it luck, or can she take credit for her success? What about all the "what ifs"? So many other things might have happened, if things had been just a little different, if somebody had made a different choice, even a minor one. The novel explores the randomness of life: every event is explicable, looking backwards (in this, Lively's outlook resembles George Eliot's version of determinism). But it is not predictable, looking the other way, a fact of which Howard and Lucy are repeatedly reminded, sometimes jarringly. The central episode of the plot, in which Howard and Lucy are among a group of British tourists taken hostage in the fictional country of Callimbia, is the ultimate example of the way events are formed by contingencies: the plane happens to have mechanical problems which happen to become urgent as they are closest to Callimbia, where, as it happens, there has just been a political coup (which, as we know from the interspersed chapters recounting the history of the imagined nation, is itself the outcome of a series of unlikely events). That both Howard and Lucy are on this particular plane is coincidental, or, more accurately, meaningless until later events give their meeting the aura of fate--or would, in a different novel. There is an inevitability about each step, and yet at every moment, it might have been otherwise.

Here, as in Moon Tiger, Lively is particularly interested in the way these moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another. The juxtaposition of the Callimbia 'history' highlights this process (with due reference to the "Cleopatra's Nose" theory of history), and also allows for some play on another theme familiar from Moon Tiger, which is the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history. Lucy realizes at one point that all the 'little' people are the real stuff of which politics is made; this is true too of history, and yet most people live historical lives without knowing it. Thus Lucy and Howard's chance experience of the political chaos and violence of Callimbia is also a reminder to them that they do not live outside of history: that their own lives can, for instance, become part of something Lucy might write a feature article about, or end without leaving descendents, like the fossil specimens Howard collects. I won't spoil the ending--the second half of the novel becomes quite suspenseful, and as in Deaf Sentence, the comic potential of the set-up and the light handling of the prose leads us unwarily into much darker territory.

Next up: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, I think. [Update: What actually happened is that I picked up my copy of Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost to take a look and became totally engrossed; I actually stayed up much later than I should have last night because I couldn't stop reading it, which is something I haven't felt strongly for a while. It's a remarkable book.]

August 21, 2009

Oprah Producer Reads Starts Middlemarch

Back in June, I noted that one of the producers of Oprah's Book Club was planning to read Middlemarch this summer. Then her blog went completely silent. Now we learn that although she "hit the beach" with several versions of the novel and good intentions, she didn't manage to read it, but she's still trying. Maybe I should send her a link to my interview with Nigel--although I'm not sure I inspired him to finish it either. The good news is that other people have been reading the book because of her. I always think that the more people who read Middlemarch the better!

August 20, 2009

Anglo-Egyptian Fiction

As I putter away at my project on Ahdaf Soueif, I've been trying to think of other modern novels that qualify as "Anglo-Egyptian": that is, novels by English novelists but set primarily (or at least significantly) in or about Egypt. For my purposes, I think I would exclude novels about Ancient Egypt (which in my experience tend to be of the costume-and-jewelry form of historical fiction--not that there's anything wrong with that, and also Pauline Gedge's Child of the Morning is an old favourite of mine). I would also not expect to be interested in lighter fiction, such as mysteries, for which Egypt is really just a conveniently exotic setting. I could be persuaded, of course, to look at interesting examples from either of these categories. But I'm mostly looking for "serious" or literary fiction, fiction with some ambition, if you like, primarily because that's where I would expect to find interesting ideas about what it means for an English novelist to write about Egypt. The obvious examples I'm aware of are Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, Olivia Manning's Levant Trilogy, and Penelope Lively's Cleopatra's Sister and (another old favourite) Moon Tiger. Other suggestions?

Update: Now that I've read it, I realize that Lively's Cleopatra's Sister is not actually about Egypt.

August 19, 2009

If you weren't H-- J--, someone would have made you revise this sentence...

To touch successively upon these points is to attempt a portrait, which I shall perhaps not altogether have failed to produce.
I'm just saying, most of us would not put our pens down and say, there, that's done.

August 15, 2009

Ian Colford, Evidence

"Evidence of what?" might reasonably be a reader's first question, heading into this volume that is not quite a novel, not quite a collection of individual stories, but instead an assortment of incidents in the unsettled (and unsettling) life of Kostandin Bitri, described in the jacket blurb as "a wanderer uprooted by war." Each incident teases and disturbs with what it leaves out as much as what it includes (and some of them include elements that are, in fact, quite disturbing). They are not presented in chronological order, and the continuities between them are primarily of tone: Kostandin narrates in a flat, expository tone, like someone who has seen and done so much that he can no longer be surprised or deeply moved. And yet the content, the action, often turns on surprising and moving moments of connection--or, even more often, failed connection. Unlikely meetings become fragments of unsustainable relationships. People want or expect too much of each other, or of themselves; they cling to hope, they ask for help, but they receive or extend pain and disappointment.

Kostandin's specific history is offered in fragments throughout the volume. "You're from one of those countries over there that used to be part of Yugoslavia. I'm right, aren't I?" asks one of his employers, and Kostandin opts "to let him think what he wanted about where I was from"; later he tells the members of a group counselling session about the "tribal" customs of his home country; an orphan, he eventually returns to seek the remains of his parents in a mass grave for which Communists are blamed. Even if we trust what he tells us, the details are left just vague enough that Kostandin's stories seem to be about trauma, loss, and betrayal as ongoing conditions of human life rather than attempts to render, literally, the effects of historically specific events. Kostandin himself is sometimes victim, sometimes criminal. His world does not allow for heroism; in it, also, acts of generosity, including his own, lead nowhere in particular. There is evil, or at least cruelty. In one episode, Kostandin awakes in the hospital, badly injured; he is unable to recall what happened, and the absence of an explanation seems to epitomize the meaninglessness of the damage people inflict on each other, and the larger mystery of human motives--a mystery that cannot, after all, be solved but for which each of this strange episodes is partial, oblique evidence.

Throughout, the language is precise and controlled; details of colour and sound, rooms and personalities, emerge in sharp focus. Emotive language proves redundant, or at least optional. The situations Colford conjures for us through Kostandin's almost clinically detached observations speak eloquently enough of strain and yearning, love and failure. The stories end rather than conclude or resolve. Perhaps because of the many questions they leave unanswered, they linger, uncomfortably, hauntingly, in the mind.

Red Hot Classics

Somehow I hadn't seen any of these editions before today, when I ran into a couple of them as I was browsing through Chapters (thanks, again, to parents who hold their children's birthday parties at The Putting Edge across the way!). I'm fascinated by the marketing approach: an unwary reader might well pick these up not even realizing they are "classics" ...which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. I'm also interested that Jane Austen gets such different covers:

August 13, 2009

Your Vote Counts!

At least, it might. Pretty soon I have to finalize book orders for a new course I'm teaching in the winter term, a second-year survey of "British Literature Since 1800." I feel strongly that despite the pressure it will put on the very limited time I have available to cover a vast range of material, I can't teach such a course without including at least one 19th-century novel and one 20th-century novel--but picking just one puts a lot of pressure on each choice! I'll be using the second volume of the Norton "Major Authors" anthology, which will take care of poetry, non-fiction, and short fiction. I've been thinking that if you're going to showcase a single Victorian novelist, it simply has to be Dickens, and as we have at most two weeks and I will mostly have students without much literary experience, I've been thinking it has to be one of the shorter Dickens, meaning basically Hard Times or Great Expectations. Before I put the order in, though, I thought I'd see how many people agreed with me and how many would consider someone else the "must read" author of that century, or another book a better choice. So I've put a little poll at the side; feel free to place your vote there and/or to put a suggestion in the comments. For what it's worth, my underlying theme in the course will be something like "what do people think literature is for, and how do they use literary form to get this done?" And the 20th-century novel I've almost decided on is Atonement, for lots of reasons, one of which is that it is kind of a two-for-one deal, given its engagement with Woolf-ian modernism (which we will address through readings from the anthology too).

August 10, 2009

Weekday Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Teaching

It sure is quiet around the blogosphere, including around here. Must be summer! It's not that I haven't been reading, but for some reason--no particular reason--I haven't been writing up as many of the books I read as I used to. At this point I'm more likely to do a full write-up only if a book has deeply engaged me, for better or for worse. This approach makes some sense, but it also means a certain slackening of discipline, so perhaps I'll try to get back in the habit of finding at least something to say about most of my current reading....we'll see. Right now I'm working on quite a varied collection, including Evidence, by fellow Dalhousian Ian Colford, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I'm only 400 pages in, but I'm pretty sure I disagree with Val McDermid's claim that I won't "read a better book this year"), and, of course, Villette. I just finished re-reading Villette this afternoon, and I was completely drawn in by the intensity of both the language and the vicarious experience of Lucy's passions and sorrows. In the end, I think I like her because she's a fighter; she has pride, and wit, and perseverance, even sheer cussedness. But I like her best when she cries out, "My heart will break!" More about that tomorrow. Discussion at The Valve has rather petered out, but I'm hopeful that we'll see a surge of energy around the novel's conclusion. Overall there have not been nearly as many comments as during last year's Adam Bede reading, but on the other hand the comments have been extremely interesting and thoughtful. I kind of wish more of the regular Valve authors had participated...but then, catch me reading some of the stuff they post on! So no hard feelings.

As another project, I've been working on a piece about Trollope at the invitation of Steve Donoghue at Open Letters. Now, I'm very enthusiastic about Trollope, and so, it turns out, is Steve, and I love having this opportunity to put my thoughts into some kind of readable form. It turns out, though, that a lot of the self-conciousness I thought I had fought off by blogging all this time has come back: all the material I have so far seems both dry and obvious, and I'm riddled with anxieties about tone and audience. I guess the only thing to do is to keep writing, in the spirit of Trollope himself, who famously said, "I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than [in] inspiration." (Ah, but he didn't know about the internet, which lets you stay quite fixed in your chair but wander, mentally, far from the task at hand....)

And, as September comes relentlessly closer, even as I cling to the hope that I'll make more real progress on my major research projects, I find I can't stop thinking about my fall and winter classes. I actually really enjoy planning classes, setting up the syllabi and assignments, organizing the reserve lists and Blackboard sites and so on. Of course, this is a good thing--but it's also a bad thing, when in fact I don't need to do this stuff so early and should be leaving it until the very eve of my first class, as apparently most of my colleagues do (hence the crowds at the photocopier in early September). I like the concrete tasks involved: there's something satisfying in checking specific items off the to-do list, like "first day handouts" or "links for BLS" or "study questions for Aurora Floyd". But as a result, I often choose to do these tasks instead of the more amorphous, mentally demanding, never-really-done tasks that make up my research. Really, it's a question of self-discipline, so starting tomorrow, I vow to spend at least half of every work day on research and writing. Or maybe I can use a rewards system: for every two hours spent in concentrated work of other kinds, I can spend half an hour getting something in order for the fall or winter.

One of the biggest distractions related to my upcoming teaching is that I want to try some new things (new to me, that is, not new in any sense of breaking pedagogical ground), and so I have to figure out how to make them work. For a winter term class, for instance, a lecture class on "British Literature Since 1800," I am thinking of a wiki assignment that I hope will help students attend to and process the material they hear in lectures, taking more responsibility for it and engaging with it more creatively. My idea (still in development) is to have each tutorial group responsible for its own wiki; a specific student would be responsible for posting his or her notes on each lecture, with the whole group responsible for editing and amplifying them until, by the end of the term, they have a collaboratively-produced study guide for the whole course. I thought perhaps we could liven things up by making a bit of a game of it, with a prize for the best wiki (pizza for the group?). I quite like this idea, in theory anyway. I try hard to make my lectures engaging (though I now understand that I really do talk pretty fast), but I also try hard to make students see that just sitting listening, passively, is not enough. I imagine that this exercise will not only make sure at least someone is listening hard some of the time, but also reveal to them that each of them may hear me differently, may pick up on an example or an argument and think differently about it. I think the wiki format will give them room to challenge each other's interpretations as well as mine, and to put in counter-arguments, link to additional contexts, and so on. But I am only just learning how to use PBWorks (formerly PBWiki), and before I can assign something of this kind for credit I have to be quite confident about the technology myself, and I have to think hard about how to explain it to them and how to define the requirements and expectations. (If any of you have used wikis in your teaching, advice would be welcome, now, before it's too late!)

I'm also thinking about having the students in my George Eliot graduate seminar help me build up a really good website (very primitive version started here): I've been surprised at the relative dearth of good web resources on GE. Here I'm more confident about the mechanics of it, but I need to think through the academic and scholarly aspects: the what, why, and how of the information we would present. I feel as if this kind of project might help them define an audience and purpose for their work that might motivate them more than sticking to the conventional seminar-presentation-and-paper format, though probably a paper would still be part of the course requirements as well. I asked one of my PhD students, now done with her coursework, what she thought of the idea, and she was very enthusiastic, which was encouraging. But again, more thinking and experimenting to do. At least this, like the wiki idea, is for a course that won't start until January.

For fun, I've also just watched both seasons of In Treatment, which I found totally mesmerizing. Gabriel Byrne can come and listen to me any time.

August 6, 2009

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I finally read Mrs. Dalloway. It was a strangely unsettling experience. I had tried to read it many times before but never made it past the second page: my problem was (and continues to be) that I don't altogether understand how to read this novel. It drifts and wanders, and then pauses in a place that doesn't seem very significant, but becomes so as it is allowed to just be and develop on the page. You have to be patient--which may sound like a strange thing for a Victorianist to struggle with, but it's a different kind of patience than the kind you need for Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot. So, although I have been very interested in the novel for a long time, I kept starting it and then putting it aside. This time I decided I should stop trying so hard and just keep reading, allowing myself to drift and wander and come back. When I did that, I started to fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and langorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality. And then, finally, I began to feel I was brushing up against the ideas of the novel, not in the abstract way I had considered them by reading about the novel, but more immediately, sensually as well as intellectually. So much has been written on this novel that I won't add any more commentary of my own, except the brief observation that I hadn't realized it was so much about London. Instead, here are my two favourite passages (so far):
Big Ben struck the half-hour.

How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from the window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell, making the moment solemn. . . . Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? When, thought Clarissa, that's the miracle, that's the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn't believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?
She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). The (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

August 4, 2009

Villette Chapters 1-35: "Oubliez les Professeurs!"

The thread is now open at The Valve for discussion of this week's installment of Villette. In case you are wondering whether you should have joined us in this project, taste this:
What was become of that curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and half life; only on one hand truth, and on the other perhaps a jest?

Was this feeling dead? I do now know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb unquiet, and dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin-chinks.
Clearly the folks behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are behind the curve: the undead lurk already in Charlotte Bronte's perverse imagination.