This Week In My Classes: Planning Ahead

september-calendarTechnically, this post should really be called “This Week For My Classes,” since of course I’m not actually teaching any right now. In between other projects, though (mostly finishing a small essayish review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved for the next issue of Open Letters — yes, that’s right, I am trying my hand at writing a little bit about romance, thoughtfully, I hope, yet while avoiding the pitfalls of the dreaded “romance think piece”) I am chipping away at preparations for next year’s offerings, particularly the one completely new class, which is the “Pulp Fiction” one. I think I’ve reached some key decisions about it that will help me focus that preparation better as the summer goes on.

One thing I’ve decided is to stop worrying about the problem that it’s called “Pulp Fiction” but clearly described in the official Calendar as an introduction to genre fiction. I think it’s the title that’s kind of misleading, but it was chosen (presumably) to be catchy. I’m just going to approach the course as in introduction to popular genres, which will in some cases involve talking about actual “pulps” as part of the literary-historical context, but which frees me from worrying about whether the texts I assign are actually pulpy. It’s an introductory writing course primarily, after all: I don’t have to wrestle with definitions or theories the way I would if this were a graduate seminar, or even an upper-level lecture class.

truegritFollowing on that simple (if somewhat shoulder-shrugging) conclusion, I have decided not to spend a lot more time shopping for possible main texts to assign but just to call it for the ones that are my top candidates at this point, so that I can think about how to frame and teach them in particular (and what shorter texts to use to supplement them). So that means (I think – I haven’t actually placed the order with the bookstore yet) True Grit to represent Westerns, The Maltese Falcon for crime fiction, and Lord of Scoundrels for Romance. Valdez is Coming was another really appealing option for a Western (the only other one I seriously considered was Hondo, and I couldn’t finish it, which is a bad sign for teaching it with conviction) — but I enjoyed the subversiveness of True Grit so much that I’m just going to go for it. I’m 99% sure Elmore Leonard will be represented on the syllabus through one of his short stories, probably “3:10 to Yuma.” I went back and forth between The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and my decision is a bit arbitrary — I’ve been doing The Big Sleep in the mystery class the last few years, for one thing, but also I think Hammett’s blunter style and story will be better for a first-year class. Ever since I offered to do this class, Lord of Scoundrels has been my pick to represent romance.

scoundrelsI’ve been looking at the syllabi for two of my colleagues who’ve taught this class recently and one thing that struck me is how many more readings they included. My big three won’t be my entire reading list, of course, but apparently I just take things more slowly than they do — they both typically take one week per novel, for instance (not super-long novels, but including, for example, King Solomon’s Mines, which is 300+ pages in the Penguin edition, or Frankenstein, which is around 200 pages). Looking at their schedules, I wondered if I should try to fit more in, so I did up a version of the timetable with Lady Audley’s Secret added — but unless I sped everything up more than I’m comfortable with, that meant leaving out most of the short fiction I’d included. In the end I think I’d rather allow lots of time to talk about particulars (and also take up class time with writing instruction, editing workshops, and that kind of thing — which I’m sure my colleagues do too, but I’m not sure how they manage to get it all done and still have robust discussions of so many complex readings). Pacing is one of the many mysteries of pedagogy, of course: there is no right rhythm, and what works depends on your own style as well as the purposes of the class. I usually spend three weeks on Middlemarch when I teach it in the 19th-century fiction class, but we take five weeks on it in Close Reading — and it would certainly be possible to take an entire semester for it, if only there were such a course (or, if only I dared to offer such a course and anyone actually took it!). Anyway, I reverted to a schedule with just three full-length novels, with short stories interspersed, and for now I like the looks of it. I can always order a fourth book later on if I change my mind. In the meantime, with the main titles chosen, I can set some parameters for my preparatory research.

brightspace-logoI have done a few more small things for teaching prep too: I began adjusting the plans for my two fall courses — both of which I’ve taught a few times before — to fit the university’s revised fall schedule (which includes a week-long fall reading break for the first time), and I’ve started poking around on our new Learning Management System, Brightspace. So far I don’t like Brightspace at all, mostly because we seem to have chosen the version that doesn’t let us customize any of it, even the colours. That takes a lot of the fun out of it! Obviously the real purpose of these things is utilitarian, but the more you restrict what I can do with it, the more inclined I am to use it as a document dump and nothing else. People who’ve been using Brightspace for a while tell me they like it better than Blackboard, though, so I’m trying to stay optimistic that in ways I haven’t yet discovered, it’s actually an improvement and not just a change.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Ineligible

eligible

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” –  Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice

“I’m in love with you. It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex, but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Eligible

Just to be clear, I know that Curtis Sittenfeld’s “modern retelling” of Pride and Prejudice isn’t actually called Ineligible. It’s called Eligible, which is also the name of the reality TV show (closely modeled on The Bachelor) on which her updated Mr. Bingley has recently been a contestant.

I read Eligible with the sincere intention of reviewing it for the June issue of Open Letters. It turns out, however, that I have reached my limit for the number of mediocre-to-terrible novels based on, inspired by, or in any way re-imagining great 19th-century fiction that I can stand to write about in thoughtful detail. There may yet be exceptions, books that promise the rare kind of brilliance shown in, say, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, books that just look so inviting that after swearing I’m out, they pull me back in. But for now, I’m done. I don’t set out to dislike these books, honest! It’s just that over and over they disappoint me at best (as you’ll see in my forthcoming review of Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon) and at worst they infuriate me (remember Gwendolen?). And at least Eliot (and Brontë) spin-offs, which are uninspiring enough, are happily relatively infrequent. The endless, unstoppable, unbearable parade of zombie versions (literal and figurative) of Austen’s novels, however, shows no sign of ever, ever, ever ending, and at this point it all just seems crass — an embarrassing reflection on both the publishing industry and the readers who keep buying such derivative, second-rate, opportunistic substitutions for authentic creativity and genuine insight.

Harumph.

OK, now that I’ve got that rant out of my system, let me be more temperate. I’ve enjoyed some Austen pastiches in my time: Jane Austen in Boca is fun enough, for instance, and so is Bridget Jones’s Diary (though Mad About the Boy was just awful). Clueless is both smart and entertaining. And other people can of course read as much sub-Austen fiction as they want, and if they enjoy it, more power to them and they can rest easy knowing they will apparently never (ever!) run out of options. But as far as I’m concerned, the two best rewritings of Pride and Prejudice are North and South and Daniel Deronda (I have an essay about Deronda as a response to Austen’s happy endings, in fact, that I hope to place somewhere eventually), and Eligible is not in their class at all — or even in Fielding’s. It’s not a horrible novel — in its own way, it’s even diverting. It just doesn’t rethink Pride and Prejudice in any interesting way: it’s like a weirdly literal attempt at translation in which every element of the original novel has been replaced with what Sittenfeld came up with as its modern equivalent (Mr. Darcy is a brain surgeon! Bingley is a reality TV heart throb! Lydia destroys her mother’s peace of mind by marrying someone who’s transgender! Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Kathy de Bourgh, feminist icon — wait, what?!) — and in the conversion process, the magic is utterly lost.

There are some clever things about Eligible, and some funny bits in it. That’s as much as I can really say in its favor, though — which isn’t much, but is just enough to make it not deserving of a hatchet job. So what could a longer review really say about it? My overwhelming feeling, reading it, was indifference: why write it? why read it? when you could write — or read — something else? It offers so very little, not just but especially in comparison to Pride and Prejudice itself. Beneath Austen’s deft social comedy we feel the earth moving — emotionally and politically. There are elements of social change in Eligible too, but the novel reads as if Sittenfeld had a checklist of ways to demonstrate that the times are a’changing. Austen’s prose may seem old-fashioned to some readers today, but its subtlety and wit make it well worth attuning our ear to its cadences. Sittenfeld’s prose is serviceable, but so what? And sometimes it isn’t even that — but since I’m not writing that hatchet job, I’ll stop there.

The thing is, I know that having some expertise in the original 19th-century materials in a way makes me perfectly suited to examine contemporary reworkings of them, which is one reason I have stepped up to do it so often. At the same time, that’s exactly what turns out to make the process so tedious: ironically, my “qualifications” make this exactly the wrong niche for me as a reviewer — they make me ineligible for it. I don’t shy away from writing negative reviews: I hope I always have the courage to say quite honestly what I think about what I’ve read, as well as the integrity to give as full an explanation as I can of why I think it. Dwelling in negativity isn’t the most rewarding kind of reviewing, though — and specializing in books that get our attention by being parasitic on greatness isn’t a niche anybody really wants to inhabit, is it? It’s one I want to move out of, at any rate.

And when the inevitable film adaptation of Eligible is released, I won’t go see it, either. Enough! I’ve had enough.

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Hate sex, she thought gleefully. Hate sex! Except without the hate! — Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible

“You’re the One”: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

buffyOver the weekend I finally wrapped up my first ever run-through of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I started watching the series last summer, I actually came to it with remarkably little information and no preconceptions except that (and obviously I got over this one) it probably wasn’t going to be a hit with me, since vampires — and supernatural / fantasy stories generally — are just not something I gravitate towards. So why did I even bother giving it a try? Well, if enough people whose insights I have learned to trust and respect in other contexts find value in something, I’m usually willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, and often I’m won over. (Exhibit A.) Also, I’ve told people often enough that you don’t have to like horses to enjoy reading Dick Francis, so I figured that perhaps, in a similar way, I could learn to live with vampires as a device for developing plot and character and never mind how silly the concept seemed.

The truth is, in some ways the vampires and other various demons that populate the series never did stop seeming kind of silly. I actually came to like how cheesy the special effects often were, though: it seemed consistent with the show’s care never to take itself entirely seriously. A more realistic patina would have made it harder, I think, to sustain the comic edge, and especially the frequently arch self-consciousness. For me, anyway, the sense that it was not just okay but right to chuckle at some of the scariest monsters helped me relax and just enjoy the show. (This is not to say that there weren’t times when I was wholly engrossed in it emotionally. I cried more than once, including during the final two episodes of S7!) But I also came to understand how often the show’s monsters work as metaphors or projections. Even more important, I realized that the characters’ battles with them (not just Buffy’s battles, but of course especially hers) were also really about much less literal struggles — struggles for independence, for example, for identity, for acceptance, or for empowerment. A lot of these — appropriately, given the age of the main (human) characters — are the classic issues of the Bildungsroman, but they aren’t problems that just disappear as we age, and one thing the vampire characters do is bring out how relentless and universal change and struggle really are.

Buffy-creatorThe full series is a lot of episodes and I watched them over a period many months. I couldn’t begin, then, to write up any kind of comprehensive response. So far I’ve avoided what I know is an extensive body of commentary on it online and in print: I didn’t want my own impressions to get drowned out too fast! But if those of you who are longtime fans have any favorite essays, articles, or interviews, I’d be happy to be pointed in the right direction. (I know Ana has posts on Buffy, and when I’m done writing this up I’m heading over to read those first thing.*) Because I’m so new to the series, I don’t even know what the existing points of contention are or why! So I’m just going to write about the things that are most on my mind now, while the experience of watching the series for the first time is still fresh. One sign that it really is a good show is just how much it makes me want to talk about it, and nobody else in my household watched it with me, so I have a lot of pent up if fairly random thoughts about it! I’m not going to worry about spoilers — so anyone who hasn’t already watched the show, you are forewarned.

1. I’ll start right at the beginning, with the music! The theme song is loud, aggressive, and repetitive — in other words, it’s everything I usually dislike in music, and yet I have come to love it. For one thing, it certainly charges you up at the beginning of an early morning run! But I suspect my response to it is now conditioned by what it heralds, much of which is captured in the title sequences, from the eerie beginning to the iconic images of Buffy’s resolute face at the end. The invitation becomes irresistible: “Come be strong, brave, and defiant with me! Spend an hour staring everything and everybody down!” Especially when other parts of my life were really stressful, it felt great to let the music drive other thoughts out of my head (again, not usually what I like music to do!) and usher me into the Buffyverse.

Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-TV-Series2. Next, and probably most important, there’s Buffy herself. I was initially annoyed with how insubstantial she seemed. I got that her total ordinariness (besides the whole Slayer thing, of course) was part of the point, and the conflict between her calling and her longing to live a normal life is still potent in S7 (though by then it’s more complex and interesting). Still, for quite a long time I found her anti-intellectualism and general vapidity tedious. Qua high school (and then college) student, she seemed too much the antithesis of my own values.  Everyone who told me she grows up a lot over the series was right, though, and her development seemed very believable, because she doesn’t transform so much as fill in the outline we get in the early seasons. Mature Buffy is still more instinctive than reflective, but those instincts get deeper. Also, as her petulance fades, her courage, moral integrity, and resolution make her increasingly admirable, and the increasing complexity of the situations she confronts makes her decisions correspondingly more interesting as well. A game-changing moment for me was her decision to kill Angel at the end of S2. I fully expected the just-in-time return of his soul to give us a pat happy ending, but that choice was much more dramatically interesting, for the plot and also for the development of Buffy’s character. (It was also the first time the show made me cry!) That she has to put her mission first always sets her apart, and it guarantees the fundamental loneliness that gives her both pathos and dignity in the later seasons.

3. That said, I love that every single major victory in the show relies on research! Yay for Willow and Giles, especially, in this context …

Scooby_Gang_(Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer)4. …which brings me to the Scoobies. Sure, Buffy is the leader, and I warmed to her, but it’s the ensemble makes the show magic. I didn’t love every member of it equally (I didn’t miss Oz when he drove away, for instance, and I thought Tara was always a weak link — but Anya became a favorite, and I even got pretty fond of Andrew by the end) but the core friendships really mattered to me after a while: there’s something so absolute about their love and trust for each other, and so touching about the way they all, given the chance, can rescue each other. It isn’t always Buffy who saves the day, and it’s not Buffy alone who (over and over!) saves the world.

Angel

4. Then there’s Angel. I admit, initially I fell for him about as hard as Buffy did — hence the tears at the end of S2! So I was pretty excited when he dropped back (literally) into the show, and sad, again, when he left it again. Reluctantly, though, I came to admit the writers were right: there weren’t any interesting places left for his relationship with Buffy to go, and if he’d stayed he probably would have become a drag on the plot as well as on Buffy’s development. Keeping him just nearby enough to make the occasional guest appearance was smart, but even smarter was making a lot more room for …
370100 05: James Marsters as Spike stars in 20th Century Fox's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer Year 5." (Photo by Online USA)

5. Spike! I have to say, I did not predict this at all from the early seasons, but Spike became by far the most interesting character on the show. He changed remarkably from S2 to S7, and yet somehow the writers (and James Marsters) managed to make the transformation utterly convincing at every stage from cheeky sociopath to thwarted evil-doer to compelling protagonist. I couldn’t imagine any redemption from him after the attempted rape scene — the show’s darkest moment, I thought, partly because there was nothing cartoonish about it at all — and then they managed even that, by using that scene to mark an absolutely non-negotiable line between a man with and a man without a soul. I thought S7 overall was kind of uneven, but the quiet scene between Spike and Buffy in Episode 20 (“Touched”) seemed pretty perfect to me, both as the pinnacle of his development into a full person and as an important moment for Buffy, as it helps her believe in herself again — “You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy” — and head off to defeat the final incarnation of …

glory6. … the Big Bad! For me, this aspect of the show was always its biggest weakness. I appreciate the value of a larger plot arc to give each season continuity, but the super-villains always just got so irritating by the end! Worst, I think, was Adam from S4, but S5’s Glory is a close second for sheer flamboyant tedium. I enjoyed the evil Mayor in S3, and I found the Trio pretty funny in S6, though I guess they did kind of trivialize the process. (There wasn’t anything trivial about Willow flaying Warren alive, though!) Bad Angel was really interesting, and Spike was a delightfully gleeful villain in the early years. In S7, I thought some interesting things went on with The First, especially the coming and going as different characters from the past. I was very annoyed, though, by the pendant-ex-machina that brought about The First’s climactic defeat. (And why is it Spike who becomes both hero and martyr — shouldn’t that final victory have belonged to Buffy, or to the newly-minted Slayers collectively? And why didn’t Spike — or Anya! — survive the final battle?!)

That’s hardly everything I could say (I haven’t even mentioned Riley yet, for instance, or Drusilla, or Faith, never mind the show’s feminism, or its constant interweaving of sex and death…) but this post has already gotten pretty long. So I’ll close with a general observation: I can’t think of another series I’ve watched in which, over time, the whole so completely transcended the sum of what are often rather feeble parts. Buffy features some spectacularly bad acting; it has really cheesy special effects; a lot of its plot lines are ridiculous and their crises often get averted by what seem like afterthoughts; there are inconsistencies in things like how much Buffy cares about her mother (a great deal more after she dies than in most of the previous seasons); there’s the whole clumsy interjection of Dawn, though I guess she provided some useful dramatic ballast for Buffy. I could go on listing bits and pieces that seem so inept in themselves that surely they shouldn’t add up to great television. Yet somehow they do.

buffy.vampire.slayer.tv.show

Why is that? The explanation presumably begins with the show’s counterbalancing strengths: there’s some really good acting in it; there’s the dialogue, always so quick and clever and crammed with allusions; there’s pathos, too, and suspense; there’s a lot of experimentation and variation, so you get episodes like “Hush” or “Once More with Feeling” that really do something different (as well as lots of specific episodes that are just really clever or interesting); above all, there are the characters, who somehow, even surrounded by crazy tentacled monsters and in the midst of near-apocalypses, always manage to be utterly believable, and to form relationships you really come to care deeply about. Another moment near the end that I thought captured something essential about the show was the exchange between Buffy and Xander when she asks him to take Dawn away: “I always thought I’d be beside you at the end,” he says, and doesn’t that sum up what the show is ultimately about? Once again, I could keep on listing specific strengths — except that my point is that for me, the success of the series for me didn’t really turn on anything so specific.

Where did the magic lie, then? Ironically, I’ve been thinking that it might come back to the vampires after all, and to the deep satisfaction of seeing them dusted, over and over, by a slip of a girl. “You love humans!” Andrew taunts Anya near the end, and she somewhat sheepishly admits that she has come to love them because, screwed up as they are, they just keep on trying to do the right thing. Maybe it’s Buffy on patrol, rather than Buffy vs. the Big Bad, that is the real model of heroism, the real inspiration. There’s always another vampire rising from the grave, and Buffy’s always there, ready to take it on — and win. If only in our own daily routines we could be so resolute, so skilled, and so successful!

Scoobies

*Update: Things Ana brings up that I was particularly troubled by / interested in too and would like to hear people’s thoughts about: the show’s “exoticization” and its “complicated and sometimes contradictory ideas about gender and sexuality.”

Weekend Catch-Up: Reading, Thinking, Watching

IMG_3152Where does the time go? It seems like I only just finished reading The Danish Girl, but here it’s almost a whole week later and I haven’t written another word here.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. In fact, in among the other business of the week (which included the department’s traditional “May marks meeting” and a stint at the M.A. Colloquium, another yearly event at which our current crop of M.A. students present their thesis projects) I actually spent many hours reading Steven Price’s forthcoming neo-Victorian novel By Gaslight (no small job, as it is 700+ pages). But since I am going to be reviewing it (for Quill & Quire), I won’t be blogging about it. I also started reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice rewrite, Eligible, but that too is for a review (for Open Letters Monthly) — so again, no blogging!

12860696I have also been reading, in dribs and drabs, the critical books I’ve collected about romance fiction and Westerns, taking some first steps towards prepping for next winter’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ class. I have been enjoying the new ideas and frameworks raised by these materials, and they have started a lot of things turning around in my head. But since I haven’t been working on them in a very concentrated way this week I haven’t felt I had anything in particular to say. I’m sure I will! And I have also been kicking around, in a very preliminary way, how I might organize the course, and especially the readings. I am puzzling, for instance, about whether it would work to assign only full-length novels in a first-year course. I have taught many different incarnations of our introductory classes, but every one has included some blend of short and long readings. Short ones, of course, have many advantages when you’re working with beginning students: they can get the whole thing read reasonably quickly and you can begin to practice the analytical skills you want them to learn with material they can easily manage. Then you can build up to longer texts. In some of the genres we’ll cover (detective fiction, for instance) it is easy enough to find good short options, but this seems harder to do with romance. (I found one that I think might work quite well — Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding,” which is cleverly metafictional about romance conventions — but it seems to be available only in a Kindle edition, and I’m currently stumped about whether that rules it out as a required reading.) I’ve also been thinking about starting with some Victorian ‘pulp,’ specifically Lady Audley’s Secret — but I’m worried that they might bog down in it, especially if it’s the first thing we read. You can look forward to (or dread, I guess) many more updates as my thinking about this course develops. And, as always, I will welcome input!

The other thing I’ve been doing is working my way through the final seasons of Buffy, mostly while doing my morning runs on the treadmill (putting a TV on the wall right in front of it was a very good idea!). I have just three episodes to go now in Season 7, and — and here’s something I never thought I’d say, back when I struggled through the first few episodes — I am going to be very sorry when I’m done! I realize I can watch it all again, but at this point I’m still very caught up in the whole “OMG what will happen next?!” experience. And, I should say, I really do not know what is going to happen as the series ends, so please don’t tell me! (It’s probably some kind of miracle that I have avoided basically all spoilers about the show for all these years.) I’ll probably try to write a bit about the show when I’ve finished it — though I wonder why, in a way, when it’s old news to almost everyone else.

And that catches me up! Next week I hope to settle into more of a routine, something that’s always harder once classes get out and the to-do list becomes so much more amorphous.

P.S. The daffodils in the picture are in the Public Gardens: finally, signs of spring are busting out all over.

“A Perpetual Track of Transformation”: David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl

danishgirl

She’d learned to live with him, with his transformation. Yes, it was if Einar were on a perpetual track of transformation, as if these changes — the mysterious blood, the hollow cheeks, the unfulfilled longing — would never case, would lead to no end. And when she thought about it, who wasn’t always changing? Wasn’t everybody always turning into someone new?

In the “Conversation with David Ebershoff” that follows the text of The Danish Girl in my edition, the author explains that one facet of his interest in the story of Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe, the woman he became (or, the woman he already was) is its universality. “We all, in some ways,” he says, “are born into the wrong body”:

We struggle throughout our lives to learn to accept the shell that transports us through this world. I believe everyone has at least once looked in the mirror and thought, “That is not who I am. I was meant to be someone else.” Obviously, most of us do not take such drastic measures to come to terms with who we are, but there is universality to Einar’s question of identity — look not at my body, look at my soul.

This seems right to me as a comment on many, perhaps most, people’s experience (not just mirrors but also photographs and, even worse, videos can certainly be disorienting for me in the way he describes) — but it seems a bit disingenuous as a comment on the specific story he tells in The Danish Girl, which is very deeply and complexly concerned with Einar’s body, which is also Lili’s body. If it was the intangible soul that mattered most, would it in fact be so important for Einar’s body to give way to Lili’s? The Danish Girl immerses us in the physicality of identity, exploring (though not, probably rightly, purporting to explain) the complex interplay between embodied gender and expressed gender roles. Through Einar’s life as Lili (or, as we are really brought to understand it over the course of the novel, Lili’s life as Einar), The Danish Girl rejects simple binaries, giving us a character whose gender identity is fluid, uncertain — almost translucent, like the fabrics and the light in which Einar’s wife Greta so often paints Lili. But at the same time the novel anchors us in Lili’s very tangible reality: she has ovaries, for instance, and her quest is ultimately to correct her body and thus her life — to complete her transformation so that she can be just one of the two people, of the two sexes. Her “soul,” that is, needs to take what feels to her like the right physical form: it’s not enough for Einar to dress or act as Lili without actually being Lili.

Ebershoff’s story is intensely particular: this trajectory is just Einar / Lili’s, and also Greta’s. The Danish Girl is not a didactic or overtly political novel about transgender issues or identities more generally, except, I’d say, insofar as just by its sympathetic attention it insists on incorporating these questions and experiences into our thinking about what it means to be human, to live in society, to be in relationships, to be male or female. But of course that inclusivity is not an uncontroversial position in all circles today, so in that respect it is a quietly confrontational novel even though I don’t think it sets out to be. As much as anything else, it is a novel about marriage — about what Greta calls “that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” For a long time, Lili lives in that small dark space: one way of thinking about her emergence as fully her own person is that she outgrows it — though she does so at least partly because she is nurtured and encouraged to by Greta. Though Greta is no saint, her fundamental generosity is extraordinary. “I hope you are comfortable,” she writes to Lili as Einar waits in Dresden for the operation that will end his life and give Lili hers;

That’s what worries me the most. I wish you had let me come with you but I understand. Some things you must do alone. Lili, don’t you just sometimes stop and think about what it will be like when it’s all over? The freedom! That’s how I think of it. Is that how you think of it? I hope so. I hope you think of it that way because that is what it should feel like to you. It does to me, at least.

How many husbands or wives really value their partners’ freedom in this way, especially if it means the end of the very marriage that made it so important? “If you love something, let it go,” say the inspirational posters — but for most people love and possession, love and control, or just love and stasis go together much more easily than love and liberation. In Ebershoff’s telling, though, it’s absolutely Greta who makes Lili’s transformation possible. She’s the one who believes in the reality of Lili: while the medical experts recommend “cures” from repression to a lobotomy, Greta persists in seeking a solution that will help Einar become, rather than deny, the woman he already is.

danish2Ebershoff ties Greta’s journey as a painter to Lili’s emergence: it’s Greta’s invitation to Einar to model for her in women’s stockings that precipitates Lili’s emergence, and it’s her paintings of Lili that propel Greta into prominence as an artist even as Einar, initially the more successful of the two, fades into artistic insigificance. Ebershoff’s prose is beautiful throughout — lyrical but precise, poignant but restrained — but it rises to something like exuberance when he writes about her painting:

When she painted, Greta thought of nothing, or what felt to her like nothing: her brain, her thoughts, felt as light as the paints she mixed into her palette. It reminded her of driving into the sun, as if painting were about pressing on blindly but in good faith. On her best days, ecstasy would fill her as she pivoted from her paint box to the canvas, and it was as if there were a white light blocking out everything but her imagination. When her painting was working, when the brush strokes were capturing the exact curve of Lili’s head, or the depth of her dark eyes, Greta would hear a rustling in her head that reminded her of the bamboo prodder knocking oranges from her father’s orange trees. Painting well was like harvesting fruit: the beautiful dense thud of an orange hitting the California loam.

As Greta’s career expands, Einar’s declines, his small, dark landscapes — once esteemed and popular — becoming just “a constant and sometimes sad reminder of their inverted lives.” By the end of the novel, Lili opts not to take them with her to the new life she is creating:

“It’s not that I don’t want them,” Lili heard herself saying, one of her last in the Widow House, already slipping away into memory. But whose memory? “I just can’t take them with me,” and she shuddered, for suddenly it felt as if everything around her belonged to someone else.

Lili’s dissociation from her old life and identity is a thought-provoking aspect of the story Ebershoff tells (one he is careful to say is fiction, despite being loosely based on the true story of Einar Wegener — “most of the novel,” he says, “is invented”). After Lili’s surgery, Greta actually tries hard to get a death certificate issued for Einar, who, after all, no longer exists. After their long struggle, Greta wants some kind of closure, some finality to the hard-won separation of Lili’s self from Einar’s body. Where does someone go, what is left of someone, after such a transformation? Again, Ebershoff’s story feels particular, rather than prescriptive: in this case, for this woman who once was, but never really was, a man, what’s left is a kind of truth, one Einar had always, inadvertantly, obscured. The remarkable realities of the present don’t obliterate the past Lili (as Einar) shared with Greta, but the continuities now exist only in their memories. I suppose this too is universal — we all look back on our previous selves and wonder what became of the person we once were. For Lili, though, as The Danish Girl ends, the pressing question is not “how did I get here?” but “where will I go now?” It’s a question that, the novel shows us, sometimes takes both extraordinary love and extraordinary courage to ask as well as to answer.

“The Precious Ordinary”: Kent Haruf, Benediction

benediction2A friend of mine highly recommended Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, but when I looked for it at the bookstore they didn’t have it, so instead I brought home his more recent novel Benediction. It seems to me to have been a happy enough substitution: Plainsong may yet turn out to be better, but I thought Benediction was very good.

Benediction is a quiet novel on a small scale, written in the kind of deliberately understated prose that sometimes makes me impatient but in this case felt just right. The sentences are short and simply structured, mostly plain statements of fact without embellishment:

She got up and went to the house. It was cool inside, the kitchen very clean and neat. there were starched curtains at the windows. The little bathroom was off the kitchen, it was clean and neat too, with a picture of a red flower framed on the wall.

It’s like that all the way through — I chose that example literally just by opening the book to a random page. That kind of absence of style of course is itself a style, a “plain” style, an anti-literary style. It’s terse in the way that Hemingway or Hammett is terse, though without the underlying tension that makes their minimal prose almost melodramatic.

There is drama in Benediction, though; it just lies in the feelings, not the words, and in the overall concept of the book, which is indicated by its title. It’s the story of a dying man, Dad Lewis, of the small cluster of people who are close to him as he dies, and of one person — his estranged son — who is and remains far away. This is a scenario devised, clearly, to prompt reflection about what makes a life meaningful, and about what we might regret or be glad of in our last days. Dad is a man who has done both harm and good: he is far from a saint, but his wife loves him faithfully and his community respects him. His situation and even his character are in some senses generic, but Haruf makes him specific enough that his failings and his efforts to atone have their own particular pathos.

benedictionDad is at the center of Benediction, but the novel’s attention radiates out from him to the small struggles and successes of those around him. Notable among these is the town minister, Rob Lyle, who has been sent to the town of Holt after causing trouble in Denver — trouble he ends up reiterating in Holt because (as he says in his own defense) “I had to say it . . . It’s the truth.” The truth he preaches is love, which sounds common enough except that he suggests people should really mean it, not just pay lip service to it:

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. . . .

But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all towards creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: We are going to love you . . . .

Even though his sermon begins with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, his message is heard as radical, revolutionary, treasonous. “Are you crazy?” calls out an angry member of his congregation; he is shunned and assaulted; he is voted out of his position. “Did you actually think they’d agree with you?” demands his angry wife. “No, I didn’t think that,” Lyle says, “I had to say it anyway. . . . Because I believe it.”

Lyle’s message of love is a religious one in context, but of course it doesn’t have to be, and neither does the notion of a blessing, or of grace. In the novel, grace is found in what Lyle calls “the precious ordinary”: the novel, like the larger world, is full of people suffering, but it’s also full of “the sweet kindness of one person to another.” Benediction is composed of vignettes of either pain or kindness, moments of action or of memory strung along the connecting thread of Dad’s last few weeks. It offers no epiphany, no great revelation, just the quiet conviction that if we can manage it, forgiveness is our best option, and that forgiveness, and thus peace, is made possible by love, which is “patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.”

It’s a testament to Haruf’s skill that he manages to makes this message seem true and important, rather than trite. And it’s a sign of his underlying optimism, I think, that he ends his novel about death with the image of a lost child who “found her way home in the dark . . . and so returned to the people who loved her,” and with a reminder that death ends life, but not life itself.

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Now Available as an E-Book!

COVER-SMALLI’m pleased to announce that I’ve completed one of my first summer projects: turning the materials for my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website into an e-book, to give people the option of using it offline, or just navigating it more conveniently on their tablets, phones, or e-readers. I wanted to do this partly to achieve this result, and partly because I wanted to learn how to do the whole process, from creating a text that could be cleanly converted into ePub or mobi format to creating a usable cover to actually publishing the final document. There is definitely a learning curve involved in each of these steps! It was good, if sometimes tedious, working through them, though: adding new skills is intrinsically satisfying. And now that I’ve done it once, in this very modest way, I can think about other possible self-publishing projects, whether on my own behalf or for Open Letters (where we’ve often discussed how best to make some of our very deep archives available in neat ways).

Here are the links, in case you or someone you know is interested! I wanted the little book to be free, and it is from Kobo (where it’s available as an ePub), but Amazon insists on a minimum list price. As Kindle users probably know, you can convert ePub books into mobi pretty easily using Calibre, if you’d prefer the free option.

Kobo

Amazon

“As Though From a Distance”: Rereading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

brooklynWhen I posted about Brooklyn here before, I admitted that I might just have been reading it at the wrong time to appreciate it. I found the style so flatly precise it was almost plodding; I thought Eilis herself was so distanced, from herself and from us, that she seemed ultimately insubstantial. “I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration,” I concluded, “and was left disappointed.” I liked The Master so much that it seemed to confirm my suspicion that this underwhelmed reaction was at least as much my fault as Tóibín’s, so I decided to give Brooklyn another try.

I wish I could say that on a rereading, Brooklyn was transformed for me into a book I could love. I certainly did like it much better than I did before. I was more moved than I remember being by Eilis’s dilemma, too, and by her feeling of being impossibly placed between two worlds and two selves, each of which recedes or predominates depending on where she is at the moment:

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as if she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.

There is no right or easy resolution. Unlike the bookkeeping she practises, in which ultimately every detail has a proper place and all the columns, if managed correctly, add up, life is untidy:

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. . . . She saw all three of them — Tony, Jim, her mother — as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark and uncertain.

What still bothered me — what still left me discontented — with Brooklyn is that Tóibín’s prose is the antithesis of this uncertainty and of the emotional turmoil Eilis is surely experiencing but that we (or at least I) can’t hear at all in his sentences, which are so calm, so even, so restrained that they leave me chafing against their very simplicity.

brooklyn2I understand that this can be taken as symptomatic of Eilis’s character. Early in her first year in Brooklyn she recognizes that her survival there in fact depends on suppressing her feelings:

No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how badly she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on . . .

She’s just as muffled before this moment as after it, though, and now that I’ve read The Master I know that this deliberate, cerebral tone is not unique to Brooklyn. Perhaps Tóibín is just drawn to characters who live life below the surface, who experience it, as Eilis thinks of herself, “as though from a distance.” There’s an elegance to this remoteness, and a poignancy that is the careful opposite of sentimentality, but while I admire the emotional delicacy of the presentation more than on my first reading, I’m still left just a bit disappointed.

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

oxford-pride-and-prejudiceI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).

“The Old High Art of Fiction”: Colm Tóibín, The Master

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Once it became more solid, the emerging story and all its ramifications and possibilities lifted him out of the gloom of his failure. He grew determined that he would become more hardworking now. He took up his pen again — the pen of all his unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. It was now, he believed, that he would do the work of his life. He was ready to begin again, to return to the old high art of fiction with ambitions now too deep and pure for any utterance.

As I finished reading yet another not-very-good novel about George Eliot (Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, review forthcoming), I found myself wondering why she has been so ill-served by later novelists who obviously (judging by their choice of subject) found her very inspiring. But I suppose in some ways it’s a thankless task, deliberately to set yourself against one of the geniuses of your genre: you can’t help but invite comparison, and you have to find a way to be not just connected to your source but also brilliant on your own terms. Naturally, this got me wondering where the good examples are of what we might call “homage fiction” — and this led me to The Master, which has been ripening on my bookshelves for a few years now.

The Master is a book I have long wanted to read, but my intention to actually do so kept getting undermined by my fear that reading it would be like reading the Master himself. He’s a writer with whom I have a vexed relationship: usually when I read him I’m equal parts fascinated and repelled, impressed and impatient. I sometimes feel a bit resentful of him — of his influence on people’s thinking about the art of fiction, for instance — but I love his actual essay on “The Art of Fiction.” Even in my best Jamesian moments, I can’t muster anything like the enthusiasm for him that, say, Jessa Crispin has expressed — I find him too claustrophobic in his meticulousness — but at the same time he’s a writer I can’t resist wrestling with.

I have not so far been a great Colm Tóibín fan either. My only previous experience is Brooklyn, which I also found a bit too perfect, though not so much for any particularly Jamesian qualities as in its replication of its protagonist’s emotional suppression. There’s a fine line between representing and enacting flatness and inertia. And yet even though I was mostly unmoved by Brooklyn, I could tell that Tóibín was a writer to trust — smart, skilled, deliberate. So I hung on to The Master, as if I knew that its day would come!

master2I’m glad it finally did, because I thought it was wonderful. I knew only snippets about James’s biography before, and I’m not at all familiar with his letters or other key sources, so I don’t know how far Tóibín has shaped the story in a distinctive way or how far his Henry is recognizable to people who already knew him well from other versions. But to me, Tóibín’s character was immediately convincing because he was so specific, so somehow complete, not just as a man but (more important, perhaps, in a Jamesian context) as a point of view. The Master read like a novel looking at the world from a very particular consciousness, which of course is the crucial twist James gave to the form himself — not that he was the first to do this, but he developed and concentrated the technique until its very singularity perversely crowded out some of the other things novelists valued (or were valued for). Tóibín’s novel isn’t quite as insular as its inspiration’s can be, but it seemed to me very much a novel of looking, rather than doing: it’s a novel about a man for whom the meaning of an action is more significant than the action itself.

Tóibín does a beautiful job showing how James’s novels arose from that way of being in the world. He doesn’t avoid making the literal connections between biographical events and real-life relationships and James’s plots and character — in his detailed account, for instance, of James’s cousin Minny, resurrected particularly in Isabel Archer:

he had a great mission now to make Minny walk these streets, to allow the soft Tuscan sunlight to shine on her soft face. But more than that, he sought to re-create her moral presence more finely and more dramatically than he had ever done before.

But Tóibín also evokes the creative mysteries that underlie the transformation of life into art: we feel the ideas for new stories glimmer in Henry’s mind before they take any final form, and see them as part of a broader striving to elucidate and connect both people and ideas. His Henry’s mind is always at work, observing details (“Henry noticed how beautiful his shoes were and how slender his feet”), puzzling over nuances, shaping thoughts into the elegantly complex sentences which Tóibín can hardly resist invoking in his own prose (“He dictated with his usual mixture of certainty and hesitation, stopping briefly and darting forward again, and then going to the window, as if to find the word or phrase he sought in the garden, among the shrubs or the creepers or the abundant growth of late summer, and turning back deliberately into the cool room with the right phrase in his head and the sentence which followed until the paragraph had been completed”).

Henry_James_SargentSomething that moved me deeply about Tóibín’s vision is that, as he tells it, there really are costs to such an extraordinarily intellectual life. It isn’t easy to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost”: The Master is suffused with melancholy, and with a strange, contradictory longing for decisive moments that never quite arrive, for connections that are never quite achieved. Every time Henry ventures further out into the world, whether literally or emotionally, just as promptly he retreats. For him, to be fully himself is, paradoxically, to be distant from himself; his best company, it sometimes seems, is his memory, but that is an equivocal solace:

Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay. And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched, looking for comfort.

The Master overall is a mournful book, as if the great achievements of its protagonist came, in some sense, at the his own expense. But at the same time, Tóibín shows us a Henry who is happiest precisely at that remove from liveliness. I was struck, at the very end, by the unexpected image of young Henry wholly absorbed in David Copperfield, reading, as David himself says, “as if for life.” In some ways it’s hard to imagine a less Jamesian novel than David Copperfield: although both David and Henry find their vocation in writing fictions of their own, David — and Dickens — has a vitality I’ve never found in James. Tóibín’s Henry seems at once wistfully aware that such energetic engagement is not for him and quietly content that it should be so — that he should be, at the end of the day (at the end of his days) alone with his thoughts.

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