Last Week In My Classes: Exams and What’s Next

The final exams for my classes were last Friday and Saturday, both at 8:30 a.m., both in Dalplex, our main athletics facility, which is converted during the exam period into, well, this:

desks

Looks depressing, doesn’t it? And it is, but it is also efficient: a cadre of assistant invigilators patrols the aisles, helping to bring extra exam booklets or escort students to the washroom, while an appointed Chief Invigilator works out the seating plan, makes announcements, and keeps track of the time. Though in some ways I prefer being in a smaller room alone with “my” students, the impersonality of this set-up is not all bad. And I always put out candy (toffees, this year), which I hope is at least very mildly cheering. (I was always too nervous to eat before exams, which meant my blood sugar would crash in the first half hour or so: a toffee or two would have really helped me out, which is why I do this. That, and because despite any rumors to the contrary, I’m a friendly person!)

Anyway, the consequence of having both exams back to back like this and quite late in the exam period is that I went from being completely caught up on work the previous Thursday night to having approximately 120 exams to mark. I decided not to start on them until Monday — I’m trying to reclaim my weekends, which is rarely possible during the term when you have a Monday morning class, but it seems like a good principle as far as work-life balance goes. So Monday morning I settled in, and Friday around mid-day I filed the second set of final grades.

It was not a pleasant week, and as usual it raised all kinds of questions for me about final exams. This is such familiar territory on this blog now that I’m reluctant to rehash the arguments for and against them. I wish I could do without them altogether, but experience teaches me that I can’t, at least not in classes that aren’t as self-selecting as 4th-year seminars (where I have never given exams). I’m almost as tired of fretting about exams as I am of marking them! The solution that seems most reasonable to me at this point – since the chief purpose of them in lower-level classes is to motivate work and attention during the term – is to change the kind of exams I give to make them less laborious for me to mark. I’ll be thinking more about that when I work out the assignment sequences for my next classes … which won’t be for months, because I’m on sabbatical as of the end of December!

Yes, that’s right, I have made it through to another teaching-free term. I was on sabbatical when I first started this blog, in 2007, then again in 2011. I got a lot done both times, but in somewhat miscellaneous ways. This time I am determined to be more deliberate about how I use my time, to get less distracted by small projects (essays and reviews that aren’t really part of anything, even if individually I’m proud of them). It has been very intellectually stimulating paying more attention to “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” but this sabbatical is about my “particular web” — which, yes, means that George Eliot book I keep talking about but not actually writing.

Actually, that’s not quite fair, since in the summer I wrote a kind of prospectus for the book — and since the five essays I’ve written on George Eliot (for Open Letters and the Los Angeles Review of Books) are all, in a way, trial runs at the kind of criticism I want the book to represent. That’s a long way from producing something longer and more unified, though, and I have been realizing how long it has been since I really thought on a larger scale than “essay” or “article.” I haven’t really worked at anything book-length since I turned my thesis into my first book; my second book was an edited collection, for which I did a great deal of work and wrote an introduction, but that’s not at all the same thing! The first challenges for me, then, are both conceptual and logistical. The prospectus really helped me with the former; now I have to face up to the latter by breaking down a large and still fairly vague plan into manageable first steps. And I have to make sure that I don’t let myself get too tempted away from this still frighteningly open-ended project to more concrete things I can finish up now. The short-term sense of accomplishment is like psychological toffee, really: you get a useful little sugar rush from it, but it won’t serve you well in the long term.

And that’s one reason I’m going to block off further thoughts, meditations, plans, and preparations for next fall’s classes. I love drafting syllabi! Choosing reading lists is fun! Even building Blackboard sites has its satisfactions, because it involves many discrete tasks that can be neatly itemized and checked off — but they really do not need to be done now. If you catch me working on them before July 1, when my sabbatical ends, rap my virtual knuckles, please! (Well, I will have to submit course descriptions and book orders in March or April, I think, but anything beyond that is not allowed!) I think this blog shows how seriously I take my teaching and how much time I put into it, but the point of a sabbatical is that you focus on the other things you’re supposed to be doing as a scholar.

Something I think may help me maintain a different kind of focus next term is spending less time in my office. We’ll see: it can be a very quiet, productive space for me. But it has been an emotionally very up-and-down term for me, especially where thinking about work is concerned, and there have also been a lot of specific work-related stresses. As a result, I’ve been feeling a strong desire to put a little distance between myself and the campus. I had been imagining I might take my laptop to our new library, which has finally opened to the public. But although it does seem to be a very exciting, vibrant space, my two visits so far have been discouraging about it as a potential workplace for me. We live close to the Atlantic School of Theology, which has a library with a pretty nice view; my guess is that it’s pretty quiet, so I might give it a try. Even just fixing on a different campus location for writing might be enough to break the mental cycle of weariness and discouragement.

The other thing I’m committed to is signing up for Jo VanEvery’s “Meeting With Your Writing” — for which, it occurs to me, I’d best be in my campus office, so I have a landline, but that’ll be fine for such a specific purpose.

So! That’s this term put to bed and next term planned out — in theory, at least. But now I’m taking a break to read, bake, and generally unwind and enjoy our quiet holiday traditions.Inspired by Howards End, I’m rereading A Room with a View, which I love as much as always; I’ve got a mental TBR list yards long; and I see several book-shaped parcels under the tree, which is always exciting. I’ll also be putting up a couple of year-end round-up posts here soon (here are last year’s).

Jo Walton, Ha’Penny: My Two Cents’ Worth

HapennyI didn’t love Jo Walton’s Farthing: in my brief review at GoodReads I admired the ingenuity of the premise and the “nice economy” of Walton’s development of her alternative history, but I thought the mystery itself wasn’t very interesting, and that it lined up too neatly with the predictions you would readily make about a crime story set in a Britain that has made peace with Hitler. But I know a lot of people who are big fans of Walton’s work, and “not loving” is not at all the same as “not liking at all,” so I thought I’d have a go at Ha’Penny, the second in the “Small Change” series.

And, again, I find myself a bit let down. It too is neatly executed, but again it felt obvious — not so much in the details of the plot, but in the larger story it’s telling us about the creeping moral paralysis of appeasement and the evils of tyranny. It is certainly possible in theory to introduce moral complexity into a novel about a plan to blow up Hitler, but I didn’t find any here, except, I guess, for the structural irony Inspector Carmichael recognizes at the end — that by doing his job as an officer of the law, he has preserved the very devil’s bargain under which so many (himself included) are suffering. But that’s not particularly subtle, and neither are the lessons our narrator Viola gets from the man fondly coercing her into violent resistance. “I don’t know if you’ll understand,” he says, with condescension that, unhappily, Viola deserves,

 but there’s a thing it’s hard to give a name. It’s what we fought for in Ireland when you wouldn’t give it to us, and it’s what’s been lost on the Continent — I could call it freedom, or self-determination, but that’s too abstract. It’s the idea that one man’s as good as the next, before the law, whoever he is. It’s the idea behind the French Revolution, but it’s lost now in France, where old Petain licks Hitler’s boots. It’s the idea that built America, but they’re too frightened over there now even to elect old Joe Kennedy instead of Lindbergh with his talk of keeping down the Jews and the blacks.

“This isn’t going in, is it, love?” he asks Viola, who replies, “I don’t know . . . I do care about individual liberty. . . . But I don’t think liberty is something you get by blowing people up.” This is all hardly breathtaking, either for the sophistication of the dialogue itself or for the depth of the moral and political insights on either side — and that’s how I felt about the book as a whole too. Tyranny bad, liberty good, appeasement corrupting: we get it!

To be fair, I think some of this simple-mindedness comes from Viola, who is another of the ingenue narrators Walton alternates with her third-person account of Carmichael’s investigation. Carmichael himself is a sympathetically rendered character whose personal situation nicely encapsulates the insidiously encroaching pressures of dictatorship. As Ha’Penny ends, for instance, he has resigned himself to running an English equivalent of the Gestapo — to be called, with nice historical resonance, “The Watch” — partly because he has little choice and partly because he hopes he might have “the chance to do some good — to turn judicious blind eyes, and to make it better than it might have been.” It’s obviously a deal with the devil (did I mention that the bad guys in these novels are Nazis, or near enough?) and the road to hell is paved with good intentions … and the temptation to lapse into cliches when explaining what’s up is symptomatic of the problem I have with these novels.

It’s not that Walton is wrong about tyranny or Nazism or appeasement, or that her vision of this alternative future isn’t both plausible and a kind of cautionary tale for our present — but she hardly needed to create an alternative history to demonstrate any of her points, and the scenarios she comes up with are much less interesting than so many stories of actual people who cooperated with the Nazis in different ways and for various good purposes, stories that swamp us with the kind of moral complexity that I think these two books have notably lacked.

“It feels ours”: E. M. Forster, Howards End

MAO.7375.cvr compI know of things they can’t know of, and so do you. We know that there’s poetry. We know that there’s death. They can only take them on hearsay. We know this is our house, because it feels ours. Oh, they may take the title-deeds and the doorkeys, but for one night we are at home.

I have been in a real reading slump lately. For a while nothing I’ve started and stopped (or even the few that I’ve started and finished) has felt very satisfying, and one reason has been that they’ve felt too slight — that essential quality that (thanks to a friend who studied library science) I’ve come to call “aboutness” has been elusive, simplistic, or (as far as I’ve been able to tell) just missing. This is one way, I suppose, that my quest for novels that are “teachable” lines up with my quest for novels that really excite me as a reader: my ideal novel satisfies both head and heart, appeals to both the aesthete and the ethical explorer in me, gives me language and stories but also ideas that engage me.

I think Howards End is one of those ideal books for me. I hesitate only because I’ve just read it for the first time — astonishing, I know — and so I’m still thinking it over, and not feeling entirely up to the task. (I don’t think Howards End is a novel for beginners,* exactly, though it certainly offered some immediate readerly pleasures.) Until now I didn’t even really know what the novel was about, though I had miscellaneous tidbits stored away from having heard about it so often — “Only connect,” of course, and something about Schlegels and Wilcoxes, and a house that obviously stood for something more than a nice place to live. I probably knew a bit more about it than that, in some minimal sense of “knew,” because I’ve read and admired Zadie Smith’s essay on Forster in Changing My Mind and also researched Forster a bit myself when teaching A Room With a View (long one of my favorite novels). But unless I’m reading really purposefully, not much sticks with me when I read about a novel I don’t know myself. It’s a kind of self-protective selective amnesia, perhaps, so that I remain open-minded when I finally get around to it.

So I started Howards End with a lack of specific expectations that was at once liberating and, ultimately, somewhat disabling. It’s nice to read along and feel you are discovering for yourself what a book is about (notations on the back page of my edition include “politics,” “Beethoven!” “Monet vs. the umbrella,” “odd narrator,” “house = a spirit,” “Schlegels vs. Wilcoxes,” “men don’t know” / “his superiority,” and “only connect!”). But it’s also frustrating — if provoking, in a good way — to reach the end and know there has been more going on than you knew to keep track of from the beginning, and so this reading is, even more than usual, only a preliminary one.

Reading is always a work in progress, though, right? And you have to start somewhere. I’ll start with those notations, then, as they indicate the issues that revealed themselves to me during this first reading. It wasn’t hard to identify as the (or, perhaps, a) central conflict the difference between the world as the Schlegels see and experience it and the world of the Wilcoxes. “The truth is,” Margaret says to her sister, with a combination of surprise and confusion,

that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched — a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage, settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one — there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?

They do, in fact, and that sloppiness is one thing the novel makes (paradoxically) perfectly clear. I think this is part of what Zadie Smith means when she talks about Forster’s “infamous muddle,” that personal things (feelings, relationships, needs, demands, desires, love, jealousy, betrayal, even the passivity of indifference) don’t line up in organized ways, or lead to elegant solutions, no matter how good our intentions, or the novelist’s. It’s the outer life that has form and structure, and the interplay between these forces of order and disorder is the sum of life — though not of any individual life, since for Forster those mostly seem to fall on one side or the other.

I saw, then, though I’m sure didn’t entirely understand, this aspect of Howards End: the opposition between that Wilcox life of “telegrams and anger” and control, and the Schlegel life of art and ideas and impulses. What I didn’t see until fairly far along was that Howards End is a ‘condition of England’ novel: this didn’t occur to me until people in the novel starting talking very explicitly about England — its past, its future, its empire. The version of this question that I’m familiar with, from novelists like Dickens and Gaskell, is a much more literal one than Forster’s, at least in its framing. His questions seem more abstract or theoretical than material, though they do have practical dimensions (as shown by the elaborate game of “how should the millionaire leave his money,” or the eventual distribution of resources among the characters). The Wilcox / Schlegel antagonism embodies this social and political question, which is about which values will come to define “the way we live now.” It may be an extension of the Dickens – Gaskell version, actually, because they are also worrying about the attitudes and feelings that lead to social and political conditions and reforms. But I’m not used to Forster’s way of posing the question: there’s a good starting point for my next reading.

howardsendLeonard Bast seems like a key (if a cryptic one) to Forster’s “condition of England” question. Not that he’s the answer to it: far from it! He seemed utterly pathetic to me for some time, and then I recoiled from my own snobbery and, as a result, also from the Schlegels, who really treat him very oddly from beginning to end. Leonard makes sure that we don’t oversimplify the Wilcox – Schlegel conflict — by assuming, for instance, that, in contrast to the Schlegels’ free-spirited life of the mind, the Wilcoxes are the unequivocal villains of the piece. Again, far from it, which is something even Margaret acknowledges when she observes that the privileges she and her sister enjoy have been won and protected for them by Wilcoxes who have “worked and died in England for thousands of years.” I thought it would be Margaret and Henry’s son who became heir to Howards End, because that would neatly balance their two worlds. But it turns out it’s Helen and Leonard’s, and I’m not really sure what to make of that. I can’t see what Leonard brings to the future, to be honest! Another place, then, for further reflection.

I was interested that Forster’s critique of the Wilcoxes was so gendered. Clearly Margaret and Helen are liberated from some specific constraints of sex (is either of them a ‘New Woman‘?), and there are moments of direct feminist assertion (“A new feeling came over her; she was fighting for women against men.”). And Mr. Wilcox’s inability to “connect” (“you cannot connect,” Margaret exclaims in her wonderful denunciation) seems tied to the particular kind of masculinity he embodies: strong, decisive, pragmatic, but also unreflective, controlling, possessive (as literalized in the way he overrides his wife’s attempt to will Howards End to Margaret). We seem to be in Three Guineas territory here, with the intertwining of manliness, despotism, capitalism, and imperialism.

I seem to have said a lot already for someone who admits to being a novice with this famous novel! The last thing I’ll comment further on for now, then, is that scribbled notation “odd narrator.” There is something very casual, almost artless, about the way the story is told, from the shoulder-shrugging opening line (“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”) through the many equally haphazard intrusions, but also the apparent uncertainty of the narrator about what even happens (“The friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox … may perhaps have had its beginning at Speyer” — what, don’t you know? What kind of narrator are you?). The pacing is odd too: the plot moves ahead in fits and starts, building momentum then slowing for meticulous detail then jumping across crucial events with no explanation or transition (Mrs. Wilcox walks out of Chapter X just fine, only to turn up as the corpse at the funeral that opens Chapter XI). By the end, though, the novel turns out not to have been random or careless at all but to have a strong and quite balanced structure: what could be neater than that long-delayed revelation about Mrs. Wilcox’s thwarted will and the discovery by the Schlegel sisters that the house they have (from the Wilcox point of view) invaded and colonized, was always already, in some moral sense, theirs — not to mention always theirs in spirit? What’s at stake in Forster’s denial of the control he obviously has? What could be less muddled than the sense he gives us of being in a muddle? If, as Zadie Smith suggests, this is art in service of an ethical vision, it’s a far different one (I’m pretty sure) than Stephen Blackpool’s “‘Tis a muddle.’”

And with that, off I go to reread Zadie Smith, who seems to have sorted a lot of this out. Imperfect as my own understanding of Howards End is, I’m really glad I’ve finally read the novel for myself so that (with her help and others’ – including many of yours, I expect) I can begin the process of figuring out what it means.

*Update: It has been brought to my attention that this phrasing seems to suggest that I think you need to be some kind of expert to read Howards End — that only, perhaps, “superior” readers should attempt it at all. That is not what I meant (I hope readers who know me at all would not have thought so, either!), but I can see that my wording was inept. I meant that it struck me as a novel that, for first-time readers of it (beginners) like me, is hard to make sense of and maybe even, as a result, to take unqualified pleasure in. Other novels (A Room with a View, to pick another Forster example) seem to me much more immediately intelligible on a first reading. Obviously, with any novel YMMV, and no doubt there are readers who appreciated Howards End unreservedly on a first reading. I am not among them, as I often felt mildly thwarted by my own ignorance or uncertainty about what was going on. I was trying to articulate both what that experience felt like and what I thought its causes were. “I think Howards End is not a novel that’s very welcoming to newcomers” would perhaps have been a better way to put it.

Open Letters Monthly and Other December Reading

Books

It’s up: another new issue, and this one is as wide-ranging but also as deep as any we’ve published in a while. A small sampling:

Sam Sacks on James Wood and the Fall of Man:

But Wood’s story works brilliantly if it is taken as just that, a story—if it is read conditionally and gleaned for the truths of a work of fiction. Wood personifies the novel; he sets it on a quest, as in a Bildungsroman. He puts it through a crisis of faith and then follows it past obstacles and blind alleys, through low periods of stasis, and into the fugitive joys of innovation and discovery. Most powerfully, he animates the novel with a very human desire: like Thomas Bunting, and like Wood himself, it seeks freedom—from the outdated customs of its upbringing and the fear of public disapproval. Most of all it looks to throw off the chains of self-consciousness, or, to borrow a description from his collection The Fun Stuff, to get away from “the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.”

Alice Brittan on Colm Tóibìn’s Nora Webster:

Like the painters he admires, Tóibín is devoted to revealing the interior life of the individual, the emotions and thoughts that people hide even from themselves and that you can only see by looking closely and for a very long time. He writes the calmest prose I know. There is nothing showy or grabby about his sentences, and his narrative structures are fairly straightforward. Yet no living writer seems wiser. Few are as moving. “You want plot, read the newspaper!” he said in a recent interview. Tóibín is more interested in the moment when the action stops, and in people who look forward to getting home, shutting the front door, and quietly thinking it all over.

Steve Donoghue on yet another biography of that ‘pestiferous little Corsican,’ Napoleon Bonaparte:

veteran biographer Andrew Roberts this book season has produced an 800-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the mere thought of such a thing, let alone the brick-solid reality of it, is an extravagant, almost insulting imposition on the carefully-rationed spare time of his readers. Bonaparte is one of the most exhaustively-studied people in history; in less than a decade, we’ve had gigantic one-volume biographies, gigantic two-volume biographiesgigantic reprints of earlier biographies, studies of the Russian campaignthe Egyptian campaign and dozens of other studies large and small. Bonaparte’s every move has been scrutinized, his every utterance parsed, his locks of hair CT-scanned as often as any Egyptian mummy; no matter how galling it might be for professional historians to admit, there are no substantial secrets remaining in his life.

Greg Waldmann on Leon Panetta’s unworthy Worthy Fights:

Just as Panetta writes himself as a cliché, many of the people he writes about become clichés, and most of his ideas are clichés, too. Political memoirs are often badly written, so in a sense this is no surprise. The genre, however, is a deformed species of apologetic literature, and the way in which these former leaders go about justifying themselves is usually revealing in other ways. George W. Bush’s Decision Points was like its author: Manichean and self-righteous, yet fundamentally insecure. Dick Cheney’s memoirs were contemptuous and not a little sinister. Donald Rumsfeld’s were combative and condescending, quarreling in end notes about semantic minutiae. Worthy Fights, like its author, is stultifyingly conventional, cozy in its Washington milieu, grinding on for page after page of received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about people and the role of American power in the world.

There’s much more equally interesting and worthy of your attention, on topics from Norman Mailer’s letters to contemporary Serbian fiction, from new poetry to the collected stories of Frank Herbert: I hope you’ll head over and explore for yourself. I’m represented this month only through my behind the scenes editing work and my contribution to our annual Year in Reading feature, where my comments about discovering that there’s Dorothy Dunnett beyond Lymond won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog.

kinghereafterI am, however, represented in a couple of other publications this month — one of which is actually Whispering Gallery, the journal of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, where my essay on King Hereafter is being reprinted. Whispering Gallery is available in hard copy only, to members of the Society. I’ve never been much of a joiner (I don’t even belong to the George Eliot Fellowship! and I’m just a little bit scared of the enthusiasm manifested by the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America …) but Whispering Gallery looks like it’s a lot of fun. The last issue included an article called “Jerott Blyth: Dashing Hero or Dumb Idealist?  Part 2,” for instance, which certainly got me thinking, not just about how I’d answer this question (“a bit of both,” maybe?) but also about how great it is that Dunnett has readers who care enough to make this a 2-part feature. (Lymond was just voted “Scotland’s favourite literary character,” by the way, which is as it should be.)

And you’ll also find my byline on an essay in 3:AM Magazine this month: “Sex, Style, and Sewage Farms: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.”

Woolf, of course, dominates our picture of early twentieth-century women writers: Holtby paid a price in prestige for her commitment to the kind of social realism Woolf eloquently dismissed in essays such as “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” Holtby’s novels offer us not the “luminous halo” of consciousness, but the materiality Woolf rejected as lifeless; to Woolf’s rhetorical question “Must novels be like this?” Holtby implicitly replies that at any rate they can be like this and still convey something important, that the “series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” may reveal social patterns of genuine significance — not just artistically but politically.

It’s exciting to contribute to another great online journal, and also gratifying to see all that work I did on Brittain, Holtby, and the Somerville novelists bearing new fruit. I’m actually working on another short piece on Brittain for another site, so more about that when it goes live early in the New Year.

“Too Tarsome”: E. F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia

mappandluciaI almost didn’t finish reading Mapp and Lucia. I’m glad now that I did, not because I take any uncompromising stand on whether one should or should not finish every book one starts, but because if I’d put it aside at the point I’d reached as of yesterday, I would never have known that the heroines get swept out to sea on a kitchen table. That was a surprise! And when they come back, thus thoroughly upsetting everyone who has (with oh, such difficulty!) come to terms with their loss, not to mention their homes and possessions and fortunes — OK, I admit it, it’s wonderfully done, with the perfect balance of malice and brio, which also perfectly describes Mapp and Lucia themselves. For people who like that sort of thing, Mapp and Lucia is definitely the kind of thing they’ll like.

I don’t really like it, though, which is why I was tempted to give it up half way through. It’s not just that there’s nobody in the novel who is worth anything. That’s true of Vanity Fair too, after all, and Vanity Fair is a novel I greatly admire. But then Vanity Fair is an impassioned indictment of the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of the world its characters have created. Mapp and Lucia is too much fun to be read as social criticism or satire; it takes too much pleasure — or allows us to take too much pleasure — in the machinations and lies, the pretense and double-dealing. Who will play Elizabeth I in the fête? Will Lucia’s complete ignorance of Italian be exposed? Will Mapp get away with the recipe for Lobster à la Riseholme? Will Mapp’s strategems for keeping Georgie and Lucia’s pictures out of the exhibit be successful? These are the pressing questions of the novel, but the answers to them are for our entertainment only. They don’t mean anything. Nothing in the story matters, except as a move in the absurd, competitive, hilarious game of snakes and ladders Mapp and Lucia are playing with each other’s lives.

It’s not that there isn’t amusement to be had. Benson is very clever, and both heroines are memorable. When they might be dead, it’s not just life in the village but the novel itself that deflates. As Georgie reflects,

There was nothing to look forward to, and he realized how completely Lucia and her manoeuvres and her indomitable vitality and her deceptions and her greatnesses had supplied the salt to life. He had never been in the least in love with her, but somehow she had been as absorbing as any wayward and entrancing mistress. ‘It will be too dull for anything,’ thought he, ‘and there won’t be a single day in which I shan’t miss her most dreadfully.’

But when she does come back, it’s just more of the same. It’s smart and witty, but a bit nasty: it’s what Pride and Prejudice would be stripped of everyone but the Bingleys, or Persuasion with only Sir Walter Elliot and Mrs. Clay — or Vanity Fair without the narrator. I seem to prefer my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos. At first Mapp and Lucia was good for a laugh, or at least a chortle, but after a time I found it (as Georgee would say) “too tarsome.”

This Week In My Classes: Counting Down

todolistActual classroom hours left this term: 6
Essays still to grade this week: 17
In-class tests incoming: 42
Reading Responses incoming: 84
Reading Journals incoming: 60-ish
Final essays and exams looming: 130
Reference letters in the queue: 24
Early morning hours that will be spent in Dalplex in the limbo of exam invigilation: 7
Weeks until I’m officially on sabbatical: 6
Department meetings before then: 1

That Which We Call A Blog By Any Other Name …

LastRose2013… would be the same thing it always was, which is also the point about the rose in the original line, of course. Names are (more or less) arbitrary labels, sure, no problem. But they have connotations as well as denotations, effects and associations as well as literal referents.  And lately I’ve been wondering: how much does the label “blog” (still) influence people’s assumptions about the substance and value of online writing?

This is not a new question, of course. Remember Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa, who staunchly refused to call his series of Facebook “essays” a “blog”? As he explained in an interview, this is because

“I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

There’s much that could be said about this self-consciously ignorant generalization (I said some of it in my JVC essay on blogging, and I’ve said lots more on related topics in numerous other posts here on blogging.) The assumption that somehow by definition blog posts aren’t “very written” is particularly annoying. But for today let’s focus on his comment “I hate that particular syllable.” I don’t much like it either, insofar as it is not particularly euphonious, but disdaining it on those grounds has something of a “Wragg is in custody” feeling about it (“Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!”). A “hideous name” is not, of course, actually a symptom of any particular coarseness — but is it possible that the ugly syllable “blog” has created for many people an Arnoldian disdain, as if it signals “an original short-coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions” of literary form, such as those of the more mellifluous “essay”?

I have been thinking about this again because I had a good session recently with a colleague who wanted some tips on using WordPress. While we poked around my various sites, he commented that he’d been reading around in my blog archives. “There’s lots of good stuff here!” he said, a generous remark which I sincerely appreciated. I think there is too! But I couldn’t help but notice the faintly astonished tone in which he said it, as if he hadn’t expected to find much “good stuff” but had been pleasantly surprised. That’s all good, of course — better that way around than the other way, for sure! But what had set his expectations low in the first place? Could it be assumptions stemming from “that particular syllable”?

Now, it’s entirely possible that I heard something that wasn’t there, and more than anything I was genuinely happy (almost absurdly so!) to be conferring with someone who was taking an interest in what I’ve been doing and learning online all this time. If I projected my own lingering anxieties on him, though, it’s precisely because  so few of my colleagues have shown any similar interest. Some, in fact, have been openly derisive about the whole concept of blogging. A precious few have been engaged and supportive, but most have simply been indifferent (as far as I’ve ever been able to tell). It’s not that I expect everyone I work with to drop what they’re doing and read everything I write! But I’ve wondered why the perception that blogs are not worth reading persists to the extent that when I asked a couple of colleagues once if they read any at all (never mind mine), they both laughed before they said no. How much of that has to do with the word “blog” itself, do you suppose, and what they take it to signify? If we talked about “essays on our websites” instead of “posts on our blogs,” would that sound different enough that it might bring more people across the threshold who might then stay long enough to discover that, indeed, there is “good stuff” to be found?

Why does “blogging” have such negative connotations, anyway? When Paul started his blog on “The Big C” and couldn’t stop talking about it, I admit I was filled with self-conscious horror at how annoying and narcissistic it seemed: what if I sound that way when I mention my blog? (Which isn’t that often, honest! At least, I don’t think it is…) Even I turned against him! But all shared writing is, in its own way, a demand for attention, a claim that your voice is worth hearing. Blogging is just a form: why, in this case, do a lot of people still assume the form defines the content? Was Nunokawa right, not about blogs themselves, but about avoiding the label if he wanted his short pieces to be read differently — or at all?

I think most of us actual bloggers have made our peace with the admittedly ugly vocabulary associated with the online writing and discussions we have (though I bet most of us would happily vote to ban “blogosphere”). But do you think that a lot of non-bloggers (we need a term for them, the way wizards have “muggles” — maybe “Higginbottoms”?) still hear the word “blog” and think “shallow, hasty, and self-promoting”? I don’t suppose it really matters, not for us, anyway, since we’re doing what we want, whatever it’s called, but the prejudice against it continues to puzzle and sometimes provoke me.

And that, speaking of ugly vocabulary, is quite enough meta-blogging! Next up, I hope, will be a post  essay  review  column  discussion excursus  disquisition  confabulation on an actual book. I’m still reading The Stonehenge Letters; I’ve just started Mapp and Lucia; and I’ve downloaded The Duchess War — we’ll see which one I finish first.

This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006′s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstoneThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful – is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

“After all, war is war”: All Quiet on the Western Front

remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front is as bleak and compelling a version of the “lost generation” narrative of World War I as I’ve read. In fact, Paul Bäumer, the novel’s narrator, comments explicitly, repeatedly, and bitterly on the chasm between the generation fighting in the trenches and the older generation far away from the front lines. “We agree that it’s the same for everyone,” Paul and his comrades conclude;

not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.

Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Though the novel is replete with vivid vignettes, from the tedium of training to the camaraderie of trench life and the horrific chaos of bombardments, the most poignant moments arise when the young men (and they are so very young, most of them, just the age of so many of the first-year students I’m about to meet) reflect on the war’s catastrophic effect on normalcy:

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled–we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.

They can’t even imagine what they will do when it ends: even if they are lucky enough to survive at all, much less intact, what’s the value of a life from which all meaning has been stripped? The physical violence ultimately comes across as peripheral–collateral, even–to the other damage they endure:

The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.

Battle is terrible, but it allows no time for reflection; Paul (and the reader) hurtles along, transformed from a thinking being to a “wild beast”:

We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. . . . [C]rouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.

 It’s when you stop to think that the true madness of war overwhelms you, because of course it is against men that you fling your bombs, and only the decisions of other men far removed from the consequences have turned ordinary people into enemies. “Just you consider,” observes Paul’s mate Katczinsky,

“almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are just labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchman as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

But it is dangerous to think this way, or to think at all, as Paul discovers during a turn guarding a group of Russian prisoners. In the trenches, the enemy is abstract until he is upon you, and then your common humanity becomes irrelevant in the desperate struggle to survive. But face to face, what you perceive is “the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men”:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom non of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

Paul pulls himself up short here: “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.” Yet he realizes, too, that he needs these thoughts: “I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended.” Though it is these thoughts that make the war unbearable, it is also these thoughts–these moments of recognition–that he hopes give him “the possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.”

Human feeling surfaces again when, hiding in a shell hole during an enemy attack (and how odd and salutary it is, just by the way, to be on the German side for once in my reading), Paul stabs a Frenchman who tumbles in on top of him. He had expected this moment, prepared for it (“If anyone jumps in here I will go for him … at once, stab him clean through the throat so that he cannot call out; that’s the only way”), but he is not, in fact, prepared (how could he be?) for this moment when killing becomes intimate. He strikes without thinking and feels “how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.” The man does not die, however–at least, not at once, and Paul is trapped in the shell hole with a man who now seems, not his enemy, but his victim. This way, indeed, lies the abyss:

These hours. . . . The gurgling starts again–but how slowly a man dies! For this I know–he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. . . . By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. . . . every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

 At last he dies: what a relief! “I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.” At least his dying was a distraction: “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts.” Insanely, pathetically, beautifully, he tells his dead companion what he is thinking:

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

After he finally brings himself to leave the shell hole, Paul is restored to reason (or what passes for it during war) by Kat showing him the snipers gleefully picking off enemies. “What else could you have done?” ask his friends. “That is what you are here for.” “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,” Paul says; “After all, war is war.”

That simple tautology says everything that is to be said, and at the same time it says nothing, offers no meaning, no consolation. There is nothing to be said, Paul thinks, as, recovering from a wound, he looks at the wreckage of young lives passing in a ceaseless stream through the hospital:

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

 Paul’s testimony–Remarque’s novel–shows that too, with harrowing simplicity. For Paul (for Remarque) war is definitive. It is everything. Beyond it, for those who have experienced it, there is nothing:

And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

I had been interested in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for many years; I finally read it as part of my preparation for my Somerville Novelists seminar. It is an example of what Testament of Youth is not: a soldier’s story, a first-hand (if fictionalized) account of fighting and survival and tactics and rations and brothers in arms. It is the masculine story of the war, and as many of the critics I’ve read point out, that’s the valorized story, the “authentic” one. Brittain knew these aspects of the war only second-hand, through the letters she received from the front and through her experience as a nurse. There are many points of convergence, though. Above all, both tell a story of lost innocence. And both focus almost exclusively on the personal, on individual disillusionment, devastation, and loss–but both lead us towards political conclusions by making it impossible to understand what cause could possibly be worth such a price. Outside their books, we might well feel there’s an argument to be had about that. Reading them, though, it’s hard to do anything but mourn.

poppies

From the Novel Readings archives (lightly updated). First published September 2, 2012.
Photo of field of poppies from Wikimedia Commons.

This Week In My Classes: Falling Back

We set our clocks back an hour on the weekend. Whle I concede that it’ss nice to have it lighter in the morning, I never feel that makes up for how dark it gets in the afternoon, which tends to be my low energy time anyway. In any case, this plus our first flurries of the season makes it impossible for me to keep pretending winter isn’t setting in. I can hardly express what a drag this is on my spirits. Winter increases my stress levels exponentially — mostly because I hate driving in snow and ice. In fact, if I could configure my life so that I never had to get behind the wheel of a car between December and April, I might not mind winter at all. Well, OK, I would still not be a fan of the freezing-rain-sleet-snow mix Halifax specializes in, but it would not fray my nerves or ruin my plans in the same way. On the bright side, I do have a sabbatical next term, which somewhat relieves the pressure, and at this point the worst still lies ahead. In the meantime, we’re not done with the fall term yet.

theterroristsI think things are going reasonably well in both my classes right now. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just finished working through Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists, which provoked quite a lot of discussion this time around. As always, I’ve been meditating on how to change up the reading list for the course’s next incarnation; I think The Terrorists is a keeper, precisely because it gives us a lot to talk about. It is, arguably, somewhat tendentious — I’ve been wondering if I should hold the authors’ Marxism in reserve next time (rather than emphasizing it in my opening lecture) and let the novel’s politics reveal themselves inductively. I don’t find the novel too doctrinaire to be humanly interesting and dramatic, though: I think Sjöwall and Wahlöö successfully walk the line between the picture and the diagram, with Martin Beck himself especially standing between us and a narrow didacticism. Rhea may have a portrait of Mao on her wall, but Beck remains committed to (if ambivalent about) the flawed system he polices. Today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses — time for my annual comment that I’d love to try one of his longer, richer novels, except that this one (like The Terrorists) is always really good for discussion, and always gets singled out in student evaluations as a general favorite.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve moved on to Jude the ObscureJude is usually the last novel I cover in the Dickens-to-Hardy class, so it feels odd that it isn’t this time: we’re following it up with The Odd Women. I made room for Gissing by skipping sensation fiction for the first time I can remember in this course. I kind of miss it, because it’s a lot of fun (I usually assign either Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White), but I’m anticipating a good response to The Odd WomenJude seems to have perked people up, too, which might seem perverse, considering how grim it is, but depression has its own agonistic charms, and the novel also moves much more quickly, and is expressed much more bluntly, than Middlemarch (which, to my delight, thrilled a handful of students but also clearly daunted or deterred a fair number of them). One of the things we talked about today was Hardy’s emphasis on buildings and architecture. The novel is so intensely tactile and visual that I thought it might be nice to put some pictures in our minds’ eyes, so I put together a simple slide show, including these photos from my own one and only (so far) visit to Oxford.

pulpit

martyrs

The pulpit at St. Mary’s isn’t, strictly speaking, a Jude landmark, but Newman is one of the ghostly presences Jude communes with on his first night in the city, and I was surprised how moved I was to see where he had preached. The Martyrs’ Cross, of course, is where Sue and Jude first meet — or, more precisely, where Jude first suggests they meet, only to have Sue call out, as they approach it, “I am not going to meet you just there, for the first time in my life!” Jude is definitely not one of my favorite novels, but it is a favorite of mine to teach, because however heavy-handed I find it (and however annoying I find Sue), it is also passionate and occasionally profound, including in the challenge it issues to the more conventional morality of our other readings. Reading it right after Middlemarch also really brings out continuities: they share interests in aspiration and vocation, in hopes crushed, in loves that press against convention, in learning and religion and compassion for flawed, suffering humanity. Middlemarch may seem melancholy in its treatment of these themes, but put Jude up against it and suddenly Eliot’s meliorism seems downright buoyant!

Even though Jude is not our last book, it’s astonishing to realize how close we already are to the end of term: it seems to be rushing past. At the same time, it has felt like a particularly effortful term to me. I can’t remember ever feeling quite so tired after each class meeting: I come back to my office and have to just sit still for a while before I can gather up the energy for my next task. Am I getting old? Well, yes, of course I am … but I hope that the real culprit is the tendinitis that has kept me from my running routine for months now. I am just gradually getting back into a modified exercise program. One reason I have to sit down after class, though, is that standing and pacing (as I inevitably do during lecture and discussion) seems to be about the worst thing for my aches and pains! I’ve been very frustrated that even after diligently following all my physiotherapist’s instructions I am not significantly better and more mobile! I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. I never ran very far or very fast at the best of times, but I would like to get back at least to where I was. I miss the psychological benefits as much as the physical ones. Here’s hoping!

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