“Passion, plus craft”: Donald E. Westlake, The Getaway Car

getawaycarI’m glad I didn’t take Levi Stahl’s advice. If I had, I would have walked away from The Getaway Car, which is “the first book by Donald E. Westlake [I've] ever held in [my] hands.” Not that it seems like bad advice to get my hands on some of Westlake’s actual novels — indeed, reading The Getaway Car has made me quite enthusiastic about doing that! But a book in the hand is worth many dozens in the store (even if, as turns out not to be the case, my local bookstores had any Westlake on their shelves) or at the library (especially since my local branch is currently closed). So I blithely disregarded the advice to “stop right here” and read on.

And what a lot of fun I had! The Getaway Car is an anthology of Westlake’s miscellaneous nonfiction, and it is indeed miscellaneous: autobiographical fragments, letters, reviews, introductions (he wrote a lot of those). To me, as someone without his novels as a frame of reference or a set of touchstones, what struck me most was what a likable guy he seems to have been: even in what is the longest and probably the most conspicuously “expert” piece in the collection, his essay on “The Hardboiled Dicks” (originally a lecture at the Smithsonian), there’s not the slightest hint of pretension. Westlake’s letter to Howard Gotlieb of the Boston University Libraries, in response to a request to donate his papers, struck me as exemplary of his no-nonsense perspective on his own work. In the letter he expresses his “astonishment” that anyone would want to collect his papers, because he sees himself as a “writer,” not an “author”:

A writer, in my personal lexicon, is a commercial wordsmith, an active professional, a (if the word can be stripped of overtones) hack. An author, on the other hand, is an institution, a brand name, a reputation. John D. MacDonald is a writer. Saul Bellow began as a writer but has become an institution, an author. Arthur Miller has never been anything but an author. John Steinbeck, having resisted authordom, is a writer with an honorary author’s membership card.

 As for himself,

I’m a writer, with only the teeniest and most secret and ephemeral urgings towards authorhood. . . . all of the book-length writing I’ve done under my own name has been exclusively in a category of strictly entertainment writing, in which higher aspirations, even if they existed, are irrelevant.

There’s a cheerful pragmatism in this that’s refreshing in this era of heated (if largely manufactured) debates about “literary vs. genre fiction” — which is not to say that his comfortable assumption that there really are two kinds of writing, or at least two ways of approaching your writing, isn’t in its own way a potentially provocative contribution to just these debates.

Being a “hack” on his terms, though, certainly doesn’t mean being sloppy or careless. “In my opinion,” he says (or, at any rate, one of his personae says, in an entertaining “roundtable discussion” among them that he wrote up for Murder Ink) “the best writers are always people who don’t care about anything except telling you what’s in their heads, without boring you. Passion, plus craft.” A letter to David Ramus about the manuscript of that author’s first novel shows passion about craft:

Now I also think you need to do a little tweaking of story procedure, how you unfold it for us. Page 52 was way too late to introduce a flashback and then let the flashback wander. You say you’re going to tell us about the first time Ben met Dana, and then you tell us a bunch of other stuff for eight pages. I am very impatient during all of this. I don’t mind leaving prison to go to court, but if I’m leaving court, by this point in the story I want to get back to prison. . . .

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught.

Don’t you feel you can trust a writer who has such a clear grasp of how the elements of fiction actually work? And then there’s his very endearing defense of the semicolon (my pet punctuation mark too):

I do want to rise to say a word or two for the semicolon. . . . My own rhythms tend to be long ones [mine too!], and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances (in this book and others) the copyeditor’s alternative is less correct. . . .Why does everybody hate the poor semicolon? It’s nice; it’s useful; it’s even rather pretty.

 Equally endearing in its own way is that he has just the same tone when discussing the afterlife as when discussing plot points or punctuation:

Therefore, if I am to assume life after death, and if I am to further assume that the me over there would still be recognizably me, then I would like to meet O. Henry, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett, sit down with a bottle of beer — I won’t be on a diet then — and talk shop for a century or two.

The Getaway Car itself is full of “shop talk,” all of it brisk and opinionated without being overbearing. I took a special interest in the overview of the genre in his introduction to the anthology Murderous Schemes, because I’m always testing and refining the introductory framing lectures for my detective fiction course. (I think I got an exam copy of Murderous Schemes once, in fact, and ended up rejecting it as a course text because its taxonomy was a bit too different from the one I have settled on, though our generalizations converge easily enough.) And I paid special attention to his essay on hard-boiled detection, which I found useful as well as entertaining — and also thought-provoking. Talking about ways in which a genre can become exhausted if its form doesn’t undergo some kind of renewal, for instance, he holds out the ‘gothic romance’ as an example:

Several years ago [his essay is from 1982] there was a paperback fad for gothic romance, and an editor in the field told me one day about a book he was publishing — one of the four gothics from his house that month — that he was truly excited about because it was a bold breakthrough. “The girl isn’t a governess,” he said. “She’s the cook!”

There was no strength in those gothic romances beyond the ritual, so they soon withered and died. The Western had strength, and survived, and endured, and from time to time the very ritual itself leads to art.

Westlake comes across as a bit of a man’s man in these pieces (his final word on the afterlife is that, shop talk done, he’d “go off with Robert Benchley and look for girls”); if he ran with a different crowd, I wonder if he’d be so quick to see gothic romance as a form that had withered and died. Similarly, he ends the piece reflecting that the private eye novel has itself withered:

The brevity of the early Black Mask days is long gone. The relevance of those days is gone. The vitality of novelty is gone. The reflection of an underlying truth is gone. I’m not really sure what’s left.

Except the books and stories that started it all. Hammett reads as smoothly and honestly as he ever did. His contemporaries are just as lively, and not very much dated. Chandler retains his strength and his complexity. . . .

“The private eye novel may have become very strait-jacketed by ritual, but it’s certainly not dead,” he concludes. I wonder if he looked around and noticed that it was getting new life at that very moment from women writers like Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. They brought a new vitality to the form because their perspective on it was novel, their underlying truth a somewhat different one. If Westlake were still around, I can imagine that it would be fun to sit down with a bottle of beer and talk this over with him.

Besides making me think Westlake is a guy I’d like to have met, The Getaway Car definitely made me think I’d like to read at least some of his books (he wrote an awful lot of them!) — I’m open to suggestions about where I should start. It also reminded me that I have yet to read any Ross Macdonald or any Rex Stout. I hadn’t heard of Peter Rabe before reading Westlake’s essay, but he made me curious (“Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of”). His “Ten Most Wanted” list is mostly books I haven’t read or hadn’t heard of, in fact, which is a bit discouraging considering how much time I spend reading, reading about, or talking about crime fiction. Also, why have I never read Thurber’s “The Man Who Knew Too Little”? I start my class every year now with “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” but a little more Thurber can only be a good thing.

Just what I needed: more books to read! I’m glad I already read The Getaway Car, though, even if by some lights I should have deferred it. Many thanks to its editor Levi Stahl for my copy of it: congratulations on turning your obvious enthusiasm into something tangible that you can share with the rest of us.

Not At All Commonplace: Goodbye to D. G. Myers

I was deeply saddened this morning to learn of D. G. Myers’s death. I have been reading  A Commonplace Blog since I started blogging myself; I can still remember how pleased I was when I noticed that Novel Readings had made its way onto his blog roll. We have also both been on Twitter for a long time, and he was integral to many of the most stimulating conversations I have overheard or participated in there. We had very different reading sensibilities; there would not be much overlap between our lists of our top 100 favorite books. But I always enjoyed and learned from the learned and passionate way he wrote about books, and more than once he convinced me to try something I would not have picked up otherwise — Roland Merullo’s The Talk Funny Girl, for instance, or John Williams’s Stoner, which he was an advocate for well before it became a belated overnight sensation. With posts like “Francine Prose and the Great Tradition,” he gave the lie to those who dismiss book blogging as an inherently trivial and trivializing form of critical discourse. We had some of the same concerns about the direction of the modern academy in general and English departments in particular; his perspective on causes and possible solutions wasn’t exactly mine, but then, his experience was also different; posts like “An End to Readings” spurred me to think more and think harder about my own views on criticism. I was endlessly moved and impressed by his unsentimental candor and good spirits during his long illness; it seems fitting that what turned out to be his final blog post was entitled “Choosing Life in the Face of Death.” His was a sharp, smart, witty, provocative, generous voice in the online literary world; though I never met him face to face, I know already that I will miss his presence in my reading and thinking life.

A tribute from Terry Teachout appears here, another from Patrick Kurp here. Apparently an online “Festschrift” is in preparation; I’ll add a link to it when it goes up. As my own quiet form of acknowledgment, I plan to read one more book from the long list of those he convinced me I ought to, Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.Along with handing [readers] something good to read,” he said about this novel, “it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” That renewal always seemed to me the faith that his own writing was most profoundly about.

Update: Here’s a link to the round-up of tributes from friends and colleagues.

This Week in My Classes: Low Stakes, High Rewards

fountainpenOver the last week or so we’ve done our first small assignments in both classes: an in-class writing response in Mystery & Detective Fiction, paper proposals and then a “mini-midterm” in 19th-Century Fiction. Also, since the start of term students in the 19th-Century Fiction class have been keeping reading journals. These assignments have all been developed as parts of my attempt to shift the emphasis from product to process. The challenge for me is to set up low -stakes work that builds skills and prepares for high-stakes work in such a way that it is clear to them why it is worth taking seriously, even though on its own it may not seem to be significant.

I think I am getting there, in terms of figuring out how this is done. My key strategy is simply to be very explicit about the value of trying something out and learning from it as a kind of trial run, before you invest heavily in a weightier assignment. I think this pitch is very convincing to students who are already quite engaged and motivated, because they are already trying to think harder and do better work, and so they appreciate the chance to see how they’re doing, confer with me about the results, and then do the longer assignment from a position of greater confidence. I’m not so convinced that it reaches students who are, for one reason or another, not particularly engaged or motivated, precisely because I’ve set the stakes so low. I do also stress occasionally in class discussions of these small assignments that they add up — that even 2% can, when all is said and done, be the difference between passing and failing. I’m really least interested in that punitive approach, though.

Another challenge is the dissatisfaction that I feel when someone does a really outstanding job and I’m still stuck giving them only 2 points. I do send other signals too — comments like “oustanding!” in the margins, for instance! But I’ve been wondering if I can build in a “bonus points for excellence” system somehow, without losing control of the overall exercise. Right now the mini-midterms are marked quite simply out of 10 points, for instance, 2 for each of the short-answer questions and 4 for close reading a passage. This is all very quick and tidy. But because I don’t want to traffic in fractions of points, I end up giving 2 points to really rich, smart answers as well as to ones that say just enough to satisfy the rubric. Maybe I should make each of these questions worth 3 points — the first two for the same things I mark for already (1 point for a full and accurate identification, 1 point for a reasonable comment about how the subject of the question connects to or illuminates central themes of the novel) and then the last one for … well, how could I characterize it so that it didn’t seem hopelessly subjective? “Doing a really good job” seems a bit vague. The same problem arises with the 4-point questions (1 point for accurately situating it, then 3 more to be earned by insights into its language and themes): there’s a bit more latitude here already, but how about one more point for “wow, that’s really smart and well-written”?

To be clear, I don’t grade essays according to this kind of fairly coarse grid. (In fact, I don’t grade them numerically either.) It’s important for me, though, that these very small assignments not become very large tasks for me: being able to go through them quickly and return them promptly is part of the plan. I invite students who want more detailed feedback to come and talk to me (and quite a few do), and I also routinely share and discuss samples of stronger and weaker submissions (with names removed, of course), which I hope also provides very valuable guidance. The goal, as I often point out, is for the students to learn to judge their own writing better, to know what kind of result they are working towards so that they can work deliberately and with purpose.

The low-stakes assignments are way stations en route to larger and more sophisticated productions. To work, I think they need to be relevant, skills-oriented, efficient, and transparent. I think making the marking a lot more nuanced might interfere with too many of these goals. So for now I’ll press on. The pay-off for the “outstanding” ones will have to be the encouragement they get to do more of the same when the stakes are higher. And for those who blow things off that aren’t worth enough points for them to pay attention? If I’m right about how this system works, some of them will find that the product suffers because they’re neglecting the process. I can only hope they realize this before the term is over, and we all have a chance to get better results.

On Being Neither Fish Nor Fowl

escherMy blogging has been a bit sluggish lately. Partly that’s because my life has been a bit busy, what with the start of term and all. But it’s also because I’ve been a bit broody and taking refuge in easy distractions, like rewatching the early seasons of The Good Wife, instead of in my usual levels of extracurricular reading and writing.

Broody about what? Nothing new, really: just the usual round-and-round of questions about how I’ve been using my time for the last few years and what I have to show for it. Not long ago I had vowed to put aside doubts and defensiveness about my decision to focus on writing that isn’t conventional academic scholarship: it’s not like my choices haven’t been carefully considered ones, after all, and if anyone really feels the need to challenge me on them, I’m quite prepared to have that conversation — but I thought I was done with both the advocacy and the apologetics, ready to just keep on with the projects I want to get done.

Then a couple of weeks ago I went to our meet-and-greet for new graduate students. It’s probably not fair to point at this event as the cause of my recent mental malaise. What it did, though, was reveal to me that I am not as sanguine as I thought about the state of my career — not that I regret it, but that I’m still vulnerable to conflicting and contradictory responses to it.

The specific trigger was a friendly and entirely appropriate question: “what’s your current research on?” That’s just the kind of exchange this event is supposed to encourage, of course, and for many years this question was not at all difficult for me to answer. This time, however, I wasn’t sure where to go with my reply. “I’m not doing any” seemed wrong (see “When is Reading Research“); “I’ve been working on a lot of different things,” while true, seemed somehow non-responsive; and “I don’t believe in academic research any more,” while temptingly snarky and also at least partly true (see “Mark Bauerlein’s ‘The Research Bust’“), is much too reductive, lacking all the nuance I have painstakingly tried to maintain in my public comments about this kind of thing.

I did, ultimately, say something about my having moved away, or out, from most academic research, and why; and I muttered something, also, about my work on a “cross-over” book on George Eliot, which, while not a scholarly project of the kind we usually discuss in academic contexts, will certainly require reading. Research. Whatever. The simple truth is, though, I am not in the loop anymore when it comes to the latest specialized research in my field, which is what the question was implicitly about, and while I don’t regret this at all, there’s a sense in which that makes me only barely qualified to do some of the things graduate students especially might ask of me — like, steer their own specialized research in my field. I also look at most conference calls for papers and realize that in almost every case I am unable to contribute: the only way I could generate the right kind of paper (or even the right kind of proposal) would be to radically change how I am using my reading and writing time.

While I vehemently disagree with the person who told me a year or so ago that I have “obviously thrown [my] career away,” then, (and let’s keep in mind, too, that research, however one does it, does not in itself define the whole of an academic career), I do at times falter under the realization that by some measures it looks as if I have — that in some respects or from some points of view (and why pretend otherwise?) I am failing as an academic.

Which is easy enough to live with, up to a point (again, because I have made choices that I stand by, to end up in this place) — but it would be easier if I could say “but look, I’m a success in this other way!” I can’t really say that, though. As I look around at what other people I know (online or “in real life”) are accomplishing outside of academia, I seem to be stumbling along by comparison there as well. Other academic bloggers have turned their posts into books, or into different kinds of writing gigs (or managed to publish academic articles and books while keeping up their blogs); other academically-trained writers I follow have moved on to publishing brilliant, original reviews and essays in prominent venues, becoming part of the bigger literary conversation in ways even my most topical pieces never seem to. I, on the other hand, seem to be puttering along, adding a piece here and a piece there to a somewhat miscellaneous portfolio of reviews and essays, while writing a blog that is neither quite academic nor quite bookish in a more popular way. If I’m not acting like an academic critic these days, what exactly am I doing? If I’m not a successful academic, what, or who, am I? In my grimmer moments, it feels to me that now I am nothing in particular: no longer in the game as a specialist, and not really in whatever the other game is — neither fish, that is, nor fowl, and floundering in my attempts to be either or both.

I almost deleted this post without publishing it because I was afraid it would sound whiny and petulant. Maybe it does. Maybe it is! I’m honestly not fishing for reassuring compliments or affirmation. I already know how to tell the “glass half-full” version of this story: that’s how I’ve talked myself out of funks like this before. But I had second thoughts about my second thoughts about saying anything at all about how I’ve been feeling — because it’s my blog, darnit, and it’s where I think things through. Also, given my frequent advocacy for blogging and non-academic criticism, and my posts about whether other people should engage in these activities, I think it would be misleading never to talk about the doubts and misgivings I do have, or to ignore the professional costs my choices have incurred (remember this one?). I try to stay positive, but it’s not like I don’t understand (and don’t sometimes agree with) the arguments against me.

I know, too, that the only way forward for me is just to keep on doing the best criticism I can, wherever I can (even if that isn’t what other academics mean when they say “research”) and to call it success when I think I’ve done it well. I am proud of what’s in that portfolio, even if it isn’t (yet) as deep a file as I’d like. It’s just hard to feel motivated to do this writing sometimes, when the rewards are so equivocal. It is also just hard to find the energy right now, when both teaching and administrative tasks are taking up a lot of my time. My other projects used to feel like more of a welcome liberation from the elements of academic research and writing that I have lost interest in or commitment to. Now, wobbling as I am between two worlds, it turns out both can be pretty constant sources of guilt and anxiety! I’m not reading enough – or I’m reading the wrong things! I’m not writing enough, or I’m not writing the right kind of pieces!

I know from experience that this too shall pass. I have writing plans I’m excited about – in theory, at least – and busy as the term is getting, I’ll make time for them and find in the work itself a better fix for these doubts and hesitations. I feel very tired right now, though, and for a little while longer I think there’s more of The Good Wife in my evening plans. At least I’m getting lots of crochet done at the same time!

This Week in My Classes: Fun with First-Person Narrators

We’re well into the term now, and thus well into our first readings, which means that in Mystery and Detective Fiction we’re about half way through The Moonstone, while in 19th-Century Fiction we have just wrapped up our class discussions of Villette. Both novels are virtuosic displays of their authors’ skill at voices. Both Collins and Brontë create characters who are not altogether to be trusted, but Collins’s characters give themselves away over and over, usually in spite of themselves, while Lucy is a much more controlling — sly, elusive — narrator. Still, I’m never sure that she should be approached as an unreliable narrator, strictly speaking: her reticences are so selective, and her frankness, at times, so heartbreaking.

moonstoneI have yet to get tired of teaching The Moonstone, which has been a staple of the detective class since I introduced it to our curriculum in 2003 and also an occasional offering in the Dickens-to-Hardy class. At this point I actually think I know it better than any other text I teach, with the exception of Middlemarch. What this means in practice is that I feel very relaxed during class discussion: though I do have a pretty clear agenda overall, I don’t need a careful script to make sure I don’t miss any aspects of it the way I do with books I’m still learning my way around. Today was Miss Clack Day, which is one of my favorites days. Here are two of the quotations I brought in to use as starting points:

In this retirement — a Patmos amid the howling ocean of popery that surrounds us — a letter from England has reached me at last. I find my insignificant existence suddenly remembered by Mr. Franklin Blake. My wealthy relative — would that I could add my spiritually-wealthy relative! — writes, without even an attempt at disguising that he wants something of me. The whim has seized him to stir up the deplorable scandal of the Moonstone: and I am to help him by writing the account of what I myself witnessed while visiting at Aunt Verinder’s house in London. Pecuniary remuneration is offered to me — with the want of feeling peculiar to the rich. I am to re-open wounds that Time has barely closed; I am to recall the most intensely painful remembrances — and this done, I am to feel myself compensated by a new laceration, in the shape of Mr. Blake’s cheque. My nature is weak. It cost me a hard struggle, before Christian humility conquered sinful pride, and self-denial accepted the cheque.

He beamed on us with his beautiful smile; he held out a hand to my aunt, and a hand to me. I was too deeply affected by his noble conduct to speak. I closed my eyes; I put his hand, in a kind of spiritual self-forgetfulness, to my lips. He murmured a soft remonstrance. Oh the ecstasy, the pure, unearthly ecstasy of that moment! I sat — I hardly know on what — quite lost in my own exalted feelings. When I opened my eyes again, it was like descending from heaven to earth. There was nobody but my aunt in the room. He had gone.

Really, is it any wonder that I burst out occasionally with exclamations like “isn’t she fun?!” Her passive-aggressive martyrdom in the first excerpt sets us up perfectly to discuss just what kind of a Christian she is, as well as the larger conflict in the novel between spiritual and mercenary motives (neatly epitomized, of course, by the different ways the moonstone itself is viewed and valued). And the second excerpt — oh, the second excerpt! Those deftly placed but utterly unconvincing words “spiritual” and “unearthly” to describe her pleasure! Those “exalted” feelings that carry her quite away from her physical self! Yeah, sure they do. Miss Clack is a comic ticket to much less funny topics: her invasive distribution of edifying pamphlets, for instance, leads us straight to forms of missionary or colonizing work that the novel’s Prologue has already made sure we see as bloody and oppressive. But it was nice of Collins to let us make these serious connections while still having a good laugh. The Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion Society! It’s too delightful.

We worked outward from specific passages of Villette today too. I handed around four samples, but in the end we were able to draw so much out of this one that we had to put the others aside to be sure we had time to discuss what we thought about the novel’s conclusion (which is, of course, heavily foreshadowed here):

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artOn quitting Bretton, which I did a few weeks after Paulina’s departure — little thinking then I was never again to visit it; never more to tread its calm old streets — I betook myself home, having been absent six months. It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass — the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?

 Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft. However, it cannot be concealed that, in that case, I must somehow have fallen overboard, or that there must have been wreck at last. I too well remember a time — a long time — of cold, of danger, of contention. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs. I even know there was a storm, and that not of one hour nor one day. For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared; we cast with our own hands the tackling out of the ship; a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.

Oh Lucy, “permitting” us to imagine you peaceful and happy even as you ruthlessly deny us precisely that comfort. What good is an illusion, after all, if its artifice is so completely exposed? What good, too, is laying claim to a conventional life, such as that enjoyed by “a great many women and girls,” if you’re only going to throw convention overboard — and, arguably, not regret its loss? Is a life of happy indolence really preferable, after all, to a life of determination and purpose, however grimly experienced? But if to be “idle, basking, plump, and happy” is to be no better than the pretty spaniel to which she (in an uncharacteristically overt moment of snark) compares Paulina Mary, is the novel’s final shipwreck really a tragedy? Such a vexing question, and such a provoking novel. I’m almost sorry to leave it behind — almost, because I am not nearly as comfortable with it as I am with The Moonstone, and it has been a mental and practical challenge figuring out how to approach each class. Next up in this class is Great Expectations: I think I know my way around that one pretty well.

“The Leap of Life”: D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover


Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day, the first dandelions making suns, the first daisies so white. The hazel thicket was a lace-work of half-open leaves and the last dusty perpendicular of the catkins. Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves. It was the yellow, the powerful yellow of early summer. And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy. The lush, dark green of hyacinths was a sea, with buds rising like pale corn, while in the riding the forget-me-knots were fluffing up, and columbines were unfolding their ink-purple ruches, and there were bits of blue bird’s-eggshell under a bush. Everywhere the bud-knots and the leap of life.

Why, what did you think “the leap of life” would refer to in the context of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? And yet if you were imagining that it was somehow a sexual reference, you’re not wrong just because the phrase actually comes from this lush description of nature, because unless I misunderstand the novel profoundly (which is not by any means impossible*), its central preoccupation is our dissociation from nature — the intrusion or domination of the mechanical, “the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed,” both literal (industrial) and spiritual — and the resulting failure of tenderness, to both of which sex is (or at any rate can be) the antidote. The world in which Lady Chatterley takes a lover is a broken, alienated, isolating place:

Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead, but dead. Half-corpses, all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an under-world. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness; and now there can be no fellowship any more! It is just a nightmare.

She felt again in a wave of terror the grey, gritty hopelessness of it all. With such creatures for the industrial masses, and the upper classes as she knew them, there was no hope, no hope any more.

 Who wouldn’t seek refuge from this nightmare in a lover’s arms? Except Lady Chatterley’s affair is not really an escape from it — or, at any rate, it provides no escape for the reader (it does appear to be intermittently distracting for the lovers themselves) because every encounter is so saturated with symbolic and thematic significance. The prose is always straining so much towards the metaphysical that the physical act seems almost beside the point, even as we are being urged to see it as the whole point:

 She quivered again at the potent inexorable entry inside her, so strange and terrible. It might come with the thrust of a sword in her softly-opened body, and that would be death. She clung in a sudden anguish of terror. But it came with a slow thrust of peace, the dark thrust of peace and a ponderous, primordial tenderness, such as made the world in the beginning. And her terror subsided in her breast, her breast dared to be gone in peace, she held nothing. She dared to let go everything, all herself, and be gone in the flood.

penguinchatterleyI tried not to find these morbidly florid passages ridiculous, really I did! I understand he’s trying both to convey bodily sensations with some immediacy and to go beyond them to other more abstract issues.  I appreciate, too, as the editor of my edition emphasizes, that despite his “phallocentrism” Lawrence is making “strenuous efforts to describe the female orgasm.” I also recognize — speaking as someone who has now read a fair number of romance novels — that writing  successfully about sex is always challenging because people have such different preferences, in language as in life. (There have been some very good discussions of this problem at Liz’s blog, e.g. here and here.) Lawrence’s language is especially tricky, though, I think, because he wants the sex to be about so much more than sex that it almost completely fails to be sexy. It is sexually explicit, of course. Maybe it is also sometimes erotic: your mileage may vary, as they say. But if sex is going to be the answer to all the ills of civilization, it had better not seem silly.

Or maybe what’s absurd or otherwise disconcerting is precisely making sex the answer to everything. Hard as it was not to laugh at some of the lovers’ antics (flowers woven in their pubic hair? really?), it was even harder not to recoil from the ways the novel essentializes both men and women but especially women, who are made to seem fully alive and human only insofar as they are sexually active and fulfilled. I thought there was something very sad about the scene of Lady Chatterley contemplating her naked body in the mirror and thinking that it looks “as if it had not had enough sun and warmth; it was a little greyish and sapless.” “Disappointed of its real womanhood,” it continues,

it had not succeeded in becoming boyish, and unsubstantial, and transparent; instead it had gone opaque.

Her breasts were rather small, and dropping pear-shaped. But they were unripe, a little bitter, without meaning hanging there. And her belly had lost the fresh, round gleam it had had when she was young, in the days of her German boy, who really loved her physically. Then it was young and expectant, with a real look of its own. Now it was going slack, and a little flat, thinner, but with a slack thinness. Her thighs, too, they used to look so quick and glimpsy in their female roundness, somehow they too were going flat, slack, meaningless.

Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. It made her feel immensely depressed and hopeless. What hope was there? She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial, yes, denial.

How poignant (if also, at 27, absurd) — and yet must the answer to this sense of withering away, this descent into meaningless opacity, be (to quote, surprisingly enough, Lady Chatterley’s father), “a good bit of fucking”? Overjoyed that his daughter has been saved from life as a “demi-verge,” Sir Malcolm is delighted with Mellors when they meet: “You set fire to her haystack all right,” he exclaims; “Oh, she’s a nice girl, she’s a nice girl, and I knew she’d be good going, if only some damned man would set her stack on fire! Ha-ha-ha!” He’s drunk, so there’s that, but doesn’t the novel more or less agree with him? For me, something about a woman without a man being like a fish without a bicycle comes to mind: aren’t there other ways she could find some source of energy and meaning in her life? Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to be sexually active and fulfilled, but sweep away the excess verbiage and how different is Lawrence’s appeal to nature from the Victorian antipathy towards spinsters and “redundant” women? It sounds different — more celebratory — but overall I wasn’t sure whether Lawrence’s vision was liberating or reductive and retrograde. It doesn’t help that Mellors interacts with Connie more as “woman” generically, and as a collection of body parts, than as a particular woman: theirs is hardly a meeting of true minds. And then there’s his bitter hostility towards women who like sex their way rather than his.

Overall, though, what struck me most about the book is its melancholy: I didn’t expect it to be so sad so much of the time. Even when Connie and Mellors are happiest in the moment, there’s sadness: “As it drew out and left her body, the secret, sensitive thing, she gave an unconscious cry of pure loss, and she tried to put it back. It had been so perfect! And she loved it so!” And what moved me the most about it was its appeal to tenderness, which is the quality most threatened by the harshness of modernity:

He thought with infinite tenderness of the woman. Poor forlorn thing, she was nicer than she knew, and oh! so much too nice for the tough lot she was in contact with. Poor thing, she too had some of the vulnerability of the wild hyacinths, she wasn’t all tough rubber-goods and platinum, like the modern girl. And they would do her in! As sure as life, they would do her in, as they do in all naturally tender life. Tender! Somewhere she was tender, tender with a tenderness of the growing hyacinths, something that has gone out of the celluloid women of today. But he would protect her with his heart for a little while. For a little while, before the insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanized greed did them both in, her as well as him.

“He’s lovely really,” Connie says to her sister about Mellors; “he really understands tenderness.” If sex is the extremity of tenderness, then it is not about desire or passion or even physical feeling at all so much as it is about trying to reach each other and nurture each other. Tenderness brings us back to nature, to the hyacinths, to “the tender green leaves of morning.” It’s tenderness, maybe, that is the real “leap of life.” And since I do love the way Lawrence writes about nature (as, for example, in the quotation I began with), and since for him nature is tenderness is humanity is love is sex, it occurs to me that maybe I don’t find the way he writes (or thinks) about sex as absurd or alienating as I thought.

*I decided to write this post without studying for it: after all, Lawrence’s first readers had to make what sense of the novel they could without the benefit of literary scholarship, and if I once started down the “you can’t write about it until you’ve done your research” road then I might as well throw in the towel on blogging and go back to writing academic articles. That means, of course, that I fully expect and even look forward to being re-educated in the comments.

This Week in My Classes: Setting the Tone

maskWelcome back to another season of “This Week in My Classes“! This will be the 8th year for this series. Sometimes I wish I’d given it a snappier title, but “This Week in My Classes” does have the advantage of being perfectly to the point. In case anyone forgets — or never knew — why I started writing these posts, there’s an explanation here, and in case anyone wonders why I keep on doing them, everything I said in this post still stands. You can track the posts through the years here. They range from very matter of fact updates about course content to broader pedagogical considerations or meditations on the meaning of it all.

One thing you’ll know if you’ve been reading these posts (or realize if you browse through the archive of them) is that I teach the same classes pretty regularly. Almost every year, for example, I teach Mystery and Detective Fiction, which sometimes strikes me as odd (because it’s not a “core” class in any way), but which serves my department well (because it’s a relatively large and consistently popular class). It’s also really fun, so I’m not complaining! Almost every year I also teach one or the other of our courses in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, either the Austen-to-Dickens one or the Dickens-to-Hardy one. My other teaching duties routinely include sections of our introductory classes, one of our core survey classes (British Literature Since 1800), one of our core methods classes (Close Reading) and a range of upper-level or graduate seminars. All of these kinds of classes involve different problems and rewards. First-year classes are not always the most willing, for instance, though they can sometimes be the most surprising, and the most vigorous; surveys can feel like pulling intellectual teeth or like soaring over a fantastic imaginative landscape; advanced seminars can be either the most frustrating or the most electric experiences of your day.

The funny thing is, though, that not a lot of this has to do (in my experience, anyway) with the actual content of the classes. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we teach, or that there aren’t some works that pose their own special challenges (Waverley, anyone?). But overriding everything else, I’ve come to think, is the relationship we establish with our students. If they trust and respect you — if they believe you are bringing your best self to the table — they will be willing to at least try almost anything, whether it’s scansion, peer-editing, building wikis, or close reading passages of Middlemarch. If they think you’re intimidating, that might help in some ways but hurt in others; if they think you’re a bit (who am I kidding – a lot!) eccentric, ditto; if they look at you with skepticism, resentment, indifference, or outright hostility, that can only be a bad thing for their classroom time and yours.

How can you set yourself up to succeed on these terms, though? I always brood about that as a new term approaches. It’s not a one-sided thing, of course: you can bring the best attitude and intentions to the room but if a student’s mind is already made up about you or the course, or if you accidentally or on purpose rub them the wrong way, that’s probably that (though we have all probably had the experience of seeing a student turn on to a course, or a reading, unexpectedly). You will never please all of the people all of the time (a reality we all lose track of when we obsess over the two most negative evaluations in a pile of otherwise perfectly fine ones). Still, if you don’t do everything you can to establish a good relationship from the start, you won’t be able to comfort yourself when things go sour by saying “well, at least I did everything I could.”

Is it an urban myth that students make up their minds about you in the first five minutes of the first class? I remember first hearing this frankly terrifying claim during one of the many thousands of angst-ridden conversations I’ve had with colleagues about course evaluations, as if had been established scientifically. Honestly, though, there’s really only so much you can do about how you come across in that first five minutes, which are often spent setting up recalcitrant technology or handing out pieces of paper. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: I guess I could do something more theatrical or innovative for five minutes and then get down to business? But no matter how hard you try, you will still look like you, and sound like you — and, not incidentally, think like you. “Behind the big mask and the speaking trumpet,” as George Eliot sagely observes, “there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” It’s true that teaching is a kind of performance. But after all these years I’ve figured out that the only role I can really play is myself.

Well, it’s too late to worry any more about that for this term, since we are well past our first five minutes! I think (I hope) that the tone I’ve established so far is frank, friendly, and firm. I’m encouraged by seeing a lot of familiar faces, and by what seems like a general atmosphere of good will. We’re already deep into Villette in the 19th-century fiction class, and Friday we start on The Moonstone in Mystery & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, “Wot larks!”

Summer 2014: A Reading and Writing Retrospective

IMG_1315We may have been basking in some gorgeous summer-like weather lately, but classes have begun and that means we are well and truly into fall. It had been very quiet around campus — though I find the hush kind of dreary sometimes, I’d gotten used to it, and I’ve been feeling kind of cranky at the return of loud, cheerful voices in the hallway, doors opening and closing all the time, and other people impeding my progress on the narrow stairs! But the renewed energy is welcome, as is (mostly) the return to a more active, immediately demanding routine.

It’s generally a bit quiet online over the summer too, so I thought I’d repeat last year’s idea and do a quick review of my summer activities, partly to bring people up to date who haven’t been around very much and partly to take stock myself.

Summer Reading

There were only a few real standouts in this summer’s reading. Chief among them is Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which was a slow burn but became that most precious of reading experiences:  something satisfying and immersive on every level. I know Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles so well that it was hard for me at first to adapt to the very different tone and pace of King Hereafter, but I can see why it is often referred to as her masterpiece. Reading it also prompted me to give Niccolo Rising another chance, and now I’m ready and eager to make my way through the rest of that series — though I doubt I’ll ever love it the way I love the Lymond books.

kinghereafterAnother highlight was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a book ready-made for someone with my longstanding interest in women’s history and in intersections between fiction and historiography. A low point was Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. And another that I enjoyed reading but appreciated especially for the discussion my blog post prompted was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (I’m currently tracking down the Celine Dion book Tom recommended to help me think more about why we like or don’t like what we do or don’t.)

Some of the other rewarding reading I did was rereading with an eye to writing: Daniel Deronda, for instance, which I want to be the basis of an essay on George Eliot and marriage, and the Pennington novels by K. M. Peyton. But it seems as if many of this summer’s new books were in the OK-to-pretty good range (Finding Nouf or Burial Rites, for instance) or were fun enough without being much more than that (My Cousin Rachel or Friday’s Child).


I kept up my usual blogging over the summer, of course, with posts on my reading but also some reflections on teaching, including this reflection on facing my 20th academic year at Dalhousie. In as-yet-unpublished writing, I completed a prospectus of sorts for my George Eliot book — a conceptual sample, I would call it, something to clarify, if only for me, what kind of thinking and writing I want the book to represent. I also wrote a short piece that I submitted, experimentally, to a publication that has yet to get back to me about it (it has been 4 months and 10 days since I sent it in, but who’s counting?). At this point I’m mulling ideas about how to repurpose it, since rejection has always seemed the most likely outcome.

PenningtonI wrote three stand-alone pieces for Open Letters this summer. One was my version of our ongoing “Title Menu” feature (our attempt to take the popular form of the “listicle” and make it something more substantial and interesting than link-bait); my offering was “8 more George Eliot novels,” from Soueif’s The Map of Love to Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. Then I wrote an essay about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series, for no better reason (and really, is there a better reason?) than that they are longstanding cherished favorites of mine. I had started making notes for it before the bookish internet went berserk over a piece decrying the popularity of “Young Adult” fiction among old adult readers, and my thinking about that whole kerfuffle influenced the way I ended up framing my essay, which I thought might be received as a thoughtful contribution to the debate. I guess I should not have been surprised it didn’t get picked up at all by the people who were raging away about YA fiction just a short while before: everyone had moved on to the next thing, and also the essay is long, thoughtful (I hope) and avoids extreme declarations and hyperbole in favor of careful reading. That is not what you do if you want to play Internet Outrage! Which I don’t, really — imagine the collateral damage to one’s peace of mind! But it would be nice to be recognized a bit more widely as having something interesting and relevant to say.

My most recent piece is also for one of our ongoing regular features, “Peer Review,” in which we survey and comment on a book’s critical reception. Mine looks at the criticism to date of Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels in particular have attracted a lot of very positive (and, as I discovered, very uniform) attention. I found it a very interesting essay to work on, and now I’m watching the expected flood of coverage for her latest, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave with much curiosity to see if anyone breaks the mould. The Wall Street Journal’s review calls it “startlingly frank,” which is right out of the usual playbook. Here too I found myself exploring territory — specifically, debates about women’s writing, anger, likable characters, and “chick lit” — that have been the subject of high profile, high stakes online exchanges. We’ll see if it sparks any discussion. It amused me to find myself doing a version of metacriticism again!

On a much smaller scale, I pitched in for our annual Summer Reading feature, and again for a Title Menu round-up of lesser-known works by major writers.

Other Projects

Two other projects provided some excitement in my summer. One was the Twitter Q&A I did in June with Stephen Burt as part of the Atlantic’s 1 Book 140 reading of Middlemarch. I was very gratified that my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site was highlighted as a resource for this, and Stephen and I had a lot of fun going back and forth about the novel. Indeed, we had so much to say to each other that we didn’t end up entertaining very many outside questions! But any time anyone wants to talk Middlemarch with me on Twitter, you know where to find me.

Then in July I worked with Matt Jakubowski on an interview for a series he’s beginning on critics and criticism. He sent me very thoughtful but also generously open-ended questions to answer by email and then patiently cut my long replies down into something manageable. I don’t usually think of myself as someone who has much visible presence as a critic (so many people review so many more books, so much faster, in much more prominent venues) — so I was flattered at Matt’s interest. I also found it useful, as well as motivating, to think about myself as a critic in the ways his questions presupposed: I do have a small but growing body of non-academic critical work to reflect on, now, and I think it is in fact underwritten by ideas about what criticism is or can be, as well as what kind of critic I want to be — or, what kind of critic I can be that might make my work distinctive.


My personal accomplishments for the summer include two trips, one to Boston for an editorial summit (and, of course, some book shopping) — the other to Vancouver, for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary festivities (and, of course, some book shopping!). I also got a tooth capped that has been broken since third grade, solved (I hope) an eye / contact lens problem that had had me looking weepy for about a year, and developed what turns out to be a “tendinosis” that put a stop to my plans to step up my running routine — that, too, I hope will be resolved soon, as I have been to see a physiotherapist at last and begun a healing regimen of exercises. None of this is exactly the kind of stuff that counts as being productive, but the store of books means more reading and writing to come, and self-care has its own value as well.

And now, it’s time to look forward! I’ll be keeping up my regular teaching posts: it will be the 8th year for “This Week in My Classes,” and while there’s bound to be some repetition in the themes and problems that come up, there’s always something new going on — this term, starting with teaching Villette in my 19th-century fiction class. I also have a sabbatical to look forward to in the winter term: my goal for this term is to keep up enough momentum on my writing that I can make the absolute most of that precious time. This may mean not writing as many smaller pieces — book reviews, for instance — that don’t serve my larger goals: I’m not someone who can crank out prose in a hurry, and “even” a review typically takes up a lot of mental space for me. On the other hand, sometimes being busier makes me more efficient, something I’m often aware of as I look back, as I have done here, at the results of my summer and find that I got as much if not more writing done in the midst of teaching!

Open Letters Monthly, September 2014 Edition


Another new month, another new issue of Open Letters Monthly! As always, I hope you’ll check it out; I think almost anyone could find something of interest in it! Among my favorites this month are Laura Tanenbaum’s review of Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past, and Erin Wunker and Hannah McGregor’s essay on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. You’ll also find Steve Donoghue on 13 Days in September, Lawrence Wright’s new book on the Camp David negotiations; Justin Hickey on Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman; Robert Minto on a new book on the Hundred Years War; two new poems; and more! My own contribution this month is a ‘peer review’ feature on the critical reception of Elena Ferrante. The more of her reviews I read, the more I felt that something was going on that deserved some closer scrutiny. My conclusion? Well, you’ll have to pop over and read the piece, won’t you?

“The Melody in the Heart of the Universe”: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

I have heard the melody in the heart of the universe and then lost it.

tremainLike Restoration, Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence confounds clichéd expectations about historical fiction. In its own way it has an epic sweep, but there’s nothing of the heroic saga about it. It’s drama under a blanket, a story of kings and queens and true love muffled by darkness and uncertainty. It has the extremity of fairy tales: Kirsten Munk, for instance, consort to King Christian and thus “Almost Queen” of Denmark, is a temperamentally oversized creature of voracious, noisy demands: her first-person portions of the narrative would be wholly comical if they weren’t also so sad, and if she weren’t also so destructive in her relentlessly selfish desires. Kirsten has a near counterpart in Magdalena, the wicked stepmother who forces  the Cinderella-like heroine Emilia out of the family and then, insatiably needy, seduces her step-sons.

In contrast to their hot, vociferous passions, there’s Emilia, quiet, grave, nurturing — and otherworldly, drawn, nearly out of life itself, to her dead mother’s memory. And there’s the beautiful Countess O’Fingal, beautiful, loving, but trapped by her husband’s tragedy, which is like an evil curse disguised as a blessing:

Johnnie O’Fingal had dreamed that he could compose music. In this miraculous reverie, he had gone down to the hall, where resided a pair of virginals . . . and had sat down in front of them and taken up a piece of my father’s cream paper and a newly cut quill. In frantic haste, he had ruled the lines of the treble and bass clef, and begun immediately upon a complicated musical notation, corresponding to sounds and harmonies that flowed effortlessly from his mind onto the page. And when he began to play the music he had written it was a lament of such grace and beauty that he did not think he had ever heard in his life anything to match it.

Urged by his wife to recapture the music of his dreams, he declares prophetically, “what we can achieve in our dreams seldom corresponds to what we are veritably capable of.” He does try, playing “a melody of strange and haunting sweetness,” but goes mad in grief and despair when he is never able to complete it. His desperate quest (and its painfully ironic ending) echoes that of King Christian, who has all the music he desires but is unable to bring order and prosperity to his kingdom, or to find lasting love and comfort for himself.

Yoking their stories together is the figure of Peter Claire, a lutenist so beautiful Christian calls him his angel. It seems as if Peter’s music should be the salvation both other men seek — throughout the novel music is at once the greatest mystery and the greatest joy anyone experiences. Christian tells Peter about a conversation he had with the great musician John Dowland:

He said that man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question “How may I be brought to the divine?”, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine through their music – for this is its sole purpose. Its sole purpose! What do you say to that, Mr Claire?

But though Peter cherishes the “rich and faultless harmony” he and the rest of King Christian’s orchestra create from their strange subterranean quarters — the King has contrived it so that the sound is carried up into the castle for the pleasure but also mystification of his guests, who cannot detect its source — his own “transcendent state of happiness” comes from his love for Emilia. The novel is in part the story of their romance, fragile, insubstantial, thwarted by Kirsten’s greed and Christian’s need. The interplay of these characters is much more complex than simple antagonism, though: Peter and Emilia are hampered by their kindness and empathy as much as by any external constraints. The price of goodness, in their world, is as likely to be loss as reward.

There are other characters and story-lines in the novel; I found their interweaving equal parts engaging and annoying, as the result is somewhat fragmented but also invites us — as literary juxtapositions always do  – to think about connections and comparisons, themes and variations. It isn’t entirely obvious to me what unifies the different elements. In the end I wonder if it’s primarily a mood or an attitude that we’re supposed to take away from our reading — a sense of what the world might be like rather than a coherent idea about what it is or should be like. The atmosphere of the book is slightly surreal, and the tone walks a fine line between being poetic and being portentous, or even pretentious. Tremain’s language falls into rhythmic cadences that shift us from the prosaic to the visionary:

Now, Emilia lies in her old bed in her old room and listens to the old familiar crying of the wind.

By her bed is the clock she found in the forest, with time stopped at ten minutes past seven.

She does not know why Magdalena was locked in the attic.

She does not know why Ingmar was sent to Copenhagen.

She cannot predict what world Marcus will enter now.

What she does know is that time itself has performed a loop and returned her to the one place she thought she had left for ever. It has stopped here and will not let her go. . . . She will grow old in the house of her childhood, without her mother, without her father’s love. She will die here and one of her brothers will bury her in the shadow of the church, and the strawberry plants, which creep further and wider each year, gobbling up the land, even to the church door, will one day cover everything that remains of her, including her name, Emilia.

 I wouldn’t want to read a lot of books written this way, or any at all written this way without the other qualities Tremain brings to it: intensely tactile historical specificity, for one thing, and an unswerving commitment to the flawed humanity of even her most grotesque characters. If Music & Silence is a fairy tale in style, I think it is, paradoxically, still a realist novel in spirit. If it has a message for us about music and silence, also, it is not that they are opposites but that (like imagination and reality) they are somehow inextricably linked, two aspects of the same attempt to express something important about life. This is something the characters are always experiencing, one way or another — that the actual sounds they can make do not quite convey the ideas and feelings they have, that their longings and loves and fears and hatreds shape their lives but are hard to give shape to in sound:

As they part, both men reflect on all that might have been said in this recent conversation and yet was not said; and this knowledge of what so often exists in the silences between words both haunts them and makes them marvel at the teasing complexity of all human discourse.


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