This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch – both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch – points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.

Write It Different: Christopher Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder

beha

“I wish things could be different.”

She leaned over the bed to kiss me.

“Then write it different.”

I read What Happened to Sophie Wilder in honor of D. G. Myers, who championed it with his usual hard-headed enthusiasm. “Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten,” Myers said of Sophie Wilder herself in his 2012 Commentary review, and in a longer essay this summer on religious fiction he went so far as to call Beha’s novel “the best American novel of 2012.”

Myers was not the only reader won over by Beha’s story of Charlie Blakeman (the aspiring writer who narrates the first-person portions of the novel) and Sophie Wilder, his one-time classmate and sometime lover (whose story, in third-person narration, is interwoven with Charlie’s). Mark Athitakis reviewed it very favorably in the Washington Post, for instance, calling it “beautiful and whip-smart,”  while Sarah Towers wrote admiringly about it in the New York Times (how Charlie — whose initials just happen to be the same as his author’s — would have relished such prestigious coverage!). Nicole wrote about it at Bibliographing, and again at Book Riot, and at Shelf Love Teresa sings its praises as well. Even closer to home, Sam Sacks wrote about it in Open Letters Monthly – but Sam expressed more ambivalence about it than seems to be typical: “It’s a testament to Beha’s talents as a dramatist,” he observes, “that What Happened to Sophie Wilder remains an intriguing and emotionally stirring book despite its palpable omissions. . . . in the end, the book is very gray.”

I have these links to other reviews close at hand because when I finished Beha’s novel last night I felt kind of let down by it and so I wanted to see what specifics lay behind what I had recalled (rightly, as it turned out) as the novel’s generally very favorable reception. A mismatch between other people’s reactions and my own is always thought-provoking, whether I liked a book more or less than they did — but especially when I liked it less, because, as Dorothea says to Will, “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” I don’t typically second-guess my positive reactions, though when I write about a book that I found immediately and utterly captivating (The Once and Future King, say, or The Orphan Master’s Son, or The Paper Garden) I do try to articulate as much as I can about what the reading experience meant to me, rather than just gush. As Carl Wilson says (in his smart little book on Celine Dion, which I finally read!),

a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.

“This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet,” he goes on, “and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?” It’s in that spirit that I went back to revisit other people’s stories about What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

And I have to say that all these smart people are convincing, not just that they liked it, but about why and what it was like for them to like it. I didn’t dislike the novel myself, but now, thanks to them, I feel that I have a better appreciation, if only retrospectively, of the craft of the novel. I see more clearly, for example, how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative. Here’s D. G. Myers’s explanation:

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values. 

Convincing, as I said (though the alternating narrators is not such a novel experience to a Victorianist: Dickens does it flamboyantly in Bleak House, after all). These other readings also reconciled me somewhat to the irresolution of the novel’s conclusion. As Teresa says,

The two threads–Charlie’s first-person story and Sophie’s third-person story–cannot exist seamlessly. The book is, after all, a story. The question is, who is in charge of that story? Who, indeed, is in charge of life and death? And how does our answer to that question drive the stories we write for ourselves?

 In his review in Volume I Brooklyn, Tobias Carroll also makes a strength of the open ending (or, rather, endings):

The final scene, offering an image of redemption in the face of contradictory evidence, achieves an impressive [balance?] between intellectual rigor and unadorned faith.

I agree with Greg Walklin in the Journal Star that the novel’s opening is a feint, a kind of sleight-of-hand, setting us up for what seems like a rather clichéd example of the “MFA novel” only to replace it with something more interesting and intellectually ambitious. “If “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” was what it appears to be on first glance,” as he says, “– a simple story about a lovesick writer and his mysterious on-again, off-again girlfriend,” it might be hardly worth writing about. “But,” as Walklin says, “there is far more to it than that.” Instead of offering (only) thinly-disguised autobiography and resultingly thin metafiction, Beha sets out to reinvent the conversion narrative for our skeptical age — a move reminiscent of George Eliot’s story of a “latter-day” Saint Theresa in Middlemarch.

Walklin goes on, though, to echo Myers’s rapturous evaluation of the novel as “the best fiction I’ve read all year,” and that’s where I part company with both of them, and with the other readers I’ve mentioned. I recognize the book I read in the book they are talking about, and as I said, I didn’t hate it. But I was never enthralled or moved by it, and while I believe my appreciation of it might grow on rereading, I have no desire to go through it again — it just wasn’t interesting enough to me. The writing seemed flat and, at times, forced, and the characters — Sophie especially — seemed insubstantial: concepts more than people. As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me. I agree with Sam that the conversion “episode” — on which so much depends — is a particularly “thoughtful, earnest, and unsatisfying passage,” and the crisis Sopohie goes through during her time with her dying father-in-law seemed equally hasty and unmotivated to me: it was not developed in anything like enough detail to thrill me with dread or sorrow at either its problem or its conclusion(s).

What did I want from the novel that I didn’t get? Some of the lack I felt is surely a matter of that ineffable thing, taste. Some of my dissatisfaction comes, I think, from the expectations I have developed through years of focusing on particular kinds of fiction — on fiction that offers (to put it simply) more — more to think about, more to work with. For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. By comparison, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is briskly superficial about the social and historical contexts of both Charlie’s and Sophie’s stories. Perhaps that’s because George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation, while Beha is emphasizing its spontaneity and inexplicability. Yet I agree with Sam that religious conversion (at least if it’s going to be a central event) is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language. It is hard to grasp, when you read this scene, why Beha would be so quick to concede failure in this respect.” Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.

In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world? Wondering about this made me think about Silas Marner, which I have come to love, though it is certainly very much about religious faith. Does it satisfy me more because it offers (as Sophie Wilder does) a dual approach, religious and secular (or, sacred and literary) — but only in order to expose the religious as really human, the sacred as really literary? In doing so it conforms better to my own prejudices or preexisting beliefs: was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to  Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do much better than this at analyzing my reading of What Happened to Sophie Wilder — not now, anyway. I don’t think I have to defend my tepid response, and I certainly don’t think the readers who liked the novel more than I did need to defend themselves either. “What would criticism be like,” as Wilson says, “if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things?” It would, I think, be the ongoing exchange of views that we bloggers are used to, out here where (Wilson again) “the strangeness of our strangeness to one another” can get the “airing” it needs. I know that if he were still around, D. G. Myers would welcome my dissenting view — though I’m sure he’d also engage with it vigorously and make the experience of his own liking palpable. And so, since he is not around to do so himself, I’ll give the last word to him:

A brazen attempt to revive the saint’s life as a literary genre in an age of unbelief, Beha’s novel also dramatizes the enigma of Christian humility when viewed from a secular perspective. After the experience of being “taken over” by the Holy Spirit during mass at a small church, Sophie Wilder renounces her past enthusiasms and devotes herself to the care of her dying father-in-law. She is gennathei anothen—”not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’” What happens to her as a consequence is so foreign to postmodern sensibility that an alternative ending must be written. The result is a two-sided novel of unforgettable insight into the religious life.

Update: See Nicole’s really interesting response at Bibliographing:

It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. . . . What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.

“Bored by Fear”: Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

sarahwaters

Once, she never would have thought it possible for a person to be bored by fear. She recalled all the various terrors that had seized and shaken her since the thing had begun: the black panics, the dreads and uncertainties, the physical cavings-in. There hadn’t been a dull moment. But she was almost bored now, she realized. Bored to tears.

It’s not that I was bored by The Paying Guests, exactly – I found it as smoothly readable as all of Waters’s previous novels. Her sentences move with ease across the page, even when (as was certainly the case for long stretches here) the precise and abundant details seem in excess of what is really necessary to convey scene or mood, never mind plot or theme. Waters is a master of meticulous but imperceptible effort: her extensive historical research leads her neither to the dreaded awkward “info-dump” nor to the “fearless pedantry” I admire so much in A. S. Byatt’s ruthless stretches of exposition. How people lived, what they wore, what they ate, how they cleaned or decorated their houses, how they cut and styled their hair — it’s all there, but the artifice of her recreation is so artful it feels completely natural, even while you never forget you’re in 1922, not 2014.

Waters is a consummate story-teller, too, though her love of the long, slow burn was more conspicuous to me this time as a feature of her fiction, rather than a necessity of this fiction. She likes to take her time with her plots, and in The Paying Guests that means we’re 200 pages in before anything decisive happens and another 100 pages along before we reach any kind of crisis. The interest and momentum is sustained during this very gradual ascent to drama because Waters is so good at anticipation — creating it in her characters and also, because of her back catalogue, manipulating it in her readers. In a Sarah Waters novel, we know something more is happening than we can tell at first; we can be sure there is a twist, a surprise, to come, that will reveal what was really going on or how things were really working.

Or, I thought we could be sure of that! It turns out that the big reveal in The Paying Guests is that there is no big revelation. Events just keep on unfolding, until eventually we know what happens and it’s over. For a page-turner, then, it turns out that The Paying Guests actually is kind of boring, or at least anticlimactic. I enjoyed reading it until I realized there wasn’t more to it — that my expectations and speculation had exceeded what Waters was offering — and then I felt disappointed, and my critical curiosity deflated because I couldn’t see what, beyond its impeccable surface, the novel was actually about. Its plot is gripping as far as it goes, but what are its themes? What idea drives it? What does it do with its material, besides tell a story? (If I’m bored by simple suspense, it’s Waters’s own fault for setting the bar so high with Fingersmith.)

And then I read the author’s note, in which Waters lists some of her key sources, and then I felt my curiosity revive a bit. Maybe (no matter whose fault it was) I was reading for the wrong things. Just because it walks like a neo-Gothic or sensational duck and at times quacks like one too, that doesn’t mean The Paying Guests isn’t something else entirely — or a twist on a different form, one I also know a little about. The first book Waters cites, it turns out, is Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, which is one of the sources I drew on myself when thinking and teaching about the Somerville novelists (among others, Humble discusses Dorothy Sayers, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy). As Humble explains it, the feminine middle-brow novel “straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort.” That sounds quite a bit like The Paying Guests.  The novels I’ve read from this category (such as Holtby’s The Crowded Street or Kennedy’s Together and Apart) also often challenged me by being flatter and more literal than is altogether helpful to the attentive critic. They are intensely domestic; they accept the limitations of personal experience rather than making those limits overt themes or formal problems. In Fingersmith Waters takes over the conventions of sensation fiction for her own purposes. I can see The Paying Guests as her doing something similar with the conventions of domestic realism that belong, themselves, to the period in which she’s set her story: taking them over, infusing them with the desires and frustrations and uncertainties of her characters in a way that modernizes them while still following their more pedestrian processes – the twisty endings I was imagining don’t belong in that genre.

But putting her aesthetic choices into that context didn’t end up making The Paying Guests itself more exciting to me. I don’t want to undersell it: it’s still a good novel (for elegant account of its strengths, see Alex’s post at Thinking in Fragments, all of which I agree with — except of course I think she missed a bet in not finishing the second half of Fingersmith — or Teresa’s at Shelf Love, which wisely and rightly notes that “The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart”). I just wish Waters had done more with her materials. Vera Brittain also figures in her sources – Testament of Youth as well as Chronicle of Youth – and, drawing on these, Waters develops a very believable picture of the grief and dislocation of families who have lost all their young men in the war; she also picks up on the double-edged gift of autonomy and ambition the war had made to women But since we can read Brittain, or other contemporary sources, for first-hand accounts of these moods and experiences, and since Waters has shown she can layer her novels in such thought-provoking ways, The Paying Guests seems a bit thin. There wasn’t a dull moment in it, but in the end I was almost bored by it.

This Week In My Classes: Lots of Reading

It’s not so much that we are doing a lot of reading this week in particular, but that cumulatively by now, in both classes, we have done a lot of reading. I like this middle phase of term: the logistical confusion of the first couple of weeks is behind us, the frameworks for our class discussions have been established, we have a body of completed work to lean on (bounce off?) as we move along — and the end of term is still far enough away that we aren’t distracted by planning for it.

greatexpectationsIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve finished our first two novels, Villette and Great Expectations. Although Villette is a fascinating novel, I had more fun (rather to my surprise) rereading Great Expectations. I’ve read and taught it so often that my own expectations were kind of low as we started it up, but I fell right into it, especially the climactic confrontation between Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham after Pip’s world has been up-ended:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

I know some people recoil from Dickens’s rhetorical excesses and emotional manipulation, and when my defenses are up I can feel the same impatience. But he’s also better than any other novelist I know at ripping the bandage off our wounded humanity and creating moments as morally thrilling as this one. There’s also something fantastic (in both senses of that word) about just how fearless his language and his stories are: his relish for both is practically tangible.

I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot in the context of the ongoing discussions about YA fiction: why, for instance, should Henry James be the touchstone for grown-up reading? There’s a quality in Dickens that runs afoul of that rarefied, over-intellectualized ideal, but Christopher Beha’s description of the rewards of reading James (and other “adult” fiction) describes Great Expectations astonishingly well:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us.

One of the things we discussed in our last session on Great Expectations is whether it’s worth having made Pip’s mistakes, having suffered as he suffers, because in the end he is capable of narrating the novel — something Joe, for all his admirable qualities, could never do. Dickens, in other words, has built his own novel around just that trade-off between pleasures that can “easily be enjoyed by a child” and hard-won moral and literary maturity. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Beha’s commentary on James (though I’m on record as not finding James that pleasurable to read — for me, he’s more on the mortgage-payment side of adulthood): I’ve just been thinking Dickens has a more interesting role to play in this conversation than he is usually given (in Beha’s essay, a passing reference to him as someone who wrote “inviting, event-packed novels”).Oxford

Next up for us in this class: Middlemarch. As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to this! I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and talking about Middlemarch, but I haven’t actually reread it patiently for a while. I started on it this morning while the class was writing their short test on Great Expectations, and even as I winced watching Dorothea be so, so wrong, I was reminded all over again how funny the first few chapters are.

houndIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve wrapped up not only The Moonstone but Sherlock Holmes and a sampler of other great detectives as well (we read one story each by G. K Chesterton, R. Austen Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle). Today we started our discussion of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I enjoy using Christie to spark discussion about canonicity: I point out that despite being possibly the best-selling novelist of all time, she has no literary standing compared to her contemporaries Henry James, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which gives me a chance to suggest that modernism set a lot of the terms for discussions of literary merit that we now often take for granted. This means talking about things like linguistic or syntactical difficulty, which on the face of it, Christie is having none of: her prose is remarkably lucid. Next time, though, when all is known, we’ll go over just how tricky she actually is — telling us everything while keeping everything from us. Is this its own kind of difficulty, or is it just trickery, and if so, is that somehow a lower order of skill? To some extent I am playing devil’s advocate in asking why she should be taken any less seriously than Woolf: for me, conversation about Christie flags pretty quickly once the game is played out, and for my money there are other mystery novelists who are a lot more interesting to think about. But she’s excellent of her kind, and I think it’s worth provoking a conversation about whether it makes sense to value some kinds more than others. This is the “genre fiction” version of the YA debates, of course.

Once we wrap up Ackroyd, it’s midterm time in this class, and then we turn to Hammett and Chandler.

“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

chatterley

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.

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