The Case for “Intelligent, Bloggy Bookchat By Scholars”: How’s It Looking?

JVCOn Thursday I participated in a Twitter Q&A with the members of Karen Bourrier‘s University of Calgary graduate seminar on Victorian women writers. The students had been assigned my JVC essay on academic blogging (anticipated in my 2011 BAVS presentation, which you can see the Prezi for here, if you aren’t one of those people who get sea-sick from Prezis!). The group showed up very well prepared with questions for me, and the half hour went by in a flash, with me thinking and typing as fast as I could. (Here’s the Storify, if you’re interested.)

In preparation for the session, I did some rereading, not just of my essay but of some of my old meta-blogging posts (many of which are listed under the “On Academia” tab here, or in the “blogging” category). I also looked back a bit further, to John Holbo’s founding post for The Valve, where I was a contributor from 2008 to 201o. I’ve actually reread this essay, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine,” fairly often over the years, but I hadn’t previously gone back further from it to the Crooked Timber posts it links to on “Academic blogging and literary studies.” The second one of these especially, “Lit Studies Blogging Part II: Better breathing through blogging,” strongly anticipates the Valve essay, while The Valve itself is obviously what Holbo meant when he said “After this post I swear I am going to settle down to just doing the sort of thing I have in mind, rather than talking about how nice it would be to do it. Proof in pudding.”

I’m always swearing off meta-blogging (and meta-criticism more generally). And yet just when I think I’m out, something pulls me back in! This time the trigger is one of the questions I was asked during the Twitter session: whether my thoughts about academic blogging had changed since my essay was published. Also, rereading Holbo’s posts, now a decade old, I found it hard not to wonder: what happened? how did it turn out? Does Holbo’s call for improving the condition of scholarly publishing in the literary humanities by “rub[bing] its sorry limbs vigorously with … conversations” seem outdated now? or misguided? or utopian? Holbo advocated “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars. . . . That isn’t scholarship,” he acknowledged, “but – in a world with too much scholarship – it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.” Has that hope for the beneficent effects of blogging fizzled out, or has it been (even to a minor extent) realized? Was Holbo wrong in his premise that academic literary studies were in need of any such thing? Or was he right, but there has proved to be too much inertia in the larger system to which academic scholarship and publication belong (especially, systems of institutional credentialing and validation) for the pro-blogging arguments to make much of a difference?

My immediate answer to the question on Twitter was that my thoughts about blogging have not changed but my attitude has. To explain in more than the 140 characters I could use there, I remain convinced that blogging is (or can be) a good thing in all the ways Holbo talked about, and in some ways he didn’t (my own blogging, for instance, has never been “academic” in quite the ways he emphasizes, such as hunting out and promoting the best academic scholarship, but I stand by its value as a form of criticism). Overall, more academics are probably blogging now than in 2005, though I really don’t have any sense of the big picture and certainly no data to back up this impression. But I haven’t seen much change in the way things operate generally in the academy, and if anything, the number of bloggers actively promoting a significant shift in the way we understand scholarship and publishing seems to have declined. In my own immediate circles, I don’t see any signs that anyone is interested in actually doing any blogging of the kind Holbo described (some do now write blogs that address academic issues or serve professional associations, both good things but different), and I never hear anyone mention reading any academic blogs either (again, with the exception for blogs about academia, rather than “bookchat” blogs of the kind in question). I have no reason to believe most of my colleagues ever read my blog: if they do, they never mention it to me! (That might be different if Novel Readings were more academic and less bookish. I’m never a good example for my own arguments about all this!)

What it looks like to me, more or less (and again, my perspective is inevitably limited, so I’d be interested to hear how others perceive the situation) is that not much has changed since 2005. People who were into blogging then are often still into it (several of my former Valve colleagues, for instance, continue to maintain their personal blogs, though The Valve has been closed for renovation since 2012). But they seem less likely to make claims for, or express hope for, the form as something that can and should change how the profession of literary studies works.  I think blogging as such is no longer likely to be held against you as an academic — but it’s also not going to work for you, particularly at any of the key professional moments (hiring, tenure, promotion), when you’ll still need a defensible record of conventional publishing.

I still see the situation of literary studies pretty much as I did then, which is much the way Holbo describes it in his posts. There’s more published scholarship than we can ever hope to process in a meaningful way, and the reasons for that have more to do with professional imperatives than with any need to churn out so much so fast for the intellectual benefit of so few.   “How many members of the MLA?” asked Holbo in 2005;

30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

That seems fair enough, although I also think we  all value the output of a select subgroup of that 30,000, as well as of the larger ends we believe the whole enterprise serves — which is why Holbo was not, and I am not, calling for an end to it all, the way Mark Bauerlein seems to. But the sheer chaotic vastness of it all still occasionally provokes despair.

And, dedicated as I am to preserving the forest, I do often recoil from individual trees — and the less time I spend reading properly “academic” criticism, the harder it is for me to tolerate it when I dip back in. I recognize, however, that other people genuinely relish both reading and writing it, which is more than fine with me, because that’s how (to stick with the arborial metaphor!) the trees I do appreciate are able to take root and flourish. It continues to mystify me, though, that so many academics seem so content to keep planting trees in those woods knowing that hardly anybody will hear their hard-won knowledge or insight when it falls into its safely peer-reviewed place. Even people who have no professional reason to play it safe any more seem oddly uninterested in, or even resistant to, getting the word out about their research in other ways (I say this because I have proposed it to some of them!) — and I get no sense that this has changed in the past decade. Is it anxiety or snobbery that makes it seem preferable to them to hold out for acceptance by a journal or press that will deposit their work safely where almost nobody will read it, rather than to tell other people about it directly through the magic of WordPress? Surely at some point you have enough credibility just to speak for yourself, and you should do that if your actual goal is to increase the overall sum of understanding in the world. Mind you, then you’d also have to try your hand at self-promotion, something else that, as Melonie Fullick has observed, runs against deep-seated academic prejudices.

I always find myself going back to Jo Van Every’s comments about validation vs. communication. The display case in our department lounge, our faculty-wide book launch, the list of recent books by members of NAVSA — these all seem to me monuments to the triumph of validation in academic priorities, because by and large these books and articles (representing so much ardent labor!) are reasonably responded to as Lawrence White (quoted by Holbo) responded to the “current project” of John McWhorter, “some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics”:

At this point I say to myself, “Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I’m sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?”

“We have to learn to live,” Holbo observes, “with dignity, with the effluent of institutionalized logorrhea.” That ardent labor is not in vain, and there is dignity in pursuing our scholarly interests rigorously and in achieving our professional goals. (What fate isn’t “semi-comic,” anyway, seen in the right light?) Still, I would add that we ought to learn to let go of the quantitative imperatives that structure our professional processes, as well as to break away from the rigid prestige economy that clearly still governs our publishing priorities. But these changes seem a little less likely to me now than they did in 2007, when I gave my first presentation to my colleagues on blogging — or than they did in 2011 when I made my case at BAVS, or in 2012 when my essay was published.

I’d love to know what other academic bloggers think — especially (but definitely not exclusively) any other former Valve-ers who might be out there. Were we wrong about the problem, or about blogging as a potential solution? What difference, if any, do you think academic blogging has made to academic writing, or publishing, or conversations? Has its moment passed without its potential ever being realized — which is what I rather fear?

This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

IMG_2676This is actually the third week of my winter term sabbatical — which is why you haven’t seen any recent posts in my series on ‘This Week In My Classes‘! Classroom time is hands-down my favorite part of my job, and yet I look forward to and cherish this teaching-free time. Paradoxical? Not really, because classroom time is only part of what goes along with a teaching term, and that time, too, is prepared for and paid for by a lot of work only some of which is as fun as taking an hour to talk about Villette or The Big Sleep with a keen (and captive!) audience. Sabbaticals also mean a reprieve from administrative duties and meetings, and as this aspect of work was particularly stressful last term, I feel particularly relieved to detach myself from the attendant anxiety and fretfulness. Sure, the problems remain, but my colleagues will do fine working on them without me for a little while.

I wrote already about some of my plans and hopes for this term. What can I report, this short distance in? Well, for one thing, I got off to a slow start because I had a really bad cold the first week of January. If I’d been teaching, I wouldn’t have been sick enough to take any time off, so it felt nicely self-indulgent to let myself be unwell for a few days and treat my symptoms with rest, tea, and books.

Sloniowski_v3.inddHowever, because I had signed up for A Meeting With Your Writing, I did go in to work that Monday, because I was determined to at least get started on my main sabbatical project — and I did, enough that I felt a rush of enthusiasm for it and set myself up so that I could pick it up again pretty smoothly last Monday, which was the start of a much more productive writing week overall. Besides doing more of the start-up work for the George Eliot book, I actually finished a review I have been thinking about since I got the book back in October: I had promised the review for early January at the latest, and it felt good to get it done. The book in question was Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film, and the review will appear at some point in Belphégor. I learned a lot from the book, and it yielded a long list of potential texts for my Detective Fiction class, where I have always been a bit shamefacedly aware that I include no CanCon beyond one Peter Robinson short story that was in an anthology I used for a couple of years — and as Detecting Canada made me almost too aware, Robinson may or may not count as CanCon since he’s not from Canada and doesn’t set his books in Canada. (You’ll have to wait for my review to find out what I think about parsing his or anyone’s literary identity in that way!)

My work on the book project has so far been mostly of the collecting and contemplating sort: after choosing which chapter topic I wanted to start with, I began clipping relevant excerpts and commenting on them in a more or less open-ended, open-minded fashion, letting patterns and connections and ideas for arguments emerge without trying too hard to shape them into anything. I love doing this, because it’s an excuse to revisit so many wonderful moments in the novels. (Rereading “Janet’s Repentance” was part of this preliminary work.) I have a lot of material gathered up now, though, and I think I’m at the point where I have to do some organizing and then some more focused writing. I’m working to hold at bay two sources of anxiety and thus writer’s block: first, that this larger project feels a lot messier (so far) and more amorphous than the nice discrete tasks I’ve been doing (book reviews and single-title essays), and second, that I know perfectly well it’s a kind of Quixotic project, neither academic nor popular, in a genre with no market potential unless you bring a certain degree of celebrity to it. I know the former anxiety will abate as I keep working, but right now I do get a bit mentally dizzy if I look up from the specific thing I’ve chosen to do. I’m lucky that I don’t have to care about the latter issue, and I don’t want to care, but I follow too many authors, publishers, and reviewers not to be a bit sensitive about doing so much “ardent labor all in vain.” But you have to write what you have in you and what you care about, and when I shut up that particular gremlin (as Jo is teaching me to think of him!), I feel pretty happy, actually, to be able to give it a try.

The absence of mandatory course reading has also helped me get some good reading and blogging done; I’ve been doing editing for Open Letters; and I’ve done some reference letters and some make-up work from last term as well. I’m meeting regularly with one of our Ph.D. students who is reading for her comprehensive exams — that makes up a bit for the lack of classroom time, since it’s a nice opportunity to talk over a whole range of great 19th-century material. Later this week I am participating in a Twitter chat with Karen Bourrier‘s graduate seminar, and a bit further into the term I’m holding another session on blogging and social media for our own graduate students. In other words, I may not be teaching but I’m definitely keeping busy, in ways that feel like a refreshing change from what was feeling last term like a pretty tired and unsatisfying routine. That kind of renewal is a big part of what sabbaticals are for, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I definitely want to make the most of it.

A Secret I Am Unworthy to Share? W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil


‘Take care the nuns don’t start converting you,’ said Waddington, with his malicious little smile.

‘They’re much too busy. Nor do they care. They’re wonderful and so kind; and yet — I hardly know how to explain it — there is a wall between them and me. I don’t know what it is. It is as though they possessed a secret which made all the difference in their lives and which I was unworthy to share. It is not faith; it is something deeper and more — more significant; they walk in a different world from ours and we shall always be strangers to them.’

Maugham tells us in his Preface to The Painted Veil that the novel’s inspiration was a fragment of Dante’s Purgatorio:

Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of the window.

I knew basically where we were going, then, in this story that begins, brilliantly, with the suspenseful trying of the door behind which Kitty Fane and her lover, Charlie Townsend, are anxiously concealed. I didn’t know at first, though, that Kitty is so dreadful — self-centered, shallow, vacuous — that I wouldn’t feel sorry for her as her doom drew nearer.

Maugham’s depiction of the world, and especially the family, Kitty comes from is ruthless and yet occasionally, redemptively, touching. The relentlessly social-climbing Mrs. Garstin is hard to forgive, but her husband — who reproaches his wife only “in his heart” for her machinations — is a sorry figure in his loneliness and disappointment:

He grew perhaps a little more silent, but he had always been silent at home, and no one in his family noticed a change in him. His daughters had never looked upon him as anything but a source of income; it had always seemed perfectly natural that he should lead a dog’s life in order to provide them with borad and lodging, clothes holidays, and money for odds and ends; and now, understanding that through his fault money was less plentiful, the indifference they had felt for him was tinged with an exasperated contempt. It never occurred to them to ask themselves what were the feelings of the subdued little man who went out early in the morning and came home at night only in time to dress for dinner.

Having met Kitty, watched her marry Walter Fane for all the wrong reasons, and seen the poor return she makes him for his devotion (“Now that she had learned something of passion it diverted her to play lightly, like a harpist, running his fingers across the strings of his harp, on his affections. She laughed when she saw how she bewildered and confused him”) I came bck to her affair with no sympathy to spare, and I watched without pity as she was coerced by her husband and abandoned by her unworthy lover. A trip into the heart of cholera seemed no more than she deserved, and if she were to go out a window — well, that would be horrible, of course, but not wholly undeserved!

Things change for Kitty, though, during her stay in Mei-tan-fu. Though it’s a difficult time, I think it’s fair to say that things get better, or, more precisely, that she gets better, especially through the work she begins doing with the nuns at the nearby convent. She is motivated to help them because her perspective on the world is changing, becoming less self-centered, more (if uncertainly) spiritual. She has her first glimpse of death, which “makes everything else seem so horribly trivial.” For the first time she hears “the Chinese spoken of as anything but decadent, dirty, and unspeakable”:

It was as though the corner of a curtain were lifted for a moment, and she caught a glimpse of a world rich with a color and significance she had not dreamt of.

She doesn’t really experience one single epiphanic moment; her change is gradual and only tentatively religious. But her first look at the temple across the river from her new home is certainly an awakening:

 It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of colored wall crowned the bastion; in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic, and insubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.

The tears ran down Kitty’s face and she gazed, her hands clasped to her breast and her mouth, for she was breathless, open a little. She had never felt so light of heart and it seemed to her as though her body were a shell that lay at her feet and she pure spirit. Here was Beauty. She took it in as the believer takes in his mouth the wafer which is God.

She envies the nuns both their social purpose and their spiritual insight; she can enter into the first but feels excluded from the second: “She felt shut out not only from that poor little convent, but from some mysterious garden of the spirit after which with all her heart she hankered.” They possess, she reflects with regret, “a secret which made all the difference in their lives and which I was unworthy to share.”

By the end of the novel, Kitty has returned home, and she’s a very different woman than the one Walter stooped to punish for her facile infidelity. (How that worked out for Walter, I will leave unspoiled.) She may not yet have entered that “mysterious garden of the spirit,” but she seems to know the secret she needs to find it:

perhaps her faults and follies, the unhappiness she had suffered, were not entirely vain if she could follow the path that now she dimly discerned before her, not the path that kind funny old Waddington had spoken of that led nowhither, but the path those dear nuns at the convent followed so humbly, the path that led to peace.

As I said, she gets better. But that was the point at which (for all that I loved Maugham’s writing) things got rather worse for me, as once again I found myself confronting a conversion that (religious or not) was only barely convincing. It’s not that I don’t believe someone like Kitty could transform so completely, though it was a bit like watching Rosamond Vincy rush off to help Dorothea with her plans for healthier cottages — or, even more astonishing, to help Lydgate nurse fever patients at the hospital. The change just seemed undermotivated in the action and unprepared for in her character: we knew nothing about her, up to that moment with the temple, that suggested any capacity for reverence, awe, or duty. If Rosamond had changed in such a way, we would have understood fully how such a thing was possible, just as we understand, thanks to Chapter XV, how Lydgate’s troubles arise from his “spots of commonness.” The before and after with Kitty were not just radically different: to me they seemed almost unconnected, and I found that jarring.

I found myself thinking back, as a result, on the discussion we had about Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I complained there about the lack of explanation regarding Sophie’s religious conversion:

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.

In her reply, Teresa noted that “the inability to describe a religious experience in words also rings true to me–it reminds me of the rich apophatic tradition in which God cannot be described directly because God is beyond language. That could be why I didn’t feel the conversion experience was flat or unconvincing.” And in a post at her blog responding to mine, Nicole said 

 The black box of mysticism forestalls any urge I might have to disagree with or even interrogate Sophie Wilder’s beliefs; they just are. And, being that she converts to Roman Catholicism and takes on the full dogma of that religion, I already know what those beliefs are—and, again, they just are. 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.

Once again, with The Painted Veil, I find myself wondering if I am the problem: I don’t — I can’t — share the character’s transformative belief, which to me is just a form of magical thinking or superstition, and that so without the kind of explanation Eliot offers (which translates their religious impulses into secular ones I can understand) I’m just not invited to the party — or into the mysterious garden.

But is Kitty’s transformation a religious conversion? There is certainly no need for religion to change Kitty: she sees enough human suffering, and is responsible for enough personal trouble and misery, that humanity alone ought to do the trick. And in fact, Maugham is just vague enough about what exactly Kitty is learning, or yearning after, that I suppose I could choose to see the “path to peace” in those terms. Maugham himself was apparently not a believer, and Kitty’s revelation (“that beside all the terror of death under whose shadow they lay and beside the awe of the beauty which she had caught a glimpse of that day, their own affairs were trivial”) has no necessary connection to the God worshipped by the nuns she so admires. “She hoped with all her heart,” Kitty thinks, “that she had learnt compassion and charity.”

Whatever its specific causes, I was glad that, home again, Kitty offered her father the love and sympathy he’d never known before: “She saw dimly all the suffering that had preyed on his heart for thirty years.” Her resolution to bring her daughter up differently — “to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed of herself” — also casts a somewhat different light back on Kitty’s earlier behavior. “I never had a chance,” she says, but she faces the future with “hope and courage.” It’s not the defenestration I’d initially hoped for, but I admit, it’s a better ending for us all.

“Definitely Floating”: Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter


And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground.

What a strange, and strangely compelling, novel The Vet’s Daughter is! It seems like a grimly realistic story at first, with its details about the sordid life of eponymous Alice, her coarse, brutal father, and her sad mother, doubled up with a pain that only makes her husband despise her the more: “For Christ’s sake, woman, send for a doctor; and, if he can’t put you right, keep out of my sight!” It continues in what seems like a straightforward enough way, with her mother’s decline and death, and then the arrival of Rosa, the wicked would-be stepmother. It’s an unrelentingly dark story with a gothic atmosphere only rendered stranger by the constant presence of the vet’s patients:

At night I was all alone in the house. Although I slept with my head under the bedclothes, I could hear awful creakings on the stairs, and sometimes I thought I could hear whisperings by my bed. I asked Mrs. Churchill if she would stay and keep me company; but she said her husband didn’t like her to be out at night, and she had ‘our Vera’s’ boy staying with her while his mother was in hospital. One night the dogs started barking and yelping and I thought something terrible really had happened. I lay in bed shivering, too afraid to go and see if the house were on fire, or if burglars were creeping through the pantry window. In the morning I found the cage that contained the old cock with the diseased eye had fallen to the ground, and the bird was dead and heavy.

 Things only get stranger, and grimmer, as the novel goes on — and then just when you wonder whether Alice has hit rock bottom, she rises — quite literally — to the top:

In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me — and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, ‘I mustn’t break the glass globe.’ I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.

It’s possible to move past this moment and assume that, Alice’s own conviction (and the physical evidence) notwithstanding, it was a dream . . . except that it keeps happening: she keeps “floating” above the dreary circumstances that she seems so powerless to change, above the disappointments that follow so bitterly one after another, above the people who fail her or leave her or just don’t love her. Her levitation brings no levity to the novel, though it is darkly comical. For instance, when she asks her one ally, her admirer Henry Peebles, “if it was unusual for people to sometimes rise into the air when they were resting in their beds — particularly in strange beds” he is understandably “very slow in understanding what I meant”; when she decides to show her false lover Nicholas that she “can do things others can’t do” he watches her rise, horrified, and then “in a scared and awful whisper” tells her to “Stop it, stop it, I say!”

Alice can rise above her life but not leave it behind; it seems only fitting that the last indignity she suffers is having her gift used against her, and poetic justice that her final fall should precipitate destruction. The novel has the tautness of a fairy tale and the patness of an allegory. Though it ends up not being a realist novel, though, it’s very specific about Alice’s oppression and her psychic suffering: its critique is perhaps more resonant and devastating because it resorts to fantasy rather than offering restitution or resolution.

The Vet’s Daughter is the first Comyns novel I’ve read and it definitely makes me want to read more (I’ve got Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my Virago collection). Her prose is not elaborate or florid but her turns of phrase are remarkably satisfying and often surprising. The very first line of The Vet’s Daughter is actually a good example: “A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.” Aren’t you immediately curious, both about the man’s business with her and about what she was thinking when he interrupted? I see that the other two novels also have brilliant, irresistible starts: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window,” begins Who Was Changed, while Our Spoons opens “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” The Vet’s Daughter also shows that Comyns can do vivid, tactile description, full of the kinds of little details that make a scene particular, and also scenes full of dramatic action, fear, and pathos — such as the terrible attempted rape, after which Alice — bruised and bleeding, stands in the street and thinks “There is no hope for me — no hope at all.”

The Vet’s Daughter is at once compact and suggestive: it is dense with details that feel meaningful, and meaningfully connected, but whose meaning is not immediately transparent. Why, for instance, is Alice’s father a vet? I don’t mean literally, in terms of the plot, of course: is there something about his meticulous care for animals (his skill as a vet is often mentioned) that helps us understand Alice’s place in the world? Why does Alice call Henry “Blinkers”? What doesn’t he see? How does his mother’s life or death reflect Alice’s situation? What exactly is Nicholas’s role — if he even exists? Does any of it happen the way Alice says it does, in fact? I found myself thinking that it would teach very well: it’s eerie and fast-paced enough to catch students’ attention and puzzling enough to keep it.

The Vet’s Daughter is the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. You will find more great posts and discussion of the book at the Slaves of Golconda site!

“What Are These Pages?”: Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

alameddineI really enjoyed reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. How could I not, being who I am? The novel is custom-made for its inevitable audience (readers!): not only is it about an avid reader but one of its central themes is the transporting exhilaration of reading itself. Its voice is wry and ironic,  acerbic and occasionally even acidic — because these are the qualities of its heroine and narrator, Aaliya. It is also, as Aaliya is not (or, only very rarely), sympathetic: it prompts us, implicitly, to understand Aaliya and to be on her side, despite how prickly and anti-social she is. It’s hard to be this close to someone, to see things from her point of view, and not end up, if not her friend, at least her ally. And for a lot of readers, being prickly and anti-social is probably pretty familiar anyway: if we’re reading An Unnecessary Woman in the first place, there’s a better than zero chance that we too like being in a book better than being in most rooms, being with our favorite authors and characters better than being with many of the people we know in real life. So Aaliya, though she is not particularly nice or likable, is perversely “relatable.”

Is reading a way of engaging with the world, or a way of taking refuge from, or just avoiding, it? This seemed to me the novel’s fundamental question. Aaliya’s story actually reminded me (if in a considerably more highbrow register) of Kathleen Kelly’s line in You’ve Got Mail: “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book; shouldn’t it be the other way around?” For most of the novel, and most of her life, Aaliya retreats to literature; it isolates her, but it also comforts her in her isolation. “I have adapted tamely,” she says, “but not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.” She lives intensely but vicariously; despite her solitude, her books keep her from feeling solitary. Her translation projects giver her a purpose — but not a public or communal one, as she keeps her work to herself. The irony, of course, is that translations can open up or further conversations, making communication possible across boundaries. But that’s not what Aaliya wants from hers, and so they get boxed up and stored as she finishes them: unread, useless, unnecessary, except to Aaliya herself.

leavemealoneUp to a point, then, Aaliya’s tale is a celebration of the intrinsic pleasures and challenges of literature. Reading is, after all, a fundamentally individual activity: it’s your mind alone with the words on the page. From the outside it can look like a form of self-absorption. It is certainly a kind of self-sufficiency: as long as I have a good book, I don’t need anyone else. Someone reading intently projects (usually without meaning to) a tacit hostility — a wish to be left alone, to be uninterrupted. Every avid reader has probably, at one time or another, been teased or hassled about this, which may be one reason Aaliya is (for all her faults) such an appealing heroine to other readers: she’s a dedicated, unrepentant reader who relishes (and fights quite selfishly for) her lonely apartment with its stacks of books. Her life epitomizes a reader’s life (which is a loner’s life), perfected but not idealized.

But reading isn’t just a way of being apart from life: it can also be a way of understanding life, a way of finding or thinking through the narratives that make sense of our experience or help us give it meaning. “We live our lives through texts,” as Carolyn Heilbrun writes in Writing a Woman’s Life;

 Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.

That’s another value Aaliya finds in her books: they help her sort through her life, indirectly, perhaps, but still with an outward, rather than an inward, glance.

Also, as bloggers well know, books don’t have to isolate: they can also build connections, provide impetus for conversation, bridge distances between people otherwise separated by the “unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.” When, eventually, Aaliya is compelled out of her self-imposed exile from fellowship, it’s not necessarily the epiphany she claims to scorn (“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies”), but it is at least an opening up, like the unfolding of a reluctant rose, still thorny but touched by some warmth and light. It’s not a big transformation, just a sense of new possibilities. But we wouldn’t want Aaliya or her life to be changed utterly anyway, not if we have stood by her so far. She’ll still be a reader, above all — but maybe not such a lonely one.

She’s also a writer: she calls the novel her “tale” and refers to it every so often as a work in progress (“If this were a novel,” “What are these pages,” “As I write this”). The question of what exactly “these pages” are is never directly addressed, though, and I felt as if this was a lost opportunity. Not all first-person narrations explain their own textuality directly, of course, but Aaliya is such a self-consciously literary character that it would have been interesting to know why she is writing, and for whom. The form of her “tale” seems deliberately opposed to some kinds of fiction, for instance: it’s a relatively plotless book, and occasionally seemed almost too meandering to me, not quite stream of consciousness but not organized in a clear way, not building to any climax. It’s primarily a study in character, but it proceeds more through revelation than through self-reflection or analysis.

These strategies do seem appropriate for Aaliya — they suit her personality as well as her literary preferences. “Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader,” as she says caustically; also, “One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe.” So, no explanations; we have to infer her motivations, including for writing. But what about the question of language? I wondered for some time what language we were to think she was actually writing in, until a remark about her pen moving from right to left across the page gave it away. What we are reading, then, is actually an invisible, or imaginary, translation, and in a novel so much about translation — as the promise, or the possibility, or the buried hope, of connection — isn’t that another lost opportunity to make overt (to thematize) the narrative itself? Instead, the pretense is of perfect transparency. I realize that this is to take the words on the page literally in a rather stupid way, but I still ended up feeling very slightly dissatisfied with the book as a result of fretting about this question.

the-library-by-sarah-stewartFor all the enjoyment I took in the novel, I also ended up feeling that perhaps it’s too pat: that it plays too neatly into my hands and the hands of other readers who like nothing better than to have their passion for literature confirmed in an interesting and non-platitudinous way. For people who like this sort of thing, is An Unnecessary Woman too deliberately exactly what they like —  is Aaliya too ready-made a literary heroine? She was certainly easy for me to side with, so cosmopolitan and secular and apolitical. A lot goes on around her while she reads and reads and reads (in this respect, An Unnecessary Woman reminded me of another irresistible fictional reader, Elizabeth Brown in Sarah Stewart’s The Library), but while she’s endlessly and intimately affected by it all, she also refuses to see herself as an engaged part of it:

I may be able to explain the difference between baroque and rococo, between South American magical realism and its counterparts in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, between Camus’s nihilism and Sartre’s existentialism, between modernism and its post, but don’t ask me to tell you the difference between the Nasserites and the Baathists. I do understand that this neighborhood can’t be Baathist; Sunnis are anti-Syria these days, and the need to belong to a party, any party, is greater than the fear of appearing stupid once again, hence Nasser is the hero du jour. However, I can’t figure out what the terms mean.

People are dying around her over these differences, but the only thing she fights for — the thing she actually acquires a gun to defend — is her apartment, her private space to read. Is this, in the end, the answer to the novel’s question about art and life? “The end of woman (or of man) is not a book,” concludes Aurora Leigh in Elizabeth Browning’s epic verse-novel, but for Aaliya, maybe it is. And why not? “Belief is murderous,” as she says. She writes with passion about the morals and politics and tragedies of others, and cares passionately how history is written, but by keeping her own eyes on the page, she avoids (and so we too avoid) having to confront any of this too directly.

And of course not all people, not all novels, have to be out on the front lines, and most of us live more or less like Aaliya, getting by as well as we can from day to day. At best, we find a way to live with integrity and dignity according to what we have decided really matters. An Unnecessary Woman is a sharp, touching, but unsentimental portrait of a woman who is “unnecessary” to any larger narrative about the world, but central, as she must and should be, to her own. That’s not necessarily an uplifting thought. “Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life,” she reflects,

but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote — dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I thought I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant — I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant — but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

There’s inevitably something melancholy in realizing how small a part you play in the drama of life. But if, like most of us, you are destined to rest in an unvisited tomb, there’s surely nothing wrong with its being one well-lined with books.

“Janet’s Repentance”: Revisiting a Scene of Clerical Life

scenes2I’m not sure when I last read George Eliot’s first published fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. It might have been as much as 15 or 20 years ago that I read any of the stories right through, though I have certainly dipped into “Amos Barton” once or twice when thinking or writing about her realism and her intrusive narrator. I picked the book off my shelf again this week because I have been thinking (and will be writing) about scenes of visiting in Eliot’s novels. So many of her climactic moments are set up that way, with a sympathetic visitor bringing comfort or guidance to someone in crisis: Dinah visiting Hetty in prison in Adam Bede, for instance; Lucy visiting Maggie near the end of The Mill on the Floss; perhaps most notably, Dorothea visiting Rosamond in Chapter 81 of Middlemarch. The key thing, of course, is that these are human, rather than divine, “visitations” and thus neatly encapsulate her ongoing translation of religious beliefs into secular practices. As I was collecting examples, I had a vague memory of Edgar Tryan visiting Janet in “Janet’s Repentance,” so I thought I’d go back to the story and see what it adds to the pattern I’m exploring.

“Janet’s Repentance” is interesting for lots of reasons, including its grim account of Janet’s abusive marriage, which has driven her, in her misery and shame, to drink:

‘I’ll teach you to keep me waiting in the dark, you pale, staring fool!’ he said, advancing with his slow, drunken step. ‘What, you’ve been drinking again, have you? I’ll beat you into your senses.’

He laid his hand with a firm grip on her shoulder, turned, her round, and pushed her slowly before him along the passage and through the dining-room door, which stood open on their left hand.

There was a portrait of Janet’s mother, a grey-haired, dark-eyed old woman, in a neatly fluted cap, hanging over the mantelpiece. Surely the aged eyes take on a look of anguish as they see Janet — not trembling, no! it would be better if she trembled — standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty while the heavy arm is lifted to strike her. The blow falls — another — and another. Surely the mother hears that cry — ‘O Robert! pity! pity!’

“Do you wonder,” asks our narrator, as the sordid tale unfolds, “how it was that things had come to this pass — what offence Janet had committed in the early years of marriage to rouse the brutal hatred of this man? . . . But do not believe,” she goes on,

that it was anything either present or wanting in poor Janet that formed the motive of her husband’s cruelty. Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself — it only requires opportunity. . . . And an unloving, tyrannous, brutal man needs no motive to prompt his cruelty; he needs only the perpetual presence of a woman he can call his own.

“A woman he can call his own”: that remark is strongly reminiscent of Frances Power Cobbe’s powerful 1878 essay “Wife-Torture in England,” in which Cobbe emphasizes the corrupting effect of presumed “ownership”:

The general depreciation of women as a sex is bad enough, but in the matter we are considering [spousal abuse], the special depreciation of wives is more directly responsible for the outrages they endure. The notion that a man’s wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property . . . is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery. Every brutal-minded man, and many a man who in other relations of his life is not brutal, entertains more or less vaguely the notion that his wife is his thing, and is ready to ask with indignation (as we read again and again in the police reports), of any one who interferes with his treatment of her, “May I not do what I will with my own?”

 (If you’re interested in reading more on this aspect of Victorian marriage and its treatment in Victorian fiction — try Lisa Surridge’s Bleak Houses and Kate Lawson’s The Marked Body, both of which discuss “Janet’s Repentance.”)

millIt’s also interesting how recognizable George Eliot is here. Many of the things she does better (or at least more fully, or with greater finesse) in her later novels are here already, such as the patient unfolding of social context — the “thick description” within which her plots acquire so much more meaning than their simple actions might indicate — and the pulsation between individual moments and philosophical ideas, facilitated by the narrator’s commentary on the action. Just as, despite her protective camouflage, Eliot’s friends “IRL” knew her when they read her earliest fiction, any readers of The Mill on the Floss know they are in familiar company when they see this anticipation of the famous “men of maxims” passage:

Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him – which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work, the life and death struggles of separate human beings.

And Janet’s appeal to Mr. Tryan — “It is very difficult to know what to do: what ought I to do?” — is one that has echoes across Eliot’s oeuvre, including in a passage in Middlemarch that is central to my thinking about the broader question of religion in Eliot’s fiction: “Help me, pray,” says an overwrought Dorothea to Dr. Lydgate; “Tell me what I can do.”

The big difference, though, is that in Middlemarch the appeal may have the same impulse as a prayer (“an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer”) but it is directed at a doctor, and it’s not even really his medical advice she wants but something more fundamentally human, some guidance about how to be in the circumstances. The transformation from sacred to secular is even more distinct in the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond much later in the novel. But in “Janet’s Repentance” not only is Janet asking a clergyman (and an Evangelical one, at that) for help, but his advice is religious advice — and it is not undercut, or translated into humanistic terms, by the narrator. David Lodge notes in his introduction to my Penguin edition that “Janet’s Repentance” is “a completely non-ironical account of a conversion from sinfulness to righteousness through the selfless endeavours of an Evangelical clergyman.” He goes on to suggest that Eliot’s “religion of Humanity” is just below the surface, but it’s certainly not visible the way it is in her later works. It’s true that Tryan’s kindly fellowship is essential to his success as a religious ambassador: “Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another!” says the narrator. But it’s trust in God that Tryan recommends, and that brings Janet peace.

Durade GEThe ending of the story is a bit of a disappointment: like Anne Brontë’s Helen Huntingdon, Janet feels obliged to stand by her man as he pays the final price for his cruel and self-destructive behavior. I think that in both cases this affirmation of ‘proper’ wifely devotion is important to direct our attention to the sins of the husbands. Brontë has a more political point to make, though, about the structural as well as ideological failures of marriage, while Eliot’s story focuses us more on the internal moral life and on the redemptive value of compassion and faith. Janet also does not get the hard-earned Happily Ever After that Helen enjoys, at least, not in this life: as Lodge points out, Eliot “even compromised with her belief in immortality to the extent of allowing her hero and heroine a ‘sacred kiss of promise’ at the end.” Disappointing, as I said, and surprising, from an author who wrote so stringently about the immorality of acting on the basis of future expectations rather than immediate consequences:

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

Was she catering to her as-yet unconverted audience, do you suppose, in setting Janet up as a memorial to “one whose heart beat with true compassion, and whose lips were moved by fervent faith”? Or practicing what she herself preached by inhabiting, as fully as possible, a point of view different from her own?

“Steps to Literature”: Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost


Sometimes, at dawn or at dusk, I pick out from the gloom — I think I do — a certain figure, traversing those rutted fields in a hushed and pearly light, picking a way among the treacherous rivulets and the concealed ditches. It is a figure shrouded in a cloak, bearing certain bulky objects wrapped in oilcloth, irregular in shape: not heavy but awkward to carry. This figure is me; these shapes, hidden in their wrappings, are books that, God willing, I am going to write. But when was God ever willing? And what is this dim country, what is this tenuous path I lose so often — where am I trying to get to, when the light is so uncertain? Steps to literature, I think; I have tottered one or two.

I was engrossed in Giving Up the Ghost from beginning to end, but I was also disappointed with it almost as consistently. Why? Because I thought it would be a different kind of book, and I had a hard time reconciling the book it was with the book I wanted it to be — namely, a memoir about a writer’s life.

I know what you’re thinking: But it is a memoir about a writer’s life, isn’t it? Yes, of course it is. But it says so little — almost nothing! — about Mantel’s life as a writer, even less about her actual books. I find her such a distinctively intellectual writer: even when I don’t quite like or get her novels, I enjoy the thinking that I can feel has gone into them, and I don’t mind that the result can be a certain coldness of affect (the same happens in Ian McEwan, I think, because the mental precision tidies away some of the messiness of emotion). So I was really curious to hear from her about what it’s like to be that kind of writer, to get some reflections on what she wants from fiction, why she has written the particular books she has, what she thinks of them … I wanted to read her memoir because of her books, after all. So I was disappointed that she hardly mentions them at all. “I started to write a book. I wrote and wrote it. Time passed. I moved to another country, another continent. Still I wrote it and wrote it.” That’s A Place of Greater Safety, I know, because in the one further paragraph we get about it, she describes her research:

I sat behind the insect mesh of my veranda frowning over my card index, documenting the fall of the French monarchy, the rise of the Committee of Public Safety. I had pressed the juice of meaning from every scrap of paper I had brought with me, every note on every source. The book was finished now.

About 20 pages later, we get this:

I went home, to the dark, enclosed rooms of our city apartment. I cut my dose by a third. Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.

That’s all we get there. And then about 20 pages later, again, “I sat in my stifling upstairs room, coaxing out of my computer the novel concealed somewhere in its operating system.” These are “steps towards literature,” sure, but what kind of steps, to what kind of literature? Why doesn’t she even name the books?

Wolf-HallClearly Mantel did not consider Giving Up the Ghost the place to talk about her books — at least, not directly. Perhaps the most revealing thing she says about being a writer is a passing remark about Jane Eyre: “I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre: probably every woman writer does, because you recognize, when you have hardly begun it, that you are reading a story about yourself.” But again, she just moves on, so it’s not just her books she’s not talking about, it’s her whole experience of being a writer, a woman writer, a person writing, a person thinking about books, which — though we know they are integral to her life — seem oddly peripheral in her life story.

Giving Up the Ghost is not a book about the life of the mind. There’s nothing in it that helps me understand how, much less why, this particular woman wrote A Place of Greater Safety, much less how she would come to be the author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the BodiesGiving Up the Ghost is not a kunstlerroman, then, as far as I can tell; it offers no clear insight into Mantel the artist. (It also does not tell an uplifting story of becoming a writer as a way of transcending the social and physical hardships she recounts so vividly — this is not an Oprah-friendly “rising above it” book.) Maybe Mantel believes her novels should speak for themselves; maybe she’s deliberately frustrating attempts to connect the writer and her work, (not entirely unreasonable for a woman writer).

It’s not a book about the life of the mind — but it is very much a book about the life of the body, or her body, and that’s one of the reasons I found it compelling as well as frustrating. From her waif-like young body to her adult body so dramatically reshaped by the drugs with which she treats her illness and pain, Mantel is ruthlessly specific about what it is like physically to be her, to be in her space, to interact with the world through her flesh. “I never was a size 16,” she notes;

I shot past it effortlessly. Soon there was nothing in the secondhand shop to fit me; bigger women don’t discard fashions so lightly. The assistants — and hadn’t I been their best customer all summer? — began to give me the smirk, half commiserating and half condescending, that would soon become the usual expression of shop girls when I went to get clad. My skin turned gray, shading to slate blue as the autumn came on. My legs swelled and ached. Fluid puffed up my eyelids. Some mornings my head looked like a soccer ball. I was glad when my husband’s job took us to Saudi Arabia, where women wear drapery rather than clothes, and where no one knew me, so that no one could stop me in the street to say how well I looked; where, in fact, I was more or less prohibited from going out on the street at all. I could stay indoors, under artificial light, waxing like some strange fungus.

“We can be made foreign to ourselves,” she observes, “suddenly, by illness, accident, misadventure, or hormonal caprice.” These extreme side effects, though, only exacerbate an alienation she seems always to have lived with: there’s something slightly disconnected about her self and her body from the beginning, as if she never entirely recognizes herself (one of the more interesting aspects of her childhood is her discomfort with her gender, her belief that at some point she will turn into a boy, then her disappointment as she realizes that she’s stuck being a girl, even though she never can see the point of dolls or tea sets). Her memoir is literally visceral: it’s the story of her guts gone awry.

But maybe that means it is in fact a book about the life of the mind, since endometriosis is a disease in which cells from the lining of the uterus make their way to other parts of the body, including, she tells us, “the heart, the head.” One of Mantel’s symptoms is “the prodromal aura of migraine headaches,” which brings on “invisible presences and the echoes of strangers’ voices . . . morbid visions, like visitations, premonitions of dissolution.” These are mental but also physical phenomena; this is, we could say, the irrational life of her mind — the mind that sees “the ghost of my stepfather coming down” the staircase and other things that “aren’t there.” Isn’t seeing things that aren’t there precisely what a novelist does?

Giving Up the Ghost tells us very little overtly about Mantel the novelist. But it shares many of its preoccupations with her novels, including ghosts, or just the uncanny, such as the mysterious apparition that haunts her life with shame as if she’s committed a sin (“I should not have been looking“) for which she must somehow answer. It’s also, and this is endlessly evident in its language, by Mantel the novelist: it’s smart, strange, surprising, sideways, grim, tactile (“waxing like some strange fungus” indeed). Maybe that’s the point at which the two books (the one I wanted, the one she wrote) actually converge: Giving Up the Ghost isn’t a memoir about being a writer, but it’s very much the memoir of a writer, one whose cerebral life is self-consciously embodied. I wondered, as I reached the end of the book, why I wasn’t at least as curious about her physicality as I am about her intellect, why it kept seeming to me that she was focusing on the wrong thing. My mistake.

Novel Readings 2014

I didn’t realize what a good reading year 2014 was until I started going back through my blog posts. I think the slump I fell into in the late fall unfairly cast its shadow back over the rest of the year!


Book of the Year: The high point of my reading in 2014 would have to be Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. It wasn’t the easiest book to get through, but I was completely engrossed by the end. It doesn’t have the grand melodrama of the Lymond books I have loved so long, but it has both an intellectual reach and an emotional depth that are rare to find together. Dunnett has the special gift (shared by A. S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel) of making her historical research abundantly manifest without wearing us down with it.

Other novels I’m especially glad to have read and written about:

Another Dunnett novel is high up on this list: I finally read Niccolo Rising, and while it did not sweep me away the way King Hereafter did, my trust in Dunnett (and in the many readers who have recommended this series — some of whom regard it even more highly than the Lymond chronicles!) helped me press on through what seemed like a slow beginning (one I had in fact tried two or three times before, only to stall) — until this time I eventually found I was thoroughly interested in how things were developing. I’ve got the next two  lined up to read in 2015.

I relished both novels I read this year by Daphne du Maurier. I can’t imagine that romantic suspense gets any better than Jamaica Inn (which was a selection for both of my book clubs), and My Cousin Rachel is more subtle but every bit as deliciously twisty.

Also twisty, if not altogether delicious: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I didn’t end up loving it, but I loved parts of it, and since I’ve owned it for ages it feels very good to have read it at long (long) last.

helprinOne novel I did love – in a headlong, romantic, uncharacteristically uncritical way – was Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow. It’s such a heartfelt book I think you have to hang up your cynicism at the door or not even bother. If you can accept it on its own terms, though, it’s just a really, really beautiful book. And yet I’m still hesitant about reading Winter’s Tale . . .

The year’s most strange and memorable book for me was Lady Chatterley’s LoverI still hardly know what I think about this book! But for sheer provocation (mental, not sensual – it’s a weirdly unsexy book, if you ask me), it had no real competition.

Another book that really made me think, but that I enjoyed much more, was Howards End. Like Lady Chatterley, this book made me feel both confused and frustrated at times as I tried to figure out what its different aspects meant or added up to. Unlike Lady Chatterley, however, Howards End is one I look forward to revisiting, for another chance to make sense of it but also just to appreciate it again.

behaSometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts: that’s what I concluded as I read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair in close proximity. They are books in conversation with each other, and while neither of them is likely to become a personal favorite of mine, both on their own and together they really made me think — about fiction, about characters, about love, about religion.

I really liked Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. And then, almost as much as I enjoyed the book, if in a different way, I appreciated the conversation it started, first in my head then in the comments to my post, about why we like some books and not others, or why others don’t like books we love and vice versa.

Finally, I made my belated acquaintance with Brother Cadfael this year, with the first of Ellis Peters’s medieval mysteries, A Morbid Taste for Bones. I was fortunate enough to inherit the complete run of the series; I’m hoarding the rest for the dreary snow-bound days I know are sure to come this winter. What could be more comforting when a blizzard rages than hot chocolate, biscuits, and books this deft and smart?

Memorable Non-Fiction

gourevitchI read a lot more fiction than non-fiction, but I read three stunning and memorable works of non-fiction in 2014: Sonali Deraniyagala’s heartbreaking Wave, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. All deal with unspeakable tragedies, but all do so with such intelligence and care that the results, though rarely uplifting in any simple way, are remarkably beautiful, and sometimes even hopeful.

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch also deserves a mention here. As some of you know, I approached it with skepticism, because I am wary of criticism that subordinates works of great literature to our own petty private lives. I didn’t much like the New Yorker essay that was Mead’s trial balloon for this project, but the book won me over with its lovely writing, tender reminiscences, and thoughtful attention to Middlemarch as a book that changes and grows with its readers.

The Low Point

The only book I actively disliked this year was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I can’t say for sure that it’s a bad novel, but it is certainly a very unpleasant one, and I’ll say just one more time (in 2014, anyway) that I think people effuse about Ferrante because she offers them something they are looking for from a woman writer, not because her novels are self-evidently brilliant. Is The Days of Abandonment “honest,” as critics keep insisting? Perhaps, though what that means applied to a work of fiction I’m not really sure. But the harsh truth it’s taken to trade in isn’t the whole truth, and just because something is or feels raw doesn’t necessarily mean it’s artistic.

Happy New Year!

Thank you as always to everyone who read and commented on Novel Readings in 2014. Special thanks as well to the many bloggers and tweeters who have engaged, interested, and encouraged me this year — it is such a pleasure knowing you all and talking about books (and so much else) with you every day.

Some of the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2015:



2014: My Year in Writing

IMG_2655There’s still time to get a bit more reading done in 2014, but as with last year, I don’t expect to finish any more writing projects before January, so I thought I’d do another year-end round-up of my essays and reviews.

It’s not as long a list as last year — how did I manage to do so many pieces for Open Letters in 2013? — but I also looked back on some of those pieces with a bit of regret, since I didn’t think all of the books I reviewed were worth the effort I put into them. Thinking about that, and then reflecting on this year’s output, it becomes clear to me that being a busy book reviewer is not really what I’m interested in. I do like writing about books (obviously!), but if I dared to articulate my real ambition, it would be to become a good literary essayist — to do the kind of criticism that is not (or at least not necessarily or incessantly) dedicated to keeping up with, or evaluating, the latest thing. “Most books aren’t very good,” a sage friend and experienced reviewer once said to me. Blogging gives me the freedom not just to read what I want but to write about it however I want, which often means not walking through the patient steps of summary and analysis you find in a good standard review but meandering through ideas and associations I find interesting. Essays should probably be more purposeful than that, but they too are free from some of the obligations of reviewing, especially the obligation to put a lot of effort into talking about books that “aren’t very good.” I’m still going to write reviews! I have two books on my desk right now that I’ll be writing up in the next month or so. But other things will be higher priorities.

mylifeinmiddlemarchFor Open Letters this year I did write one review of a new book, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I approached it with skepticism but ended up both enjoying and admiring it. It is not the kind of book I want to write, and its success therefore made me uneasy, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I haven’t been scooped, and maybe (just maybe!) the friendly attention she drew to a great novel that for many people comes across as intimidating will soften readers up for a different kind of book about its author. I also contributed to our monthly ‘Title Menu’ feature, with a list of “8 more George Eliot novels” — not more novels by George Eliot, but novels about or inspired by her, from Deborah Weisgall’s The World Before Her (which I wrote up in more detail here) to Edith Skom’s The George Eliot Murders. If I concluded that really, you’d be better off rereading Middlemarch than reading any of these others — well, what did you expect?

My next piece for Open Letters was about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series. I have wanted to write about these books for some time, because I think they are wonderful — I like them even better than her Flambards series (though that is wonderful too). I was working on it when a heated debate broke out in the online book world about the value – or shame – of grown-ups reading “young adult” fiction. I didn’t want my essay to be a polemical screed on one side or the other, but I felt (and said in its conclusion) that it made my case implicitly, which is that what matters is not the label on the book but how well it stands up to thoughtful attention over time. I suppose that was too temperate a stance for the piece to be of much interest to the people who were fighting so noisily about this – plus they would have had to read the whole essay about the books to reach that conclusion, and that really isn’t how these things play out online. Still, it would be nice if once in a while all my bleakest beliefs about the way click-bait runs the internet weren’t confirmed at my expense! I’m happy about the essay itself, though, which I thought was pretty convincing about the merits of the Pennington books. Maybe I should send it to NYRB Classics as part of a pitch for them to do a nice set of reissues.

my-brilliant-friend-ferranteMy last full-scale Open Letters piece of 2014 was another failure as click-bait, despite being pretty topical, but, again,  it was something I was pretty pleased with just for itself. We do a semi-regular feature called “Peer Review” which surveys and comments on the critical reception of a particular book or author, and after reading my way through the first three of Elena Ferrante’s much-acclaimed Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) I decided that she (or they) would be an excellent candidate for this treatment — as, indeed, I found! The essay ran just as the third book was being released in North America; the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention pretty much entirely consistent with the outlines I gave. I remain somewhat baffled at the effusive praise Ferrante gets, and convinced that it is about what she stands for as much as it is about how or what she actually writes. Maybe the fourth book (if I read it) will persuade me that it all adds up to something spectacular.

I also wrote a few things that were published elsewhere this year. I was pleased to be asked to contribute two essays on George Eliot to the British Library’s new “Discovering Literature” site: “Realism and Research in Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman.” It’s a great site for exploring, as the essays are set up to showcase digitized materials from the British Library’s collection (such as the manuscript of Adam Bede or the letter from Eliot’s brother Isaac congratulating her on her marriage).

southridingI also wrote an essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that came out in 3:AM Magazine; it’s nice to have some tangible results from all my work on the Somerville novelists, and in fact I have another such result, a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain,” coming out in the new year at For Books’ Sake — technically I guess it “counts” for 2015, but I did write it in 2014!

Another result from earlier work was my participation in the Atlantic‘s Twitter book club “1 Book 140″ when they opted to give Middlemarch a try. It was really gratifying to get a generous shout-out to my “Middlemarch for Book Clubs” site and then to be asked to do a Q&A about Middlemarch with the scintillating Stephen Burt: I think he and I could have talked much longer, and I hope one of these days we can sit down and chat in person (about Middlemarch or anything else). Another stimulating conversational opportunity was being interviewed about “a critic’s role” by Matt Jakubowski for the series he’s running at his blog truce.

As always, the largest quantity of writing (and I hope, not the lowest quality of writing!) that I did in 2014 was here at Novel Readings. My traditional look back at my year in reading is coming up, so I’ll just highlight a few posts that weren’t about books.

I continued my series on ‘This Week In My Classes’; along with reporting on routine business I found myself reflecting on why students might find me intimidating, and on beginning my twentieth year of teaching at Dalhousie. I wondered what makes a novel “teachable”; and I asked how I could get out of my own way when teaching a novel I’ve got as many thoughts and plans about as Middlemarch. I didn’t write much about general academic issues, mostly because not much has changed about what I see or how I feel about it. Despite frequent resolutions to do otherwise, I couldn’t quite stop myself from brooding about how things add up, or about how my attempts to redefine my work as a critic have turned out so far, or  from wondering how much the ugly word ‘blog’ affects assumptions about this not-quite-academic activity. Self-consciousness and constant self-evaluation are just too deeply ingrained, I think, after all these years in an academic environment where keeping tabs on ourselves and others is a way of life.

Of all the posts I wrote in 2014, my farewell to critic, blogger, and great Twitter conversationalist D. G. Myers is the most heartfelt. He had a profoundly unsentimental approach to his own illness and impending death, but it’s impossible not to mourn for someone who was such a vigorous, challenging part of so many conversations I’ve been in over the past few years.

“A life entirely through objects”: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes


It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina. I thought I had this clear, two years before I started, but I am no longer sure how this works. Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become little more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing, and the way the leaves of my medlar shine.

“I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business,” Edmund de Waal says in the Prologue to The Hare with Amber Eyes, “writing up some elegaic Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” This self-consciousness about the kind of story he will, or can, or should, tell is one of the most interesting elements of the saga he eventually does write up. It is, inevitably, a narrative of loss — and why, really, should it not be elegaic? It’s nostalgia he wants to avoid, “about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago” — but why? Where, how, do we draw a line between treacly nostalgia and heartfelt lamentation? Or is it only what he would be nostalgic for that gives him pause? Is “lost wealth and glamour” not something to mourn? What about the art, the beauty, such wealth enables?

It is certainly not more tragic to lose everything when you have so much than it is to have nothing to lose. But The Hare with Amber Eyes prompts difficult questions about value and loss. Should the privilege of the Ephrussi family inhibit our sympathy for them when their luxurious world of beautiful objects is shattered? In Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938, the Palais Ephrussi is swarmed by men finally given license to act without restraint on their vindictive anti-Semitism:

They take the silver candlesticks held up by slightly drunken fauns from the dining-room, small animals in malachite from mantelpieces, silver cigarette boxes, money held in a clip from a desk in Viktor’s study. A small Russian clock, pink enamel and gold, that rang the hours in the salon. And the large clock from the library with its gold dome held up by columns.

They have walked past this house for years, glimpsed faces at windows, seen into the courtyard as the doorman holds the gate open while the fiacre trots in. They are inside now, at last. This is how the Jews live, how the Jews used our money — room after room stacked with stuff, opulence. These are a few souvenirs, a bit of redistribution. It is a start. . . .

They push Emmy and Viktor and Rudolf against the wall, and three of them heave the desk and send it crashing over the handrail until, with a sound of splintering wood and gilt and marquetry, it hits the stone flags of the courtyard below.

 The enumeration of the Ephrussis’ beautiful objects seems designed to make us feel their excess, and also to feel, as the desk hits the ground, “You can spare this — it is not the worst loss you could suffer.” After all, they themselves are spared, and what’s a desk, or a candlestick, or a clock, to their lives? I know that I feared, at this moment in the story, that much worse was to follow for Emmy and Viktor and Rudolf.

There is worse. Of course there is: for them, and for many, many others — unspeakably many, unspeakably worse. In the context of the Holocaust it’s absurd to mourn splintering wood, and equally foolish to celebrate the survival of the netsuke, overlooked in their cabinet beside the ornate desk and then preserved by the faithful servant Anna as the rest of the Ephrussis’ treasures are methodically plundered. As de Waal learns the fates of more and more of those who have made part of the history he’s painstakingly constructed, he feels “wrong-footed”:

The survival of the netsuke in Anna’s pocket, in her mattress, is an affront. I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism. Why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can’t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.

What sense does any of it make — what or who is lost, what or who is saved? De Waal is right to be squeamish about the “slip into symbolism,” and right not to make more sense of it than he does: all he can do is tell the story, up to the limits of what he can find out.

hare-amberBut the story he’s telling is a story of objects, and for all that we feel the impropriety of caring about the recovery of 264 tiny carvings when “65,459 Austrian Jews had been killed,” de Waal also emphasizes, across the book as a whole, that things routinely outlive their owners, are passed along, given away, inherited. Objects do last; art could perhaps be defined as objects that are meant to last. Every object that endures has a story longer than the story of any individual owners. That doesn’t make objects more important than people, but it creates an interesting counterpoint of caring, and raises many thought-provoking questions about how we understand what matters. It’s not as simple, de Waal’s book asserts, as choosing life over art, people over things — or, it seems simple until you try to explain why. The destruction of the beautiful desk, for instance, seems so gratuitous, until we recognize that the heave over the handrail is not really about gilt or marquetry but about power and anger and hatred: in its own way, that act is as disrespectful of life, of humanity, as any of the physical cruelties the Ephrussi family suffers — or it is, at any rate, part of the same spectrum of horror. To refuse to mourn that loss is to capitulate, at least a little, to the logic of the looters, who see around them only expensive “stuff” to which the watching family has no right. But the Nazis do value the art they loot, in a way: this chilling episode is followed by a very different, methodical pillaging that benefited museums all over the Reich. What they don’t care about is the kind of story de Waal is telling, the intertwining of objects and people. Or maybe they understand it only too well and know that by breaking up collections they are furthering their work of erasing identities, like the official stamps (“‘Israel’ for the men, ‘Sara’ for the women”) that finally make de Waal cry.

For me, de Waal’s book — though it is about other things too — was most thought-provoking and powerful when it dealt with this intersection between people and their things. It’s too easy to take the attitude that possessions are only material goods. Sure, we can do without many of the things we have, if we are fortunate enough to have many things that are, strictly speaking, excessive to our needs. Once those minimal needs are met, though, things we accumulate can play many different roles and can carry a great deal of meaning. I was reminded of The Mill on the Floss and “Mrs Tulliver’s Teraphim“: George Eliot understood, too, how our possessions can be tangible aspects of our lives and characters — not symbols, but actual pieces of our lives.

The Hare with Amber Eyes explores these meanings for the netsuke by embedding their story in a range of contexts: personal, political, literary, historical, art-historical, aesthetic. I was fascinated by the worlds de Waal evokes: 1880s Paris, fin de siècle Vienna, post-war Japan. De Waal has an artist’s eye: his descriptions are specific, tactile, admiring but always also inquiring, so that we look around, as he does, with curiosity rather than reverence. Here is his description of the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, for example:

For rooms covered in gold, it is very, very dark. The walls are divided into panels, each delineated by ribbons of gilding. The fireplaces are massive events of marble. The floors are intricate parquet. All the ceilings are divided into networks of lozenges and ovals and triangular panels by heavy gilded mouldings, raised and coffered into intricate scrolls of neoclassical froth. Wreaths and acanthus top the heady mixture. All the panels are painted by Christian Griepenkerl, the acclaimed decorator of the ceilings of the auditorium of the Opera. Each room takes a classical theme: in the billiard room, we have a series of Zeus’s conquests — Leda, Antiope, Danaë and Europa — each undraped girl held up by putti and velvet draping. The music-room has allegories of the muses; in the salon, miscellaneous goddesses sprinkle flowers; the smaller salon has random putti. The dining-room, achingly obvious, has nymphs pouring wine, draped with grapes or slung with game. There are more putti, for no good reason, sitting on doorway lintels.

PalaisEphrussi“For no good reason” — and then, a bit later, still marveling at the lavishness of decoration, he wonders, “What was Ignace trying to do? Smother his critics?” It’s too much for de Waal, this cold marble opulence: he finds it unpleasantly slippery, with “nothing to grip onto.” This kind of display seems decadent, overwrought, excessive. What is the use of such splendour, in a family home? Or anywhere? Should the splendor of the Palais impress us, make us envious, or spur us to revolutionary zeal? Can we be both repelled (“I run my hands along the walls,” de Waal says, “and they feel slightly clammy”) and delighted — because this kind of wealth has prompted, supported, or preserved so much beauty for the rest of us? I was reminded, as I puzzled over this, of Trollope’s The Warden:

Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

Maybe it’s because the netsuke themselves are so small, so unassuming, that they carry us through this difficulty so well. Though they are worth a lot of money, they aren’t out of our reach — anyone’s reach — the way allegorical paintings and putti are. They are an intimate art form, and the story that de  Waal tells is also an intimate one, of parents and children and cousins, of friends as well as patrons, lovers as well as great artists.

As the fortunes of the Ephrussi decline, the world of the netsuke contracts and becomes less elite, more domestic: from Charles Ephrussi’s elegant Paris house, where they share the honors of display with paintings by Renoir and Degas and Monet, to the marble Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, to a house in Tunbridge Wells and then to Japan, where we have first seen them in the cabinet in the Tokyo home of de Waal’s great-uncle Iggie. Finally, they take up residence in a vitrine de Waal salvaged from the Victoria and Albert Museum, “in [his] Edwardian house in a pleasant London street.” Is this a come down or a coming home? If de Waal had written the kind of story he feared, a “sepia saga,” we might see the netsuke as remnants of a lost golden age. But that would never have really been their story, which did not, after all, begin when Charles Ephrussi bought them as “a complete and spectacular collection from Sichel.” There’s so much that we still don’t know about them, such as how they came to be together in that collection. Through The Hare with Amber Eyes we’ve also never lost sight of what the title immediately emphasizes: their particularity. They are not 264 of the same thing but 264 different, highly individual, carvings. If I were to risk a “slip into symbolism” of my own, I might say that they represent the proliferating individuality of the people who have surrounded them — bought them, displayed them, but above all, handled them. Although the book ends, their story is not over: “the netsuke begin again,” de Waal concludes. From their perspective, he is only their latest custodian.

For a book that is rich with both human love and human tragedy, then, The Hare with Amber Eyes ends by making all that activity seem eerily fleeting: these tiny objects remind us to question our own self-importance, or perhaps to measure it by how we serve them, the objects that make up our lives.

I’ve worried how I would construct a life entirely through objects.

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.


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