Sue Grafton: W is for Wasted [Time]

Grafton W is for WastedIt’s actually a bit harsh to imply that reading W is for Wasted is a waste of time. Grafton is too good at her craft for that: the story is multifaceted and the elements unravel and then knit up together in a satisfying enough way. But it’s such a plodding book overall. First, Grafton seems to believe that she has to recap Kinsey’s history and living situation in detail every single time. Maybe she’s right about that strategically: not everyone reading W is for Wasted will have read A through V, after all, and she doesn’t want them to be confused or feel left out. That doesn’t make it any more interesting for those of us who already know all that. I’ve been trying to think how the other authors of long-running mystery series handle this continuity problem. That I can’t remember ever being bored or annoyed by, say, Robert B. Parker, or P. D. James, or Elizabeth George for the same reasons suggests that whatever they do about it, it’s somehow more artful. Grafton’s decision to keep Kinsey in the 80s also contributes to the boredom, I think: she and her life haven’t changed or progressed very far in the 30 years the series has been coming out.

Then there’s Grafton’s T. M. I. problem, which I’ve written about beforeW is for Wasted is just as lifelessly detailed as whichever one of her novels I was reading then. I’m not a fan of the silly “show, don’t tell” rule — but that doesn’t mean you have to tell us everything. There are examples of needless specifics on pretty much every page; here’s a representative bit from Kinsey’s arrival at a low-budget motel:

I unlocked the door and flipped on the light. The interior was dank. On the beige wall-to-wall carpet there was a ghostly foot path from the bed into the bathroom. A small secondary side road ran from the bed as far as the television set. I did a quick circuit. The heating and air-conditioning system, if you want to call it that, was a narrow unit installed just under the windowsill, with seven options in the way of temperature control. Heat: off or on. Cold: off or on. Fan: on, off, or auto. I tried to calculate the number of possible combinations, but it was way beyond my rudimentary math skills. The bathroom was clean enough and the motel had provided me two bars of soap, neatly sealed in paper. One was slightly larger than the other and was intended for the shower. I unwrapped the smaller one, standing at the sink. The chrome fixtures were pitted and the cold-water knob squeaked in protest when I paused to wash my hands. I felt a tap on my head and looked up to find water dripping slowly from a ceiling fixture. I unloaded my toiletries from the duffel — shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste — and lined everything up on the vanity. True to form, there were no other amenities provided, so I was happy I’d brought my own. I tried the wall-mounted dryer and smelled burning hair.

I was getting a bit long in the tooth to stay in places like that.

 I’m getting long in the tooth waiting for you to get on with it! OK, I understand, you’re setting the scene, but (1) you really don’t have to, since Kinsey is going to spend exactly one night in this dive and nothing of significance will happen to her there and (2) even if for some reason you want us to be able to really picture it, you could pick some resonant details (the worn path on the carpet, for instance, and the smell of burning hair) and leave out the fan options, the number of bars of soap, and the list of her entirely predictable toiletries. The book is padded like this throughout, as if Grafton just can’t tell what to leave in and what to leave out:

I opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the telephone directory. I flipped to the Ss in the business listings and ran a finger down the page until I found “Santa Teresa Hospital.” There was a general number listed, a number for the emergency room, one for poison control, and then a few department numbers that could be dialed directly, including administration, billing, patient accounting, human resources, development, and public affairs.

Even setting aside the irrelevance of these details to the plot, who are the readers who need to be told this? She even makes sure to acknowledge the most mundane conversational moves:

Two rings, and he picked up.

“Is that you, Drew? This is Kinsey Millhone.”

“Hey, great! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you.”

We spent a few minutes congratulating ourselves on finally managing to connect and then we moved on to the subject at hand.

We know how these things go, don’t we? We don’t need to be walked through them in what starts to seem like real time. I don’t see why a good editor wouldn’t point this kind of thing out. Maybe once you achieve best-selling status you don’t get interfered with by editors. Maybe I’m just too fussy. Maybe I just don’t like her style — except I don’t see this as a style but more as the complete refusal to be stylish. And one reason it frustrates me is that I think this labored method has smothered the fun of the series. I teach A is for Alibi often in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar and it’s much more entertaining — brisk, tongue-in-cheek, and also innovative in its use of genre conventions. It’s also literally half the length of W is for Wasted. I often wish for more from the mysteries I read: more character development, more thematic richness, more interesting use of language. What I don’t want is just more words. I think I might not make it to the end of this alphabet.

Reading, Writing, Watching: Villette, Ferrante, Downton Abbey

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artYou wouldn’t know it from the lull here at Novel Readings, but it has been a busy few days. (Actually, you should know it from the lull, which is always a sign that things are busy elsewhere!) I haven’t made much progress yet with the book I chose to follow A Morbid Taste for Bones, which is Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, but I hope to get back to it soon, as I was very impressed by Restoration when I read it last summer. I have been reading, though: yesterday I finished Villette, which I’m teaching in the fall for the first time in many years. It is a splendid novel in many ways: dark and twisty and, especially in its narration, full of tricks and surprises. Is it a better novel than Jane Eyre? I often stumble on evaluative questions like this, which (at least when both books involved are strong of their kind) demand so much further specification before they make any real sense. Better at what? On this read-through, Villette struck me as more prolix than Jane Eyre, particularly the religious arguments and disquisitions. The language is also more florid, though this can often be attributed to Lucy’s character, which is more morbidly introspective than Jane’s, but also, paradoxically, more theatrical. The novel as a whole is also more elaborately metaphorical, and the story it tells is more psycho-drama than Bildungsroman. There’s a wonderful fierce energy to Jane’s progress through her life. Lucy shares Jane’s determined independence, but not her flair for action or confrontation. Lucy’s yearning for love, and her attempt to (sometimes literally) bury her feelings, is very poignant. I expect we will talk a lot in class about her various doubles or foils in the novel and how (or whether) she herself ends up embodying anything like an ideal, as well as whether her final affair de coeur – or any of the marriages in the novel — is a model. I’ve always had my doubts about that tiny house with its “small round table,” its “little couch,” its “little chiffonniere”: it’s a bit too much like a doll’s house for me. We did a group read of Villette at The Valve a few years ago that was a lot of fun; I’ll have to mine those discussions for ideas.

I’ve also been writing my piece for the September issue of Open Letters Monthly. I’ve only just submitted it for editing by my colleagues, so I’m not sure how close I am to being done with it. I won’t say much about it here so it will still be fresh when it comes out, but the basic idea is that we do a semi-regular feature at OLM called “Peer Review,” in which we review the reviewers, and as I got quite interested in how people were talking about Elena Ferrante, I decided to try my hand at one of these focusing on her reception. Those of you who hang out with me on Twitter will have seen some of the choicer morsels there. I’m doing the usual editing for the new issue too, including on a couple of pieces for which I’m the “commissioning editor” (which means overseeing and collating all the input and working out revisions with the authors): I enjoy this work a lot, though it sometimes surprises me how challenging it is.

DowntonAbbeyFinally, my husband and I have been catching up on Downton Abbey. I watched the first season not long after it came out and opted not to continue, as it sort of bored me: I felt that, having seen much of Upstairs, Downstairs in the olden days and then watched Gosford Park and The Remains of the Day in the meantime, Downton didn’t offer me anything particularly new. I still think that’s true as far as the type of show it is, but once we started working our way through it we did get caught up in the personal dramas, and especially following the UK House of Cards the production and the acting in Downton are so luxuriously splendid. By the end of Season 4, we were laughing ruefully at the plot twists, which start to seem quite random, as well as rather tortuous (must Thomas always be so conniving? did we really need such an elaborate scheme to work out whether Bates would or would not be accused of murder … again?). It’s not actually a good choice for binge-watching, I think: it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of feeling you’ve watched something significant build up, the way The Wire or Deadwood does. It’s very good for doing crochet to, though! (If you want smarter commentary on Downton Abbey, you should read Joana Scutts’s two essays on it in Open Letters Monthly.)

I wish someone would take the energy and talent that goes into Downton Abbey and make a show about Somerville College before, during, and after the war! Imagine a series that looked, not at aristocrats and their servants in their country houses, but at the circles people like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby moved in: the writers and activists and reformers who were deliberately shaping the new England the Granthams are mostly just reacting passively to. You could have Bloomsbury subplots, since Woolf would be a good marketing tool, and tell stories based on people like Rebecca West and Dorothy L. Sayers, who were the real deal compared to Lady Edith and her magazine column and hidden shame. (Does anyone else think that Tom’s new friend Sarah Bunting is based on Sarah Burton from South Riding, by the way? An outspoken red-headed school teacher with progressive ideas, initials SB?)

“Aim at making everybody happy”: Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones

Cadfael

“Aim, he thought, at making everybody happy, and if that’s within reach, why stir up any kind of unpleasantness?”

Thanks to the generosity of a retired colleague who is pruning her book collection, I recently came into possession of not one, not two, but all twenty-one of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries. This series has long been on my radar, as it is beloved of many of my reading buddies including Colleen (formerly of Bookphilia, now of Jam and Idleness) and Steve (of Stevereads, of course!). I have made a couple of gestures towards it in the past, getting one or two from the library, but never actually read any. Who knows why: the timing just wasn’t right. But if this gift wasn’t a sign, I’m not a mediæval Welshman.

OK, so I’m not, but Cadfael is, and now that we’ve met at last I recognize his charm, and the charm, too, of the world and the style Peters creates for her readers. The cover describes A Morbid Taste for Bones as “a mediæval whodunnit,” and it is a lot closer to the puzzle form than the denser, more character-driven mysteries I typically choose for my own leisure reading (I never read Agatha Christie except for teaching, and I eschew the endless pageant of her “cozy” successors). I also don’t tend to like historical mysteries, which (like a lot of historical fiction generally) often strikes me, fairly or not, as either facile or encumbered with its research. (I accept George Eliot’s judgment that good historical fiction requires “the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius.”) Peters deftly triumphed over my prejudices, though: the abundant research obviously required to present Cadfael’s world in such detail – from herbal remedies to weaponry to burial rites —  is deployed very naturally into elegant descriptions of setting and character, with more complex social or cultural contexts explained through natural devices such as Cadfael’s need, as a Welshman, to interpret or observe differences in custom between his countrymen and his Saxon colleagues.

Peters’s style tends a bit to the florid here (at one point Cadfael rushes into a room like the bolt from a crossbow and out again like a thunderbolt): I wonder, and even hope a bit, that as the series progresses she calms down enough to trust to her action to provide excitement, without insisting so much on it as the narrator. But that same instinct for rhetorical flourishes leads her into some nicely poetic moments:

The wood ridge on either hand ran in oblique folds, richly green, hiding the scattered house-steads. The fields were already planted, and here and there orchards flowered. Below them, where the woods drew back to leave an amphitheatre of green, there was a small stone church, whitewashed and shimmering, and a little wooden house beside it.

 Can’t you just picture it?

It bodes well for the rest of the series that I particularly liked Cadfael himself, especially his desire to work out a solution that satisfies justice without undue vengefulness and that also does as much good to as many people as possible. His benevolence doesn’t feel saccharine, because of his pragmatism and the ruthless wiliness of his schemes to uncover the evildoers. He’s also wry and uncompromising in his judgments of his fellow man, and I expect his dislike of men who use religion to serve their personal ends will be an ongoing theme.

I was particularly interested to see how Peters would deal with religion. All things supernatural are verboten in the puzzle mystery proper, of course. In their own ways, though, all the characters in A Morbid Taste for Bones are believers, and some of what they believe is explicitly supernatural (for instance, that the murder victim will bleed afresh if touched by his murderer). I thought Peters did a nice job conveying the centrality of her characters’ beliefs to their lives and to the ways they interpret the things that happen to them, even as she and Cadfael approach the crime itself as one committed by human hands for human reasons, and solvable by human reason and ingenuity. Brother Cadfael himself is quite prepared to believe in miracles, but it’s his intervention, not God’s, that reveals whodunit. At the same time, there’s just a hint that he and his collaborators may have been helped, or served, by the Saint whose bones are at issue in the plot. We don’t have to believe that, but it makes sense that Cadfael would be willing to, and so in that way Peters gets to have her mystical cake and eat it too.

I’m not going to binge read the rest of the series, since I have a lot of other books I’m keen to get to, but having sampled it at last, I’m happy knowing the rest of them are there waiting for me. Fall term is coming, and with it a lot of busy, stressful days when a little time with Cadfael will feel like a perfect time out.

Hero as Kitten: Georgette Heyer, Friday’s Child

fridayschildEarly in my Heyer adventures I was advised to stay away from the ingénue heroines. I’ve read about a dozen of Heyer’s novels now, and by and large I have followed that wise advice, seeking out and greatly appreciating the more mature, sensible, or knowing heroines of Venetia, Frederica, Devil’s Cub, or Black Sheep, for instance. Friday’s Child, however, features a heroine who is not just an ingénue but very nearly a child bride, an uncomfortable set-up indeed. Hero Wantage is just 16 when she is carried off to be married by special license to Lord Sherington, who is himself a bit anxious that he’s out of line. “Damme,” he exclaims as they hatch their scheme, “you’re nothing but a baby! . . . I don’t mind people calling me a libertine, but I’m damned if I’ll have them saying I took advantage of a chit not out of the schoolroom.”

He does marry her, however, though what he proposes and then establishes appears to be a marriage in name only: “you needn’t fear I shall be forcing my attentions on you,” he tells her at the outset, and there are no signs of passion or intimacy between them for nearly the entire novel. I wrote once before that I was finding Heyer’s novels “romantic but not sexy.” This reserve is a bit of a relief in this case, since Hero is so very young, not just in age but in outlook. She adores “Sherry” but follows him around craving his attention and approval in a manner more like a pet than a person — which makes it all the more cute but also irksome that he nicknames her “Kitten.” It would be creepy if he did sleep with her, or at least if he did so before they both grew up a bit.

I found it interesting that this very un-sexy relationship is at the heart of a novel that is actually quite sexually frank. Sherry is something of a libertine, known for his “bits of muslin” and his opera dancer. His associates are not much better, and one of them is such an unrepentant rake that there’s a pivotal scene involving a confrontation with his abandoned mistress and child. Hero’s marriage propels her, quite unprepared and without proper chaperonage, into the midst of this wholly unsuitable milieu. She is protected by her perfect innocence, but eventually even Sherry realizes that he isn’t doing at all right by his wife by exposing her to such habits and people. His friends, quickly won over by Hero’s good humor and guilelessness, become her allies and attempt to correct Sherry’s bad judgment. At the same time, though, his marriage clearly strikes them as odd, and one reason seems to be that they realize it is not a full marriage. The most explicit suggestion that to them, Sherry is wronging his wife by not consummating their relationship, comes from the Byronically handsome George Wrotham, who enrages Sherry by kissing Hero at a ball. It’s all just friendly (“There was nothing passionate in this embrace, and Hero had no hesitation in receiving it in the spirit in which it was clearly meant”), but it sure looks bad, and Sherry calls Wrotham out. Urged by his cronies to apologize, George bridles:

‘Sherry’s a dog in the manger!’ said George, his eye kindling. ‘Why don’t he kiss her himself? Tell me that!’

‘Nothing to do with the case,’ replied Mr. Ringwood. ‘What’s more, not your affair, George. I don’t say you’re wrong, but it don’t alter facts: you ought not to kiss her!’

Why should it be that Wrotham and Ringwood can see their precious Kitten in this different light but not her husband? As the novel tells it, the fault lies entirely with Sherry, whose maturation is brought about by his dawning awareness that being a good husband to Kitten means living more responsibly and, eventually, loving her entirely. It’s not so much Kitten who’s not ready, that is, despite her youth; it’s Sherry, who sees Kitten as so entirely separate from his own world of self-indulgent pleasures that it doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might have desires of her own beyond fun and bonnets.

If Kitten were a lot more than he thinks — if we knew what he doesn’t, namely that she is not a “chit” or a child but has strengths and resources and some adult perspective on the world — all would be well. But Kitten never does show herself as an adult. She’s forever getting into scrapes and being rescued; even the dénouement, which shows all Heyer’s unbeatable talent for bringing her various story lines together into a great comic finale, turns on other people’s planning, with Kitten never rising to the level of her real name. Her feelings for Sherry seem like a school girl crush from beginning to end, and when they do finally fall into a “passionate embrace” it doesn’t deter him from calling her a “brat” with his usual air of superiority. Add to that his tendency to bully her and box her ears — behavior that, to their credit, Ringwood and Sherry’s other friends find offensive (“he’s got no right to behave like a curst brute”) — and he’s far from my favorite Heyer hero, even if (like all good romance rakes) he does repent and reform.

And yet Friday’s Child serves up a lot of fun and laughs. It’s especially rich with Regency slang: I didn’t understand half of what Sherry’s “Tiger” Jason says (“Lor, you must have had a shove in the mouth too many, and I never suspicioned you was so lushy, so help me bob! Werry well you carries it, guv’nor! werry well, indeed! Gammoning me wot knows you you was sober as a judge, and all the time as leaky as a sieve!”), and the repartee among Sherry’s friends, if not exactly witty, is endlessly amusing. Also, the one truly nasty fellow gets his comeuppance just as he should. It’s just that to really enjoy these things that Heyer does so well, I had to fight off the faint queasiness induced by the other aspects of the novel.

Zoë Ferraris, Finding Nouf

noufFinding Nouf was one of my choices at Hager Books on my recent trip to Vancouver. I didn’t have any specific recollection of having heard about it before, but it turns out that a couple of people I know (well, know virtually, anyway) reviewed it when it was newly out, so perhaps that’s why the title caught my eye as I browsed the mystery section. I always have my eyes open for books that might bring a new twist on the genre to my detective fiction course — I’ve gotten more than a few good ideas from comments here and on Twitter over the years, including the Martin Beck books (now I routinely assign The Terrorists) and Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress is also now a staple). Inevitably in a course like this we talk a lot about common tropes and conventions; we work through some of the works that established the ones that are now central to the various subgenres of mystery fiction, and then we look at how those conventions can be used to explore a range of different issues that extend a single crime into a broader investigation — Sara Paretsky looks at systemic crimes like sexism and corporate corruption, for instance, Mosley at racism and structural inequities, Ian Rankin at the kind of social and political conflicts that have led some critics to call his Rebus books contemporary versions of the Victorian “condition of England” novel.

It looked like Finding Nouf might do something similar by using its specific crime (the murder of a daughter from a privileged family) to explore social and cultural issues in its own context, contemporary Saudi Arabia. To some extent it does exactly that: finding out what happened to Nouf involves exposing not just the nature of her very restricted life but her feelings about that life, and they are not happy ones. The story of her attempt to escape to a new life is not really as interesting, though, as the effect discovering her story has on Nayir, a friend of the family whose skills as a desert guide lead them to ask for his help while she is still missing, and who keeps on asking questions about her fate even after the family has asked him to stop. Though I didn’t find Nayir’s motivation convincing (at times, the machinery necessary to keep the investigation moving forward seemed pretty creaky), I thought his character protected Finding Nouf — which in some ways is very predictable — from some of the clichés that plague books about “life behind the veil” aimed at Western readers. If the only investigator were his accidental partner, Katya, the novel’s ideology would be a simpler one of resistance to the oppressions of being a woman in Saudi Arabia. But Nayir is profoundly pious — the sections told from his point of view are permeated with prayers and suras from the Quran — and conventional about women’s hidden lives and faces, and he is presented very sympathetically.

Katya, who both works and readily unveils, challenges his expectations and feeds his curiosity about women, while the revelations about Nouf help him sympathize with yearnings for something different. Their work together reflects the divisions of Saudi life (he has greater mobility and access to outside spaces, but only she can enter the women’s private spaces), but the fact of their working together defies it, which makes Nayir extremely uncomfortable at first but which comes to suggest (even to him) the benefits of freer interaction and greater equality between the sexes. It’s their story more than Nouf’s, then, which carries real thematic weight. To avoid spoilers, all I’ll say about Nouf’s case is that there’s a degree of misdirection that plays rather cleverly (or so I thought) on the likelihood that Western readers would expect the crime to confirm her status as a victim of women’s oppression, whereas the truth — while related to the context of women’s narrow lives — is more personal than political. (In this respect Ferraris’s plotting reminded me of Elizabeth George’s in Deception on His Mind). It’s a salutary reminder, if you like, not to take our categories of good and evil too simply for granted, a lesson Agatha Christie also teaches when she plays on, say, our trust in nice country doctors.

Finding Nouf had a lot of interesting aspects to it, then, but as a whole package it wasn’t entirely successful. There’s the creaky machinery, which I’ve already mentioned. Then the writing struck me as uneven: some of it is interesting and evocative, and there are many interesting “insider” details about life in Saudi Arabia that were vivid without being cheaply exoticizing (I particularly appreciated the cardamom-flavored Chiclets), but there were also soggy cliches and overwrought moments that didn’t do the work I think they were supposed to of ratcheting up the novel’s emotional intensity (“standing frozen in the hall, her heart split in half and lying on the ground”). The pacing seemed slow, the discoveries a bit protracted, though the novel itself is not that long. I have been wondering whether (as Mark Athitakis asks here) Ferraris would have done better to write a straight-up novel set in Saudi Arabia instead of  using the conventions of detective fiction, but on reflection I think it was a good instinct, given the potential of the genre to do the kind of exposé and critique Finding Nouf offers. It’s just harder than it looks to perfect the balance of form and substance, formula and novelty, that such a novel requires.

I can’t see myself assigning Finding Nouf in my class: it’s not interesting enough qua mystery novel for that. But I might try the second one in the series, just for myself, to see how Ferraris develops.

This Week: A Little Class Prep Goes a Long Way

EnglishBayIt’s always hard settling back into ongoing projects after a vacation, isn’t it? Although I’ve been back in my office regular hours every day this week, my progress on my writing has been halting, despite the haunting awareness that summer is ending soon and with it the luxury of relatively uninterrupted time to do it. I’m never altogether sorry about that: I’ve written here before about my tendency to fall into the summer doldrums, and though my two cheerful trips have mitigated the effects this year, I still find myself looking forward to the return of energy and sociability that comes with the start of term.

Since thinking about classes is in fact kind of cheering for me, then, and since I wasn’t being very productive in other ways, I’ve spent some useful hours in the last couple of days puttering away on some nice, concrete course-preparation tasks. I’m teaching just two classes in the fall, both ones I’ve taught before: Mystery & Detective Fiction (you’re probably tired of my reporting anything about this one, I’ve taught it so regularly in the past few years!) and 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy (which I’ve also taught regularly but more intermittently). I’m not mixing up the mystery class this year except for taking off An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and adding back in a few more short stories, since in the last couple of rounds of teaching evaluations there was some muttering about the reading list being long and the pace being too fast. Unsuitable Job is one of my own personal favorites, but it doesn’t really represent any central issue or subgenre — I just enjoy teaching it — so if something had to go, it’s the one, not The Big Sleep or The Moonstone or The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess Knots and Crosses could go, but it’s always very popular, while Unsuitable Job isn’t. But otherwise it will be business as usual. Still, the Blackboard site needs tidying up, dates and details need updating on the syllabus, and I’m tweaking a couple of policies about “bonus” points which in their previous generous form had the unintended consequence of bumping kind of a lot of people up into the A+ range for their final grades. Most of that is done now, though I need to give the syllabus one more careful look.

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artAs for 19th-Century Fiction, as usual I’ve changed up the reading list a bit (it’s so nice that there’s no oversight or interference to worry about with these decisions — it is entirely up to me which and how many books to assign). I’ve mixed and matched a pretty constant set of books in the past several incarnations of this course (you can see the chronicle of them here, if you’re curious) and though I’ve been happy with them, it felt like it was time to try some different ones, so this fall I’m starting with Villette and ending with The Odd Women, neither of which has ever been on my syllabus for this particular course before. In fact, I’ve never lectured on Villette, as I’ve only assigned it in seminars, and that not in well over a decade. Working up notes and materials for it, then, will be a big project for me in the next few weeks. I have taught The Odd Women much more often, but again usually in a seminar (“The Victorian Woman Question”). I do have some lecture notes for it from many years ago when I included it in a full-year class on Victorian literature. That was so long ago that the notes are hand-written! I expect I’ll do some things differently now. I gave the novel some fresh thought when I reread it recently with my book club; the general enthusiasm for it there makes me hope that my students will also enjoy it. I’ve put it last, slightly out of chronological order, so that for once we won’t be ending with Jude the Obscure (though we are still studying it). I’m not sure The Odd Women is much more cheering, really, but at least it has 100% fewer murder-suicides. For this course I needed to do the Blackboard site up from scratch; this is mostly done now, and I’ve made up study questions for the novels that didn’t yet have them and also pretty much completed the syllabus.

All of this is reassuringly finite and useful business to take care of. It all has to get done by the end of August anyway, so I’m not really stealing time away from other things, just redistributing it from writing to teaching for a while. I have set up a list of other class-related tasks, too, which is both calming (because it controls the potentially chaotic future) and practical (because now when I want to take a break from the more amorphous work of writing, I can choose something from the list to do rather than just feeling anxious).

Now that I’ve been overtly productive in these other ways for a while, I hope I’ll find that my mind and my mood are right to turn back with renewed focus to the two writing assignments I’ve given myself for these final weeks of summer. The first is to get as much as I can done on the next piece of my George Eliot book. Earlier this summer I worked hard on a more conceptual piece of it, a kind of draft introduction and sample. Now, having diligently reread Daniel Deronda with this in mind, I am working on an essay or chapter about women and marriage, particularly but not exclusively in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Its current working title is “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” (which some of you may recognize as the title of a dreadful-looking self-help book). The second is a review-essay on Elena Ferrante for Open Letters, which I think will follow (more or less) the pattern of previous “peer review” features we’ve run, that is, a survey of critical reception organized to tell a story about that reception, or to interrogate it in interesting way. I’ve been reading as many reviews of Ferrante’s fiction as I can find, and I think they raise some pretty provocative questions about anger and women’s writing and ideas about “literary” fiction.

“Each of us narrates our lives as it suits us”: Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

ferrante3I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay this weekend. I actually took it with me to Vancouver and had started reading it on the flight out — a bit to my own surprise, since I’d brought another book I thought would make better airplane reading (Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story) only to find it wasn’t interesting enough (at least, not right away — I’ll come back to it!) to distract me from my fear of flying. Ferrante, on the other hand, whom I had expected to add unpleasantly to my tension, worked out better: her prose has a headlong, uncompromising momentum that kept my attention. But once arrived I did little reading, and then on the flights home I mostly watched Season 1 of Last Tango in Halifax, which I’d saved to my iPad. (I’m really enjoying it, by the way, and now I’m annoyed that I hadn’t heard of it in time to be recording Season 2 on PBS. It’s not my Halifax, of course, but the Yorkshire one.)

It took me a while to settle back into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay once I picked it up again: the same pushy style that kept my mind busy on the plane seemed a bit grating under different circumstances. And then all the ambivalence I’ve felt about her other books, including both the first two in this Neapolitan trilogy — My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name –  and (even more so) her earlier The Days of Abandonment,was renewed. Once again I was interested in the book but I didn’t exactly enjoy it, and by the end I wasn’t at all sure that it is a good novel. Though it does move forward, its energy seemed ultimately rather purposeless: it’s just the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, until it stops — rather than concludes. Collectively, the series is perhaps a Bildungsroman, perhaps even a double one, given how closely intertwined the stories of Elena and Lila are, at least in Elena’s mind and in her version of their lives. But as Lila tells her, with her usual enigmatic ruthlessness, “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

Why does it suit Elena to narrate her life the way she does? I thought perhaps some clues to her meaning or purpose were being laid out for us in the possibly metafictional discussions of her own book, the one so many of her friends and family consider a “dirty” book, the one that brands her as the one who wrote an “ugly, ugly book.” Is the Neapolitan trilogy self-reflexive in that way? Is it an “ugly” book that lays bare what Ferrante sees as truths about life, perhaps her life? Does it, in this way, attempt to be her confession, maybe even her repentance (for the Elena in the novel is never uncompromisingly happy about her novels, and indeed is often ashamed of them), or is it her justification — saying, on her behalf, see, you read such an ugly, dirty book as this, so Elena — both Elenas — are right, are artists, are truth-tellers? But Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay does not resolve any questions about either Elena’s fiction: the character does not achieve any triumphant culmination, the novel does not offer any epiphany, the metafiction does not (as far as I have been able to tell) offer us a theory by which to understand what we are reading. If it’s a Kunstlerroman, it’s not one that, like Great Expectations, could only have been written by the character who has undergone the experience — learned the lessons — of the novel itself.

It is, also, an “ugly” book: I found myself thinking of Zola and wondering if the atmosphere of general grimness and disillusionment Ferrante seems to specialize in belongs to some extent in that naturalistic tradition. Certainly it has little in common with the “realists” I’m most used to and fond of. Its possibilities in this respect are limited by its intense first-person narration: I don’t think that Elena is an unreliable narrator, strictly speaking (we don’t get the literary signs we’d need to second-guess her altogether) but she’s certainly a partial and limited one, and our inability to rise above her festering consciousness means that the moral and social reach of the book is relatively constrained. That made me impatient, after a while: I wanted to know and see more than she could. I think this is another instance of me wanting the book to be a different kind of book, though, not necessarily a flaw in the novel’s execution.

Having said that, though, I will say that the book offers little of formal interest. Since I have to work with the translation, I can’t safely judge the prose: I’m curious to know if in Italian, she comes across as a stylish writer, because in English she seems pretty flat – energetic, again, moving forward almost restlessly, but with few phrases or descriptions that made me want to linger instead of keeping up. The overall story arc seemed to me to go crooked, too, as Elena’s artistic and intellectual struggles were crowded out by an affair which — though it did bring a kind of completion to one pattern in her life — did not seem integral to anything the novel was fundamentally about. What is the novel about, though? Maybe I’m asking the wrong question again: if it’s just the narration of a life, why should it be “about” anything? I think it should be, actually, because it’s supposed to be art and I like my art to have design, more design than life. But the Knausgaard phenomenon suggests that some people are fine with art that refuses to actually be art, or at least art that insists on hewing as close as possible to the formlessness of life.

I know these are fairly impressionistic comments so far. A lot actually happens in the novel, and for all my reservations about it I did find something gripping about it. I think I’m going to try to write something more deliberate and thoughtful about it for Open Letters. I find I’m particularly curious about why Ferrante seems to have had such an ecstatic critical reception since her books began appearing in translation: what is it about these books that many people find so exhilarating? There’s a bit of a Ferrante fad right now — why? I’ve wondered in my previous posts (about Ferrante but also about Claire Messud) about whether there isn’t a trend to value angry women. (Perhaps their anger makes them safe “literary” protagonists — there’s no mistaking Elena and Lila, or Olga, for a “chick lit” heroine!) But anger is not only a partial truth, it’s hardly a new truth. I’m about to reread Villette in preparation for fall teaching — now there’s anger, repression, and resistance that, to me, is more coherent and rewarding to immerse myself in imaginatively.

August in Open Letters Monthly — and an Interview

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Once again it’s a new month and so we’ve got our new issue up. One neat new thing is the graphic “slider” at the top of the site, which showcases a range of pieces from the magazine (and which will also include new blog posts and highlights from Open Letters Weekly). We think this adds a bit of dynamism to the front page and we hope it will help visitors to the site spot things they’re interested in reading easily — though scrolling down the page to see the full Table of Contents and links to recent posts remains the best way not to miss anything.

MaryBarton-195x300As always, I think there are a lot of pieces well worth your time. Favorites of mine include Jessica Miller‘s smart and probing review of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex; Dorian Stuber‘s thorough piece — as much essay as review — on Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue (about Gertrude van Tijn, whose work with the Jewish Council during WWII helped over 20,000 Jews escape the Holocaust but also involved her to a vexing degree in what some have seen as collaboration with the Nazis); Elisa Gabbert’s typically sharp critique of Ben Lerner’s regressively metafictional 10:04; and our collective feature on ‘minor’ works by major writers from Shakespeare to Muriel Spark. My contribution to this list is Gaskell’s Mary Barton; as I say there, in its day there was nothing obscure about Mary Barton, but thanks to Masterpiece Theater, today it’s North and South and Cranford that most people know, and I’d guess (though this may just be me) that these are also taught more often than Mary Barton.

I thought I’d also mention here, for those of you who might have missed it, that writer and editor Matt Jakubowski interviewed me for a series he’s beginning on the role of critics and criticism. We did the interview by email and then he cut and tidied my long responses into a single rather more manageable and coherent piece. I really appreciated his thoughtful questions; it was useful to me to look at my trajectory in the way his inquiries prompted me to, and also his interest in my critical work and approach was encouraging in a way I hadn’t quite expected — the internet is a big place and it’s easy to feel a bit lost in the crowd, so knowing that someone like Matt cared enough to single me out for a chat was a real boost. I’m looking forward to seeing his other interviews as they appear.

Vancouver Vacation: Sun, Fun, and Family

I’m back from another trip to Vancouver, this one organized mostly around the festivities for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was glorious weather the entire week, which was an especially good thing for the big party — a great event featuring family, old friends, lots of food and wine, and four musical performances from Bulgarian dance music to Bartok violin sonatas.

This was a shorter trip than my last one and involved quite a few family events, so I didn’t get around the city quite as much or see as many of my own old or newer friends (sadly, including Liz, with whom I had such a delightful lunch last year). Next time! But the city was as breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful as ever:

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And my parents’ garden was as tranquil as ever, with its colorful pots, shady trees, and soothing “gurglers”:

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And Granville Island (my happy place!) was as bustling and tempting as always:

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And, of course, there’s always time to do a little book shopping:

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My mother and I went on our traditional outing to Hager Books, which is small but nicely ‘curated’ and so always has particularly tempting options. I bought something old (Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence), something new (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) and something that’s a bit of a gamble (Zoë Ferraris’s Finding Nouf, a mystery set in Saudi Arabia which, if it turns out to be well-written and smart, is a possible contender for my detective fiction class — I’m always on the hunt for books that offer a different perspective or use the form for different kinds of inquiries — we’ll see how it goes).

I picked up Heyer’s Friday’s Child at Carson Books, a used book store in my parents’ neighborhood. It’s a fun place to rummage around, though overall the prices strike me as a bit high for second-hand. This is a pristine copy of a Heyer I’ve never read, though, so I snapped it up. I also bought an Inspector Morse novel there, because something about being around my folks always reminds me that I haven’t read any of these (they are big Morse fans), but I started it and wasn’t grabbed, so I left it behind for them to enjoy. (I’m sure my Morse days will come: for my sins, I’m unmoved by the TV show as well. In the meantime, though, I may try the prequel show Endeavor, which they all highly recommended.)

And then at the big Chapters downtown (which, once you get up to the third floor, past all the frou-frou stuff that comes first, has a pretty big selection of actual books) I found two books from my standing wish-list: E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (because you can never have too much British social satire in your collection) and Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters — contemporary Canadian, so a bit of a rarity and a risk for me, but recommended to me by Steven Beattie, who knows a thing or two about Can Lit. I gave it a good look in the store before deciding to actually buy it, and I like his instincts: it looks meta-historical and original, but not so quirky I either won’t get it or won’t like it.

Now I have to get myself re-organized and on track for what remains of the summer!

“Is it genuine?”: Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

niccoloInspired by my excitement about King Hereafter, I have finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s other big series, The House of Niccolò. I’ve actually owned Niccolò Rising for many years, and I’d started it a few times before, but it is another story with a slow burn and I’d never made it past Chapter 2. If I hadn’t been schooled in this trick of Dunnett’s so recently, I think I would have bogged down once more, and it did take a bit of determination to keep on. I remembered, this time, that I have to trust her and that if I do, I won’t be disappointed.

I wasn’t disappointed in Niccolò Rising — but mostly I wasn’t enthralled either, though I was almost always interested or curious. There are certainly sporadic sequences (as in King Hereafter) that are exciting or dramatic.  Then, a lot happens in the last 50 pages, and I was reminded that while King Hereafter stands on its own, Niccolò Rising is just the beginning of a much longer saga, so the real pay-off for her elaborate set-up (and it really is a tangled web she and Niccolò are weaving) is yet to come. I’ll certainly pursue it! Though I haven’t quite given my heart to anyone in this book the way I lost it so completely to Lymond, Claes / Nicholas is a really intriguing figure. Pobably the best thing about Niccolò Rising, in fact, is watching him transform from the wide-eyed, powerless, good-natured boy Claes into the much more poised man Nicholas and wondering, as his friends and associates do at the end of the novel, if I really know him at all. “He’s won the good will of everyone who has ever beaten him,” observes the doctor Tobie,

‘by being cheerful, placid, long-suffering, and, above all, by bearing no grudges. It makes him attractive to work with. For me, it would make him attractive to work for. But I’ve begun to wonder about this submissive role. Is it genuine?’

Julius grinned. He said, ‘Have you seen Nicholas putting up with a beating? It’s genuine.’

‘Oh, he puts up with it, at the time,’ Tobie said. ‘But what if he doesn’t immediately forget it, as you seem to think? What if every slight, every punishment is being quietly registered, because he is really a different sort of person altogether?’

‘I’ve wondered,’ said Gregorio.

‘Yes. So have I,’ said Tobie. ‘Is he what he seems? And then, from wondering, I started to notice things. The chief being this: whom friend Nicholas dislikes, it seems to me, friend Nicholas kills.’

“I started to notice things”: that’s Dunnett’s recipe, isn’t it, that we should notice things, and from there, do our best to connect them, as Tobie, Gregorio, and Julius proceed to do. They are much better at it than I am, though, and that is something that is starting to bother me, not so much about Dunnett as about myself as a reader. Is it my fault that here too I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern? Is the pattern really so intricate, or am I not working hard enough, as a reader? I imagine that the pleasures of her books are greater for those who can keep track of the allegiances and loyalties and double-dealings, overt and covert, actual and possible, the way her heroes do. What makes them heroes, of course, is that they can do this, so maybe we aren’t expected to be in the know: as a device, it keeps us both surprised and impressed as she pulls out her version of the detective’s “reveal.” Other Dunnett readers: do you follow the game as it’s played, or wait, as I mostly do, for the outcome and the laying down of the hands? I grasp enough to appreciate the human confrontations, but that’s also mostly what I’m reading for, and maybe that’s a sign of weakness.

In any case, I do want to read on: she populates her novels with characters who provoke complex responses, which I really enjoy (here, so far, Katelina van Borselen is a particularly tricky one, and Marian de Charetty is particularly appealing) and there are worse expectations than that I will be consistently outsmarted even as I’m entertained and moved.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
10. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
11. Sue Grafton, W is for Wasted
In progress: Tremain, Music and Silence

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
5. Sarah Dessen, Dreamland
In progress: Wilson, Diamond

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