Amateur Hour: Alan Rusbridger, Play It Again

rusbridgerI first learned about Play It Again, Alan Rusbridger’s account of his quest to learn Chopin’s great Ballade No.1, from Robert Winter’s recent review in the New York Review of BooksIt’s a convincingly positive review, which is why it sent me out to get the book, but as I worked through Play It Again I found myself thinking that Winter had oversold it. The book does contain lots to interest, entertain, and inspire anyone who has ever puttered away at a keyboard. (As I’ve written about here before, that  includes me.) But it’s also formally slapdash, with related information — such as the rich analyses of the Ballade gleaned from conversations with a slew of great pianists, including Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, and Emanuel Ax, or meditations on the value and beauty of amateurism, or on the effects of the recording era on classical music, or about the neuroscience of music and memory — scattered across a relentlessly chronological and surprisingly dull (considering Rusbridger’s job) account of his day-to-day activities.  (Rusbridger is the Editor in Chief of The Guardian. To be fair, the non-musical bits might be of greater interest to someone keen to get an insider’s view of things like the phone-hacking scandal.) Winter describes it as “a limp diary format” and rightly notes that “the parts themselves provide little structural mooring.” But later he seems to excuse it, calling it “a conceit, a stream-of-consciousness platform for exploring the challenges of remaining human in a world that moves at the speed of Twitter.” I think that’s putting it kindly, if not grandiosely: to me, the “conceit” felt more like laziness, as if Rusbridger was not willing or able to put in more than 15 minutes a day on his book any more than on the Ballade — though there’s no doubt that the book reflects his genuine passion for music and his remarkable dedication to the Quixotic project of learning a piece Perahia warns him is “one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire.”

Winter also notes that “it is the author’s journey rather than his destination that we remember”: I didn’t think the journey was very compellingly told (again, a real narrative rather than a bit-by-bit accounting would, for me, have been more satisfying), but I also think Winter’s assessment may reflect a marketing trend as much as anything, that is, the apparently widespread preference for the personal angle (see recent related discussions at Wuthering Expectations). I didn’t really mind following Rusbridger’s journey, but one reason the destination is not very memorable is that he doesn’t in fact triumph (his final performance is OK, but not by any means flawless or inspired, by his own report), and a lot of what we hear along the way is kind of dull reiteration of his difficulties with one passage or another (“The section that still falls apart a bit is the big A major / E major section” etc.). The real substance is everything he learns around the project, and I ended Play It Again thinking that there must be other books that do a better job synthesizing and narrating this kind of information and offering more insight. In fact, Rusbridger’s own list of “Further Reading” gives me a few ideas, including Charles Cooke’s Piano for Pleasure. I’m also  reminded that I’d meant to look up Charles Rosen’s Music and Sentiment, brilliantly reviewed by Greg Waldmann in Open Letters Monthly a couple of years ago. And Tom at Wuthering Expectations reminds me that Wayne Booth also wrote about his own efforts as an amateur cellist: I’ve put his book, For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals, on request at the library.

One effect Play It Again had on me (besides making me wonder if I shouldn’t do a little practising this summer) was to make me pay much more attention to the Ballade: I’ve been listening to it a lot, including while I tried to follow along the annotated score that is my favorite part of Rusbridger’s book (he includes many of the specific comments made about the piece by the pianists he interviews). I’ve always thought it was a spectacular piece, but it’s not until you imagine trying to play it, or watch someone else physically engaged in it, that you appreciate just what a daunting thing it is. There are a lot of recordings of the Ballade on YouTube but not a lot of them are videos, and I love to be able to watch the pianist’s fingers. (After a childhood of always being reminded about this, it is an ingrained habit for me to sit on the left side of any theater, even when no piano is on the program!) Here’s Vladimir Horowitz in a bravura performance.

“The truth that’s fixed in the heart”: Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and In Shadow

helprinThe only thing that’s really true, that lasts, and makes life worthwhile is the truth that’s fixed in the heart. That’s what we live and die for. It comes in epiphanies, and it comes in love, and don’t ever let frightened people turn you away from it.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is surely one of the riskiest novels I’ve read recently – riskier by far, at any rate, than Ian McEwan’s smart but pat Sweet Tooth, or even the ambitious but cumulatively disappointing Sacred GamesThe Murderess is perhaps equally defiant of expectations , though it’s at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: where The Murderess is grim, ruthless, and cruelly ironic, In Sunlight and In Shadow is radiant, romantic, and hopelessly idealistic. In his Wall Street Journal review, Sam Sacks called it “a sublime anachronism,” and now that I’ve read it I see what he meant: even though I can’t actually think of another novel with quite the same qualities, it reads like a throwback to another era, less because of anything it actually does or says but because it embraces nostalgia so openly. Yet somehow — perhaps because it never allows us to forget the price to be paid for a life worth remembering — it avoids cheap or simplistic sentimentality. It’s a novel that invites an unfashionable critical vocabulary: it’s aspirational, ennobling, inspiring, morally serious, beautiful, heartfelt.

In Sunlight and In Shadow has a simple (though dramatic) plot that is elevated to something very special by the language in which its told. In its insistence that we pay attention to it as something crafted deliberately out of words, the novel reminded me incessantly (and unexpectedly) of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. Again they’re at opposite ends of a spectrum: McCarthy’s language alienates and defamiliarizes, while Helprin’s illuminates and rhapsodizes; McCarthy’s approach is relentless and unforgiving, though he offers us glimmers of grace, while Helprin is lovingly attentive, though as his title indicates, he does not spare us darkness and pain. Different as they are, though, both writers make the artifice of their writing constantly apparent, and thus they make readers constantly aware of their presence, much as an intrusive narrator does in a Victorian novel. I think this is risky because it exposes their idiosyncrasies and values as writers in a way that, say, McEwan’s deceptive directness does not: in McEwan’s prose (which is of course highly stylized in its own way) every word drops so crisply into place that the result feels inevitable and somehow impersonal, as if he has magically found the right word, of all possible words. I admire McEwan’s prose very much, but at the same time there’s something cold about it. In their very different ways, both McCarthy and Helprin seem more exposed through their writing: this is who I am, they seem to say; this is what I think a novel should do; this is my vision, my vocabulary, my art . . . are you with me? The risk is that the answer may well be “no” — an answer many people have certainly made to McCarthy, and that I suspect many people would also make to this novel.

I had moments of wavering myself. For one thing, the novel definitely requires a suspension, not of disbelief, but of cynicism. You have to accept (more than accept – believe in) the coup de foudre that launches its central love story, though it is less credible than any “meet cute” from romantic comedy: “he was oblivious of everything on account of a woman who then vanished, and left him as if struck by a blow.” You have to accept the lovers, Harry and Catherine, in all their youth and beauty and sublime confidence in each other and in love. The first time we see Harry his doorman tells a young boy “Now watch this guy. Watch what he does. He can fly.” Harry has, in fact, flown through the air, during his service in the 82nd Airborne during the war. Now he only appears to be flying because the watchers can’t see him land after he jumps. But the unreality of Harry is that he does seem to be above it all in some far less literal way. He’s not perfect, but he is elevated.

Harry has come back safely, though not unharmed, from the war. In coming back he believes he has brought with him a responsibility to live the life he fought for and his comrades died for. Some of the most memorable (and least mannered) parts of the novel are those set during the war. Stirring and significant in themselves, these sections are also essential to our understanding of why, in peacetime, Harry acts as he does, setting out on a quest to defeat the mobsters who are destroying his family business:

It was possible to lose everything in an instant or over time. It was possible to be confronted by forces, natural or otherwise, that one could not overcome by virtue. Courage, greatness, honesty, all could be defeated. He had understood this on the field of battle as it was illustrated by the way death chose among the soldiers. But after such a war, in which scores of millions had died, how could anyone tolerate corruption? . . . How could such a thing, after so much sacrifice, in a country where millions of men were now hardened soldiers, be allowed?

It’s a mission that is at once understandable, admirable, and infuriatingly quixotic, but Harry knows all this about it too, and that layer of self-consciousness was, for me, crucial in insulating In Sunlight and In Shadow against naïveté. Harry has had enough of people who think “they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned,” people who “mock things that humanity has come to love,”

things that people like me — who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing — have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard. . . . They don’t have the courage to embrace or even to recognize the real, the consequential, the beautiful, because in the end those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because, in the end, you lose them.

He left a soldier, in other words, but has come back a knight — that speech tells us that Harry deliberately and defiantly embraces a chivalric ideal. It also tells us, I think, that Helprin too is making his stand against cynics masquerading as realists: In Sunlight and in Shadow tells exactly and unapologetically the kind of story (consequential, beautiful, lacerating) that Harry’s principles evoke.

But lurking in that romantic ideal is another source of my occasional unease with the novel: it seems to share Harry’s conviction that women are special sources of grace and inspiration, especially through their physical beauty: “women,” says Harry, “are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time”;

And to say that they neither need nor deserve protection, and that it is merely a strategy of domination, would be misjudge the highest qualities of the world. This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell.

 It’s possibly that there’s some irony in the way his “deep consideration, devotion” plays out. When he carries out an elaborate scheme to rescue Catherine from her pending engagement to the society boor who, when she was 13, laid claim to her by raping her,  it turns out she does not need his intervention. Her courage in her own sphere is time and again shown (and often announced) as equal to Harry’s in his. She has wit, intelligence, moral rectitude — and yet even though we are assured that for Harry beauty is not, strictly speaking, an external trait (“because his sight was clear, the world was filled with beautiful women, whether the world called them that or not”), her physical loveliness is stressed again and again, with a strangely elegaic kind of voyeurism:

Even had her hands not been so beautiful, had her hair not been so glorious, had her face not been of breathtaking construction, had her youth not enveloped her like a rose, had her eyes not been so lovely, even had all this been different, the way she held herself, and her readiness to see, her fairness of judgment, and her goodness of heart would have made her beautiful beyond description. She was, like many, though not everyone by any means could see it, beautiful, just beautiful, beyond description.

In fairness, Harry is described as resembling a young Clark Gable, so they are meant to be well-matched in every way, but  it’s his physical presence, not his physical perfection, and certainly not his charm, that’s most often remarked. Harry himself insists that there’s nothing demeaning or controlling in his vision: “All I want is to be with you.” Clearly Catherine is persuaded, but I retained some hesitation about whether their love story might, if treated in a different register, have foundered on these rocks. To be adored is not quite the same as to be equal, after all, and putting women back on their pedestal could be seen, not as romantic, but as retrograde. And nothing in In Sunlight and In Shadow suggested to me thought we were meant to resist Harry, in this or anything else. Forget that usefully neutral term “protagonist”: he is every bit the novel’s hero.

But that faint disquiet aside (and I’d love to hear from other readers what they thought about that aspect of the novel), I loved In Sunlight and In Shadow. Rather than rehearse the plot, I’ll give a few more short samples of Helprin’s style, which is, as I’ve said, what I think makes the novel more than the sum of its parts — more than a love story, and a war story, and a quest plot. From the war story, a glimpse of a winter landscape:

Daylight revealed a nation of crows on the snow-covered plain. Thousands were in the sky or on the ground — flying in tightening circles, breaking off to glide down, running to take off, or walking like old people trying to dance. They fell from a white sky as if they had just been created, and their spirals echoed the columns of black smoke beyond them.

 From the love story, which is inseparable from the novel’s love affair with New York:

She wandered, overwhelmed by images — by thousands of faces, each telling of deep or despairing lives; by clouds garlanding the great buildings; by the engines of the city’s commerce; the wind lifting briefly the hem of a woman’s cream-colored coat as she glided south at the edge of Madison Square; the sun in blinding flashes upon a hundred thousand windows; bridges sailing high above blue waters and whitecaps; pigeons rising in almost exact synchrony from sidewalks darkened by rain, banking in a mathematically perfect curve, wings still, their perfection the gift of the omnipresent and invisible air.

And from the formally elegant, emotionally wrenching conclusion:

Had the story come full circle in the way that stories end, they would have walked quietly, Catherine and Harry, into the rest of their life, knowing that in the end the whole world is nothing more than what you remember and what you love, things fleeting and indefensible, light and beautiful, that were not supposed to last, echoing forever — golden leaves swept across the Esplanade, wind-polished bridges standing in the winter sun, the sound of Catherine’s song.

A tangled net of links: Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games

sacredgamesEvery action flew down the tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again. . . . There was no escaping the reactions to your actions, and no respite from the responsibility. That’s how it happened. That was life.

Everything and everybody is connected, somehow, somewhere: this is the structuring principle of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. In that respect, at least, this door-stopper of a novel deserves its inevitable comparison to Dickens, as its multitude of plots and characters crisscross and converge in a manner reminiscent of Bleak House. It’s also Dickensian in its tendency towards self-indulgence: there are long stretches that seemed to me to have no real necessity or justification except the author’s own pleasure in including as many details as possible. And it covers Dickensian extremes of horror and tenderness, and juxtapositions of farce and tragedy.

And yet — Sacred Games didn’t move, engross, or delight me in anything like the way Dickens’s novels do, and for all that there were parts that I did really appreciate, by the end there were longer stretches that just bored me. My like/dislike line runs pretty much along the Sartaj Singh / Ganesh Gaitonde divide: I would happily read another whole novel about Sartaj, but I had had more than enough of Gaitonde by the time he finally shot himself in the head — which is not a spoiler, by the way, as it happens very early in the novel, which then takes us back through the tortuous story of how he ended up where we first meet him, in a concrete bunker in a vacant lot on the outskirts of Bombay.

The part of Sacred Games that focuses on Sartaj is a rich, gritty, humane version of a police procedural. It’s very much a story of Bombay, just as Ian Rankin’s novels are as much about Edinburgh as they are about any specific case or character, and Sartaj sees his world through the same jaded, cynical, but affectionate eyes that Rebus sees his, always aware that behind the bright lights, the business or the festivities, are the shadowy possibilities of crime:

Navrati nights are good for pickpockets, certainly. Chain-snatchers and that lot. And a lot of cash gets handled, you know. At five hundred rupees per ticket in some places, that’s a huge amount. People get tempted, the people who are handling the money.

Also like Rebus, he may work for the law but he’s not entirely bound by it — instead, Sartaj operates in a complex economy of bribes and threats, favors and retribution. The lines between crime fighter and criminal are hardly easier to draw here than in any classic of noir fiction, but Chandra’s canvas is not restricted to shades of black and grey: the novel overflows with characters who bring touches of humor or grace, and overall, despite its ugly violence and constant reminders of death and sorrow, the novel (this part of the novel) hums with quiet optimism about the value and beauties of ordinary, struggling, erring human lives:

We are all already lost to each other, he thought. In the moment of our possession we lose those we love, to mortality, to time, to history, to themselves. What we have are these fragments of generosity, these gifts of faith and friendship and desire that we can give to each other. Whatever comes later, nothing can betray this lying in the dark, this breathing together. This is enough. We are here, and we will stay here.

By the end of the novel, we can’t help but feel the fragility of this hopeful contentment, but the chaotic ugliness of so much of the novel also makes it seem just that much more precious.

The part of the novel that focuses on Gaitonde, on the other hand, seemed to me to take us into a tediously artificial world — that it’s based on Chandra’s first-hand research, including meetings with real-life gangsters including “Hussain the Razor,” doesn’t help me get past its glossy amorality. The contrast between the two parts — each about a journey but one heading towards quiet fulfillment while the other collapses into solipsistic disaster — is obviously deliberate, but once he’s reached the pinnacle of power and wealth Gaitonde becomes  as tedious as Shakespeare’s Richard III does at the height of his success, but without the poetry to make the downward spiral worth following to the bitter end. Gaitonde’s flat affect may be meant to convey his distance, his difference, but that doesn’t make it any less flat.

My favorite part of the novel was one of its several “inset” parts, the one called “A House in a Distant City.” This tells the story of Sartaj’s mother Prabhjot, who is something of a mystery to her son: he sees that “she was not telling him everything, there were things she wouldn’t speak of.” We know of these things from this set piece, which tells with powerful understatement of her family’s flight during Partition from their home in what became part of Pakistan. When Prabhjot visits the Golden Temple at Amritsar with Sartaj near the end of the novel, she sits “closed off in some private world of memory and grief and prayer.” Those memories, that grief, is surely for her sister Navneet, “beloved and best of all, and now lost forever.” Prabhjot learned to carry on: “Carry it all, the small dissatisfactions of every day and the huge murderous tragedies of long ago.” For me Sacred Games was at its best when it left the melodramatic world of international crime, terrorism, and film stars and focused on this kind of modest but intensely moving everyday heroism.

This Week in My Classes: Not with a bang but a whimper

Classes wrapped up for the term on Monday. Usually I feel deflated, if also a bit relieved, after my last class meetings. For all that the ongoing pressure to be ready and keep on top of everything can be wearing, the energy I get from actually being in the classroom more than makes up for it. Last term, 19th-C Fiction certainly had its challenges, and students were not as forthcoming in discussion as I would have liked, but overall I thought the course went well, and at least judging by their course evaluations, so did the students. But it was Mystery and Detective Fiction that felt like the most fun: it had great energy and a higher participation level than I have usually had in it, and I usually left the room feeling a dizzying blend of exhaustion and exhilaration. (I wonder if any of that was really due to how fiercely overheated our classroom was.) This term, however, the adrenaline buzz was rarely there after either class, and so now it feels more like stopping than concluding, if that makes sense — more like “we made it” than “we did it!”

This is not to say there wasn’t a lot of good, smart discussion in both classes, and in Intro especially there was a small core of students who seemed to be really present and engaged in all the ways I always hope for. But, as I’ve complained about before, attendance this term — in both classes — was erratic to poor, and in the 4th-year seminar, a context in which I’m used to the students really carrying the ball, it often felt like I was working awfully hard to coax any contributions out of them … which was especially odd because I know (from other classes and from one-on-one meetings) that you couldn’t wish for a nicer or brighter bunch of students. And in our seminar it’s not that they were (as far as I’m aware!) unhappy or bored or being sullenly uncooperative. They were just — on average — kind of quiet. In retrospect, I wonder if it would have helped to have assigned specific critical articles along with our primary readings. I don’t typically do this in undergraduate classes, because I’m usually assigning such a lot of reading to begin with (though for 4th-year seminars I always put a range of articles and books on reserve or on Blackboard) . In this case, though, the novels on their own were not that demanding, and I felt at times as if that had led the students to underestimate the critical work they could (should) be doing. When (if) I offer this particular seminar again, I may build that component in.

In contrast, I think that the next time I teach Intro I will dial back the amount of assigned reading and allow more time for in-class workshops, writing exercises, and group activities — more hands-on practice for everything from punctuation and citations to close reading. Last year I taught a full-year section, and for this half-year course I more or less just adapted the second term of last year’s syllabus. But even without the full week’s worth of classes we ended up losing to storm days, we were a bit rushed because I always forget how much time the logistics take up when you’re starting a course from scratch. Also, over a full year it’s possible to do more repetition and rehearsal of key concepts so that there’s more chance they will sink in, whereas with just one term I think different strategies may be called for. I don’t think we covered an unreasonable amount this term (and I think in many ways the variety keeps things interesting for us all); it’s more a question of shifting the emphasis a bit more next time from reading to writing.

We aren’t entirely done with this term’s classes, of course. I’ve received one set of final essays, which I’ve begun working my way through, and the other batch arrives Friday. Then the final exam for Intro is April 23: the one perk of having it so late in the exam period is that I’ll certainly have time to grade and return all the essays before then. After the exams are marked and final grades calculated and filed, it will be time for my favorite end-of-term activity: cleaning my office! And after that, it will be mental housekeeping time: sorting and setting priorities for summer research and writing projects.

This Week In My Classes: Endings and Beginnings

We aren’t quite done with classes here, at least not those of us on a MWF schedule – my last meetings are Monday. It’s hard to believe we are so close to finishing, though, mostly because today is the first day there’s any hint of spring at all, and usually I strongly associate the last couple of weeks of classes with the lifting of the winter gloom. Two big storms in the last 10 days certainly knocked out that possibility. But whatever the weather, the last few classes of the term do have their own seasonal rhythm: paper proposals sprout; new material gives way to review; editing worksheets and exam review handouts compete for their time in the sun.

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In Intro today it’s our second editing workshop: last time the students did a peer editing exercise, but I’ve opted for a self-editing exercise today in which they will go through their own papers and produce reverse outlines. It can be harder to look critically at your own work than at someone else’s, so I think it’s useful to have some concrete strategies for checking whether you have accomplished what you want and need to. They are writing on Carol Shields’s Unless but the topics they are choosing from are generated by lines in A Room of One’s Own — I wanted to highlight the idea (integral to both books, too) that writers are in conversation with each other and that we, in turn, enter into that conversation when we try to understand and interpret their works. My impression is that Room was (again) quite difficult for a lot of them to make sense of, so I’m glad for their sakes that I didn’t set this up as a straight comparative essay. That said, Unless poses its own challenges, not least because of its somewhat fragmented and episodic form. One good thing about assigning a book structured like that is that it’s harder to fall into plot summary: when you have to collect evidence and examples across a broad and scattered territory, I think you’re more aware of the details as adding up to something, rather than just moving along in linear fashion. We have one more session to come, for exam review and closing perorations, and then a couple of weeks until the final, so I’ll have plenty of time to comment on and return the essays. I think I may have been a bit cranky in my comments on the last set. That did have the beneficent side-effect of getting more people than usual in to see me. This is a not-unfamiliar phenomenon for me as a parent as well – say something temperately and you are likely to end up repeating it, but jump up and down about it and somehow it sticks. But even if yelling sometimes seems to work better, that doesn’t make it ideal!

primesuspectIn Women & Detective Fiction, we’ve just wrapped up class discussions of Prime Suspect I. The series seems to have gone over unusually well this year: people who hardly talked at all up till now have been pitching in, and the overall energy has seemed good. We lost (another!) Wednesday to last week’s blizzard, so I’ve had to give up a planned final round-table to discuss people’s term paper projects: I usually make time for this in the schedule and when it has actually happened, it has always been very interesting and, I think, productive as a way to wrap up a seminar. But instead we’ll be having our last group presentation (on Prime Suspect) — which should also be a way to go out on a high note, given how creative and informative the presentations have all been this term. Though there is no requirement that the presentations incorporate a game (just that they include some form of class activity), I think every group has made one up! And that means there are usually prizes in the form of sugary treats.

This was also the week that book orders were due for the fall term! I always try to meet these deadlines — partly because I’m dutiful, partly because I know the bookstore sets them early so that they can work out their buy-back arrangements for students, and partly because I like to have this done and not have to worry about it any more. It’s possible to spend a really long time waffling over book choices but there really are no right answers, so sometimes just making the call and clicking ‘submit’ on the form is better than dithering any longer. I wasn’t waffling much over the next iteration of Mystery and Detective Fiction, which will be pretty much the same book list as this year. The only change I’m making is swapping out An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and putting back a short story anthology. That lets me ease up the pace intermittently, and it also simplifies the logistics of assigning the stories I always use (some Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, etc.).

I did run through a lot of variations on the book list for 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, though. I used to just pick five (or, once upon a time, six) ‘representative’ novels without much concern for an overarching theme. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with more deliberate groupings and liking it: last time I did this course, I chose all books dealing one way or another with troublesome or rule-breaking women (Bleak HouseCranfordThe Mill on the FlossLady Audley’s SecretTess). Then this fall in the Austen to Dickens course I did variations on the Bildungsroman (PersuasionWaverleyDavid Copperfield, Jane EyreNorth and South). For next fall I decided on the theme of vocation, or (as these are two persistent concepts of vocation in the 19thC novel) on love and work. I had three sure things (MiddlemarchGreat ExpectationsJude the Obscure) so my dithering was all about which other books to include. Most years I would fill the list in with something by Trollope, something by Gaskell, and/or an example of sensation fiction. This year I decided I’d like to include The Odd Women, which I’ve rarely assigned in lecture courses, and it occurred to me that though I usually keep the Brontës in the earlier course, Villette would be a really interesting contrast in its treatment of women and work and love and solitude … so I cut short the dithering and put it on the list. I’ve never lectured on it, and I haven’t even assigned it since maybe 1998, so that gives me something new to work on for the course, which is always a good thing.  I think the students will like it (and be surprised by it), and the more I think about it, the more provocative I think it will be in juxtaposition to our other readings. Also, much as I love Trollope, I don’t usually get much enthusiasm for him from students (Barchester Towers is boring?!), and I’m feeling a bit tired of sensation novels at the moment, so all in all, I feel good about this impulsive choice. And even if I didn’t, too late now! villette

Once again it’s just two courses for me in the fall. One’s big-ish (90) and one’s kind of medium-sized (40), and both are likely to be full, or very nearly so — but I plan the assignments carefully knowing I’ll be doing all the marking myself, and as both are classes I’m quite comfortable in I think it will be an energetic and not overwhelming term. But it’s still far off on the horizon: now that the books are ordered, I’ll be turning my attention back to the here and now, which means wrapping up this term and lining up my writing priorities for the summer. As always, the academic work cycle epitomizes Eliot’s wise remark that “every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.”

Open Letters Monthly: April 2014!

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Does anyone who reads Novel Readings still need to be reminded to check out the new issue of Open Letters Monthly every month? Surely not! Love me, love my friends, right? But just in case, here’s the regular notice that we did it again: a new issue is live.

This seems like a particularly rich month. There’s a good showing from “the masthead,” with our editors all playing to their strengths: John Cotter on Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise, Greg Waldmann on The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Steve Donoghue on Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Maureen Thorson on two new books of poetry, Elisa Gabbert with this month’s “Title Menu” on 10 books that might be poetry. Dorian Stuber weighs in on yet another contribution to the never-ending ‘crisis in the humanities’ (“wasn’t it always thus”?) and finds it opportunistic and clichéd; my Dal colleague Jerry White looks at the remarkable institution that is the Irish Presidency; Steve Danziger explores William S. Burroughs’s notorious Cut-up Trilogy; our own foreign correspondent Michael Johnson feels some déjà vu as he watches events unfold in Ukraine. And that’s not all, so I hope you’ll check it out.

“The bare outline of a useful story”: Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

sweettoothIf Sweet Tooth were not by Ian McEwan (author, as is stressed on the cover of my edition, of Atonement — one of my very favorite recent [that is, post-2000] novels) would I have been disappointed in it? How unfair, in a way, that the burden of great expectations should interfere with my appreciation of this well-crafted, elegantly told tale with its clever premise so smoothly executed. If only books could be read “blind,” as orchestral auditions are sometimes done now — with the author’s identity concealed and so no preconceptions or biases to come between us and the words on the page. And yet I’m not sure that pristine anonymity is quite what we want. When writers raise the bar, isn’t it only fair to test their subsequent efforts not just against the books they already outmatched but against their own previous personal best? Once an ice skater has included a quad, doesn’t every program without one seem just a tad safe, no matter how perfect the triple axels?

And I’d say “safe” is a good word for Sweet Tooth, along with “flat” and “smart” — and, again, only for McEwan would that last term not be entirely praise — smart is the least I expect of him. Knowing Sweet Tooth was “an Ian McEwan” I read along in full expectation of a big twist, a surprise, a treat that would throw everything I thought I knew about the book into some new perspective, or draw together its elements into a shape I hadn’t seen before. By page 300, I was getting downright impatient for this revelatory moment, as on its own surface terms the book I was reading wasn’t giving me much of a thrill. Then when the long-anticipated game-changer arrived, it was so obvious that I realized that in one way or another I had already predicted it. (In case you’re wondering why I didn’t know all about it from reviews, I typically avoid reviews of books I know I’m going to read until after I have a chance to read them for myself. I suppose that’s my own modified version of the audition screens. Now that I’ve finally read Sweet Tooth, I’ll be looking up what other people have said about it.)

The revelations of Sweet Tooth are actually not that different from the writerly twists in Atonement, but the payoffs seemed much slighter to me. It’s true that I didn’t see until I did some careful rereading just how artful Atonement is (one of my favorite details is that Briony turns out to have made the changes recommended by Cyril Connolly at Horizon). Maybe if I reread Sweet Tooth, I’ll find the experience a similarly stirring literary treasure hunt. But I’d need some extrinsic motivation to do that (maybe the other reviews will provide it?) because Sweet Tooth never gripped me: it lacks the gutsiness that lies beneath Atonement‘s opening aestheticism and that comes out into the open during the war sections. Where is the equivalent in Sweet Tooth of the Dunkirk sequences? What here even approaches the wrenching pathos of Atonement‘s elegaic conclusion? The cruelty and devastation we see in Atonement are greater than anything in Sweet Tooth, the people in it at least as guilty of selfishness, greed, and betrayal — but they also love passionately. Sweet Tooth, in contrast, seems all head and no heart; its people (like, as it turns out, the narrative itself) are just petty and manipulative. “I was a novelist without a novel,” Tom reflects, “and now luck had tossed my way a tasty bone, the bare outline of a useful story.” He just hasn’t filled that outline in with the richest tints of humanity.

The novel’s “duplicitous point of view” (in McEwan’s — or rather Tom’s — own phrase) is an escape clause for these complaints, of course. How much of the dully plodding quality of the narrative is excused by the revelation that it’s not as it first seems (or as it seems for 300+ pages)? In particular, how many of Serena’s deficiencies as a narrator and protagonist can be blamed on the actual storyteller? Are her limitations really his limitations — he can’t read her, much less convey her, as a more complex character? In that case it’s not McEwan who’s in any way deficient. If anything, he’s doubly clever because he can play at being someone who’s not as good a novelist as he is, and his imitation is pitch perfect! And the lengthy “reveal,” which  lacks both the urgency and and the beauty of Atonement’s conclusion (“I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end”) and offers instead only dreary petulance (“I told you that it wasn’t anger that set me writing the pages in the parcel in front of you. But there was always an element of tit for tat”) before its final, understatedly flamboyant, flourish — any letdown we might experience is attributable to the same cause. But isn’t McEwan ultimately still accountable for inflicting his imperceptive (and somewhat artless?) doppelganger on us through the fictional author he’s created? How can we credit him with knowing better (and somehow also doing better) if he doesn’t give us a sign? I didn’t pick up on any evidence of metafictional distancing, though maybe I didn’t put the clues together: it’s true there are a number of debates about fiction embedded in the novel that perhaps are meant to reflect sardonically on the kind of novel Tom has finally written.

One way in which McEwan never disappoints is his forensically precise diction: who else would describe oysters as “glistening cowpats of briny viscera”? If I somehow hadn’t known the identity of the author of Sweet Tooth –if he were concealed behind that opaque screen – I think that at that moment, I would have started comparing him to McEwan nonetheless.

This Week In My Classes: Canons and Complications

unlessMy classes aren’t meeting at all today, thanks to the “weather bomb” we are currently enjoying. It is uncanny how many storms have come through on Wednesdays this winter! And it’s an unpleasant surprise to get a big one this late in the term. The bright side seems to be that it’s supposed to warm up significantly by the weekend, so we can hope that all this snow will just be a bad memory before too long.

What is it interrupting? Well, in Intro to Prose and Fiction we’ve moved on to Carol Shields’s Unless, a novel I appreciate more and more the more time I spend with it. It’s not an in-your-face kind of novel, but (appropriately, given its themes) its sharp edges can take you by surprise: a modest-seeming story about a woman writer rethinking her life and work because of a family crisis, it’s also a commentary on women’s writing and the literary canon, and on women writers and literary culture. Reta is seeking an explanation for her daughter Norah’s decision to drop out of ordinary life and sit speechless on the curb holding a sign that says only ‘GOODNESS.’ In a series of increasingly acerbic letters to intellectuals, writers, and critics (never actually sent) Reta connects Norah’s rejection of the world with the world’s indifference (or worse) to women. To the magazine that has run an advertisement for a series called “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World,” for instance, Reta writes,

I have a nineteen-year old daughter who is going through a sort of soak of depression . . . which a friend of mine suspects is brought about by such offerings as your Great Minds of the WIW, not just your particular October ad, of course, but a long accumulation of shaded brown print and noble brows, reproduced year after year, all of it pressing down insidiously and expressing a callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds, a complete unawareness, in fact. . . .

I realize I cannot influence your advertising policy. My only hope is that my daughter, her name is Norah, will not pick up a copy of this magazine, read this page, and understand, as I have for the first time, how casually and completely she is shut out of the universe. I have two other daughters too — Christine, Natalie — and I worry about them both. All the time.

To the author of an article on “The History of Dictionaries,” she observes “there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once.” In wry anticipation of the VIDA counts (and their critics), she notes,

Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform … carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall even casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship in self-denigration.

 And later, addressing the author of a book review who calls women writers “the miniaturists of fiction,” she says,

It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy  is self-sacrifice.

The letters punctuate the story of Reta’s reconsideration of her own writing: in particular, she is working on the sequel to her earlier work of light fiction, My Thyme is Up; in our class reading, we’ve just arrived at her conclusion that her new novel, “if it is to survive, must be redrafted,” so when we meet again on Friday I hope we’ll be able to have a good discussion about how and why Reta wants to write a different kind of book, with different kinds of options for her heroine, Alicia. Then next week we’ll consider her editor’s advice that she rework it to make it “one of those signal books of our time” — by making Alicia’s fiance, Roman, the central character:

‘I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.’

‘It’s because she’s a woman.’

‘That’s not an issue at all. Surely you — ‘

‘But it is the issue.’

‘She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

Clipping these bits out on their own makes the novel sound more didactic than the experience of reading it actually is, partly because Shields plays around with the form of the novel, partly because the other anecdotes and memories Reta shares with us implicitly raise the questions these more pointed sections address explicitly, so that the book reads like an ongoing dialogue — internally, for Reta herself, and then with us — about what we look for in fiction, how we judge what we find, and how those questions are affected by gender. We’re reading it right after A Room of One’s Own, and many of the questions are the same: what (where) is the women’s literary tradition, what is the place or effect of anger in literature, how are our notions of literary greatness tied to ideas about scale? (Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.”)

forrestIn Women & Detective Fiction, this week’s reading also raises questions about literary canons and standards, and how we decide what is worth reading and discussing, but in this case it does so more accidentally. I’m not someone who believes that we should assign only the books we believe to be The Greatest (even if we individually felt we could be confident about our standards). Universities are in the business of education, not adulation, and plenty of works that we might feel falter on some grounds are plenty interesting and significant (historically, theoretically, formally) on others. Courses vary in their purposes, too, and the best and most relevant conversations don’t always emerge from the most elegantly crafted narratives. Still, I do sometimes find my principles conflicting with my actual reading experience, and that’s how I’ve felt with Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar, which has been our class’s reading for the past week.

Murder at the Nightwood Bar is one in a series with inarguable significance (“First, first, first,” emphasizes Victoria Brownworth in her recent profile of Forrest), and it deals explicitly with questions of sexual identity and systemic discrimination both through its closeted detective (alienated, thus, both from her follow officers and from the lesbian community she engages with during the investigation) and through the crime itself. It sets up lots of good points of comparison with our other books, from the detective’s struggle over getting too personally involved with the case (or people involved in it) to the connections it makes between individual crimes and systemic injustices. As far as all that goes, I have no regrets about having added it to the syllabus this year. I just wish it were better written — yes, that awkward evaluative measure! Better at what, to what ends, as I’m always asking? In this case, I just mean “better at the words”: especially during the patient rereadings required for class prep, it has seemed stilted and inartistic, sometimes tediously so. I’ve felt no temptation to discuss anything that’s not literal about it: not its form or its style, not its voice, its attention to setting, none of those “literary” aspects. Mind you, it’s not the first of our readings to make that kind of reading seem beside the point: Agatha  Christie is also not particularly literary. But Christie’s prose has a clarity and economy that gives it its own (superficial?) elegance. That said, while Forrest may not be as good a stylist, her materials are more challenging — her agenda is more ambitious, and she gave us much more to talk about than Christie did, even though Christie is, of the two of them, the one who is obviously part of the ‘canon’ of detective fiction. Not every course can or should be a tour of “the best that has been thought and said” (as if we could be sure what those examples are — as Woolf says, “where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off”). My goal is always to find the readings that are the best for my purposes, which in this case include considering a wide range of different examples of detective fiction by women as well as examples that are in fruitful conversation with each other when collected on the syllabus. My hope is that they will also reward close reading and rereading. At this point, then, I’m ambivalent about Murder at the Nightwood Bar, then, which certainly serves the first purpose but doesn’t quite fulfill my hopes for the second.

“Torn by the claws of reality”: Alexandros Papadiamantis, The Murderess

papadiamantisMy book group’s last read was Mary Stewart’s This Rough MagicWe like to follow some thread from one book to the next; we got to Mary Stewart from Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn  by way of romantic suspense, and decided to make Greek islands our next connection. The obvious choice would have been Zorba the Greek (and I wouldn’t be at all sorry if we read that next), but we were also looking for something relatively short this time, and so we fixed on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s novella The Murderess. (I blame Tom.)

If the setting of This Rough Magic is, as I proposed, the Greece of tourists, the setting of The Murderess is the Greece of your nightmares. Not that it’s ugly — quite the contrary! The beauties of the scenery are lovingly evoked by Papadiamantis (via his translator, Peter Levi):

It was a sweet May dawn. The blue and rose clarity of heaven shed a golden colouring on plants and bushes. The twitter of nightingales could be heard in the woods, and the innumerable small birds uttered their indescribable concert, passionately, insatiably.

But this beauty only makes the harshness of the story more shocking. Though not a mystery novel, The Murderess is definitely a crime story, and this aspect of it reminds me of P. D. James’s comment that setting “enhances the horror of murder, sometimes by contrast between the beauty and outward peace of the scene and the turbulence of human emotions.”

The turbulent emotions in this case are those of Hadoula, known also as Frankojannou, and the plot is what a canny publicist might describe as “Hardy meets Gissing meets Stephen King.” Like Father Time’s in Jude the Obscure – and with a similarly parable-like resonance — Hadoula’s crimes are “Done because we are too menny”; as in Gissing’s The Odd Women, it’s women who are present in excess, their value as individuals weighed as nothing against the burden they represent to the families that must struggle to marry them off and maintain them if this effort unsuccessful. Add in the pressures of the Greek dowry system and a general climate of ignorance and superstition, and you have the ingredients of a real witch’s brew of cynicism and desperation. Thus Hadoula, sleep-deprived from tending to her infant granddaughter, reflects, “The minute girls are born a person thinks of strangling them!’ “Yes,” says our narrator,

she did say it, but she would certainly never have been capable of doing it. Not even Hadoula herself believed that.

 After all, Hadoula is a healer, a brewer of ‘medicines,’ someone whose mission is to sustain life, not destroy it. But just as Hadoula does not really believe in the remedies she peddles, she is inconsistent about whether the right thing is to nurture or murder little girls:

But I ask you, do there really have to be so many daughters? And if so, is it worth the trouble of bringing them up? ‘Isn’t there,’ asked Frankojannou, ‘isn’t there always death and always a cliff? Better for them to make haste above.

It only makes sense to hasten girls out of life: after all, religion teaches that “grief is joy and death is life and resurrection, that disaster is happiness and disease is health. . . . Would it not really be right,” she plausibly argues,

if only humans were not so blind, to assist the scourge that fluttered in the angels’ wings, instead of trying to pray it away? . . . Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up like smoke.

And sure enough, overcome by the imponderable cruelty of a world in which wanted sons die and unwanted daughters give their parents “a forestaste of hell in this world,” Frankojannou’s brain does “go up in smoke,” and, “out of her mind,” she begins her career as a murderess.

If only she clearly were out of her mind, The Murderess would be a simpler novel and the judgments it brings to bear on its protagonist would be easier to identify and take sides on. The Murderess is not a simple book, though. The murders are shocking, no question, but they make perfect sense, not just in Hadoula’s crazed mind but as a literalization of the many ways in which (according to her own life story and experiences) women are degraded and devalued by the world they live in. Hadoula is wracked by her conscience, tormented by “the lamenting voice of the infant, the tiny girl unjustly slain”; she runs from man’s justice “but prison and Hell were within her.” At the same time, at the next opportunity she finds herself once more with her hand’s at an infant girl’s throat and remembers the context of her cruel acts:

Then the baby daughter began to cry very softly, moaning unbearably. Frankojannou forgot all the remorse she had felt so deeply under the black wings of her dreams. Once again she was torn by the claws of reality, and began to think inside herself,

‘Ach, he’s right, poor Lyringos . . . ‘all little girls, her bad luck, all little girls!’ And what a consolation it would be for him now, and for his unhappy wife, if the Almighty took her straight away! While she’s small, and leaves no great sorrow behind her!’

Is it Hadoula who is really murderous? Or does the blame go to a society that has made such reasoning plausible? Why should she be held accountable for her attempt to short-circuit the tragic cycle these little girls, by their very existence, perpetuate?

But Frankojannou’s own despair at her actions is enough to show us the inhumane flaw in her reasoning — which is in any case more unreasoning intuition than logic, maybe even (as the narrator has said) madness. She seems ultimately, to be running from herself as much as from the “regulars” who pursue her; the voice that haunts her with the cry “Murderess! Murderess!” is as much hers as anyone else’s.

The final sequence of the novel is an extraordinary set piece as we follow her to her death “midway between divine and human justice.” Was she in some sense an agent of justice? Is she herself a victim? Or is she only an unleashed terror, acting on hatred in the guise of mercy? I am caught, myself, in this ambiguity, unsure of my interpretive footing. I expect our discussion next weekend will be a lively one!

You can read more about The Murderess from Steve here and from Tom here. Iagree with Steve about the effectiveness of Levi’s translation: at first I found the book uncomfortable and stilted, but it finds its rhythm, and there are many grimly, hauntingly unforgettable passages. Tom calls it “a hardboiled feminist crime novel.” I think I agree that it is feminist, even though witch-like homicidal Hadoula plays into misogynistic stereotypes: perhaps (as with some women in the original hard-boiled tradition) she upsets those stereotypes even as she inhabits them. Like Tom, I couldn’t resist looking up something about Skiathos: it looks beautiful.

Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

It isn’t that I haven’t done any reading since I posted on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name; it’s just that none of the reading has felt really notable, or else it has been reading for work and thus not something I necessarily have more to say about here. I’m actually looking forward to getting into a book with a bit of heft to it (it doesn’t have to be literally weighty, just something that matters when I read it): I have a number of candidates lying around. At a minimum, I’ll be starting on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess soon for my book club, which meets at the end of the month. But that’s so short: surely I can read something else before then! In the meantime, here’s a quick catch-up post on my recent, and quite miscellaneous, desultory reading.

rebus

1. Saints of the Shadow Bible. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Rankin’s latest as Steve, who called it “rippingly good” in his review at Open Letters Weekly. It is good, but for me it was predictably so: it has all Rankin’s characteristic virtues, and now that I’ve gotten over my pleasure at having Rebus back in action, I feel (perhaps unfairly) a bit blasé about it. Rankin is very good at this kind of book, but as a result it doesn’t impress me very much when he does it again. This particular installment of the series is reliable but doesn’t take the characters or the genre in any new directions. I liked the ambition of some of the books from a few years back (Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead, for instance), which had a social and political agenda that broadened their scope. Here we’re just hunkered down with Rebus again. We are seeing Siobhan grow in stature: to me that remains the most promising direction Rebus could take the series in.

2. Mr. Impossible. Back in Ye Olden Days when I knew not what I was missing by not reading romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels was proposed as a possible conversion book. That did not go well (though the experiment as a whole was ultimately successful). I think that if Mr. Impossible had been proposed instead, it might have won me over, because it’s funnier. For some reason (OK, because I’m cynical), I prefer romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was my second read of Mr. Impossible and I enjoyed it just as much. Actually, technically it was my second almost-read, or mostly-read, since I don’t read to the very end of many romance novels. The last pages (in some, the last chapters) almost always turn too cloying for my taste. Sure, all the way through I know pretty much how things are going to end, but often a lot of the energy goes out of the plot by the time the characters have overcome whatever is keeping them from their HEA. (Is that wrong or unusual of me? I can’t think of another genre in which I have fallen into this DNF habit. If I’m quite interested in the characters or the plot sustains some tension to the end, I’ll read it all, but sometimes I’ve just had enough. I also get most of my romance reading from the library, so I don’t feel any anxiety about dabbling in it rather than committing fully to it.)

3. Along those lines, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts’s Happy Every After, which is the 4th one in her “Bride Quartet.” It is hard to imagine a more anodyne series, really: sure, all of the main characters have tortured backstories of one kind or another, but there’s a bland formulaic simplicity to the novels that belies this attempt to give them depth. As a result, they are kind of relaxing, but the main thing I like about them is their “neepery.” Each protagonist in this quartet has a particular job, and there are lots of specifics about how it gets done. For whatever odd reason, I like that (I learned the wonderful term “neepery” from Victoria Janssen in a thread about the Dick Francis novels, which are full of it). I’m about half way through but I think I’m already about to DNF it for the reasons noted above. Plus, I already watched The Wedding Planner (speaking of predictable) so the neepery here isn’t as novel to me as the stuff about cakes or flowers in the other books.

paretsky

4. Now that I’ve finished with the new Rebus, I’m catching up on V.I. Warshawski with Critical Mass. I’m not very far along in it yet, but like Saints of the Shadow Bible it feels familiar: these are the people, these are the moves, this is the style I expect from Paretsky. In neither case is this a bad thing! I wrote in some detail about Paretsky in a review of Body Work in Open Letters a couple of years ago. I teach her often (we just finished discussing Indemnity Only in ‘Women & Detective Ficton’ today, in fact) and admire her principled determination to use the form of the detective novel to advocate for social justice. If the results are occasionally somewhat didactic, more often than not she integrates her political with her artistic purposes pretty effectively.

5. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. This too came to me by way of Victoria Janssen, and again I’m grateful! I was mentioning on Twitter that I’m working on A Room of One’s Own with my class, and she wondered if I’d ever paired it with Russ’s book. I haven’t, since I’d never read or even heard of How to Suppress Women’s Writing before, but I found it in our university library and have just finished reading it through. It certainly does pair up well with Woolf: I can imagine a lot of conversations that the juxtaposition would spark, not least because Woolf is a major figure in Russ’s own meditations on ways women writers have been opposed and discouraged through the ages. Her approach is (as she says herself) not systematic or scholarly but anecdotal and epigrammatic: she lines up examples under categories such as “Prohibitions,” “Bad Faith,” “False Categorizing,” and “Anomalousness.” Many of her earlier examples were familiar to me, especially those from the 19th century, but she carries her topics forward to her present (the book was published in 1983). At the same time I was preparing my lecture on women and writing and Woolf for my class and reading Russ’s book, an excellent essay by Anne Boyd Rioux on “Women’s Citizenship in the Republic of Letters” appeared at the VIDA site: while it would have been nicer to explain all this to my class as a historical phenomenon, it is good to be able to show them how the conversation we are having in class, through Woolf, is part of a larger ongoing one they might take an interest — and a part — in. And yet things have definitely changed. We read Woolf now in the context of decades of scholarship filling in the absences that preoccupy her; reading Russ I was happily struck by at least a few improvements, such as the availability of works such as Villette (which she recalls being unable to order for a class in 1971 because no US edition was in print) — or the impossibility (surely) that anyone at a university today would read Woolf’s novels “secretively and guiltily like bonbons,” as she describes herself doing, “ashamed of them because they were so ‘feminine.’”

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