Reading Maus Badly

mausIIn the comments to my last post, Bill said he hoped that my choice for a comic book or graphic novel for a course on “pulp fiction” would not be “some terribly respectable ‘graphic novel’ along the lines of MausFun Home, or Persepolis” — not that there’s anything wrong with these on their own terms, obviously — quite the opposite! — but that they wouldn’t really represent “the genuine pulp article.” In response, I mentioned that I have just recently read Maus ... which reminded me that I never wrote anything about it here.

Actually, it wasn’t that recent: I read it at the end of the summer, so several weeks ago now. Usually I blog about books more or less as soon as I finish with them: the time lag here is a sign of trouble. And the trouble was, I didn’t know what to say about Maus. Not that I always know exactly what I’m going to say about a book when I sit down to blog about it — but I do usually have some sense of direction, some sense of how to engage with it. I finished Maus, however, with the nagging sense that I’d read it wrong. You see, I read it like a novel: an illustrated novel, because obviously there are pictures, but still, like a novel, with my primary attention on the words.

You see my problem, I’m sure. Maus is neither a novel nor an illustrated novel: it is a graphic novel, which is another term (a sometimes contested one) for a comic book, which is, in turn, helpfully defined at the Internet Public Library as “sequential visual art, usually with text.” But I don’t know how to read “sequential visual art”: I don’t know what to notice, what to track across the sequence, how to interpret what I’m seeing. I looked at all the pictures in Maus, of course, but I didn’t scrutinize them: to me, they seemed secondary — they were only drawings of the story.

I’m not saying I didn’t notice that the Jews in the book were mice, the Nazis cats, and the Poles pigs — or that I didn’t think as I went along about the general style of Spiegelman’s drawings, which reminded me of  folk art with their rough-hewn quality, or of naïve art, with a deceptive simplicity that somehow enhances the horror of the telling by its childlike air. How can something so cute be so terrible? That’s as far as I could go, though: otherwise, I just read on to find out what happened to the people whose fates and relationships unfolded across the novel with such pain and urgency. (Of course, the pictures rapidly stopped meaning cats and mice to me, no matter what the drawings showed).

watchmenMaus isn’t the first graphic novel I’ve read. Several years ago a thoughtful student gave me a copy of Watchmen, and I worked my way through it with even less success than I had with Maus. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it, but in that case, I couldn’t even hang on to the characters or story. (In retrospect, to be fair, that might at least partly be because I read most of it on my one and only trip to Australia, including on long trans-Pacific flights while under the calming influence of Ativan.) Then too, I was aware that I wasn’t paying close enough attention to things besides the words on the page, which is, after all, what I’ve spent years focusing on pretty exclusively.

There are definitely things I understood about Maus, including the ingenuity of recasting its population as animals in such a potent metaphorical way. Lawrence Weschler puts it well in his essay “The Son’s Tale”:

There have been hundreds of Holocaust memoirs — horribly, we’ve become inured to the horror. People being gassed in showers and shoveled into ovens — it’s a story we’ve already heard. But mice? The Mickey Mice of our childhood reveries? Having the story thus retold, with animals as principals, freshly recaptures its terrible immediacy, its palpable urgency.*

And of course Spiegelman himself, quoted in the same essay, is eloquent about his reasoning:

Almost as soon as [the idea] hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as ‘vermin,’ for example, and plotted their ‘extermination.’ And before that back to Kafka, whose story ‘Joseph the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’ was one of my favorites from back when I was a teenager and has always struck me as a dark parable and prophecy about the situation of the Jews and Jewishness.

He goes on to explain that he also wanted to subvert the metaphor: “I wanted it to become problematic, to have it confound and implicate the reader.” In a way, though, what both writers are dealing in here is something familiarly textual. Once you get how the metaphor works, you can “unpack” it in the same way you would if nobody ever drew a picture.

mauscoverIn general I’m not that well educated about the visual arts, not trained to notice and appreciate them in any expert, or even well-informed, way. Once we watched a Great Courses series on the history of Western art, and that helped a bit. What is the comic book equivalent? Is there a primer of some kind on what to see when you’re looking at graphic novels? Or is it just a question of slowing down and really looking, not taking the lines on the page for granted, the same way I’m always telling my students not to take the words on the page for granted?

Or, and of course this is a real possibility, am I overthinking the whole thing? I was caught up in Maus: I read it with rapt attention, with interest, and occasionally with tears, after all. By some measure, that has to count as a good reading.

*As a side note, I am very grateful for the recommendation of Weschler’s essay, both because it is fascinating and because the same collection (Vermeer in Bosnia) includes Weschler’s  ‘Balkan Triptych,’ which I hadn’t read before either and which is stunning.

This Week In My Classes: Looking Ahead Already!

dalhousieWe’ve barely settled into a routine in this term’s classes but the call already went out for us to propose offerings for next year. This request seems to get earlier all the time, and often it’s an unwelcome distraction in the hubbub of the fall term. It’s also frustrating to have to make these decisions before you’re quite sure how things are going this time: the success (or not) of a particular course might be a reason either to try it again soon or to give it a rest for a while. This year I was glad to get the request, though, because it came just as I was thinking that — good as I think the readings are for my section of Intro to Literature, and confident as I am that the basic principles and sequences I follow make pedagogical sense — I am feeling a bit tired of the course and would like to try something different.

I do rotate through a fairly consistent set of classes most years, but I try to keep them fresh, which I do mostly by mixing up the reading lists. I’m passionate enough about the classes in Victorian literature that it’s hard to imagine ever tiring of them in any deep way, and the mystery class usually keeps me pretty engaged and entertained precisely because so much of what we cover is outside my usual territory. Intro classes can feel like more of a chore, though, partly because the ones I teach have such a generic mandate (literally generic, meaning, they are meant to introduce the major literary genres). That leaves a lot of latitude, of course, for building in thematic approaches or finding other ways to provide unity and momentum across the term. I think I haven’t done too badly with that over the years: we always read a lot of splendid short works and some of the combinations of longer texts I’ve assigned have been quite exciting to teach together. That includes this year’s pairing of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Carol Shields’s Unless: the first time I assigned them in juxtaposition it was actually kind of a random decision, but they turned out to play off each other quite brilliantly and I’m looking forward to working through them again.

Still: every intro class I’ve taught has been some variation on the same basic model, and when the call for proposals appeared in my inbox I was in the mood to seek out something genuinely new. As a result, I put myself down for a section of another of our intro-level courses, one I’ve never taught before: English 1050, Pulp Fiction. Here’s the basic course description from the university’s Calendar:

This course provides an entry point to the discussion of literature through ‘pulp’ genres such as romance, mystery/crime, the Western, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, sports literature, and comic books.

The first thing that might occur to you, looking at this, is that “pulp” is being used in a fairly imprecise way: the course sounds more like a general introduction to “genre fiction,” or to “popular” (rather than canonical) fiction. (I suspect that the course title was chosen partly as a marketing ploy.) Then, the list of possible genres covered is itself a bit oddly various. But we usually keep Calendar copy deliberately open-ended: specific enough to mark out some distinctive parameters for a class but vague or flexible enough that different people could take the job on and do it in a way that suits their interests and judgment.

ladyaudleyI don’t know yet how I’ll approach the “pulp fiction” class, much less which books I will assign. I do know, though, that I’m already interested in thinking about these questions, so that’s exciting. Looking at book lists from a couple of my colleagues who have taught the class before, they don’t actually strike me as very “pulpy,” at least not in the longer texts, which have included works by Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Indeed, I can see how any of these writers might be used to provoke really exciting discussions about canonicity, literary prestige, historical shifts in taste and popularity, and so on.) I do have some relevant experience from teaching the mystery fiction class (a hard-boiled novel might make a good choice for this one), and over the last few years (thanks to Twitter and blogging friends) I have accumulated some helpful ideas about romance fiction, both in and out of the classroom (at the moment I’m tempted to assign Lord of Scoundrels). The Victorian period is also full of possibilities, including some I know well (Lady Audley’s Secret, for example) and some I know a bit about but haven’t actually read yet (such as H. Rider Haggard’s She or King Solomon’s Mines). I know basically nothing, so far, about Westerns (unless Cormac McCarthy counts, and though he is many things, I’m not sure “pulpy” is one of them), and have only a spotty sense of what might be a useful sci-fi or fantasy title for these purposes. Happily, I have until next fall to work out the reading list and until January 2017 to fix all the details — so you can expect to hear more about it here. If you have ideas for either primary or secondary sources to help me figure it all out, do let me know! I’d be especially interested to know how you would define “pulp fiction” as a category: it won’t be possible to make good choices for specific readings until I settle on a satisfactory working definition of the term, or at any rate choose the definition that my course will be organized around.*

It looks like I will also be teaching our survey of British Literature Since 1800, which I’ve done a couple of times before and very much enjoyed (but haven’t taught since 2010), plus two Victorian classes – The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy and an upper-level seminar on the ‘Woman Question’ (which I haven’t taught since 2011). So, my 2016-17 courses will be a good mix of levels and material, and will involve plenty of class prep that won’t seem at all routine.

But for now, it’s back to the realities of my 2015-16 classes … though not quite yet, since it’s a long weekend. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

*Quick update: After posting this I read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was one of the first titles I thought of as I brainstormed possible readings. It certainly is lurid and suspenseful — and it’s short and reads briskly, too. That combination keeps it on the list of possibilities, as for a first-year course (and one that’s also supposed to spend class time on writing skills) I can’t get too ambitious with the reading list.

“Endurance”: Anita Brookner, Strangers


That was one of the dubious endowments of ageing, a conviction that one’s desires had not been met, that there was in fact no reward, and that the way ahead was simply one of endurance.

Anita Brookner’s Strangers is a quietly ruthless dissection of the discomforts and disquietude of growing old alone. Its protagonist, Paul Sturgis, is a nice man in his early seventies — “too nice,” he remembers an old girlfriend telling him dismissively, breaking up with him. Retired, solitary, undemanding, he lives a life, not exactly of quiet desperation, but of unrelieved introspection and almost no pleasure. He has money and a flat of his own, but he finds no fulfillment in his solitary walks, his visits to the library, his reading, or the one family connection he still has when the novel begins — his late cousin’s wife, to whom he makes ritual Sunday visits with no great rewards on either side, until her unattended death completes his isolation and gives him a painful glimpse of his own likely future.

Paul’s life feels insubstantial to him:

It seemed to him a terrible thing to live without witnesses, as if he had failed to make good the inevitable deficiencies of both past and present, had never created a family of his own, so that he was haunted by a feeling of invisibility, as if he were a mere spectator of his own, his only life, with no one to identify him, let alone with him, in the barren circumstances of the here and now.

What is there, what can he do, that will infuse meaning into his day-to-day existence? Once, the routine of work kept such questions at bay, and there was occasional travel, and friends, including girlfriends. None of this has lasted, though, or had any lasting effect. Paul thinks the answer might lie  in connections with other people, and in another novel, that would be the answer, and the relationships that develop across the second half of the novel would restore him, and thus us, to happiness and hope.

“But not so,” as Hardy says — and in fact there is something faintly Hardy-esque about the unremitting bleakness of Strangers, though Paul’s suffering never rises to the morally grandiose level of Jude’s. Paul’s solitude is impinged on, first by the willful and energetic divorcée Vicky Gardner and then by his old girlfriend Sarah, herself now also aged and alone. Both prove unsatisfactory companions, though, and their contradictory needs and demands stir Paul to selfishness rather than sympathy, to a restless if inchoate ambition to effect some kind of change on his own behalf.  Must the scant time that remains to him be spent in the encroaching dullness of his flat, the dreary time-killing of his unmotivated outings? The novels he once enjoyed “usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him”:

In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. . . . his life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Strangers meticulously documents Paul’s confrontation with these realities, and then his growing wish that somehow, old and set in his ways as he is, he can “make it new.” But how? He lacks talent, ambition, drive; he has no sense of mission to lift even his wildest dreams above the quotidian. Brookner offers Paul no epiphany, though at the very end she does grant him a reprieve, as he finally acts to set his “fantasy” of change in motion:

This was the obverse of all fears, the assurance that life was still a possession to be treasured and that its possession was unalienably his.

The lonely end he anticipates cannot be staved off altogether, but it can at least be approached from a different direction. This is not quite the “note of success,” the “exoneration,” of the novels Paul has repudiated, but Brookner had brought me so low, along with Paul, that I rejoiced with him at the promise of something at least a little better than just endurance.

George Eliot and “Fine Old Christmas”


I don’t usually think about George Eliot and Christmas together, and when I do, it’s usually by way of Silas Marner, which is a lovely secular version of the Christmas story (among other things). Rereading The Mill on the Floss for my class this week, though, I was struck by this little passage, which somehow had never really stood out to me before:

Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.

Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified “in unrecumbent sadness”; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow. But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless — fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.

The immediate context is Tom’s return from Mr. Stelling’s school for the holidays, and the emphasis on coziness and fellowship helps bring out both his happiness at being at home again and the novel’s larger emphasis on home and family as the roots of memory and thus morality. The penultimate sentence here does something rather different, though, doesn’t it? It introduces (on a small scale) a Dickens-like critique of exclusion from these blessings, a quick but painful sketch of the unhappiness the season exacerbates for those unable to rejoice in its warmth and bounty. I find the personification of Christmas, and then ‘his’ characterization as the son of ‘father Time,’ strategically interesting. The “fine old season” could just as easily be winter, especially given the evocative descriptions of the snow, but we can’t do anything about winter, (sadly!): its sorrows are indeed “unresting.” Christmas, however, is what people have made of the season: it is the consolation we’ve come up with for its cold and privation. It is, in other words, a man-made, not a natural (or a supernatural), phenomenon. Eliot’s personification reminds us of that, and hints that we could perhaps do something about “unexpectant want.” The “rich gifts” of Christmas, after all, really come from us.

I’ve been trying to think of other explicit Christmas scenes in Eliot’s novels and am coming up blank. Anyone?

Open Letters for October!


The October issue of Open Letters Monthly is up, and the editors are enjoying the brief interval fondly (or sometimes grudgingly — I’m looking at you, Steve Donoghue!) known as the “Basking Period,” in which we sit back and admire the results of our hard work — and, of course, the hard work of our excellent contributors.

One of this month’s highlights is our Bestseller Feature, in which we take a hard look at the NYT fiction bestsellers. As you might expect, things don’t often go that well for the poor bestsellers (Greg Waldmann’s takedown of James Patterson’s Alert is both harsh and hilarious, for instance), but there are some nice surprises too: check it out to read, among others, Steve Donoghue on Debbie Macomber, Sam Sacks on Kristin Hannah, John Cotter on Jonathan Kellerman, me on Paula Hawkins, and Rebecca Hussey on Jennifer Weiner.

Rebecca also contributed a smart, thoughtful review of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City that made me even more interested in reading the book for myself (how I hadn’t even heard of Gornick until so recently is a puzzle to me). We’ve got a lovely essay-slash-review from Kerry Clare, as well, on Anne-Marie Macdonald’s Adult Onset; a fascinating piece from Victoria Olsen on the dancer Jane Avril; a review from Steve Donoghue of a new book on “The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar” — plus other reviews, new poetry, and links back to our previous bestseller features from 2008 and 2009.

As always, I feel proud and happy to help bring so much good writing together for readers. I really think we offer a good experience for writers, too: our editing is attentive and rigorous and focused on bringing out the best in every contribution. The editors do it all on top of our “day jobs” and with essentially no budget: I suppose there’s a way in which that is not necessarily to be celebrated, but the results certainly are.

“The Pick of the Bunch”: Margaret Campbell Barnes, My Lady of Cleves


Anne sought in the folds of her skirt for the gold-handled scissors hanging from her belt. Deftly she snipped off the fattest grape of all and popped it into his watering mouth. He savored it greedily and, after a furtive glance across the room, squeezed her hand with the obscene slyness of an old man who has lived lustily.

“The pick of the bunch!” he said. And the faded eyes that blinked up at her from beneath his sandy lashes were full of fun and affection.

“How kind of you to bring grapes!” exclaimed Kate, bustling forward with a glass of medicine.

She thought they were discussing the fruit. But Anne knew he was teasing her. He might equally well have been discussing his wives. . . .

She felt sure he had been speaking her epitaph; and a flood of long-delayed triumph shot through her, warm as wine. She wasn’t ravishing like Nan Boleyn, nor the mother of his son like Jane, nor yet his ‘rose without a thorn’ — but at least he had admitted his mistake and tried to make amends for calling her a Flanders mare.

I wasn’t quite up to reading another installment of ‘The House of Niccolo‘ right away, but I also didn’t feel like going straight from Dunnett to some slick contemporary novel, so in the end what I plucked from my shelf was some vintage historical fiction, Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves. I never read Barnes as avidly as I read Jean Plaidy, but a couple of her novels were steadfast favorites, including Mary of Carisbrooke and Brief Gaudy Hour, her Anne Boleyn novel. I always loved My Lady of Cleves especially, though, so I was very happy a few years ago to find I could replace my crumbling library discard copy with an elegant new edition. (The pretty cover does have the odd design problem that Steve Donoghue noted is strangely prevalent in Tudor fiction, though.)

Anne_of_Cleves,_miniature_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerMy Lady of Cleves is much less ambitious than any of Dunnett’s novels: it is historical fiction as domestic drama, with no pretensions to theories or philosophies about the rise and fall of nations or faiths or civilizations. It is, as a result, much easier reading — and easier writing too, no doubt! Its premise is simple and sweet: that Holbein’s exquisite portraits of Anne, including the miniature that (mis)led Henry VIII into choosing her for his fourth wife, are evidence of a hidden love story between the great artist and his unprepossessing subject. How else, after all, to explain the mismatch between the beauty of his work and the reality of the woman Henry so contemptuously cast aside? Holbein must have seen something his king — coarse, lusty, spoiled — could not, and that something is what the novel creates for us: a woman of quiet dignity, but also strong feeling, held carefully in reserve, a woman who would — if things had gone differently — have made a good, perhaps even a great, queen, but who missed, or was spared, that fate.

Barnes is not a great stylist, and some moments struck me as particularly wooden on this reading. But she does a consistently nice job sketching in period details, lavishing them particularly on the homes and gardens of her characters, from the castle in Cleves with its “comfortable pepper-pot turrets” to Anne’s eventual home at Richmond. (The descriptions of Hampton Court brought back happy memories of my visit there a few years ago: it lived in my imagination for so long that actually being there is both surreal and thrilling.) “Nowhere had she seen such gracious houses as these wealthy English possessed,” Anne reflects:

Golden bars of sunlight lay across the floor, flecked here and there with gems of color reflected from armorial bearings on the casements of the three long oriel windows. On the wall facing them a tapestry in russet and green held all the living loveliness of an autumn wood through which a lordly stag picked its way with timid grace. . . . There were beautiful pieces of furniture designed for comfort and a great painted globe of the world. On a long refectory table which looked as though it might have been filched from some splendid monastery were gathered a pewter ink well holding a flamboyant quill, white sheets of music scored with square black blobs of notes, and a priceless collection of queerly shaped musical instruments of which Anne didn’t even know the names. Everywhere were books and maps and signs of lively culture. Her father had plenty of books but most of them were chained to gloomy desks, not scattered about family rooms so that the sunlight could wink cheerfully on their metal clasps. Only these Tudors, it seemed, understood the art of living.

It’s “these Tudors,” the “tempestuous Tudors,” as Anne often thinks of them, that dominate Anne’s new life. Henry, in particular, overwhelms the novel whenever he’s present, which seems apt: “he would have filled the center of our stage anyhow,” his friend Charles Brandon tells Anne, “even if he’d been a commoner’s son. Some people have that kind of flame in them.” It’s unexpected, perhaps, in a novel about Henry’s rejected queen, that she and therefore we eventually come to see Henry sympathetically. Anne initially sees him, literally, as a caricature, as Holbein draws him for her, square, with “arched brows” and a “little pursed mouth.” When she first meets him in person, she is struck by how much he resembles Holbein’s uncharitable sketch; shamed and hurt by his humiliating treatment of her, she continues to see him in two dimensions, with understandably little inclination to seek out or acknowledge his other dimensions. Once freed of their embarrassing failed marriage, though, she regains her equanimity and feels compassion and even admiration for facets of his character that offset, if they don’t excuse, his ruthlessness, egotism, and greed.

359px-Anne_of_Cleves,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerBut it’s Anne who, rightly, holds first place in the novel overall. Barnes makes the lack of dramatic incident in Anne’s life itself dramatic: with the ghost of Anne Boleyn behind her and the tragic spectacle of young Katherine Howard’s fall before her, her relative tranquility seems precious, even if it is maintained through the sacrifice of her most passionate yearnings. I have no idea how much of Barnes’s portrait is based on historical records: her author’s note says that all the comments in the novel about Anne “were in fact made by people who knew and saw her,” but how much we know about Anne herself, as a woman, or about the details of her life before, during, or after her life-changing marriage is beyond my scope. What Barnes does so well, though, is make me believe in her version of Anne: it’s as if (and I know this sounds cliched) the poised woman in the portrait has stepped out of it into the novel.

It’s a story, too, built on the possibility of solitary contentment — not that Anne is altogether alone, but that the happiness she finds turns on her ability to make her own life meaningful, without romance, marriage, or children of her own. Condemned to live on the periphery of the court she gave up so much to join, she manages, in Barnes’s version, to make her modest place in history seem like a noble one. Nice as it would have been for the story to have a more conventional happy ending, there’s still something comforting about that.


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This Week In My Classes: Reading Against the Grain

adambedeI have really enjoyed rereading Adam Bede for my graduate seminar over the past two weeks. Though I know the novel reasonably well, I have never spent the kind of dedicated time on it that I have on Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss  — or, for that matter, on Romola. I’ve never even assigned it in an undergraduate class, I realize! Still, I do have a half-finished (well, maybe one-third-finished) essay on it for Open Letters that was (is?) going to focus on the line between explaining and justifying, between understanding and forgiving. This is a problem raised in most of Eliot’s novels, but Hetty’s infanticide is an extreme test case: there’s nothing abstract about the consequences of her crime, nothing diffuse or dispersed about the damage done, as there is with, for example, Bulstrode’s lies or Tito’s betrayal. “Children may be strangled, but deeds never,” says the narrator rather chillingly in Romola, but it’s really only in Adam Bede that there’s a literal child to mourn rather than an intangible (if irrevocable) fault.

Though the novel is called Adam Bede (a faintly puzzling choice that we talked about several times in class), Hetty is by far its most interesting element: both the drama of her story (especially the still-gripping-after-all-these-years journeys in hope and despair) and the meticulous care with which Eliot presents her vain, shallow, artless, and ultimately tragic character. Critics sometimes accuse Eliot of being hard on her beautiful women in general and on Hetty in particular. It’s true we’re shown Hetty in a very unflattering light, despite the emphasis on her kitten-like charms. That seems to me the only plausible option, though, if we are going to go through the moral exercise the novel sets for us of sympathizing with “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people.” The point is not to help us see Hetty in a kindly light, to show us that she’s somehow better than she seems — but to show us that however irredeemably selfish she is, however incapable of self-reflection, nonetheless the onus is on us to “tolerate, pity, and love” her. Dinah, of course, is our model for that moral transcendence, and though she herself is rather a dull character, I think the meeting between the two women in prison is thrilling. (I wrote a little bit about it near the end of this essay on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch.)

So, there’s all that, and luxurious landscapes, and dramatic rescues, and Mrs. Poyser to boot — what’s not to love?

But I had much less fun rereading some of the critical articles I’d assigned, even though they are smart and well-argued and thought-provoking and all the things that they should be. I was trying to figure out why, and what I came up with was that in many ways they position themselves against George Eliot, against Adam Bede as she offers it to us. I’ve been reading and writing for so long now outside of academic parameters that I’ve become less accustomed to the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” or to readings that are less interested in the discussion the author is overtly having with us than in undermining or second-guessing or critiquing the terms of discussion the author has chosen. I would never argue that such critiques are illegitimate; often, too, they establish a valuable chiaroscuro in a robust appreciation (who today can love Dickens, for instance, without also conceding that his women often disappoint?). It would be naive, or worse, to pretend that there’s nothing objectionable to be found — even in George Eliot! (Yes, her politics are cautious to the point of conservative; yes, she’s essentialist about gender; yes, she can be less than rhapsodic about coarse peasants; etc.) I think that right now, though, for me it’s less rewarding to do or read criticism that digs in on these issues when there is so much that is progressive and aspirational, and also beautiful, in her writing. What are we to do with Adam Bede, after all, if we conclude that it perpetuates or advocates a vision (a version) of society that we reject? Close it and put it away for good?

Almost certainly not, of course, and I don’t think that’s what any of the critics we read are saying either. Usually (as I take it) the implicit subtext is something more like “read it in a more complicated way,” or “approach with skepticism.” Don’t, in other words, take Eliot’s words for granted, which is exactly the mantra I’ve been insisting on in my Introduction to Literature class — except that there, the purpose is not to catch out or undermine the author but to appreciate their artful use of language to serve their ends. That approach is consistent with ultimately finding those ends problematic, but it’s still overall a more positive exercise. (That seems both right and necessary as a first step: you can’t effectively critique what you don’t thoroughly understand, after all.)

Writing this, I am plagued by a sense that I’m being inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical. I definitely resist some books and read them, if not suspiciously, at least with something quite other than appreciation. I’ve also committed a lot of time and thought to the importance of ethical criticism, which is fundamentally about questioning the implications of an author’s literary strategies, as much as or more than it is about identifying their overt or covert political commitments. Maybe I still haven’t rightly identified the source of my annoyance, then — or maybe what it comes down to is just that I prefer my Adam Bede to the Adam Bede I saw in some of the critical essays. The miraculous thing about great books is that all these versions can coexist, that all these things can be going on at once. Love, too, can coexist with criticism — even my love for Middlemarch, which is complicated but not diminished by my anxiety that there is something potentially dangerous about its most beautiful moments.

“They had Nicholas”: Dorothy Dunnett, The Spring of the Ram


The truth was, Tobie supposed, that some of them wanted more than a leader, so that disappointment came hard. Toys; toys for the pillow. It was true; they were wrong. A team was one thing; a family was bound by something quite different. What they had was, indeed, enough to be thankful for. Whatever it meant, they had Nicholas.

The Spring of the Ram is the second in Dorothy Dunnet’s ‘House of Niccolò’ series. After I read the first volume, Niccolò Rising, last summer, I wondered how far it was my fault that “I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern.” I had even more trouble with that this time: indeed, it seemed to me that Dunnett was being more opaque and enigmatic even than usual, tossing out teasers and hints, having the characters share knowing glances or experience moments of insight that were not explicated on my behalf until the end of the novel. As I also realized reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild, though, in the hands of a skilled story-teller comprehension isn’t always necessary to appreciation: Dunnett has a genius for making the individual crises rise above the contextual chaos, so that even though I couldn’t grasp the nuances of motivation or political machination that lay behind Nicholas’s actions, my interest in their outcome rarely flagged. Like the “reveals” at the end of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Dunnett’s denouements show us the hand and the mind of the master that has been at work the whole time — hers, and her protagonists’.

Like Niccolò Rising, The Spring of the Ram has a slow burn: Dunnett takes her time setting up her pieces, and she also luxuriates in detailing the world through which they will make their moves. For the patient reader, there are abundant readerly delights in this process. Open to almost any page in The Spring of the Ram and you’ll get vivid, tactile description that brings to life a foreign world — unfamiliar in color, sound, smell, texture, distant in both time and place — in this case, particularly Trebizond, center of the fading Byzantine Empire, its glories on display here for the celebration of Easter:

The standards were made of crimson satin, heavily fringed, and the standardbearers and musicians wore the same colour. The horses had manes white as silk, bound with ribbons and tassels; and golden harness and beaded caparisons, and saddles studded with silver. The riders wore crowns and diadems looped and strung and fringed with fine jewelled chains, and had shining hair in every colour from bright gold to black. Their robes, narrow as grave clothes, were armoured with precious stones; with gorgets and belts and bands of ancient gems, thick as crabs. Their backs were straight; their bodies were slender as dancers'; their faces were masks of symmetrical beauty. They reached the plateau of the monastery and began to pass round its walls, while the murmuring silence was pierced by the abrupt clamour of trumpets. There was a pauses. A body of scent began to move through the air, displacing the incense. Where it came from, you could see the gleam of cloth of gold, and a sparkle where drifts of jewels fathered in shadow. . . .

Heralds and standards came first; and then young boys and maidens throwing yellow spring flowers. A golden-haired boy of a beauty she had never imagined walked next, dressed in ivory silk, a gilded bow in his hand. Behind, pacing slowly between his confessors, was the Emperor. In the crook of his right arm the Imperial crosier lay like a lily. Over his left was wrapped a swathe of the long, elaborate pallium. Above the tunic, the dalmatica, the silken eagles woven in purple and gold, she saw a noble profile, calm and resolute beneath the tall stiffened gold of the mitra. From the rim of the crown, strings of light pearls fell to the jewelled yoke on his broad shoulders, and mixed with the loose curling gold of his hair and his beard. Behind him, the train of men and women and youths, of officials and nobles and churchmen stretched far off through the trees.

The action of the novel rises to its climax with the Siege of Trebizond by the Ottomans in 1461. This provides the ultimate occasion to display the emergent power of our hero Nicholas, who began the series as a raw, unruly apprentice but who by the end of this novel is taking a confident place among Dunnett’s pantheon of charismatic leaders. In some respects The Spring of the Ram is an intensely personal story about this development, played out against the malevolent will of the nasty scheming Simon St. Pol, who may be Nicholas’s father, as well as against the quietly moving story of Nicholas’s unlikely love for his wife, Marian de Charetty, left behind while he risks everything for her company and also for her wayward daughter. But Dunnett’s people are also always agents, or representatives, of historical forces, and by the end of The Spring of the Ram we understand that the decisions Nicholas has been making about where to bestow his loyalty, his gifts, and his trade affect not only himself, his business, and his family, and his allies, but also the rise and fall of empires and faiths. “For a few weeks he had the power to choose,” says one of his company, once the hand has been played;

The future of the last Roman emperor of the East. He was forced to put a value on one of the world’s great civilizations. The blend of Rome and the Orient and the Hellenes that will never happen again. The Byzantine world that preserved Roman government and classical culture all through the ages when the Latin empire lay in ruins and was reduced, now, to one small, silly court with its beauties and its bath boys and its philosophers. And against that, the Turcoman horde. And stronger than both, the Ottoman Empire, enemy of all the Christian Church ever believed in.

This is Dunnett’s vision of history: extraordinary individuals inexplicably and exultantly of their moment, embodying “the spirit of the age” and yet, in her expert handling, never seeming anything less than human. In getting to know them, in getting caught up with them in commerce and battle but also in poetry, art, and philosophy, we are caught up in the excitement of the Renaissance as Dunnett feels it: as she says in her Author’s Note, “the explosion of exploration and trade, high art and political duplicity, personal chivalry and violent warfare in which a young man with a genius for organization and numbers might find himself trusted by princes, loved by kings, and sought in marriage and out of it by clever women bent on power, or wealth, or revenge — or sometimes simply from fondness.”

gameofkingsIt’s an exhilarating vision, and sometimes also an exhilarating reading experience, but I have to admit that the pay-off for persisting through my confusion wasn’t as great with The Spring of the Ram as I’d hoped. We are repeatedly reminded that Simon’s agent, Pagano Doria, is a short man, which eventually seemed too pat for me as a signal that (clever as he is) he lacks Nicholas’s stature — he is not the fearsome antagonist that, for example, Gabriel Reid Malett is for Francis Crawford in the Lymond series. And Nicholas himself still seems lesser – paler, duller — than Lymond: he lacks the dangerous charisma and mercurial brilliance that make Lymond so fascinating to watch. We have to take Nicholas’s exceptionality much more on faith, so far: he carries out nearly as many tricks as Lymond, but without nearly as much conspicuous melodrama, and without displaying nearly as much passion (however vexingly conflicted), for truth, for honor, or for other people. The characters surrounding Nicholas also seem less distinct and less exciting than Lymond’s supporting cast: than Will Scott, or Jerott Blyth, or Archie — or Christian Stewart, or Oonagh O’Dwyer, or, especially Philippa. With four volumes to go in the series, there’s time for the ensemble to live up to my expectations, but at this point (and I readily admit this may be an unavoidable side-effect of my 30-year love affair with the other series) for all Dunnett’s manifest gifts ‘The House of Niccolò’ still feels a bit flat, my reading of it a bit forced, in ways I never experienced with the Lymond Chronicles.

This Week In My Classes: Reading, Writing, and Just a Little Ranting

broadviewWe are into our second full week of classes now. I think things are mostly going smoothly, but that’s as much thanks to habit and experience as anything I’ve done particularly effectively in the past week or so. It’s not that anything is going badly — at least, not as far as I can tell. I just feel creaky, and I suppose that’s to be expected after almost nine months out of the classroom.

My section of Introduction to Prose and Fiction is still warming up overall. At this stage I’m mostly introducing vocabulary and trying to demystify the process of close reading: encouraging close attention to words and literary devices, modelling ways to back up overall impressions (he’s making a joke, it’s ironic, he’s upset about the way imperialism has driven him to act against his conscience) with reference to the particulars of the text that gave you that idea. (In order, “Advice to Youth,” “A Modest Proposal,” and “Shooting an Elephant,” in case you wondered.) The challenge is always to balance providing terminology and relevant contextual information with opportunities for open discussion and actually practising the skills the course aims to teach. I always allow some time for this in class, but this term we also have scheduled tutorials, as the class is fairly large (around 70, at this point). It’s nice to know we can use the tutorials for more personalized attention and hands-on activities — though it also means that I have to be extra organized, so that I can set my teaching assistants up with a plan for each session and the materials to follow through on it. Here too I will step back as the term goes on, so that the TAs can approach their sessions in the way they want, but at first I think it helps us (staff and students) to have a high degree of consistency across the course.

I sometimes wonder if I should dream up a more dramatic way to launch this course. I do try to work up some excitement about our readings as texts that were never intended to be sanitized and homogenized in anthologies, even ones as choice and elegant as our Broadview readers. I do a little riff in the first class on the intimidating invitation of the blank page (or screen), on the urgency and difficulty of resolving to write something on it in the first place, and then on the cascade of choices that immediately follow: genre, voice, point of view, and so on, down to individual words — from which we, as readers, work backwards again to our richest sense of what the writer meant. I certainly find writing challenging enough to be full of wonder and curiosity about how it works, when it does, and of course our examples are hand-selected to be well worth examining. I hope I communicate some of my own enthusiasm for this process, along with my conviction that knowing more ultimately enhances the rewards of reading. Still, I expect that by and large the class comes across as a bit dry at first. But I do believe that it serves our purposes to be patient and somewhat technical at the outset. We’re going to get into some rather more subtle and confusing readings as the term goes on, and everything will go better if they have learned habits of rigor and precision.

Yet despite my overall satisfaction with the plan and execution of this class, it’s also where, right now, I’m feeling the creakiest, because I feel out of practice at the demanding skill of thinking on my feet. When you ask open-ended questions, you have to field the replies, and they are rarely exactly what you expect, and sometimes they are difficult to understand or even to hear clearly. I want the students to feel comfortable speaking up, so as far as possible I try to reply in a positive way, reshaping or redirecting if there seems to be a confusion, encouraging and prompting further details if it’s an insightful remark, and so on. Usually I’m pretty adept at this, but right now my mental reaction time just seems a bit slow.

adambedeMy other class this term is my graduate seminar on George Eliot. Here I have a cozy group, just five students, and it really is an entirely different ball game than Intro. Last week I gave an overview lecture on George Eliot to provide some common background, since as usual the students have quite a range of prior experience (this year, from none at all to a bit) reading her work. Then we took a look at some of her most famous essays, including “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” We spent some time on the vexed question of whether the essay’s brilliant snark is misogynistic. Since the last time I taught this seminar (in 2010), my own reading has broadened to include romance fiction, which has in turn made me much more aware of how discussions of romance readers and novelists are carried on today — so I couldn’t resist sending the class a link to William Giraldi’s piece on Fifty Shades of Grey. I thought (rightly, as it turned out) that comparing his screed to “Silly Novels” would provoke more discussion about when and how criticism of specific women writers shades into general contempt for women. I must say that (though there are still reasonable grounds for objecting to her tone and argument), Eliot ends up looking positively benign by comparison.

This week we discussed the first half of Adam Bede. What a treat it is to be rereading Adam Bede! I’m quite prepared to admit it is not nearly as artful or wise as Middlemarch, that the good people in it are mostly too good, that the narrator isn’t, yet, quite all that she will become and so on. It has qualities Middlemarch lacks, though, including the expansiveness of its descriptions of the landscape, and its focus on fewer characters means that (especially in the second half) there is greater emotional intensity — we are more invested, I think, in their plight, and especially in Hetty’s. As a set piece, Adam Bede‘s Chapter XV (“The Two Bedrooms”) is almost as great as Middlemarch‘s Ch. XV (the tremendous “let me introduce you to Lydgate” chapter) — the juxtaposition of Dinah and Hetty is thematically perfect but also dramatically believable. We ended up talking quite a bit about characters today, particularly about how they exemplify the novel’s stated principles of confronting us with mixed, imperfect people who nonetheless deserve our sympathetic attention, not to mention the novelist’s loving treatment. “I would not, even if I had the choice,” Eliot says in the famous Chapter XVII (“In Which the Story Pauses a Little),

be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields — on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow- feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.

That conviction that the novel can help us be our best selves is part of what I love so much about Eliot. That, in turn, perhaps explains why I’m having such a hard time writing the 1000 words I’ve promised about Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which relies (with distressing success) on exactly the opposite supposition — not that we are already perfected and so in no need of moral reinforcement, but that the “clever novelist” will do best by appealing to our worst, most prurient selves. I hate what The Girl on the Train assumes about us as readers, and I hate, too, that its 35 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list proves it right.

Finished with Ferrante. Probably Forever.

lostchildI actually hadn’t intended to read The Story of the Lost Child. By the time I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I felt that three long volumes of minutiae (however intense) and interpersonal angst (especially between two characters who never seemed either particularly plausible or particularly interesting) was plenty. It’s not that I didn’t think the first three Neapolitan novels were any good. They are good — probably better than most recent novels I’ve read. But after a point, it was impossible to read them without sky-high expectations, because their overall reception has been both so positive and so uncannily uniform. Raw! Honest! Confessional! Brave! (I wrote about the critical phenomenon already in some detail, in a piece that I thought might generate some self-conscious discussion among the feverish Ferrante fans or just people interested in the general issue of women’s writing and its reception. It didn’t.) And how many novels are really that great?

I got a tempting invitation to review the fourth volume, though, and so I did end up reading it. I’m not entirely sorry that the review has ultimately dead-ended, as during the editorial back-and-forth it was turning into something I didn’t really care for, that didn’t even sound like me. (That’s undoubtedly because it also didn’t start out very well, at least for its intended purpose: I’m not blaming anyone but myself.) I’m not entirely sorry I read The Story of the Lost Child either, though, because like its predecessors, it is pretty good, and after the investment of reading the first 1000 pages of a series, it is nice to know how it all wraps up. At this point, though, especially after two frustrating weeks immersed all over again in her work, I’m fed up with both thinking and writing about Ferrante. Anyone who wants to read a deep, thoughtful commentary about her should read Alice Brittan’s “Elena Ferrante and the Art of the Left Hand” in this month’s Open Letters. Alice loves the novels, but she also comes at them, as she comes at every book she writes about, from an unexpected angle, so though there’s plenty of enthusiasm on display, it’s not of the “these books are the awesomest, bravest, most honest, truthful, confessional, searing, epic portraits of women’s lives and female friendships ever” variety. (I’m sure not every other review is like that either, but that’s certainly the general flavor of Ferrante criticism.)

Here is the short version of my ‘take.’ The Neapolitan novels are good books, but to me they represent novels as blunt instruments. They have a lot of detail, but not a lot of nuance, especially stylistically. (Requisite caveat: maybe in the original Italian, they are different, better, more subtle.) In particular, the first-person narration is ultimately a disappointment, both artistically and thematically. Elena is not much of anything: she is neither unreliable nor interestingly retrospective (by which I mean, though she is remembering and reconstructing her past, her narration does not show her learning or developing from it). In the review you won’t ever read, I compare her unfavorably to Pip in Great Expectations (and why not, since every much-hyped novel these days seems to explicitly invite the comparison). Reading Great Expectations, you realize early on that Pip the character is not (until the end) Pip the narrator. There is great artistry in that palimpsestic effect, as well as real moral significance in his changing perspective. I did not find any comparable achievement by (either) Elena. As a Kunstlerroman, also, which is what the Neapolitan novels could (perhaps should) be, the series is unconvincing, or at least not compelling. Elena talks a lot about her writing, about its deficiencies and changes, and especially about women’s writing and women in writing as creatures of the male imagination and aesthetic. Her chronicle of her life, of Lila’s life, and of their friendship does not strike me as a powerful or empowering alternative: it’s too linear, too literal, and in its own ways, too reductive. If it is (as, say, Aurora Leigh is for Aurora Leigh) the culmination of her artistic development, then for me (despite all its emotional power, and the richness and complexity of its historical and sociological description) it’s underwhelming. (Maybe if I’d been this blunt in my draft review, we would have gotten somewhere!)

Lots of readers disagree with me, and plenty of critics have written at length about what they see as the brilliance of the series. Every major critical outlet (well, except one, I guess) has or will have an opinion on offer and I have yet to see one that isn’t pretty much ecstatic. So you have lots of support if you think I’ve read uncharitably or stupidly. My review, however, would have been mixed, for the reasons I’ve given. I found Nicola Griffith’s Hild a much more exciting literary experience: I’m really looking forward to reading its second volume. I’m keen, too, to read Adam Johnson’s new collection of short fiction, because I thought The Orphan Master’s Son was extraordinary. I will read anything else that Helen DeWitt publishes, because The Last Samurai was brilliant on every level. Having given Ferrante my best shot as a reader and critic, here and elsewhere, though, I think I’m done with her.

I wouldn’t even care — or bother saying anything — about this except that if you want (as I sometimes want, or think I want) to participate in ‘the literary world,’ the books everyone is talking about exert a certain pressure on you. (Recent exhibit A: The Goldfinch.) Sometimes, that’s fine: it’s a good book, it’s a good conversation, it’s a good intellectual exercise. Even when I write what I think is a really good piece of criticism about a current hot title, though (Life After Life, say — and there‘s a review I’m proud to have my name on), I often end up feeling a bit disappointed in the process. What (as Dorothea says) could be sadder than so much ardent labor all in vain? Because there’s always another, and another, and another good but probably not great book coming down the pipe that we’ll all feel we have to read and talk about.

The joy of blogging is the total freedom it brings from publishers’ schedules and publicists’ blandishments. I’m sure my current feelings of exasperation will abate, but you can probably expect a lot more Dorothy Dunnett around here for a while, until they do.

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