“Riding Backwards”: Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

spectator1Is there a name for books structured as backward explorations — books like Moon Tiger, say, or Old Filth, or Stegner’s Angle of Repose or The Spectator Bird, framed by aged protagonists’ desire (part nostalgic, part existential) to understand the story of their own lives? It’s a simple enough device, and at least in the examples I can think of right now, there’s a similarity of tone, a blend of introspection and acerbity, as if the past chafes a bit uncomfortably, a bit ironically, against the present. “Put it down to historical queasiness,” says Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird: “I always did get a little seasick riding backwards.”

The Spectator Bird begins with Joe and Ruth retired, living a version of the good life but beset, as Joe is increasingly aware, by both the physical and the psychological effects of aging. Joe suffers from arthritis, for example, that  pains and partially immobilizes him — and one side effect of his grating joints is a grating temper, a desire to assert his will in the face of changes he can’t control. A former literary agent, he has left the intensity of mid-town Manhattan for the more pastoral pleasures of California, which Stegner evokes with his characteristic sympathetic artistry:

Fat towhees sidle up to one another, pinheaded doves forage in the grass, the field next door is suddenly full of robins who arrive like blown leaves, picnic awhile, and depart all together as if summoned. From my study I can watch wrens and bush tits in the live oak outside. The wrens are nesting in a hole for the fifth straight year and are very busy: tilted tails going in, sharp heads with the white eyebrow stripe coming out. They are surly and aggressive, and I wonder idly why I, who seem to be as testy as the wrens, much prefer the sociable bush tits. Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide-and-sek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Instead of being carefree, Joe is “irritable and depressed,” and it doesn’t help to learn that yet another of their close friends is dying, or to be visited by a flamboyant Italian novelist, a vestige of the old literary scene, who can’t comprehend how they are living now: “You don’t want to sit in this imitation Umbria and dig in the mud and struggle against uncivilized nature. That is the way to grow old.” “By working our heads off,” Joe says acidly, “we managed to give Césare the dullest two and a half hours he has had since arriving in America.”

spectator2Still, Ruth and Joe seem likely to putter on, if not in perfect amity, at least in stolid companionship, without any new crises, until a postcard arrives from an old friend that prompts Joe to dig up his decades-old journals, which Ruth then encourages him to read aloud. They both know, it turns out, that the journals tell the story of a trip to Denmark that became a turning point in their relationship, one that has long gone unacknowledged but that has been a small irritation in their consciousness for decades. “You wanted the pebble out of the shoe,” says Joe to Ruth after she has forced a long-deferred confession; “I suppose,” she replies.

The Spectator Bird alternates between Joe and Ruth in the present and Joe’s journals. The Danish adventure the journals record begins as an escape from their own family drama — their son has died and Joe has just recovered from a serious illness — but takes them into one that’s even more fraught and complicated: an elegant Countess whose mysterious isolation turns out to be the result of her husband’s collaboration with the Nazis, and whose family’s past, intertwined, it turns out, with Joe’s, has secrets that make it, as Joe and Ruth observe, the stuff of Gothic novels.

Though I enjoyed the Danish segments a lot, I was a bit puzzled by the nature of those secrets, by why this kind of story provided the counterpoint Stegner wanted to the rest of Joe’s narrative. Its details seemed extreme and somewhat perverse, with no necessary thematic links to the life Joe is living now. But then I thought that maybe the contrast is deliberate: the Countess’s world is precisely not Joe’s, and though it’s enticing to imagine himself living in a Gothic romance, in the end — as he says — “there never was any real choice.” He doesn’t even feel any real regret. That’s not to say he doesn’t look back on those heady, confusing days and think about what might have been, but “jump[ing] into the Baltic, all for love and the world well lost” is not his way.

spectator3It’s tempting, perhaps, to look back with regret on a life that hasn’t turned out to be particularly memorable to anyone but the person who lived it. Early in the novel, Joe casts himself as a secondary character, a kind of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, someone who watched other people live instead of really living himself:

As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about.

The Spectator Bird does not end on a note of regret, though. Instead, thinking back on his past, revisiting the road not taken, brings Joe to a form of acceptance that is better, more forgiving, more insightful than simple resignation:

The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

I’ve always liked books of this kind, but now as I approach 50 I feel them taking on new significance. While it’s true that things could still take an unexpected turn in my own life, that different possibilities of one kind or another could certainly (presumably) open up, this feels like a time when, for me, I am living out the consequences of my earlier choices more than I am making new ones. Like Joe, I have journals recording some of what I now understand as my formative years, some of my own decisive (if probably inevitable) choices, and I also have memories that cover many more years, and many more nuances, than those sparse volumes ever can. I think there’s value in recollection — in hanging on to and trying to understand the evidence of our own pasts — but retrospection can too quickly become brooding for me. The Spectator Bird is hardly a consoling picture (“in every choice,” Joe thinks, “there is a component, maybe a big component, of pain”), but I found something bracing in his refusal to consider himself a failure because he opted to do what he thought was, as far as he could figure out, right:

It has seemed to me that my commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue, there are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better, good and good.

It may make a better novel to choose what’s impulsive, dramatic, romantic — but The Spectator Bird proposes that it won’t necessarily, even probably, make a better life.

“Where You Are”: Kent Haruf, Plainsong

plainsong1“The crib scene kills me,” Mark Athitakis said on Twitter when I remarked that I was half-way through Plainsong and loving it. At that time I hadn’t reached the crib scene yet, but when I did, I knew what he meant. It epitomizes the novel’s perfect balance of sweet and strong, tough (even, sometimes, brutal) and tender. It’s faintly comical, but also deeply touching.

The title and epigraph of Plainsong direct us to music: “plainsong,” we’re told, is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times” and also “any simple and unadorned melody.” I looked up “unisonous” myself to be sure I was making the right sense of that definition: it means “identical in pitch.” The implicit contrast, then, I suppose, is with harmony and counterpoint — with musical arrangements built on difference and complexity, rather than similarity and simplicity.

I find that interesting, because Plainsong itself seemed to me built on very different notes, one for each story: the little brothers, so close together in their apartness from their mother; their father the teacher, shaping life and meaning as best he can on the farm, in the school, or in the privacy of his own loneliness; the young girl, crossing too soon into the risks and responsibilities of motherhood; the old brothers, my favorites, staunch and generous in their clumsy humanity. Haruf’s genius is the blunt delicacy with which he brings out each of these elements, so seemingly singular, then creates something resonant out of their combination.

Maybe that’s what the title means: that the novel finds the commonality in these differences, showing them to belong together — to one chord, if I can keep up the musical metaphor a bit longer. Or maybe it alludes less to the stories and more to the novel’s style, which is certainly “simple and unadorned,” though eloquent in its austere precision:

Afterward, when she was calm again, after the doctor had left, she went into the air outside the Holt County Clinic next to the hospital, and the light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun.

Here and throughout, Haruf’s imagery is wonderfully concrete. He’s especially good with the landscape, which is rarely hospitable but somehow feels bracingly supportive of these lives eking themselves against its wintry contours:

They set out in the cold bright day . . . driving north toward Holt, passing through town and under the new water tower and carrying on north, the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke.

plainsong2Nature is not romanticized in this world: the McPheron brothers, for instance, are cattle farmers, and there’s too much birth, blood, and slaughter in their daily routine to make them sentimental. Haruf connects his characters to nature’s harsh realities, emphasizing their common cycles of life and hunger and survival. “I started thinking about it the other day,” Harold McPheron says to his brother Raymond, as they fret over Victoria’s pregnancy: “the similarities amongst em.” “I don’t appreciate you saying she’s a heifer,” says Raymond, horrified, but later, after they deliver a calf, with difficulty, from a heifer in distress, they both move seamlessly into discussing, not the heifer’s health, but Victoria’s:

You think she’s going to be all right? Raymond said.

She’s young. She’s strong and healthy. But you don’t ever know what might could happen. You can’t tell.

There’s great compassion for animals in the novel, but their care requires a pragmatic brutality that doesn’t transfer exactly to people. The crib scene shows the McPheron brothers, hardly used to human conversation, let alone more elaborate forms of interaction, first finding then expressing the grace that lifts Haruf’s simple stories into something approaching sublimity. It’s a perfectly mundane activity, of course, shopping for a crib, but it’s joyous to see these rough men discover Victoria’s needs — not for the crib, or not just, but for belonging — and act on their insight. Through their act of practical grace, they show her she is not alone, and that ultimately gives her the courage to take up the place they have offered her in their lives.

Maybe that’s really the unisonous aspect of Plainsong: each story in its own way follows this same path, from disconnection and loss to unity. I appreciated that Haruf does not make the process seem easy, or ignore how painful even love can be. He leaves us, though, with an uplifting image of community — again, something simple, just a dinner, but everyone has taken a pilgrimage of sorts to get there. “Honey,” Maggie Jones said earlier to Victoria as the girl imagines being, going, somewhere else. “Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” Early on, for every character, to stay where they are seems like a struggle. By the end, together, through unadorned acts of kindness and principle, they have all made “this” a good place to be.

“Another Corruption of Love”: Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone In Their Place


Now, in the light of these new events, the commissario came back to this idea with some concern: both because he’d seen with lucid clarity who had killed the Duchess of Camparino and because he was no doubt infected with the same disease that had triggered the murder: jealousy. Let’s call a spade a spade, he thought, as he brushed past a beggar’s extended hand. I’ve encountered a new perversion, yet another corruption of love that leads to death and to murder. And now that I’ve encountered it myself, I can clearly recognize it.

Everyone In Their Place is nearly twice as long as I Will Have Vengeance, the first book in Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series. I don’t think it would be quite fair to say it’s also nearly twice as good, because I thought I Will Have Vengeance was already very good. The extra length, though, allows de Giovanni to develop more layers, in both his story and his characters, and the result is intensely satisfying both as a mystery and as a novel. Something I particularly admired, in fact, is how well the murder plot is interwoven with the novel’s other elements, particularly Ricciardi’s own struggles to find his place in the world.

As I explained in my previous post, Ricciardi has “visions”: he sees people in the moment of their death, which is valuable for his work as a detective but, because he sees these suffering figments everywhere he goes, takes an enormous psychic toll on him. More than the first book, Everyone In Their Place (which is the third one) emphasizes the social consequences of the commissario’s curse. He’s a profoundly lonely man, largely by choice: he is wary of forming bonds because everywhere he looks he sees the worst results of strong feelings: “in the churning maelstrom of love, passion, wealth, and poverty, envy and jealousy sprang up like weeds — and with them, murder.” He also can’t imagine inviting anyone he loves to share the reality of his world as he experiences it. As far as the beautiful, assertive Livia goes, this caution seems reasonable: though her pursuit of him makes him the envy of many onlookers, she seems ill-suited either to join him in brooding or to bring him back to trust and hope. But one of the sweetest strains in the novel is the very (very!) slow unfolding of Ricciardi’s relationship with Enrica, the girl who lives across from his apartment with whom he has been carrying on an extended — well, you can hardly call it a flirtation, when all it consists of to this point is mutual watching, but it’s something like that. Thoughtful, independent, self-contained, Enrica seems a more promising candidate to provide the morose detective with company and maybe even a little comfort, if only her parents weren’t determined to match her with the loutish Sebastiano — and if only she hadn’t seen Ricciardi with Livia, and he hadn’t seen her with Sebastiano…

There’s a comedy-of-errors quality to these personal plots as they unfold, and also a comic edge to the commissario’s partner, Brigadier Maione, who is very cranky for most of the novel because he’s dieting: he believes his wife’s eyes are wandering and that losing weight is his best move to get her back. And everywhere he goes, people are eating! He can’t avoid food: the smell of it, the sight of it, the temptation of it. The poor man! These lighter elements leaven the novel, which is darker than the first also because the political climate has become more grimly dangerous. The series is set in the 1930s, and in this novel Fascist thugs and operatives play direct roles, threatening and killing. Even here, though, de Maurizio complicates simple dichotomies of good and evil with his interlinked themes of love and pain: “in the world that the two of us were helping to create,” someone high up in the Fascist Part eventually admits to Ricciardi, “there was no place for people like us. And there never will be.”

The idea of people in their “place” is (as the title tells us) another recurrent theme of the novel. Naples itself, as a place, has a vivid presence, but different characters experience their own place in it, in society, in their families in very different ways. The most conservative ideas of place — that people should not seek to rise outside their class, for instance, or that women should stay in their homes and keep their husbands — turn out to be the most damaging, and to be congruent with Fascism, which is all about keeping people in line, discouraging independence, difference, or resistance. Against the rigid Fascistic insistence on order, Everyone In Their Place sets the disruptive power of love, which may itself be deadly (especially, as Ricciardi experiences, when it turns to jealousy) but which is also the world’s best hope precisely because it cannot be ruled or contained. “You can’t fight love, Commissario,” Ricciardi is told by someone who has tried:

Because if you fight it you’re bound to lose. Inevitably. And so you need to take the initiative, and you need to pluck this love, the way you might one of these flowers. When you love, then you find that you love the world as well, and you want to sing, and shout, and laugh about nothing at all, in the light of day.

Nothing could be less like the commissario’s usual way of being in the world! As the novel ends, though, he has not only solved the murder but also accepted that happiness might be worth the risk.

“More Than You Could Understand”: Dorothy Dunnett, Race of Scorpions


What would a truthful man say? You are too honest to be trusted with some secrets. One slip of the tongue would have betrayed all I was working for. There are more threads in this web than you even know yet; more than you could understand; more than you would ever forgive.

I wonder how far I would have persisted with the ‘House of Niccolò’ books if I hadn’t already been convinced when I started them that Dorothy Dunnett is a great historical novelist. I wonder, now, how far that conviction will carry me — because the books themselves have so far failed to grip or move me. That’s not to say they haven’t interested me, or that I’m not impressed, over and over, at Dunnett’s remarkable ability to weave her intricate plots, to make deep research read like lived experience, to imagine people of great complexity. They are just demanding a kind of patience from me that, for all their own intricacies, the Lymond Chronicles never have.

I described both The Spring of the Ram and Niccolò Rising as having a slow burn, and the same is certainly true of Race of Scorpions — one of the reasons I do keep reading is that I know there will at some point be a pay-off for my attention. All three House of Niccolò books so far have paid off in climactic action, but I particularly appreciated that Race of Scorpions also paid off more personally, finally giving me more of a sense that I understand its wily and enigmatic protagonist and his motivations. In Race of Scorpions his vexed relationship with Katelina van Borselen, for instance, recovers its intensity and then reaches a poignant climax; and the introduction of Diniz Vasquez adds a dynamic that reminded me of Lymond and, say, Will Scott. More than the military campaigns and political maneuvers that make up the bulk of the novel, these threads woven through it seemed like signs of the kind of overarching pattern in Nicholas’s own development that could motivate me to read the rest of the series.

And I do need a bit more motivation, a bit of an incentive to go through another 500 pages of this kind of thing five more times. I already know, after all, that Dunnett can write passage after passage like this one, vibrant with sensory details:

The pods of the carob trees dangled, black and leaking rank gum, ripe for cropping. There were pomegranates in baskets and gourds drying on roof-tops. In every village, it seemed, a donkey circled its trough of crushed olives, and the press thudded down, helped by many brown arms, as the mash yielded its oozings through wicker. Where the scent of orange had deadened the senses in March, the resinous odour of olives weighed down the humid, hot air of this journey. Instead of flower-infused silence, the air was filled with the clamour of autumn; the cries, the chaffing, the folk-songs, the team-songs of the villages; the chinking of blades; the rumble of flint-studded boards driven over the threshing ground. The objecting bray of working donkeys. The shuddering tramp of the oxen spinning the Persian wheels set over every deep well, so that the jars came up, roped with pomegranate wood withies, and tossed their icy water into the stone channels that fed the fields and the housewife’s wood buckets. Vines and almonds, lemons and oranges, pomegranates and sugar.

scorpions2I love that, but I’ve also seen it before, or very nearly. This time it’s Cyprus, but before it has been Bruges, or Venice, or Trebizond. The particulars vary, but the effect doesn’t, really. And we also get many examples of another kind of passage that to me is a lot less inviting — the kind that traces out the loyalties and lineages and special interests that are the warp and woof of Dunnett’s plots. I’ve admitted more than once that these very complicated plots are hard for me to follow. In the Lymond books, that has never bothered me much because the melodrama carries me along and because they are dominated by a few highly charismatic figures: Lymond himself, of course, Margaret Lennox, Gabriel, Philippa, Sybilla, Guzel. The supporting cast in Nicholas’s life is appealing, but not one of them really stands out to me at this point. (Greater familiarity with the series would probably change this perspective, as, perhaps, would reading the books closer together. I had trouble recalling who everybody was when I began Race of Scorpions, never mind what exactly they had been up to before.) By the end of this book, I had stopped even trying to grasp what exactly Nicholas is up to and why, besides whatever was immediate and obvious in the moment.

But that’s why the ending of this book felt so significant to me. For several pages, we are inside Nicholas’s head, intimate to an unusual degree with his thoughts and intentions — even his feelings. “He had chosen war, and had been oppressed by what he found,” Dunnett tells us, and he has experienced both love and loss; he has also found “responsibilities from which he couldn’t escape.” The literal explanations of convolutions in the action (that, characteristically for Dunnett, it turns out her protagonist has known all, or almost all, about all the while) are helpful in a practical way, but it was the orientation in Nicholas’s point of view that I valued the most. If I do read on in the series, it will be because I am curious to see where Dunnett takes him, what he grows into as this long, slow process of development and discovery continues.

scalesThis is not to say there weren’t some great, even thrilling moments in Race of Scorpions: Katelina and the moths, for example, which is a scene I’ll remember for a long time, or, in a more violent register, the long-deferred confrontation with Tzani-Bey (who did what, exactly, to Nicholas, by the way? am I right to infer that his “mistreatment” was sexual?). I was also struck — not for the first time — by the ease with which Dunnett’s world incorporates a range of sexualities. This is something that’s very prominent in Race of Scorpions, because of Zacco, but the variety and fluidity of desire is a feature of the Lymond books too. It’s certainly not typical of other mainstream historical novels I’ve read set in the Renaissance: they tend, overwhelmingly, to be organized around heterosexual romance plots, without even a hint of other possibilities. And something else that Race of Scorpions has in common with the Lymond series is an emphasis on powerful women — here, Marietta of Patras or, as she is less elegantly called, “Cropnose” (because hers has been bitten off), and her foil, at least in beauty, Primaflora. So often in Dunnett’s books, while it’s the men out in front taking action, seemingly in charge, it turns out to be the women who, behind the scenes, are pulling the strings, plotting — like Dunnett herself.

So: next up is Scales of Gold — or will be, if I read on. Once again I expect I will, though I don’t feel breathlessly impatient (as I did when first reading the Lymond books) to get my hands on it. Dunnett still hasn’t let me down — she’s too smart and skilled for that — but at this point in this series I’m also not feeling hooked.

This Week In (Planning) My Classes: High Impact Practices

I’ve been roughing out schedules for my 2016-17 courses — even the winter term ones, because before I can order books for them I need some idea of how the readings will fit in. As I consider how best to allocate class time, especially for my first-year class, I’ve also been thinking about a very interesting conversation I had recently with a former student who now works in a Dalhousie office concerned, among other things, with understanding student retention.

My own anecdotal experience, which seems to be supported by data, is that a crucial factor in student engagement (which is key, in turn, to retention) is developing relationships — with other students, but also, crucially, with faculty. These can be hard to establish, especially in larger classes, which is why I try so hard to encourage students to come and see me one-on-one. I have often felt that the biggest difference I make is to students who actually take me up on my offer (as this student had). Not only can a one-on-one conference really help with the student’s understanding of course material or assignments, but it also — not always, but often — creates a stronger sense of commitment and community, a sense that we are both in this together. Some of that is just because it’s a chance for us to get to know each other a bit. Every time a student comes to my office, I open by asking them a bit about themselves, because this helps me understand where they are and what they need most for my course, sure, but also because I’m genuinely interested — I like getting a sense of who they are as people, not just as students. (I don’t mean I don’t always think of students as people, of course! Just that there are ways in which strictly teacher-student interactions, often of necessity, can be limited to practicalities.)

From our conversation, it was clear that our office meetings had been important to this former student, which was really good to know. (It was also very nice to hear ways in which our course materials had stayed with him in meaningful ways, including the pier glass passage from Middlemarch, which he said often occurred to him when he was thinking about how best to resolve a problem or answer a question.) In his work on retention, he told me that they talk a lot about identifying “high impact practices”: things professors can do that make a difference. Personal conferences, we agreed, are one such practice.

I have always believed in the value of the one-on-one meeting, so much so that in some small classes, I have made them mandatory, usually as early in the term as possible so that they break the ice in the class itself as well as making it more likely that students will come back on their own when they need help. I particularly like doing this with first-year students, who are usually new on campus and somewhat overwhelmed by the size and complexity of it. I would like to do that this year! But I will have 90 students in Pulp Fiction: even if I gave each of them only 10 minutes (hardly enough for much getting-to-know-you talk), there’s no way I can set aside that many hours in a time frame that would make it meaningful — keeping in mind, too, that the students themselves have very full schedules so it’s not like I can just pick three days and sit with my door open expecting them to file in.

I wonder what I could do instead. I will have scheduled office hours, of course, and as always will be available then and by appointment and (as I always advertise) any time my door is open — which, traditionally, has been almost all the time I’m on campus but not in actually class or meetings. Students only rarely take advantage of the opportunity to see me personally, though, and just waiting and hoping to see them isn’t the point. I could split the meetings up with the two teaching assistants I will have for the course — but their available hours are carefully (and rightly) limited by their contracts, and they also (wrongly) don’t usually have dedicated office space of their own, so committing them to several hours of meetings doesn’t seem fair. I could require email introductions from everyone and undertake to reply — but would that have the desired effect? It might also take nearly as long as meeting in person, with only the slight advantage that I could do my replies at any time. (Evenings and weekends, anyone?)

Ideas for “high impact practices” that would work for 90 students (and be feasible for me)? The goal would be to give them a genuine sense of connection to me as well as to the course.

The painting is Richard Redgrave’s “The Poor Teacher,” which is actually a very accurate depiction of me waiting forlornly for a student to come to my office hours.

Weekend Reading: Dorothy Dunnett via Buffy

ringedcastleA few days ago I picked Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle off my bookshelf to look up a particular scene and ended up not just reading to the end (again) but following up with a reread of the next novel in the Lymond Chronicles, Checkmate.

I didn’t actually read every word — these are books I have read so often and so intensely over the years that I sometimes feel entitled to pick and choose the scenes I focus on. This is not in any way a comment on Dunnett’s prose — it is not a hint that I think the novels somehow do not need to be as long as they are. She’s a wonderful writer: she has spoiled me, really, for most other historical novelists, who with very rare exceptions show little of her style or profundity — of her commitment to making historical fiction much, much more than melodrama in period costumes. It’s more a sign that I have the kind of relationship with the Lymond books that I’ve learned many viewers have with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there are episodes and sequences that are particularly resonant to me, that immediately remind me, when I turn to them, what it is about these books that has made them magic to me since I first read The Game of Kings in 1979. Just as Buffy afficionados might mention, say, “Becoming Part 2” or “Innocence” or “Graduation Day” as exemplary of what makes the series special, so I might pick out the final scenes with Christian Stewart in Game of Kings, or the chess game in Pawn in Frankincense, or the “Languished Locked in L” improvisation in The Ringed Castle, or the flight across the rooftops of Paris in Checkmate (or almost any other scene involving Philippa, who is hands-down one of my favorite literary characters of all time) and expect other Dunnett lovers to know both what I’m talking about and why I’m talking about it.dunnett

One of the treats of rereading any book, but perhaps especially books you’ve loved for decades, is seeing how they change when you see them in new lights. Middlemarch, for instance, once seemed to me an uplifting story of young love finally triumphing (oh, to be 18 and read it that way again!) — now it seems to me a melancholy lesson in learning to live with disappointment and lowered expectations. The Lymond Chronicles are no exception, though they have changed less for me than many books because my relationship with them has always been intensely personal — I haven’t ever wanted to step back and consider them analytically. I still don’t! But that doesn’t mean my readings are totally static: different things do stand out over time. This time, quite unexpectedly, I found myself thinking about Buffy as I read about Lymond. I say “unexpectedly” because really, can you imagine any two works that superficially have less in common, from the media they were created in to their tone, setting, and overall style? And yet they have at least two things in common.

checkmateFirst, they are both fundamentally about leadership, and particularly the cost it exacts on “the chosen one.” Francis Crawford, of course, is not chosen in the supernatural way that Buffy is — though there are many hints through the novels of forces and purposes beyond the understanding and control of individual human actors, through characters like the Dame de Doubtance and the recurrent appearances of Nostradamus and John Dee bearing astrological charts and prophesies. Even setting aside fate or destiny as factors, though, Dunnett emphasizes that extraordinary gifts such as Lymond’s bring responsibilities: to be both extremely talented and highly charismatic is to invite discipleship, and much of the drama of the series turns on Lymond’s struggles to find the right use of his exceptional self. For him as for Buffy, leadership means isolation, risk, and hard choices — which we watch him make over and over, often amid the burden of other people’s misunderstanding, jealousy, or hatred. Morally, he is a much more complicated figure than Buffy, but beneath his often flamboyant disregard for conventional propriety or morality, there’s an absolute integrity that we come, as readers, to trust as much as Archie Abernethy does. And Archie isn’t the only one: there’s a parade of people across the novels who end up giving Lymond their loyalty, even their love, as they learn to see past the distracting sparkle of his brilliant, ruthless surface. (Did I mention Christian Stewart? That relationship establishes something absolutely vital to the rest of the series.) For Lymond, as never really for Buffy, the question is whether he can remain worthy of his own rather extraordinary Scooby gang, or whether his excesses will finally destroy it, and him.

FullSizeRenderThe other thing I found myself thinking about is how far both series rely on the power of storytelling and especially of great characterization to get us to accept features that might otherwise seem ridiculous. I’ve been watching these very interesting episode guides to Buffy, and one point that gets made repeatedly (and, I think, rightly) is that both the specific monsters and many particular plot points aren’t, if you look at all closely, that convincing. Once you’ve been won over to the series, however, none of that really matters: what does matter is that Joss Whedon and his team (including, of course, the actors who portray them) have created people we utterly believe in and care deeply about. Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to shrug anything off, whether it’s giant reptile creatures that look completely fake or strangely illogical curses that, when reversed, put homicidal sadists back in business. If you can admit that these are indeed wobbly bits but simply not care, however, that’s surely a sign that something else extraordinary is going on. I think the same is true of the Lymond Chronicles. There are many elements in them that, looked at in the cold analytical light of day, seem a bit … well, let’s just say far out there. The chess game I already mentioned, for instance: really? How stagy and melodramatic is that? But also, how terrifying, and tragic — and also, how apt, as a way to literalize the drawn-out competition between Lymond and Gabriel in which so many people have been used as pawns. The whole family scandal that motivates huge swathes of the plot, especially, finally, in Checkmate: really? How is that secret sufficient to the catastrophes it causes? Yet in the moment I never question that Lymond, or Sybilla, or Marthe, or anyone else would act or feel as they do. (I realize that my care to avoid overt spoilers makes this kind of inside baseball: sorry. But if you haven’t read the Lymond books already, I don’t want you to lose your chance to discover all of their secrets for yourself.) Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-TV-Series

I’m not saying it’s just the people and the stories that matter in either case. Buffy (as those episode guides nicely bring out) has lots going on thematically — mythologically, even, and the Lymond Chronicles are rich with historical and political contexts, and driven by a vision of what it meant to be alive and thinking at a particular moment in time. It does seem to me, though, that a lot of the powerful forward momentum both series have comes from the investment we make in their characters’ lives: it’s not just that we want to know what happens next (in itself, I think suspense is often a cheap device, one that doesn’t stand up to much rereading or rewatching) — it’s that we want to be with these people as it happens to them. The characters Dunnett creates are particularly rewarding to spend time with: they have many facets, they are flawed, they feel deeply, they think hard, and they talk wonderfully. Now that I think of it, that’s a third thing the series have in common — great dialogue!

What do you think: are these comparisons convincing at all? Can you think of other works that achieve greatness, as I’ve argued these do, almost in spite of themselves?

A side note: those are the covers I have on my editions of the Lymond Chronicles. They have so little to do with the novels it’s ridiculous. For starters, there is no blonde woman at all in The Ringed Castle (most of which is set, though you’d never guess it from the illustration, in Russia) and no redhead in Checkmate. Is that supposed to be Mariotta on the cover of Game of Kings? If so, what is she up to? Much as I love my battered old copies, I do sometimes wish for the more elegant Vintage editions.

Sowing Seeds: On the Duties of Professors

Arcimbolo LibrarianFrom the Novel Readings archives, a post that addresses issues still very much on my mind: what we mean by the terms “research” and “scholarship,” and what we take to be the duties of professors and the work of the humanities.

A friend and colleague who read and sympathized with my previous post passed along to me an essay by the late C. Q. Drummond, a long-time member of the Department of English at the University of Alberta. The essay is called “On the Duties of Professors,” and it addresses many of the same issues as my post, particularly the competition for attention, resources, and rewards between research and teaching. As competitions go, all academics know, this is a distinctly unequal one these days: officially, university policies may stress the equal importance of both duties, but inadequacy or irresponsibility in teaching will never hold back someone’s tenure or promotion if they have a “strong” publication record, and while the administrative infrastructure for research is large and powerful, topping out at the Vice Presidential level, if the two factors are really equally important, where, Drummond rightly asks, is the “Vice President (Teaching)”? (Here at Dalhousie, our office of Research Services has 22 staff, including a VP and an Associate VP. Our Center for Learning and Teaching has 10, with a Director and Associate Director at the top.) Not that Drummond wants to see an expansion of teaching-related bureaucracy–though I quite like his idea for how a VP (Teaching) would go about his or her business: this VP “would move through all the Faculties, visiting classes, hearing lectures, attending seminars, drinking coffee, joining oral examinations, talking into the night.” Through qualitative engagement with teachers and students, this VP would become “another source of evidence, besides tabulated student assessments, for who teaches well and who poorly.”

Drummond’s remarks are directed specifically at his own situation: at the time of writing (around 1984), he had recently been “penalize[d] for insufficient publication during a year in which [his Faculty] received extraordinary evidence of his merit as a teacher.” There’s a polemical thrust to them, as a result, but Drummond uses the occasion to place his own professional experience into its larger context: the increasing dominance of precisely the kind of quantitative measures of research “output” about which I was complaining yesterday. Actually, there is one difference that signals the 30-year gap between us: I didn’t notice any mention of research grants in his piece. I expect he would have objected still more strenuously to measuring scholarly success by level of external funding. He directs his criticism at “forced publication,” and at the reductive equation of publication with research or scholarship:

The Salaries and Promotions Committee certainly does not ask for wisdom; it does not ask for erudition or for scholarship; it does not ask for learning, or even for research; it asks for output, something to be measured or counted. . . . What good does such output do anyone? If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit? And how does the scholarly world profit from the forced production of ephemera? Most professors in Arts Faculties would be better off reading more and publishing less, and their students would be better off too, and so would the world of scholarship.

The very term “research” is, he argues, part of the problem.  He quotes George Whalley, who argued in an essay of his own that “research” suggests a goal-oriented activity, work carried out in pursuit of something in particular. “The functions of research,” Whalley writes, “are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in “the humanities” . . . “The humanities” is what “humanists” do; not only what they study, but how they study, and why . . . .”

BPL EntranceDrawing on the Handbook published by the CAUT (invoked by his Dean in response to Drummond’s appeal of the Committee’s decision), Drummond himself brings in the vocabulary of knowledge “dissemination” which is once again very current in discussions of our aims:

Research should result in teaching, and might result in publication, teaching and publication being the most important means of dissemination of knowledge. We may teach those near at hand in our lectures, discussions, tutorials, apprenticeships, and supervised practical training, or we may teach those distant through our published papers, articles, essays, and books. But in either case we will have to have found out and shown something worth lecturing about, discussing, or writing down. And where will we have our greatest effect in disseminating what we have found out and know? . . . Dissemination has to do with sowing seed; what we hope when we disseminate is that the seed will take root and grow. . . . So much of the seed one sows in publication falls by the wayside and is devoured by birds, or falls on stony ground, or among thorns and yields no fruit. What the good teacher sows in his class or tutorial is far more likely to find the good ground, spring up, increase, and itself bring forth.

 He reiterates at intervals throughout the piece that he is not opposed to either research or publication, only to a mechanistic understanding of both, especially when it “drives out teaching”–which almost inevitably follows: institutional systems of measurement and incentives are set up not “to encourage the combination of knowing and teaching,” but to “encourage the production of printed pages,” and “because we live in a world in which time itself is scarce, the time taken for one must be taken from the other.” Again, it’s not that he wishes teaching, in its turn, to drive out research–teaching depends on research, broadly understood as inquiry.

It’s not, in my turn, that I wish to drive out either research or publication, both of which are essential (as Drummond too acknowledges) to learning, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. What bothers me is the  incessant identification of “productive” scholarly activity with a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible. It’s a shame that the faux-scientific model Drummond objects to is now so firmly entrenched–so deeply entangled in the values, practices, and especially the finances of our universities–that it seems unimaginable that we could ever undo it. Some might argue that we have won more by it than we have lost–that without playing the game that way, we would have forfeited any place in the contemporary academy. Others might reply that, yes, we are playing the game, but on terms by which we can only, ultimately, lose: however vast our research output, will we ever win either the public or the institutional respect enjoyed by the sciences? Hasn’t our preoccupation with research actually isolated us and cost us public support? And in our effort to insist on the goal-oriented practicality of our fields, we may have flagged in our defense of their intrinsic value.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)Again, it’s not that I think we should not do research, or publish what it teaches us–but it’s a shame that the system is so rigged in favor of hurrying it along and rushing it into print–not to mention aiming it at a specific (and very narrow) audience. “I know for a fact,” Drummond observes, “that policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” That’s certainly true of my reading as well. The narrow concept of research and the pressure to publish also, when made the primary measures of professional success, marginalize undergraduate teaching. (The emphasis in grantsmanship on teaching and funding graduate students, or “HQP” [Highly Qualifed Personnel] is another whole area of trouble.) Finally, it seems to me paradoxically retrograde to be urging or following a model that measures productivity by grant size or output of peer-reviewed publications at a time when the entire landscape of scholarly communication is changing. We can circulate our ideas, enhance our and others’ understanding, pursue our inquiries and disseminate our knowledge in more, and often cheaper, ways than ever before. As long as we are all using our time in service of the university’s central mission–the advancement of knowledge, including through teaching–by the means best suited to the problems we think are most important and interesting to pursue, aren’t we doing our duty as professors?

But as the Associate Vice President who spoke to my Faculty on Thursday said repeatedly, there aren’t “metrics” for those other ways of doing (or discussing) research or measuring its impact: they do not yield data that can be counted, measured, and easily compared across departments, faculties, and campuses. Apparently, that means we have to set them aside–or, at any rate, that the VP (Research) will do so, when reporting to us on our “performance.”

The essay I discuss here is in the volume In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others by C. Q. Drummond, edited by John Baxter and Gordon Harvey (Edgeways Books, 2004).

Originally posted January 29, 2012.

Book Club Update: Moby-Dick Contains Multitudes

moby-dick-penguinMy book club met last night for the first of two sessions on Moby-Dick. For this one we read only about half way through, so a lot of our discussion either began or ended with some variation on “I wonder where this goes.” Does the novel as a whole uphold Ishmael’s endearing open-mindedness – or, for that matter, does Ishmael himself continue in the same tolerant spirit he initially shows towards Queequeg’s “Pagan” predilections? Does Ahab’s single-minded quest for the white whale turn out to be in any way noble, or is this model of ruthless heroism thoroughly undermined? When we finally see Moby-Dick for ourselves, what picture do we get, to put up against those described in Chapters 55-57? How far can — or should — we read the novel symbolically or allegorically? What theory of fiction makes sense of the novel’s extraordinary blend of realism and prophesy, concrete detail and metaphorical reach — what kind of book is it? Will there ever be an important woman character (we’re guessing not), how far is women’s absence part of what, for some, has defined its story as great and universal, and what does that mean about the American literary tradition or cultural imagination?  What is it about this book, anyway, that accounts for its having been invested with so much cultural significance? And so on.

We’re pretty unlikely to answer these questions in a really substantial, much less very original, way over a couple of dinners. (However, if you want to talk about seafaring, there are worse times and places to do it than at Shuck Seafood on a foggy Maritime night. The food was so good and the atmosphere and service so pleasant we might do our follow-up Moby-Dick meeting there too!) I’m not going to hazard any answers here now, either. What I wanted to comment on at this point is just a feature of our Moby-Dick discussion that seemed to me different than some, maybe most, of our other bookish conversations. I can’t remember another book in which it wasn’t so much general opinions that differed but the specifics that won or lost us as individual readers. One of us, for instance, particularly loved the details about New Bedford and Nantucket life but was impatient with the “digressions” that impeded the story of the Pequod’s voyage; one (the scientist) was fascinated by the taxonomies of the “Cetology” chapter and Melville’s obvious interest in replacing (or maybe supplementing) myths about sea monsters with whatever facts could be gleaned, often at great cost, about actual whales; one was won over by the humor, such as the good-cop bad-cop scene with Peleg and Bildad in Chapter 16; one (you’ll never guess which) kept bringing up some guy called Carlyle. Moby-Dick offered every one of us something to fascinate or frustrate, and while there was some overlap (interest in Ishmael’s narrative voice, for instance — though again, some of us loved it while others were impatient with it), it sometimes seemed as if we’d all been reading different versions of the novel. (We all brought literally different editions, but that’s a separate issue.)

moby-dick-penguin-4This dispersed effect no doubt stems from the book’s chaotic-seeming and inclusive structure, which has led critics to call it things like an “intellectual chowder” or a “magnificent mess” (that’s Nathan Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick). It seems to be built on a premise of embracing capaciousness: it includes everything Melville finds interesting or significant to his subject, rather than pursuing an aesthetic of elegant perfection. This blotchiness could easily be seen as a fault. (I’d love to know what, if anything, Henry James said about Moby-Dick, given his dismissive view of Middlemarch‘s formal construction. No golden bowl here — more an ungainly pitcher!) It’s certainly risky: surely no self-respecting MFA instructor would dare encourage anyone to write such a book! But I think our group’s diverse responses point to one aspect of the book’s greatness: there was something in it for — and against — all of us. It’s not one thing: it’s all kinds of things (though it’s not everything, though Philbrick’s little book suggests he might think so).  The challenge for a first-time reader is dealing with the bits that don’t immediately suit: we all admitted to having skimmed one part or another, but, again, not usually the same parts. Listening to people pointing out the aspects that most interested them made me want to reread: it made me aware, not just of the book’s mulititudinousness, but of my own limitations (which, in the context of Moby-Dick, are many). That can be off-putting, but it’s part of Melville’s magic to have made it inspiring instead.

Open Letters Monthly, June 2016 Edition!


Another month invariably means another issue of Open Letters Monthly! Just in case anyone who visits Novel Readings doesn’t already automatically check out our new issues, here are some highlights that might encourage you to click on over. The range of topics seems particularly broad to me: that eclecticism may be part of what keeps us relatively obscure, but it’s also what makes the whole enterprise fun and interesting for the editors. So, for example, this month we have:

Justin Hickey on a book that encourages us to think of fish as far more than food

Zach Rabiroff on a new biography of “the cute one,” Paul McCartney

Dorian Stuber on a book that examines Primo Levi’s perhaps less-than-exemplary conduct when he was in the Resistance

Steve Donoghue on a thoughtful and even-handed study of the Creation Museum that really should have been a screed

Laura Tanenbaum on a new biography of anarchist poet Lola Ridge

And that’s not all! Sara Malton reviews Charlotte Mathieson’s Mobility in the Victorian Novel, Steve Danziger interviews an Oulipo translator, there’s new poetry, there are pieces from our rich archives, and … Well, at this point, if I haven’t piqued your curiosity you are beyond reaching.


My own contribution is a review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved that doubles as a more general piece on romance fiction, that “most despised and rejected of genres.” It reflects both the journey I’ve taken in my own reading and thinking about the genre since I first posted about it here and the reading I’ve begun doing as preparation for teaching Lord of Scoundrels in my Pulp Fiction class next winter. It doesn’t say anything that will surprise (or perhaps even interest) an audience already well versed in these debates, and it might even just tire romance readers who have had enough of defenses of the genre. But the general prejudice certainly persists, and I wanted to try my hand at confronting it in what I hope is a measured way, and especially by talking about specific examples. I thought Mary Balogh would make an interesting case because she’s so different from what (in my experience, anyway) most people assume romance novels are like, especially post-50 Shades of Grey. I hope I avoided the pitfalls romance “think pieces” often fall into.

Sedentary Mascots: The Turner House, and My Houses


Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to bricks and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. . . . We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit houses when we’re gone. Cha-Cha knew his family was no different. The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms.

Despite NPR’s bold proclamation on the cover of my edition, I’m pretty sure The Turner House does not deserve to be “described as the Great American Novel.” I think it’s a pretty good American novel. But it did not sweep me away, confound me, inspire me, or otherwise thrill me. For about the first 150 pages, it didn’t even really interest me that much, though I ended up curious about how its strands would come together, and about what would happen to the house on Yarrow Street. It struck me as a competent contemporary family saga, touching on a range of timely themes across its large cast of characters, full of nice particulars about its setting. It is also well constructed, though cutting back and forth across time and generations is not an especially original device and didn’t seem to me to provide any great revelations. Sure, a good novel. But “Great”?

I did like the premise — exploring ways a family home can be its center of gravity, both for the family members themselves and for the family’s sense of its own identity. My favorite part of the novel was the set piece I quoted from for my epigraph that is clearly meant to be the key-note of the novel (so clearly meant that it felt a bit thumpingly obvious by the time we got to it, near the end of the book). Cha-Cha’s newer suburban bungalow has to some extent taken over that centripetal role for the Turners, but its very different structure makes it mean something different, and then of course it does not embody the family’s history in the same way that the house on Yarrow Street does.

Iflournoy2 think that for me, The Turner House would actually have come closer to being a (if not the) “Great American Novel” if it had really embraced its potential capaciousness. How can a novel about a family with thirteen children (and assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren) be under 35o pages? Imagine if every one of them — and Francis and Viola, too — had a separate section, full of contexts and choices and rich, textured details about their characters and their lives. This (missed) opportunity really struck me near the end of the novel, when we got a crisp précis of the account Lelah gives Brianne of her marriage to Vernon:

Lelah filled the stories with details she hadn’t thought about in decades, like his first car, a 1980 Cutlass Supreme, and what she’d worn to their courthouse marriage (a baby-pink knee-length dress with aggressive shoulder pads). She took her time, because she never wanted to repeat these stories again.

When I read this, I immediately thought “I’d like to hear those stories” — and then I imagined the book opening up, like a flower unfurling, and telling us all of the stories it just touches on in its current more minimalist form. What sweep it would have had! And also, what courage, because 350 pages is a nice, safe length. Some more conspicuous ambition of that kind would have made the book stand out to me more than it did. It certainly didn’t stand out for stylish writing: in fact, several times I was tripped up in my reading by basic grammatical errors.

The Turner House got me thinking about the family homes in my own life. My parents have lived in their current house since 1973, and it is still the focus of much family activity (not so much for me, of course, since I moved away, but for everyone else — sniff!). That’s certainly the house my own childhood memories are bound up in, but at the same time, it isn’t, quite, because when their children had all moved out my parents did a (much-needed) renovation that rendered the house unrecognizable from the inside — and nearly so from the outside, even though there weren’t many structural changes. My old bedroom is completely gone; the kitchen switched sides of the house; even the door to the basement is on the opposite wall from where it used to be, which still causes some of us a moment of confusion when we’re heading up or down. The only part of the house that’s really the same is the basement rec room, which served many functions over the years, perhaps most unusually as the site of a long-running weekly gathering of folk dancers who had great fun (and wrecked many knees) pounding out advanced step patterns from Bulgaria or Macedonia on the concrete floor. The house is much nicer now — but it’s odd to come in the front door and not see what still lives in my memory as “our house.”

scan0022The house I live in now will be the setting of my own children’s family memories, as we moved in when they were still too young to remember anything else. My most vivid memories of their infant years, though, are all from our first two Halifax homes. One was a traditional old house with bow windows up and down and lots of character inside — meaning, of course, lots of things that weren’t in very good condition. The walls, for example, were paint over wallpaper over aged plaster, and not altogether as solid as you’d like! That’s where we set up Owen’s nursery, where he took his first steps, where he used to astonish me with words, math, and music with his magnetic fridge letters, and where he played his first notes on the piano. I remember sitting up many, many nights that first hot summer after he was born, rocking and nursing and idly watching TV (usually Law & Order, which was always on somewhere) so I wouldn’t fall asleep and drop him — that’s where I was when the news broke of Princess Diana’s death.

Our next house was a less quaint but more solid 60s bungalow: that’s where we brought Maddie home to from the hospital during another long hot summer. As it happens, I was nursing Maddie when the planes flew into the World Trade Center: I remember calling out to my husband when the story popped up about the first one, and we were watching the news waiting for updates about what seemed, at first, sure to be an accident, and then seeing what we only later clearly understood to be the second one — it seemed to happen so fast, and to make so little sense. What odd juxtapositions both of those moments were of private and public life: neither newsworthy event had anything to do with me personally (though 9/11 certainly had repercussions that have affected all of us one way or another), and yet for me both are bound up in my most deeply personal recollections. I have many other memories of that house too, of course, including hours and hours playing with Owen and Maddie in its wonderful vintage basement (complete with real wood paneling on the walls and a salmon pink bathroom).

We’ve been in our current house since 2003. It lacks the charm of our first one but makes up for it (for us, anyway) in modern conveniences, and, more important yet, in being nestled in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Many of our friends have cottages they retreat to in the summer, but we like to stay put and enjoy how lovely it is here when the weather finally turns nice! I wonder how Owen and Maddie will feel or think about this house in later years. It’s hard to know what kinds of memories you’re creating when you are still in the middle of the action, as it were. Because we’re cut off from our extended families on both sides, the memories that have built up here are nothing like the chaotic, inclusive ones described in The Turner House, and also nothing like the ones I have of my parents’ home, so often full of other people eating, talking, laughing, and making music. But we’ve done our best to develop family traditions that suit our eccentric little group! And there’s only so much you can do: for better and for worse, your space is bound to represent who you are. It’s not just literally that you can’t live in someone else’s house, or can’t simply move out of your own whenever you want to.


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