On Vacation!

I am in Vancouver enjoying some relaxing and sociable time with family and friends. As seems to be traditional, I have arrived in the middle of a heat wave! Happily, my parents have a lovely shady garden where we can shelter from the sun.


In the meantime, the July issue of Open Letters is live, so head on over for lots of good bookish reading, including my review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. After much debate — internal but also with my wise co-editors — I decided to “spoil” the ending of the novel because my reaction to it was so specific I could not see how to have the discussion I wanted about the novel without going into details. So if spoilers are something that bother you and you haven’t read A God in Ruins but expect to, consider yourself warned.

There’s lots more to read in the new issue, including Anne Fernald on a recently released biography of Virginia Woolf, Steve Donoghue on a new translation of The Tale of Genji, Robert Minto reviewing the reviewers of a new biography of Saul Bellow, and our traditional summer reading feature, with lots of “cool” recommendations from the OLM team.

Enjoy, and Happy Canada Day!

“Ragged, Inglorious, and Apparently Purposeless”: Iris Murdoch, Under the Net


Like a fish which swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure supporting pressure of my own life. Ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.

In the very last chapter of Under the Net, I finally arrived at a passage that was the kind of writing I’d expected from Iris Murdoch:

Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

OK, “the final chop chop” is unexpectedly colloquial, but overall this is more or less what I thought a “philosophical novelist” would sound like, or write about.

I’m not sorry Under the Net was not like that all the way through. In fact, I’m thrilled and relieved that it wasn’t, because imagine how dreary and pretentious it would have been! I am sorry, though, that I had so little understanding in advance of what Under the Net actually is like, or is about, because most of the time while I was reading it I felt quite adrift — not in an angrily puzzled way, but in an off-balance, faintly delirious way. I could tell that the novel was some kind of kunstlerroman — that Jake was somehow becoming something more or other, especially as a writer, than he was at the start. It felt like a quest plot, too, though a strangely erratic one, as Jake rushed off in one direction and then another, each time quite sure of what he was doing but rarely of exactly why or to what larger end. “There was a path which awaited me,” Jake says at one point, “and which if I failed to take it would lie untrodden forever.” His challenge, and thus our challenge, is first to discern it, and then to follow it.

For a while I concluded that the aimlessness, the fits and starts, were themselves the point: that Jake’s peripatetic misadventures stood in for a vision of life as itself without direction or purpose. I’m still not entirely sure that’s not the point — but at the end of the novel there’s a sense, not of everything coming together into a shapely unity, but of Jake gathering up the loose ends and preparing to make something more out of them. If I’d read the Introduction first, rather than last, I would have  seen this coming. Instead, the Introduction confirmed it for me: “In a nutshell,” says Kiernan Ryan helpfully, “Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.” Aha! Although where, in Under the Net itself, qua novel, is the evidence of that slow-growing self-awareness and control? Maybe that’s to imagine Jake becoming a different kind of writer — the kind Pip is, for instance, in Great Expectations, one who infuses the story of his past inadequacies with the wisdom they helped him acquire. Maybe Jake has not acquired any wisdom, or maybe he doesn’t believe in art with such a moralizing bent. Ryan notes the novel’s affinity with a literary tradition I don’t know well at all: “the French surrealist Raymond Queneau, to whom the novel is dedicated, and the novels of Samel Beckett,” for instance. My disorientation arose, that suggests, from my associating the idea of a “philosophical novelist” with a different tradition — with George Eliot and Henry James, for instance, not just in their realism and moral seriousness but in their overt designs on their readers. What in either of them could have prepared me for the Marvellous Mister Mars?

Ryan’s introduction points out a whole range of things that I really didn’t grasp about Under the Net and philosophy — or as philosophy. If I reread Under the Net, I would try to focus on the meanings he sets out for its motley array of characters and its bizarre, seemingly haphazard events. That would be the way to a good reading of the novel, or at least a better one than I managed this time. In my defense, though, I don’t think that happy confusion is an illegitimate first response to Under the Net. Murdoch’s choice of an unaware first-person narrator means that we are necessarily in a different position than we are with Eliot or James: short-sighted or deluded where he is, hampered by his limitations of perception and insight. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell when he’s screwing up, but it does make it more of a pleasant surprise when he arrives at some self-knowledge, as when it occurs to him that his former lover Anna “really existed now as a separate being and not as part of myself”:

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.

There he goes again, being philosohical! And this, too, is near the end of the book, so it feels like somewhere Jake has arrived after some effort. The puzzle of Under the Net is how exactly he figured this out — and also how seriously we are  supposed to take it, given how bad Jake’s understanding of himself, of others, of life, has been up to this point. It feels more like a revelation than like any form of Bildung, and simply happening upon a significant idea is not a particularly philosophical method.

I could quote more of the introduction about how this all actual reflects “the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction,” and how the novel is “the imaginative embodiment of Murdoch’s artistic creed,” but that would be to borrow someone else’s comprehension as a mask for my own ongoing bemusement. Under the Net is the first Murdoch I’ve read. Maybe the pieces will fall into place as I read more! In the meantime, I look forward to my book club’s discussion tomorrow.

“Could Anything Matter More?” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal


It is much harder to measure how much more worth people find in being alive than how many fewer drugs they depend on or how much longer they can live. But could anything matter more?

I decided to read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal for what he would probably consider the best reason of all: because I really, really did not want to. There’s nothing I find scarier or more depressing than death — and that feeling, he emphasizes throughout the book, is the source of many of our worst problems as we face either serious illness or “just” old age: “We do not like to think about this eventuality. As a result, most of us are unprepared for it.”

The argument Gawande makes is a simple one, in theory, anyway: that by making old age and death exclusively medical problems, we have turned the end of life into a traumatic time in which suffering is often exacerbated in the (usually vain) pursuit of just a little more time. Time for what, is his question — or, what kind of time? Phrases like “quality of life” may sound empty but in fact they are key, and one particularly interesting and important point Gawande makes repeatedly is that quality of life cannot — must not — be measured exclusively in terms of longer life. Physical pain or disability is one set of factors, but ultimately it’s autonomy that turns out to matter most: “all we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story.” “Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged,” Gawande says,

is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.

One of the worst aspects of many “nursing” homes or “assisted living” communities, for instance (and the book includes a fascinating overview of the history of both kinds of institutions) is the loss of control over one’s own ordinary activities, from getting up in the morning to getting a snack or using the bathroom. The most humane and, ultimately, healthy living conditions for seniors are those that do not coerce residents into an institutionalized schedule, stripping them of their sense of self and reducing them to cogs in someone else’s mechanistic efficiency scheme. It’s heartening that Gawande is able to find so many places that have found better ways to operate. (One of my Facebook friends recently posted this link about one residence that’s doing something innovative to foster a sense of life and connectivity.) The governing principle should be trying to support people in a life that still feels meaningful to them, on whatever terms they set.

I found it interesting that although Gawande explains how the experience of aging has changed as families stopped assuming primary responsibility for their oldest members, he does not argue that the cure for poor elder care is for young people to step up. Changes to intergenerational structures in industrialized societies have not “demoted the elderly,” he says, but the whole family, in favor of “veneration of the independent self,” and he suggests that this value is now widely shared by older people as well as their children. Thus the appeal for all concerned of retirement communities that preserve independence and individuality while providing essential support services.

Gawande makes a similar argument about people facing death from illness: that the key issue should not simply be one of physical survival, but of understanding what makes life worth living. As a doctor himself, he was accustomed to always reaching for the next medical trick, even if there was little likelihood that it would make much difference in the long run and much more certainty that it would worsen things in the sort term. “The trouble is,” he says,

that we’ve built our medical system and culture around the long tail [of unusually long survival rates or good outcomes]. We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets — and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win.

Often, his examples show, the feeling of control patients get from choosing yet another treatment — however arduous or experimental — is ironic, because the negative side-effects of many treatments are often what ultimately reduce them to greatest helplessness. The great difficulty is weighing “the mistakes we fear most — the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life.” There is no one formula, no one-size-fits-all answer: the greatest insight Gawande acquires and passes on to us, from his research and from his personal experience (one of Gawande’s central examples is his own father’s illness and death), is that there needs to be a hard conversation with the person most directly concerned — the person whose life is ending — that focuses on what that person considers most important. “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine,” Gawande concludes. It is about “health and survival,” but “really it is larger than that”: medical interventions “are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life.” The doctor’s job includes helping patients understand their illness and their options in that context.

Gawande’s book didn’t make death any less terrifying to me. If anything, it raised my anxiety by being so frank and so vivid about the realities of aging and disease and death. But he did convince me that it is essential to think and talk about these things, because inevitably, one way or another, we will have to deal with them. Denial may be more comfortable, but it leaves us unprepared, and making decisions when you or a loved one is in extremis is not only going to be more stressful in the moment if nobody knows what principle should guide them, it’s also likely to lead to more regret and grief afterwards. Being Mortal seems to me particularly valuable precisely because these thoughts and conversations are so difficult. It prompts an inner dialogue, and may also provide an opportunity for open conversation about dying framed in the positive way he enables: what matters most to you? what trade-offs are you willing to make? what steps will best support you in having the life you want, even when you’re “weak and frail and can’t fend for [yourself] anymore”? For these reasons I think it’s a book that could make a great gift — but it’s also likely to be an unwelcome one.

“That Hellish Day”: Howard Norman, What Is Left the Daughter


“The day Hans Mohring came to make amends, that day was hell on earth. Two, three, four months earlier? I couldn’t have found a day like that on the map. And now that hellish day’s my permanent address.”

When people write “think”-pieces excoriating Twitter, I always end up puzzled: clearly their Twitter is very different from my Twitter, and yet they seem to have no idea how variable the experience is, or how many of us use it and value it for completely different reasons than the ones they are fixating on. They also often seem strangely helpless: seriously, if your Twitter is “terrible most of the time,” maybe you should follow different people and use it for different conversations.

I was thinking about this because I read Howard Norman’s darkly gripping novel What Is Left the Daughter thanks to a recommendation from Mark Athitakis on Twitter. Mark is one of many people I’ve come to think of as a Twitter friend — though he and I knew each other as bloggers, too, before Twitter was quite so much of a thing. Though I haven’t met most of my Twitter friends in person, I do feel that I have come to know a lot of them pretty well, and I cherish the connections and conversations I have with them. In particular, I don’t have many people near to hand in “real life” to talk to about books (odd, perhaps, to say that as an English professor, but it’s true). Like blogging, Twitter has become a great compensation for that, and there are many books, authors, and indeed entire genres that I have learned about thanks to people I know there.

It’s kind of funny that I came to What Is Left the Daughter by way of someone in Phoenix via Twitter: it’s such an intensely local book — and yet I had never heard of it, or of Howard Norman, before. The novel takes place in Halifax and in the small Nova Scotia town of Middle Economy, on the Minas Basin. (As far as I can tell, there is actually no “Middle Economy,” though there is an Upper and Lower Economy.) It begins in the late sixties but its action is really during the Second World War, a time when the naval port of Halifax was busy with wartime activity and the waters of the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence were full of Allied ships, and of German U-boats hunting them. One of the central incidents in Norman’s novel is the real-life sinking of the passenger ferry SS Caribou in October 1942 — one of the novel’s characters is on board.

The character who’s lost on the Caribou is Constance, the narrator Wyatt’s aunt, who with his uncle Donald has taken Wyatt in after both of his parents commit suicide on the same night (each of them jumps off one of Halifax’s harbor bridges). This intensely personal tragedy merges with the general atmosphere of loss that permeates the novel, which focuses on the destructive effects of war on the home front. The constant sense of threat cultivates a corrupting xenophobia that motivates terrible crimes — explicable, as we see, but not forgivable, as they exemplify the reduction of individual people into hated abstractions. In wartime, the novel emphasizes, you have to work harder not to do that, but Donald in particular can’t sustain the effort. He becomes obsessed with his enmity, papering his workshop with news stories about the war, and especially about U-boat attacks. Constance tries to dissuade him from his angry fixation:

You are allowing into our house the wrong Germans out of history, Donald! You’re letting the wrong ones into our house! . . . Donald, those war broadcasts are all murder, aren’t they? All Hitler and death and ships lost at sea. I’m saying Beethoven’s not those things.

Beethoven’s music may make an intangible case for transcending war’s polarities (Kate Atkinson uses a performance of Beethoven’s 9th to the same purpose in A God in Ruins). But the possibility of a good German is embodied more directly in Hans Mohring, a German student studying philology at Dalhousie. Though his family has escaped Hitler’s Germany and is now living in Denmark, Donald is unable to see him as anything but an alien invader, and Hans’ marriage to Donald and Constance’s adopted daughter Tilda sets the stage for a tragedy that is ultimately precipitated by the sinking of the Caribou.

The story is told by Wyatt in a letter to his and Tilda’s daughter Marlais. We know this relationship from the novel’s first page, but it takes the rest of the novel for us to understand why it has been such a fraught one, and especially why Wyatt has not seen his daughter in so many years. Wyatt’s role in the novel’s central crime is an equivocal one: it seemed to me to return us, obliquely, to something his uncle says at the news of yet another ship sunk by the Germans:

Isn’t there one living, breathing soul — where’s Adolf Hitler live? It’s in Berlin, isn’t it? Isn’t there one person in all of goddamn Berlin, Germany, with enough goddamn sense and gumption to shoot Hitler in the head?

In addition to Hitler’s extraordinary culpability, that is, there’s the guilt born by those who stand by and do nothing, and then, in heightening levels of blame, of those who help in whatever way to enable his murderous policies. Wyatt is not guilty, but he’s not innocent either, and the same is true of other characters who have inadvertent roles in other people’s catastrophes — the woman, for instance, whose relationships with both Wyatt’s mother and his father led to their suicides. Though there are grey areas, though, there’s no ambiguity about Hans Mohring, who is wholly a victim of prejudice, of a failure of humanity. Looking at a photograph taken in a Halifax bar that coincidentally captured both Hans and the navigator of the U-boat that sank the Caribou, Wyatt’s friend Cordelia says thoughtfully, “what’s strange is that, as I’m standing here staring at it, I see different Germans. There’s the ones who did harm and Hans who didn’t.”

Wyatt offers Marlais his whole sordid story, knowing that he risks her curiosity turning “abruptly sour to disgust, or worse.” But, as he says, “the truth is the truth, and in the end it can’t be lost to excuses, cowardice, or lies.” At the novel’s end Wyatt expresses his hope that Marlais might prove to be his “anodyne” — that she might help restore him to the community where he no longer belongs. Can the wounds of the past be healed? Norman doesn’t promise it, but Wyatt’s resolute attempt to be honest even though the truth is ugly seems like a step in the right direction. His love for his daughter, too, frames a story of violence and unreason (one that is also, at its heart, a doomed love story) with good that perhaps outweighs the bad, or would, if we could all remember that the most important difference is between those who do harm and those who don’t — and if we could all do better than Wyatt at choosing sides.

I really enjoyed What Is Left the Daughter. It felt original to me — and in addition to being suspenseful, it was also thought-provoking, and evocative of a difficult period in local history. Thanks for the recommendation, Mark!

This Week In My Sabbatical: Winding Down and Waiting

  My sabbatical ends officially on June 30. I leave on June 29 for a week’s vacation in Vancouver, so that will mark the transition nicely. I already feel a shift, though, not just in how I’m using my time but in my attitude: the big push I was making to get new writing done has yielded to a period in which I have to wait and see what comes of it, and while I haven’t stopped writing (or planning more new writing), I’ve started doing some prep work for my fall classes, like setting up Blackboard sites. I could put that stuff off until later in the summer, but I don’t enjoy doing it, so picking away at it a bit at a time works best for me. I also like the sites to be up and running before term begins, so that students can check them out.

I suppose another approach would be to rush headlong at these last two weeks and see how much else I can get done. Also, the summer months are meant for research and writing as well, so it’s not as if June 30 is my last day! I will certainly try to do what Jo calls “laying down some breadcrumbs,” so that after my vacation I can keep going, both with the George Eliot material and with some other ideas I have about possibly “pitchable” pieces. I love writing for Open Letters (honestly, I don’t think you’ll get better edits anywhere you submit — I never have), and I don’t intend to stop, but I also want to branch out a bit if I can, for the experience and exposure, for my own self-confidence, and, just a little bit, for the health of my c.v., so that I can point to work I’ve had accepted at places where I’m not on the masthead…in case, just for instance, I decide it’s time I applied for a promotion or something like that.

But speaking of Open Letters, that’s where much of my attention has been this week, as I’ve been working on a review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins for the July issue, wrangling contributors for our annual Summer Reading feature, and doing my share of editing on the other new pieces we’ve got.

I wish I had something more exciting to report!  But it has been a pretty uneventful week, really, at least where sabbatical stuff is concerned. It is also my son’s last week of high school, so that’s eventful in its own way: it has made me more sentimental than I expected, and very conscious of the passage of time. I’m kind of in between books, so I’m rereading Venetia just for fun; my book club meets in a week or so to discuss Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, so that’s probably my next serious read.

Meeting The Penderwicks and Thinking of Old Friends

penderwicksOn the warm recommendation of two of my favorite readers, Sarah and Dorian, I read The Penderwicks this weekend. It’s charming! And, as the cover blurbs suggest, it’s a bit of a throwback, a children’s book of a gentler kind that seems (and is packaged, at least in the edition I read) to have come from an earlier time. This is not to say that it is simplistic: I would describe it as both sweet and sprightly, with just enough shadows (a dead mother, an evil step-father-to-be, a bit of tween angst, a ruined planter of jasmine) to keep it interesting. I enjoyed it — though I admit I did not love it, and can’t see myself rushing off to read the rest of the series. If I had a young reader to share them with, perhaps, but without taking any general stance on the whole adults-reading-kids’-books thing (I said my piece on that already, here), I’ll just say that for this adult reader, this one was a bit too thin and predictable to feel right for the reader I am now. (I’m bracing for your counter-arguments, you Penderwick lovers! Keep in mind I led with “it’s charming”!)

It got me thinking about the books I enjoyed when I was about the age The Penderwicks seems written for — the School Library Journal says Grades 4-6, but allowing for readers who are more precocious than they expect, let’s say ages 7 to 10-ish. Most of my favorites were historical fiction, one way or another: Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, for instance (which I’m thrilled to discover has been reissued in the New York Review Children’s Classics collection), or Barbara Willard’s The Lark and the Laurel and The Sprig of Broom. I still have my crumbling copies of these, along with Barbara Leonie Picard’s Ransom for a Knight. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books, of course (I still have my original box set), and the Anne books, and Little Women (in my mother’s illustrated edition) — but it was the ones about brave girls having adventures in long-ago times that appealed most to my imagination. Those books were the gateway drugs to the “adult” historical fiction I read avidly throughout my tween and teen years, especially Jean Plaidy’s many series (also, I see, now being elegantly reissued) — which in turn led me to, well, where I am today, though I thought at the time that I would end up a historian. uttley

When you look back on your youthful reading, do you see signs in it of the person you grew up to be? Are there cherished childhood volumes on your shelves that have, like mine, survived moves and purges, and perhaps time in your own children’s custody? (Neither of my children ever caught the historical fiction ‘bug': Maddie finally told me straight up to stop buying her books that I would like, which to be fair, is entirely the right advice. Plus Ransom for a Knight is pretty fragile, so it’s a good thing she never wanted to read it. Harumph!)

To Teach or Not to Teach: The Case of Case Histories

case_historiesAs promised, I have reread Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel, Case Histories, and I’m reporting back. My motive in rereading it was partly just to refresh my experience of it, as I remembered having thought it was very good. It is! But I was also rereading it to see if I thought it would work as an assigned text in my class on mystery and detective fiction, and I don’t think it will. Or, at any rate, I don’t think I’ll try it.

There are various reasons for this, none of which reflect badly on Case Histories and some of which may reflect badly on me, or on the way I teach my class. The main reason is that while Case Histories is a very good novel about crime, it’s fairly odd as a ‘crime novel.’ I might even go so far as to say that it isn’t really a crime novel, in the (admittedly narrow) sense that a crime novel is a novel primarily dedicated to presenting and then solving a crime (or crimes). Definitions like this are at once pointless and essential, especially when selecting a reading list. It’s pointless for reasons that Case Histories illustrates perfectly — about which, more in a moment. But it’s necessary because (as I discuss with my class in the first session or two) we always need a reason to focus on one thing rather than another, and though the boundaries around crime fiction as a genre are uncertain, porous, misleading, you name it, nonetheless we do recognize it as a genre, as definable in some sense, to some degree, which is why we can have sections for it in the book store or talk about it as our favorite kind of reading or award prizes for writing it especially well. One of the ways we can differentiate between crime fiction and other kinds of novels that include crimes in them (Adam Bede, say, or — to pick a nearby example — A God in Ruins) is by the extent to which a specific crime and its solution are a novel’s raison d’être — its primary interest, its organizational principle. That’s a simple rubric that distinguishes the vast majority of the books we confidently refer to as crime novels, detective novels, or mysteries.

“But wait,” I hear you protesting. “Doesn’t Case Histories fit that model?” You’re right, it does — kind of. Yes, it is organized around specific crimes, and around solving them, if by “solving” you mean “finding out what actually happened.” Like a more conventional crime novel, it has a central character who acts as chief investigator for the crimes, and whose personality and processes shape our sense, or the novel’s sense, of values by testing and perhaps redefining ideas about law, justice, crime, and punishment. (In Case Histories, for instance, Brodie decides not to turn over his discovery about one of the novel’s crimes to the authorities, keeping it instead inside the family most affected by it.) Brodie himself fits easily into a well-established pattern: he’s a former soldier and police officer, divorced, depressed, with a young daughter whose vulnerability chafes at him — it’s like hanging out with Rebus’s first cousin! (In fact, on this reading, I was struck by the many echoes of Knots and Crosses, particularly the emphasis on missing girls. “Lock up your daughters,” say the headlines as the Edinburgh Strangler terrifies the town. “If only you could lock girls away,” we hear in Case Histories, “in towers, in dungeons, in their bedrooms, anywhere that would keep them safe.”) There are clues (sort of) and the novel as a whole is shaped by revelations about where they lead.

So why would I hesitate to call Case Histories a crime novel? Because it seems to me more a novel about loss, for which crime becomes the vehicle, and about character, especially as revealed by crimes and their aftermaths. There’s relatively little attention given to the investigations, most of which are taking place so long after the crimes themselves that the solutions matter very little except as opportunities for closure — it’s too late for justice, too late for retribution. The weight of Case Histories is on its people, not its cases, and while that may sound like a meaningless distinction (what are “cases,” after all, if not things done by or happening to people?), I think the reading experience nonetheless bears it out.

As I said, this is not a knock against Case Histories. It’s a very good novel. I’m just not sure how I would approach it as an example in my class. The best way, the right way, would probably be to use it to push against too restrictive an idea of the genre: to discuss what difference it makes when the puzzle element is subordinated this thoroughly to other concerns, to examine Case Histories as a possible test case of the putative distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction, one marker of which is sometimes taken to be exactly this kind of difference in priorities. Like Ian Rankin, I don’t like the implicit hierarchy of terms like “transcending the genre,” but Case Histories challenges us to keep thinking about how we define it. That would be a good conversation to have — and in fact other books on my reading list provoke it already (including P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which I teach as both a crime novel and a variation on the Bildungsroman, or Knots and Crosses, which Rankin claims not to have written as a crime novel).

Case Histories would give us at least as much else to talk about as any of our other readings: the links (thematic and emplotted) between the different cases, provocations about what justice means or is worth, explorations of identity, particularly for women, of sexuality, and of family. There’s a lot going on in the novel, including a lot that is relevant to the fundamental issues of my class. And yet… Talking about Case Histories in these ways would be intrinsically interesting, but I’m not convinced it would further my objective in the course of exposing students to as many varieties of detective fiction as I can: the class is a lower-level survey course, and we have a lot of subgenres to cover. Which one would Case Histories represent? Also, a related question: which book would it displace? Knots and Crosses, probably, especially since lately I have another police procedural on the list (The Terrorists). But Knots and Crosses is a crowdpleaser in ways I doubt Case Histories would be. When I assign An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in this class, it’s usually the least popular book on the list: if students find it too slow, how would they fare with Case Histories’ slow burn? The book never really picks up much momentum, either, despite the occasional burst of drama. The crimes are brutal and disturbing, but the time-shifting of the narrative means that we keep starting and stopping with them, circling around, not so much accumulating information as accreting emotional residue. It works as a novel — but is it teachable as a crime novel?

Of course, the only way to find out for sure would be to assign it, set it up as well as I could, and see how it went.

From the Archives: Pondering the ‘Utilitarian’ Humanities

pigI’ve been thinking about this old post a lot lately because it’s hard to escape the discouraging conclusion that — despite having plenty of data on our side — humanists aren’t doing well convincing people that a humanities major is a perfectly practical choice. (I’m glad people are doing research on why better evidence against a pet theory actually makes people less likely to change their minds, because the problem seems pretty widespread these days.) And yet arguments for the intrinsic value and broader benefits of such studies, of the sort I gestured to here, also seem to be losing propositions, as if it is either an unaffordable luxury or self-indulgent navel-gazing to seek deep understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, or any of the aspects of our rich and complex world that the humanities address.

Maybe it’s just media coverage that makes things seem so dire, but politicians (many of whom, of course, have liberal arts degrees themselves) seem relentlessly anti-intellectual these days, and they say and do what gets them votes, so that’s some kind of indicator of general trends. The comments thread on any story about higher education is also bound to be full of people decrying the waste of time the humanities are. And though students actually in our classes more often than not seem to find them plenty interesting and valuable, enrollments are falling.

Have we gone about this the wrong way? What else can we say or do except what we believe to be true about the subjects we study and teach? I really don’t know, but “don’t be a pig” remains a motto I think we should all seek to live by.*

Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Ultimately Self-Defeating?

There’s a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas up at Slate:

The Marketplace of Ideas is a diagnostic book, not a prescriptive one, and Menand’s proposals for how we might invigorate the academic production of knowledge are added as afterthoughts. He thinks we ought to shorten the length of study required for graduate students; the fact that it takes three years to get a law degree and close to a decade to get a humanities doctorate, he writes, is just another symptom of professors’ anxiety about the worth of their trade. We also ought to invite more applications from students who might not have self-selected as academic specialists. The notional aims of the academy—the lively and contentious production of new scholarship—would be better served by making academic boundaries more permeable rather than less.

But in the end, Menand’s proposals, smart and coherent though they are, seem less important than the case study provided by his career. He has managed to stay accountable at once to his colleagues in English departments and to his audience of general readers, and he has pulled this off without sacrificing either rigor or range. Menand is proof that an academic can be a great prose stylist, and that a journalist doesn’t have to be a dilettante—and that having a commitment to one community enriches one’s contribution to the other. He makes it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of crisis, and helps us get on with the important business of creating the problems of the future.

Reading it led me to look back at the excerpt from it published in Harvard Magazine last fall. I had a few ideas in response to it which I wrote about then. One of my remarks at that time was this, made in the context of the difficulty of defining a coherent curriculum when our discipline has become so undisciplined that there is really no way to justify doing one thing rather than another, and thus it becomes increasingly challenging to justify doing any of the things we do at all:

Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

I heard similar arguments being made again this week as we worked on setting up a “capstone” course for our honours students: in response to my observation that some proposed ingredients were designed to groom the students for graduate school in English (something about which I am currently filled with anxiety, thanks to the kinds of discussions underway here and here and here and here, not to mention these classics of the scarifying ‘just don’t go’ genre), I was reminded that good research and writing skills, as well as oral presentation skills, would benefit students in “law school or publishing or journalism or really any other jobs.” And don’t forget that we can teach them how to write a cv and a resume, and writing grant applications is not just for SSHRC but something you may have to do in many different contexts.

First of all, I totally agree. Research and writing and oral presentations are all excellent things to be good at, as are synthesizing a range of material and learning to build a strong evidence-based argument and proofreading and making a persuasive case for the value of a project you want other people to pay for and filling out forms and all the other transferable skills we know are part of what our students are learning and practising through their work in our classes.

That said, the more I think about it the more I wonder whether, in playing the game of “we’re useful too” we don’t actually end up rendering ourselves irrelevant by so happily setting aside the specificities of our work. Isn’t literary analysis (not to mention the extensive reading of, you know, literature, that it requires) a fairly roundabout route to those practical goals? If that’s what the students really want from us, we could save them a lot of time by not making them read so much Chaucer or Dickens or Joyce or Rushdie, that’s for sure. If we play the game that way, it seems to me we are bound to lose eventually. Yes, like writing, critical thinking requires content: “writing across the disciplines” makes sense because you need something to write about, and you can’t teach critical thinking unless you have something to think about either. But if you can learn to write anywhere, you can learn to think (and all the rest of it) anywhere too. Why English?

We need a pitch for ourselves that makes literature essential, but not in the self-replicating terms Menand rightly identifies as characteristic of professionalized literary studies (that is, by contributing to our profession according to existing norms and as judged by the profession itself, and the profession alone). We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy. We need to stand up, not for our methodology (doing so, after all, has meant warping that methodology to make it look as much as possible like some kind of science, or being so inscrutable that outsiders can’t tell what we’re doing anyway), but for the poems and novels and plays we take with us into the classroom every day. We need to be arguing, not that studying literature is just another way to do the same things every other discipline does (what university major won’t help you with critical thinking, research, writing, and presentation skills?), but that there are things–valuable things–about literature that you just can’t get any other way.

I’m thinking the way there is through aesthetics, on the one hand, and ethics on the other, and that the pitch should somehow involve a commitment to the importance of cultural memory and cultural critique, to character building and self-reflection, and to the needs as well as the ideals of civic society. If that sounds old-fashioned, I guess I don’t mind, though I’m not sure it needs to be.

millIn his account of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill famously urges us away from too narrow a notion of the pleasures to be valued under his system:

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. . . .

Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness — that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior — confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

We should similarly urge our administrators away from too narrow an idea of the useful. Our motto could be, “Don’t be a pig.”

*All due respect to pigs, of course, whom we now know to be among the smartest (and cleanest) of our animal friends!

[Originally published January 20, 2010. In a follow-up post, I suggested that “The ‘Skills Argument’ Sounds Even Worse When We’re Talking About PhD’s in the Humanities.” That’s another set of concerns I still puzzle over a lot, as seen also in my 2011 post on “The PhD Conundrum.”]

Weekend Miscellany: Atkinson, Chase, Wallander

godinruinsI haven’t been a very diligent blogger lately! Well, I did write up another ‘This Week In My Sabbatical’ post on Thursday, but it was so dull I deleted it without posting. The gist of it was that I have been writing more stuff (quite a bit of it, which is good, at least), and doing some reading, but there really didn’t seem to be much to say about any of it, and who wants more moping from me about how difficult it gets for me when my schedule is so amorphous (and it isn’t even summer yet!) or more angst-ridden second thoughts about the state of my career?

Actually, one of the things I read was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, and there is plenty to say about that — but I’m going to write up a “proper” review for Open Letters Monthly, so I don’t want to say much about it here. Is it silly to worry about “spoilers” for a review? That’s not exactly the concern, but duplication is. I will just say, then, that I read the book with absolutely rapt attention and, eventually, helpless tears, but that nonetheless I ended up feeling extremely frustrated, not so much with the novel itself but with Atkinson as a novelist, which may, I suppose, be a distinction without a difference.

I was so impressed with so much of A God in Ruins, though, that I’ve taking Case Histories off my shelf for a reread. I don’t think I’ve read it since I first got it, which was not long after it came out in 2004. I remember thinking it was very good, and I’ve read all the subsequent Jackson Brodie books, but I’ve never really considered them as options for my mystery class. Since I’m not teaching it until the winter term, I have a bit of time to consider tweaking the reading list (again!). It’s easier to switch up older books from the classic subgenres than to find recent books that have a tempting balance of innovation and thematic complexity. (Two recent contenders were Finding Nouf and The Unquiet Dead, but neither quite convinced me.) I’ll report back! And as always, if you have suggestions, let me know. Another option I’ve been thinking about is including a “literary” crime novel (Alias Grace, for instance), since one of our ongoing topics in the class is precisely the validity and/or usefulness of the whole notion of “genre” vs. “literary” fiction, or to add Paul Auster’s City of Glass back to the list — but its postmodern posturing was getting on my nerves the last time I assigned it, so maybe not. Someone recently recommend Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn to me: thoughts on that one? Should I give it a try?

hellionI’ve been reading some romance novels in between other things. One of them was Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion — which I didn’t really like. Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was one of the first historical romances recommended to me back when I was taking my tentative (and skeptical) first steps into the genre. I thought it was ludicrous! But I’ve come a long way since then, and now it is among my favorites, though I still find the prose a bit too purple for my taste at times, and the last 25% of it doesn’t interest me very much. (I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I often don’t like or don’t even read the conclusions of romance novels — once the tension goes out of them, my inner cynic kicks in, or something.) Chase’s Mr. Impossible has become even more of a favorite. But something about The Last Hellion just didn’t work for me. The hero was uncomfortably aggressive in his advances, the story around the central romance seemed unnecessarily contrived, the heroine was too beautiful — which has become a bit of an ongoing annoyance. As an antidote, I returned to Judith Ivory’s The Proposition, which I remembered having a heroine who for once was not conventionally beautiful. What a relief! And the story is fun: it’s basically Pygmalion meets Dirty Dancing.

For our evening TV, my husband and I have started watching the Wallander adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh. I didn’t get along very well with Wallander in the books (though to be fair I haven’t read many of them). The show is no less grim, but everyone who told me how good the adaptations are was right. In particular, I think they are among the most beautifully filmed TV shows I’ve ever watched: stills from many of the scenes would look wonderful mounted and framed, though they are a bit stark or melancholy — which of course is appropriate for the series. Branagh is superb, as well: the show is as much (maybe more) a character study as a crime drama, and without his charisma it would be too dreary to bear, but he pulls it off. We’ve only watched the first three installments (we’re taking a break to watch Season 3 of Homeland, about which I am pretty ambivalent) but I expect we’ll come back to it. I’m excited that Netflix Canada (which is pretty badly stocked compared to the American version) has just added Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries! We ran a good essay on the series at OLM a while back that piqued my interest, and having now watched the first episode, it definitely seems like good fun, if that isn’t too perverse a thing to say about murder!

“The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

hildI found Hild shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section at Bookmark, which means I almost didn’t realize they had it in stock, as I don’t usually browse that section. (I was poking around in case they had John Crowley’s Little, Big, which Tom had got me interested in.) I can see why the staff had put it there: the front cover blurb compares it to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But it isn’t fantasy: it’s historical fiction, if based, Griffith says in her Author’s Note, on a particularly scanty record: “We have no idea what [Hild] looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.” “But clearly,” Griffith goes on, “she was extraordinary,” and that’s certainly true of the protagonist Griffith has created from the sparse materials available.

Maybe, though, considering Hild “fantasy” is not altogether a category mistake. “I made it up,” Griffith says about her story, while explaining that it is also deeply researched: “I learnt what I could of the late sixth and early seventh centuries: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more. And then I re-created that world . . . ” — that is, she engaged in “worldbuilding,” which is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental?) task of the fantasy or science fiction author. Of course, her world is built out of real pieces, but it’s an artificial construction nonetheless. I suppose this could be said of any historical fiction, or any fiction at all, so maybe I’m trying to blur a line that’s already indistinct. But there’s something about Hild — the strangeness of its world, but also  of Griffith’s evocation of it — that makes it haunting and uncanny, as if we are not so much in an earlier version of our own world but in an alternative version.

It’s mostly Hild herself who’s responsible for that sense that we’re looking through, rather than at, the world: she is the king’s “seer,” the “light of the world,” and thus it is her job, her destiny, her “wyrd” or fate, to perceive the world differently than others. She is constantly seeking patterns, in nature and in the shifting relationships of the court and the kingdom. Her powers of perception set her apart: she is admired, revered, and feared. Her gifts are not necessarily supernatural, though: her “visions” are the results of long thought and sharp intelligence, and sometimes they are also simply predictions shaped to suit what her listeners (especially the King) want most to hear or do. Signs and omens must be interpreted, and that too requires political savvy and deft diplomacy more than any preternatural insight. Hild’s status as the King’s “light” defines her from birth and shapes both how she is treated and how she must behave: it is a burden, a responsibility, a terrible risk and a great liberation, because it exempts her from the ordinary constraints of a woman’s life.

Hild is an extraordinary character: strong, charismatic, intelligent, intensely physical, remarkably whole and convincing. One of the most interesting aspects of her characterization is the novel’s certainty about her woman’s body: it’s a central fact of her life and Griffith makes that clear without apology, voyeurism, or special pleading. I can’t think, for instance, of another novel in which starting to menstruate is a plot point in quite the way it is here — incorporated with perfect naturalness into the ongoing story of the heroine’s physical and psychological maturation, experienced as an initiation into an alliance of other women, associated with independence from authority rather than readiness for male sexual attention. That’s not to say that sexuality isn’t also an important part of Hild’s story, but though there is a love story of sorts running through the novel, her desires are hers, physical feelings she can satisfy on her own, or with women: they are not (or not just) ties that bind her emotionally to a man, and they certainly do not define her ambitions or determine the arc of her story.

The shape of that story is only partially revealed by the end of Hild. (Griffith is working on the sequel now, but I almost wish she’d waited and published one epic novel, as Hild so obviously stops rather than concludes.) Hild eventually becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby, but she isn’t there when we leave her this time. What we have seen to this point, though, is her development from an uncanny child into a fierce woman. The overall trajectory of Hild is all upward in that way: not just Hild herself, but the world she lives in is taking on a different form over the novel. The most important change is the rise of Christianity, which is gradually replacing the old forms of worship which Hild, as a seer, initially represents and serves. The transition is an uneven and not entirely welcome one. For one thing, people are reluctant to give up their old beliefs, and the representatives of the new God are not altogether persuasive. The God they represent, too, is very different from the old gods, who were more personal and more fun. “They don’t like jokes,” says one of Hild’s women about the Christians; “I don’t think their god does either.” And the new God is demanding in unfamiliar ways, insisting on obedience and reverence, and preoccupied with the unfamiliar notion of original sin. He’s also “squeamish,” inexplicably hostile to women’s bodies: “No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense,” says Hild’s friend.

Will this new God diminish or invalidate Hild’s power, as a seer or as a woman? Will He punish her, perhaps, for the evils she has committed as a warrior or a prophet of other gods? Hild approaches her own baptism with trepidation, but then feels renewed courage:

She breathed deep. She was Anglisc. She would not burn. She would endure and hold true to her oath. An oath, a bond. A truth, a guide, a promise. To three gods in one. To the pattern. For even gods were part of the pattern, even three-part gods. The pattern was in everything. Of everything. Over everything. . . .

Her heart beat with it, her tears fell with it, her spirit soared with it. Here, now, they were building a great pattern, she could feel it, and she would trace its shape one day: that was her wyrd, and fate goes as ever it must. Today she was swearing to it, swearing here, with her people.

I wondered (given that she becomes a Christian saint) whether Hild’s baptism would stand as an epiphanic moment of faith — as a revelation. While the language and the mood here is uplifted, though, the strongest sense is one of continuity: “she was still herself,” the scene concludes. Christianity never seems to be the one right way: it’s just another way, and one that is as prone as the old ways to express the will, greed, and ambition of its adherents rather than any divine plan. Hild’s strength continues to be herself — her limbs, trained for fighting, and her mind, astute and endlessly observing.

The other thing that’s rising in the world of the novel is literacy. This is tied to Christianity, in that it’s the priests who are usually the most ‘lettered’ of the characters. But Hild quickly perceives the value of writing as a way of maintaining networks across distances. Her ability to read and write is valuable to her politically, as her success and survival as a seer depends on good and abundant information. But it means most to her personally, as the typical fate of women is to be sent far from home and family in their roles as “peaceweavers,” cementing alliances as wives then securing kingdoms with their heirs. Hild realizes that if she could write, for instance, to her married sister Hereswith, Hereswith “wouldn’t be lost to her”: for someone in Hild’s anomalous and therefore lonely position, letters would be a lifeline, bringing her news and also preserving her own private identity while living among those to whom she is “the maid who killed, the maid who felt nothing. The maid with no mother or sister or friend.”

kinghereafterThe novelist Griffith most reminds me of is Dorothy Dunnett. She luxuriates in tactile details the way Dunnett does, for one thing, as in this description of a waterfront marketplace:

Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. . . . A six-stringed lyre inlaid with walnut and copper, and the beaver-skin bag to go with it. A set of four nested silver bowls from Byzantium, chased and engraved with lettering that Fursey, peering over her shoulder, said was Greek. But Hild barely heard him: Somewhere a man was calling in a peculiar cadence, and he sounded almost Anglisc. Almost. Instead of the rounded thump of Anglisc, these oddly shaped words rolled just a little wrong. Not apples, she thought. Pears. Heavy at the bottom, longer on the top.

The extraordinary complexity of the created world is also reminiscent of Dunnett — the intricate family trees, the tangled web of alliances, the unfamiliarity of the names and vocabulary, and thus the associated down side of such authorial mastery: our (or at any rate, my) difficulty keeping track of who’s who, of who’s doing what to whom and why. Like King Hereafter, for example, Hild is full of passages that perplex rather than clarify the action:

As the weather improved, messages began to come in from all over the isle. Two, from Rheged and from Alt Clut, said the same thing: Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riate was sending an army to aid the Cenél Cruithen against Fiachnae mach Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and chief among the Dál Riatan war band were the Idings — though the man from Rheged thought two, Oswald and Osric, called the Burnt, while the messenger from Alt Clut thought three, Oswald, Osric the Burnt, and young Osbald.

Or how about this one;

The murdered Eorpwald had been the godson of Edwin. Sigebert was of a different Christian lineage. he had spent his time across the narrow sea at the Frankish court of Clothar, and now Dagobert. If Sigebert was bringing threescore men, they would be Dagobert’s. If he won with their help, he would be obliged to align himself with the Franks. What would that mean for Edwin? Where was Dagobert in relation to the growing alliances of the middle country and the west — Penda and Cadwallon — and the men of the north: Idings, Picts, Scots of Dál Riata, Alt Clut, perhaps Rheghed?

Where was Dagobert, indeed? It helped a bit when I found a partial guide to pronunciation in the back of the book, and a glossary, and there’s a family tree too, but my experience reading Dunnett helped the most, particularly my conclusion that I don’t need to keep up with all the details to stay interested. Both authors are good enough story tellers that the necessary drama rises above the morass of confusing specifics. If I didn’t always know exactly why Hild was fighting someone in particular, it was enough to know that she had her reasons: the heat and blood of the battle was no less intense because I had to suspend, not disbelief, but my desire for perfect comprehension. The absolutely key characters — her mother Breguswith, her best friend, sparring partner, half-brother, and eventual husband Cian, or her “gemaecce” (“female partner”) Begu, for instance — are wholly distinct, and above it all is always Hild herself, “the pattern-making mind of the world.”


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