Last Week and Next in My Classes: A Mess of Modern(ist)s

It’s that time of term now when every day is a struggle to triage the demands on my time and attention–and last week I got distracted by a personal (or at least not-quite-work-related)  issue and failed utterly to settle in to grading assignments as I really should have, meaning this coming week will need to be even more tightly packed. Unlike this time last term, though, I have lecture notes and class materials on hand already for the Brit Lit survey, which is a huge help, and I also have the luxury of not one but two guest lecturers. Last week my very able TA took over for the class on Joyce’s “The Dead,” and next week another very able Ph.D. student is dealing with T. S. Eliot. Not only is it a relief to let someone else take charge for a while, but I thoroughly enjoy being on the other side of the podium on these occasions. After all, it was the rewards of being a student that lured me down this path in the first place! And I’m never reminded of that more clearly then when I get the treat of learning from someone smart and passionate all over again. It’s interesting, too, to observe how other people manage both the material and the room.

My own lecture last week was on Virginia Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction.” I surprised myself by how worked up I got about it! Not only are the governing ideas of the essay really helpful and important to thinking about how formal and aesthetic priorities shift between the Victorian and the modern period, but they also lay the groundwork for the analysis we’ll be doing of Atonement in just a few weeks. All that aside, though, it’s just such a strikingly intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written essay. Observing to my class that it appeared in the TLS in 1919, the same year as Woolf’s great essay on George Eliot, I wondered aloud (as if any of them care about this–but then, you never know, maybe they lie awake at night wondering, too!) who writes for the TLS today in anything like such a memorable way, with that stunning combination of erudition and idiosyncrasy. Have the conditions of contemporary publishing and reviewing made such magisterial yet speculative writing inconceivable? “Modern Fiction” is, of course, the one with the marvellous image of the ‘luminous halo,’ part of Woolf’s protest against the dreary literal materialism of Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy. “Life escapes,” she says of their writing; “Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on..”:

The writer seems constrained, not by his free will, but by some powerful tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the fashion of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?

“Must novels be like this?” That seems to me a great question to ask–of any fiction. What are its imperatives? What (perhaps as a result of those imperatives) are its limitations?

That’s actually sort of the angle from which we approached Friday’s reading, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”–not a novel, of course, but an inquiry (or so I read it) into what fiction can or should do. There’s the party, with its beautiful flowers and other aesthetic preoccupations, and there’s the gritty reality of the accident and the “poky little holes” where the workers live. Laura’s moral confusion–can they, should they, continue with their party?–is diverted by the sight of her reflection in “her black hat trimmed with gold daisies,” which renders the painful idea of the dead man and his bereaved family “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” Later, having carried the basket of party leftovers to the widow, Laura stands over the body of the dead man, and says,”Forgive my hat.” But just when you might think she (and perhaps through her, the story overall) is turning against, apologizing for, choosing frivolous beauty over serious realism, we are confronted with her ecstasy at what she has seen: “It was simply marvellous,” she tells her brother about the sight of him. “Isn’t life . . . isn’t life—” Isn’t life what? She doesn’t say, and that sense of revelation inflected with uncertainty epitomizes something about at least one aspect of modernism. Whatever life is, it isn’t simple–or, to return to Woolf, it isn’t “a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged.”

Next week, before T. S. Eliot we have Yeats. And not to neglect my Women and Detective Fiction seminar, we have finished up our work on Death in a Tenured Position, and moved on to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. So those two, plus the remaining assignments, plus two promotion cases, plus revised MA and PhD thesis chapters hungry for comments, plus curriculum proposals to review, plus about eight remaining reference letters with deadlines coming up . . . But I’ve been through enough weeks like this before, now, to know that it all, somehow, always gets done.

3 Comments to Last Week and Next in My Classes: A Mess of Modern(ist)s

  1. November 7, 2010 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Virginia Woolf’s statement of how writing shouldn’t consists of an author’s frustrations is something I always think about. It seems to be the bane of younger authors who want to shout out all their problems on a piece of paper, and possibly hope that other people care. But it’s very good advice nevertheless.

  2. November 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    “Must novels be like this?” seems the perfect question for most of the novels I see advertised lately.

    What did Woolf say about Trollope? He doesn’t have Dickens’ glow, but I think he’s way underrated.

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