Category Archives: Literary theory

New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

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Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revision

 

Fair warning: this post is not political. It is for all the writers out there who hate revising their work.

Guys, I know the feeling. You labor over something for weeks, months, even years, and when you reach the end, or what you think is the end, it’s so very tempting to stop, put down your pen or push aside your keyboard, and break out the champagne. You love what you’ve written, if only because (1) it’s finished and (2) it meets your expectations, which, let’s be honest, have been systematically lowered throughout the duration of your project. The last thing you want to do is pick over every word and line you’ve sweated over in a pointless effort to tear it apart.

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I suppose a pretty substantial part of me still does. But today, on the eve of 2017, at the end of a year that so many people are calling a very bad year, if not a catastrophic one, I pause in my own revision work to offer other writers a new way of looking at revision.

I am learning to love this part of writing, because I see it as a perfect marriage between creativity and analysis. Note that I am  using the word “analysis,” not the word “criticism,” because that’s too negative for what I think we do in revision. The job of revision is to help make something better, not to tear it apart. (Tearing it apart should come later, during the critical review, but only in as much as the critic must tear something apart in order to see what it’s made of and how it works. A good critic will always put the work back together again after she does the work of criticism.)

My secret to loving revision, then, is this: Revising a work must involve a willing, enthusiastic attitude. The writer must regard the task of revising with excitement, because it is this part of writing that really shows the essence of craftsmanship, that separates those who write for fun (whether they are published authors or not) from those who write because they are compelled to do so. But how can a writer change their attitude about this pain-in-the-ass time sink? I’ve devised a very simple solution. Instead of hoping that your work contains few mistakes and needs minimal revision, you should assume that it houses many mistakes, some of them not easy to find. Rather than bewailing the need to revise, growing bored and frustrated with finding topical errors, learn to use revision as a sonar device to locate the buried as well as the superficial mistakes. Once found, even deep mistakes are usually fairly easy to fix–much easier to fix than most writers would think. I’ve found that when you let go of the inherent desire not to have to fix something and give yourself over to the idea that fixing it is not only a good thing to do, but an entertaining and satisfying aspect of the nature of the job, revision loses its drudgery. It becomes a pleasant and in some ways delightful stage in the work of creation, and it invites the best use of problem-solving tactics–and creativity–a writer possesses.

There you have it. Stop avoiding revision. (You know you have.) Change your attitude–for real. Love revision and all it offers. Because it’s revision, and not the mere act of writing itself, that makes us real artists. Any third-grader can write. Only a real writer has the ability, and the drive, to revise.

–Offered on this last day of 2016 with a minimum of revision

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In Praise of Bad Novels

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I read a lot. Not as much as my husband seems to think, but a respectable amount nonetheless. This year I am keeping track, and since January 1st, I’ve read fifteen books. That’s three books a month, a figure that includes one audio book but does not include the four books I’ve read for reviewing purposes. And among those books, I’ve found two books that I think are actually bad novels. Surprisingly, these two bad novels are by acclaimed authors–authors whose works I have enjoyed, recommended, and highly admired. Hence today’s topic: why reading a bad novel isn’t an utter waste of time.

Many of us have had those moments in which we spend a good chunk of time resolutely plowing through a New Yorker short story only to complain afterwards, muttering something like, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” And the same could be said about these two novels. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and listening to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana left me frustrated and perplexed until I began to think about bad novels. After several days of thought, I began to see the value of reading books that simply don’t measure up to our standard of writerly quality.

Don’t get me wrong: while in the midst of these two books I kept reading and listening precisely because, knowing the authors’ other works, I expected things to take a turn for the better. When they didn’t, I grumbled and complained, and marveled at the insipidness of the stories being told. I finished Ishiguro’s novel thinking, “That’s strange–it never did get any better. Where is the writer who produced two of the finest novels of the last thirty years?” I finished Eco’s in even worse shape, thinking, “At least I knitted several dishcloths while I spent fifteen hours [!] listening to this thing.”

imgres-2So why would I celebrate bad novels? There are a number of reasons. First, there’s value in reading a body of a writer’s work, just as it’s worthwhile to watch a body of a director’s films. Watching the ebb and flow of good writing within one author’s body of work is instructive: it shows us readers that all writing is experimental, even the writing created by excellent and talented writers. Second, it makes us question our values. What makes a novel bad rather than good? Is it predictability and relying on telling rather than showing, as in When We Were Orphans? Or could it be long-winded musings that interrupt and detract from the real narrative, leaving readers with a shaggy-dog story rather than an enriching experience, as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? Would we judge these books as harshly if we didn’t know the authors’ other works, masterpieces in their own right? These questions may not have clear answers, but they are certainly worth considering.

And for those writers out there (and aren’t all of us writers, even those of us who don’t regularly produce manuscripts or succeed in getting our work published?), I’d offer this thought: considering bad novels gives us hope. If Kazuo Ishiguro can miss the bull’s-eye, even after he wrote The Remains of the Day, then we can certainly forgive ourselves for not coming up to snuff. We can continue to labor at our work, trusting that, like Ishiguro, we can still produce some wonderful work, a heart-breaking novel like Never Let Me Go, jaw-dropping in its artistry. Using Eco’s example, we can say to ourselves that our present work may not be quite the thing, but that another, beautiful piece of writing lies within us, struggling to come out.

And most important of all, we can remind ourselves that all stories are significant, and that even the not-so-good ones deserve to be told–and read.

 

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Why I’m Trashing My Novel

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Sometimes when you write a draft of a story in your head, you go back and read it and see all the flaws in it. That’s normal; artists rarely produce good work on the first g0-round–although there is that story about Mozart showing his latest score to Salieri, who asked to see the rough copy. Mozart replied that he was looking at the rough copy. When Salieri asked where the cross-outs and emendations were, Mozart stared at him, puzzled. “The mistakes!” said Salieri, losing patience with his young colleague. “Where’s the copy with all the mistakes?” Mozart looked at him in amazement, and finally said, “Why on earth would I want to make mistakes?”

See what I did there? In an essay about writing and revising, I inserted a little story. It’s not original–I picked it up somewhere, probably from my music teacher. And it may not even be very good. But the point is that most people, other than Mozart, make mistakes as they write their stories, and that’s what revision is for. However, every once in a while you read what you’ve written, and you say to yourself that you just can’t go on with it. There can be many reasons for this: flawed writing, trouble with dialogue, problematic plots. But when you’re thoughtful and intentional about writing (which may itself be a problem in producing a story), you analyze what went wrong. It probably won’t help the draft you’re contemplating–you’ll probably still have to relegate it to the trash pile–but it may help you from making the same mistake again. In the hope of helping other writers out there, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice to those writers who have decided to end the struggle.

Before I offer it, however, I’d like to say that all would-be novelists who pull the plug on their novels should be thanked, even celebrated, for their decision. There are far too many novels out there, and those of us who decide to shit-can ours are doing a favor for our friends and family members, and for the unsuspecting public who might actually buy our poorly written and executed novels. We should be lauded, not pitied, for our decision to end the struggle. We are doing a service to readers by not adding to the morass of bad literature already cluttering up our bookshelves. Our self-denial is somewhat heroic.

But all this aside, I believe that good stories should have two qualities: they should be interesting, and they should be authentic.

What does this mean? “Interesting” is easy enough to define: a story should be intriguing enough to make us want to know more. What happens next? Who does what to whom? Yet it’s good to realize that “interesting” is a quality that will vary from reader to reader. My husband may find dramas with lots of explosions and bloody confrontations interesting, but they put me to sleep. I find Victorian novels delightful, yet he has never made it through one yet. “Interesting” is so relative a term that we will just leave it out here for other critics to dissect.

“Authentic” is another matter altogether, although it is just as difficult to define. It bears no relation to reality; rather, it is connected to Hemingway’s dictum that a writer must write “one true sentence” to be successful. By “authentic,” then, I mean that  the writer must be true to herself. This is much harder said than done. You have to put yourself into your writing, which is often uncomfortable and scary, because you can’t hide behind the writing. You have to reach into yourself and lay it on the line, and that in itself is so much harder than simply telling a story. My little story about Mozart above may be interesting (to some), for example, and it is authentic enough for its purpose (to illustrate a point), but it’s not really authentic because there’s too little at stake in the telling of it.

My aborted novel contains some seventy pages. On reading it, I found that it has an interesting idea, but it fails the authenticity test. It’s not “true” enough; I haven’t invested enough into the telling of the story. I might have been able to fool some readers into thinking it was authentic, but there are too many books out there that are authentic to try to produce one that fails in this category. And these days, those of us who self publish must be especially vigilant; there are already enough books in the world that need to be read, so why add to the chaos?

I may take up my idea again and try to make a novel out of it, but for now, I’ve learned my lesson, which is that writers have to strive for authenticity in their narratives. And that, I think, is an important enough lesson to share with others.

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Correction to an Earlier Post: Why I Like Go Set a Watchman

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In a previous post, I maintained that the newly discovered book Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was merely a rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I need to correct that. I will admit, after reading Go Set a Watchman, that I was wrong, for a number of reasons. To be honest, I’m surprised, after thinking about this for a while, that no one called me on my inherent hypocrisy. In that earlier post, I maintained that because To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of editing and wound up being the published novel, it is superior to and actually eclipses Go Set a Watchman. This reflects a faith in publishers and editors that I don’t really have. In fact, I think serious readers should question the power vested in publishers to make the decisions about what they will read. I now think that Go Set a Watchman deserves to be read as a work on its own right–not because of its quality, or because of its importance, but simply because it is a novel, however flawed, written by an important writer of the mid-twentieth-century United States.

How flawed is Go Set a Watchman? It certainly is not a masterpiece of writing. But then again, neither is To Kill a Mockingbird, whose value rests not in its well-crafted sentences or dramatic dialogues, but rather in the fact that it is a relatively simple but powerful story that appeared when its readers needed it most. However, Go Set a Watchman, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, violates the one rule that every creative writing student must learn: show, don’t tell. Lee spends much too much time telling her reader about Jean Louise, rather than showing us her in action, particularly in the beginning of the book. In addition, the dialogue, written to reflect a Southern drawl, almost always seems inauthentic and affected, and there are large sections that become preachy rather than dramatic or revealing.

So with all those criticisms, what is there to like about Go Set a Watchman? I find several things in this category. First, it shows us an independent-minded young woman observing the world around her. The Jean Louise Finch presented in this novel is grown up, no longer a cute, ungendered tom-boy; she is now a woman, one with a sexual past, present, and future, who sleeps in pajama tops only, with no apologies. As a female reader, I find this aspect of her character refreshing and revealing. Second, it presents Jean Louise with an intellectual and moral dilemma, which she is able to work through with the help of her Uncle Jack. If we readers can stay with the dialogue, we are rewarded with the understanding that Scout actually emerges as Atticus’s ethical superior. We discover that this novel is the story of how a woman is able to perceive that her childish worship of her father is misplaced, and that she must make up her own mind about things such as the relations between white and black Southerners. In a sense, then, Go Set a Watchman is a woman’s coming-of-age story, in which Scout must learn to function in a complex world without Atticus, without Jem, without Dill, and without her almost-boyfriend Henry Clinton.

Maybe the reason the novel changed so much from its original version is because the United States didn’t want a female coming-of-age story in 1963. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t ready for such a story; all it wanted at that time was a simple fable, which To Kill a Mockingbird, in its simple and spare narration, delivers beautifully. And certainly there’s a great deal of clutter in Go Set a Watchman, but a lot of it is clutter that I like. For example, the character of  Dr. John Finch, Atticus’s brother, with his obsession with Victorian literature, is powerfully appealing to a Victorian scholar like me. Because of Uncle Jack, this book is much more literate than To Kill a Mockingbird, which is perhaps another way of saying it’s filled with clutter. References to Bishop Colenso and Lord Melbourne are welcome to me, but probably to few other readers. I especially liked this sentence: “you and Jem were very special to me–you were my dream-children, but as Kipling said, that’s another story…call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.” References to Romeo and Juliet (in which Mercutio, wounded by Tybalt, says, “call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man”) are not hard to find, and Lee gives away the Kipling quote, but a nod to Charles Lamb’s  sad and beautiful essay “Dream Children: A Reverie” is as delightful as it is rare.

So, in a nutshell, my earlier post was misguided, if not completely wrong about Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of its time, perhaps the most important book of its time. And, while Go Set a Watchman may not be a book for all time, while it may only be of interest to readers today because Harper Lee wrote it, it is a solid and fascinating book, and I am glad that I read it.

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On Lost Voices

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano that discussed H.J. Jackson’s book Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson’s book talks about literary fame and how it occurs, and Romano’s article introduces some interesting, and troubling, ideas. For example, what if, as Jackson suggests, we remember Wordsworth and Coleridge not because they are eminently good poets, but because their poetry is easier to anthologize and illustrate than the works of Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? Many good writers fall by the wayside, Romano seems to argue, simply because they are not convenient to read.

This makes me question my own work as a teacher in years past. One of the things I’m proud of is my attempt to help my students understand Romantic poetry and feel comfortable with it. Of course, I emphasized Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they are so accessible and so easy to identify with, considering their love of simplicity and Nature with a capital “N.” What’s not to like about that, after all? But recently, while reading the letters of Charles Lamb, a literary figure who was once loved for his essays and is now only known for his pseudonym (any crossword addict knows that “Lamb’s alias” is “ELIA”), I discovered a rebuttal of all the nature-worship perpetrated by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Of course, any student of Romantic literature will remember lines like “Henceforth I shall know / That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, /…and keep the heart / Awake to Love and beauty!” (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by S.T. Coleridge). This is also the poem in which Coleridge addresses Lamb himself (much to Lamb’s chagrin) not once but three times as “My gentle-hearted Charles,” telling him at one point, “thou has pined  / And hungered after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent, winning thy way / With sad and patient soul…” (28-31). Lovely as those lines are, there was at least one reader who was unimpressed by them. Lamb himself wrote to Coleridge on August 6, 1800, “For God’s sake (I never was more serious) don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses.” Apparently, Coleridge heeded Lamb’s plea, and never again addressed him in a poem.

Five months later, Lamb writes to William Wordsworth an interesting, chatty letter in which he brings up his view of nature, which runs counter to all Romantic ideology, ending in a paean to city life worthy of Dickens or Thackeray some fifty years later: “Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes–London itself a pantomime and a masquerade–all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.” Lamb’s letter continues to contrast his view of the poetic with Wordsworth’s, ending, “So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green, and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.”

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

This passage is more than striking; it’s a gobsmacking refutation of the Nature-worship that I have, for many years, erroneously taught was part and parcel of the literary landscape of early 19th century Britain. So here’s a public apology to all my students, with this little piece of cautionary advice: H.J. Jackson may well be right. Rather than teach the old stand-bys, we ought to be engaging in our own recovery projects to introduce more readers to the jewels that we’ve let slip through our fingers.

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What’s all the fuss about Atticus?

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The latest buzz about Harper Lee’s newly published novel, the predecessor to To Kill a Mockingbird, is that Atticus Finch is portrayed not as the moral champion of racial equality, but rather as a racist. Before this piece of news takes over all of our Facebook newsfeeds, however, let’s just remember one thing.

It really doesn’t matter.

I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman, although I intend to. But I know that whatever is contained in that novel has little to do with the work that ultimately became To Kill a Mockingbird. In other words, the Atticus who appears in the former work is only tangentially related to the Atticus who appears in the latter work. No matter what the news articles tell us, Go Set a Watchman is not a full-fledged literary work: because it was not published, because it was in fact rejected by editors, we must regard it as a rough draft of sorts, a work in progress, and not as a work on its own.

In fact, I find the popular interest surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman puzzling, because this embryonic version of Harper Lee’s masterpiece should really be of interest only to literary scholars and critics. The fact that it has grabbed media attention is frustrating but predictable. To Kill a Mockingbird is an iconic novel, after all, emblematic of the United States at a certain point in time. Moreover, having published her one great novel, Lee never published another; and so she herself is a tantalizing mystery, much like that other one-hit wonder, Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights.

But the truth is that because Go Set a Watchman is simply a kind of rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird–nothing more and nothing less–the only people who should be interested in this work are literary scholars, those people who crawl around musty libraries studying literary minutiae, debating whether the first ending of Great Expectations is superior to the revised one that Dickens ended up with–in other words, people like me. And the only reason that the media is showering attention on this book is that an anti-intellectual culture cannot understand scholarly interest, and so Go Set a Watchman must be presented not as a type of juvenilia, not as an early (rejected) version of a masterpiece, but rather as a work in its own right. And what is surprising about this? After all, there is nothing to wonder at in this kind of attitude arising out of a society that places greater value on sports facilities than on libraries. The $27 price tag tells the entire story,

So don’t worry about whether Atticus Finch is racist. He isn’t. The only Atticus Finch that really matters is the one that appears in To Kill a Mockingbird. On the other hand, if you just have to worry about something, consider worrying about the fact that fifty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, we still haven’t solved the problem of race in this country. Unlike Dickens’s books, which sometimes provoked real social change , Lee’s work still reflects a reality in our world that we are unwilling to contemplate. And that’s something to worry about for sure.

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Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

One thing I’m looking forward to doing as a retiree is reading anything I like, whenever I like. I do a good deal of reading, and to be honest, I began this free-wheeling practice in my reading several years ago: in this way, I have made some very rewarding discoveries. I’ve read several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and I am particularly grateful for this discovery, since I consider him a very fine novelist. I’ve read some of Jane Gardam’s works, and Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, and, in an effort not to focus exclusively on British writers, I picked up Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, and was disappointed in its narrative trickery. All of these books are firmly outside the realm of 18th and 19th century British novels (my area of specialization), which is the point–now I have the time to read indiscriminately, pointlessly. It’s the readerly equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, before I settle into a routine in my retirement, I intend to gorge myself with shameless abandon.

Even before the end of the semester several weeks ago, I began Anna Karenina, a serious undertaking. I am not sure I would have had the heart to begin the task if I had read a hard copy of the book, but I read it on my Kindle, which mercifully disguises the real length of a work, and instead provides you with a virtual pep talk by showing you how much of the novel  you have read. At any rate, I was 73% of the way through the novel before I decided that it was, indeed, a great novel, perhaps one of the ten greatest novels (a list that will undoubtedly become a future post). Here are a few disjointed thoughts about the work, in a format that proves that Buzzfeed and Clickhole have corrupted even those of us who are trying to create serious criticism.

  • The novel is misnamed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (another future post), the novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina; it is just as much about, and in my view, much more about, Konstantin Levin. Perhaps this is a result of Tolstoy’s manner of writing the novel: like Dickens’s great works, it was published as a serial novel in a magazine. I have often compared this form of writing to jazz improvisation. There is a fundamental line of melody, a basic story or plot, but the musician/writer is allowed, even expected, to riff on this line. In some cases–Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example–the basic plot becomes much less interesting than one of the improvised riffs (yet another future post). I would argue that Anna becomes somewhat less interesting than Levin, perhaps because her trajectory is more predictable.
  • Why is Anna’s path so much more predictable than Levin’s? It’s because Tolstoy is heavy-handed on the symbolism. From the moment Vronsky and Anna meet, there are clues to what will happen: the death of the worker who is crushed by the train occurs at their first, sexually charged meeting, after all, and the race in which Vronsky loses his favorite horse is rife with foreshadowing. This lacks subtlety, of course, but I can forgive Tolstoy because of the time in which he wrote, since subtlety is clearly an acquired taste and will wait for post-modernism to develop fully. At any rate, we can see where Anna is going–there is only one outcome for her, after all–but Levin’s story is full of questions. Will he marry Kitty after all? Will their marriage survive the early days of learning to live with each other? Will Kitty die in childbirth? How will he react to being a parent? All of these questions drive us forward in the novel, wanting to know the answers. With Anna, on the other hand, we know that disaster awaits her, and we cannot resist watching it unfold, waiting for the train wreck (forgive the pun) to happen.
  • The link between the two plot lines is the story of Stepan Oblonsky’s infidelities. Tolstoy is able to create a round character out of Stepan, however, and he becomes more than a simple plot link. This is a testament to his ability to tell the story in an artistic, yet natural, way. Perhaps this is what I admire most about Anna Karenina: the ease with which Tolstoy connects his stories, the balance he creates between them, allowing him to hold up Anna’s final view of the world as the opposite of Levin’s. She sees the world as hateful and dark, while Levin, in the final chapters of the novel, sees it as bright with possibility, with a  spiritual  and philosophical generosity that outshines the darkness of Anna’s end.
  • The portraits of marriage and relationships that Tolstoy creates in the novel are excellent. From Kitty and Kostya’s difficulties in the first months of marriage to Vronsky and Anna’s descent into something like hatred for each other, Tolstoy works from life. I last read this novel when I was a teenager, some forty years ago, before marriage. I wish now that I had read it several times since then, because I think it might have helped me. Somewhere I once heard about a person–I forget who–who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa every year. I don’t think I could handle reading Anna Karenina on a yearly basis, but maybe reading it every decade would have been a good idea.
  • Finally, one last note: I admire the deft way in which Tolstoy can express contemporary views and existential questions through the internal discourse of his characters. This is something that Hemingway tries to do in For Whom the Bell Tolls with much less success; in fact, that novel basically fails, in my view, at the point when Robert Jordan muses on the political questions and disharmonies he’s witnessed. Hemingway just cannot pull it off, but Tolstoy can. For this reason alone, Anna Karenina is worth reading. While it may not be subtle as far as the use of foreshadowing goes, it is quite subtle in its representation of the universal and local questions of the day.

These are just a few thoughts about the novel as I adjust to retirement. All of which just goes to show you: old teachers don’t stop lecturing. They just start writing.

 

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

 

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Filed under Criticism, Literary theory, Literature, Reading, Writing

A Teaser

Tomorrow, I leave for London on a trip that is mostly for leisure but partly to research my newest novel, as yet untitled, and only two-thirds written. Here is a short preview of that novel, which, a kind of ghost story, is really not much like my first novel, Effie Marten, at all. Take a look, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.

 

Chapter One

I’m not sure when the noises began, or why I first began to pay attention to them. All I know is that one morning, tired and hung-over, I hunched over my cup of coffee, breathing in its bitter odor, regretting the fact that I hadn’t been to the stores to buy any milk, or cream, or even non-dairy creamer, wondering how I would spend my day, when I heard a sigh so sad and plaintive it made me forget my own misery, and I sat up to look around, thinking Andrew hadn’t left yet for work.

“Drew?” I took a sip of the coffee, clenched my teeth at its unaccustomed bitterness, and swallowed. “Is that you?” There was no answer, so I stood up and walked to our tiny bathroom, pulling my robe tight around my nightgown. Flannel alone, I have learned, is not enough to keep out the chill of a January morning in England, especially when one lives in a sprawling mansion that has been converted to flats.

“Are you still here?” I glanced in the bathroom, took a quick peek into the spare bedroom we used as a study, and, cradling my cup in my hand, walked back to the kitchen. “I guess not,” I said aloud. Talking to myself was becoming a habit these days, one that I had not yet grown alarmed about.

I sat back down, set my cup down on the chic black dining table, and rubbed my pounding temples. What could that noise have been? Probably heating pipes or something like that. Back in the States, I’d lived in a variety of places that made sounds: shifting foundations, stiff winds, even small earthquakes could account for a lot of normal creaking household noises. England, too, must have its causes for these things, especially when one considered that everything was about a thousand years older here than in the United States.

Let’s face it, I told myself: there’s no chance at all that this beautiful old building is situated on top of an Indian burial ground, so just forget about it. I nodded, as if I’d said the words aloud, as if someone else had said them to me and I was agreeing with them, and lifted my cup to my lips. Drinking deep, I now welcomed the scalding bitterness of the coffee. It was real, unlike the sound that had set me on edge. It was something that appealed to the senses, something you could count on, something predictable and knowable. I took another sip, thinking that milk would have made the coffee better, but somehow less real. Sometimes, I said out loud, my voice echoing in the empty flat, bitterness was just what you needed to get you going.

 

 

I hadn’t been in England all that long, had been married even less time. My life up to this point had been pretty boring, in fact. A childhood in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. A stint at a large public university, followed by a meltdown of sorts—the usual kind, which consisted largely of wondering what I was doing with my life, how I was going to support myself, an in fact, what the point of life really was—during which I dropped out of school, relinquished my career goals of becoming a history professor, and moved back home in utter desperation. My parents were nice enough about it, but we all knew I couldn’t stay there long, couldn’t keep working as a secretary, no matter how noble (read: underfunded) the non-profit organization I worked for was. The money just wasn’t there, and although I wasn’t greedy by any means, I needed to have enough to live on my own. At 22 years old, I just didn’t want to be living in the bedroom I grew up in. After mulling it over for a year and a half, I decided the only solution was to return to school. It would buy me another year or so while I figured out how to manage the age-old problem: what would I do in order to make ends meet?

So I enrolled in a computer programming school—it wasn’t an academic program, but rather a training school of sorts designed to get people into the workforce quickly—that was located just across the freeway from my house. Actually, it was across several freeways, all of them crowded with SUVs and luxury sedans, it seemed to me, wending their way through traffic to make it to the next soccer game, or board meeting, or shopping trip.

I’d picked computer programming solely because I needed to be sure of getting a job after college. I’d had enough of the nobility of the liberal arts and how they prepared you for life, not work. Maybe if I’d been sure of getting into a fine graduate school and finding the funding to support me, I’d have been less bitter, but I’d spent too much time poring over placement data, and I knew how many history majors were out pounding the pavement looking for work. Many of them were finding it, too: as baristas, and convenience store clerks, and cell phone sales personnel.

But I’d done my research, and all the data suggested that the best field to enter was computer programming, the wave of the future. It had been the wave of the future for three decades now, and apparently was only just now coming into its own. That sounds kind of sketchy to me now, but at the time, I was desperate, and it was good enough for me. I have a good head for languages, and once I convinced myself programming was just another language, it seemed to work. I learned just enough and no more to become barely competent as a programmer, and that only by the end of the training module. Luckily, I had a job offer with a large oil company, which I took immediately, without listening to my conscience—or my heart.

So, by age 26, I finally had my first job and my career all laid out for me. True, I had no real love for what I did, but it was a solid paycheck, it was regular, and it was ample for my needs. All I had to do is make it the next 41 years to retirement, and I was set.

I actually got myself to believe that.

For a few weeks, anyway.

Within two months, I had had to sit myself down and give myself a stern talking to. Listen, Meg, I said. You have just what you’ve been wanting, what you decided you needed in life: a steady paycheck and time left over after the work day to pursue your own interests, whether those interests reside in medieval history, or knitting, or raising miniature pot-bellied pigs. After all, I insisted, it’s ungrateful to be bored, to yearn for something more. It was stupid to think that my work life should be fulfilling in the way that my daydreams dictated they should be. That was in books, in fantasies, in movies or television series, I told myself: real people, women with mothers who were medical transcriptionists and fathers who were accountants, people like that just didn’t get the kind of jobs that make them actually want to get up in the morning and go to work. I told myself to buckle down and settle in for a long ride.

So that’s what I did, and I was pretty much failing miserably at it when I got selected for a personnel training program, which entailed six months of further schooling, culminating with three weeks in Kansas City, all expenses paid.

I jumped at the chance.

True, Kansas City isn’t Las Vegas, or Orlando, or San Francisco. I suppose it’s a measure of my discontent that I was so enthusiastic about going to a place that lacked the glamor of the usual convention cities, but there it is. I enrolled in the training program, attended each class dutifully, learned my trade, and at the end of the six months, packed my bags, dropped my cat and my apartment key off at my parents’ house, and headed to Kansas City, which is where I met Andrew Markham.

How I met Andrew and ended up marrying him is another story altogether.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literary theory, Literature, Publishing, Reading, Writing