Category Archives: Literature

An Unexpected Masterpiece: Felix Holt

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Turducken–Image from Wikipedia

 

One of the joys of being a retired English professor is that you never really leave your work behind: you just leave all the parts of it that aren’t that much fun. This means that while I don’t have to grade papers or go to pointless committee meetings, I still get to do what inspired me to go to graduate school in the first place: read.

And I do read–a lot. I read all sorts of things, but of course my favorite thing to read is (guess what) Victorian novels. I have taken a lot of pleasure in re-reading the Victorian novels that I studied in depth, like David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, but there is a special sort of pleasure in discovering a new favorite novel. It’s like finding a new star hidden in a constellation you’ve looked at for years, or in a more mundane manner of speaking, like finding that lost sock that went missing in the last load of wash you did.

My lost sock is, to mix metaphors, a turducken of a Victorian novel. We all know that George Eliot is probably the most brilliant of the Victorian novelists; if we didn’t, we have Virginia Woolf declaring, in her autocratic way, that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” (The Common Reader, “George Eliot”). We also have New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s take on the novel in her book My Life in Middlemarch, which apparently qualified her to write a nice essay on the book in the magazine.

But then there are the Eliot works that are too seldom read these days: Romola, Scenes of Clerical Life, Daniel Deronda. And who among us has actually read Felix Holt, the Radical? I confess that I have had a copy of it on my bookshelf since 1999, yet I never opened it until last week. I am thankful that I did, because I now think it’s one of the best Victorian novels I’ve read, despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia, it is one of the least popular of Eliot’s novels–so unpopular, in fact, that although it would make a fantastic mini-series (PBS or BBC, are you listening?), the last time it was adapted for film was in 1915. Yes, 1915.

What makes the novel so wonderful are not just some fantastic statements that are eminently quotable, although the book does contain a couple of real gems. Here is one, from the Introduction:

“Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory. The tube-journey can never lend much to picture and narrative; it is as barren as the exclamatory O!”

Eliot goes on to explain that it is a slow, surface journey that allows the traveler to see and experience the varieties of life, not a quick, subterranean (we might add “aerial” here) journey. How prescient Eliot must have been to have seen what would happen to travel in the next generations, to have understood the way in which “getting there” is no longer fun or important. She makes us understand that the saying “it’s the journey that counts, not the destination” refers only to some kind of moral or experiential journey, and sadly, no longer a real, actual one.

Here is another famous quote, from Chapter 3, in which Eliot displays a remarkable sensitivity to social life:

“…there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd that had made the pastures bare.”

The insight revealed in this novel is remarkable, but these selected quotations are not the chief strengths of Felix Holt. What is absolutely amazing to me is that in this one book Eliot combines a variety of different Victorian novels and still manages to create an incredibly good story, one which pulls you back to it day after day because you cannot wait to find out how the characters will respond to the events they become caught up in.

Here’s a simple way of putting it: In George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (ironically, we are halfway through the book before we realize that Felix Holt is no Radical), we find a turducken of a novel, one which combines and recombines aspects of several different subgenres of the 19th-century novel, fitting many novels, miraculously, into one organic whole. For example, we see the re-education of Esther Lyon, in a Mansfield Park (Jane Austen) narrative; we have the political machinations that are redolent of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels; we have the emphasis on hidden secrets and parentage, on madness and eccentricity that Dickens loved to play with; we are treated to a look at a kind of Orientalism, which is worthy of Wilkie Collins; and we have a legal plot about long-hidden heirs and family trusts that blends both Trollope and Dickens with Thomas Hardy. And at the center of it all, we find a difficult love story, starring Esther Lyon and Felix Holt, who are clearly borrowed from some of Sir Walter Scott’s best romances.

With all these things going on, you’d think this would be a mess of a novel, but Eliot is a master craftsman, and she manages to create a wonderful story from these disparate threads, replete with excellent character depictions and some memorable scenes. In short, this is a fine novel, probably just as good as Middlemarch, and quite a bit shorter. It deserves to be read. I certainly wish I hadn’t waited almost 20 years to read it, but I’m very glad I finally have.

So go out and get a copy and read it. Or, if you want, you can always wait for the BBC Miniseries to air. Julian Fellowes or Emma Thompson, it’s time for you to get to work on the script!

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Collecting Crumbs

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Why do we write? This is a question that few of us writers consider seriously. It’s a question we can amost always evade, because most of us feel compelled to write, almost as if this strange pastime were some kind of powerful addiction, driving us to write novels, poems, plays, and–of course–blog essays like this without any real thought about why we do so. Certainly there are plenty of answers to the question “why write?” For example: “Because no one can tell your story exactly you can”; “Because the world deserves to hear your story”; “Because you have a responsibility to engage in that great conversation we call literature.” I have myself discussed some of these answers in an earlier blog, but my favorite response to the question comes from Charlotte Bronte: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.”

However, the awful truth–and it is awful for us writers–is that there is no good answer to this question, because our work is completely unnecessary. There are already enough novels, poems, blogs, plays–you name it–to keep the entire world busy with reading for generations. This is a hard truth to accept, but I am convinced that it is the truth, and that all writers know it; they just refuse to accept it most of the time. The world doesn’t need our writing, because there are plenty of people engaged in the same task we are, making our work completely unnecessary and generally unwanted.

If anyone doubts this, consider how much marketing and publicity plays into every book that we read. Things seemed different a decade ago, when self-publishing through Amazon became possible for writers. In that moment, it seemed like the locked gates of publishing were ready to be stormed and broken. However, although the iron bars may have been shaken a bit, the hinges were not broken, and the gates remain closed to those who cannot muster up the money, the resolve, or the chutzpah to play the marketing game. This means that most of us will continue to write in obscurity, never making it onto any best-selling list–indeed, never making it onto any list at all.

It’s been hard to school myself to accept this situation. The wisest thing to do would be to stop writing, but like all addictions, the writing addiction is a hard one to break. I have indeed taken a sabbatical from writing, that dangerous pastime that sucks up too much time and gives much too little in return. I hate the fact that I find it so hard to write in an echo chamber, but after all, everyone wants recognition; everyone wants, once in a while, to be noticed.

For example, in a pathetic letter to a teacher with whom she had fallen in love, Charlotte Bronte wrote, “Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger…” Yesterday, a good friend and neighbor remarked in passing that he really enjoyed my last novel. Startled, I did not thank him enough, and I’m sure he had no idea how much those words meant to me (though he might if he reads this). Yet through his simple words, I received a crumb of bread so big and so unexpected that I am still happily digesting it today, and will be, I’m sure, for weeks to come. Indeed, it was a large enough crumb to compel me to write this blog, to make me think of completing another writing project, and maybe–though I know it to be yet another futile task–to undertake new ones.

So let me end this blog by saying that if you know an indie writer and have enjoyed reading his or her work, take a moment and tell him or her so. It only takes a moment, and it may mean more to him or her than you’ll ever know. Scatter those crumbs, readers! Scrape them off of your table, take them into your hands, and toss them out as far as you can into the wind! By doing so, you may well  keep a person from starving.

And Marc, if you’re reading this, thank you.

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Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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Anthony Trollope wants to know: Are you a Liberal or a Conservative?

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Anthony Trollope. Image from Wikipedia

There’s a lot of ink being spilled right now about the failure of liberal democracies, and I am guilty of pouring some of it myself. But it might be helpful to go back to redefine the two terms which invest so much of our discussions and arguments these days.

What, exactly, is the difference between liberal and conservative thought?

I’m not satisfied with responses that point to contemporary political positions: they are too fraught with bias, and thus don’t yield a reliable answer. In order to provide such a good answer, then, we will need to go back and define the terms themselves, to think about what it really means to be a liberal or a conservative.

And this proves quite tricky–so tricky, in fact, that although I first asked myself this question back in the 1980s, I have never been able to come up with a good answer. But thankfully, I don’t have to, because it turns out that Anthony Trollope provided an excellent answer back in 1876.

In his novel The Prime Minister, the Duke of Omnium, who is serving as the ineffective prime minister of Great Britain in a coalition government (and who fully realizes that nothing of consequence will be accomplished during his term of office) pauses to consider why people align with either the Liberal or the Conservative Party. In Chapter 68 (it is a very long novel), entitled “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed,” the duke questions his colleague Phineas Finn about why he is a liberal. (The duke, while obviously an aristocrat, is somewhat paradoxically a member of the Liberal Party.) In doing so, he reveals why he himself is a liberal:

I began life with the misfortune of a ready-made political creed. There was a seat in the House for me when I was twenty-on. Nobody took the trouble to ask my opinions. It was a matter of course that I should be a Liberal…. It was a tradition of the family, and was as inseparable from it as any of the titles which [we] had inherited…”

But now, at the apex of his political career, when he realizes that he will soon have to resign as prime minister, the duke thinks about what makes him a liberal. He begins by explaining what he considers conservative thought: the idea that God has fashioned the world in a certain way, and it is up to man to maintain that structure. The liberal thinker, says the duke, works to improve the world in order to reach a millenium (which I take to mean a Utopian period of human existence) in which the social and political order is perfected. However, this millenium, he says, “is so distant that we need not even think of it as possible.” He goes on to tell Phineas, “You are a Liberal because you know that it is not all as it ought to be.”

I think there’s quite a lot to learn from this chapter, even after though more than a century has passed since its publication. First of all, many of us begin our adult lives as liberals or conservatives simply because we have been handed those labels and told that they belong to us. Perhaps our parents were conservatives, so we identify as one–or perhaps we go the other way, rebelling against our parents and their beliefs. But I think it would be better for us, like the Duke of Omnium, to stop and think about why we behave as we do, and why we believe the things we believe.

When you simplify the issue as much as possible (I realize the danger of simplistic analysis, but it is sometimes worth the risk), the difference between the Liberal thinker and the Conservative one, as Trollope’s novel portrays it, is this: the conservative view holds that things were better in the past and should be maintained that way, while the liberal view holds that, however things were in the past, they are highly imperfect in the present and should be improved–and although a state of human perfection, while theoretically possible, is light years away, this is no reason to shirk the work involved in getting there.

In other words, the conservative view looks to the past, wanting to keep things as they are: stable, predictable, and functioning. After all, the past got us to the present, so it must work. The liberal view, in contrast, looks to the future, with a supreme confidence that improvement is possible in the human condition.

I endorse neither views at this point. I just want to posit a new way of looking at these terms to help open up a badly-needed space for discussion.

… But I also want to say that Anthony Trollope totally rocks the Victorian novel.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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How I Became a Writer, part 1

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books  that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering  to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.

My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”

But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime,  I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.

The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had20171225_142442 bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.

This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.

 

 

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On the Relationship of Myth and Story

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Image from the lotr.wiki.com

Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!

 

The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:

  • Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
  • Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
  • Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)

This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.

The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.

  • I want to know what it is and how it works.
  • Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.

Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.

  • Studies have shown that crows have memories
  • Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
  • Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness

But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man.  Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.

So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:

Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.

  • They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
  • Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
  • He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
    • But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
    • While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
    • Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
  • You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.

Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.

For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:

  1. It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
  2. It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
  3. There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.

The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).

I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35).  It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.

The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.

Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.

Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:

  • They are both meditative
  • They can both be transformative
  • They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
  • They both suspend our disbelief
  • They break the barriers of time and space
  • They both teach compassion

Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”

In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:

  1. It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
  2. It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
  3. It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
  4. It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).

In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird.  And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.

Anyway, back to our subject: a  modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Wizard of Oz
  4. The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
  5. Casablanca
  6. The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.

In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:

Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?

And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138).  Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.

 

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On Directing a Play

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Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins in a television production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning  (1974).

From early August until now, I have been lucky enough to be involved with a community theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning. I am, at least in name, the director of the production, despite having very little experience in acting. I rose through the distaff side of theatre productions, having started out as a fairly excellent audience member, then graduating to backstage functions such as handling props and set changes, and finally taking the plunge and directing a play myself.

The best thing about directing a play is that you can, for once in your life, make people experience a piece of literature that you think is worthwhile. As an English professor, I spent most of my professional life begging my students to read things like Keats, Eliot (George, not T.S.!), and Dickens–and being soundly ignored most of the time. But now, I can be satisfied that some 100 or so people, perhaps more if audiences pick up during this, our last week of performances, will be introduced to this play. (I am, of course, counting the actors, set crew, sound crew, and producers in that 100 people.) I have to admit I feel pretty good about making people aware of this play, even if they aren’t as enthusiastic about it as I am.

I picked The Lady’s Not For Burning for several reasons, which I will explain below. But like most everything else in my retired life, I encountered it in the first place through random serendipity. When Margaret Thatcher died several years ago, the news media played and re-played a snippet of what was perhaps her most famous speech, in which she declared, referring to her stance on the Falklands War, “The lady’s not for turning.” This made me curious about the dramatic work she was referring to in her clever word-play, and so I checked it out from the library and read it, surprising myself by actually liking it…a lot. I told myself at that time that if I ever got the chance to make a new generation of  readers aware of it, I would take that chance.

The Lady’s Not For Burning was written in 1948 by English poet and playwright Christopher Fry. Delightfully absurd, it deals with the theme of existential despair, ultimately defeating it through a blend of physical and conversational humor, but most of all, through the power of love. Set in the middle ages, from the opening moments of the play we watch Thomas Mendip, a recently discharged soldier who has seen too much of battlefields and human misery, as he tries to get himself hanged in an effort to end a life he can no longer bear to live. Yet it is his misfortune to have arrived in Cool Clary, a dysfunctional village that is in the midst of a witch-hunt. Within a short time of his arrival, a young woman (Jennet Jourdemayne) appears, trying with all her might to convince the town elders that she is not guilty of witchcraft. Unlike Thomas, she has gotten into the habit of living, and she is not inclined to give it up so easily. The rest of the play follows the fortunes of these two people, one who wants to end his life and the other who desperately wants to live, two individuals caught up in a world whose vicissitudes they cannot fully understand, all against a backdrop of hilariously ineffective and hare-brained villagers.

As I mentioned above, I found The Lady’s Not For Burning delightfully funny when I first read it, but I have come to know the play a great deal better over the last few months, as I watched the cast of hard-working amateur actors spend hour after hour memorizing lines, getting thrown about on stage, and strutting about in strange clothing. I have learned a great deal along the way, but two things stand out. First, I know now that the play is even funnier than I first thought it was. But the second thing I learned is that it also exhibits a deep sadness that seems to fit the times we live in. After all, the world is all too often not a pretty place, as Thomas readily tells us. In fact, it’s frequently a downright ugly place. However, it is possible to find beauty, and humor, and love, upon this imperfect planet we inhabit, and I believe that if we have a duty in this life, it is to find and celebrate such things in the midst of suffering and death. In the end, it is the relatively minor character Nicholas Hebble who utters the words that embody the crucial message of the play: “The best thing we can do is to make wherever we’re lost in / Look as much like home as we can.” These lines are echoed by Thomas Mendip at the very end of the play, when he offers to help Jennet Jourdemayne find her way home, though neither one of them has any idea where on earth that home could be.

In a way, I feel that the actors, stage crew, producers, and I have also been trying to find our way home, to a definitive view of the play that is several months in the making. We may have gotten lost, but we have kept each other company, and we can be satisfied that we have done our best, I think. I will be glad when the play is over and I have my life back again, as I’m sure all members of the cast and crew will be, but I will also always be grateful for an opportunity to work closely, not only with a great group of people, but also with this overlooked piece of literature–to be able to study it, understand it, and appreciate it in a way that I could never have done without getting involved in an actual stage production.

 

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Three Things I’ve Learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Image from the New York Times (October 5, 2017)

 

I had actually planned this post a couple of days before my favorite living writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel Prize in Literature (announced on on October 5th). So, along with the satisfaction and sense of vindication I felt when I woke up last Thursday morning and discovered that he’d been awarded the Prize, I also felt a sense chagrin at being late in making this post. After all, I could have gone on record about Ishiguro’s talent days before the Nobel committee made its announcement. Still, better late than never, so I will offer my belated post now, and explain the three most important things I’ve learned from Ishiguro over the years.

The most important thing I’ve learned from Kazuo Ishiguro is this: great writing often goes unnoticed by readers. (This point, of course, is now somewhat diluted by the fact that Ishiguro has indeed won acclaim for his work, but I think it deserves to be made all the same.) I remember reading Never Let Me Go about eight years ago and being gob-smacked by its subtle narrative brilliance and its emotional resonance. And yet I’ve met many readers of the book who, while affected by the narrative, seemed unimpressed by Ishiguro’s writerly achievement. It’s almost embarrassing that my reaction to the novel was so different than other people’s. Could I have gotten it wrong, somehow? Was it possible that Never Let Me Go really wasn’t the masterpiece I thought it was? While I considered this, I never once really believed I had made a mistake in my estimation: it is a tremendous book. The fact that few other people see it as such does not change my view of it. It simply means that I see something in it that other people don’t. Hence my first object lesson from reading Ishiguro: genius isn’t always obvious to the mass of readers out there. Perhaps it just isn’t that noticeable with so many other distracting claims for our attention.

The second thing I’ve learned from Ishiguro also stems from Never Let Me Go: genre doesn’t matter. When you really think about it, categorizing a work based on its plot is a silly thing to do, and yet we are firmly locked into that prison of categorization, since almost all bookstores and libraries, as well as readers, demand that every work fit into a narrow slot. I commend Ishiguro for defying the convention of genre, incorporating elements from both science fiction and fantasy into realist narratives. In my view, the sooner we break the shackles of genre, the better. Good, responsible readers should never restrict themselves to a certain genre any more than good, imaginative writers should. A certain amount of artistic anarchy is always a good thing, releasing creative juices and livening things up.

And finally, the third thing I’ve learned is this: a good writer does not hit the bull’s eye every time he or she writes. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are truly wonderful books. An Artist of the Floating World is promising, but not nearly as good as Ishiguro’s later works.  The Buried Giant, I’d argue, is a failure–but it is a magnificent failure, one whose flaws emanate from the very nature of the narrative itself, and thus it transcends its own inability to tell a coherent story. I’ve learned from this that a writer should never be afraid to fail, because failing in one way might be succeeding in another, less obvious, way. This is as good a place as any other to admit that I have never been able to get through The Unconsoled. And as for When We Were Orphans–well, the less said about that disaster of a book, perhaps the better. I can’t imagine what Ishiguro was thinking there–but I will certainly defend his right to fail. And I am thankful that even a writer with such talent as Ishiguro does, from time to time, fail–and fail big. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that while we fail, we can still aspire to success.

I will close by saying that I am grateful to Kazuo Ishiguro for the wonderful books he’s written. If you haven’t read any of them, you should–and not just because some panel gave him an award. But I am just as grateful to him for the three important lessons he has taught me about the nature of writing.

 

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