About Rohan Maitzen
Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her main teaching and research interests are the Victorian novel, gender and historiography, and ethical criticism. Her academic career is mostly an excuse to keep rereading Middlemarch.
Posts by Rohan Maitzen
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
What Defines an ‘English’ Course, Anyway?
Yesterday my department debated a motion to cross-list a course on Dante offered through the Italian Studies program*--that is, to enable students to take it as an English course, and thus, among other things, to let English majors count it towards the number of English courses they need to fulfill their degree requirements. There was a fair amount of discussion, some of it about practicalities, but some of it about principles. Nobody questioned that it was a good thing to encourage English majors to study Dante, but should their doing so be considered part of their work in ‘English’? If so, why not Boccaccio, Proust, Flaubert, or Tolstoy? It was pointed out that we already cross-list a Russian course on Nabokov. We also offer courses ourselves that feature literature in translation: World Literature, for instance, or Canadian literature (Quebec, remember?). We used to have a course on the Bible as literature. So the working definition of ‘English’ as a discipline is not ‘the study of literature written in English.’ Is it ‘the study of literature written in English, or highly influential on English writers, or in the context of Anglophone colonialism’? Or is the discipline defined, not by its content, but by its methodology? But there is no one ‘methodology.’ What does it mean, in theory but even more pressingly in practice, if we can’t point to anything and say ‘that is not what we do,’ or, to a student, ’this is what we do here’? To be sure, departmental or disciplinary boundaries have many arbitrary or circumstantial features. My university, like most these days, is keen on interdisciplinarity, and most of us recognize that English has been interdisciplinary all along. And yet I couldn’t help feeling during yesterday’s discussion that our inability to explain (or our refusal to delimit) what counted as an ‘English’ course and what didn’t reflected a broad and, in some ways, disabling incoherence in my field. It is certainly pedagogically disabling, at least in classes with a literary-historical framework, because you can’t count on any student having learned anything in particular before he or she shows up, even in a 4th-year seminar. For example, in my seminar on Victorian sensation fiction, many of the students have not studied any Victorian literature before. As far as they are concerned, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood are representative Victorian novelists--and so, in some senses, they are, except that essential to critical work on their novels is some sense of how and why they had until fairly recently been excluded from ‘the canon.’ it is very difficult to engage the class with the implications of our reading Wood at all when they haven’t read any Dickens or George Eliot. Now, English students have yet one more course they can take towards their degree instead of The Nineteenth-Century Novel (or Romantic Poetry or Restoration Drama or African-American Literature or Science Fiction). It’s a zero-sum game for them, after all.
And yet it’s hard not to see it as a good thing that more of ‘our’ students might read The Divine Comedy. I never have, and I know it is my loss.
*The course is taught in English and the works are read in translation.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Yet Another Established Writer Swats at the ‘Loud-Buzzing’ Blogger
Unintentionally, mind you. And present company excepted, of course.
He is already to be classed as a “general writer,” corresponding to the comprehensive wants of the “general reader,” and with this industry on his hands it is not enough for him to keep up the ingenuous self-reliance of youth: he finds himself under an obligation to be skilled in various methods of seeming to know; and having habitually expressed himself before he was convinced, his interest in all subjects is chiefly to ascertain that he has not made a mistake, and to feel his infallibility confirmed. That impulse to decide, that vague sense of being able to achieve the unattempted, that dream of aerial unlimited movement at will without feet or wings, which were once but the joyous mounting of young sap, are already taking shape as unalterable woody fibre: the impulse has hardened into “style,” and into a pattern of peremptory sentences; the sense of ability in the presence of other men’s failures is turning into the official arrogance of one who habitually issues directions which he has never himself been called on to execute; the dreamy buoyancy of the stripling has taken on a fatal sort of reality in written pretensions which carry consequences. He is on the way to become like the loud-buzzing, bouncing Bombus who combines conceited illusions enough to supply several patients in a lunatic asylum with the freedom to show himself at large in various forms of print. If one who takes himself for the telegraphic centre of all American wires is to be confined as unfit to transact affairs, what shall we say to the man who believes himself in possession of the unexpressed motives and designs dwelling in the breasts of all sovereigns and all politicians? And I grieve to think that poor Pepin, though less political, may by-and-by manifest a persuasion hardly more sane, for he is beginning to explain people’s writing by what he does not know about them. Yet he was once at the comparatively innocent stage which I have confessed to be that of my own early astonishment at my powerful originality; and copying the just humility of the old Puritan, I may say, “But for the grace of discouragement, this coxcombry might have been mine.”
Pepin made for himself a necessity of writing (and getting printed) before he had considered whether he had the knowledge or belief that would furnish eligible matter. At first perhaps the necessity galled him a little, but it is now as easily borne, nay, is as irrepressible a habit as the outpouring of inconsiderate talk. He is gradually being condemned to have no genuine impressions, no direct consciousness of enjoyment or the reverse from the quality of what is before him: his perceptions are continually arranging themselves in forms suitable to a printed judgment, and hence they will often turn out to be as much to the purpose if they are written without any direct contemplation of the
object, and are guided by a few external conditions which serve to classify it for him. In this way he is irrevocably losing the faculty of accurate mental vision: having bound himself to express judgments which will satisfy some other demands than that of veracity, he has blunted his perceptions by continual preoccupation. We cannot command veracity at will: the power of seeing and reporting truly is a form of health that has to be delicately guarded, and as an ancient Rabbi has solemnly said, “The penalty of untruth is untruth.” But Pepin is only a mild example of the fact that incessant writing with a view to printing carries internal consequences which have often the nature of disease.
And however unpractical it may be held to consider whether we have anything to print which it is good for the world to read, or which has not been better said before, it will perhaps be allowed to be worth considering what effect the printing may have on ourselves. Clearly there is a sort of writing which helps to keep the writer in a ridiculously contented ignorance; raising in him continually the sense of having delivered himself effectively, so that the acquirement of more thorough knowledge seems as superfluous as the purchase of costume for a past occasion. He has invested his vanity (perhaps his hope of income) in his own shallownesses and mistakes, and must desire their prosperity. Like the professional prophet, he learns to be glad of the harm that keeps up his credit, and to be sorry for the good that contradicts him. It is hard enough for any of us, amid the changing winds of fortune and the hurly-burly of events, to keep quite clear of a gladness which is another’s calamity; but one may choose not to enter on a course which will turn such gladness into a fixed habit of mind, committing ourselves to be continually pleased that others should appear to be wrong in order that we may have the air of being right.
I tell you, that George Eliot was prescient, as well as snarky.
Friday, October 30, 2009
The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (I)
In 1871 an enthusiastic young reader named Alexander Main received George Eliot’s permission to publish a collection of inspirational excerpts from her works; the volume was put out in 1872 by her usual publisher, John Blackwood (who nicknamed Main “the Gusher"), under the title Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot. As I make my way through Middlemarch yet again, I sympathize with his project: I am, as always, struck repeatedly by the sheer pleasure the novel affords, precisely because it is so wise, witty, and tender. It’s endlessly tempting to grab anyone who happens to be nearby and say, “just listen to this bit!” Alas, too often there’s nobody nearby, or at least nobody with time and attention to spare. But on the internet, there’s always somebody around--or at least so I can fondly imagine. So, as a self-indulgent supplement to my regular teaching posts, I’m going to do a little series of favorite “wise, witty, and tender” excerpts as I go along. I hope that they will give others, too, some pleasure, whether by reminding them of their own experience of reading Middlemarch or by introducing them to some more of the reasons why so many people love this novel. The Valve is supposed to be a literary organ, after all! The challenge will be choosing just one or two excerpts for each category! Goodies below the fold.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Aurora Floyd is Pretty Bad, But It’s also Pretty Good.
My rereading of Dracula has rather lapsed, through no particular fault of the novel’s. It’s just that I’m also reading a lot of other things, some for fun (Wolf Hall), some, as always for work. In the latter category is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Aurora Floyd. Aurora Floyd is an example of what is known as a ‘sensation novel,’ a genre that is generally considered to have emerged in the 1860s: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is often considered the novel that launched the genre, largely because it was seen by contemporary reviewers to be doing something new and shocking, though just how firm a line can in fact be drawn between sensation novels and other novels of the period is debatable. Just why the Victorians perceived, or wanted to perceive, sensation fiction as something distinct is another interesting question, but one for another day. Until quite recently, sensation novels were not just noncanonical but basically unknown, inside and outside the academy; The Woman in White and Collins’s later masterpiece of crime fiction, The Moonstone (also, in its day, understood more or less as a kind of sensation novel) are the exceptions. In recent years, however, there has been a surge of interest in sensation novels, motivated by increased attention to popular and ‘genre’ fiction of all kinds as well as to ‘women’s fiction’ (Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own  was one of the first critics I know of to have taken sensation fiction at all seriously). The recent Palgrave volume Victorian Sensation Fiction: A reader’s guide to essential criticism maps the now substantial array of scholarly sources available.
Though I was never assigned a sensation novel myself in any graduate or undergraduate course, I have included Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret on the syllabus for my 19th-century novel courses almost since I began teaching them. I think there are lots of good reasons for doing so. First, it’s a whole lot of fun and most of my students love it. Second, it’s a genuinely interesting novel that engages with all kinds of issues that come up in our other readings as well: social mobility, particularly for women; the morality of marriage; gender roles (Lady Audley’s Secret is particularly playful about standards of masculinity); aesthetics; literary traditions and conventions, especially the Gothic (sensation fiction is essentially updated and domesticated Gothic fiction); and literary devices, including strategies of narration, characterization, symbolism, and so forth. Finally, it gives me a chance to talk to them about questions of canonicity and literary merit, including ways categories and standards shift over time. When Great Expectations was first reviewed, some, including Margaret Oliphant, considered it Dickens’s excursion into sensation fiction; one reviewer considered George Eliot’s Mrs. Transome, in Felix Holt (1866), Lady Audley’s cousin. But today, both Dickens and George Eliot are obviously canonical, and these novels are (typically) not considered ‘sensational.’ Can we understand why? Do we agree with those critics (then and now) who see Braddon’s work as conspicuously inferior, artistically or morally? Does Braddon’s work have other merits, distinct, perhaps, from the qualities we value in those other writers? What are the qualities of a ‘good’ book? Must they be aesthetic qualities, or should entertainment, or ingenuity, or political subversiveness, or philosophical acuity, also be taken into account? (Are we sure those are not ‘aesthetic’ qualities? Is artistry the same as craft? Is plot an aspect of craft or, as some critics held, and hold, is it juvenile or at least of secondary importance? What about suspense? Is it a ‘literary’ quality?) Is popularity a good reason to single a book or author out for attention in our course, given that inevitably, any syllabus is a zero-sum game? Especially because the students usually, in a straightforward readerly way, like Lady Audley’s Secret a lot (many report that it is their favourite book of the term), it is fun and, I think, productive and instructive, to involve them in thinking about why, and about the relationship between that readerly pleasure and other ways to measure the quality or value of a novel.
I’m just been working through Lady Audley’s Secret again, not just with my survey class on the 19th-century novel, but also in an upper-level seminar focused exclusively on sensation fiction. We’re reading four ‘major’ examples of this ‘minor’ genre: The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd, and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne. Then we’re taking some time to examine Victorian responses, and then contemporary critical responses, before reading Sarah Waters’s brilliant revision of sensation fiction, Fingersmith (2002) (which, just by the way, I highly recommend). This is definitely a context in which the (in)famous question ‘But is it any good?’ is bound to be on my mind, along with the other kinds of questions that came up in the recent thread about reasons for teaching (or not teaching, or liking or not liking) Dracula. I have to be honest and say that to my mind, the quality of the writing as writing in this week’s novel, Aurora Floyd, is not that impressive. Lady Audley’s Secret is more efficient and artful (not much more, mind you); Aurora Floyd rather rambles on, with what often strikes me as too much--too much description, too much repetition, too much foreshadowing, too many narrative intrusions, too much writing for not enough plot. I feel this as I read, though it is difficult to point to any specific example and say, “here, this strikes a false note,” or “this has to go.” After all, my favourite and most-admired novels are also long and full of narrative intrusions. Still, I believe Aurora Floyd is a badly written novel. And yet I also think it is a good novel, considered from a different perspective, or held to a different standard. Basically, it is a very interesting novel, taking up themes that are found in many other 19th-century novels and manipulating them in unexpected ways. It is also quite readable, for all of its faults, suspenseful and full of highly charged bits and pieces, of which this is the most notorious:Continue reading "Aurora Floyd is Pretty Bad, But It’s also Pretty Good."
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
‘Dracula’ Is Really Very Good. It’s Also Very Bad.
As previously mentioned, the lively bunch at InfiniteSummer are cleansing their palates with Dracula (before, apparently, moving on to 2666 after Christmas, in case anyone just can’t get enough of online group readings). I’m on schedule with them, through Chapter 7 and heading into Chapter 8.
I have read the novel once before, fully a decade ago. I read it for myself, not for work, and never returned to it. I have never taken a personal interest in vampire literature or horror novels, and even professionally, I have given only perfunctory attention to Gothic fiction. I’ve included Matthew Lewis’s The Monk in courses on the history of the British novel, but that’s about it. As mystery and detective fiction is also a teaching area for me, I have a historical interest in permutations of the Gothic, and I often teach examples of mid-Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction, which is essentially a form of domesticated Gothic (just this week, it’s Lady Audley’s Secret, for instance). When I confess that I sometimes mutter to myself, when preparing for these classes, “This is as low as I’m willing to go,” you may be prepared for my (admittedly preliminary) response to rereading Dracula: It’s a well-written, cleverly conceived--even artful--novel, but I can’t help thinking at the turn of every page that this book represents energy (from both writer and reader) expended in a dubious cause. My objection, in other words, is not literary, but ethical.
Friday, October 02, 2009
People Who Like Dracula Will Find This the Kind of Thing They Like
Once upon a time, some snide remarks about someone who liked Dracula led to this, and then this, and then (among other things) this. Serendipitously, the folks who organized the Infinite Summer project are detoxing from DFW with none other than Dracula (details, including a reading schedule, and some introductory comments from noted Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller and Bram Stoker’s “great-grand-nephew” Dacre Stoker are posted here). I think some of us should read along. I’ve pulled my old paperback from the shelf. Anyone else interested? I’m coming to this a little belatedly, but they’re only on Chapter 1 as of today.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
This Week in My Classes Revisited, with Some Thoughts on J. C. Hallman
I don’t usually cross-post my teaching posts at The Valve, but it has been kind of quiet around here lately and I thought some Valve readers might be interested in the J. C. Hallman anthology I discuss towards the end of this post--and perhaps in some of the other issues the post raises along the way. So, here is the latest installment in a series I’ve been running at my own place since 2007, “This Week in My Classes.”Continue reading "This Week in My Classes Revisited, with Some Thoughts on J. C. Hallman"
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren’t Welcome in Book Clubs
More and more books are published now with appendices aimed at book clubs. Typical features are interviews with the author, questions for discussion, and suggestions for further reading ("if you liked this book, you’ll also like...") . I’m always struck by how different the discussion questions are from the kinds of questions I would ask of, or prepare for, my classes. I just finished Julie & Julia, which comes with a set of “Questions and Topics for Discussion” which epitomize what I think of as the book club approach. Here they are, with my answers, and then some reflections on where or why things fall apart for me.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Recent Reading: Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost
"So many people know these horrible stories by now,” Daniel Mendelsohn reflects near the end of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; “what more was there to say? How to tell them?” The Lost itself is, of course, his answer.
This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn’s quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendesohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood ("Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?"), from photographs ("killed by the Nazis,” his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: “I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!’"), from letters ("The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters,” writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).
Only once he makes it his mission to fill in the gaps in his knowledge does Daniel realize, over the course of many years and many interviews with surviving “Bolechowers,” in America and Australia, Israel and Denmark and Poland, that he “knew” almost nothing. Indeed, The Lost is in large part a meditation on what nobody knows, what nobody can know: not just the facts, what happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters ("such darling four children,” Schmiel writes in 1939, in one of his desperately dignified letters to his American relatives, asking for money and help to get his family “away from this Gehenim,” this Hell), the facts of their deaths, but also their lives. Who were they, these six people, now almost as lost (as Mendelsohn ruminates near the volume’s close) as the many millions who, before them, lived and were lost into what is now history? What can we really know of them, or say about them?
For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too . . . everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back. . . .
And of course that is what Mendelsohn himself has done, to look back, to see “not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.”Continue reading "Recent Reading: Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost"
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Looking for ‘Anglo-Egyptian’ Fiction
As I putter away at my project on Ahdaf Soueif, I’ve been trying to think of other modern novels that qualify as “Anglo-Egyptian”: that is, novels by English novelists but set primarily (or at least significantly) in or about Egypt. For my purposes, I think I would exclude novels about Ancient Egypt (which in my experience tend to be of the costume-and-jewelry form of historical fiction--not that there’s anything wrong with that, and also Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning is an old favourite of mine). I would also not expect to be interested in lighter fiction, such as mysteries, for which Egypt is really just a conveniently exotic setting. I could be persuaded, of course, to look at interesting examples from either of these categories. But I’m mostly looking for “serious” or literary fiction, fiction with some ambition, if you like, primarily because that’s where I would expect to find interesting ideas about what it means for an English novelist to write about Egypt. The obvious examples I’m aware of are Lawrence Durrell‘s Alexandria Quartet, Olivia Manning‘s Levant Trilogy, and Penelope Lively‘s Cleopatra’s Sister and (another old favourite) Moon Tiger. Other suggestions?
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Villette Chapters I-42: Farewell.
I found this final installment of Villette wholly engrossing, in a shameless readerly kind of way. Despite having read the novel before, I was deeply moved by the emotional intensity of Lucy’s experiences, from the surreal, dream-like excursion to the fete, at which all the beneficent possibilities of spectatorship that have been explored during other parts of the novel dissipate in the pain of exclusion and misinterpretation, to the almost equally dream-like revelation of the little house in the Faubourg Clotilde, with its little couch, its little chiffoniere, its little stove and “diminutive” dishes, its “miniature classe.” What is real and what is wished for? Has Lucy at last come home, to flourish, to bask in the knowledge that she loves and is loved? Does this “very neat abode” represent freedom, or is it another, more insidious, prison, perhaps framing Lucy perfectly for “la vie d’une femme”? My “sunny imagination” hopes, helplessly, but this is a novel in which Imagination rules only when Reason is drugged--and even then, for Lucy at least, following her lead brings not triumph but despair, so where are we left? As the nun is exposed as a ploy, neither phantom nor symbol but a worldly device, so too, perhaps, are Lucy’s other fantasies reduced to, or revealed as, empty artifice, story-telling. The nun “bequeaths her wardrobe” to Lucy; if she will be “seen in the Rue Fossette no more,” will she reappear, embodied, in the Faubourg Clotilde? The most powerful moment is surely Lucy’s exclamation in Chapter 41, “‘My heart will break!’” (Did George Eliot perhaps have this scene in mind at the end of Middlemarch, when Dorothea too cannot bear the prospect of losing love and hope, and claims Will, across all boundaries of social and sexual restraint, with the same words?) At that point her secret is known--the secret of her passion--but the revelation makes her vulnerable: M. Paul withholds his own secret for many more pages, almost to the point of sadism. Does he take too much pleasure in her suffering? Is his return from abroad truly a “consummation devoutly to be wished”? As it seems clear Bronte intended, I am left with questions, ambiguities, uncertainties, rather than resolution, for Lucy’s story, at least. It’s interesting that Ginevra and Paulina, in contrast, are given full and very conventional plots for their futures as married women.
Now we see the full significance of the storms and shipwrecks that have been so important to the imagery and metaphors of the novel. Again, though, we seem to be suspended between literal and symbolic interpretations, in ways that must make us question even further how far the whole narrative is infused with later knowledge and thus ‘unreliable’ as a record of Lucy’s experiences as they happened.
PS: I think I am going to let go of the idea of continuing this reading group with a week or two on criticism. It seems logistically complicated, and there doesn’t seem to be enough interest here about it to go to a lot of trouble to set it up, at least judging from the lack of response to my inquiry last week. If we had gone ahead with that, though, here’s a link to most of the text of one of the articles I thought we might try, Mary Jacobus’s “The Buried Letter." I also recommend the chapter on Villette in the book Imagining Characters: Six Conversations About Women Writers, by A. S. Byatt and Inges Sodre.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Villette Chapters 1-35: “Oubliez les Professeurs!”
What was become of that curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and half life; only on one hand truth, and on the other perhaps a jest?
Was this feeling dead? I do not know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb unquiet, and dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin-chinks.
Lucy clearly would have been an excellent Gothic novelist--perhaps she already is, depending on how you read Villette. She’s capable of a delicious morbidity, at once grim and poetic. And then there’s this:
There had been a strange and inexplicable sound from that quarter, as if the arms of that tree had swayed of their own motion, and its weight of foliage had rushed and crushed against the massive trunk. Yes; there scarce stirred a breeze, and that heavy tree was convulsed, whilst the feathery shrubs stood still. For some minutes amongst the wood and leafage a rending and heaving went on. Dark as it was, it seemed to me that something more solid than either night-shadow, or branch-shadow, blackend out of the boles. At last the struggle ceased. What birth succeeded this travail? What Dryad was borne of these throes? We watched fixedly. A sudden bell rang in the house--the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush--close, close past our faces--swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her.
(All you who opted not to read this perverse and fascinating book are surely now regretting it!)
I think this is the first time someone else has seen the nun, and it seems appropriate that M. Paul is Lucy’s companion at this point, just as she has said good night to her wistful (and surely misplaced) love for the wooden-headed and conventional (if handsome) Dr. John. If what she has buried is hope, perhaps her vision of the golden hair leaking back through the coffin is a hint to her of the new love struggling to free itself from--what? If the main obstacles to her love for Graham were social (class or place) and sexual (on his side, at least, there is no physical attraction), perhaps the nun represents the obstacles that face Lucy and Paul, which seem to be primarily religious. Paul thinks so, anyway, when he wonders if she is the ghost of Justine-Marie. As far as class or social places goes, Paul and Lucy seem equally at sea, and we know Paul sees Lucy as highly (problematically) sexual, or at least that’s how I interpret his hostility to her “scarlet gown” ("pink!"). What else is their relationship about? We’ve talked before about the importance of teasing in the novel; I’ve been thinking that teasing is a form of play that succeeds only between equals (else it is bullying, or patronizing, or baiting). Lucy never seems more powerful than when she is standing up to M. Paul (“‘Vive l’Angleterre, l’Histoire et les Heros! A bas la France, la Fiction et les Faquins!’"). One of the problems I’m typically interested in, when reading 19thC courtship novels, is how to achieve a satisfactorily equal, balanced relationship when women are systemically disadvantaged by the legal and economic frameworks of marriage. Often in novels that highlight challenges to female autonomy, the lover has to be weak, or weakened, before the romantic conclusion can be achieved (e.g. Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, even, arguable, Middlemarch, though whether Will is a weak alternative is an argument for another time). Is it because M. Paul, like Lucy, is already marginalized (is he, in fact, feminized?) that he does not seem to threaten but rather, even, to enhance Lucy’s independence? The episode of the watchguard is fascinating--so much perversity, on both sides.
I’m fascinated in this installment by the continued emphasis on concealed connections and duplicitous identities: everybody keeps turning out to be somebody else, usually somebody we already know. The priest at Madame Walravens’s is the same Pere Silas who overheard Lucy’s confession (and has since joined the posse of people spying on her); his patron is M. Paul; the examiners are the men who frightened Lucy many chapters ago. We can add these examples to Dr. John being Graham as well as the helpful stranger, Miss de Bassompierre being Paulina, and “Mees Snowe” being Lucy herself. There seem to be too many coincidences: what larger idea or principle is served by this intricate web of identifications?
Lucy continues to be somehow connected to the weather.
Next week brings us to the end of the novel. I had suggested taking a couple of weeks to read and discuss some criticism on the novel. I still think this would be an interesting exercise, though I’m a bit perplexed about logistics as it occurs to me that many academic articles may not be easily available to participants without university affiliations. Suggestions welcome, including about which articles would be of general interest. Also, what is the collective wisdom about whether making my own downloaded PDFs of articles available through links? Would something like this reading group seem to fit within ‘fair use’ clauses?
(Review the schedule for our Villette reading here.)
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Villette Chapters 1-27: She’s Ba-ack!
You knew you hadn’t seen the last of little Polly, I’m sure: how misleading would it be to make the first chapters of a novel about a character--indeed, a relationship--that has no place in its larger scheme? But it’s interesting that she emerges from the fire caused by
Lucy Vashti a spark falling on some drapery. Bronte’s heroines have a knack for fire-setting by proxy, don’t they? Now the love triangle (if that’s what it is) between Lucy, Ginevra, and Dr. John becomes a quadrangle, or even a pentangle, if we infer that M. Paul’s marvellous hissing--"Sauvage! la flamme a l’ame, l’eclair aux yeux!"--results from jealousy. What do these multiplying relationships mean? How far do we interpret these characters as themselves and how much as facets of Lucy’s psyche, or perhaps reflections of roles (from “La vie d’une femme,” maybe), or variations on some thematic idea, whether about femininity, sexuality, power, or something else?
The nun is back too, of course, and the whole sequence in which Lucy composes the limbs of her dead hopes and buries her letters is fascinating. At so many points she seems to enact literally what we would otherwise (on a gothic reading, for instance) assume to be metaphorical--or the line between the real and the symbolic blurs. Well might Lucy demand of the “tall, sable-robed, snowy-veiled woman,” “‘Who are you? and why do you come to me?’”
These chapters really highlight the problem of Lucy’s identity, as its instability and contradictions become the subject of explicit discussion among her acquaintances: “‘Who are you, Miss Snow?’” Ginevra inquires in frustration--“‘But are you anybody?’” Ginevra’s question is ostensibly about class and social status: “I am a rising character,” Lucy replies (though we see that to Paulina and her father, she has, instead, fallen). Lucy seems to enjoy Ginevra’s confusion, but she is not always so sanguine about others’ attempts to categorize her--particularly Graham’s description of her as “a being inoffensive as a shadow,” which weighs her down with “the coldness and the pressure of lead” (compare her comment “I was no bright lady’s shadow” and her insistence that she accepts “dimness and depression” provided they are “voluntary"). To M. Paul, she is “‘Petite chatte, doucerette, coquette!’” while to Mme Beck she is “learned and blue,” and also someone in no need of surveillance (a judgment which saddens, rather than relieves, Lucy--raising again the question of what the function is of observation in this novel). Do we believe Lucy when she tells us that “If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary”?
(Review the schedule for our Villette reading here.)
Monday, July 27, 2009
I recently finished reading Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil. It is a remarkable novel, equal parts beauty and brutality; as its parts accumulate it does an elegant job of evoking through its literary form some of its central motifs and symbols, such as the images gradually revealed, restored, or repaired from the walls of the house decorated originally to celebrate all the delights of the senses. The fallen Buddha that bleeds gold when assaulted by the Taliban’s bullets, the lingering fragrance from the perfume factory, the books nailed to the ceiling and gradually reclaimed but irreparably scarred, the canoe that becomes an unlikely symbol for a desirable but tragically impossible collaboration--the novel is full of rich but delicate details that can make you catch your breath with their unexpected eloquence about the damage, tangible and intangible, inflicted by the conflicts that generate its plot. It is a novel, too, that hums with nuance and yet somehow refuses to judge those on whom such ambiguities are lost: many of its characters themselves hold to intractable, unforgiving, unforgivable absolutes, but the novel often seems to be asking us how they could have done otherwise, with the result that the tragedy of the novel (and it is extraordinarily, lyrically tragic throughout) feels inevitable, which is the saddest thing of all. Like Bel Canto, though also very differently, The Wasted Vigil holds up against brutality an ideal of aesthetic, rather than political, commitment; in fact, at times it seems as if the greatest evil of the Taliban is less their physical violence (which many other factions in the novel are also shown to be capable of, after all) but their violence towards art and the beautiful. When we see a glimmer of hope, it comes from quiet moments of aesthetic appreciation; violence is, ultimately, vandalism.
I was moved and impressed by this novel. But I also became uneasy about it in ways that I did not feel uneasy about Bel Canto, I think because Aslam’s novel is much more directly intervening in our discourse about particular historical and political events. It is at times an exceptionally, horribly, violent novel, but my unease was not queasiness about the violence as such but rather about the kind of aesthetic experience the novel itself was offering me (including through that violence) and how my pleasure in the novel as a whole thus reflects on me as a reader. What does it mean to enjoy, or at any rate to appreciate aesthetically, a novel in which a captive soldier is literally pulled to pieces as sport, a wife is forced to amputate her husband’s hand, a young man’s eye is burned with a blow torch, a suicide bomb is detonated next to a school?
Puzzling over this question made me think more generally about the purpose of such a book and about my own purposes in seeking it out.Continue reading "Moral Tourism"
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Villette Chapters 1-22: “I had preferred to keep the matter to myself”
Is there a technical term equivalent to “the plot thickens” to describe developments in a novel’s narrator? Because while in many first-person novels the general arc is towards revelation, exposure, or self-understanding, something different seems to go on in Villette, where the complications of dealing with Lucy only increase as we move through the novel. In this week’s installment the most notorious of her deceptions--or is ‘manipulations’ a better word?--is revealed: that she has been concealing, from us and from Dr. John, her knowledge of his real identity and his connection to her past life in Bretton. We had a preview of this ability to withhold significant data when she let on, in Chapter 10, that the young physician was the “young, distinguished, and handsome man” who had helped her find an inn back in Chapter 7 ("I believe I would have followed that frank tread, through continual night, to the world’s end"). But in Chapter 10 she also makes the further connection ("an idea new, sudden, and startling") and doesn’t tell ("I might have cleared myself on the spot, but would not. I did not speak.") Lucy gives a (partial, inadequate, evasive) explanation for her decision not to tell Dr. John:
To say anything on the subject, to hint at my discovery, had not suited my habits of thought, or assimilated with my system of feeling. On the contrary, I had preferred to keep the matter to myself. I liked entering his presence covered with a cloud he had not seen through, while he stood before me under a ray of special illumination . . . .
So she enjoys the power of surveillance, the feeling of superiority or control--but what power is it, really, to watch and know but not speak? And what is the cost to her of such repression, however gratifying the illusion of control, if truly what she needs is, as she tells him later, “companionship . . . friendship . . . counsel"--just what an old family friend could readily provide? Moreover, keeping secrets usually undermines trust; Lucy is fortunate to be so readily forgiven and accepted by Graham and his mother (who think her, or so she says, merely “eccentric” for her silence). Can we forgive her so easily? Often, again, the reader of a first-person narrative is in a particularly confidential position (Dear reader!), but here, though we are addressed as “reader,” there are no endearments for us. What is at stake here, thematically, aesthetically, formally, in refusing us this confidence? To me, in ways I can’t really articulate at this point, the process of the novel feels profoundly experimental, as if Lucy Snowe is a device being used to explore something about the possibilities or limits of fiction for expressing something about life--emotional life, above all--or about identity or the self, particularly its divisions or contradictions (Reason and Imagination, anyone?). I’m not suggesting that the plot is insignificant, but rather like the plot of Jane Eyre, its stages seem as much symbolic as realistic, with even more a sense here than in the earlier novel of seeing a series of set pieces, almost tableaux (or, thinking again of JE, charades): the play, the confession, the art gallery, the concert with the mirror scene, the letter in the attic.
Speaking of the letter in the attic, this is certainly a great moment, rife with interpretive potential:
Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss? Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man? What was near me? . . . . [CB’s ellipses, which I think is a nice touch]
Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely. Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a stealthy foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long--but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black and white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.
Say what you will, reader--tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow--I saw there--in that room--on that night--an image like--a NUN.
We all know what’s in Jane’s (or, more accurately, Mr. Rochester’s) attic; why does Lucy’s attic have a nun? And, while we’re fretting about withheld information, why doesn’t Dr. John just tell her right away when he finds the letter?
OK, enough from me.
(Review the schedule here.)