Thursday, August 17, 2006
Warnings and insincere apologies in advance for the unmistakable lowbrowery of what follows: yes, it’s a meme. I think it may be the first meme ever to appear at The Valve. In an effort to give it some sort of scholarly dress I’ve answered all the questions with reference to one writer only. Perhaps you’d like to do the same at your blog? That would be nice. Substitute the author (or genre or field or whatever) you’re interested in, and leave a comment or trackback so I can see what you came up with.
Book Meme (Everything! Jane! Austen! edition)
1. One book you have read more than once
The only thing of JA’s (including her letters and minor works) that I haven’t reread over and over is her epistolary novel Lady Susan. It is not very good, frankly: the one second-rate thing in her entire canon. It was written somewhere around the time she began to think of writing fiction for a public rather than just for the entertainment of her friends and she hasn’t quite got the confidence to continue writing in her own voice - it makes too many concessions to a pre-formed idea of what long novelistic fiction should be like. Publishers who think writers have to adapt themselves to already existing market preferences should be made to read this book and compare it to Austen’s mature and innovative fiction (which has made plenty of money for publishers, of course!)
2. One book you would want on a desert island
My answer to this often-asked question alternates between Emma and Mansfield Park - I tend to choose whichever one I’ve read most recently. They both have enough in them to keep a person going for decades. Emma is a sunny book and it knows and enfolds the world with a semi-Divine love and intelligence; Mansfield Park is a book about the fragile survival of a damaged psyche and reading it is like walking on a darkened shore filled with shifting sounds that momentarily form harmonies and chords then fly apart again. Emma might make me feel like I was at home on my desert island, Mansfield Park might help me reconcile myself to being alone there.
3. One book that made you laugh
Impossible to choose just one. When I need a laugh I sometimes read Jack and Alice, about the drunken, gambling-addicted Johnson family and Charles Adams, who was “so dazzling a Beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the Face”, or Love & Freindship, a compact masterpiece of satirical parody anticipating the highest heights of Monty Python by a hundred and fifty years:
ONE Evening in December, as my Father, my Mother, and myself were arranged in social converse round our Fireside, we were, on a sudden, greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward Door of our rustic Cot.
My Father started—“What noise is that,” (said he). “It sounds like a loud rapping at the door”—(replied my Mother). “It does indeed,” (cried I). “I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.” “Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.”
“That is another point (replied he); We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock—tho’ that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”
Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.
“Had we not better go and see who it is? (said she) The servants are out.” “I think we had,” (replied I).
“Certainly, (added my Father) by all means.” “Shall we go now?” (said my Mother). “The sooner the better,” (answered he). “Oh! let no time be lost” (cried I).
A third, more violent Rap than ever, again assaulted our ears. “I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door,” (said my Mother). “I think there must,” (replied my Father). “I fancy the servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the Door.” “I’m glad of it (cried my Father) for I long to know who it is."
4. One book that made you cry
The letter Jane’s sister Cassandra wrote to their niece Fanny Knight describing Jane’s death, aged 41, after a long and painful illness: “She felt herself to be dying about half-an-hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: “God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!” Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.”
Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published shortly after Austen’s death; there is a note in the margin of an Austen family copy of Persuasion (chapter 4) which brings tears to my eyes. Next to the lines
How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.
somebody (Cassandra, most likely) has added “Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold.” (Cassandra had been engaged, like Anne Elliot, to a young man who went from England on the business of the Empire, but unlike Captain Wentworth, he died while abroad.) What must it have cost Cassandra Austen to lose so young a sister like Jane? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
5. One book you wish you had written
Jane Austen: or The Secret of Style by D.A. Miller. Reading this filled me with the purest envy.
6. One book you wish had never been written
Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery by Marvin Mudrick. Dude, if you hate and fear and despise a writer, maybe choose somebody else to work on?
7. One book you are currently reading
Related to Austen I am intermittently dipping in and out of about eight books on the topic of book illustration in the nineteenth century. The one I’m getting the most from is The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914, by Gordon N. Ray.
8. One book you have been meaning to read
When (if) I suddenly come into big sums of money I will buy copies of the newly edited and annotated texts of all Austen’s novels which Cambridge University Press are publishing. The volumes already out sell for about US$120. The one I’m keenest to read (careful new editions turn up new information) is Sense and Sensibility.
9. One book that changed your life
Roger Gard’s book Jane Austen: the Art of Clarity is a good solid piece of literary criticism but not spectacularly mindblowing. But it happened to be the book that I was reading (curled up on the bed in our rented flat that looked out over the sea to Tasmania, so around about 1993-4) when some mental switch flipped and I received intimations, for the first time, of what reading could potentially do and be in my inner life. A small personal epiphany.
10. Now tag five people:
No tagging from me today - please, help yourself. Don’t forget to leave a trackback.
1. God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence. Enthralling narrative history about the little-noted but massive Taiping Rebellion.
2. A Void by George Perec (in the French, La Disparition. The endless circumlocutions around a certain vowel are perpetually entertaining.
3. The Marvel Textbook of Cosmetology by Pearl C. Ware.
4. See 3.
5. Eunoia by Christian Bök.
6. The Turner Diaries by whoeverthefuckitwas.
7. From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun.
8. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. (I had already started it, actually, but Barzun took precedence.)
9. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which itself was the foundation of my first serious writing.
1. Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
2. Hmmmm . . . . could I have my trumpet instead? Otherwise, oh well, lets go for Don Quoxite. Haven’t read it in years, but why not.
3. The Mouse that Roared, The Sotweed Factor
4. Wuthering Heights, Antony and Cleopatra, but movies tend to be more potent this way. And then there was the Walt Disney series I watched as a kid, about mountain men, with a theme song that might have been called “Blow the Wind from the Mountain,” something like that. When Jack (I think that was his name) died in the last episode, it was river city on my face.
5. Oh, gee, I’m so consumed by trying to think my own stuff that connecting with this one is, well, distinctly odd. Art and Illusion is a very fine piece of work. Understanding Comics is wicked clever.
6. Just about anything about memes, but The Electric Meme is really dreadful.
9. Hmmm . . . Karl Pribram, Languages of the Brain
10. No thanks—well, maybe just one.
. . . rather than just for the entertainment of her friends . . . .
How much of this sort of thing went on back then? We know about Austen because she did decide to write for the public and turned out to be very good at it. Were there folks who gave it a go with perhaps no intention ever to go public. There must have been, some, many, almost everyone? These days you can find fan fiction on the internet, did Austen fans try their hand at writing fictions using Austen’s characters?
A Void is a fine choice for a desert Island, Dr Slack: tonally utterly appropriate without being obvious.
When you say Heart of Darkness underpinned your “first serious writing”, was that writing academic or creative (if you will roll with the distinction there)? I hope that isn’t too prying a question.
Bill - do you mean, was there Austen fanfic from the get-go? Her close family aside, not to my knowledge, though there’s always been a very strong tradition of imaginative continuations beyond the text, with admirers speculating on such matters as Mrs Norris’s Christian name or how Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax liked each other after marriage. The true fanfic strain of frustrated desire mingled with mockery doesn’t really emerge until the twentieth century with Kipling, Stella Gibbons et al, but they’re professional writers.
Because she left several books unfinished at death (two major ones) various well-meaning admirers have tried to finish them. I can hardly bear to read these myself. But I guess they are interesting from a sociology of texts perspective.
All of that, Laura. I’m thinking of the sociology of the text at the micro level: How did people share their favorite books, interaction by interaction? It was a different world then. The population was more dispersed, transporation was slower, no telephones, no copy machines, no PCs, no internet. Did they have reading circles? Discuss books in their letters?
Later in the century Dickens and Twain made a boatload of money on speaking tours. When you went to a reading, yes, you heard the famous writer whose books you love. But you also got to meet other fans and chat with them.
Re questions 3 & 4? Why laughter and tears? That is, why do these things focus there? Why not anger or fear or awe or jump-for-joy? I’ve seen several places where they’ve got ongoing discussions of music that moved you to tears. Why is it THAT that we’re interested in?
Are we all moved to tears (or near tears, or working overtime to suppress tears) at the same places in books, movies, plays?
Lordy, that meme has done the rounds since I pinched it from the ScienceBlogs and unleashed it on a few SF bloggers…
I imagine this is what watching your kids leave home and come back as grown-ups is like - except almost utterly different. Erm. Yes. [cough]
Interesting answers; Austen is one of those classic authors that I repeatedly tell myself I should read some day, in the sure knowledge that I never will thanks to lack of time (and a huge queue of stuff to read already towering beside the sofa). At least now, if I ever get the opportunity, I have some ideas about where to start.
When you say Heart of Darkness underpinned your “first serious writing”, was that writing academic or creative (if you will roll with the distinction there)?
It’s not a prying question at all. It was poetry, actually—really, really obscure poetry.
1. Mary Shelley, *Frankenstein* (few novelists have ever achieved as much in 200 pages—and remained so entertaining throughout)
2. *The Complete Poetry of Emily Dickinson* (more than a lifetime’s worth of things to enjoy and wonder about)
3. Lester Bangs, *Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung* (if literary criticism had the energy and sheer balls of Bangs, I’d be a happy man)
4. Chuck Dickens, *Little Dorrit* (heartbreaking but controlled)
5. Iain Sinclair, *Downriver* (Sinclair is probably the best prose stylist alive, and this is his best novel)
6. Robert Lowell, *Life Studies* (I just decided I can’t stomach Lowell)
7. Patrick Leigh Fermor, *A Time of Gifts* (a history, art, and geography lesson disguised as an 18 year old’s journey through pre-WWII Europe)
8. Milton, *Paradise Lost* (as Jay-Z said, “What more can I say?")
9. Richard Brautigan, *The Pill Versus the Springfield Mine Disaster* (made me want to write poetry)
There has been one Valve meme of sorts before.
I did the current one over at my place.