Category Archives: Literature

A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

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Filed under culture, Literary theory, Literature, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing

Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

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On Nostalgia

Today, on my 11th day of quarantine, I’m wondering whether it’s a bad thing to use nostalgia as escapism.

C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel (yes–he wrote a science fiction trilogy, back in 1938) Out of the Silent Planet has a fascinating take on the uses of nostalgia. The book is clunky and not terribly good, but it has some really interesting elements in it. In fact, I wish Lewis had stuck to this kind of writing rather than move to the kind of popularized theology which later made him so famous; he might have gotten much better at it, and even as it is, he introduced some fascinating concepts. As an example, when the protagonist Ransom (whom Lewis supposedly modeled after his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives on the planet Malacandra, he finds himself among a group of beings called Hrossa and learns from them about a way of life that is in many ways opposed to life on the Silent Planet–earth.

One of these differences involves how a hross views life experiences and the memories they create. As the hross called Hyoi explains to Ransom, “A pleasure is full-grown only when it is remembered. [It is ] not as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing…. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem…. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” This point is almost immediately muddied by the conversation that comes after it (Lewis clearly did not develop clarity of exposition until sometime later in his career), so let’s do the unthinkable and simply take it out of context in order to discuss the nature of nostalgia itself.

Nostalgia poses a bit of a difficulty for me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself embarrassed about a growing tendency towards nostalgia. For example, I’d be saying things to my students, or to other young people around me, and suddenly I’d stop and say, in a rueful tone, “Man, I sound just like my grandmother talking about the old days.” That was enough to shut me up. But today, I’m wondering whether that was the wrong response.

The term “nostalgia” is interesting. The “nost” in it is Greek and comes from the word “nostos” — to return home, while the “algos” is apparently Latin and refers to pain (as in “neuralgia” — “pain due to damaged nerves”). So the word, a fine example of macaronic language (meaning a mixture of languages in one word or expression), actually means “pain in returning home,” but we use it in a difference sense, to refer to a sentimental affection for things past. Perhaps pain in the return home isn’t too far from its meaning, in that nostalgia is often bittersweet: we remember with fondness things from long ago, and lament that they are indeed in the past and no longer part of our present or our future lives.

For me, there’s a bit of a shock involved in nostalgia. As my children grew up and left the house, I found myself with more time to pause and reflect on things, and I realized that I had lived well over half my life without being conscious of the passage of time. Then all at once, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I had my “aha” moment concerning this realization on a business trip (remember business trips? there’s some nostalgia for you!) to San Francisco a while ago. My colleagues and I were discussing the city as we ate some delicious sushi.

“I was here a long time ago, but it sure has changed,” I volunteered.

“When were you here?” asked a colleague.

“Hmmm, it was—” I stopped when I realized that it had been well over 25 years since I’d been to San Francisco. The idea that I could have been walking and talking, indeed sentient, 25 years earlier, hit me hard.

And that conversation happened ten years ago now.

I’ve gotten more used to nostalgia recently, and I wonder whether the current pandemic has helped that along. But I wonder how healthy it is to indulge myself in old I Love Lucy episodes, or to watch all of Downton Abbey, or even, if I apply this to my taste in literature, to read centuries-old books. Is my nostalgia–my attraction to the past–an honest attempt to make sense of my life and to enjoy it fully, as Hyoi the Hross describes it in Lewis’s book, or is it merely retreating into a past that has nothing to do with an alarming present and an even more frightening future? Is nostalgia living one’s life to the fullest, or is it avoiding life itself?

It’s a fascinating question, one worthy of many a late-night discussion among friends and colleagues, complete with a few bottles of wine. What a shame that the pandemic that makes the question pertinent also makes getting together to discuss it an impossibility.

However, that’s what “Reply” and “Comment” buttons are for, and I look forward to reading some of yours below.

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Filed under culture, Literature, Miscellaneous Musings, Reading, Stories

Writing and Authenticity, Part I

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Legacy’s Lady Camilla, fresh from her Crufts win in March, 2019.

You may notice, if you are a regular reader of this blog, that I have posted much less frequently in the last few months. The reason is this: I have taken some time to stop writing and really think about what writing does, what it can do, and what it should do. In other words, I have given myself a self-imposed sabbatical from writing while I contemplate the job of writing, and, more personally, how–and even if–I want to continue writing at all.

I have sorted some ideas out in my head, and I’m beginning to get to a point where things are making a bit more sense than they did a few months ago. One thing that galvanized me was an experience I had with a good friend, an experienced writer who kindly volunteered to help me with a short story I was working on. He gave me some excellent advice on how to make the story better: more polished, more focused, and ultimately more ready for publication. I could tell that his advice was spot on. I knew that he was right about the changes he suggested. And yet, almost as soon as I heard his suggestions, I also knew I would not take his advice. Despite knowing that he was right about these suggested improvements, I could not bring myself to make them.

Now, every writer knows that you are supposed to “kill your darlings”: writers should never get so attached to their work that they are not willing to chop it all up in order to mix it back together, or even trash it and begin anew if necessary. I knew that my story wasn’t perfect, so my reason for not making those changes wasn’t that I thought it was good enough as it was. At the time, I didn’t know why I resisted my friend’s excellent advice. In fact, as it turned out, I had to think a good, long time before I could discover why I had had such a profound and visceral reluctance to tinker with it. And now, some three months later, I think I have found the answer.

But in order to explain it, I have to refer to a world that is far removed from writing. My husband shows dogs (you can find his website here), and over the years we have noted something interesting about the way kennel clubs and dog shows operate. The winning dogs all correspond closely to a perceived (but not fully agreed upon) standard. No surprise here: this is, of course, to be expected. The dog who looks closest to the standard, in the judge’s opinion, is the dog that takes home the trophy. Of course, the key words are “in the judge’s opinion“: there can be a wide variety of opinions, which is why different dogs might win in different shows with different judges. Yet it is the corollary to this rule which is most interesting, and most troubling for the future of all pedigree show dogs. If dogs are penalized for deviating from the norm, then that inherently means all the show winners must look more alike–must be more alike–than different. And because it is largely the show dogs that are responsible for propagating the breed, then it naturally follows that the genetic diversity is always shrinking, because of this desire to create a puppy that follows the breed standard to a tee. In other words, the very act of judging the dog makes it so that all people participating in showing will want their dog to look just like the “ideal” dog–the breed standard–and they will take great pains to make sure that the puppies they produce, and sell, and buy, will be more similar to this perceived ideal than different from it. (This has dire consequences for the sustainability, and even the survivability, of pedigree dogs, but that is a matter for other blogs.)

It’s human nature to want to win, whether in dog shows (where surely the dogs don’t care if they are Best of Show) or in the world of writing, which we know as publishing. Publishers–and by extension, readers–are like the dog show judges: they are looking for the best combination of words and anecdotes to hit a home run in the marketplace. They have an ideal standard, which is why all the fiction published in literary journals and The New Yorker ends up feeling the same over time. In other words, what is published will always come to look a great deal more like everything else that is published than it will look like something individual and unique.

And so, being “good,” in the sense of getting published, means that a writer may have to close off options that will divert his or her work into an unfamiliar, perhaps even an uncomfortable, form. It could mean that a writer has to compromise on whatever artistic integrity he or she has developed, getting rid of archaic words, semicolons, and–yes–even adverbs in favor of a more widely accepted style of writing. In short, it means that a writer might have to second-guess his or her own writerly instincts in order to fit into a “breed standard” that is instantly recognizable and appreciated by publishers, readers, and critics alike.

I am not saying that writers should write what they want and not worry about revision. Nor am I saying that all writing is good writing. I am just saying that with the market set up as it is today, it could be very easy to miss unique and talented writing in favor of writing that resembles what we’ve already seen. The danger in this situation is that we may, tragically, fail to recognize authentic writing, and worse still, fail to cultivate writers who strive for authenticity.

It’s time for another clarification. I remember the first time I ever heard the expression, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I recall the momentary surprise I felt when I thought about it and then realized it actually made sense. One could be as good as possible, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, is often an integral component of success. I want to offer a variation of this saying for writers–or rather, for those writers who are serious about exploring the world of the imagination, about the craft of writing (whatever that may be), about creating something that is meaningful rather than successful. Here goes:

It is better to be authentic than to be good.

I’ve come to this maxim by thinking about the novels I love, those books that I have re-read throughout a half-century of reading: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Sun Also Rises, Never Let Me Go, Till We Have Faces, Mrs. Dalloway–and the list goes on. These books are not perfect. In some places, they are not even good. It is not difficult to find passages in any of them (with the possible exception of Never Let Me Go) that make readers cringe with frustration and/or embarrassment for the author. But each one of these novels is, to a certain degree, memorable and authentic, which is why I am compelled to read them again and again throughout the years. 

Certainly the term “authentic” is fraught, and I will need to define what I mean by it. I will try to do this in a timely manner; readers may look forward to a subsequent post in which I take a stab at my definition of authenticity in writing. But for now, I simply pave the way for that post by explaining why I am resisting the idea of writing good stories for the time being, even if that means rejecting the advice of a talented and well-meaning friend. And I invite my readers to weigh in on this topic, half-formed though it is at the present time, as I try to figure out just what it means for writing to be authentic.

 

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Filed under Literary theory, Literature, Publishing, Reading, self-publishing, Writing

On Finally Reading Paradise Lost

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Illustration from Wikimedia

Although I’ve never been to a literary cocktail party, I have a certain game I imagine playing at one. (The truth is, I’ve never been to any kind of cocktail party, which is somewhat disappointing. As a youngster, I’d imagined that cocktail parties, like falling into a pit of quicksand, would be a regular part of adult life, and that I would be expected to know how to behave in both situations. Obviously, I was misinformed.)

At any rate, the game goes like this. A bunch of well-read people get together and confess what books they should have read but never have. It would, for those of us who teach literature for a living, be a daring game, one in which public humiliation might lie in wait for us. Who would want to admit, for example, that they had never actually read The Grapes of Wrath? Might the heavens open up, allowing peals of scandalized laughter to descend, if one were to admit, in public, that one’s copy of The Sound and the Fury had never actually been opened? It seemed to me an amusing game to play in my mind, something like Truth or Dare for grown-ups. In an alternate version of the game, I imagine myself going through life with a large deck of cards, each of which has a title printed in large, Gothic letters on its back declaring my inadequacy: Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ulysses. The list goes on and on.

The other day, I began to work at removing one of the cards from my deck of failure. This did not occur, however, as a determined plan at self-improvement. I am far beyond that stage in my life, having settled into a lazy, perhaps defeatist, sense of who I am and what I can do. Rather, it all began with an invitation to visit a friend’s high school classroom to discuss a play I’d written about C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The class had been reading The Screwtape Letters, and, to prepare for my visit, I reread the book.

Lewis was a gifted satirist, there’s no doubt about it. His characterization of Screwtape, the devil who gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, instructing him on how to secure the soul of his “patient,” is brilliant, and I found myself wondering how he had been able to create such an enjoyable character out of a devil. The answer came quickly enough: Lewis had, after all written a short book called A Preface to Paradise Lost He must have known the poem intimately. And, although I’d never read Milton’s epic poem in its entirety, I’d read bits of it–enough to teach it to college sophomores in the British Literature survey classes I regularly taught. (Another guilty confession: I’ve taught the poem, yet never read all of it.) I guessed, and I think I’m right, that Lewis’s depiction of Screwtape owes a good deal to Milton’s depiction of Satan.

But the question remains: why had I never read Paradise Lost? After all, I’d been teaching it for decades. The omission is nothing short of scandalous. Actually, back in graduate school, I had tried to sign up for an entire class on Milton, but the class was oversubscribed, and we students were required to apply to take it by submitting a letter stating why we thought we should be allowed into it. My letter simply said I knew next to nothing about Milton, that I expected that I would have to teach his work, and that I thought that was a good enough reason to be admitted to the class.

It wasn’t.

And so I never read the whole poem. It turns out that I had gleaned enough information from my own undergraduate days to fumble through a few class days on Paradise Lost when I began to teach English literature, and so I just relied on that. Over the years, a colleague introduced me to a few of Milton’s poems (notably “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”), and then, much later, gave me his Milton texts when he retired and cleaned out his office, but they stayed on my shelf, treasured more because they reminded me of my colleague than for any interest I had in reading them.

And then one of my former students took a class on Milton, and suggested we read Paradise Lost together. Neither of us had the time, however, and the plan fell by the wayside. But apparently the idea stayed with me, because last week, as soon as I finished The Screwtape Letters, I dove into Paradise Lost, forcing myself to progress through it. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching Shakespeare, so the language wasn’t nearly as foreign as it could have been. When I found my attention wandering, bored by elaborate rhetorical constructions and erudite footnotes, I read Milton’s words out loud, and this kept me on track. I kept plodding through the poem, line by line, book by book, not worrying whether I was understanding all of it. I studiously ignored the footnotes, for the most part, but read my colleague’s hand-written marginal notes with affection.

And now I can say that I have read Paradise Lost, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed parts of it. I hated the parts that were clearly anti-feminist, wishing someone else–maybe Ursula LeGuin or Virginia Woolf?–had dared to write Eve’s side of the story, since Milton had covered Adam’s point of view so thoroughly and unfairly. But as for filling in this gap in my education, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The heavens did not open as I finished reading the last lines of the poem. The Angel Raphael did not come down and pat me on the back. Nor did the archangel Michael arrive with a flaming sword to celebrate my victory over the text. I simply read about Adam and Eve departing Eden, sighed, and closed the book.

Did I learn anything? Just this: those things we put off because they seem too difficult are often not that difficult after all. Perhaps other people want to make us feel that they are difficult so as to make themselves feel smarter, or more worthy, than we are. In all likelihood, they aren’t. But I realize now that reading is a skill that we must train for–much like long-distance running– and I believe that as a society our reading endurance is steadily declining. We are clearly losing the taste for, and consequently the ability to, read long and rambling texts, settling instead for shorter and easier ones, and this will have serious consequences for our intellectual and public life in the coming years. Nevertheless, I believe that if we tackle our reading with confidence and optimism–if we keep to our task, pushing forward one line, even one word, at a time–we can make it through even the densest of texts.

The best part of the whole experience is that I’m now ready to discuss Paradise Lost with my former student. And for this, rather than for finally reading the whole poem, I think C.S. Lewis would be proud of me.

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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

CB

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?

Drawing_of_Anthony_Trollope

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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