I’m writing weekly about my Short Fiction class this fall. The first installment is here.
The semester has more than caught up with me, and I’ve fallen behind with the Short Fiction project. In the past weeks, I did manage to complete a writing project, assemble and file my dossier for my first post-tenure review, advise a pile of students on their Fulbright and Watson applications, teach my classes, and more or less keep up with my grading. So it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything. But I’ve missed keeping up with this blog. In the interest of catching up, I’ll combine the last two weeks into one post.
Last week, we discussed three stories: Kay Boyle’s “Life Being the Best” (I actually haven’t been figure out the exact year of publication, but it’s late 20s or early 30s), Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” (1945), and Nathan Englander’s “The Wig” (1999). These are wonderful stories: I’m particularly under the sway of the Boyle, which I only discovered this summer. Although its milieu—a community of poor refugees from Mussolini’s Italy in Southern France in the late 1920s—was completely foreign to the students, the subject matter—an orphaned child, an erudite, sensitive, but clueless teacher—seemed to resonate, and we had a reasonably lively discussion about the subtle ways the story undermines its teacher protagonist. I definitely have more to learn about this story, but it’s a keeper and I look forward to doing more justice to it next semester.
After that, though, the week went downhill fast.
I adore Bowen’s ghost story set during the Blitz, and I’ve taught it successfully many times. This time, though, I had a hard time getting the students to say anything useful about it. I even tried some group work, since we hadn’t done any in a couple of weeks, but, unusually, that tatic only took the air out of the room even further. Things reached a low point on Friday with the Englander story, another one I’d not taught before. I was lucky enough to host Englander on a visit to campus last year, and found him as funny and intelligent as his stories. I actually usually dislike meeting writers, it usually makes me like the work a little or even a lot less. But Englander was different: a total prince, and a smart reader of his own work. (Also, incredibly manic and charmingly neurotic.)
One of the reasons I assigned “The Wig” is that it is written in present tense, a tic of contemporary fiction I usually despise, but tolerate here because the story is so interesting. It’s about Ruchama, an Orthodox Jewish sheitel macher, a wig maker, who meets a Manhattan deliveryman with the most exquisite hair, hair she buys with money a client has given her and uses to make, in secret, a wig for herself, the wig of her dreams. I don’t have much interesting to say about first person narrative—it increases our sense of immediacy, I suppose—but what I like in Englander’s story is the way that immediacy, that connection with the reader, is undone by the story’s careful distancing techniques.
I started by asking students to look at the description of Ruchama’s frustration with her husband’s grudging performance of even the most modest household chores: “He trayfs up her kitchen to spite her. He is forever putting meat silverware in the dairy sink.” What does trayf mean, I asked? Only one student knew it meant food that doesn’t conform to Orthodox dietary laws (he had looked it up). I half-threatened, half-pleaded with the class to do the basic diligence required of them as students and look up words they don’t understand. (I’m about ready to assign some kind of basic vocabulary exercise to this class: they simply refuse to look words up). I continued by asking the students how they could have come close to knowing what the word meant by using its context. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I eventually got them acknowledge that the sentence about the meat silverware and the dairy sink could provide a clue, though admittedly one that is more meaningful if you know about the prohibition on mixing meat and milk.
Since I’d been expecting the students wouldn’t have looked up unfamiliar words, I had already prepared the next exercise. I had the students take out their phones and look up six words from the story. One side of the room took narishkeit, sheitel, and macher, and the other took gabbai, bimah, and Pesach. We discussed how Englander gives just enough context to help readers basically understand these words, as when he describes the fashion magazines Ruchama surreptitiously studies: “The magazines are contraband in Royal Hills, narishkeit, vain and immodest, practically pornographic.” The phrase “vain and immodest” modifies “narishkeit” as much as “magazines”; even if we don’t know the Yiddish word for foolishness, we sense it means something disreputable. Note that Englander doesn’t italicize these words. Why, I asked the class, are these foreign words in the story? For authenticity, one student finally replied. (Actually, she said: It makes it more real. I translated to the concept I wanted.) What, I continued, is the relationship between authenticity and comprehensibility, a question I had to rephrase as, Why doesn’t Englander give us a translation of the word or a glossary or something? I imagined they would say something like: The people the story is about would know the meaning of the word. To which I would say two things: (1) those (Orthodox) people wouldn’t read this (secular) story and (2) what about you—you don’t know the meaning. But the class couldn’t get there, and so I was left simply to assert my idea, namely, that these words make it clear that the story might not be for every reader. (Who the ideal audience for this story might be is an interesting question: I think the answer is, Jews, more particularly, Jews like Englander himself, who have grown up Orthodox (especially Hasidic) but aren’t any more—a small audience indeed.)
My point was that literature isn’t in any simple or straightforward way universal. One of its pleasures is its ability to offer us a glimpse into a world very different from our own. In other words, the story deliberates sets out not to be relatable, that term so beloved of students today. I suppose the students picked up on the implied chastisement in this reading, and maybe I was unconsciously assuming they wouldn’t get the story and had put myself in the position of being the only one in the room who knew the right answers. (Generally, I prefer to arrange our discussions so that I can pretend they have come up with answers of their own—which, in fact, on good days they do.) At any rate, that’s the most generous reading I can give of the discussion that followed, which was halting and stilted and left me frustrated at the students’ apparent inability to appreciate the story’s ambivalent but not defensive or accusatory portrayal of its Orthodox world. I like, for example, that Ruchama is a savvy and successful businesswoman, and that the vanity she ultimately succumbs to is evident in the story’s secular characters too. Ruchama is an enamored with fashion advertisements that depict a world so shallow and ridiculous that we’re led to ask: isn’t that world—of laughing models bobbing for apples or hailing taxi cabs, with star-struck men at their feet—much more preposterous than the Orthodox one? But the story isn’t holding Orthodox society up as better than a secular one. It’s not even that the woman who wears a wig to protect her hair from the eyes of anyone other than her husband is less oppressed than the woman who has to model her sense of self on impossible standards of beauty—because the Orthodox woman is herself under the sway of those standards.
I thought this accessible but not simplistic story about the relationship between the secular and the religious as figured through ideas of female appearance and empowerment would be a hit with students. But I was wrong. And so I approached the next class, this past Monday, with trepidation—especially because one of my colleagues would be coming to observe me.
I was also excited because we would be reading D. H. Lawrence, the writer closest to my heart. But mostly I was nervous, because I’d never taught the story before, and because I’d been so disappointed with the students’ performance the past few days.
Lawrence initially called the story “Fanny and Annie” (1922), but at the last minute asked his agent to change it to “The Last Straw.” The agent responded that it was too late, he’d already sold the story. And for decades the story went under the original; only with its publication in the authoritative Cambridge Edition in the 1990s was it finally published under Lawrence’s preferred choice.
Here are the quintessentially Lawrentian and very striking opening paragraphs:
Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fire. And the nostalgia, the doom of the home-coming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now! The pulse and darkness of red fire from the furnace towers in the sly, lighting the desultory, industrial crowd on the wayside station, lit him and went out.
Of course, he did not see her. Flame-lit and unseeing! Always the same, with his meeting eyebrows, his common cap, and his red-and-black scarf knotted round his throat. Not even a collar to meet her! The flames had sunk, there was shadow.
The woman arriving at this phantasmagorically lit train station in the English midlands—the flames are from the local industry, an iron foundry—is Fannie, returning home after twelve years as a lady’s maid. The job is no more, for reasons we never learn, as are Fanny’s hopes to have married her dashing cousin. The man meeting her at the station is her first love, a foundry worker named Harry, who she has strung along for all the years she’s been gone.
After having a student read these paragraphs, I had us list the oppositions that structure the passage. I’ve found this a pretty fail-safe exercise for generating conversation and for forcing students to think more abstractly and analytically. We began with light and dark, of course, and eventually managed to add seeing/blindness, expectation/disappointment, individual/crowd (Fanny v the throng), and him/her—I used that last opposition as a way to think about the class differences evident in the passage and the story as a whole. Here industry is implicitly contrasted to gentility, an opposition made even clearer on the next page. That allowed the class to note Fannie’s superiority. Yet it’s hard to know what the story thinks about that superiority.
From this initial exercise, I asked students to look at characteristic elements of Lawrence’s style, particularly his use of those more or less unusual compound adjectives “flame-lurid” and “flame-lit” and the sentence fragments, all of which place us firmly within Fanny’s perspective. (We’ll return to this moment when we think about free-indirect narration in a few days.) The class really struggled to make sense of these attributes, though, and I had to drag every piece of information from them. I asked them what lurid meant and what its presence at the very beginning of the story suggested. Eventually we got to the shocking or sensational connotations of the word, which allowed me to ask whether Harry was in fact lurid in any way. That didn’t go anywhere, but when I asked what Harry looks like, thinking now about things we learn elsewhere in the story, students admitted he is repeatedly described as physically attractive. Fanny’s superiority clashes with her frank admiration for that beauty but her equally insistent shame at those feelings.
Eventually we turned to the final sentence of this opening passage. How does its tone compare to what’s come before? It seemed more ordinary to them, less strange and exalted than the earlier sentences. Absolutely right, I agreed, though I noted that even here Lawrence wasn’t giving us an entirely simple sentence: the parataxis (a fancy way of describing the comma splice) places the two clauses on equal footing, even though the register of the first is more literal than the second. (“There was shadow” comes to seem metaphorical or symbolic, in the absence of an article or modifier that we might have expected: a shadow or some shadow, or the shadow of the now darkened train station. That “there was” makes shadow into a kind of entity or force.) But the final sentence is less dramatic than earlier ones, and I argued that this suggests Fanny’s exalted life is coming to an end, as she returns to the ordinariness of home repeatedly and ominously described as a kind of doom.
Whereas the opening passage sticks closely to Fanny’s perspective, the final sentence doesn’t, or at least much less obviously so. This change is representative of the story’s trajectory which privileges Fanny’s voice less and less as it goes along.
To show students what I meant, I had us look at a later passage, one of the more dramatic moments of the story. Harry is a soloist in a concert at the local church:
But at the moment when Harry’s voice sank carelessly down to his close, and the choir, standing behind him, were opening their mouths for the final triumphant outburst, a shouting female voice rose up from the body of the congregation. The organ gave one startled trump, and went silent; the choir stood transfixed.
‘You look well standing there, singing in God’s holy house,” came the loud, angry female shout. Everybody turned electrified. A stoutish, red-faced woman in a black bonnet was standing up denouncing the soloist. Almost fainting with shock, the congregation realized it. “You look well, don’t you, standing there singing solos in God’s holy house—you, Goodall. But I said I’d shame you. You look well, bringing your young woman here with you, don’t you? I’ll let her know who she’s dealing with. A scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done.” The hard-faced, frenzied woman turned in the direction of Fanny. “ That’s what Harry Goodall is, if you want to know.”
And she sat own again in her seat. Fanny, startled like all the rest, had turned to look. She had gone white, and then a burning red, under the attack. She knew the woman: a Mrs Nixon, a devil of a woman who beat her pathetic, drunken, red-nosed second husband, Bob, and her two lanky daughters, grown-ups as they were. A notorious character. Fanny turned round again, and sat motionless as eternity in her seat.
I’d seized on this passage because of this careful reading that I’d found in my class preparation. It’s such a rich passage, but this post is already too long and class-time was getting short. So I had to move quickly past the ironic replacement of one outburst (the choir’s) with another (Mrs Nixon’s), past the passive voice that defers naming her and offering any sense of her subjectivity for a long while, past the seemingly unnecessary description of the congregation “realizing it,” a redundancy that performs for us the very shock of belatedness that the scene is describing, and past the oblique suggestion that Fanny and Mrs Nixon might not be as different as Fanny, at least, would like to think, given that both, whether in direct dialogue or in indirect speech, use “as” to introduce a modifying or characterizing clause (“a scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done,” “ground-ups as they were”), thereby suggesting Fanny is indeed of this place she has spent so long keeping away from.
Instead I focused on the topic of perspective. Where, I asked, is Fanny’s perspective here? Only in the sentence beginning “She knew the woman” and the one following (the clearest indicator of her perspective, and a return to the fragments of the opening.) But why would we get less of Fanny’s perspective the further we get into the story?
Another way to ask that question, I said, is to ask about the story’s two titles. What’s the difference between them? Is one better than the other?
Annie, it transpires, is pregnant and has named Harry as the father. Harry doesn’t deny having been involved with Annie, but won’t admit to being the father, saying that it’s no more likely to be him than six or seven other men. The title “The Last Straw” suggests frustration and final consequences. And at the end of the story, Fanny decides not to return to the second concert but to stay at home with Mrs. Goodall, who she calls “mother” for the first time. She will, it seems, marry Harry. But when we say that something is the last straw, we are usually talking about something that pushed us over the edge, into an extreme position. What then would it mean to say: That’s it, you were involved with another woman and maybe are the father of her child, I’ve had it, it’s the last straw—I’m going to marry you”? How does that make any sense? Wouldn’t “The Last Straw” work better if Fanny were going to leave Harry?
And what about Lawrence’s first title, the one the story was saddled with for so many years? To me it’s just as intriguing. It promises a relationship that we never see. Annie, in fact, is only spoken of, and then only in the last few pages; she never appears directly. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call the story “Fanny and Harry”? As one of my better students pointed out, the title “Fanny and Annie” makes Harry the most important figure: these women are linked only through him. That would be yet another way of undermining Fanny’s importance. In both cases, Fanny is made lesser. Perhaps the story’s use of “doom” to describe her feelings at coming home isn’t as exaggerated as it might first appear.
Even after having been a teacher for more than ten years, I don’t find it easy to have someone else in my classroom, especially someone who is evaluating me. My colleague was very nice about the class, in the brief conversation we had on our way to our next obligations (we’ll talk more at a formal meeting with my Area Chair in a few weeks). “It’s really like pulling teeth with these kids,” she noted. And that has absolutely been my feeling the whole semester. My colleague was kind enough to say, “It makes me feel better to know that you have classes like this too.” The class wasn’t a disaster, we got through some useful material, and they warmed up by the end, a little, when we talked about the different titles. But I’m really not used to having to coax so many observations out of a class, so my mood as we arrive at the midway point of the semester is a little bit somber and a whole lot discouraged.
The rest of the week’s classes were devoted to writing exercises in preparation for the first longer paper, due next Wednesday, just before Fall Break. I’ll say more about that next time.