On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

*

Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

Six Emails about L. P. Hartley’s The Boat

Earlier this summer, based on some conversations we’d had about my post on The Go-Between, my friend Nat and I decided to read another of L. P. Hartley’s novels. We settled on The Boat (1949). Here’s what the publisher says about it on the back of my edition:

Timothy Casson, a bachelor and a writer, is forced to return from his contented life in Venice to an English village.

Taking a house by the river where he can pursue his passion for rowing, he has to do battle with the locals to overcome his isolation and feelings of incompleteness. This most complex of Hartley’s novels examines the multiple layers of Casson’s relationships with servants, local society and friends.

Over a week or so, Nat and I emailed back and forth about the book. Here’s what we had to say. Warning: spoilers ahead (such as they are).

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Mon 8/21 10:50 PM

Nat,

After enjoying The Go-Between so much last year I was really excited to read more of Hartley’s work. And I was even more excited to read him along with you. But I confess I wouldn’t have finished this book if I’d been reading it on my own. It’s long. Really long. 450 pp in now-I-am-getting-old-and-irritated-with-small-print long. I’m trying to be charitable to the book, but I can’t immediately see why it has to be so long, other than that maybe the end is that much more exciting because we’ve had such a slow build up. The narrative dam bursts, like the river in spate that Timothy finally rides (to disastrous results). But honestly I think I’m being kind here. A lot of this book is just boring.

What I want to know is: how savvy is Hartley about this? It’s pretty clear that he’s set up his protagonist to be dull, a bit muddled, though basically decent. So is the novel’s dullness strategic? Does he want to tell us something about it? I guess the thing that interests me most about the book is that it’s written in 1949 and set in 1940-41 and hardly mentions the war at all. The war is happening, of course (even if at first it’s the “Phony War”) but way off-stage. This seems like a deliberate and almost wilfully anachronistic choice. (After all, this is a time when writers like Green and Bowen and Panter-Downes are writing novels that try to make sense of the war and its aftermath.)

Hartley in fact alludes to his possibly unusual subject matter late in the book (p 397 in my edition), when he ruminates on the war within the war–his war with the local grandees who have blocked the river from “the people” (or, at least, him), which his friends Tyro and Esther are sure to disparage in comparison to the actual war. Where do you think the book’s sympathies are here? Is Timothy right to insist on the importance of his fight? Is it a fight the book believes in? Does Timothy actually believe in it? Or is he just doing it in a last-ditch effort to hold Vera’s attention? In a similar vein, how do you read Timothy’s sleep at the end? A well-deserved rest after many trials and slights? Or a sign of his quiescence/cluelessness?

I think the book likes Timothy–his lack of certainty is better than Magda and definitely Tyro’s blunt convictions (see p 445). He’s a bit of an E. M. Forster muddled liberal type, which I’m not sure the book disapproves of. And often I don’t either. But I’m a bit put off by him too. He doesn’t have the saving qualities of innocence of Leo in The Go-Between.

On another note, is it crazy to think of The Boat as a version of The Mill on the Floss? Actually, I think it is crazy. But the whole boat/flood thing made me wonder. It’s only been a few years since I read MF but I’m embarrassingly hazy on details. Do you know it?

Ok, going to stop now but will flag two things I want to think more about: children, and third person instead of first.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve had to say.

d

25c43810c457a9796098b6e9e0e3a491--alex-colville-alex-katz

Wed 8/23 10:42 AM

Dorian,

I have to agree that this book was a bit of a grind; I was very enthusiastic about your suggestion to read a Hartley novel together, and I thought The Boat sounded like the most interesting option. Coming chronologically between the novels I knew (after the Eustace and Hilda trilogy of the earlier ’40s and before The Go-Between and The Hireling in the ’50s), I was intrigued to see where this novel fit. But it really wasn’t what I was expecting; some Hartley trademarks are there, such as his incisive psychological portraits of character, his exploration of class distinctions, and his occasionally epigrammatic wit (my favourite: “to do a thing badly is an affirmation of independence, whereas to do it well is to confess oneself a slave to other people’s standards”) (181). But there is also a heavy dose of politics, philosophizing, and digressing into the details of English country life. And you’re right; the book is too long by far. Never have I more strongly willed a fictional character to do something than I willed Timothy to get in that boat, which takes him a full 3/4 of the book to do (I imagine that Hartley’s alternative titles for the novel must have been Waiting for the Boat and Much Ado about Boating). The bottom line is that if we do this again (and I hope we do!), I’m letting you choose the book.

This may be just another way of phrasing some of your questions, but I wonder what you make of the central symbol of the boat itself? It’s clear that Timothy has an almost quasi-religious reverence for it, and that it represents freedom and peace for him, but does it mean the same thing to us? Or is Hartley ironically presenting Timothy’s love for boating as a foolish obsession, no different from the fishermen who object to his boat? At the end, Tyro interprets Timothy’s desire as escapism and a death wish; how much credence do we give to that opinion?

I’m tempted to play the Hartley apologist here a little bit; despite many things that I would objectively call flaws in the book (an excessive reliance on letter writing, a significant lack of action, as the main antagonists in the novel hardly ever meet, and when there is action, it is often highly melodramatic and implausible), I still found it strangely compelling. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe, but I do tend to think that Hartley is a bit more savvy than this novel appears to be. He mixes his dull protagonist with characters who belong in a range of different genres; there are the stereotypical servants who actually run the house, the upright but a bit clueless village policeman, and the femme fatale, Vera Cross, who is self-reflexively positioned in this role through the bad noir fiction that Edgell Purbright convinces Timothy to read. I feel like we are supposed to hope that Timothy can find his place in his adoptive village amongst this assortment of figures, but that Hartley is perhaps suggesting the generic and political confusion of a heteroglot England. His hero can’t find a place in this world because it doesn’t quite make sense in itself.

I’m not sure that this playing with genres ever fully works, though; take, for example, the melodramatic scene in which Timothy accidentally stumbles across the secret of Desiree Lampard’s birth and has to decide whether to use this information to prevent her upcoming wedding. Here, Timothy plays a highly conventional role, and one rather expects Hartley to return to this with some kind of twist, but instead, these characters simply fade from view.

Similarly, it seems as if the reader is supposed to be intrigued (and titillated?) by the fact that Vera Cross seems to take a romantic interest in Timothy (who is twice her age) but the explanation of this as being politically motivated is both underwhelming and implausible (she spends over a year cultivating this relationship just to try to get him to do something that would annoy the village elites?). On another note, what is with impossibly idealized women being called Miss Cross? Thinking of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, of course. On that note, I wonder what you think of Hartley’s treatment of his female characters in general? There is the painfully obvious angel/temptress opposition at work between Mrs. Purbright and Miss Cross, but is Hartley challenging this with his self-aware treatment of these types?

Your question about the war really gets at what I thought was most interesting about the book, but again, not quite interesting in a thoroughly satisfying way. I don’t know nearly enough about post-war British fiction to compare it to the other authors you mention, but on a personal level, having had a grandfather in the RAF and a grandmother who was evacuated from London during the blitz, I had always had a very homogenous idea of Britain being a united nation during the war. Hartley provides a vision of an England still very much divided along class lines, with highly politicized factions at work. It certainly wasn’t what I expected (a communist plot in little Upton?) although maybe my lack of familiarity with the period is showing here. Are there other books you can think of that deal with the role of communism/political dissent in England at this time?

As for the war itself, I thought myself pretty clever for tracing the outlines of an allegorical relationship between the larger events of the war referred to throughout the novel, and Timothy’s personal struggle. But then, Hartley has Timothy (on page 361) pretty much declare the allegorical significance of his actions. So much for being subtle. Again, I’m not sure how well the allegory holds together, but at the very least, we see Timothy moving from a Chamberlain-like stance of appeasement in which he believes that if he plays the game and ingratiates himself with the ruling elite, he will be allowed to use his boat, towards a more militaristic Churchill-like position in which he openly defies them and gives a revolutionary speech to the gathered masses. On the one hand, then, Timothy is England, learning that he can only get the freedom he desires if he stands up for himself. On the other hand, though, there are many ways in which he does not embody Englishness in this context; he is the outsider, invading the space of the landed elites (all ex-military officers) and the driving force behind his boat trip is Vera, who is using Timothy to antagonize these elites.

One can’t help but feel that Hartley is expressing sympathy for Timothy’s revolutionary action (after so much failure, taking the boat out on the water and giving a rousing speech seem like great successes) but if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that he is, in the end, seduced by the elites and eventually flees? His near-death experience seems to change his attitude towards life in general, but is it really a change for the better, or is he simply allowing himself to be deceived by their promises yet again?

The elites are depicted as dinosaurs who need to be replaced, but Timothy doesn’t want to do this; he just wants to be able to use his boat. I agree that the novel likes Timothy, but the ending seems like yet another in a series of anti-climaxes; he leaves town and falls asleep, flanked by his two very different friends. Is this an image of a new England in which the old order (Esther) and a new modern cynicism (Tyro) unite to save Timothy, the sort of English everyman? That might be the most positive reading I can muster. On the other hand, Timothy is still blaming himself for what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright when he conveniently falls asleep; is this another form of escapism?

I hadn’t thought about the connections to The Mill on the Floss, but it could certainly be said that Maggie Tulliver and Timothy Casson are both figures who repress their strong desires out of consideration for others, and both endure a flood that overpowers the arbitrary limitations of social convention with the force of nature (and, perhaps, a Freudian return of the repressed). I’m not sure how far I would go with the parallel, though, given the gender differences that inform this repression (Maggie is a young girl, relatively powerless with respect to Victorian gender norms, while Timothy is an old man in a relatively privileged position who often creates his own obstacles). Also, the flood in The Mill on the Floss has a redemptive quality to it, which is perhaps more ambiguous in The Boat; does the near-death experience really change anything for Timothy?

Your final questions put me in mind of what I really like about Hartley. For one thing, he is very good at depicting the minds of children. This is what makes The Go-Between and The Shrimp and the Anemone so fantastic. We get glimpses of that in The Boat, with the two evacuee boys who are interestingly doubled at the end by the two boys who join Timothy in the boat, but these figures are never really developed very far. The one moment that stands out for me is when Billy drops his teacup in the drawing room, which instead of being a disaster, causes all the social restraints in the room to be dropped; children are in this sense aligned with a natural rather than social way of life. In this respect, we might also want to talk about Felix the dog, who seems to play a similar role?

Finally, and most tentatively, what I really like about Hartley is his ability to explore the relationship between self and other, how the self can find a place in a world that it necessarily experiences as foreign and other. It seems to me that this almost requires the use of third person, an “other” outside the self-other relationship who is able to witness, describe and analyze it. In The Go-Between, first person works because the narrator is already “other” to himself through the passage of time. I don’t think anything else I’ve read by Hartley has used first person. But that’s just a theory; feel free to explode it.

Sorry, that was long, but you asked so many very good questions. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether Hartley is sympathizing with the revolutionary politics that is implicit (and often explicit) within the narrative trajectory of the novel, or whether he, like Timothy, would prefer to hold an aesthetic view of the world and simply leave the politics behind?

Nat

Homer-Rowing_Home

Sat 8/26 4:40 PM

Nat,

Great question: does Hartley sympathize with the revolutionary politics referred to both implicitly and explicitly in the novel?

I would have to say, No. There’s just too much bathos for me at least to think he wants us to take it seriously. After all, isn’t Vera a bad character? She gets Mrs. Purbright killed. She leads Timothy on, and is really quite cruel to him. We’re clearly supposed to dislike her. So how can we take her crusade seriously? And what the hell kind of crusade is it anyway? Opening up the river to boating just seems extraordinary small potatoes–not even worthy as a symbol. Now, I suppose a lot does depend on whether you think she did indeed seduce Timothy only to insist he imagined it, or whether he has in fact imagined it. Where are you on that? I think it’s the former. But if it is the latter, then we would have to see Vera in at least a somewhat different light. It would have the benefit of making Timothy even more ambivalent–pathetic at best, sinister at worst. I guess looking back on it I’m really confused about Vera’s motives. She’s like a super-low-rent Mephistopheles: just doing something bad/unpleasant (not sure it quite rises to evil) just because she can.

I like what you’re saying about the third person (or a retrospective first person) as a requirement for the self-other investigation you prize in Hartley. But in that case, why attach the third person so closely to a single character? Wouldn’t a more roving, omniscient-minded narrative voice be able to do that work more fully? If we got insider other people’s heads, we might get a better overview of English society–in other words, the political element of the novel would be strengthened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

It’s a great question as to whether there are other books about the role of communist/political dissent in the period. There must be but I can’t think of anything. Bowen’s Heat of the Day (a masterpiece) is certainly about dissent–but of a fascist rather than communist sort. Bits of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook are critical of English communism, but that’s in reference to the 50s–the debates over Stalinism etc. Maybe others can help us out here. But I think we are agreed that the most interesting thing about the book is the way it addresses the class ambivalences of war-time England (thereby contesting the “we’re all in it together” myth).

You’ve helped me see that The Mill on the Floss comparison isn’t very fruitful. Eliot is a lot more progressive than Hartley. And she cares about women, which, based on the two novels I’ve read, I can’t say Hartley does. At least the women in The Go-Between have the fascination of monstrousness about them. Vera never quite rises to that level.

I’m starting to think of the book as more and more conservative. Perhaps Hartley belongs with other English writers who despaired of what they saw as the spiritual impoverishment of postwar life (often because the privileges of their own classes were being taxed away): Evelyn Waugh, late Henry Green (certainly true in his letters and such; in his early work, in particular, he is much more nuanced about such matters). I should read some more Hartley to find out, but for the time being I need to take a bit of a break from him…

Totally agree with your points about the children–I wanted more of both sets of them. And the dog’s maybe the best character in the book. Who was it said never to act with children and animals? Timothy should have known better…

What other things do we need to talk about?

d

cezanne_barque_baigneurs

Mon 8/29 12:39 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I absolutely agree that we are supposed to dislike Vera and that the revelation of her motives is just about the weakest part of the book. I like your characterization of her as a “super low-rent Mephistopheles” but even more than that the disparity between her rather minimal objective and the amount of effort she puts into achieving it (cultivating a relationship with Timothy, whom she is revealed not to like very much, over the course of something like two years) just seems laughably implausible. As for whether Timothy has imagined his seduction by Vera, it’s a tempting theory, but Hartley doesn’t really seem to have done anything to get us to doubt Timothy’s reliability (which would have actually made things a lot more interesting, I think). In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it didn’t seem to me that Hartley could possibly end things in a satisfactory way, I actually found myself hoping that Vera would turn out not to exist at all, but be some kind of psychological projection of Timothy’s. No such luck, but even that would have made more sense than what we got.

But if we don’t like Vera, surely we don’t much like the representatives of the established order either? Aren’t we hugely disappointed at the end when Timothy goes to Colonel Harbord’s party and is seduced by the beauty of his lawn? Would it be possible to make the case that Hartley is advocating for some kind of liberal “middle way” between the uptight old order and the flaky young revolutionaries? Timothy fails to find such a way, being pulled back and forth between the two camps, but perhaps this is what Hartley wants his readers to strive for? Interesting that you conclude that he is being ultimately conservative, and I can certainly see that argument, but is it simply for the lack of any reasonable alternative? Is he, to invoke the Arnoldian cliché, caught “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”?

Good point about Hartley’s narrative being so chained to Timothy’s consciousness that it’s not all that different from a first-person narrative. The exception that proves the rule is that the sequence of chapters that is probably the most effective in the novel is (I think) the only time where the narrative strays from Timothy’s side for any length of time. Just as we are anxious to learn whether Timothy’s project of taking the boat out is to be accomplished, Chapter 28 takes us to the Rector’s house, where Mrs. Purbright makes the decision to try to warn Timothy about the high water, then Chapter 29 reveals how Vera came to arrive at just the same spot on the riverbank as Mrs. Purbright. This helps to build suspense about what is going to happen to Timothy, and then that chapter ends with uncertainty about what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright, which builds more suspense as we return to Timothy and the boat in the following chapter. Hartley is at his best in this sequence, and the rest of the novel really does suffer from being so confined to Timothy’s point of view. On the other hand, part of Hartley’s point is that Timothy doesn’t really know how the other Uptonians feel about him, and perhaps if the reader did know, it would take away from the incessant anxiety he feels about how is being perceived by others. I suspect the feeling of unease that Timothy feels would be difficult to sustain with a more free-flowing omniscient narrator. (But still, your point about needing other perspectives is spot on.)

And yes, the dog probably is the best character in the book and Hartley’s genius can be seen in how he captures the essence of dogs in one sentence: “He seemed to know at once where he wanted to go and to think it did not matter what happened to his body, provided his head got there.” Also, probably the best comic sequence in the novel is the servants’ efforts to convince Timothy that he needs a dog. After deciding that he needs a companion who can speak a foreign language, Wimbush in his roundabout way tells Timothy, “A dog, now, he speaks what you might almost call a foreign language.” I found it funny, but such sequences also add to the generic inconsistency of the novel; what exactly is it trying to be?

I think we may have just about exhausted the novel, but one last thing I was thinking about was the role of Italy. Timothy comes back to England after years of living in Venice, which establishes his “foreignness” in Upton, but does this code him as somehow suspicious (he seems to prefer many Italian values and customs to English ones) or refreshingly cosmopolitan and worldly? Esther expresses the quintessential Anglo-centric world view in an early letter: “I don’t see how another country can really disagree with England, for England is every country’s other self” but on the whole, it always seems that Timothy would rather be in Italy. Is he an escapist who has been forced by the war to confront his own country? And is the bottom line that he lacks the ability to deal with living in England? And if so, is that more of a reflection on him or on the country itself?

Nat

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Tues 8:29 9:43 PM

Nat,

Was I ever disappointed in Timothy for falling in love with that lawn! The middle-way theory makes so much sense, but what does it mean that the novel can’t seem to imagine it? A similar throwing up of the hands might be at work in the novel’s portrayal of Italy. I’m glad you brought that up, as I was thinking about it too. His love of Italy makes Timothy a bit more worldly, less parochial. (and it’s another way he was reminding me of Forster.) But he’s unwilling to cut Italy too much slack–rightly decrying its turn to fascism. (Does it make a difference, I wonder, that he is the only character with any direct experience of fascism? Unlike his much more political friends.) Mostly Italy seems to function as a lost paradise–it’s like a synonym for the youth and vigour he no longer has. So in the end I don’t know that it much matters that it is Italy, just that it’s a place he felt himself to have been more free in than his current circumstances. Do you think that’s right?

I agree I think we’ve done about all we can for this novel. If anybody is inclined to pick it up after our exchange (which frankly I doubt!) I sure would like to hear what they had to say.

Let’s time we’ll go for something different. Or maybe we should push on with Hartley to see whether The Boat is an aberration.

Thanks for talking about it with me–totally enjoyed it!

xo

d

Wed 8/30 12:49 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I think you’re right about Italy. Not only is it his lost paradise, but it was his job as a writer to send back romanticized portraits of Italy to England. That falls apart with the outbreak of war, and Timothy’s attempts to romanticize England in a similar way also fall apart rather quickly. This also adds to the sense of Timothy as an escapist who lacks the tools (or desire) to deal with his real social situation.

I really enjoyed our conversation as well, and only wish we had both enjoyed the book a bit more. Probably best to give Hartley a break for the time being (although I did get my hands on a copy of Facial Justice) but I do look forward to reading something with you again. Perhaps you should choose next time; your judgment in these things is clearly better than mine!

Best,

Nat

 

“A Long Smudge of Faces”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel

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If ever there was a writer who improved upon re-reading, it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen’s style isn’t simple or easy to follow. Her syntax is famously knotty, often baffling until you figure out which words to emphasize and everything clicks into place. Here’s a classic from her masterpiece, The Heat of the Day (1948), which describes London during the Blitz:

Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs—drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes—presented, between the railings which sill girt them, mirages of repose.

Until you realize that the subject of the sentence is the long noun phrase “parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs” rather than just parks, and that the verb is “presented” not “closed” this makes no sense at all. A reader at Jonathan Cape, Bowen’s publisher, said that her sentences were baffling until you understood the emphasis and then everything clicked into place.

At any rate, Bowen is never straightforward in her syntax. She can contort even simple sentences. Again from Heat: “He seldom was, and was not this time, put out.” Honestly, that one almost parodies itself.

But Bowen’s circumlocution, misdirection, even apparent clumsiness serves a function. I think Rohan is spot on when she says of Bowen’s prose: “that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.”

Nonetheless, especially in her first novel, The Hotel, which I’ve just been reading with Jacqui, Bowen is sometime just plain opaque. Consider for example this sentence:

Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.

A character, a young man, is here reflecting on why he’s left Germany with its economic crisis to come to be with his mother in Italy: the undistress refers to the mother’s lack of interest in the crisis. At least I think so—it’s really hard to tell! The substance of the sentence is as tricky as its context. What is “undistress” anyway? I can just about make sense of it as an adjective, but as a noun it flummoxes me. Is undistress the same as lack of distress? Is that the same as calmness? And why would it be reprehensible? So reprehensible, in fact, as to be tempting. It seems the distress we can’t help hearing in “undistress” ought to have carried the day: as if his mother should have been worried about it. We might think it would be nice to be drawn to someone who’s refusing to be worried about a political crisis, but the language here is more alarming than reassuring.

Not everything in Bowen is hard going, though. There are plenty of good bits. We find, for example, the occasional piece of social commentary, a la the Dowager Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey: here two characters are reading the English papers:

“There’s been the pit disaster.”

“Miners,” said the lady distastefully, “always seem to be getting into trouble. One is so sorry, but it is difficult to go on and on sympathizing.”

More frequent are striking apercus. Sometimes these are given to characters—“She had found that in actually dealing with children theories collapse and one must retreat on the conventions”—and sometimes to the narrator: “Sydney, who was still near enough to her own childhood to mistrust children profoundly, wondered what Cordelia could be getting at.”

And best of all are things that are just plain weird: a woman suddenly plucks a bitter orange from a tree and bites into it: “She glanced shamefacedly at her tooth-marks in the orange, then guiltily up at the windows of the Hotel, then she wiped the orange and tucked it quietly away behind her.” The tooth-marks are good, and so is the wiping and that “quietly.”

More conventional but quite beautiful are some moments of description: “She must have been made conspicuous by her abstraction or by her yellow dress; people turned to stare at her and a tram announced by a hum of overhead wires rushed past with a long smudge of faces turned her way.” I like the smudge.

If I haven’t said much about what The Hotel is about, it’s because I’m not sure. (And also because Jacqui is so good at summaries. Be sure to read hers.) I think—and this is what most makes the book worthwhile, even if it’s not always easy going—it’s about queerness.

The hotel of the title is on the Italian Riviera. The guests are British, and they’re mostly women. Most interesting to me are two pairs: Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, and Sydney Warren and Mrs. Kerr, the mother of the young man who comes to visit from Germany.

The novel begins brilliantly, with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald wandering dazedly around the hotel and the resort after having had a terrible fight. We don’t see the fight, we never learn what it was about, we don’t even know who these women are, and we have to piece together what they mean to each other. It’s pretty clear they are lovers, though, and I really wished they’d been more present in the book. Even in this episodic novel, they disappeared for long stretches of time, though they importantly close the book. On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.

In this sense they comment on the more oblique and much less resolved relationship between Sydney—a young woman who had planned to be a doctor and who has been sent to the Riviera by her family to accompany her cousin, one of those invalids who are really just women who need a break from life of the sort you find in so much fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century, and, they hope, to get married—and the much older Mrs. Kerr. It seems pretty clear that Sydney loves Mrs. Kerr. It’s not at all clear what Mrs. Kerr thinks of her. Sydney is a kind of factotum to the older (richer) woman, sometimes a kind of daughter or even a pet who Mrs. Kerr deigns to take an interest in, and sometimes something much more like a lover.

Bowen’s refusal to clarify is brilliant. But she’s clear that other characters (men especially but not only) wonder and worry about it. Consider this exchange, three-quarters of the way through the novel. A visiting clergyman, James Milton, is talking with Mrs. Kerr’s son, Ronald:

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.”

“Mustn’t that be,” said Ronald, “what people come out for?”

“Perhaps some—”

“But are there really people who would do that? asked Ronald sharply, in a tone of revulsion, as though he had brought himself up more squarely than he had anticipated to the edge of some kind of abyss. “You mean women?”

Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly. The reference to friendship is redescribed as a code for same-sex desire, a desire that Ronald, at least, is revolted by. The book is at its best when it’s at its queerest: that is, when it offers us relationships that challenge the homo-hetero binary, relationships that are hard to name.

If Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are straightforwardly gay, Sydney and Mrs. Kerr are, I don’t know, not. They’re something else. But whatever it is it’s powerful. Partly through the book—here come some spoilers now, watch out—the clergyman Milton proposes to Sydney, out of nowhere. She rejects him as gently as she can. But then just as unaccountably she later accepts. All of which leads to an amazing scene near the end of the book when the couple along with Sydney’s cousin and Mrs. Kerr rent a driver to take them on an excursion into the mountains. Coming back down they run up against a timber wagon that has almost tipped over one of the hairpin turns that Sydney has spent the ride silently wishing the party would plunge over. Something about the moment—the shock, or maybe the shock is just a cover for a decision she’s already come to, unconsciously—prompts Sydney to break off the engagement. It has to do with her feelings for Mrs. Kerr, but we don’t know how exactly. Nor do we find out. At the end of the novel, Milton leaves in embarrassed chagrin. Sydney is set to leave too. And only on one of the last pages do we sense that Mrs. Kerr will in fact be devastated by the loss, though whether out of love or out of loss of power is uncertain.

The Hotel is a chilly novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did have a hard time with it, never able to get stuck in it, always reading a few pages at a time, and often having to go back over those knotty sentences.

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However lukewarm I am about The Hotel I certainly do love Bowen in general. She’s sadly underrated and definitely poorly classified. People often compare her to Woolf—with whom she had a rivalrous but also mutually admiring relationship—for no other reason as far as I can see than that they were both women writing at around the same time. But Bowen is much better understood as part of that great British mid-twentieth century tradition of women writers who defy the longstanding and increasingly useless distinction between modernism and post-modernism. This tradition—which for me includes writers like Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Carter, and Penelope Fitzgerald: a pretty heterogeneous bunch!—is uncannily experimental, the strangeness of the works heightened by how ordinary they first seem.

In The Hotel Bowen seems to still be finding her way. When we were talking about it on Twitter, Jacqui said it’s as if Bowen were rooting through English fiction of the period for ideas. Milton seems like someone out of a Forster novel, though perhaps less interested in art. And sometimes the prose, which at its worst is sub-Jamesian, overtly imitates The Master: “The party hung fire, embarrassed by this choice of attractions, then continued to move slowly up the avenue in a close formation.” I thought only James was allowed to use the expression “hung fire”!

In other words, if you’ve never read Elizabeth Bowen before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here. It is, after all, a first novel. (Though first novels often seem to me most representative of a writer’s preoccupations, and that’s not the case here.) I’m curious about her two earlier collections of stories. Bowen’s wartime stories are justly famous—if you’ve never read “The Demon Lover,” you’re in for something special—and I wonder if she had already mastered the form. At any rate, it’s impressive how quickly Bowen improved as a novelist. Her next one, The Last September—a moving description of the Anglo-Irish war—is miles better and a terrific point of entry into her work. More conventional in structure and more compressed in scope than The Hotel, The Last September feels like a novel in a way that the earlier book doesn’t. After that I’d recommend two terrific but dark novels of the 30s, The Death of the Heart and To the North (which has one of the most ominous final scenes ever) and of course her absolute masterpiece, maybe the greatest novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day.

Has anyone read any of her late novels (Eva Trout, The Little Girls, etc)? I wonder what they’re like.

2015 Year in Reading

2015 was a good year in reading. Better than 2014, though nowhere near the annus mirabilis of 2013 (pre-blog, alas). I read 80+ books. Here are the ones that most stayed with me:

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A Little Life—Hanya Yanigahara

The reading event of the year for me. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re mostly strong opinions. I understand the main objections—it’s too long, it’s indulgent, it gets off on abusing its main character and even maybe its readers, its prose is sometimes clunky, even embarrassing—but I don’t feel them. These days I struggle to keep my attention away from my phone, social media, hockey scores, you name it. Sometimes I worry I don’t have the reading stamina I used to. In this regard, A Little Life was a gift: an intense, immersive reading experience that captivated me not just for the week of the reading but throughout the whole year. I wrote about it here.

Married Life—David Vogel

Written in Hebrew and published in Vienna in 1930, this is an extraordinary book that expands our sense of what European modernism was all about.

If I read Hebrew, I would write Vogel’s biography. Born in the Pale of Settlement, Vogel made his way via Vilnius and a brief stint as a yeshiva student to Vienna just in time to be interned as a Russian citizen during WWI. After the war he loafed, nearly penniless, in Vienna’s cafes, finding a little translation work and writing his first poems and novellas. He immigrated briefly to Palestine in the late 20s but Zionism never held much appeal for him and he returned to Europe, eventually finding his way to Paris in the early 30s. Tragically he was interned in the next war, this time as an Austrian citizen, and was deported via the infamous transit camp at Drancy to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944.

In Married Life the poor but promising writer Rudolph Gurweil meets the impoverished and rapacious aristocrat Thea von Takov and falls immediately under her spell even though he’s not sure he likes her very much. The two marry after only kowing each other for a few weeks and things go badly from the start. Thea converts to Judaism to marry Gurweil but among other things she’s a terrible anti-Semite. The novel is a drawn-out depiction of a disastrous marriage, but it’s also a glorious depiction of shabby Jewish Vienna.

I started a review and got sidetracked. I’d really like to finish it. If it got this book even one more reader it would be worth it.

Heartfelt thanks to heroic translator Dalya Bilu and to Australian-based Scribe for publishing this masterpiece, not least in such a gorgeous edition.

The Vet’s Daughter—Barbara Comyns

Wonderful, heartbreaking novel about a young woman who levitates. I wrote about it at length here and my appreciation only increased when I taught it this fall. Happily, my students loved it too; I received several excellent papers about it. I’m about to write more about Comyns myself. More on that soon, I hope.

The Heat of the Day—Elizabeth Bowen

The same students who enjoyed Comyns did magnificently with this marvelous novel of the Blitz and its aftermath. The course is on Experimental 20th-Century British Fiction, and I hadn’t taught Bowen for a while (six years, in fact), after my previous attempt at teaching her failed spectacularly. I finally worked up the courage to try Heat again, and am so glad I did. It helped, of course, that this was a particularly strong group of students. It was really fun helping them work through Bowen’s famously thorny sentences. To the North might still be my favourite Bowen, but this novel about lying to one’s self and to others is one of her best. I often grumble about how teaching gets in the way of reading. But sometimes the chance to return to the same set of books is a joy. As Roland Barthes once said, those who don’t re-read are doomed to read the same text over and over again.

Bernard Malamud

Another one from the teaching files, at least in part. I taught an introductory level course on short fiction this fall. (For a while I blogged about it regularly—the first installment is here, if you’re interested—but eventually I capitulated to the semester’s demands and gave up.) The touchstone text was Malamud’s first collection, The Magic Barrel. I’d taught these marvelous stories before but it had been a while and found I liked them even more this time.

I’ve always loved their enigmatic qualities, and had long been curious whether his novels were like that too. So I read The Assistant over Thanksgiving (I started a post on that too which I also failed to complete). It tells the story of Morris Bober’s struggle to eke out a living from his small grocery store in a poor part of New York, a struggle that only deepens when he takes on a drifter as a de facto assistant. It is also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, with a scene that genuinely shocked me. Malamud’s stories are hardly heartwarming, but they have a lightness missing from this novel. Absolutely worth reading, though.

Various short stories

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story—Philip Hensher, Ed.

As I said, I taught a lot of short stories this fall, and in the process I remembered how much I love the form. Edith Pearlman, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence were particular favourites. I also want to tip my hat to this wonderful two-volume edition of short stories edited by Philip Hensher. I’ve got volume 2 (they’re only available in the UK and a bit pricey but the production values are amazing) and I’ve only read a handful of the stories. But the roster is exciting; not just the usual suspects. Hensher plowed through a ton of late-19th and early-20th century magazines and has found some amazing stuff. I especially like one by “Malachi” (Marjorie) Whitaker, called “Courage”: it’s going straight on to the Spring syllabus. Hensher’s introduction makes a fascinating case for why Britain produced such good short fiction in the years 1890-1940 and why economic and structural conditions make it unlikely for the form to flourish in the same way again (which isn’t the same as saying there are no good instances of the form today: volume 2 goes from P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith). Please Penguin, bring this out in the US.

The Book of Aron—Jim Shepard
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—Göran Rosenberg

Holocaust literature is central to my teaching, and so also to my reading. These two books impressed me this year, the first a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto that I wrote about at Open Letters Monthly and the second a second-generation memoir that I reviewed at Words without Borders.

Death of a Man—Kay Boyle

Thanks to Tyler Malone of The Scofield I learned a lot about Kay Boyle this year. The best thing I read by her was a heartbreaking early story about failed pedagogy called “Life Being the Best” (read it!), but the book I spent the most time with was this 1936 novel about an American heiress who falls in with fascist sympathizers in pre-Anschluss Austria. I can’t say I liked the book all that much, but I was utterly fascinated by it and I enjoyed wrestling with its slippery politics. You can read my essay, along with many other wonderful pieces, here.

A Wreath of Roses and Blaming—Elizabeth Taylor

These are two of the best books I read this year, but they’re wrapped up in guilt for me because I promised someone a piece about them and never delivered. (Not yet, anyway…. I still want to, though!) I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Taylor, but these are the best of the bunch. Blaming (1976), her last book, is about what happens to a middle-aged woman after the unexpected death of her husband. It manages to be both rueful and acerbic. A Wreath of Roses (1949) is a masterpiece and if it were in print in the US I would have taught it this semester for sure. Less histrionic than Bowen’s Heat of the Day but similarly a novel of what the war did to England, it’s also a story of female friendship that earns its epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves. Genuinely haunting: I read it in June and still think about it regularly.

The Secret Place—Tana French

French doesn’t need me to sing her praises. Everyone already knows she’s the best crime writer today. Some thought this latest book—for some unaccountable reason I held off reading it for almost a year—in the Dublin Murder Squad series a falling off, but I adored it. I especially loved the echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. French is such a genius because she writes super suspenseful books that are ultimately about something quite different: they are fascinated to the point of obsession with the idea of friendship—interestingly, romance or sex features hardly at all—especially how friendship intersects with the partnership between detectives. Yet again French proves she writes vulnerable men better than anyone.

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Other good things: Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brilliant essay-memoir and I would have written more about it here but it’s late and I’m tired (the Open Letters piece is good, though); The Hare with Amber Eyes (again, everyone already knows it’s amazing—I most liked a surprising Arkansas connection!); Emma (enjoyed re-reading this and wrote about the experience here and here); bits of Balzac (the last 100 pp of Pere Goriot, which practically had me in tears; the scene in Eugenie Grandet when Eugenie wakes at night to see her father and his servant taking his gold downstairs: hallucinatory); Wilkie Collins (I liked both The Dead Secret and The Law and the Lady). Also, good light reading: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (urban fantasy—smart and funny: read the first two this year and mean to finish the series in 2016); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 books (engaging Norwegian homage to Golden Age crimes, locked room mysteries and the like); Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books (read the first: surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship).

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Reading is a passionately solitary experience, but also a joyously communal one. That’s true (mostly) in my classroom and, increasingly, on social media and the Internet more generally. Sometimes I find the constant stream of books to read that come through my Twitter feed a little daunting, but mostly I’m thrilled to know that so much reading is going on, so vigorously and passionately.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog in 2015, especially those who encouraged me and prompted me to think harder or differently about the books. It is wonderfully strange for me to speak so much with people I haven’t for the most part even met about something so important to me.

Thanks too to those who published me this year, especially the wonderful people at Open Letters Monthly. Here’s to more writing next year, and of course to more reading.

Short Fiction 2015 Weeks 6 & 7: Englander & Lawrence

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.)

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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.

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler - now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler – now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Portrait-Of-Lydia-Sherwood

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.