Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:

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1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.

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Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?

Teaching Rhys

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I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.

Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.

Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.

In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.

In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:

Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).

The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.

By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.

What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).

One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.

Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:

Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.

They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.

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Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:

She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:

The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.

Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?

Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:

 I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.

You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)

Some similar examples:

Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.

After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write

I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.

Or, finally, this description of depression:

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.

Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.

It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:

She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…

How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.

Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.

When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.