Friday, April 29, 2005

Edith Grossman on Don Quixote

[Cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Last night’s lecture was the 49th Annual Fordham University Cervantes Lecture, the first such lecture by a translator and a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote. It was, in short, an evening laden with significance of a symbolic kind. Much of what I have to say will mirror Danielle’s post, but it seems only fitting, in light of the post-modernity of our early modern text, to indulge in such games of mirroring, doubling, reflection, and alteration.

In spite of all the anniversaries we weren’t overwhelmed with pomp. Fifty or sixty people gathered on the twelfth (top) floor of Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to hear Edith Grossman talk. It was engaging, interesting, smart, warm, and, at the same time, fierce. In the end, the most interesting subject that emerged from the evening was the beautiful, utopian paradox of translation. She believes, at one and the same time, that a translator’s job is fidelity to the literary text and that a translation is, in itself, an original work of art.

In the question period, someone (Danielle, as it turns out!) pressed her to explain how both of these things could be true and she began by saying that part of being human was being able to dwell in contradiction, but, in fact, this question and her not being troubled by it, pulled the whole evening together for me. She began her talk with an epigraph from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “It is impossible to say a thing exactly as it was…Too many flavors in the air and on the tongue. Half colors. Too many.” And throughout she spoke eloquently, plead, really, on behalf of translation as an art, as an endeavor worthy of respect.

She spoke, too, of the special anxieties of translating Cervantes—of the overwhelming amount of scholarship on the text, the many existing English translations, the huge gap in time—the special aids she used, not being able to call upon a native speaker of 17th century Spanish, including a photocopy of a friend’s English-Spanish dictionary from 1623. She decided that, famous as the first line of the novel is (as famous among Spanish speakers, she said, as the opening of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy), if she could translate it to her satisfaction, she would be all right. She read the line in Spanish and then how she’d done it and it seemed clear, even to this sorry ear, that she’d done it just right.

The question and answer session was lively, friendly, and informative. I occasionally thought that she was worried that a Cervantes scholar might attack but, in fact, that never happened: the questions were civil and engaged. I asked her what her desk looks like and that seemed to be as alarming as anything. “Are you from the neatness police?” Au contraire! So, she described a huge surface with two pull out shelves, one for each of her two most trusted dictionaries. For me, that was one of the treats of the evening, to be able to imagine the translator at work. Again and again, she demonstrated the fierce love of literature that drove her to create this utterly original, totally faithful text that we’re so enjoying. She reminded me of a lion, maybe the lions at the Public Library: noble, brilliant, proud, and lethal if wronged. I came away with a newfound respect for her and hunger to catch up on my reading.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

More Dangarembga: Mother's Day

One week after meeting Tsitsi Dangarembga at the PEN lunch, I snuck away and went to her film at the African Film Festival this afternoon. It was shown with “Keepers of Memory,” a documentary commemorating the Rwandan genocide of 1994. (You can find the program, with synopses of both films at the link above--scroll down.)

At lunch, Dangarembga called herself a storyteller more than a writer and this is her third film. (Nervous Conditions is her only novel, though she has written poetry and is at work on a second novel.) It is also her directorial debut (she wrote the story for the other two). She spoke of the ways in which the collaboration of films balances with the intense solitude of writing. She said that film can do things that writing can’t. When pressed, she told a devastating anecdote: filming a story about land reform in Zimbabwe, she sent a New Zealander friend (presumably white) to film a white farmer talking about his experiences. With camera rolling, he gestured to an elderly, stooped black woman: “See her? She’s really funny. Watch!” Then, to the woman, “Dance, Ma, dance!” Of course, the poor woman does. Dangarembga laughed bitterly at the gruesome display of a white man’s power and domination, performed happily for the camera, without shame. She spoke about how, writing something like this down, one—she—is likely to be accused of reverse racism; filming it takes away that possibility. We see the situation for what it is.

Having heard this, even having read the program notes saying that “you have never seen anything like” Dangarembga’s Mother’s Day/Kare Kare Zvako, I wasn’t prepared for the intense, emotionally dazzling short (twenty-five minute) film I saw today. You can stop reading here if you don’t want it spoiled, but frankly, I cannot do it justice and, worse than that, I fear that prints of Zimbabwean short films are not easy to come by even in these rich days.

The film, in Shona with English and French subtitles (one right above the other) is a beautiful, devastating fable about motherhood and hunger. It opens with a young mother listlessly feeding live termites to her baby. The father arrives, impatiently jostling the child. “The baby cries because it is hungry,” she tells him, and we know this is an old fight, a fight brought on by the parched earth around them. She tells him she has no milk because she, too is starving, and they part in anger. She gathers more termites and roasts them. We next see her portioning out small handfuls of the insects to each of her three older children and then offering to tell them a story about how the ancestors once survived an even greater drought.

What follows is the fable, but that’s deliberately unclear until the very end. What we see is the father returning home, demanding food, demanding the children’s food as his right. The mother snatches the food back from him, returning it to her children—a bold and untraditional move, an angry and desperate one. She tells him to be a man and bring food home. He leaves. Later, he comes, wakes her and tells her she won’t believe his good fortune, for truly he has found something beyond belief.

Night has fallen and, at the termite hill, a group of dancers in beautiful termite masks emerge and dance an incantatory dance. They reappear from time to time to mark some of the more fantastic moments in this fable. Now, the mother follows the father and we, like her, disbelieve. There is nothing but bleak dryness in the landscape, all shot very close. No vistas relieve our sight. The most impressive thing we see, besides the isolated rock formation in which the family has nestled their mud hut and outdoor hearth, is the six-foot tall termite hill where the family gets its food. This is not a landscape to sustain a rabbit or antelope or frog let alone a lion or a human being.

It is a trap. He tells her to look just over the rise and she falls to her death, impaled by the stakes he's placed in a hole. He takes her home to make her into a stew; the children looking on in numb, hungry horror. This cowardly, selfish man, afraid of death, is unequal to the tasks of gathering up his wife’s body and cooking it. Each time he must do something and cannot, he turns to the children. They sweetly sing something more or less like this:
Mother, mother, we are your children.
We love you and sing to you.
Please do our father’s bidding.
Help him do this thing.

The actress then rises and sings of love and cooperation, dancing sweetly, sexily, joyously with her husband, seeming to cook or skip home. Then, she collapses, dead. Again and again we are tormented with the vision of this beautiful mother—what she could have been with just a little food, just a little more help, what she wanted to be for her children. Each time she dies, the children’s skin is a little duller, their lips a bit drier, their frowns a bit deeper. But, once again, the father turns to them and says, “Children, do it again, bring your mother back.” When he butchers her, she sings a mournful song about how the blows of the axe hurt less than the knowledge of who wields it, we see each swing and then we cut to the actress on bloody stumps, buried to her chest, to her neck, finally, the head kicked aside. The gothic low-budget special effects work because the acting is so sweetly amazing.

When he eats her, his stomach swells and swells and we hear the mother’s sweet singing, mournfully, sacredly reminding her children that she should not be blamed for having loved a bad man, that she would never abandon them. He lies back, plagued with terrible pains. His stomach bursts and the mother emerges from his dust to embrace her shocked and delighted children.

The camera then closes in on the mother’s tear-stained face and we hear, “Mama, mama, tell us again how that story about the famine ends.” Credits roll. The end.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Blushing Furiously

Emma ... produced the portfolio containing her various attempts at portraits, for not one of them had ever been finished … Her many beginnings were displayed. Miniatures, half-lengths, pencil, crayon, and water-colours had been all tried in turn. She had always wanted to do everything ... She played and sang;--and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.

Reading Jane Austen’s Emma, propped up in my bed at home, the summer before college, is one of my most intense reading memories. It was not a pleasure: to want to be Elizabeth Bennett and find that one is, after all, Emma Woodhouse, is not a welcome realization; it is, however, a useful one.

Twenty years later, I read it with different eyes. I’m more patient with her; her faults are clearer and more charming. But, alas, they are also still mine.

Amardeep Singh at the Valve, links to a great story about how one woman tracked down one footnote in another Austen novel: her story is a really riveting and fun story of academic detective work. I will say, too, that the Valve is moving in a more promising, rich, direction these days: more correspondents and merrier, too.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Remedy for Maladies

Since the election—or perhaps the war, or perhaps September 11--I’ve let go of my Pollyannish ways. It just no longer seemed, as it so long did, that the world was getting better for the most part; things seemed quite clearly to be getting worse, at every level, every day. (I am amused to see that I share this preoccupation of trying to gauge a barometric reading of the state of the world—Improving? Worsening?—with the protagonist of Saturday.)

As ever, though, the state of the world at my local seems to buck the trend. My local revives the Pollyanna in me. Crushed under the weight of grading, I planted myself there for a full four hours today. Deep into a set of papers, I suddenly realized that I was grading a set of papers on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, almost all of which optimistically plot a multicultural future, one in which young people cheerfully choose which bits of their tradition to follow, which to reject. These papers, mostly very smart, are also more optimistic than either the wonderful stories or the bits of theory we read together as a class. As I was grading, I was sitting next to a white civil engineer for the state of New Jersey talking to an Indian-American contractor about how they were going to repave my street. Their merry joshing of each other, their happy assurances, even, eventually, their interest in what I was doing, where I taught, seemed to confirm my students’ optimism.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Why is grading so painful?

Why is the prospect of thirty-five papers to correct so deeply depressing? Why does it move me to file my nails, clean the bathroom, anything? Partly, it’s that it’s required reading: no one likes that. Though I visit Conversational Reading, Light Reading, and the Reading Experience, and though I own the Best American Non-Required Reading (one volume, anyway), I don’t go to Required Reading. Who would? Partly, it’s the painful lurch into someone else’s mind, the suspicion that that someone may not have spent much time trying to articulate her thoughts, that her thoughts may consist largely in a pale parody of my own (under that sad misapprehension that this will please me most).

In fact, once I get reading, the papers (mostly produced by freshmen for a required course in writing or, this semester, literature) are charming, interesting, even, occasionally, good. But then there’s the problem of grading them: not assigning the grade. I know how to do that now and don’t waiver as much as I once did. What troubles me is that sense that now, at this last possible moment of teaching, I cannot write the comment that will help the student move forward and, if I could, she would not read it.

I think grading is so painful because it makes us confront the painful mystery of what it means to teach.

But the brevity of this entry (relatively speaking) is its own kind of victory: back to the stack.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I was not sorry when my brother died.

That is the first line of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s brilliant 1988 novel, Nervous Conditions. It tells the story of a younger sister in a poor Rhodesian family (just before Zimbabwean Independence) who gets the education promised her brother upon his death. It’s a brilliant coming of age story about the quest for education in a late colonial/postcolonial context. I adore it. So I leapt at the chance to go to a lunchtime conversation with her as part of the PEN festival.

It was an almost sacred, moving experience for me: so great, so rapturous, so thrilling that it’s hard to write about.

Lunch was at India House, just off Wall Street. About forty people were there—five tables of eight. The host, Yvette Christianse, teaches with me, so she was kind enough to introduce me not only to Tsitsi but also to both Achmat Dangor, the other interviewee, and Anne Landsman, who was there as a guest. Typical of me, I was too star-struck and shy to sit at the empty spot at Dangarembga’s table—so great is she, that perhaps I didn’t deserve the chair—but did get to sit at Dangor’s and that was it’s own treat. He is working in Geneva for UN AIDs relief and was with his wife and editor. We talked about many, many things and had a lovely time.

We ate, Yvette interviewed the writers, they each read, and then I went up with my copy of the book. I was really wobbly. I told her that I was embarrassed to admit how very much it meant to me to meet her, not only for myself as an admirer of her great book but also on behalf of the hundred or so students to whom I’d taught it. Those students, I told her, were in college in a village in Indiana; for them, Africa was a blank. Then, they read this wonderful book about a girl from a village in Africa who’s hungry for education and all kinds of things became real to them. My eyes were full of tears. She was lovely and circumspect and polite and thanked me and said, you see, we really can connect, can’t we?

Yes, we can, I said. And you did it.


(Next Wed: Her film at Walter Reade, Lincoln Center, NYC. She’s one of the only African women making movies. Go!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

David Copperfield?! My Dad will be so proud...

You're David Copperfield!

by Charles Dickens

Coming up from a childhood that felt abusive, you have risen through hard work to gain a place of stature in your life. You've spent altogether too much time in factories and end up misspelling a fair number of words. But in general you are seen as a beacon of hope for others who might not be as fortunate. Lots of people keep mistaking you for a magician and are waiting for you to disappear.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Cervantes' Marcela

[Cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Read this as a comment on Jason Pettus’s inspiring and wonderfully rich post from 400 Windmills, because it builds on my sense, too, of what he calls “Marcela's wonderfully candid and surprisingly feminist monologue at Grisostomo's funeral.” Marcela tempts us with an answer a perennial question of any literature from another place or time: would there have been a spot for me in this world? What might it have looked like? In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf comments on the vast gulf between the women in fiction and those whose lives appear in history:
Certainly, if we consider it, Cleopatra must have had a way with her; Lady Macbeth, one wouldsuppose, had a will of her own; Rosalind, one might conclude, was an attractive girl….But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
Where Woolf contrasts history with literature, Cervantes crams an analogous contrast into this one episode.

Grisostomo, a nobleman turned shepherd, has died of unrequited love; men from all over, including Don Quixote, attend his funeral, which becomes an occasion to contemplate and reaffirm the values of courtly love. Then she appears, a noblewoman turned shepherdess (and the source of this sudden pastoral vogue among the local gentry), more radiant than ever, with a starkly logical speech:
For if his impatience and rash desire killed Grisostomo, why should my virtuous behavior and reserve be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the company of trees, why should a man want me to lose it if he wants me to keep it in the company of men? As you know, I have wealth of my own and do not desire anyone else’s; I am free and do not care to submit to another. (Grossman 100)
Hers is a moving bit of eloquence. She certainly belongs to a recognizable type of woman—a chaste Diana for whom choosing virtue means renouncing society. Such characters, when they speak, do not become any less idealized, they merely shift the grounds of our idealization: seeming to confirm her own perfection, she dashes all hope of possession; initially idealized for beauty and virtue, she is subsequently idealized for right reason and a kind of weird secular cloistral nature. Moved, the men present still desire to follow her,
Seeing this, Don Quixote thought it an appropriate time to put his chivalry into practice by coming to the aid of a maiden in distress. (101)
This is a wonderful comic deflation of Marcela’s feminist triumph. The text lets her get away into a less confining genre than romance—she disappears into the woods. Nonetheless, no matter how eloquently she show herself unwilling to be cast as “maiden in distress,” for Quixote and the others, there is no other role.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Questionable Charity

I remember being taught in graduate school to see sentimentalism as unethical: we read 18th century accounts of gentlemen traveling to see mad people, tramps, and unfortunate rustics (leech-gatherers, solitary herdsmen, the whole Wordsworthian crew) and then learned the anti-sentimental critique. Surely my professors were right to teach me of the innate hypocrisy and condescension in people who seek out sights (and sites) of misery on which to exercise their sympathy. Such people are not working for social change but only angling to make themselves feel better. (I once heard an activist recount his dismay at the student who said her work at a local soup kitchen had transformed her. “I just hope it’s still here when my children come to college, so they can have the same opportunity,” she gushed.) This questionable charity is even the subject of my husband’s brilliant and thoughtful book about how Americans, at the turn of the last century, dealt with the tangles of charity and complicity.

Knowing all this, then, why is it that each Sunday night finds me eagerly awaiting ABC’s Extreme Home: Makeover Edition? Have you seen it? It’s a reality show in which a picturesquely troubled family gets their ramshackle home completely renovated in a week. (ABC sends them on vacation.) The families have autistic children or are expecting triplets or have lost a parent (or both parents) to violent or tragic deaths or have adopted children with special needs. These are all very good people on the margins of the middle class and the cute carpentry team swoops in and gives them indoor plumbing and makes sure each child has a nauseating theme bedroom (if the boy wants to be an architect, he will end up with a protractor footboard for sure).

I’m unsettled by the ethics of this. I have come to think the anti-sentimental view too harsh—individual stories of how charity touches lives do matter. Habitat for Humanity and Heifer and Save the Children and other legitimate, worthy charities operate on just this principle. And there is something undeniably moving about seeing people’s worries lifted: “We’ve paid off your mortgage! And that’s not all, Sears [the whole show is an ad for Sears] has put thousands of dollars into your daughter’s college fund! But wait, moved by your work with AIDs orphans, Sir Elton John donated this new GRAND PIANO!!! Now you can play again!!” In the end, I guess this is merely reality t.v. and complicit with all the evils of the genre, only less so. (And I am not one to say that being less complicit makes something worse; I can’t stand all the cicada-eating in Fear Factor and have never watched more than a few seconds.) It is not taxing to watch and lets me be an 18th century sentimental tourist without having to even visit an unpleasant spot.

In other news:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

I discovered Persephone Books last summer in London and fell in love. This small publishing house, run by Nicola Beauman, reprints forgotten works by twentieth-century women writers (there are a few titles by men in the collection). The books are gloriously gorgeous and the shop, in Bloomsbury, is housed in the storefront that used to be Virginia Woolf’s grocer’s. What’s not to love? Serena Trowbridge’s May 2004 review includes some images of the books: you have to see how truly gorgeous they are (scroll down). The series has also been reviewed at Chicklit and Bookslut. You can see more images by hunting around Persephone’s site.

The dove grey paperbacks all have grey jackets and vivid endpapers based on vintage textiles. At ten pounds a piece, they’re expensive (especially these days), but I went for the deal: three books for twenty-seven. I finally read my first one, the very slim Julia Strachey novella, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding this week.

What a lovely little discovery! This 1932 book, a cross between Mansfield and Stella Gibbons, is darkly comment and closely observed. It tells the story of a chilly country wedding on one of those clear, surprisingly brisk English days. While the mother bustles around noting the cheerful weather of the title and an ex-boyfriend sulks in the front hall, the bride clumsily prepares for her nuptials. It is a wedding that should not be, but I won’t spoil it: this little book can be read in an afternoon & the foreword by Strachey’s lifelong friend Frances Partridge is a gem in itself.

But the writing:
  • When Joseph threatens to talk anthropology, the bride’s mother casts about, frantically, “Bring me that lamp-shade lying on the window-seat there! I’d like to show everybody! It is a wedding present from Dodo Potts-Griffiths, just sent over by the chauffeur. She made the whole thing entirely by herself, painted it, put it together, and everything, and it really is so cheerful and pretty!”[Dodo Potts-Griffiths! That takes guts—perfect!]
  • Dolly knew, as she looked round at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women, too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was steadily going forward.
  • He was a tiny little boy. As for his features, they were so small they could hardly be seen, bunched up together as they were in the middle of his face, like the currants in a penny bun when they all run into the centre together for some reason. [Great and gutsy and hilarious, too: this is a baking problem that I’ve wondered about and it seems to almost derail the simile, going on and on about the problem of imperfectly spread currants…]
So wonderful to find this gorgeous prose meet the promise of the wrapper.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


That's all I have to say. I'm in their grip.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Choose Your Own Genre

cross-posted from 400 Windmills

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from years ago? “You,” the protagonist, would come upon a cave. What do you do? Enter it: turn to page thirty. Keep climbing the rocky path: turn to page forty-five. In those books, it all ended up being adventure. For this post, I’m interested in a similar theme with Don Quixote but a more profound question: what genre are you in? If Don Quixote were a character in, say a Shakespeare play, he might be a wise-fool or a Duke in exile but not a knight errant. But really, he is more an ordinary reader living in a small town: he would have to wait centuries for his genre’s flowering in, say, Madame Bovary.

Knowing what genre your life is in is a tricky problem for other characters, too. I used to teach my students style using a passage from Forster’s Howards End. In it, the working class autodidact, Leonard Bast, sits in his basement apartment reading Ruskin, wondering if it is possible to adapt Ruskin’s elevated Victorian style to his reduced modern circumstances. I stopped teaching the lesson because I realized I was unsure of the object of the satire. Was Forster mocking social praise of Ruskin or Bast for not knowing his place? I still don’t know: I find Leonard heroic, but I’m not always sure Forster does. There is something a little bit uncomfortable in the portrayal.

Strangely—and perhaps because his delusion is so much greater—I’m much more struck by the heroism of Don Quixote’s error than its inappropriateness. There is something magnificently brave (perhaps we should cue “The Impossible Dream” here and let is swell over my natterings) about insisting on the right to choose your own genre.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Dora at CMoM

When I was growing up in Seattle, I felt the kind of ache for New York that Garrison Keillor regularly describes as his own. True, I was not in rural Minnesota, glued to a radio. In fact, I had a happy, rich childhood with wonderful friends and a smart, supportive family. Still, melodramatically, I imagined myself barred from culture by a couple major mountain ranges and the Great Plains beyond. Seattle in the seventies and early eighties was different: there was a single Starbucks, a tiny computer company, a big airplane company: no Red Hook or Amazon; Kurt Cobain was an unknown from the unimaginable burbs; and I had a crush on a boy who played soccer with a boy named Stone. I hung out with Dave Munger and dreamed of making it big, somehow. I read the cartoons in The New Yorker (I won’t pretend to more) until I understood most of them and devoured each new issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview.

Now, a billion years later, I’m here, more or less, and with a salary, more or less. I imagined this as a moment of endless dinner parties with the cool, intellectual, NPR kind of celebrities (ones who are glamorous and surprisingly intelligent or smart and surprisingly kind), of gallery openings, (so tedious, darling!), and readings. Or at least, of a few plays and some trips to the museum. I’m more confident than I was as a visitor in my teens and twenties, more independent, and have more resources (capital and otherwise). So, imagine my surprise when I found myself setting off on Sunday morning for the sole cultural event of the week: The Dora the Explorer Exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.
Mention Spanish explorers to adults, and they'll probably recall old history lessons about Cortez and Ponce de Leon. But to preschoolers, only one Hispanic explorer matters, and she's not even grown up: Dora, the 7-year-old star of Nickelodeon's animated series "Dora the Explorer." Dora is no imperialist, but she has conquered vast numbers of young hearts. And now she's taken over the second floor of the Children's Museum of Manhattan.
Laurel Graeber wrote that in the Times of 12/10/04. I can attest that it’s a delightful, walk-through advertisement for a very sweet television show. I’m not very clear on how it belongs in a museum, however. And the Dr. Seuss exhibit on the first floor did little more to clarify my sense of the place. It is a very odd playground for toddlers. Still, my beloved toddler was happy, happy, happy for nearly two hours. “What shall we do next, Mama?”

I thought about the girl I was, poring over New York magazines, dying to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, as I watched my beloved toddler dancing, over and over again, to a tinny recording of Dora and her best friend, Boots the monkey, singing “We did it! We did it!” Aww.

Then I went home and began lobbying for a babysitter for next weekend.

"Dora the Explorer," at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, the Tisch Building, 212 West 83rd Street, (212) 721-1223. Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $8; 65+, $5.

Friday, April 08, 2005


Since the brouhaha in the Guardian lamenting the abundance timid, domestic women writers and the lack of (manly?) risk-taking ones, I’ve been thinking a lot about recklessness in writing. If great writing is writing without a net, writing that surprises and shocks, then how can we encourage more great writing—to be read, to be written?

Some, mostly in the New York Times, it seems, have been saying that the lightness, the self-referentiality, the parasitic journalism, and the ubiquity of litblogs feeds into a culture of mediocrity. But this (what I write here at Fernham, what my virtual friends, colleagues, and blogging heroes write) is a different kind of writing than great writing. Somewhere between reviewing and a salon, I would say that litblogs form a deep backdrop from which genius and greatness can emerge: we can look for it, tell each other about it, and, in the face of goofiness and mediocrity (which we’ll gleefully tease and expose), continue to encourage each other to read. Developments like 400 Windmills, The Valve (in spite of my reservations about it) and the LitBlog Coop bode well for continuing a conversation that, too often, doesn’t happen in our newspapers or elsewhere.

As for my own writing, I think that blogging has encourages a kind of recklessness: revising my chapter for my writing group, I felt free to move huge chunks around, felt able to bang out long readings of passages, felt less afraid of the blank page not only because I’m in practice but because I’m in practice in public (small but public still) a few days a week. But then, I’m not sure of the relationship between recklessness, craft, and genius. Great writing takes risks, but, do great writers, in taking them, feel reckless or painstaking? Sometimes recklessness is sloppy.

Thus, I was really attracted to this quotation from an interview with Dave Eggers, whose work I like:
I think the Jon Stewart book is really funny, partly because it's totally reckless. I had no idea it'd be that reckless! That and the Onion -- they're funny because they're unbridled; you just don't know when they're going to say "motherfucker" or just jump the rails in some way.
But now, when I read it, it seems to repeat what’s always a little disappointing about Eggers: it’s ultimately immature and unsatisfying. Merry as it is to read his commendations for Jon Stewart (not that he needs more), and nice—better than nice—as it is to laugh, this is a shallow take on a cool idea. Saying “motherfucker” isn’t reckless in 2005; it’s not even shocking. “Jumping the rails” is a cliché, not a rich description of what writing can do. Still, as I said, I like Eggers, and I’d rather read something that jumps the rails than, to mix clichés, something that colors within the lines.

Not reckless but cool: some Friday linkage
Mark Sarvas has pulled together an amazing Literary Blog Coop: bloggers will be recommending one book a quarter for us to pick up, read and consider. Get ready.

I found this on Oprah’s site (via Literary Mama). After a lot of writers talk dutifully about guilt and making time, and setting alarm clocks for 4 am, Toni Morrison writes: "While I was writing, he spit up orange juice on the tablet that I was writing on, and I distinctly remember writing around it, because I thought I had this really perfect sentence that might not come back if I stopped and wiped up his puke."

But all my best links are from Chekhov’s Mistress: first, mark your calendars for this celebration of those odd wonderful NYRB classics and then, while you wait, check out this stunningly moving collection of portraits of writers, the kind of portraits to make one welcome each gray hair, each wrinkle.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Writing Group

I couldn’t post last night because I was with my writing group. There are three of us and we meet once a month to talk about what we’ve written. So far—and this was only our third meeting--we’ve been sharing fairly polished stuff, so the gloves are still on. Gloves or no, this is rapidly becoming one of the best things in my life and you can imagine why.

There are three of us, all about the same age, all teaching lots and lots of writing and literature classes, all women, all working hard to keep writing even during the semester. We like each other a lot and we love being in New York. But after that, there are lots of differences, enough to keep us happily entertained with the living of vicarious lives through one another.

We’re from the West Coast, the Midwest, and the Upper East Side. One of us lives alone and has a great boyfriend, one is married with a beloved toddler, and one lives with a longterm partner. One of us is writing, fiction one, criticism, the third, essays. One of us is reserved, the other two garrulous.

We meet in the elegant and dinky apartment of the single woman and drink lots of wine and eat wonderful food, including, this week, as a treat, a miniature quiche from Payard that restored my faith in both quiche and convenience food as a delicacy. We drink and gossip and eat and then, taking turns, go through one another’s pieces. We begin at 6. By 10:30, it’s time to head home, tipsy, delighted, inspired, exhausted. Never has the incredible slog from the Upper East Side to Jersey City seemed so fine.

A couple links worth checking out: I found this “Talking To” site (from the Times of London. It’s not active anymore, but it’s fascinating. Back in 2000, you could write in with your question for one of a handful of famous writers (Shakespeare, Woolf, Austen, Dickens) and a scholar would answer it in that writer’s voice, with quotations from his or her life. The questions are sweet and absurd and the answers seem pretty accurate.

Then, via the beloved (and especially hilarious lately somehow) Gawker, this from the Observer: a mock masthead for the masthead-averse New Yorker.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The worst truth about the engine

(that's what the valve knows)

I was interested to read, via Amardeep Singh, about the new group blog, The Valve. Surprised, too, to find some friends and acquaintances there. I think it’s promising, but somehow it makes me feel flat, too and I’m not quite sure why.

By contrast, I was really excited to read the Bloggers Interview on the Emerging Writers Forum (via Chekhov’s Mistress). What’s the difference?

The Valve is a group of people pondering (in individual entries) how to do literary criticism; the individual bloggers are just doing it. None of these people are theoryheads, though many of them are well-versed in literary theory and have a lot of respect for the best that theory has to offer a critic (guidance, perspective, an idea or standard against which to judge a work of art). In the case of all these writers, what attracts me is the clear love of reading that remains their central motivation. Part of my skepticism about the Valve comes from its sponsorship by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. But why the skepticism? With an epigraph from the great iconoclast Empson and Christopher Ricks (the Tennyson scholar who loves Dylan) and Rosanna Warren (the translator and also daughter of Robert Penn Warren). In short, these are my kind of people, but I don’t want to be part of their club.

Partly I hesitate because I fear that their loud proclamations of loving literature come from too narrow an aesthetic: there’s a kind of young fogeyism about them that I don’t find in the bloggers. Also because I remember they began in protest over the evils of the MLA: that's an inbred political origin and seems at odds with the anti-political readings of literature they advocate. Knowing all the dangers and limitations of identity criticism, I still want to know that there is a place for women, for feminists, for writers of color, for writers from other social classes. And I mistrust myself and others enough to find that it can be helpful just to run a quick check: are we being as diverse as we hope to be?

Moreover, I fear the ALSC folks are institutionalizing idiosyncrasy where the bloggers are just exhibiting it. Nonetheless, it may be the case that the Valve transcends the limitations of its sponsoring organization. The recent post on the relative neglect of Charles Chesnutt (on account, it’s suggested, of his gentility), however, is as much about the sad state of academic politics and political correctness as it is about teaching us what’s ultimately really cool and rich about The Marrow of Tradition (a great book).

In Three Guineas, Woolf proposed an Outsider’s Society and then, upon the publication of the pamphlet was somewhat alarmed to receive letters from folks seeking to join. I think much of my hesitation comes from a reluctance to join. The Bloggers interview asks us to join nothing, just to read. That, I find inspiring.

Monday, April 04, 2005

One more round of Byron

Stories about being drunk are usually better than being drunk. I have some favorite stories of my own, but don’t hope to be that drunk ever again. I remember asking what “bed spins” were, one college Thanksgiving, and then, later that night, experiencing them all too vividly. Horrible! Even so, this one, from Byron, is good enough to make me want to pick up the bottle. It has all the elements of a great undergraduate drinking anecdote: the pleading friends, the stubborn drunk, the fear of danger, and then, the happy ending.
One night Scope Davies at a Gaming house—(before I was of age) being tipsy as he mostly was that the Midnight hour--& having lost monies—was in vain intreated by his friends one degress less intoxicated than himself to come or go home.--In despair—he was left to himself and to the demons of the dice-box.—Next day—being visited about two of the Clock by some friends just risen with a severe headache and empty pockets—(who had left him losing at four or five in the morning) he was found in a sound sleep—without a nightcap--& not particularly encumbered with bed-cloathes—a Chamber-pot stood by the bedside--brim-full of--Bank Notes!—all won—God knows how—and crammed—Scrope knew not where—but there they were—all good legitimate notes—and to the amount of some thousand pounds.--
Glorious, hilarious victory. Very nice indeed.

In the end, however, it was hard to read the final years of Byron’s Selected Letters and Journals. I had wondered how Byron scholars so confidently announced that part of his decision to volunteer to fight for Greece came out of his deep disaffection with his life in Italy as a cavalier servente (the acknowledged, serving lover of a married woman). His Detached Thoughts of 1821-22 make that disaffection painfully clear. Even the above anecdote is not as rollicking as it would be in a letter. The spirit is all drained out of him and the writing really suffers.

Then, the letters from Greece (where he died of a blood infection in 1824 at the age of 37) are very odd: officious, hasty, full of orders and requests (for money, loans, information) all to finance the Greek independence movement. It all seems a rather pathetic tumble into accidental martyrdom. I prefer Byron in Venice: pointless and more pointed.