Sunday, August 21, 2005

Feminist, Reader, Woolf

That's the title of my book. But you'll never be able to read it unless I finish it. I'll be back on September 1 to tell you that it's in the mail. Until then, with the diswasher fixed, I will be happily (?), anxiously ensconced in my closet, listening to Evening Music on WNYC and checking footnotes at night, trying to get to the Public Library during the day to study amidst all the other book-writing New Yorkers.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Burden of the Past

I’m writing this from a long table at the New York Public Library, where, in these waning days before I turn in my manuscript, I’ve decided that it’s time to read W. Jackson Bate’s book, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. To be honest, I had never heard of it until June. After the Woolf conference, I sent a friend a copy of my paper and he recommended the book. My first thought was outrage, a profound and panicked sense of having been cheated: why did no one tell me about this book before? Why, it’s just up my alley and I ought to have known about it! But, of course, I was hearing about it now. And who might have told me about it if not the brilliant friend whose interests overlap with mine?

I’m stubborn, so it’s taken me until now to get to the book. It’s a collection of four lectures, published in 1970 and it’s fascinating. (Well, it’s very good. I am occasionally relying on massive doses of Altoids to keep me going.) Bate, who taught at Harvard for decades and is best known as the biographer of Keats and Pope, thanks Harold Bloom, who was to publish his landmark Anxiety of Influence just a few years later but, unlike Bloom’s, Bate’s book is not burdened by strange classical terms (clinamen anyone?) or heavy-handed psychoanalysis. Instead, he very gently and genially accepts our “belatedness,” our sense that originality is impossible and notes that this feeling was particularly intense for English poets from around 1660-1820, that in those years of neoclassical revival, poets turned away from the unquestioned genius of Shakespeare toward a neoclassical model (imported from France) that seemed to—and did—offer different paths to literary greatness. Part of his point is that we may feel less burdened, less lonely (and he does use that word) if we know that we are not original in fearing that, well, we are not original.

My Woolf book aims to offer a feminist theory of literary influence. I have been trying to write a story of how Woolf came to be without recourse to metaphors of family, so Bate’s distinction between parental and ancestral tradition interests me: I am not sure yet how significant a distinction it is or should be. (I am certainly, explicitly, working against Bloom’s heavily Oedipal model.) As Bate says, so genially, so calmly, in such avuncular (sorry—the familial words are rife) tones,” the ancestral permitted one—by providing a ‘purer,’ more time-hallowed, more conveniently malleable example—even to disparage the parent in the name of ‘tradition.’”

I grew up in a house with many books by Bate; when my grandmother went blind, I inherited copies of my own. So, I knew his name without having read much of him. Then, in 1996 or 1997, I met him. He was quite elderly at the time, and ailing. Our mutual friend, a lively and genial man probably thirty years my senior and thirty years Bate’s junior, tried to interest “Jack” in the fact of a very young professor of English. He looked right through me, asked for more sherry, and then asked, with boyish wonder, if our mutual friend had really seen Macchu Pichu on his recent trip. Not my proudest brush with greatness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Second Language

I’m savoring Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto on the train these days. It took me a while to get interested in it: the premise (inept terrorists take over a Vice Presidential mansion somewhere in South America where a group of international businessmen and politicians have gathered for dinner and an opera recital) was just too contrived for me and the introduction of the characters seemed a little too much like an order of one of each from central casting.

But, Patchett is clearly fascinated by closed communities and when she gets going, she explores them with grace and great sympathy. That’s central to the workings of Patron Saint of Liars (set in a home for unwed mothers) and even in Truth and Beauty, her account of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. There, she lingers over both the claustrophobia of the friendship and the wider cloistered worlds of privileged writers moving from colony to colony, from Provincetown to Bread Loaf to Yaddo to the Bunting. At the heart of all this, I suspect, is a deep fascination with Catholicism in general and monasticism in particular.

I’m not done with the book yet, so won’t (can’t) offer any summary judgment, but I was struck by something in it. Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese CEO and opera fan for whom the party is given, begins to learn Spanish during his captivity. He finds the task much easier than the Italian he had tried to study with the aid of language tapes and libretti at home in Japan and he understands that, with something at stake, in the presence of native speakers of the language, it is far easier to learn.

In itself, this is the banal truism of all language teaching. It struck me because it chimes with what I’ve seen in the life of my own beloved toddler. I speak French. When I was a minute or two pregnant, we went to Paris and I came home with an armload of French children’s books, which I still sometimes read to her, but I am the only person she knows who speaks French. By contrast, everyone at daycare speaks Spanish. Dora speaks Spanish. Mr. Noggin’s friend Henrietta now speaks Spanish. Ask her to count in Spanish, she can get to ten. Ask her to count to ten in French, and she makes up funny sounds: un-duh, twa, tree-ree, shoosh….

Her father explains that that’s because no one she knows speaks French. “Mommy speaks French.” “You do? Does Daddy?” “Well, no.” “Who else?” “Jacques Pepin, Jacques Brel, Jacques Cousteau, Jacques Chirac…” Francophile that I am, I could not, at that moment think of a single French person, male or female, who was not named Jacques. “Does Tree-Ree speak French?”

Ah, Tree-Ree. We’ll have to ask her. But her story, the story of the pretend friend, is still developing and will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, like Patchett’s Mr. Hosokawa, the beloved toddler is sticking to real languages that real people, not just Mommy, speak.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Woolf at Book Coolie

There's a short essay by Lisa Williams, author of Letters to Virgina Woolf and a couple preparatory posts from last week over at the great Book Coolie. Hurrah!

Update:You can find a review of Lisa William's book over at Jai's blog.

Women must weep or prepare for war

Is Cindy Sheehan a contemporary Antigone? In Sophocles’ play and Greek mythology, Antigone defies King Creon’s order and buries her brother. Because she refuses to obey the laws of a usurping king, obeying instead the law of honor, she is buried alive with her brother’s corpse; defying even that indignity, she hangs herself, choosing to control her death rather than die at the hands of a wicked, order-obsessed king.

Sheehan probably will not die in Texas and no one is denying Casey Sheehan a proper burial. But she is defying the President’s desire for order, reminding him that there may be other moral compasses—a mother’s love and grief—beyond his own. Women’s defiance of leaders has often taken this form: an honorable but futile resistance. When Virginia Woolf compared the anti-fascist martyrs of the thirties to Antigone, she was offering high praise.

But in Three Guineas she was also trying to think her way out of the culture that accords only two roles to women, weeping or preparing for war. (The title of this post is the title she gave to the serialized version of Three Guineas in the Atlantic.)

I signed a petition in support of Sheehan over at MoveOn.Org and I’m interested to see that they’re helping her organize a series of candlelight vigils on Wednesday night. I won’t go, though I consider it. Does her being a mother give her the moral authority to stand up to the President? Ariana Huffington and Maureen Dowd seem to think so. Christopher Hitchens, over at Slate, thinks that’s just “sinister piffle.” With characteristic impatience, he writes:
Sheehan has obviously taken a short course in the Michael Moore/Ramsey Clark school of Iraq analysis and has not succeeded in making it one atom more elegant or persuasive. I dare say that her "moral authority" to do this is indeed absolute, if we agree for a moment on the weird idea that moral authority is required to adopt overtly political positions, but then so is my "moral" right to say that she is spouting sinister piffle.

(You can read Sheehan’s own prose—writing is not her strong suit and she’s no Hitchens—over at the Huffington Post [I knew that blog would be good for something…].) So, whether it’s unimpeachable moral authority or sinister piffle, what is it that Cindy Sheehan is doing? She is speaking in a very simple way about grief to the President and, in doing so, she has caught the nation’s attention. I think she is a contemporary Antigone. And, in a sense, this echo speaks to the inevitability of violence and the power of a great story to capture something central about human experience: the combat between individual grief and a leader's sense of order is clearly an old one. Furthermore, her moral authority may not be unimpeachable, but I do think Huffington and Dowd right to emphasize the tremendous significance of her position. Nonetheless, the very familiarity of this figure, the grieving loyal woman makes this a sad day for pacifists and feminists: here we are, in 2005, with an army of men and women, relapsing to rhetoric that Woolf found stale in the 1930s. We still have not found something to replace the gun of those who would go to war.

Friday, August 12, 2005

You are the trailer to my floatie

I’ve always found that sentimental tune, “You are the wind beneath my wings” unbearably mawkish and self-centered. It’s hard to fathom the arrogance of a singer who “can fly higher than the eagle” as long as “you” just do the hard work to keep that singer up in the sky. So imagine my surprise when the beloved toddler announced, “Mama, you’re the trailer to my floatie.”

True, she was sitting in a floatie and I was pushing her around a little bay in the St. Lawrence River. She is, after all, a toddler and thus a crack literalist. But she’d hit on a metaphor for parenthood far more apt than she knew. I decided to make a little list of other metaphors drawn from her world:
  • You are the valve to my sippy cup.
  • You are the satin edge to my blankie.

Alas, like all trailers, I am a disappointing sequel to her beloved originality.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

August 10: 21 days to go

For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For the want of a dishwasher, the book was delayed.

It's still under warranty (hurrah!), but the repairperson from Sears won't arrive until August 19th. Think of me, dining on Chinet and eating pizza until then. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Litblogs & Doris Lessing

Scott (of Conversational Reading) has a nice piece on litblogs over at Rain Taxi (via Genevieve, weeks ago now [and Scott, why no women bloggers on your short list?]) and Bud links to a nice piece from the Wazee Journal (don’t know what that is) about the phenomenon of litblogging from a fellow addict:
But I offer this warning: lit blogs can be addictive. I have found myself awake in my den at 3 a.m., checking my Bloglines blogroll of blogs, hoping for new posts by Rake, GalleyCat, Grumpy Old Bookman, or Bookslut. And experimenting with lit blogs may lead to harder drugs, i.e. the political blogs…

I seldom check my own statistics, but I can tell you that they’ve been stubbornly stable for months (with a giddy-making small uptick last week—welcome to all three of you!), besides, this is a hobby, a pastime. When I was struggling through The Golden Notebook however, I did do a technorati search on Lessing, which led me to Thomas Schminke’s very interesting Withered Fields, a blog that combines philosophy with literature in ways very different from the usual fare on the blogroll. Check it out.

Most amazing of all, though, was the sheer coincidence of it: that, that very week, I could prove that there were two of us reading Lessing’s masterpiece and even copying some of the same passages into our computers. It made for good company during some tough reading and has made, I think, for some good conversation in the comments here. I'm grateful to blogging and to Thomas. If that isn’t a great compensation for slogging through the Lessing, I don’t know what is.

Having his virtual company is almost enough to make me consider blogging more about Lessing. We’ll see how the week goes. (I’m back in the city and a bit dazzled by the gorgeous shoes I saw on the uptown B this morning--on the feet of a woman reading my college's alumnae magazine.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Hello, Dolly!

The mind is a funny thing. After five weeks upstate, we’re heading to The River (St. Lawrence) for a long weekend and then, on Monday, back down to the city. So, this morning, I sat down at my little carrel in the Hamilton College library and something told me I just needed to get a new song on i-tunes. Why the finale, the title track of “Hello, Dolly!”? It took a listen for me to get the message?
“Hello, Dolly!
Well Hello, Dolly,
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…

“Here’s my hat, fellas,
I’m stayin’ where I’m at, fellas
Dolly will never go away again!”

Do you think I’m glad to be going back? Hmm…

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Place names as metaphors

One of this summer’s projects has been to edit a collection of essays by college freshmen (a little in-school journal), so I must credit my student, Ashley Ritchey, for sparking this observation. Her paper on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy” (from Interpreter of Maladies got me going on this track for she notices something really cool: the male lover in the story, turning his mistress into a sex object rather than treating her as a person, takes her to places in Boston that underline the way he looks down on her: The Mapparium, the Nickolodeon.

I lived around Boston for eight years, so those are just names to me: familiar and delicious because I can picture just where they are. But Ashley didn’t know they were real places—to her they were metaphors for the way Dev treats his mistress.

A couple weeks ago, we drove through Herkimer and I saw the Empire Diner, an old, run down but still beautiful stainless steel and neon creation. My husband reminded me that Richard Russo is from these parts, that surely Empire Falls has that very diner as its imaginative origin.

When you don’t know a place and read about it in a novel, the place names become metaphors, lovely little symbols of the text itself. There is always a strange shock to learn that those very names are simply lifted from the spot—not metaphors created by the writer, but little moments of realism in the book. The invention, the imagination, has come first from the small businessperson who named the diner, the movie theater, the café, and then from the writer who chooses one diner over another to best capture the mood of her work.

So, I made a list of places in Seattle that were important to me when I was in high school to see if, from that list alone, I could find a mood or a tone:
  • The Harvard Exit,
  • B&O Espresso,
  • Dick’s,
  • the Neptune,
  • the Guild 45th,
  • the Egyptian,
  • Ezell’s Fried Chicken,
  • Café Counter Intelligence,
  • Baby & Co.,
  • the Star Store,
  • the Deluxe,
  • Volunteer Park,
  • Capitol Hill,
  • the U-Dub,
  • the Last Exit,
  • the Pink Door.

I can see, just from the list, a kind of West Coast hippie imitation in the movie theater names: not muses, like in New York in the old days, but still mythic-sounding. Also, it’s pretty clear, I think, that Dick’s is the burger joint we hung out at—a different mood from other things here. And two places with “Exit” in their name: a tribute, I think, to enthusiasm for highways and a sense that Seattle was the edge of the country. It all sounds very seventies to me, though I was in high school in the early eighties, and like a big hippie hangover—bohemian and a little dirty, homespun.

UPDATE: My father sends along this link: "American Names" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Pretty great. Thanks, Dad!

Elsewhere, over at House of Mirth you can read an interesting interview (and below, a review) with Richard Stern, whose books have been reissued by Northwestern UP.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Links: Summer reading, light and smart

Moorish Girl points us to some interesting articles and book recommendations for thinking more about the psychology of the London bombers, something I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. It puts Brick Lane higher on the tbr pile.

The TLS review of the new Harry Potter book is worth checking out for its charming and intelligent defense of the book and exploration of their dark turn. The new Harry is my present to myself come 9/1.

Having devoured a second Eloisa James novel as a palate cleanser to The Golden Notebook, I enjoyed reading Saralynn’s defense of fantasy fiction. Genre fiction is surprisingly terrific and addictive--I'm sure that's what keeps Jenny Davidson so energetic over at Light Reading.

So, while my reading turns light, Bud’s back from vacation having read a favorite: Howards End. He’s got a lovely reflection on that great book.

Dave's daughter is reading Mark Twain, but don't go to WordMunger for that: go for the vertigo-inducing pics of canyon hiking and his interesting commentary about their time out west.

29 days to go

Over at Moorish Girl, Laila Lalami is planning to begin blogging on Fridays with news about her new book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Her photo, months ago, of the completed manuscript sitting in her printer has stuck in my mind as I count the days before delivering my own. I yearn for that moment of printing all 200 or so pages out and looking at the thick stack. I’ve been working on this book for years now, and, as the end is near, it’s strangely easy to imagine being free of it. At the same time, I’m shocked at how much more I could do, how easy it is to imagine this project stringing out for another summer or two.

But it won’t. September 1 here I come.