Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cowper footnotes

Reading a few William Cowper (1731-1800) poems the other day in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, I came across the following footnote: “Cowper exercised his hares on his parlor carpet of Turkey red.”

Well, there is a lot about Cowper that I don’t know, but, reading these lines from “Epitaph on a Hare”:
A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound
I could have figured out that this domesticated rabbit, now dead, used to run around on a Turkish carpet.

Why on earth note this?

Or, on the next page, “Puss, the longest-lived of Cowper’s three hares.”

There is so much else that I would love to know, there are things I know that I think other readers might take an interest in. But this is an old Norton (1975), from the new critical days where biography and history were anathema: there are no historical footnotes, no biographical notes. Most of the footnotes identify classical and Biblical allusions. Fair enough. But one of these storied editors must have been an animal lover…

Monday, July 28, 2008


In the fall of 1922, Woolf was working on the very first bit of Mrs. Dalloway. She was also reading Ulysses and spending time talking about it with T. S. Eliot. Twice in her diaries that season, she offers accounts of conversations with Eliot about how Joyce is a genius, but Ulysses, in Eliot’s opinion, does not capture life as fully or richly as War and Peace. (Woolf herself was ambivalent about Ulysses, ultimately finding it inadequate.)

There is a lot to think about in this constellation of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and Tolstoi (as Woolf spelt it). Of most immediate interest for me is how it might build on our understanding of Mrs. Dalloway. This, as much as any small literary allusion or biographical note, is the big challenge of creating an edition, it seems to me. How to get that intellectual context and texture into my introduction?

Here, then is a tiny start. I read Bob Kiely’s riff on the title, Mrs. Dalloway with great admiration: how, in titling her novel after a married woman’s public name, Woolf announces her departure from the tradition of the novel which tends to use either women’s first names only (Clarissa, Pamela, Amelia, Emma) or men’s whole names (Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy). Such a practice reinscribes marriage as the end of women’s lives by showing the assumption that the woman’s surname will change. Building on that, then, and returning to Tolstoy, I am reminded of Anna Karenina as well as of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, two novels about adultery which break the English title tradition and end with the heroine’s death. Mrs. Dalloway is every bit as big a novel, but its events, insofar as Mrs. Dalloway is concerned, are thoughts: thoughts about romantic possibilities passed by and death, not adultery and suicide.

In that, I think Woolf shows how she tried to navigate the channel between the raw meat of Tolstoi (her expression, her sense that really only the anemic Eliot could rate Tolstoi so highly) and the empty undergraduate genius of Joyce (again, as she saw it). That is, Mrs. Dalloway is an attempt to write a psychological novel that matters, to use stream-of-consciousness not as an end in itself but to give an account of real consequence all the while avoiding the simplistic equation of consequence with event.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I am reading for the footnotes for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. Meanwhile, my husband is reading Levinas and drafting a new chapter of a book down the hall. The problem? Woolf is always reading Apuleius or Thackeray or The Princess of Cleves and my spouse reads, as I said, Levinas, while, for my part, I am combing over the dregs of Woolf.

For the first time in ages, I tire of her. I tire of being so much in her head. I grow bored of having only her rattling about in my head. I spent an hour reading Ovid last night: that is certainly a welcome change. And then, when insomnia struck at midnight, another hour with the thrilling Agent Zigzag. I begin to feel less mad, less claustrophobic.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Motherhood, again: the Dolphin

As I said, I can see that I’m getting better at this motherhood thing, 5 ½ years into it, but I still get tripped up. The latest comedy was down in Great Aunt Mary’s pool with her grandson (11) and a bunch of his friends from across the bay.

The deep end was full of big kids, noodles, floaties, yelling. I was in the shallow end supervising my little life-jacketed darlings. I watched their fascinated gaze upon children doing cannonballs, pencil dives, and playing Marco Polo. Visions of future mischief danced across their little faces. Then, one of them found a little plastic dolphin, about the size of a small squirt gun.

“Fish,” said the little one.

“Dolphin,” I supplied.

“Do-fin,” she repeated.

I took it. A fine toy, a realistic dolphin. I squeezed its belly. The valve in its mouth was cleverly made so that the usual squeak was replaced by a realistic dolphin noise. By varying the pressure and duration of the squeeze, you can make it seem to speak. A veritable Flipper.

I showed the girls how to do it. The loved it.

The noise was earsplitting.

They were delighted.

As we left, I asked the little one to give the dolphin back.

“Oh no, I gave it to her. She can have it,” says the mother of the 11-year-old.

“Really? Thank you.” SQUEAK. SQUEAK. SQUEAK. “That noise sure is loud.”


Maybe when I have an 11-year-old, I will be able to fob off the dolphin on the unsuspecting mother of young children with equal aplomb…

Friday, July 25, 2008


The routine may be ideal, but the devil is in the details.

In the abstract, I do a great job knowing that I am a fine mother, that I am making good decisions about balancing my time with my girls and my writing. But every day presents a pang, a moment of real doubt and grief. I long to be free of these feelings.

What to do, for example, about swim lessons?

The town pool is 20 minutes away. Lessons are in the morning, cutting into prime writing time. But the big girl is 5 ½ and needs to learn to swim.

For the first session, the lessons were full, so we didn’t pursue it. I worked on my writing and tried to teach a bit of this or that during our afternoon time in the River. But little girls don’t like to learn from their mommies. They are so dependent on us for so many things, the last thing they need is our telling them “You can’t float if you don’t put your head back! Tummy to the sky! I’ve got you. Just jump in! Blow bubbles. Kick! Kick! Don’t forget to kick, honey!”

The second session began on Monday. I spent Sunday brooding. I called the pool. Session two was full, too, but lots and lots of kids hadn’t showed up for session one, so I could call back in the afternoon.

Thus, everyday at 11, I drive to the pool, tense with resentment and the sense of interruption, to watch my daughter try to get through a half-hour long swim lesson without getting her head wet. I turn the music up loud both ways and we sing.

I know that this is precisely the right compromise: I got enough work under my belt in our first two weeks here to make the interruptions now less painful. I know that she needs the lessons. I adore her. I have such happy memories of the swim lessons in Lake Washington that my mom got for us when we were little girls. And, of course, I would never want to be the kind of mom who didn’t give her daughter swim lessons because she was too busy working on her book.

Still….well, as I said before, the devil is in the details: the decisions may be rationally utterly right, but the feelings are strong and confusing.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I’ve been reading Tayari and Lauren’s accounts of their retreats with interest and pleasure. I love reading stories of isolation, productivity, and renewal. That is one of the pleasures, too, of reading Woolf’s letters and diaries as I have been: reading the accounts of her youthful jaunts to Cornwall to work for a week or two on The Voyage Out, of her middle aged weeks at her and Leonard’s country house in Rodmell.

We are just over halfway done with our time up on the St. Lawrence. I have only finished one book since my arrival: volume one of Woolf’s letters. On that score, and by most other measures, this has not been as immensely productive as I might have hoped it to be. Still, we have a lovely routine and I know that I feel less jangled than I would were I down in the Jersey City swamps for the whole summer.

Three mornings a week, I start the morning off with exercise: I had been running but now that the races (2—one 15K and one 10K!) are over, I have gone kayaking twice.

Our babysitter, recommended by the high school guidance counselor, is a gem: a farmer’s daughter and honor student, swimmer and equestrian, she has all the coltish confidence of one of Emerson’s boys sure of his supper. She arrives each morning at 8:30 and plays with the girls at my mother-in-law’s camp, four houses down this sleepy gravel road, until 1:00. There is a state park at the end of the road, accessible through a gap in the fence. Most early mornings, the girls all walk down there and go to the playground.

The children nap at 1:00, when one of us drives the sitter home. We work a bit more and then, at 3:30, I wake the children. We swim in the River until dinnertime and we all eat together: our little family, my mother-in-law, and her mom, great-grandma.

After dinner, the little one and I head home. She checks the little plants behind the garage for wild strawberries. If there is one, she feeds it to me; if two, she eats the second. My husband does dishes. The big girl walks down the road with grandma and the dog to check in on Great Aunt Mary and check the tomatoes and squash in the back garden. I read a few pages of Treasure Island to the big girl and she goes to bed. We pour one last glass of wine and read a few pages before bed.

I must say that the routine is pretty ideal. It certainly sounds like a person would return to New York weighing less, having written more…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More on Nana’s Books

When Nana’s books came, my father was very kind and clear: I was only to keep what I wanted and needed. There was no need to preserve her library intact or to keep books of little value for sentimental reason. Her library was good in its contents, but most of the paperbacks had come unglued from neglect and bad weather. His kindness and my studio apartment helped me winnow the boxes down to a more reasonable bounty (though you would never know that from the mammoth library that burdens us in our little apartment today).

One book that I kept, then got rid of, and now regret giving away was my Nana’s Milton in one volume.

It was the Bobbs-Merrill Milton, the same one I had used in college. And disliking Milton as I think I do (I suspect that he intimidates me more than I dislike him) and having my own college notes in the margin of my copy, it seemed strange to keep another copy of the very same book simply for sentimental reasons.

Except for one thing: it was all marked up with my Nana’s notes. The notes she made as she was losing her sight.

And the one note that made the book radioactive to me at twenty-four is the note that makes me now curious to see what else was there: Randomly, in the margins of Paradise Lost, Nana wrote “Why doesn’t Graham [my father] make Anne learn Latin?”

Somehow, back then, my mother and I pieced together that this had to have been written when I was seven or eight, around the time that my Nana pronounced, to my young mind, my failure as a writer. For, visiting her down in Florida, I showed her a short story I had written, heavily indebted to Hans Christian Andersen, about a little mermaid. She took out that Bobbs-Merrill Milton and turned it to Milton’s juvenilia: “Here’s a poem Milton wrote in Greek when he was six. Well, this is the Latin translation he made a few years later…”

I threw in the towel.

And, at 24, I threw the Milton in the recycling.

After all, a girl has to live.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I write in my books.

So did my grandmother.

When Nana’s glaucoma got bad enough that she couldn’t see anymore, she sent me her books.

I was twenty-four and I was living in a tiny, junky studio apartment (aluminum framed windows, a view of the parking lot, pink tiles in the bathroom) in New Haven, surrounded by books. Box after box of books, mildewed and worn from years in Nana’s attic in Maine, her garage in Florida, arrived at my doorstep.

Thanks to her, I have Woolf’s complete letters and diaries, sometimes with clippings of reviews stuck inside. And I have her margin notes: “Geo. Duckworth controversy/ see #576” she writes; “more Re. G. D. #12.”

Woolf’s half-brother, George Duckworth, molested her. The extent of the violation cannot fully be known, but he was wrong.

Strange as it is to be so engaged in working on Nana’s favorite writer, strange as it is, through Woolf, to remember what I have in common with a very difficult and distant Nana, I’m surprised that this is the thread that she was following through the letters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More of Woolf’s letters

While the letter to Thoby is wonderfully sisterly, other letters have wit tinged with more pain. Going through this first volume, something I have not done before, in search of notes for the Mrs. Dalloway edition has been tough: too much pain, too much posing, too much showing off and worrying. And too much death.

When I had read in biographies about the centrality of Violet Dickinson’s friendship in Woolf’s girlhood, I turned away without much interest. There is no fictionalized Violet in Woolf’s writings—no one character we can point to and say, “the original of this character is Violet.” Woolf’s intense attraction to her, her fond, affectionate, and loving letters suggest to some critics (and to this reader) Woolf’s nascent lesbianism, perhaps still at this point unconscious to Woolf, perhaps not. But I hear grief much more loudly.

Reading the first volume of Woolf’s collected letters is to be struck with the overwhelming importance of Violet Dickinson. The first 42 letters are only spottily saved: the very first one, from 1888, is to James Russell Lowell, and was, as her father notes “this is a spontaneous production of Miss Stephen [then age 6], on seeing a picture of the Adirondacks and hearing that you had been there”:


The next forty-one letters perk along without much incident. Then, suddenly, it’s 1903 and Woolf is a young woman and Leslie Stephen, her father, aged 70, is dying of abdominal cancer. As the editors note, the vast majority of the saved letters, 42-164, written during Leslie Stephen’s long, slow decline, are to Violet. It’s rough reading. I raced through them and then slept fitfully.

I read letter after letter apologizing for being worried or preoccupied; begging for a crumb of news or a visit; thanking for the last visit; reporting that Violet’s idea that Woolf talk to the nurse and get to know her was working out, lessening the boredom and fret.

Cancer is still cancer. Slow deaths are still excruciating. As Woolf herself writes in one letter, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it.

So, when Woolf writes that she wishes Violet were a kangaroo into whose pouch she could climb, I guess I hear grief, loneliness, and a longing for motherly comforts as much as I hear incipient sapphism. I wouldn’t put it quite that way, I wouldn’t find the kangaroo metaphor—few of us would—but then, few among us have had that degree of grief to bear, motherless, trapped in a Victorian home, entertaining the relatives and admirers of an elderly father whilst one’s brothers are at Cambridge and one’s sister has a couple art classes a week with John Singer Sargent. Woolf’s only relief were Greek lessons with Janet Case and, later, Clara Pater, and these were in her house. The claustrophobia is palpable. And it’s not as if Greek literature is full of cheer and celebration. And all among us who have grieved over a beloved’s slow decline know what it is to want to curl up somewhere safe and dark and hide until it’s all over and healed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Woolf’s Letters

Sometimes what these letters turn up is not a pearl of wisdom but simply the delightful recognition of the mundanity of all our lives.

In January of 1903, Woolf (then, of course, not yet Woolf at all, but Virginia Stephen, just turned 21), wrote to her brother Thoby at Cambridge to let him know that their half-brother had helped them each open a bank account and that Thoby needed to send the bank his signature for their files.

Thoby turns out to have been just as negligent with his banking as the rest of us, so, a week or so later Woolf writes him back:
“My dear Grim,
I suppose the Bank wants your signature not from mere curiosity or for purposes of decoration—or to put in its autograph book—but simply so that unscrupulous persons may not forge your cheques. Write your name again as you will always write it on the back of cheques and send it to
The Union of London and Smiths Bank Ltd.
Charing Cross Branch,
66 Charing Cross,
S. W.
Yr. Goat”

Saturday, July 12, 2008

More on Rock the River

Amber Rubarth wasn’t the only star of the show. In fact, the bigger name—though utterly new to me—was Joe Purdy. He is the real thing, clearly, gifted, serious, and a real River musician. With his dungarees, beard, and crew cut, he isn’t advertising his success. (By contrast, Jay Nash’s producer, who is also in the Low Stars, of that great song from last summer “Calling all friends,” was in an untucked white shirt and jeans like everyone else but, man, even from ten rows back, I could see that they were expensive jeans…)

Purdy’s song “Wash Away” is lovely and simple. Not watching either “Lost” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” I can’t tell you which one it was featured on, but I can see why you’d choose it. And the whole album “Julie Blue,” our other purchase, was recorded during a week on a tiny island up here in the St. Lawrence. We have been listening to it a lot and it’s just lovely.

The other song that Purdy performed was an old Dylan tune, maybe “Sister, Sister”?, which he sang as a duet with Garrison Starr. Their voices blended together like nothing I have ever heard live. It was utterly transcendent.

Garrison Starr came out in her gray jeans, gray t-shirt, and gray porkpie hat, and shuffled over to the mic next to Purdy. He motioned her to join him on his mic. “Are you sure?” “Yeah.” As they sang, their heads bobbed in and up, their lips nearly touching the microphone, and the music of each voice blending into one perfect, plaintive voice, wispy but strong. They went in and out of each other’s voices through the whole song, and if the applause was not as loud at the end, it is only because we were too stunned to move.

She was the other standout for me, and I want to get one of Garrison Starr’s cds next time I’m music shopping. When Amber Rubarth sings “I / like you / a lot / and I guess you know it’s worse than that,” she is disarmingly naked. Star is an utterly different kind of performer than Rubarth. Where Rubarth bares all, Star’s songs were beautiful and ambiguous. Her stage presence is confident and generous; she was the first to really thank Jay Nash for organizing the event and, in thanking him, she paid tribute to his friendship with real feeling. For all that, then, and for all that is interesting, rich, and moving about her voice, I don’t feel that I know her. But I am super interested and I plan to hear more.

And I loved watching Jay Nash host the event, popping out from backstage to watch for a minute and then check the soundboards, popping back up to tell a quick lame joke and keep things moving as performers searched for cords and plugs and tripped over the shoes that Amber Rubarth left behind onstage. His songs were strong, folk-pop, great tunes. They don’t stand out for me as my favorites, but I want to hear more, so he’s on the list for the next trip to the store.

Chris Pierce was a big teddy bear most of the night, coming out and adding depth and fun with his harmonica, but he brought down the house with a couple party songs at the night’s end. His James Brown influenced “Change Yourself,” was fun and so naughty—If you don’t like me the way I am, well, change yourself! Ha. You tell them. Eliza Moore’s Enya-y violin playing was not for me, much as I loved what she added as a side player on other songs. And there were a couple other performers who were fine, but not mind-blowing. A woman came out and sang a new song, the love song she would want written to herself and it was so utterly hyperbolic, about crossing seas and turning over every blade of grass and overcoming all kinds of impossibilities that I felt squirmy with embarrassment.

Finally, I do want to single out the utterly adorable Joey Ryan, though: tall, skinny, young, with a huge mop of hair, his song “Cloak,” about how, since you’ve been around, honey, your love is like a cloak, was so sweet and adorable and he had a great, sexy stage presence, like the young James Taylor. But then, as my mother-in-law and I both noticed, he was also a lot like my husband years ago and, I suppose, like my husband, he’ll one day age into having a little more flesh and a little less hair. Both ways are nice, but it’s fun to have a little glimpse into the past.

So there. If you, like me, are at a loss for some new music, three more new names: Joe Purdy, Garrison Starr, and Jay Nash.

Friday, July 11, 2008

New Music: Rock the River

How do you learn about new music these days?

I was reassured to hear an episode on WNYC’s Soundcheck months ago now about good bands seeking to place their songs on commercials and tv shows, now that radio is so formulaic. I was also really happy to have them identify that song, “I am holding half an acre…” from the Liberty Mutual Insurance ad. It is a pretty song and I downloaded Hem’s Rabbit Songs at once. It turns out to be good music here at the river for the first bit of writing in the morning. But, more than iBook, Kia, and Insurance ads (not the most noble way to find music) hearing it live is still the best.

On the 4th, we went to a benefit concert for the Save the River nonprofit at the Clayton Opera House. It was a great, fun show and we came away with four new artists to follow—and two new cds. There were a dozen performers or so, eight of whom sang a couple songs apiece. The whole event was distinctly local (even though most of the singers flew in from LA or tour) and unpolished: people came out and searched for the plugs for their guitars, came out and yelled backstage for this or that musician to join them. It was like a Dan Zanes show without toddlers and the whole thing had a groovy Brooklyn-in-the-country vibe. Each song brought out a new combination of musicians and no one was a diva about singing backup.

The next night, out on the boat watching fireworks with my husband’s cousins, we mentioned the concert. It turns out that the organizer, Jay Nash, is the son of our young cousin’s piano teacher: “Tell Mrs. Nash that her son organized a great show, ok?”

Since we get to hear live music about three times a year, we were really stunned to see that we had heard one of the singer-songwriters before: Amber Rubarth.

She is terrific. Last winter, we went down to the Electric Company in Utica to hear some music and she was the opening act. We loved her whole show: she has crazy good pipes, sweet funny lyrics, and terrific presence. It was fantastic to see her again and, for the first time to learn her name for sure. She’s very young, full of promise, and her songs really get you going. They make me feel young again and my daughters are clapping and stomping along to her in the car. With songs about painting and colors and watching the laundry spin around in the dryer, she is a real bohemian girl with a lovely, lovely spirit. Her song “Novacaine” is great, both for displaying her vocal range and her lyrical originality. She goes to the doctor, broken heart in hand, and, not heeding his advice, she just nabs some novacaine and numbs it, only later to run into him and have him notice her blank, sunken eyes…

So, you’re hearing it here: Amber Rubarth. Amber Rubarth. Amber Rubarth.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ovidian Marginalia

I’ve never read the Metamorphoses. At the past two Woolf conferences, I’ve heard really good papers tracing allusions to Ovid in Woolf. I need to find allusions for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. Thus, I brought my old, used edition of Ovid up here with me to start thinking about possible connections. I open it up to find, in an unknown hand, the following: “20 B.C. / Roman / had some distance / patriarchal/ less awesome.” Lovely. What can it mean? Ovid is “less awesome” than…

Military women.

Two things: every time I read Mrs. Dalloway, I am struck by something new; today, it is that every woman in the book is, at one point or another, associated with the military. This included Elizabeth Dalloway, who passes a Salvation Army-type band during her walk toward St. Paul’s from Chancery Lane:
“The noise was tremendous; and suddenly there were trumpets (the unemployed) blaring, rattling about in the uproar; military music; as if people were marching; yet had they been dying—had some woman breathed her last, and whoever was watching, opening the window of the room where she had just brought off that act of supreme dignity, look down on Fleet Street, that uproar, that military music would have come triumphing up to him, consolatory, indifferent” (208).

What struck me first here was the pause over music in this passage and how quickly the trumpets become martial. It is likely that these unemployed musicians were wearing some kind of uniform, but Woolf’s having Elizabeth notice the military music and connect it with marching soldier continues a pattern of associating all the female characters, literally or, more often, metaphorically, with soldiers: Clarissa and Miss Kilman carry umbrellas like weapons, Lady Bruton should have been a general, and now, young Elizabeth hears military music.
Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before the final scenes with Septimus. (His suicide is on page 224, less than twenty pages later, and we are with him continuously from 210 until his death.) While Elizabeth thinks that a man witnessing a dying woman would look out the window be consoled by the tremendous noise of the brass band playing marches, it is a solider who opens the window, pages later, and, unconsoled, throws himself down to his death. Those watching do not witness an act of supreme dignity and are not consoled. Instead, Dr. Holmes offers Rezia an extra dose of tranquilizer and feels anger and frustration at his failure to save the man whom he thinks a coward.
I’m not quite sure what this tells us about Elizabeth. Is she callous? Wise? Silly about what war means? Does it portend her eventual settling into a life like her mother’s? There is something going on here, too, about courage and cowardice. The soldier who had served bravely is also the only person in the novel who is directly called a coward where women in the book are consistently associated with very traditional patriarchal emblems of courage.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I was told there’d be cake

I remember all the snark directed at Sloane Crossley when this book came out: lots of jealousy, it seemed to me at the time. Let the woman have her day in the sun. Still, jealous myself, perhaps, I didn’t exactly rush out to buy the book either. Then, I saw a friend with it: there is still something so persuasive about that, isn’t there? I can read a dozen blog entries about a book and simply be aware that it exists, that people are writing about it, but seeing the object in the hands of someone you like really does make it seem like people are reading it.

I bought it the other day at Three Lives and read it on the train upstate (don’t ask me how—I did feel like a negligent, classic academic mother, foisting crayons and video games onto my children whilst stage-whispering “play with each other, Mommy’s reading”). It’s really, really charming and funny.

She is very young and the essays are almost all tours de force about how to make an uneventful and privileged life into material to write essays about. Still, the long set piece about being bridesmaid to an old, nearly-forgotten friend is both touching and hilarious. And there is a brief discussion about the boorish and homophobic boyfriend of a good friend and how Crossley pushed back when he made his guffawing comments about lesbians that’s really lovely and so familiar. There are a couple essays about wanting to be interesting—one about her name and one about her collection of plastic ponies--that really resonated with me: I was amazed an impressed that she pulled it off.

Ultimately, for all the wit and cleverness, there is a lovely and consistent note, never quite developed, but always there, of real affection for other women. She is proud of and tender about her sister; affectionate and admiring of her mother; fiercely attached to her female friends. For all the moments in which she remembers the Cat’s Eye competition among young women, she never relinquishes the belief that women are allies. Sad, then, that what I remember of the early coverage of the book was a little catty. Am I misremembering out of my own smallness or are we all just as small as that?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Kite Runner

I suppose I’m the last person in America likely to read The Kite Runner who had not yet read it. It is really good. It is so easy to dismiss these runaway bestsellers, but they are a great pleasure. I read it in the midst of teaching an intensive summer graduate course on Virginia Woolf and in the midst of re-reading essays, a feminist pamphlet and five novels, it was incredibly refreshing to sail through a book with so much plot.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Charles Johnson at the Seattle Public Library

The other conference (besides Woolf in Denver), from a month ago now, was the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Seattle. That was lovely, too.

Its highlight was a reading by Charles Johnson, the National Book Award Winner (for The Middle Passage distinguished professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington.

I have only read a couple of his stories before—one based on Aesop and “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” which he read to us--but I had the strong sense that he was my kind of writer. His reading was enchanting. He read two stories that he wrote for an annual literacy benefit in Seattle. Every year, local writers are given a small prompt and asked to write a story to read at the annual benefit. “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” about the young Martin Luther King staying up late and looking with wonder at the contents of his fridge, noting how interconnected we all are and having an epiphany about social justice and globalism, was written in response to the prompt “midnight snack.”

But the other story, an amazing tale of a sullen and arrogant Plato, grieving the death of Socrates and mocked by Diogenes, was written in response to the prompt “night light.”

Someone asked him something about his inspiration and he said, well, when he got the prompt “night light” he knew that it had to be Diogenes wandering the streets of Athens with a lantern in the daytime in search of an honest man. The clarity of that, the open natural way in which he just assumed that, like himself, we, too, would naturally associate the phrase “night light” with the great philosophers of the height of Athenian democracy amazed and humbled me. A real lesson in the value of writers continuing to read and read and read, in continuing the practice of returning to the past and dwelling there with patience.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Un Cuarto Propio

I never did blog about my recent trip to the 18th Annual Woolf Conference in Denver the other week. That experience my be lost to the ether. One part of it, however, I want to make sure to document: Leah Leone’s paper on Borges’ translation of A Room of One’s Own, Un Cuarto Propio. Leah explained that, given Borges’ stature—and Woolf’s—this particular translation of Woolf’s 1929 feminist pamphlet is by far the most widely available one. It was commissioned by another Latin American modernist and Woolf fan, Victoria Ocampo. However, while Ocampo was a feminist, Borges was not.

Leone’s paper laid out in really persuasive detail five or six examples of moment when Borges muted Woolf’s feminism. For example, even though Borges’ collection of stories was entitled Ficciones, he translated the phrase “woman and fiction” as “las mujeres y la novela” (working from memory with only Dora-grade Spanish) abjuring the cognate “fiction”—less common in Spanish but very much in Borges’ vocabulary—in favor of the Spanish for novel. Why does this matter? “Novel” is a narrower genre, a more feminine one, and a genre that Borges did not admire.

Elsewhere, where Woolf uses “we” in the context of a room full of women, Borges translated the pronoun not as “nosotras,” which indicates women, but “nosotros” which indicates any group that contains at least one man. Sigh.

Still, what was so elegant about Leah’s paper was that for all she found lacking in the Borges translation, she did not deliver a screed against him. Instead, she discussed feminist theories of translation on the one hand and what we can learn about Borges himself on the other.

Part of me wanted someone to get up and just really get angry about the injustice of it all, but mostly I was really impressed and fascinated by Leah’s work—and I know that I would have striven for the same balanced and intellectual tone that she so ably struck.

I wished Ana Maria had been there, but I promised Leah that I’d write it up so that she could read it—and you can, too.

Apparently, there are new, better translations out—several in recent years—but they come from smaller feminist presses and, of course, don’t carry the Borges name.

UPDATED to correct my mispelling of "propio" as "propRio"--as I mention in the comments, I'm sure it's all those years of trying to get my tongue around the French "propre." I don't speak Spanish, so I muddle my way through...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Good things, good people

I know you know this already, but I am so excited for Lizzie Skurnick, who has a book contract for her charming series of columns for Jezebel in which she revisits favorite young adult novels. It’s a lovely and fun topic—and a useful one, too—for Lizzie helps keep alive the books that strong women loved as girls and, in doing so, gives new generations of parents a good list to take along to the bookstore and the library.

Lizzie’s columns brought me to Jezebel in the first place and now I read it daily: it always brings me some kind of smile—laugh, giggle, or smirk. It’s a real cut above its parent blog, the once funny but now just mean and parasitic Gawker.

I’ve written already about Meri Weiss’s debut novel, but I’m happy to report that it’s been selected as an August pick by the consortium of Independent bookstores (this used to be BookSense and is now Next List or something).

And I haven’t yet finished Janice Erlbaum’s Have You Found Her, but this trailer sure reminds me why I was so excited about it in the first place.

Finally, Jennifer Vanasco, whom I know only virtually as the founder of a listserv for writers and editors who went to my college, had her first cover story in the Village Voice, on the triumph of the lipstick lesbians.

Congratulations to all four great women!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Two Boxes

I love reading others’ lists of the books taken on vacation and I have begun to learn the folly of thinking that a lot is going to get read.


This is the closest I can get to a writer’s retreat—and maybe better, for the children are here, but happy in another’s care all morning, under the eyes of a beloved grandmother and great-grandmother all day long—so, I did have to bring some books with me. Two boxes worth, it turns out.

The big project for this month is the continuing saga of the edition of Mrs. Dalloway so there are binders, folders, and files for that: I have a photocopy of the first British and American editions, a copy of the Hogarth Press Universal edition, my lovely graph paper spiral binder of notes, three other notebooks (one full, one empty, one half full) for notes and thoughts. I also have the transcription of The Hours, the manuscript version of MD, as I have come to call her; two volumes of Woolf’s diaries; three volumes of her letters; seven monographs on Woolf; each of Woolf’s pre-MD novels to re-read for earlier anticipations of Dalloway-ish themes; The Norton Anthology of Poetry to peruse for allusions, and Ovid, Aristotle, and Aeschylus (all in translation, I must add) to shame me into intelligence and peruse for allusions, too.

Also on hand, of course are a couple Woolfish books for pleasure reading when I want a break but don’t want to stray too far: Ruth Gruber’s Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, a dissertation by a young Jewish-American girl who studied in Germany in the 30s and corresponded with Woolf. (In her 90s, Gruber now lives in Manhattan.), and Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.

And then, for pleasure, I brought the following:
  • The Ha Ha Bonk Book (English jokes for children—it might rain and my older daughter and I need more jokes to tell each other),
  • Out Stealing Horses,
  • I was told there’d be cake (finished already!),
  • The Wartime Journals of Molly Painter-Downes, the only Persephone book thin enough for me to bring (though I seem not to have exercised restraint elsewhere, that somehow became an issue when looking at the three or four unread Persephones on my shelf),
  • Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (also brought last summer—and perhaps, in fact, pilfered from my mother-in-law’s considerable library—but still unread),
  • The Kingdom of Ordinary Time—poems! Purchased at Three Lives because there was a poem from that book featured during National Poetry Month that really moved me and, not reading enough poetry, I figured that if a poem moves me, I should seize that feeling;
  • I’d Like, by Amanda Michalapolou, whom I heard read and speak at the PEN festival. I’ve read the first few and loved them but the book somehow got abandoned midway through;
  • Three Cups of Tea, a sentimental-looking book about building schools in Afghanistan. I got it for Christmas and want to read it, know I should scorn it to be cool, don’t want to be cool, expect to enjoy it;
  • The Untelling;
  • Drown (still haven’t read Diaz!);
  • Say You’re One of Them; and
  • Agent Zigzag about a British double agent in WWII—I’m six pages in and already having nightmares about Nazis.
Do you think that’s going to be enough?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Useful Life

Not sure how I feel about this diary entry from August 1920:
“I raise my head from making a patchwork quilt. This is the day of month when I dispatch darning & other needle work, & do in truth more useful work than on days of free intelligence. How shifting & vacillating one’s mind is! Yesterday broody & drowsy all day long, writing easily, & yet without strict consciousness, as though fluent under drugs: today apparently clear headed, yet unable to put one sentence after another—sat for an hour, scratching out, putting in, scratching out; & then read [Sophocles’] Trachiniae with comparative ease—always comparative—oh dear me! (D 2.59; 19 August 1920)
That Woolf sometimes felt her household chores mattered more than her writing is disorienting. It’s kind of comforting, but it’s also unnerving. Does no one ever settle in to satisfaction? Besides, I’ve never heard of Trachiniae, let alone attempted to read it in Greek—with ease or difficulty. I have trouble feeling confident of the letters on those stupid sorority sweatshirts.

En Vacance

For the past few years, our Julys have been a complicated dance: weeks spent in my mother-in-law’s house in Utica; weekends in her idyllic but tiny cabin on the shore of the St. Lawrence River. Because the River is seven hours from Jersey City, we cannot make the trip in a weekend; because the River house is so small, we cannot all stay there for a week. So, I packed and unpacked, did laundry, forgot teddy in one place and the Tevas in another.

This year, suddenly, a new plan: how about renting a house on the River, just down the road?

(Cue the sound of heavenly angels, a choir of Thoreauvian sages.)

So, we have rented a charming, plain vanilla cottage and hired a babysitter for the mornings. The girls wander down the road at 8:30 and play till lunch. We read and write till one or two. I sit at the dining room table overlooking the River, trees framing the view, Wolfe Island in the distance, the muffled sound of children playing at Cedar Point State Park off to the side. My husband sits at the other end of the house, doing his work.

What could be better?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Blogging in Absentia

I’m up on the St. Lawrence River for the month with only occasional internet access. Blogger finally has a feature to make posts in one’s absence, so I’ll roll out what I’ve written day by day, but won’t be here to tend to things.

Still, I think mainly what you’ll notice is not my absence but my presence. Away from the city and the Google and Keith Olbermann and NPR, I’m writing more than I’ve done in ages.