Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To Hell with Roland

Today’s gem, from a 1965 textbook on editing:
How to get over, how to escape from, the besotting particularity of fiction. ‘Roland approached the house; it had green doors and window blinds; and there was a scraper on the upper step.” To hell with Roland and the scraper!”—Robert Louis Stevenson, Letters

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Good quotation for one of my books

Woolf copied these lovely lines from Wordsworth into her notebook while she was writing Mrs. Dalloway:
The matter that detains us now may seem,  
To many, neither dignified enough 
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them, 
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties 
That bind the perishable hours of life 
Each to the other, & curious props 
By which the World of memory & thought 
Exists and is sustained. 
--Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65
Under the quotation, she simply wrote “Good quotation for one of my books.”

I find everything about this deeply moving.

Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa thinks about the justification of life, of her life. Is her party too ordinary to merit attention—her own, Lady Bruton’s, Woolf’s, ours as readers? Or are “the perishable hours of life” precisely where we should attend, instead of only focusing on dignity and challenge? Of course, Woolf comes down on the side of Clarissa’s worth, but so strongly feminist has been the critical echo of Woolf’s point since 1925 that I find myself surprised—and delighted—to remember that such a respect for ordinariness is not only a feminist concern. Furthermore, Woolf herself recognized in Wordsworth the impulse to honor inward looking and the perishable.

Finally, I am charmed by the inartfulness of her note to herself. There is no “Perhaps, one day I shall use this as an epigraph,” just a straightforward (and to my ear, weirdly American sounding) note to self “Good quotation for one of my books.” She read the lines, recognized her project in them, and thought “yep, that’s me.” 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Anatomy of a Rejection Letter

I don’t really mind the phrase “due to the volume of submissions” as apology for rejecting a submission without comment. The phrase that trips me up is “Several of us have read it.”

At first, I feel a slight glimmer of hope: it was good enough for the intern to pass on to her boss. Then, dejection: two interns read it and neither one liked it. Then I go round and round, trying to imagine their process. Who is this “us” and how many of us are interns, how many editors?

Then, we move to the next level, in which I realize, alas, that “several of us have read it” is probably not a special phrase for a level two rejection, but just a gentle way of saying that they really did read it. (I always, in my desire to protect my ego, that there is some harsher boilerplate rejection letter and that what I’m reading is the one for the special rejects, the ones who have permission to try again.)

In any case, I have written a really nice editorial, which, I anticipate, is about to be rejected for the second time. I will post it here when its timeliness expires or I’ve gotten tired of trying.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dreary May Day in the Wertheim

Usually, I have to head home by 4:30, but once I week I work a bit later.

As luck would have it, today is that day and it’s a dreary one. My work on Mrs. Dalloway is inching forward, but I feel uninspired. And the same must be true of my fellow scholars here in my study room at the New York Public Library: several have left earlier than usual and a few are taking longer lunches than they typically do. One scholar sat amidst books and four gum wrappers. Anything to stay alert. After a crowded few days, it’s quiet here.

So we were all surprised by a knock on the door. One young woman answered and there was Jay Barksdale, our librarian, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and a dozen cups: “Tea time!”

We all laughed nervously in this silent, silent place, Jay left, I poured, and we’re back to work.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Professional Hazard

I have been working on Mrs. Dalloway so long that the numbers 224 and 225 make my heart pound.

Those are the pages on which Septimus commits suicide.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Some goals languish; some taunt us, always far in the distance; some, we abandon; others, we meet. Whatever else I can and cannot say about this research leave, I have met my goal of exercising 4 or 5 times a week. 
As surprising as that is, my new obsession with Pilates surprises me more. Perhaps it shouldn’t. I flinch when a ball comes my way, so ball sports are out for exercise. I have an intense love-hate relationship with running. My body is not built for the jumping around of aerobics. Having grown up in Seattle in the 70s, I had my share of yoga-like experiences as a kid, lying on the floor in a gym, listening to the sounds of the Orca, suppressing giggles; leaning forward practicing my deep breaths while the young undergrad grazed my newly sprouting breasts under the guise of improving my technique. I like yoga a lot, but I often smell ulterior motives.

I’m sure there is lousy Pilates, too, but I’ve been lucky so far. I love the story of its founding as a method for rehabilitating WWI veterans. From the outset it welcomes broken and bruised bodies, promising some therapy, some relief. Plus, it attracts retired dancers, and I used to adore the modern dance classes I took as a child. All that technique, all the specialized vocabulary, all the concentration: I have found it again in Pilates.

So, I go once a week to the PilatesHaus and take a mat class. I do a video at least one other day. Even without the equipment—which is really fun but too expensive for anything but a treat—every exercise depends on five or six isolated muscle contractions at once. The more you do it, the more challenging the exercises become. At first, you’re just doing a fancy sit up; only later can you make that c-curve with your spine, press your inner thighs together, lower down one vertebrae at a time, keep your ankles together and toes apart, all while pulling down on your lats and pushing your belly button in to the base of your spine. All these instructions, spoken as gentle reminders, “Shoulders in their sockets, Anne,” are immensely reassuring to me. I can’t think about anything other than Pilates when I do Pilates, and, an hour later, I’m taller and happier.

My mom reminds me that I struggled and struggled to learn to skip when I was 5 or 6. Finally, she asked my dance teacher, the amazing Martha Nishitani, to help me. “One knee up; the other knee up,” she explained, and I was skipping in no time. I am indeed a verbal learner. Strangely enough—though perhaps, not so strange, as my teacher needs me to keep coming back—two of my three teachers so far have told me that I’m actually pretty good at it. I’m embarrassed at how I cling to these compliments, and yet I’m beginning to think that it may not only be flattery or the desire to keep a paying client. Maybe I am kind of good at this. Who knew?

The videos of Joseph Pilates training people are wonderful curiosities, but you can see Brett, the co-owner of the studio I go to, here, and you can see how cool it would be to get that good. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Safe Space and H.O.W. Fundraiser and Art Auction

This Thursday, the literary journal H.O.W., for which I am on the board, is having its spring fundraiser and it looks to be a great one. The fantastic Roxana Robinson, author of Cost, will be reading and they’ll be auctioning off a bunch of art, including some really amazing looking t-shirts featuring the prose of Jonathan Ames, Amy Hempel, Rick Moody, and Honor Moore.

H.O.W. is not just a journal, it also functions as a nonprofit to raise money and awareness for children. This season, once again, money will go to Safe Space, an NYC nonprofit that works with children and youth in the foster care system.

I am so sad that I can’t go to this event, but if you’re looking for something cool and literary to do for a good cause on Thursday night, why not check this out. Student tickets are only $10—don’t forget your id!