Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Alice Munro

I picked up the latest Munro story collection sometime recently while sitting in a relative's den. It's so well-written, it's hard not to admire at first--you're in such good hands. But I was alone in the house, it seems, and sitting in that suburban cul de sac in a quiet Northern town reading about Munro's lonely women filled me with rage and nervous energy. I wanted to get in the car, turn Nirvana up loud and read about death or joy--anything intense. Too much quiet desperation. This, from Lydia Millet in the Globe and Mail puts its finger on that sense of intense claustrophobia:
And yet -- and yet -- given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision -- why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.
This is a fair criticism and I agree. It also makes me feel a little bad: she is so much a better writer than most and I am so overwhelmed by the maleness of the blogosphere this week, that criticizing a woman for being small, domestic, and minor rubs me the wrong way even as it is true that Alice Munro is starting to give me a mild case of the Anita Brookners.

All of this reminds me of Mark Thwaite’s comments on Roth: among the few excellent, established, prolific writers, there are going to be very few whose books are a must-read for any one of us. Most of us are not “completists” and would rather read the best of Alice Munro than all of her. For those of us who are not fans, it can get exhausting to be reminded of a new trip to that tiresome world that we visited once and where we are glad not to live, whether it’s the breakneck wondrousness of Rushdie, the wry sophistication of Atwood, or the bleak railway stations on Canada’s plains.

I got the link from Jenny who got it from Ed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Derived from...A Corruption of...Jamaican greats

Reading around on Bud’s lively Metaxu CafĂ©, I found Geoffrey Philp’s blog. A Jamaican writer who’s teaching and writing in Miami, Philp’s been publishing mini interviews with other Caribbean writers at Bud’s site and on his own site. Going to his site, I found a great birthday tribute to “Miss Lou,” Louise Bennett Coverley who died in August. As I wrote here upon her death, her courage to write in Jamaican was an inspiration to many, many. You should go read his tribute for yourselves, but I couldn’t resist re-quoting this brilliant quotation comparing “corruption of” and “derived from” from Bennett’s “Auntie Roachy,” the wise woman persona of her work.
Like my Auntie Roachy say she vex any time she hearing the people a come style fi we Jamaica language as 'corruption of the English Language'. You ever hear anything go so? Aunt Roachy she say she no know why mek dem no call the English language corruption of the Norman French and the Greek and the Latin where they say English is derived from. Oonu hear the word: English 'derive' but Jamaica 'corrupt'. No, massa, nothing no go so. We not corrupt and them derive. We derive, too. Jamaica derive!"

What’s not to love here? The humor is warm even as the anger and frustration is real. I can’t wait to read her again…

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Middle of Everything

Mark Thwaite opens his lukewarm appreciation of the latest Philip Roth (Everyman, ambivalently received all around) with a speculation on what it means when, in a blogging life, a certain book never does make notice on the blog. This happened to me with Michelle Herman’s lovely, moving The Middle of Everything and not because I thought it a worthy secondary work. Instead, I loved it, thought about it, talked about it, and spent so much time describing its merits to some of my friends that by the time I turned to my blog, I was done. Paradoxically, then, a certain kind of book that really excites my enthusiasm might just escape mention here.

Sadly, reading around here is so slow, that I mention almost everything I read.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Inside the TLS, 9/1/06 edition

What got me excited in the September 1, 2006 TLS?
  • A negative review of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry by Marjorie Perloff. Her expertise, her vast knowledge of the field and, most importantly, of the anthologies of the field, allows her to compare his approach against others. His attempt to side-step identity politics in favor of aesthetic criteria is revealed to have serious blind spots and deficits of its own. (That passive is weird--I don't have the patience or energy to rise to Perloff's operatic grandeur. I don't have the knowledge to do anything other than stand back and admire. The review has great power--but I'm powerless to put my finger on its source. I think it's because Lehman is trying to sidestep a p.c. approach and she attacks him on other grounds where the easiest thing to have done would have been to call him out for not beign p.c.--a charge he anticipates.)
  • A very funny account by Michael Greenberg of the monthly polyamory meeting down in the West Village: “I pull The Kreutzer Sonata from my shelf, Tolstoy’s diatribe against sex, to read on the subway ride downtown…:”
  • A great review of Claire Messud, whose book awaits.
  • A strong review of Rachel Cusk, too, whose book sounds good, but I read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children already. Do I really need another book about how dull it is to be a mom in the suburbs?
  • A totally gorgeous photo of Miriam Makeba in the “In Brief” pages.

Somehow, more than any other book review, reading through a week's TLS makes me feel smart and hopeful. It's that New Year's Day feeling I sometimes get: the one in which I actually believe that I'm going to be the better person of my resolusions.


"Mama? Can you feed the baby with one hand and me with the other?"

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A plague of essays

Why, now that I have a blog—even a seldom-updated one, even one that never ever pretends to be keeping abreast of the “news”--do I keep a pile of periodicals by my desk as potential blog fodder? Why, in particular, do I comb my alumni magazines for things to write about? At first, I tell myself that others who did not attend my schools might be interested in this or that literary tidbit. But, of course, these tidbits are skewed to reflect glory back upon alma mater. And all of us alums, of course, already get the magazine. It’s a kind of madness.

At times like these, the blogosphere feels strangely Victorian to me. I think about those reviews of reviews, those huge periodicals now mouldering in the basements of university libraries everywhere, that brought together long book reviews—many of which were very, very long summaries—and digests so that print seemed to multiply and multiply.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Inside the TLS

I am a big fan of the TLS. I like its former editor, John Gross, and his book on the "man" of letters. I know a bit about its history and origins through my work on Virginia Woolf. For Woolf, the TLS was the major outlet for her short essays and reviews. Many, many of the essays in The Common Readers began their life as TLS pieces. And, as a privilege accorded to Woolf and Woolf alone, the editors doubled their usual fee for a contribution from her. In the 1920s for a woman to be held in such esteem by a totally mainstream publication is really cool and remarkable.

I got a deal on the TLS this year, so it's been coming for about ten weeks now. I've read two or three of those ten issues. I gobble them with delight and am full, bursting, with the desire to tell everyone--to at least blog--about what I read, what new book is coming out, what catty thing got said (Jenny Davidson had a great post recently about an appallingly mean review there--I may be less kind toward authors than she because there's something I like about the energy of a bad review.), etc. I just can't believe that this conversation has been going on all this time without my attending to it. And I can barely find the time to attend to it now...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Howells' women

Initially I was more enthusiastic about Howells’ women then I am now. He does a better job with women than Dickens. Still, in a Dickensian way, they remain a bit more like types than characters. The advantage is that he has a rich imagination for types, so, in Hazard there are many types of women.

Howells wrote the novel shortly after his daughter’s mysterious death in early adulthood from something that biographers, as I understand it, now think was anorexia or some kind of autoimmune disease. Knowing that, it makes it all the more poignant that Howells is particularly good and generous at imagining all kinds of possibilities for young women of his daughter’s generation. At the same time, he cannot really see feminist world and he finds it impossible to imagine strong women as wives. But, in 1890, are we so surprised that he could not?

There is an artist who turns down her feckless young teacher (the man of the Chianti) for a life dedicated to art without any certain prospect of marriage; there is the young Virginian belle, all wiles and charm, the wild Western heiress who attacks a suitor with her nails when he fails to propose, and the Manhattan socialite who gives up a life of recitals and days at home to join a sisterhood and devote herself to charity.

Most interesting of all, however, is Basil March’s wife, Isabel. She is such a great wife. At the beginning, when the move from Boston to New York is an open question, she is full of opinions and ideas, all of them expressed with comic emphasis. (I could never live in an apartment! Well, if Tom must give up Harvard for Columbia, I suppose sacrifices must be made!) As the novel progresses and life in New York becomes a settled fact, she settles into the background.

By the book’s end, she functions as a kind of flattering conscience for her husband, soothing his ego and bringing him back to their shared principles or reminding him of the moment when it might be pragmatic to bend one principle in favor of another. In this, she seems most wifely to me, and least like a separate person from Basil. And is it any wonder? After all, Isabel is an anagram of Basil with the addition of that lovely feminine e.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More on Hazard and Howells

One of the reasons, beyond my enthusiasm, that I wanted to write about A Hazard of New Fortunes and Howells this week is that the book I read was so different from what I expected.

Having heard my husband talk about it for years, I knew to expect a story about conflicting values in the Gilded Age. In fact, while this is the book’s climax and its central message, it’s not what dominates the first two-thirds. I knew, too, about the famous apartment-hunting scene (and I’d even read much of it), in which a middle-class family tries to find a place to live in Manhattan and is shocked at the high rents and pervasive squalor. I wasn’t particularly surprised to find myself more interested in some of the minor women characters than he was. (I’ll write more about these women tomorrow.) Two things did surprise me, however: the pervasiveness of the humor and the attention given to the setting—in the offices of a literary magazine.

The editorial meetings at Every Other Week, especially those just before the launch are so deliciously familiar and exhilarating. I have never worked on a glossy magazine, but I have worked for all kinds of ill-fated little periodicals and Howells (who was editor of The Atlantic after all) captures the mix of ambition, vision, and pragmatism of the early days. Everyone wants it to be totally new and different and no one can really think of much that’s all that different from what’s gone before. All the most thrilling and strange innovations turn, upon closer inspection, to be totally impractical and, in the end, the magazine is a really good version of what already exists.

Almost every scene with Beaton, the magazine’s artistic editor, is comic. A pretentious prodigal son (his father is a poor stonecutter in Syracuse), Beaton constantly finds excuses for not sending money home. My favorite scene has him morosely drinking Chianti in a restaurant, thinking that if he gave up drinking, he could send home three dollars a week. Two sentences later, he’s off with a scheme—if he switched to half-bottles and got the waiter to set aside what others leave behind, he might be able to send home two dollars. Of course, if he hadn’t bought that fur coat…

These two qualities of the novel—the powerful, insightful and humorous depiction of literary work and the humor overall—elevate it to a very high rank with me. I cannot figure out why its reputation is not higher than it is. When people describe Howells as a realist, reading him sounds like a chore. I expected to feel that I was getting a dutiful and dull snapshot of New York in the 1880s. Instead, I got a lively, funny insights. Why don’t people tell you this?

All of which brings me to a thought for another day about the experience of admiring—for totally different reasons—something a loved one also admires.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Hazard of New Loves

It’s been a longstanding joke of my husband and I, that I know more about William Dean Howells than almost anyone who has never read him. The longest, most substantial, and most erudite chapter of his book is on Howells. He was working on Stephen Crane when we met, but quickly moved to the Howells chapter. I remember sitting on his futon in his apartment in a Somerville triple-decker, faint with hunger, dressed for a date, listening to him work out a reading of Sewell’s sermon on complicity in The Minister’s Charge. He would read a passage to me, ask me what I thought of it, refine my thoughts, connect them to his argument, refute me, and then move forward, painstakingly, carefully, to the next bit. I hugged my knees to my chest and wondered when we would ever get to eat dinner!

Still, I admired his tenacity—even his apparent ability to work through dinner, something I cannot do—and his ability to make an argument. I would contribute a thought about the significance of a word, a metaphor, the order of a list, and he could shape it into a larger picture about charity and complicity in the Gilded Age. And, of course, you know the end of the story already: Reader, I married him.

Nonetheless, I was not all that eager to read Howells. That chapter took a lot out of me. My mom and I called it the “howls” chapter since it seemed to cause us all such pain. But, when my book came out, my husband reminded me: when his book was published he read Mrs. Dalloway.* Now, that mine was out, I owed it to him to read Howells.

I loved A Hazard of New Fortunes so much, that I’m declaring it Howells week here at Fernham. A blogging experiment. Let’s see how it goes.

*I protested, meekly that he had not finished it. But, he replied, he read the first three-hundred pages, enough to get the gist. [Mrs. Dalloway is 296 pages long in the old paperback. Ed.]

Monday, September 11, 2006

Thinking is my fighting, William Dean Howells edition

For reasons I’ll explain more fully tomorrow, I’ve declared it William Dean Howells week here at Fernham.

Still, I can hardly let this grim anniversary pass without comment even as I know how little I have to add to the discussion. Certainly, the circumstances of my personal connection to the day are too trivial to dilate on. Sitting in my farmhouse in Fillmore, Indiana, I decided to watch a bit of the Today Show before heading off to the airport to pick up a visiting speaker from Princeton. I watched as the second plane hit. As for my visitor, his plane had been due to leave Newark around ten. Of course, it never left the ground.

William Dean Howells does, it turns out, have something to offer us—those of us whose world has changed even as our grief is indirect—in thinking about how we carry on. A Hazard of New Fortunes is a novel that makes an argument: it pits a philistine capitalist against a cultured socialist. In short, this novel of 1890, pits two prominent and incompatible world views against each other. This, I think, is the position that nice people, good people, small-d democrats who had, thus far, lived fairly nonviolent and comfortable lives, now find ourselves facing: the fact that democracy must work to accommodate people whose ideologies strive to exclude each other.

The setting of Hazard is a literary magazine in New York and caught in the middle is Basil March, the editor, a good-humored man from “the West” (in this case, Indianapolis). The capitalist funds the venture as a sideline; the socialist works as a regular freelance translator. When the two meet, sparks fly. March’s efforts to keep the peace show us the difficulty, perhaps even the futility, of such efforts. And he (Howells, March) by no means splits the difference or is in any way stupid or blind about the imbalance of power or ethics. The power is all on the side of capital; the ethics, in this case, is almost entirely on the side of socialism.

It’s not hard to imagine translating this conflict into contemporary terms. In fact, it’s a conflict that plays out daily. An oilman, from Wyoming or Texas, funds a creative venture without much thought until he gets wind of the Palestinian on his staff, or the Saudi feminist, or the Venezuelan socialist… Caught in the middle is some good-natured liberal whose job is suddenly on the line. What should the editor do?

Distressed by the hanging deaths of anarchists in the Haymarket Affair, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes. Though the novel pits capitalism against socialism, it is the socialist Lindau with whom March has the prior connection (Lindau was his German and fencing tutor as a boy in Indianapolis); it is Lindau who is learned, intelligent and a linguist; it is Lindau who fought in the Civil War (losing a hand in the fighting) while the capitalist bought a substitute. There is no question as to where Howells’ sympathy lies, even as Lindau is annoying, impolite, impolitic, and often wrong. For all of us who are writers, thinking is our fighting, as Woolf said, and we must fight on towards peace.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Contemporary Art

Last May, we went to DIA: Beacon for the first time. It was a transcendent experience. So, when we planned our end-of-summer jaunt to New England, we had high hopes. We came away disappointed. Where the Beacon museum, a converted box factory, makes large-scale contemporary art gorgeous, accessible, and meaningful, everything at Mass MoCA, a converted textile factory, seemed over-thought and over-theorized. The exhibit about post-9/11 history had all kinds of goofy curatorial theatrics. (“In this time after history we find that the time of history is a time out of time…”) Some of the art was all right. I loved an installation by Peggy Diggs—a bunch of jars of ephemera from her life, all labeled (e.g. “my father’s press pass, 1967”; “tea bags from the best conversation my sister and I ever had”). But some eighteenth-century European dresses fashioned out of African kente cloth left me cold: once you’d figured out the trick, what is there to say?

I was the only one in the family who liked the Huang Ying Pong retrospective, however. And my attraction to that taught me something about my aesthetic. Way too complicated. Pong is a Chinese artist, born in the fifties and working in Paris. A lot of what was on display was not so much art as divination tools used to make decisions about how to make art. From what I gathered (not much as we were shepherding the two children), he takes Chinese and Western tools of divination (I Ching, tarot, astrology, etc.), and uses them to guide his aesthetic decisions. In short, there were lots of very complicated wheels within wheels. I had trouble tearing myself away. Very Matteo Ricci...

I love things that are way too complicated. For all that I try to simplify my life as I live it (short commute, groceries by delivery), I am consistently attracted to the most baroque, most colorful, most intense design. When I first learned about memory palaces, I became obsessed—I eventually wrote an essay on them.

When I was much younger, my mom helped all of the neighborhood kids make papier mache masks out of grocery bags for Halloween. There were bears and pumpkins. I was a wizard. The front of my mask was his face. The back was a portrait of him taming a unicorn with the first line of a never-to-be-written short story written above the sunset scene. Crazy. Far too complicated.

I’m less patient with this side of myself lately. But I was very happy to see that Mr. Waggish found echoes of hermeticism and memory palaces in the work of a contemporary graphic novelist. He’s readier to figure this as a kind of genius. I’m so aware of it as a potential rabbit hole that I fear falling into that I don’t quite know how to judge it.