Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Last Rites

I finished Atul Gawande’s Better on the plane to L.A. There is something so soothing about these collections of essays by doctors and this one, though a bit uneven in the opening chapters, wound up being really rewarding and pleasurable. Gawande is a New Yorker writer and thanks Malcolm Gladwell as a friend. He shares a style of thinking, a kind of brilliant pragmatism, with Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys. The question of Better is about performance. How can doctors be better doctors without waiting for technological and scientific breakthroughs?

One of the chapters concerns the moral dilemmas of capital punishment and, specifically, the problems for doctors who work at executions. In all of this fascinating and troubling piece, something stood out for me, as it clearly did for Gawande. One of the doctors who, by a chance chain of events, finds himself putting a central line into an inmate about to be killed, tells Gawande that he had simply cleaned the site with antiseptic and inserted the line. Why the antiseptic? Gawande asks. “Habit, I guess.”

These habits are amazing and a really important clue, I think, to our attachment to life. Here, a doctor humanizes the condemned man by treating him as a patient until the very end. But sometimes it’s the condemned who humanizes himself. In “A Hanging,” George Orwell notices how the condemned man sidesteps a puddle on his way to the gallows. And, in Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus frantically scans the room for a quick escape: “he considered Mrs Filmer’s nice clean bread knife with ‘Bread’ carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that.”

The humanity of these moments--the last moments of life--their mundanity, their strange thoughtfulness is one of the great mysteries of life and death. Septimus thinks about Mrs. Filmer, his landlady. She likes that bread knife. It would be wrong to spoil it. There’s a clarity to that thought that puts the troubling facts of his suicide, his illness, into sharper relief.

When people die of old age or from long illness, there is often a gradual fading out. Travel ceases to interest. Then, the news. Books. Finally, even family loosens its hold. But these people, condemned to die by the state or driven to death by their own demons, are fully and completely alive until the very last moment.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Lonely French Men, 2: Red White and Pink

It’s always a little silly when people want to make too much of color. I think that’s part of why I’ve been struggling to write this post for far too long now. And overwrought color symbolism can be insidious--racist and sexist, too. Still, even if we know that a color does not mean a thing, that a white dress does not equal virginity, we are still affected by the symbolic weight of seeing a young, fresh girl in a white dress. However sophisticated we might be, a white dress is different from a pink dress or a red one.

I had heard that The Mystery Guest had a Woolfian connection, but I hadn’t guessed how strong it was or that it was specifically a connection to Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a book about a confident, successful woman who gives a party. A man is an unexpected guest at that party. Flowers play a major role. The party is and is not a success.

The connection to Woolf is explicit: the novel is very involved in thinking about both Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses. But the loveliest moment is one in which the protagonist comes upon a glorious and enormous bouquet of red and white roses. Praising them, his ex says, “the only flowers I could ever bear to see cut,” an allusion to Mrs. Dalloway that it takes him a moment to place. When he does, all sorts of illusions come crashing to the ground.

The flowers are red and white in Bouillier’s novel and that’s important and right, too. They are red and white in Mrs. Dalloway, colors that connote passion and purity, that seem to echo the novel’s double-vision throughout. For Clarissa’s most passionate time--her youth--was also the time when she was most in white. But the night when she meets Richard Dalloway, Peter remembers her in “something floating, white, crimson.” And now, at 52, she wears not white or red, but the cool and sexless green a mermaid’s dress, a dress for a woman who retains “a virginity preserved through childbirth.” Clarissa was in white as a young woman. Sally, in pink. And, at the party that evening, the young Elizabeth (she’s 18), who is both more and less than her mother, wears a dress that is sometimes described as red, sometimes pink. In fact--I went back and checked--the maid, an old woman, and her father perceive it as pink while Sally, who was so daring as a girl, is the one who perceives it to be red.

Some editors have wanted to correct the error--it’s confusing & Woolf was sometimes careless about such things. I am going to leave it. I don’t know what to make of it, quite, but it seems lovely and nice that Elizabeth gets to be both red and pink at once--a sign of the promise with which Woolf endows her.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lonely French Men

I figured that I would like Gregoire Bouiller’s The Mystery Guest but I was surprised by how much I liked it. I read the whole thing--it’s a short book--on the short flight from New York to Indiana a couple weeks ago.

To my surprise, I’ve read a nice little chunk of contemporary French fiction (in translation) in the past few years--Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, Toussaint’s Television, Constant’s White Spirit (these last two were LBC picks)--and The Mystery Guest shares with each of these texts an absurdist perspective on a very lonely narcissist. (And here, Constant’s book, by a woman and set in Africa, seems to separate itself from the pack a bit.)

This interest in the intensely self-absorbed and desperately lonely man put me in mind of Beckett, especially the Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (also known as The Unreadable). And I wonder if Beckett made this trend or, as I suspect and Montaigne and Moliere would seem to confirm, simply found a spiritual home in a certain train--or rut--of French thought.

It is a rut, but a very comfortable and happy one to rumble along in for a while.

I suspected I’d like it since Mark Sarvas was featuring it and I tend to like the books he likes. But when a student told me that I could read it in a flash and that it had a big Woolfian connection, I grabbed it off the pile.

The book’s premise is absurd and, apparently, true. (This is as much memoir as novel.): a performance artist throws herself a birthday party every year. She invites one person for each year she’s lived and then appoints one friend to invite a mystery guest who symbolizes the year to come.

Our hero is that guest.

He fields the call from the woman who left him heartbroken years ago. When she calls, on the very day that French historian and anthropologist Michel Leiris dies, he feels that fate has handed him a golden sign.

The narcissism and absurdity of finding significance in this random coincidence--a coincidence that, he later discovers, has no meaning at all for his ex--captures the sense of humor here and makes this my favorite of the Beigbeder-Toussaint-Bouillier trio. But how close to the center of contemporary French literature have my travels taken me? How eccentric is my sample?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


As I sit in the handsomely appointed reading room of UCLA’s Special Collections Department in the Research Library, it is comforting (if perhaps too flattering to myself) to know that Woolf found the process of correcting proofs tedious. As my eyes glaze over, I do little calculations in the margins: I have ten more hours in the archive and 238 pages to check, nine hours and 222 pages. With each passing hour, I fall a little further behind.

Then, suddenly, I see something I haven’t seen before--another instance in which her revision falls into a pattern. I hear a resonance and now have a phrase to check--is it an allusion to something?

Today it was birds. What about all the birds? I figured I could do something with the flowers in the books--roses and carnations, hyacinths and lilies--but, until today, I hadn’t thought about the symbolic weight of the birds. Swallows and nightingales I can do (going back to Ovid and the story of Procne and Philomel), but what about sparrows and thrushes?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Raverat Proofs

This is for Ana Maria who seems to enjoy this stuff as much as I do: I’m in L.A. on the second of three trips (I’ll go to London in August) to look at material surrounding the writing and publication of Mrs. Dalloway. This time, as at the Lilly in Bloomington, I’m looking at proofs. But these proofs were Woolf’s personal set. She sent them to her friend, the French artist Jacques Raverat, who was dying of an m.s.-like disease. (He did, in fact, die, before the novel was published but his wife, who was a Darwin, read the proofs to him.)

Woolf bound the proofs herself in Japanese block-printed paper with a stylized gingko-leaf motif. She pasted this paper on a thin cardboard, slightly sturdier than a manila folder. Sewed the pages together with red thread. The paper is a pale tan, the leaves are olive brown with eye-shaped cutouts in them that are filled, imperfectly and artistically, with red “eyes.” Woolf put the paper on sideways, to my eye, so the bulbous tops of the leaves point East, the stems, West. There is a small rectangle of the same paper, from the marking, pasted on the front cover (with the leaves running the opposite direction). Woolf has used the ¾ inch of margin to write “Mrs Dalloway” in her usual purple ink.

The title page is inscribed “Jacques/with love/from Virginia/6th Feb 1925.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Riot of Color: Flowers at the Getty

It’s little wonder Los Angeles became such a city of glamour. The flowers here call out for their close-ups. In the taxi from LAX to UCLA, a little poem ran through my head,
bougainvillea, jacaranda, Clytemnestra, penicillin
. Somehow, these double spondees (BOUgainVILLea) with their lovely assertive melodies seem right for the plump, fleshy, swollen flowers that create little pops of color in the beige and sage coastal desert landscape. The flowers are loud here. The purples are neon bright; the yellows are canaries; the oranges scream danger. Everything is either prickly or tuberous. This is not a subtle seduction. It’s a sexy and glamourous floralscape.

My plane landed at noon and by 1:30 I was at the Getty Museum. It was more breathtaking than I’d expected. I was pleasantly surprised to see Tim Hawkinson’s crazy giant organ, an odd, silly, and happy piece that I’d seen at MassMoCA last year. There was a lovely small exhibit of paintings of animals by Oudry, including a haunting life-sized portrait of Clara the rhinoceros and an even more glorious and smaller show of illuminated manuscripts depicting animals. The decorative arts collection was incredible but, when I got there, fatigue and jetlag had set in. And, finally, for all that was moving about the art, it was, as I had been told to expect, the architecture, the garden, and the views that really dazzled. What a lovely, grand welcome! Hurrah!

Back Home Again

I’m in Los Angeles for the first time in my life, but it feels like coming home again. Here I am in a gray coastal city, misty and a little cold for the time of year, going on a hilly jog through a lovely neighborhood full of gorgeous homes with even prettier gardens. Rhododendrons and roses are in bloom everywhere and the trees, even on the planting strips of the neighborhood across Hilgard from the UCLA campus, seem primeval in their height and girth.

How is this not the Seattle of my girlhood?

True, I don’t ever remember seeing Variety lying in the driveways of the upper middle class. But I’m surprised at how much is familiar. And, after years of feeling intimidated to visit this other great city, all that anxiety about how I probably wouldn’t like L.A., how I was not pretty enough to be in L.A., how L.A. was not for me, seems pretty silly.

Strangest of all is this: the art in my hotel (the lovely and affordable UCLA Guest House), was done by a family friend. It may have even been done, in part by me!

That’s right. In college I worked in the art studio of our neighbor hand-coloring silk-screened prints with chalk. The artist, Susan Singleton, sold these prints in bulk to a gallery in a Design Center. The large editions were often purchased by hotels. The UCLA Guest House clearly purchased some and the lithograph outside my door is by Sue. Further down the hall is a triptych from her Clouds series, a series I vividly remember coloring. I would sit at a drafting table in her loft South of Pioneer Square, and color with pastels alongside 3 or 4 other artists. We listened to the Talking Heads, took breaks to dance, and practiced chalking and smearing. Only Sue and Nani, her best assistant, were allowed to make the trademark red squiggle at the end.

Uncanny. And very welcoming.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

456 out of 474

In an attempt to get in shape for the upcoming Boilermaker--the real, 15K version, not the 5K I did two years ago--I ran the Newport 10K on Saturday. It was a little intimidating to have 4-time Boston Marathon winner Catherine Ndereba’s name called at the start--especially since it’s a small race and the elite runners were only, at that point, about 20 feet ahead of me.

Within moments of the starting gun, however, I was toast.

Ndereba finished 18th overall; she was the second-fastest woman.

For my part, I finished 456th in a field of 474 (scroll way down). Go Anne, go!!!

Well, that’s running six miles at a pace of 11:20. I’d like to do the Boilermaker’s 9 plus miles at about a 10-minute pace. Let the training continue…

I’m still sore, but it felt good. I do love running road races from time to time. Nonetheless, by the time I was passing, the natives were getting restive. Instead of cheers, I mostly heard people confronting the crossing guards: “I just want to get to my *&!?# car!!!” A woman in jodhpurs with a latte in one hand and a Great Dane on a leash was really, really inconvenienced. I heard a cop say to her “Is this a life-threatening emergency?”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Writing Editorials & Letters to the Editor

I got galvanized by an article in the Times way back on March 15, 2007 by Patricia Cohen describes classes that Catherine Orenstein offers women on how to write editorials. This struck me as a practical answer to the ongoing plaint that women are underrepresented on the editorial pages of the Times and other major papers. (You can read a feisty piece from 2005 by Katha Pollitt who is, as usual, overlooked in this discussion, over at The Nation.)

I wanted to take the class, to teach the class, to weigh in. But wait! I’m a professor--and I teach writing, for goodness sake!--perhaps I could figure this out on my own…

So, with that rattling on in the back of my head, I read my alumni magazine from Yale and got exercised by an article about gender equity and tenure. I fired off a letter on March 19th and, this week, it showed up in the new issue.

Here, then, is my letter, from March 19 and published in the current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. (The website is still a month behind.) it’s probably the publication with the widest circulation I’ll ever have!

To the editors:

I applaud Yale’s stated interest in reassessing its tenure system. Calling “quirky” a system in which only 11% of Humanities faculty receive promotion to tenure seems charitable, even comic. I hope that in its reassessment of junior faculty mentoring and promotion policies, Yale will make provision for mentoring and retaining women. In particular, I hope that Yale will offer maternity leave off the tenure clock to junior faculty who choose to have children.

There is a false and mean-spirited perception among some that young mothers might use this off the clock time to “get ahead.” Anyone with young children (mine are 4 years and 10 months old) knows that even the most diligent and ambitious scholar, with a supportive partner and good childcare, gets very little substantive work done in those first months of a new baby’s life.

I believe in working mothers. Working mothers make wonderful models of balance and commitment for Yale undergraduates. In reconsidering how it treats its junior faculty, Yale has an opportunity to step forward as an example of how an institution can work with young families to combine family life with an energetic and ambitious career.

Thank you,

(The editors note two things: Yale already offers maternity leave “off the clock” and the faculty voted to approve the recommendations listed in the magazine. So, my fiery mood is quickly co-opted into an opportunity for Yale to assert its virtues. Oh well.)

Still, for all the assignments I have on my desk--self-concocted and external--it feels nice to have just rattled off a little piece of writing, a little drop of practical feminism, and launched it into the world.

Monday, May 14, 2007

More on Textual Editing, More from the Lilly

One of the articles I read last week in Indiana was Morris Beja’s account of his experience preparing a textual edition of Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a witty, dapper piece about coming to textual editing as an outsider and finding himself seduced by the interest of working so closely with such a great book. It certainly accords with my experience.

Beja is skeptical. At one point he wonders how much textual editing matters. Can textual editing be made to matter to general readers? Can it matter even to scholars of the novel? Or does it really just matter to other textual editors?

This has been my question from the beginning. And my quest has been to figure out a way to do an excellent editing job and also to explain to common readers why it matters that scholars have access to such texts. (After all, if you’re sitting down to read Mrs. Dalloway, you’re probably going to opt for the paperback, not an expensive and big hardback full of appendices such as the one I’m working on.)

I was surprised, then, to find a headline--a real headline--in my work in the archives.

In all of the proofs, there is only one page where Woolf crosses out a whole paragraph and substitutes a (significantly longer) typed page. That single instance is the paragraph in which Septimus kills himself. Seventeen lines in proofs have been crossed out and two typed pages have been added, making the paragraph now twenty-eight lines long. In addition to many small changes, the chief addition here comes toward the beginning of the paragraph, with the addition of Septimus scanning the room for possible means of suicide before deciding to throw himself out the window.

That, it seems to me, gives everyone a lot to think about. To know that, at the very last minute, Woolf was rethinking the book’s climax, giving it greater depth and a slower pace, is to know something about the centrality of Septimus to the novel.

Friday, May 11, 2007

What counts as a Minor Difference?

Reading around amongst articles on textual editing, most of them include some sentence along the lines of “there are twenty differences between the first and second British editions, most of them minor.” A minor difference is taken to be a change in capitalization, an added comma, a semi-colon that becomes a period. But are these differences always minor? In comparing the American proofs of Mrs. Dalloway against the first British edition, I found some instances in which an apparently minor change is part of a significant and interesting pattern.

Thus, for example, Woolf made the following corrections to the American proofs on page 96 (The ~ symbol indicates a repeated word.):
96.6 she] She UP ]
96.7 island; ] ~... UP ]
96.7 she] She UP ]
96.8 hen;] ~... UP ]
96.8 she] She UP ]
96.8 laughed;] ~. UP ]
96.8 she ] She UP ]

All of which looks dull as a list until you look at the actual paragraphs side by side. Look at the 4 changes to “she”: each time, Woolf is changing from a capital “S” to a lower case one. Thus, what were five separate sentences in the proofs become, in the novel, one long clause linked by semi-colons. Then, she erases a phrase modifying the island and one modifying the hen.

So, what might this mean in the larger context of the novel? Well, this is a paragraph in which Peter Walsh is thinking back to the night when he watched, to his great distress, Clarissa fall in love with Richard Dalloway. “She” is the focus of this paragraph: he thinks this is the night that changed his life forever. This is certainly the night when Clarissa was finally lost to him forever.

And, in the end, this is one of three times in the novel when Peter is thinking about a woman--Clarissa, Daisy (his child-fiancee), and finally, Sally, and Woolf changes sentences to clauses. So, a long string of seemingly insignificant changes (period to semi-colon, upper- to lower-case) actually indicates an overall significant change to the pacing of the paragraph.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Our Byzantium

It's Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead week over at the LBC (say that three times fast) and this is cross-posted from there. Alan DeNiro's collection is amazing and fun--full of powerful, clever fantasy and emotion. There is a lot of activity there--many of us are posting on one of the stories from the collection--so hop on over and check it out...

I’ve always loved--loved--the Ron Carlson story “What We Were Trying To Do. You may have heard it on NPR, too. It’s about the first people under siege who tried to pour oil on the invading forces: they don’t heat the oil, everyone gets slippery and messy but the invasion continues. The lesson: next time, we’ll use boiling oil…

Alan DeNiro’s “Our Byzantium” is not purely silly the way Carlson’s story is, but it has that perfect pitch deadpan. I was hooked from the first line: “In your absence, the Byzantines infiltrate our city.”

The story goes on with a double plot-line: one plot trying to figure out how it came to be that the Byzantines are invading at all (did they escape the fall of Constantinople [in 1453, DeNiro helpfully “reminds” us] and lie dormant in the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania for centuries?) and one plot about how “you” left Eastern Pennsylvania, driving all the way out west to Pittsburgh to visit “Todd.”

Alone, either plot might be fine. The Byzantium plot could be a good, funny story, akin to Carlson’s. The story about how the narrator tries to figure out why he is more attracted to the elusive and unavailable “you” than to the present, kind, and pretty Jerilynn (who has her own unavailable object of desire) might have been a sweet tale about our fickle hearts.

Together, they are magical, poignant, and, because of the constant threat of violence from marauding Byzantines, not too sentimental.

And then, there is this lovely moment near the end. “Yeats had it wrong,” DeNiro writes. “This is a country for old men.” I love a nice allusion and when a buried one emerges and enriches, well, then I’m doubly pleased.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees--
Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

More from the Lilly

It’s very exciting to work with these proofs to Mrs. Dalloway. The only marks on them are a few pencil marks by Harcourt--and these are mostly notations of where each new galley begins--, stamps from R. & R. Clark (date stamps scattered throughout the proofs, from 13-19 Jan., presumably the number of days it took from them to create the proofs), and Woolf’s many corrections.

So there is something incredibly intimate in poring over these pages with care. It feels very, very lucky.

And wonderful that anyone with a picture i-d who comes to Bloomington can do the same.

As I’ve confessed here before, this textual editing--the painstaking combing and comparing of one edition, one version, against another--is new to me. Now, I have a notebook full of dozens of annotations like this:
  • 147.11 to Septimus; ] to Om.
  • 147.12 mankind, ] ~;
This means that on page 147 in the eleventh line, the proofs read “to Septimus;” and Woolf crossed out “Septimus;” and that, in the next line, Woolf replaced a comma with a semicolon. That first change seems really weird, but a little more context clears it up: “So they returned to Septimus; the most exalted of mankind” became “So they returned to the most exalted of mankind.” I’m not sure which I prefer, but I can see appeal of the sleeker revision.

Madness, right?

Except that, like lots of things when you do them intensely, it grows riveting and meaningful, so, by 4:00 in the afternoon, I’m like a crazy person, muttering “Oh! that’s interesting!” upon finding an em-dash changed to a parentheses.

Well, it is interesting. I’ll try to explain some other time.

Notes from the Archive, Lilly Library Edition

I’ve been at I.U. in Bloomington all week, looking at the American proofs of Mrs. Dalloway. On my first day here, Tuesday, I sailed through the first forty pages in an hour, but then I needed a break, so I looked around to get my bearings. There are all these nice looking graduate students walking around, feeling happy and proud to be working here. The two men who are working the desk were English grad students, I think. One was reading Shakespeare in a big one-volume edition and the other was studying for his Old Irish exam.

The proofs came out of the vault magnificently wrapped, in a gold or bright orange slipcase--fabric covering hard boards--with a red spine. From this, the archivist extracted a folder of the same golden cardboard. Within that folder, a cream-colored box made of thin paper, like a file folder. Finally, within that, the proofs themselves.

They are modest. Small. They are on yellowing but sturdy book-quality paper and look just like unbound pages of a book--which is, of course, what proofs are. But in this computer-driven age, proofs don’t look this way.

On the first page, stamped in purple is FIRST PROOF. At the bottom of the page, also in purple ink, is a stamp reading R. & R. CLARK at the top, EDIN---(it fades out to the bottom & right) within the double lines of the oval. In the middle, it reads 13 JAN 1925.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Where Dan Wickett Ledes...

Today's New York Times has yet another entrant into the blogs vs. book reviews conversations--but what a lovely surprise: Dan Wickett is the lede!!!

And, it seems (to me anyway) that the worm has turned--Mark, Ed, & Maud are quoted with respect, other blogs are mentioned, too.

Don't get me wrong--I want MORE book coverage and I lament the shrinkage of newspaper book reviews. I'd sign the petition for Atlanta's reviewer in a minute. And I'd hand Dan a salary while we're at it. For me, conversations about books are not a zero sum game. We could have more and more and more of it as far as I'm concerned. And different kinds of talk adds new notes to the conversations: even those irritating spammers who keep making banal comments here and then linking to their video review site may add something somewhere. But we learn one kind of thing from a quick mention in a mass circulation magazine, something else from the handwritten card at our local independent, or from Mark or Maud or Bud or Laila, or from the New York Times.

Still, we have this from Richard Ford to close things out:
Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. "Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership," Mr. Ford said, "in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn't."


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Cottagers, Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die

So, last week was all about Mark Binelli's romp of an historical novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die--life intervened and so only belatedly am I urging you to hop over there and check out the discussion.

This week is for The Cottagers a chilling suspense and murder tale about unhappy young academics on vacation on Vancouver Island. It's a brutal, gorgeously written and stressful book. I found myself savoring the first half and then gorging on the second--partly the pleasure of suspense and partly, I'll confess, the need to leave the company of these yucky people--nightmare versions of myself and other academics I've known...

Our fearless nominator, C. Max Magee, is emceeing the festivities. He posted--and inspired a second post--on suspense yesterday and he kicks off today's posts with an elegant description of bad vacations--how soon things go awry, how fun they are to read about. I contributed a post of my own--all true--too.

(And, as I'm posting from away from home today--but this is a research trip, not a vacation--I'm hoping this isn't a jinx....)