Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flush and Mrs. Dalloway.

I’m rereading Woolf’s 1933 novel Flush for my class at the Mercantile Library on Monday night. It’s such a delight.

Lighter than Orlando, it shares with Orlando the mock-biographical form. Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved spaniel. The book is arch—perhaps too arch for some—but once it gets going it’s hilarious. Woolf writes in a confident third person, describing the smells that enchant and disgust Flush in detail. She also describes Flush’s bewilderment at Barrett’s writing: daily, she sits silent in her room on Wimpole Street, “passing her hand over a white page with a black stick.”

But what roused me from my sofa in my Victorian sitting room (equipped, it is true, with a piano but also a tv with internal DVD—Mary Poppins is currently in heavy rotation with the younger set--and a very nice radio/CD player with iPod dock) was the list of her siblings, one of whom was called Septimus!

That’s a footnote, isn’t it? That, among other things, Septimus Warren Smith’s name is an homage to one of Elizabeth Barrett’s brothers. (There were 12; there was an Octavius after Septimus.) In Mrs. Dalloway, 8 years earlier, Woolf wrote: London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them. “

Though other scholars have written about Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when I was working on my chapter on Byron and Woolf, I got the notion that there was a deep, deep unexplored connection between the two of them. The time spent on the sofa, an imaginary (or real) invalid; the revelatory freedom into marriage and away from father; the feminism; the commitment to political freedom; the linking of feminism with other political causes; the love of dogs. I’m getting ahead of myself, but you see the point: there is a lot to say here.

In other Flush news, the early thirties were a little bit of a boom period for EBB, as I like to think of her. Not only did Flush come out in 1933, but, in 1934, Norma Shearer starred in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” The 1934 New York Times review (on my birthday!) praises the film highly, with special mention for the dog:
A report on the acting would be woefully inadequate without a tribute to Flush, the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth. His almost human and occasionally superhuman powers of expression are so remarkable as to cause some alarm for the superiority of the human race.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More E.B. White

In my head, I have a thoughtful but somewhat scathing critique of the deficiencies of last week's event.

On my desk, I have more work to do than hours in the day.

Plus, I've been sitting in my workout clothes for 3 hours.

In the absence of a proper post, I lead you to GalleyCat, where you can see a video of me talking about E.B. White.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Omit Needless Words

I'm off, in a few hours, to a celebration of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style at the Museum of the City of New York. I am so excited! One of the panelists is Barbara Walraff, who was interviewed about the book's continuing relevance on NPR this morning. Also, Roger Rosenblatt, Roy Blount... It should be interesting and festive.

In middle school, I found and took over my father's copy. We passed it around amongst ourselves and marched around the playground declaiming the rules: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

I don't know what I learned from that book, but it's just about everything. It's a style book that I've read again and again and something about it resonated deeply in me.

So I was puzzled and bewildered by the Geoffry K. Pullum's Strunk-bashing in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Pullum writes patent nonsense. His main claim is as follows:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
A claim he goes on to "prove" with a long list of grammatical pedantry, of citations of exceptions to their principles, etc. Utterly missing the point of a book on style: that it is not a grammar guide or a handbook, but a style book. White has a very specific style: elegant, clear, and journalistic. That is not the goal of every writer, nor should it be. But for me, and for many others, his suggestions--which I embraced as rules as a girl--helped me find my voice and convey my ideas with more grace than I ever would have found without them.

Pullum can sit this one out. I'll be raising my glass to my hero, E B White, and his great teacher and collaborator, William Strunk.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Life in Woolf’s Shadow

It won’t always be like this, I know, but it’s all Woolf all the time around here these days. It’s strange, but I love it.

When my book came out, I thought I’d leave Woolf behind. I thought I’d quickly finish editing Mrs. Dalloway (ha!) and move on. But I wanted to host the Woolf conference, so then, perhaps, after the conference…

So, on Monday, I stayed home to prepare for the week’s teaching: 1) leading a reading group on Mrs. Dalloway at the Mercantile Library Monday night, 2) teaching the end of The Waves to my undergraduate class on Tuesday, and 3) leading the Modern British graduate students’ group on editing Mrs. Dalloway on Tuesday night. That’s a lot of Woolf.

I didn’t expect Woolf to continue to loom so large. I certainly never expected to continue to be so riveted. I half-fear that it may be some kind of mental flaw: a scar in my brain that makes this one writer continue to resonate so powerfully.

Sunday night, I was reading some urban theory. Specifically, I was reading a discussion of the links between city life and agoraphobia, of Freud’s interpretation of the tension between women’s desire to sit in a window, beckoning men, and the fear of their sexual feelings. Freud and his generation (Woolf’s generation) also linked such moods to male homosexuals. Suddenly, I could see the dim outlines of a footnote, something about Septimus’ method of suicide as deeply connected to the modern city.

I was so excited that I could read no further.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Anita Desai’s Diamond Dust

I first read Anita Desai in a graduate class on Anglo-Indian narrative, but I don’t think I finished the book. I remember simultaneously loving it, feeling it worthy of better attention than I had to give, and being impatient and bored.

A few years later, an elderly man fell in love with me, and, in an effort to impress me, invited me to a small luncheon at MIT where I had the chance to meet her in person. She was lovely: beautiful, kind, and interested in me. I squirmed from the attentions of this elderly man, whose intentions were gradually dawning on me (He was over 70! I thought he was going to introduce me to his son…). Desai gently telegraphed to me just the kind of sympathy I needed: she was not condescending, but she pitied me in a way that woke me up and helped me shed his irritating attentions.

I kept Desai in mind as an underrated writer, a writer of great skill and grace who, I thought, might owe a debt to Woolf. I was all the more impressed at her grace and delight for her daughter’s win of the Booker Prize a few years back: it made me realize the maternal care and kindness in her pity of me at that one sad lunch.

So, I read Diamond Dust in the hope of finding a story to share with my Woolf class, a story that would shed light on an Indian successor to part of Woolf’s legacy. I enjoyed the collection and my students enjoyed the story, “The Man Who Saw Himself Drown,” but I no longer see Desai as an inheritor of a Woolfian voice. And I still feel deeply ambivalent about exploiting the theme of drowning when another story, “The Artist’s Life,” was just as Woolfian. But, being set in South Haldley, MA, with all white characters, it didn’t do what I wanted it to do on the syllabus. Once again, Desai’s gracious craft and ability to imagine others keeps her best work off the syllabus: that seems really unfair and I’m sorry about it.

As I sit here, looking at the Table of Contents, I see more winners than losers for sure, but the experience of reading the collection overall was a bit of a slog: partly, I think, from the unfairness of my goal, my wrong hypothesis. The first story, “Royalty,” about a self-regarding friend, whose visit to India from the States delays his old friends escape to the cool hills, is wonderful. “The Rooftop Dwellers,” a long story about a young woman who finds an apartment in a tiny, tiny rooftop shack and, in so doing, carves out a bit of independence for herself, is stunning and beautiful: a little masterpiece of small feminist triumph.

I loved the story “Winterscape,” too. It begins as the story of a new mother, white, married to an Indian man, but the focus gradually shifts to that man’s mothers (the sister who bore him and the wealthier one who raised him). These elderly, provincial Indian women are coming for an extended visit. This open-ended visit is the source of anxiety for the new mother and her conversations about it with her own mother mark the only missteps in the whole volume. That older white woman, Doris’s voice isn’t quite right. She says to her daughter: “Looks as if he never told you who his mother was though, or his father, the real ones, I mean. I call that peculiar, Beth, pec-u-liar!”

Something in this exchange, in Doris overall, sounds like parody to me. And it strikes me, once again, how even gifted writers who are great at writing race and class, still struggle to write about interracial interactions. Desai’s white characters seem like real, whole people to me. So do her Indian characters. She can write men and lower class characters that convince me of their authenticity. And the interracial marriage in “Winterscape” works. But there is something about the casually racist white mother that eludes her.

It pains me to make this observation, given what I owe her as a person and a reader, but I think it helps us remember just how very, very hard it is to write about race.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Short Stories

Though I seem to have the time to tweet away, to post mobile phone pictures of Easter eggs to facebook, blogging has fallen by the wayside this late winter (I don’t yet dare call it spring).

But I’ve been reading more than ever and I’ve mostly been reading short stories. In the rush of the semester, of administrative work, of new and absorbing responsibilities in teaching teachers how to teach, of giving two conference papers in one week (a record, and one not to be repeated), these stories have been vastly absorbing and satisfying. I want to tell you about the ups and downs of all of them—and of the two lovely novels—one at a time, but for now, a little list:
  • Sima’s Undergarments for Women a debut novel by Ilana Stanger-Ross and recommended by Sarah Weinman,
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
  • Diamond Dust, Anita Desai’s short stories,
  • Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana, and recommended by Tayari Jones,
  • and Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson.
It’s funny, there was a day back in winter when Sarah mentioned Sima’s Undergarments for Women just as I was thinking (as I often am) about the need for a new bra. I loved the title, so modest and old-world. That same day, Tayari raved about how well Tropical Fish had worked in her FemWrite workshop in Uganda. I ordered both books immediately, they came, and I read them. So satisfying. So rare.