Monthly Archives: September 2006

Art and life and Proust

I have recently come across a beautiful passage from Proust on the relationship of art and life. It is a passage on Vinteuil’s sonata, the famous sonata from which comes the “little phrase” that was so important to Swann as he fell in love with Odette. Now it’s the narrator who is thinking about its significance.

This is what he thinks: upon encountering a new work of art — “new” meaning something recent that departs from established methods and schools — we can’t understand it immediately. We don’t have the background to make sense of it; it seems foreign and chaotic, and maybe ugly. We can’t analyze it — break it into parts — because we can’t get a grasp of the entire thing in order to understand its structure. When we do begin to appreciate the new work of art, we don’t appreciate the right things:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.

When we finally understand the work more fully, those things we valued at the beginning of the process, we have now forgotten. And here is his conclusion:

Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirely — it was an image of life.

If we were to possess life entirely, it would have to be from the perspective of death, wouldn’t it? Otherwise, we are always changing and so can’t possess a thing in flux. But because we are changing constantly, our understanding of art is constantly changing, so we can’t possess the work of art either. Art isn’t so much a way of getting life to stand still as it is a way of charting its movement.

Proust elaborates:

But the great works of art are also less of a disappointment than life, in that their best parts do not come first. In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheet power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.

I like what this says about art; I’m not sure I like what it says about life. About art, this tells me that some of the greatest pleasures to be had are those I have to wait and work for. It tells me, as I think about my post from a couple days ago, that pleasure and effort and patience are not opposed. If I stick with a difficult and bewildering work of art, it will begin to reveal beauties to me.

About life, Proust implies that the best parts come first, that we have the greatest access to beauty when we are young. I’m not sure I like this because I find it depressing, and also because I’m not sure it’s true. Perhaps we have more intense experiences of life when we are young — perhaps — but surely the nature of one’s experiences become deeper and more complex. Surely there is beauty in life that witholds itself until we have been patient long enough to see it revealed.

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What is it with me and footnotes lately?

I’ve begun reading The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, and guess what? It’s a novel with footnotes! Not the usual kind of scholarly footnotes written by an editor, but footnotes written by the first-person narrator. I had no idea! I’ve only read about 15 pages of the novel — which is short at 135 pages — so I can’t say much about whether they work or not, but so far, I’m liking it. In typical Nicholson Baker-fashion, the book gives you everything in minute detail: the setting, the character’s thoughts, the action — which, as I understand it, consists of the main character taking an elevator ride. The footnotes elaborate in great detail on the already detailed main text, explaining such things as the history of staplers, the history of straws, and how the narrator pulls up his socks. This could be intensely annoying, but so far it’s not, although I am predisposed to like this book, as I like other things Baker’s written (especially U & I).

Thanks to Barry for pointing out Mark Dunn’s novel Ibid, a novel made up entirely of footnotes. This, clearly, I will have to check out.

One of the blurbs for The Mezzanine says this:

I love novels with gimmicks. The list of great ones — Tristram Shandy … Pale Fire … Ulysses, the ultimate gimmick novel. The Mezzanine is a definite contribution, a very funny book about the human mind. Mesmerizing.

I don’t like this reviewer calling these novels gimmicky. Isn’t the term “gimmicky” kind of dismissive? These novels are more than just gimmicks; they are experiments, explorations, novels where the author is pushing the limits of what a novel can do. If something is gimmicky, it’s interesting only in its newness and tricksiness, but these books do new things and also old things — old things like telling us what it’s like to be a person or to live in one’s mind or to experience the world or to be obsessed with another person.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from one of Baker’s footnotes, one that’s about reading and eating:

I stared in disbelief the first time a straw rose up from my can of soda and hung out over the table, barely arrested by burrs in the underside of the metal opening. I was holding a slice of pizza in one hand, folded in a three-finger grip so that it wouldn’t flop and pour cheese-grease on the paper plate, and a paperback in a similar grip in the other hand — what was I supposed to do? The whole point of straws, I had thought, was that you did not have to set down the slice of pizza to suck a dose of Coke while reading a paperback. I soon found, as many have, that there was a way to drink no-handed with these new floating straws: you had to bend low to the table and grasp the almost horizontal straw with your lips, steering it back down into the can every time you wanted a sip, while straining your eyes to keep them trained on the line of the page you were reading. How could the staw engineers have made so elementary a mistake, designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which it was intended to stand? Madness!

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Old and new books

I was intrigued by Patrick Kurp’s post on the value of reading old books as opposed to new ones — old meaning published many years ago, not old as in used. He says, “the past is a much bigger place than the present, so it follows that most worthwhile books were published not last week but some time in the previous three millennia. Every minute devoted to reading the new and middling is a minute spent languishing away from the old and dependably superior.” This makes sense to me in a way. Almost everything we read that’s recently published won’t last; it will be forgotten, and there’s no knowing which very few books are the exceptions. I was interested to read in Virginia Woolf’s diary about the books she reviewed, and I noticed that many of them I hadn’t heard of before. The books we are debating about today, people won’t have heard of 100 years from now. The things we read from the past are by definition the stuff that has lasted, and perhaps that means they’re superior to today’s books.

Patrick also argues, following William Hazlitt, that it’s the older books that are really new: they can show us a world different from the one we inhabit. Older books can shake us up a bit, show us new things, get us out of the familiar and make us encounter the alien. I like that idea too. I look for the new and unfamiliar in my reading, often.

And yet, I wonder. Why do we read? Is it for edification and instruction, or for comfort and pleasure? Okay, it can be both, sometimes both at once, sometimes in separate reading experiences, depending on one’s mood.

But here’s what I really wonder: does it matter why we read? I kind of buy the argument that reading older books can be an encounter with the new and can help us break out of our private comfortable worlds as Patrick argues. But does it have to be older books that do this? Can’t we have that experience with new books, if that experience is what we are looking for, ones that show us worlds different from the ones we know?

And when it comes to the argument that older books are the ones that have lasted and new books probably won’t, and that therefore reading older books is more worthwhile, I begin to wonder what we mean by “worthwhile.” What do we seek to get out of reading? I guess this kind of argument presumes that we should be reading for self-edification, for self-improvement, that reading should be a learning experience.

I’ve often thought that myself. I’ve read a whole lot of older books because I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to be well-read and well-educated, and knowledgeable and open-minded. But sometimes I wonder what the point of all that is. Does every minute we spend have to be spent in a worthwhile manner?

Maybe after all pleasure and not edification is a better goal. A part of me shudders to say that — forget being a better person, just enjoy yourself! I’ve spent most of my life thinking I needed to be a better person and that every minute should be devoted to it. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be able to shake that way of thinking, even if I decided I really wanted to. But I do sometimes think I might be better off if I decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, and in that case I’ll read what I damn well please, old or new.

I guess ultimately I think that if everyone decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, the world would be a messed-up place (oh, wait … the world IS a messed up place …), but I also think that people like me who are driven fairly mercilessly to spend every moment of time wisely might be better off seeking pleasure more often.

And so I’m having a bit of a bad reaction to the idea that my reading should be worthwhile. Would it hurt me much if my reading were more escapist?

Hmmm … I’m off to read Proust. Make of that what you will.

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Thoughts on footnotes

I’ve written a number of times about the footnotes to my edition of Dracula (you can find those posts here and here), and I’ve continued to think about how fun they were — perhaps not so much as a first-time reader of the novel, but still, they were fun. And I’m reminded of a comment Mandarine left on one of those posts:

I was thinking someone should set up a literary comments/editing/footnote wiki, where one would suggest classics, and everybody could add/edit all sorts of comments around the text. Each comment would have categories, so a reader can then check or uncheck the ‘fun’, ‘gothic’, ‘schoolboy’, ‘academic’, ‘cultural reference’ footnotes as they please.

Now wouldn’t that be awesome? I think that’s a great idea. I have no idea how to set this up, but someone else surely does (maybe someone’s done this already?). The footnotes in Dracula make me realize how much fun this would be, because those footnotes provide a range of information, from historical background to personal responses to almost off-topic musings to textual inconsistencies. They are much more personal than footnotes generally are; in places they are more like a reader’s musings than formal footnotes. And reader’s musings are very interesting to read, provided, of course, that the reader is interesting. Maybe one of the options on this hypothetical literature wiki would be to follow the footnotes or comments of one particular author, so you could find a writer you liked and follow his or her way through the text.

For those of you who know Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you have a glimpse of how much fun this can be; that novel starts with a 999-line poem and the rest of it is one person’s notes on that poem, notes that are … fascinating. Given the right primary text and the right reader, or group of readers, this could be a great exercise in thinking about how people read. Or it could be just plain old fun.

And, of course, you could have the scholarly comments, the historical footnotes, the theoretical ponderings, the critical citations. And these wouldn’t be limited by space constraints. They could be limitless in number and endless in length.

The commentary would get much longer than the primary text, I would think. You’d need to make sure a person could search through the material and get a handle on it somehow. I guess you’d run into the problems they have over at Wikipedia with fights over who gets to post what material. But anyway — it would be cool to experiment with, wouldn’t it?

As I’m typing this, in the oddest of coincidences, the Hobgoblin is laughing uproariously at this website: Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke in 500 Words or Less — it’s a site that has a commentary on the cartoon that’s just as funny as or funnier than the cartoon itself. I call it a coincidence, because it’s kind of like the commentary I’m talking about with Dracula — parasitic, perhaps, second-hand, but very clever and funny. The internet makes this sort of thing easy. Isn’t the internet the best?

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I reached my goal for the weekend: I finished Dracula, and what fun it was! The ending is very tense and exciting. And so now my rather lame RIP challenge is finished, only one book, and it’s not even October yet. I have time to read more RIP books if I like. We’ll see.

I thought the book was good in a number of ways, most of all, perhaps, because it was a great story. It’s a relatively long novel, but Stoker kept the tension high throughout. He’s fabulous at creating the frightening, eerie mood that this novel absolutely must have. The parts that take place in Transylvania — at the beginning and the end — are the most exciting and atmospheric, but the middle parts in England maintain the momentum.

The book is also good in ways Stoker might or might not have intended: it strikes me as the perfect late 19C novel (1897), reflecting so precisely so many of the period’s preoccupations. It’s about the too-thin veneer of order and rationality that we sometimes think is all of life, and how easily this gets ripped away to reveal the chaos and irrationality beneath. The book is full of train time tables and business accounts, signs of an orderly society at work, but order and rationality are at war with the supernatural. Nice, neat categories such as “alive” and “dead” are disturbed and forced to make room for the “undead” vampire. Up until the very end, the time tables are there, symbols of “civilization,” weapons the characters must wield against Count Dracula, whose powers and actions defy the rules that generally govern humanity.

The book is also about very weird and disturbing gender dynamics, and it’s obsessed with sexuality. You have the typical Victorian bifurcated view of women: Lucy, for example, the innocent, beautiful, sexually-attractive-but-pure, soon-to-be wife and angel of the house at first, who then transforms into a lustful, aggressive, evil vampire who must be killed. The issue is complicated, however, because while the men in the novel insist that Mina, the other main female character, remain out of their planning to destroy Dracula, they soon learn that Mina is precisely the one they need to track him down. It’s her good memory for those train tables and her forceful logical thought that save them in the end. The women in this novel are either perfectly pure or perfectly corrupt, but it is a woman who employs the stereotypically male power of logic to deduce Dracula’s whereabouts at a crucial moment in the story.

And Stoker has way too much fun playing around with images of sucking people’s blood and blood transfusions and exchanges of blood as thinly veiled sex acts. Sexuality is equated with vampirism, showing how a fear of and obsession with sex underlie Victorian staidness. Sex haunts the book, just as do a fear of the supernatural and of death.

I think Dracula belongs to the class of book which is at least as interesting for the ways it reveals something about the culture it came out of as it is for its story and characters. Any book will reveal something about its time and place of origin, but some books sum up what’s characteristic of its time and place so well that that becomes one of the chief pleasures of reading it. This novel is quite like The Monk and The Castle of Otranto in the way they all are often a bit sloppy and sometimes unintentially hilarious (well, maybe this is intentional?) but very good and interesting nonetheless, because of the energy and pleasure that obviously went into the writing and also because of the way they so perfectly speak to their times.

This book certainly has its flaws: I wished Stoker hadn’t bothered with the accents, especially Van Helsing’s, which is horribly distracting, and, like the accent of a bad actor, comes and goes. And not only are the gender stereotypes pervasive, but the national stereotypes are as well. The American character, Quincy Morris, made me laugh; he was from Texas, of course! and was rather cowboy-like. And the farther east the characters traveled across Europe, the more “primitive” and superstitious and irrational the natives became. But the book was just too much fun to let its flaws get to me.

If you’ve read Dracula before and are looking to read it again at some point, I highly recommend this edition. It’s not good for a first-time read (as mine was) because the footnotes are very intrusive and give away parts of the story early on, but it’s excellent for a re-reading. The footnotes are thorough and very funny in places; you can see my delighted posts on them here and here. They are the footnotes of a book-lover as well as a scholar, and they make good reading in and of themselves.

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TBR shelves

Here are my nice, neat, pretty shelves full of books I own but haven’t yet read, from two weeks ago:

And here are my shelves today:

I blame this on Book Mooch; I swear I haven’t been near a bookstore recently, except to buy a copy of Indiana, which I need for a book group and Book Mooch doesn’t have. And now I’ve got two more books on the way: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I’ll need a new shelf soon!

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Anarchy Soup

I’m having a whole lot of fun reading the Hobgoblin’s novel. Something about writing one’s novel on a blog strikes me as really, really cool. Part of the fun of reading it for me is recognizing some of the settings and characters from our real life. I won’t discuss those details because you probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about anyway, but the locations and some of the characters sounded quite familiar to me, and I was right: the Hobgoblin confirmed that he used some places we’ve spent time in and people we’ve spent time with as inspirations for his writing. One of the professors we both knew from grad school quit her job to write academic mysteries, and I remember people in the English department speculating about which character corresponded to which faculty member. In that department the “cookie key” was well-known — the key that got you into any office — and it made an appearance in this professor’s novel, which delighted us all.

I also think it’s very interesting to be writing a novel and getting feedback on it as he goes along. I’ll probably never write a novel, so I won’t know about these things first-hand, but it must be very, very different writing a novel in the usual way and publishing chapters online as they get written. I doubt any of the reader comments will change the way the Hobgoblin is writing his novel, but those comments have an influence anyway — the encouragement that comes from the comments must have an impact, and simply knowing that people are reading the chapters as he produces them must influence his motivation to write. It makes novel-writing a less isolating endeavour and a more communal one. I guess people working on novels in writing workshops can have a similar experience, but the reader/writer relationship is different, and the way readers encounter the novel is different too.

This kind of publication is like the old 19C way of serializing novels, so that the author could get reviews and other forms of feedback before the end of the novel is written. With a blog, however, the feedback can be more immediate and direct. I’ve come to see how blogging is a form of journal-writing gone public, so that one’s journal becomes more communal than private, but to apply that model to novel writing seems to be a different thing. Journals lend themselves to daily or at least frequent publication, where it seems more natural to be able to see the process of living and thinking and writing at work. But readers rarely get a glimpse of the process of novel writing (check out Bloglily’s excellent post on the subject if you are interested).

Okay, let me go and ask the Hobgoblin when I can expect his latest chapter …

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Book notes

It’s a good day when you come home and find three books in your mailbox! I came home yesterday and found three Bookmooch books: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, So Many Books, So Little Time, by Sara Nelson, and Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. And now, as I have no points left at Bookmooch, I’ll have to wait until someone mooches a book off of me before I can get any more.

I’m determined to finish Dracula this weekend. It’s been too long since I’ve finished a book, and I’m getting anxious. I want to start something new! And I’m closest to finishing Dracula, so that’s what it’ll be.

What I really wanted to talk about, though, is Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters, which has been so much fun to read. She meets nearly everybody famous in eighteenth-century England, it seems. She’s good friends with or hangs out at parties with Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and David Garrick. And the part I just began has her meeting King George III, and Queen Charlotte. She eventually becomes an attendant in the queen’s court, which it turns out she doesn’t like at all, since she has little privacy and time to herself. Reading her journals reminds me that the London literary world was fairly small and everybody seemed to know each other. Burney was very famous after the publication of Evelina; everyone wants to meet her everywhere she goes. She is painfully shy about her writing and seems to hate the attention she gets. However, the voice that comes through in the journals and letters makes me forget how famous she was. She seems so unassuming and quiet and doesn’t draw any attention to her success as a novelist that she comes across as just a regular person with a rather extraordinary life instead of the famous, very talented person she really is.

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Proust and the inconsistency of emotion

One of the things I’m enjoying in my Proust reading is the way he captures the waywardness of the mind and emotions, the manner in which a person can feel one thing in one moment and then the opposite in the next. He describes the contrariness of emotion and desire so excruciatingly well; I recognize my own shifts and variations and inconsistencies in Proust’s characters.

Towards the beginning of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator talks a lot about his desire to be a writer and his confidence, or lack of confidence, in his ability to write. And his feelings change constantly. When the narrator’s father says about the narrator’s desire to write that “The main thing is to enjoy what one does in life. He’s not a child anymore, he knows what he likes, he’s probably not going to change, he’s old enough to know what’ll make him happy in life,” he has a strange response. He knows he should be happy because his father had wanted him to be a diplomat, and now, instead, he’s getting permission from his father to do what he’s dreamed of — be a writer. But instead:

On this occasion, much as an author, to whom his own conceptions seem to have little value because he cannot think of them as separate from himself, may be alarmed at seeing his publishers putting themselves to the trouble of selecting an appropriate paper for them and setting them in a typeface that he may think too fine, I began to doubt whether my desire to write was a thing of sufficient importance for my father to lavish such kindness upon it.

Now that his father is taking his desire to be a writer seriously, he’s not so sure that he’s worthy of it. And this proclamation from his father makes him nervous for other reasons; his father’s statement that he’s old enough to know what he likes and that he won’t change has made him realize that his life has truly begun. He is no longer on the threshold of life, full of possibility, but instead is already living, and, what’s worse, his life may not change all that much. Isn’t it often true that when we finally get the thing we’ve been longing for, we realize it’s a disappointment, or that we didn’t really want it, or that getting what we want just creates a whole new set of problems?

Near the above passage, Proust offers another example of the inconsistency of our minds and emotions:

Think of the travelers who are uplifted by the general beauty of a journey they have just completed, although during it their main impression, day after day, was that it was a chore.

He talks about the “promiscuity of the ideas that lurk within us.” Isn’t that a great way to describe what living in one’s mind is like? It’s true for me, certainly. That example of the traveler works particularly well for me, because I’m reminded of my backpacking trips, which I have fond memories of, many great memories, and yet when I try hard to remember what each moment actually felt like when I was backpacking, I have to admit that it was a lot of pain, misery, boredom, and unhappiness.

So which is it? Are my backpacking trips wonderful or terrible? Does the narrator want to be a writer or not? The answer depends on the moment you are asking the question.  postCountTB(’11

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Book reviews

So Kate asks, “When and why do you read reviews?” And who am I to turn down a great idea for a blog post? As I consider my answer, I feel like I need to call it a confession: I don’t like reading book reviews of authors I’ve never heard of.

Well, that’s true when it comes to fiction and even more so for poetry. As for nonfiction, I love reading those reviews because I can often get the gist of the book without going to the trouble of … actually reading the book. The vast majority of nonfiction books that get published I’ll never read, and book reviews are a great way of keeping up with the ideas out there, a great way of learning a tiny bit of the latest in history, science, psychology, economics, politics, etc. etc. Sometimes I do end up reading the book; often, though, I get what I can from the review and move on.

As for fiction, though, that’s another story. The truth is that I feel overwhelmed by the number of novels out there and I’m sometimes resistant to new authors. I’m not especially pleased with myself for this; I’d like to be more adventurous in my reading. But I wait to see how widely a new name gets talked about, to see if the people I know, in person or online, talk about an author, to see what other authors recommend that person. I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of good writing this way, but I don’t know what else to do, really, when my to-be-read list is already so long and I’m feeling too pressured by books I’m already aware of to take a look at new ones.

So I avoid those reviews of books that are completely new to me, unless I happen to glance at a sentence that catches my attention and then I might read further. But that doesn’t happen all that often.

The other problem with reading fiction reviews, for me, is that I’m bored by plot summary. I’m happy to read a plot summary after I’ve read the book because then it all makes sense to me, but beforehand? It’s hard work to make sense of a novel’s premise from a few paragraphs. I’ll read the reviewer’s opening hook with interest, but when the plot summary begins, my mind wanders and I’m off to the next review.

What I like to read about in a review are things like the reviewer’s sense of the author’s writing career and how the new book fits into it, or about writing style, or comparisons between the author under consideration and other authors, or the reviewer’s judgments about what works and what doesn’t. I find myself reading the opening and closing paragraphs of reviews because that’s where I most often find those elements; the middle gets lost in the plot summary.

As for poetry, I’m even less likely to take a risk on a poet I’ve never heard of before, so those reviews I generally ignore also.

Maybe I should make a point of taking a risk on a new author every once in a while. If I decide to make up some reading goals for the new year, maybe that’ll be one of them: to read a book by an author I’ve never heard of before and that nobody has recommended to me. So, readers, don’t give me any ideas.

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My difficult books

I was fascinated by Bloglily’s post on difficult books, books she doesn’t finish because they just weren’t working for her. I’m going to steal her idea and talk about my own examples. She’s talking about books that she puts aside not because they are bad — an entirely separate category, I imagine, with its own list — but because she’s not ready for them for one reason or another. As an obsessive book-finisher, I don’t give up on many books, preferring to struggle on and suffer until the bitter end. But occasionally it happens, and then it rankles a bit. I feel challenged. I may have lost that round, but I’m coming back, one day when I’m stronger.

Bloglily mentions Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, which is top on my list of unfinished books. I tried this book a few years ago, and just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. I looked around for some help on the internet and found a little bit, but I got annoyed that I needed a plot summary to keep going, and couldn’t get it on my own, and I said forget it. I did make it through The Wings of the Dove, another late James novel, with much sweat and perserverance, so I think I can get The Ambassadors; I just need the right conditions — a fairly calm, quiet, unstressful couple of weeks during which I can spend the time to get a handle on the story. Maybe, also, I need to learn something about reading slowly and about living with a little uncertainty. Maybe Proust will help me with that stuff.

More common for me, however, are those books that I’ve read twice, and come to like the second time around, when the first time I didn’t. Something about those books brought me back again, even after an initial bad response. Pale Fire is a good example; I had to read the book for a college class, and it left me kind of cold. I re-read it a few years later, and changed my mind entirely. There was something about the language of that novel, the excitement and intensity of the commentary that came after the opening poem, the playfulness of it all that I just couldn’t appreciate the first time, and came to love the second. I needed to learn something about the pleasures of experimentation with form and language, I think.

I had a similar experience with Don Delillo’s White Noise, which also left me cold at first. I’m not sure why I read it again, except perhaps because so many people loved it that I wondered what I had missed. When I re-read it, I finally got it — the humor and the social satire. Maybe I needed to learn how to read the type of book that doesn’t necessarily work to create emotionally-vibrant, psychologically-realistic characters of the sort I’m usually drawn to. I needed to learn how to read and appreciate satire. I think that’s true about me — I don’t always respond well to satire, preferring warmer, intimate reads that take me into the heart of a character rather than books that focus on the failings of people and of society from a more exterior point of view.

Thinking along these lines, maybe I should read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann once again. I read it a year or two ago, and found it okay in places, downright boring in others. I’m guessing this is because of a flaw in me and not in the book. Maybe if I take another look at it again a few years from now, I’ll find its highly philosophical meanderings and its very slow pace intriguing and absorbing.

At any rate, many thanks to Bloglily for writing a thought-provoking post. I like the idea of giving certain novels a second chance — and giving myself one too.

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My century

On my last century (by “century” I mean a 100-mile bike ride — no, this isn’t a post on my last 100 years of life or a report on how the 21st century is going for me), I actually only rode 98 miles. The course wasn’t quite as long as they said it was. I really don’t like planning on riding 100 miles and only getting to 98 — it’s not quite the same as 100 is it? But as it was raining that day, and I’d been riding in the rain for 4 hours or so, I left it at 98. Today, however, when I got near the end and found I’d only rode 95 miles, I turned off the course to add some miles before heading to the car, in hopes of reaching 100. And then I did a few laps around the parking lot to make sure my bike computer reached the magic number, which it eventually did. So, yay! A real century!

Unfortunately, when I got back to the car, I found out that the Hobgoblin hadn’t had a good ride. I won’t describe that, as he has written about it, but rest assured that no crashes were involved, and he and his bike are doing okay.

As for me, I set out on my own, fully expecting to ride by myself the entire time, but somehow I fell in with this guy around mile 10 or so, and we rode the rest of the way together. It was nice to have a partner; often I don’t find anyone who rides at my pace, but this guy did, and we talked off and on, which made the time livelier. And when I got a flat tire, he helped me change it. While I can certainly change a tire all on my own (I’d be highly embarrassed if I couldn’t!), I’m not that fast, so I’ll let someone faster help me out, so we can get back on the bikes sooner. After that, I had no troubles whatsoever. It was a beautiful day, sunny and in the 70s, maybe hitting 80, I’m not sure, and I realized that since it’s probably the nicest day we’ll see for a while, it was a very good thing I could be outside for most of it.

Now I think I’ve reached the end of my riding season. A century is a good way to end, a culmination of hours of training, a big event that requires a lot of effort and feels like a worthy accomplishment.

But don’t think this means I’ll be off my bike until spring — oh, no! It means I’ll be off my bike for a few weeks. My races begin in March, which means I’d like to start my serious race training in December to be ready for the March races, and I need to do 1 or 2 months of preparatory riding before serious training, which pushes things back to October. I have grand plans for training and what I’ll accomplish at the races next year, although I realize that it’s easy to make training plans for January and February when it’s only September and still in the 70s outside and I’ve forgotten what it feels like to ride when it’s in the 20s and snowy. This year I won’t be wimpy about cold weather training, I’m sure of it!

We shall see.

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A reading and riding update

Today is my second century of the year. I kind of wish it were going to be rainy, so I could have an excuse to stay home and not ride, but, no, it’s going to be a gorgeous day, so I’ll be out riding for 6-7 hours. Once I’m out there it’ll be fun, but sometimes it’s hard to get myself up and out of the house at 6:30 in the morning to go ride all day. I’ll certainly let you know how it goes!

As for books, I now have my copy of George Sand’s Indiana, so I’m ready to read for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion. I think I’ll pick up another novel before I begin Sand’s, but that’s just to make sure I don’t read it so soon I forget it before the posts are due. I’m looking forward to it a lot.

But I don’t feel like my reading is going that well these days. I’m much busier than I was a few weeks ago, so I have less time, and am only slowly dragging myself through books that I thought would go much faster. Dracula should be a fast read, but it’s not when I only get through 20-30 pages a day. I’m on schedule with Proust, at about 50 pages a week, but my other books are languishing on the shelves. It’s at this point that reading multiple books gets to be a bit more difficult, as I don’t have time to read regularly in each one, and I begin to feel disconnected from them. Not that I’m going to give it up, mind you, but I do feel that if I can get to the end of one or two of my current reads, I might not pick up new ones, to get the total number down. It’s just that I’m in the middle of a bunch of long books, so there’s no end in sight: I’m maybe 1/3 of the way through my Colette biography, 1/4 of the way through Burney’s letters and journals, and only 25 pages or so into Jane Kenyon’s poems. And no where near the end of Proust.

I AM busy buying and mooching books though; my nice, neat to-be-read shelves are beginning to look a little less neat. In addition to Indiana, I’ve recently acquired The Great Mortality about the plague, and The Heptameron. I have The Places In Between, a travel book by Rory Stewart about walking through Afghanistan, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time on the way to me through Bookmooch. In times when I can’t read much, buying (or mooching) books is a decent substitute.

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More footnotes

I’m reading slowly these days, although fairly steadily; I’m maybe 1/3 of the way through Dracula, and finding some more funny footnotes, although nothing as good as the ones here. The editor gets pedantic about the ways the blood transfusions in Dracula are completely unrealistic, peppering the narrative with corrective comments. Here are a whole series of footnotes to a passage that’s about a page long:

In real life the hugger-mugger blood transfusions that follow would almost certainly kill both donor and patient, since no effort is made by Van Helsing or Seward to match blood types, which, in any event, they could not have known about until nearly three decades later. For those living at the end of the twentieth century, in the age of AIDS, this can be an especially poignant scene.

Veins are never empty. They are full of serum plus red blood cells.

The brightest blood is dilute, anemic blood. On the other hand, adequate normal blood is dark.

Stoker lays the groundwork for the erotic meaning of the blood transactions that are to come.

Narcotics are for pain; narcoleptic drugs and hypnotics are for sleep.

Fibrin is the clotting material in blood.

Did he transfuse the blood directly or use a receptacle?

If the loss of blood was telling on Arthur, it would be because he had given Lucy more than two pints of his own blood. The healthy adult human body has four or five quarts of blood flowing in it. Modern bloodbank practice is to limit blood donations to one pint at prescribed intervals.

It makes its own story, doesn’t it? It IS rather Pale Fire-like.

This footnote made me laugh out loud; to understand its humor, you have to remember that there are no llamas or monkeys in the book (as least as far as I know — although other animals are important), and military bands make no appearance whatsoever:

The Zoological Gardens, in the northwest corner of Regent’s Park, were open daily from 9:00 A.M. to sunset. Admission was (in Stoker’s time) one shilling, except on Monday, when it was sixpence. Children were half price. In a more God-fearing age than ours, the zoo was closed on Sunday.

On summer Saturdays at 4:00 P.M. there was a military band concert at the zoo.

Visitors were cautioned not to get too close to the llamas “on account of [their] unpleasant expectorating propensities.” The unpleasant odor of the monkey house was “judiciously disguised by numerous plants and flowers.”

Readers of Dracula will want to know that unaccountably the zoo’s bats were kept in the monkey house.

I love the “God-fearing age” detail and I do wonder, I really wonder, why the editor thought expectorating llamas and smelly monkeys were necessary to mention. And okay, there IS a bat in the book, a very important one, but why I’d want to know that the zoo’s bats were kept with monkeys I’m not sure.

And finally, another reassurance that our editor is doing his research. Here’s a passage from the novel:

We went round to the back of the house, where there was a kitchen window. The Professor took a small surgical saw from his case, and handing it to me, pointed to the iron bars which guarded the window. I attacked them at once and had very soon cut through three of them.

Here’s the footnote:

An unlikely story. An energetic undergraduate, using a modern high carbon steel surgical saw against an iron strap one eighth of an inch thick, was able to cut one-fourth of an inch into the strap in half an hour. Assuming that Seward was cutting into bars of modest thickness, three quarters of an inch per bar, the task of cutting three such bars should have taken five hours. This is to say nothing about the condition of the surgical saw which, in the modern experiment, was rendered nearly useless for iron bars and absolutely useless for surgery.

On the other hand, Seward was desperate.

So how’s that for active, experiential learning?

Oh, and I do like Dracula itself, very much. One day I’ll post on it. It’s just that the footnotes are so … great.

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On being a litblogger (or bookblogger?)

Courtney has a post on Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, which has some great thoughts about the book, but also some interesting musings on what it’s like to write about books and some ambivalence about claiming the title “litblogger.” She talks about finding it painful to write about books unless she is “absolutely burning up with motivation to do so” and connects that pain to years of writing about books for classes. (Courtney — forgive me if I’ve described your post inaccurately.) As a side note, I think it’s a real shame that people leave literature classes associating writing about books with pain, and as someone who occasionally makes students write about books, I’d love to know how to keep that from happening. I suppose when we’re talking about “making” students writing about books, a certain amount of pain might be unavoidable. But what I’m really interested in are the connections — or lack of connections — between what it’s like to write about books on my blog and what it’s like to write about books for class or for other scholarly purposes.

If I thought of this blog as a place to prepare for scholarly writing, I probably would have quit the blog quite a while ago. And if I thought of the blog as a place to analyze books — you know, to be thorough and careful about it, to be responsible and smart and to write real reviews and give “readings” — I wouldn’t be here. All that’s anxiety-inducing. What’s great about the blog is that I get to write about books in a way that’s purely fun. I often find myself writing about a book I’ve finished, and realizing that while I’ve got more I could say, I’m getting tired, and I’m going to wrap things up, because, you know what? — this isn’t for class or for a book review or for anybody but me, so if I don’t say everything I have to say about a book, so be it. And while I tell my students not to let quotations overwhelm their own voices, when I write about literature here, if I want to have 9/10 of my post be quotation, I can. I can let writers speak for me if I want to. I can be unabashedly personal in my responses to books; there are no restrictions on talking about what I liked or didn’t like, and I don’t even have to have a great reason for it.

It’s interesting that if you look at some of the comments to Courtney’s post, you’ll find ambivalence about the term “litblogger.” I wonder if “bookblogger” isn’t a better term, partly to get away from the feeling that we’re writing about literature, not just plain old books, and had therefore better do it well. It also interests me the way that creating a category begins to cause a bit of tension because of the way people then have to define themselves by it or against it, which can be fraught with anxiety. If I call myself a litblogger, I’ve made a claim that I’m setting out to write about literature and therefore implying that I’ve got some special insights or something to share. That requires confidence.

And you know what? After Courtney’s ambivalence about the term litblogger and about writing about books, she’s got a really great post on Russo’s novel. It’s exactly the sort of bookblogging I love: personal, thoughtful, connecting the book to an ongoing blog conversation (about plot), and offering great insights. To go from a gut feeling to analysis, without getting all serious and scholarly about it, is exactly what book blogs (or book posts, if the blog’s not solely about books) do so well. And I don’t mean to criticize those bookbloggers who get scholarly now and then — not at all; I think that, for those who enjoy it, connecting the scholarly and the personal is another thing a blog is great for, and I’d like to think that blogs might change the way we think about scholarly writing.

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A whiny post, revised for less whining

Okay, so I just wrote a couple of paragraphs whining about being tired, and then I deleted them. Who wants to hear me whining, after all?

What I’ll write about instead of whining is what it’s like to write in my blog every day. I’m curious how people who blog decide how often to write and what inspires them to write when they do, and if they feel guilty for neglecting the blog for a while, and, if they write regularly or every day, if they long for a break at times.

For the most part, I love writing every day. I find writing a good way to start my evening — to create a break between my work day and my evening (assuming I’m not doing some work in the evening, which isn’t always the case). What I’ve been doing lately is writing something in the evening and then posting it in the morning. That way, I can look it over and make sure I didn’t say anything ridiculous and maybe change a few things if I feel like it. I like waking up in the morning and having a brand new blog post waiting for me to publish it.

I worried when I started this that I’d run out of ideas. But mostly I don’t. Mostly I have a couple ideas for blog posts lurking in my brain somewhere, waiting their turn to get out. Okay, today is maybe an exception; if I were still in a whiny mode, I’d write about being too tired to read much and get much out of it, too tired to concentrate and therefore too tired to keep the blogging ideas flowing. Hence this random post. But, really, almost always there’s something in my reading that triggers the thought, “blog post!”

I do sometimes feel that because I’ve established the pattern of writing every day, I have to keep writing every day. The fun part of blogging is having people read me, and even though people who read me would understand if I don’t post on a certain day, I’m sure, I do feel that if I don’t post, something is missing, something is wrong, something is lacking out there and I have to fix it, people are checking my blog, and there’s nothing new. I don’t feel that this is a burden, and if I did, I’d do what litlove did, and declare that I’m going to follow some new pattern, one that gives me more flexibility.

Rather, it’s a discipline that keeps me thinking critically about what I’m reading and how my cycling is going. And it’s not a burdensome discipline, but a delightful one. It’s kind of fun to think that there are a bunch of blog posts that I’ll be writing in the coming weeks and months, and I have no idea what they are about, but they will get written, and I’ll come up with an idea every day, reliably. Maybe that’s what makes the discipline of writing every day so delightful: I’m showing myself again and again that I have stuff to say. Given my uncertainties about my interest in writing and my writing ability, that’s a good lesson.

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Cycling and play

Litlove wrote a great post on creativity and play recently, and I’ve been thinking about how cycling is a form of play for me. In a way my cycling isn’t a good example at all, since many aspects of it are not in the least “playful” — the fact that I measure so much of what I do on the bike, that I’m training and I plan my training carefully, that on the bike I’m performing the same motions over and over again, and I’m frequently out on the same routes again and again. I have a bike computer that sits on my handlebars where I can read what my heart rate is at the moment, and my speed, and cadence, and a whole bunch of other things. There doesn’t seem to be much room for the creativity of play — it’s more about repetitive motion and numbers. Litlove says that play is “open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules, mutually engaging (if in involves another)” and that isn’t really what my riding is about.

Except in another sense that IS what it’s about, because what happens with my mind isn’t the same as what happens with my body. Even though my body is doing the same thing over and over again — pushing the pedals, turning the handle bars — my mind is free to wander anywhere. I spend a lot of hours on the bike, but I rarely find myself bored. Even riding in a century, when I’m on the bike for 6 or 7 hours, I don’t get bored up until the very end when my mind starts to focus in on my aching body. When I’m riding I often get in what feels like a meditative space, where I’m not really thinking of anything at all. I may have a song in my head, I may occasionally think ahead to what I’m doing next in my day, but mostly I’m just … thinking nothing. The very fact that my body is performing a repetitive motion helps free up my mind, I think; the constraint of being on the bike creates space to just exist in.

I think my mind accomplishes something while I’m out playing on rides; it doesn’t solve problems, or come up with creative new ideas, or reach fabulous insights, but my mind does a lot of letting go — letting go of worries, mostly. I almost always come back from a ride feeling much better, much happier, much less anxious, much more energetic.

Litlove says that play is “a state of creativity that is of necessity inconclusive.” Riding my bike is in a sense all about conclusiveness: I’m out there in order to do the ride and get back home again, in the fastest time possible, or in order to gain a certain amount of strength and power. But in another sense, I’m out there and have nothing to do with my mind, except for the minimal need to pay attention to traffic and the road (actually, my mind tends to wander so much I can have trouble with this, and have been known to let my bike wander off into the grass), and am free to think or not to think, whatever I want. My mind has no goal or task to accomplish. Thinking of riding in these terms helps me understand why I love it so much.

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So you know how I thought the introduction to my edition of Dracula was funny? Well, the footnotes are funnier. I’m discovering that my edition isn’t a typically academic one; in fact, I think it’s geared more toward gothic/horror fans, although the book proclaims the editor as “the world’s premier Dracula scholar” (which reminds me of Little Miss Sunshine …).

The edition has commentary by “leading contemporary horror writers, including Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and many more” and this commentary is interspersed throughout the book, so that in between chapters I’m invited to step outside of the story and think about what some other writer has to say about it. Actually, though, I just ignore those parts. The book also has “Over 35 illustrations, including stunning new Dracula illustrations by Christopher Bing.” These are fun, but I was a bit perplexed to come across a drawing of Bram Stoker himself – again, it’s disconcerting to get caught up in a story and then get pulled out of it to consider what the author looks like. Why couldn’t they just let the story be, and keep all that other stuff to the introduction or an appendix?

But the footnotes are the most intrusive of all; they are frequent, with probably 3 or 4 a page on average and often lengthy. Many of them contain useful information – a LOT of information – on the history and culture of Transylvania, on vampire stories, on Stoker’s life and times. But many of them contain no useful information at all, and instead offer interpretations of the book, point out inconsistencies in Stoker’s storytelling, make judgments on the characters’ actions, and generally just get in the way – and make me laugh. The book mentions the dish “paprika hendl,” and in the footnotes we get a recipe. The novel says that the driver “cracked his big whip over four small horses, which ran abreast,” and the footnote tells us “In no Dracula film yet made has anyone depicted the horses harnessed in this way.”

Dracula says, “I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may,” and the editor muses, “A surprisingly melancholy passage. Is Dracula lonely? Why does he want Harker there? Is he really testing his English, or his social skills, as he claims?” And what are these footnotes – attempts at creating a reader’s guide, complete with discussion questions? Harker considers escaping from Dracula’s castle, saying, “I shall try to scale the castle wall farther than I have yet attempted. I shall take some of the gold with me lest I want it later,” and the editor gets moralistic: “A pretty lame excuse for stealing Dracula’s gold.”

But the best footnote of all is yet to come (and I’ve only read about 60 pages! Hundreds left to go!). First, the text: this is the scene where Harker is first attacked by the three mysterious vampire women hanging out in Dracula’s castle (and the text itself is pretty funny, if you read it in the right way):

The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck….

Here’s the accompanying footnote:

I have tried, calmly as well as passionately, to reproduce this churning sound with my tongue but without success. It may be a noise that only a passionate vampire can make.

I’m glad to know this editor is doing his research!

It would be better to read a less intrusive edition for my first time through the book, but I have to admit that the editorial apparatus is adding an entirely unexpected level of pleasure to my reading.

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Yesterday I wrote about the odd introduction to my edition of Dracula; today I read another introduction, this time to Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, written by James Grieve, the volume’s translator and editor. This introduction was a little more traditional and less amusing than the Dracula introduction, but it had some odd moments too. Grieve tells us in the first paragraph that “Inclined to see this volume as a ‘listless interlude,’ Proust was surprised that ‘everyone’s reading it.'” Well, that’s going to get readers excited about the book, isn’t it? I’m guessing that the book won’t feel like a “listless interlude” — the first ten pages certainly don’t feel that way, which is what I’ve read so far — but I do wonder what made Proust see it that way.

But much odder is Grieve’s rather-too-intense focus on Proust’s shortcomings as a storyteller. In a short introduction, about 8 pages, he spends 3 or 4 describing Proust’s inconsistencies and carelessness with detail. Part of the point, I think, is to discuss the troubles a translator faces when trying to figure out whether to correct an obvious and glaring error or to leave it there. Here is a passage on Proust’s weaknesses:

Among the great novelists, as a bungler of basics Proust has no equal, save perhaps Henry James … [James] seems unskilled in introducing his characters to his reader, and in enabling characters to converse. In similar things, Proust too seems incompetent, or perhaps an improviser … His composition was not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even. He can make heavy weather of simple movements: characters get stood roughly into position so that the next demonstration may take place; action must be performed perfunctorily, so that protracted analysis of it may ensue; the narrator seems to say farewell to Elstir at his front door, yet two pages later is walking him home. Proust shows, it has been said, “utter nonchalance” about “loss of fictional verisimilitude.”

Now it makes perfect sense to me than an introduction-writer might point out some of the author’s flaws, but Grieve emphasizes them too much I think. After the above passage, he proceeds to offer pages of Proust’s errors and lapses and inconsistencies, things that could have been left to the footnotes. So maybe Grieve doesn’t need to work to convince us that Proust is great — we already know he is — but on the other hand he doesn’t need to work so hard to convince us that Proust is sloppy!

But when Grieve writes about Proust’s strengths, he does so very well. I like this explanatory passage:

Proust was intermittently unsure whether he was writing an essay or a novel. Here is a novel written by a critic and literary theorist, both a novel in the form of an essay and an essay on the novel. Proust must not only show but tell, tell rather than show, tell at the expense of showing; he must make the reader, who may wish only to revel in the fiction, admit the truthfulness of its fictionality.

This sounds exactly like the kind of book I like (although I like more traditional sorts of novels too — very much so), with its mix of essayistic and storytelling modes, and it helps me understand what Proust is up to — telling a story and meditating on stories both. And this passage might make you want to read the novel, although then again it might just depress you. I liked it anyway:

Proust’s real strengths lie in his analysis of the ordinary, his close acquaintance with feelings, the pessimism of his examination of consciousness, his diagnosis of the unreliability of relationships and the incoherence of personality, his attentiveness to the bleak truths he has to tell of time, of its unrelenting wear and tear, its indifferent outlasting of all human endeavor, its gradual annulment of our dearest joys and even our cruelest sorrows, voiding them of all that once made them ours. Life, as Proust tells it, is disappointment and loss — loss of time, as his title says, and loss of youth of course; loss of freshness of vision, of belief, of the semblance it once gave to the world; and loss of self, a loss against which we have only one safeguard, and that unsure: memory.

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I’ve begun reading Dracula and am discovering how closely it adheres to the gothic style, particularly that of Ann Radcliffe, two books of whose I’ve read, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. You have the journey south and east across Europe, complete with stereotypes of superstitious Catholics, exotically-dressed locals, threatening wild beasts, and dangerous climbs over rocky crags. You have the lengthy descriptions of nature, which is both beautiful and threatening — although I should say it’s sublime, to use the appropriate aesthetic term. You have the ever-increasing chaos and uncertainty the further from England the traveler ventures. It’s all quite familiar to this avid-eighteenth-century novel reader, except for the trains, but they fit into the pattern as well: “It seems to me the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?” We have a punctual, time-table-driven, proper Englishman — this part strikes me as the Victorian contribution to the eighteenth-century tradition — traveling to the “exotic” east.

The introduction to the novel amused me; the editor gives a brief history of gothic novels and vampire stories, and he’s got some rather strong opinions on things that he’s not afraid to share (I’ve got The Essential Dracula, subtitled The Definitive Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker’s Classic Novel). On The Castle of Otranto, he says:

I am myself fond of Otranto without being either moved or surprised by it. It seems precisely the sort of novel a neurasthenic antiquarian with bad dreams and plenty of time on his hands would write in two months time “without knowing in the least what [he] intended to say or to relate.”

He admires Radcliffe somewhat more:

With Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), we have the first fully realized Gothic romance in the history of the genre. Despite its sometimes endless descriptions of places to which its author had never been; despite lapses into fifth-rate poetry; despite even its author’s insistence on demystifying her first-rate mysteries, the work has a compelling fascination that commands respect.

High praise, yes? His description of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk strikes me as about right:

Lewis, at nineteen, as Walpole did at forty-seven, wrote his book at top speed, finishing it in the space of ten weeks. The Monk is a work of wonderful adolescent gusto. The young Lewis intensely enjoyed the lustful and violent extravagances of his villain, Ambrosio, and devoted himself to giving them to us in every macabre and delicious detail.

He does not at all like John Polidori’s The Vampyre:

The Vampyre is a work almost without merit, having neither memorable characters, a plot worth pursuing, nor any noticeable style,

but he likes another vampire tale, Thomas Presket Prest’s Varney the Vampyre a bit better:

Varney the Vampyre (1847), a work that has no literary pretensions, is for that reason much more fun to read. The book is an enthusiastic potboiler whose energy almost never flags.

I wouldn’t take this editor’s judgments too seriously, but he does capture the feeling of a lot of these books, which, with the possible exception of Radcliffe, are more about having a lot of fun than taking care with craft. And there’s something wonderful about writing a novel solely in order to have some fun, I’d say.

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