Happy New Year! Hobgoblin and I will spend the evening as we usually spend New Year’s Eve, drinking hard cider, eating chips and other food that’s bad for us, watching movies, and trying desperately to stay up till midnight (and perhaps failing). Have a great evening whatever you are doing and have a wonderful 2008!
Monthly Archives: December 2007
Happy New Year Everyone!
Filed under Life
Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations
Many thanks to Imani for writing so well about Gabriel Josipovici’s novel Goldberg: Variations and inspiring me to read it. I mentioned in an earlier post that I finished this book and then immediately read it again; this re-reading worked better than the time I re-read Nightwood immediately after finishing it: this time I was able to understand more of the book the second time around and I enjoyed staying in the world of the novel for a little while longer. I wouldn’t, in fact, mind reading it again; I won’t do it, but if someone asked me to for some reason, I wouldn’t object. There’s something soothing about reading the novel, which doesn’t sound like an appropriate way to describe a serious work of fiction, but that’s how I felt. In spite of the fact that the identity of the narrator/authorial presence is uncertain throughout much of the book, I felt like I was in the hands of someone I could trust.
The novel’s initial premise is that Samuel Goldberg, a writer, has been hired by Tobias Westfield, a wealthy English gentleman, to read to him until he falls asleep. Westfield suffers from terrible insomnia and is desperately searching for a cure. Goldberg begins to read to him, but Westfield engages him in conversation, and eventually asks him if he would write an original piece to read the next night. Goldberg agrees, but the next day he finds himself suffering from writer’s block. The only solution he can find is to write the story of coming to Westfield’s house, being asked to write an original composition, and failing. In other words, he will try to turn the failure itself into a success. And thus ends the first chapter.
What follows are 29 more chapters, each one a “variation,” each one telling some story about Goldberg and his family or Westfield and his family, or describing some local historical event, or narrating the conversations Goldberg and his friend Hammond have as Hammond drives him to the Westfield manor, or telling some other story that relates in some way to the others. Part of the fun of the book is figuring out how all these pieces fit together. In one chapter, Goldberg’s wife writes him a letter (this was one of my favorite chapters — her voice is beautiful); in another, we learn what happened to Westfield’s first wife; in another, we learn how he came to marry his second; in another, the narrator tells the story of Goldberg’s friend Isaac Sinclair, the poet who went mad.
Many of the chapters record conversations characters have about literature or philosophy, for example, the conversation Hammond and Goldberg have about the differences between Achilles and Odysseus as heroes, or the chapter where Goldberg gets summoned by the King (did I mention this takes place in the 18C?) and is asked to improvise a speech on this topic: “A man who had enough wanted everything … as a result he was left with nothing. Treat this not as a morality but as a tragedy.” Whereupon Goldberg pauses for a moment and then launches into a detailed explication of a John Donne poem illustrating the topic. When he arrives home afterwards, he decides he is unhappy with his response and sends the King something more pleasing — a series of stories illustrating the idea.
All these disquisitions are included in the novel, so that it has a patchwork feel — we are given narratives, descriptions, literary criticism, philosophical explorations, conversations, letters, fantastical stories, historical events, all of them ultimately fitting together in one way or another. In later chapters, new characters and new narrators are introduced, which puts the earlier material in a new light and broadens the scope of the novel. As you work your way through it, the novel comes to seem like a puzzle, the reader left wondering how each new piece, each new chapter, fits with the rest.
Many of the stories are about failure and loss, particularly the failure of artistic inspiration. Goldberg, upon his failure to compose a story that might put Westfield to sleep, contemplates the changes that have occurred in the circumstances of artistic production over the centuries; in an imaginary conversation with Westfield he says:
It may be the case, sir, that in the time of Greece and Rome, and even in the time of our glorious Shakespeare, a man of letters might have fulfilled your commission. The writers of those times might in a day have produced for you a dazzling series of variations on any theme of your choice. You would have had but to speak, but to outline, however briefly, the subject about which you wished them to discourse, and in an hour or two, or perhaps even less, they would have regaled you with the most delightful fancies and stirring sequences based upon your subject. But, alas, our own age is grown altogether less inventive and more melancholic, and few can now find it in their hearts ‘to take a point at pleasure and wrest and turn it as he list, making either much or little of it, according as shall seem best in his own conceit’, as an ancient writer on these matters puts it. For what we list has grown obscure and difficult to define.
Situated in the 18C, Goldberg is living in the transition time between the artist as craftsperson and the artist as Romantic genius, and his ability to improvise before the King and also his inability to write at Westfield’s command illustrates this tension. He is torn between these two definitions of the artist, longing to be a craftsman but recognizing that the artist-as-craftsman figure is disappearing:
The truth of the matter is that something deep within me yearns to be the kind of craftsman he believes me to be, but something else, equally deep, rejects the formulation. But if that is so, why do I still yearn for that other version of myself, why do I still hold up to myself as an ideal the image of the maker, skilled and inventive, capable of coping with every challenge?
He met the challenge of the King, yes, but he couldn’t resist writing another response later, one he could compose at leisure, when inspiration struck. He is subject to doubts, no longer able simply to create and enjoy what he created.
The novel is about artistic failure, but also about success: in her letter to Goldberg, Mrs. Goldberg writes beautifully about what writing can accomplish:
I had never thought of any of this till I sat down half an hour ago filled with the need to write about you. That is what writing is like. The sheet of paper before one and the pen in one’s hand seem to allow those things to emerge which one knew but didn’t know one knew. It may not be very interesting or very profound, but it brings relief. Like hugging you. But why is it not sufficient to sit in my chair and imagine myself hugging you? After all, when I write here in my notebook you are no more present than if I closed my eyes and thought of you. Indeed, less so perhaps, since if I close my eyes then I can see you, whereas when I write I certainly do not. But then when I hug you I do not see you, I feel you. And that is what seems to happen with writing. But why should that be so? To feel you, you have to be present and close to me, and now you are neither. Yet I am sure this is the truth, that when I close my eyes I see you but when I write I feel you.
Beautiful, yes? Do you see why I loved this book? Really, if this book sounds at all appealing to you, read it.
I don’t want to bury my post below, which I finished only a few minutes ago, but I do want to post a link to my new blog, inspired by Jenny D’s Triaspirational, which will be about my triathlon training. I’m writing it on an experimental basis, just to see how it goes. I reserve the right to delete it the minute I get bored (or the minute I quit triathlon training, which is still a possibility). The purpose will be to keep track of my training, so I don’t expect it will be of much interest to others, unless you’d like to know just how hard I’m working.
Filed under Links
Reading, 2007, continued
So now I’ll post some of my favorite books of the year. First, considering the stats I posted yesterday, I was surprised that I’d read books by men and women in almost equal numbers, 33 and 34 respectively. I didn’t plan it that way! This ratio is much more even than the previous year’s, which was 24 and 32 in favor of women. I couldn’t tell you why this changed because I rarely think about gender when I pick up a book. Then, to get completely dorky for a moment, 83% of the books I read were from the 20th or 21st century in 2007, a number I wish were a little lower. The number is similar to that of 2006, which is 80%. I wish I had numbers from previous years because doing this kind of analysis is fun! It satisfies the math geek in me.
Oooh, and another interesting fact: the amount of fiction I read stayed the same from 2006 to 2007, at about 66% of the whole. Most of the rest was nonfiction with a small percentage of poetry thrown in there. Also, Stefanie correctly noted that the number of books I read went up from last year to this one — I went from 56 books to 70. There’s a good reason for that: I didn’t start blogging until March of 2006, at which point my reading rate started to increase. It took me a while to get the momentum going, though, hence the lower number for 2006. You see how blogging has changed my life?
Okay, now to my book list. I’m a little uncertain how to handle the big books I read: In Search of Lost Time, Don Quixote, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Obviously, those are wonderful books, they were very important ones for me to read, and they deserve a spot on my list of top books of the year. How could they not belong there? But they are also fairly boring, obvious choices. So I think I’ll just acknowledge that they are wonderful, and then choose my best books from among the other ones I read. Maybe I can limit my list of favorites to seven, which would be the top 10%.
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is wonderful, and I should read everything he’s written. It’s hard to believe that someone could write so movingly about clones. This book was powerful, at least as much for its psychological insights as for its exploration of a scientific dystopia. I made several people read this book, I liked it so much (they liked it too).
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Apparently everyone else loves this book too — my posts on it get more hits than anything else, by a long shot. Gilbert’s courage comes through clearly — her courage to take risks, travel, and explore new ways of living and being, and also her courage to write about what she experienced. I started off slightly irritated by her writing voice, but quickly gave in and fell in love with the book.
- W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I’m never sure whether to call this fiction or nonfiction; I counted it as fiction for my year-end stats, but it could as easily have gone the other way. This was beautiful and moving, an example of a new favorite genre of mine: the walking book. Sebald covers so much ground, so to speak, telling stories about the places his narrator walks through, connecting geography and history and evoking a somber, thoughtful mood as he contemplates the traces of past events on the landscape.
- Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. This was a long and satisfying novel, one that slowly accumulates detail about its characters and its place so that you feel you are living in its world. It leaves you with a sense of loss when you are finished. It draws you into a familial story in the beginning, and then slowly turns its attention to politics, so that you begin to see how large and small events converge and how the domestic and the political affect one another.
- Frances Willard’s A Wheel Within a Wheel. I loved this book so much I gave a copy to a non-cycling friend of mine, who I hope will appreciate the author’s unique voice as much as I did. The book isn’t interesting solely for the cycling, anyway; it’s the author’s personality that holds your attention, her funny turns of phrase, her willingness to entertain ideas others might find shocking, and the odd combination of old-fashioned, moralistic radicalism.
- Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps I should read more science fiction. I loved the way the characters developed over the course of the novel. I found the ending tremendously exciting, and I thought the way LeGuin explored gender roles was fascinating. The book started off a bit slowly, but soon enough I was hooked and didn’t want to put it down.
- Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. I haven’t posted on this one yet, as I just finished it a couple days ago. But I should clarify that I finished a second reading a couple days ago; as soon as I finished, I started over again, to try to understand it better and to ensure that the rather odd experience of reading it didn’t end so soon. I’m still gathering my thoughts about it, but I can say that I loved the way Josipovici gathered together different stories and threads of thought and turned them into something lovely and wise.
A few others I loved: Richard Holmes’s Footsteps, Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I’m noticing how much nonfiction I liked; I’m not sure if this means I should read more of it, or if it’s something I need to read at a fairly slow pace. Nonfiction tends to stand out more than the novels I read, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I should read significantly more of them.
Last year I had fun putting together some statistics about my reading year, so I thought I’d do it again. I won’t be finishing any books in the next few days, so the numbers won’t change.
- Books read: 70
- Fiction (of any length): 46
- Short story collections: 3
- Poetry collections: 4
- Nonfiction: 20
- Nonfiction books about books or reading: 9
- Books written by men: 33
- Books written by women: 34
- Books with multiple authors, male and female: 3
- Books in translation: 15
- Books in translation from Europe: 11
- Books by British authors: 26
- Books by American authors: 23
- Books from the first century AD: 1 (Seneca’s Letters)
- From the 17th century: 1 (Don Quixote)
- From the 18th century: 3
- From the 19th century: 7
- From the 20th century: 34 (first half: 12; second half: 22)
- From the 21st century: 24
- From the 20th or 21st century but about an earlier century: 7
- Books re-read: arguably 1 (I’d already read many of the poems in my collection of Keats’s poetry)
- Different books from authors I’d already read: 14
The Christians and the Pagans
Hobgoblin and I returned home a day early to avoid the snow that’s supposed to come tomorrow, and now we’re safe in our respective studies, back at our computers, and all is well. We had a good time at my parents’ place, although Muttboy suffered some because my oldest brother’s dog is more energetic than he is, and whenever she was around, he couldn’t get a moment’s peace. He would stare intently at us, as if to say “get me out of here, please! She won’t stop pacing back and forth and I can’t handle it anymore!” Hobgoblin had to take him outside practically every hour to give him a break.
But otherwise, all went well; the 13 of us hung out and talked, played board games and Texas 42 (a domino game my mother brought from her home state), watched some movies, and read books together. I managed to keep from reverting to my 13-year-old irritable self, the one who can’t handle anything my mother says or does and who glares at people for no reason and picks fights for fun. Having so many people around I didn’t grow up with helped me behave myself — in addition to my six siblings, we also had three spouses and one girlfriend staying in the house, plus two friends/significant others dropping by now and then, and one visit from the local youth pastor. I almost couldn’t help but behave myself.
And yes, the theme song of this Christmas was Dar Williams’s “The Christians and the Pagans”; in fact, my middle brother’s girlfriend had a copy of the song and played it for Hobgoblin and me on Christmas day. It was the four of us, the pagans of the family, plus one sister of whose religious status I’m uncertain, hanging out at home on Sunday morning while everyone else was at church, and again on Monday evening while everyone else was at the Christmas Eve service. We talked about atheism and pantheism and panentheism, our problems with the idea of a transcendent God, and about our experiences with church youth groups, and we looked forward with trepidation to the youth pastor’s visit; I have nothing against youth pastors generally (although I can’t say I’ve met many I’ve liked), but this particular one cornered me last summer at my brother’s graduation party and asked me where I’m going to church these days — an awkward conversation followed, and I haven’t yet gotten over it. But his visit was fine — no awkward questions this time — and just as in the song, “hands were held and prayers were said, sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.”
And now I’ll tell you about the stack of books I came home with. Hobgoblin gave me two, both of which promise to be very informative: first, Franco Moretti’s The Novel, Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture, a book I’ve been longing for for a while but wasn’t ready to spend the money on. It’s a big, fat book with tons of essays on the novel; the back cover says that it “looks at the novel mostly from the outside, treating the transition from oral to written storytelling and the rise of narrative and fictionality, and covering the ancient Greek novel, the novel in premodern China, the early Spanish novel, and much else, including readings of novels from around the world.” Sounds great, right? He also gave me The Woman Triathlete, which I spent much of Christmas day reading through. It’ll give me useful ideas for training.
From other family members I received Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley, which I’m excited about as I’m trying to read some of the Brontes’s lesser-known works; Alan Lightman’s book on science A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit; Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart; Louise Glück’s book of essays on poetry, Proofs and Theories; and Marjorie Agosín’s book of poems Secrets in the Sand. This last book came from my sister who heard the author read at her college and got her to sign my copy.
Needless to say, I’m excited about all these books and eager to have some more reading time over the next couple weeks.
Hobgoblin and I are driving out to Rochester, NY, tomorrow and are bound to get stuck in a snowstorm at one point or another, so wish us luck! We’ll be there for about five days. I’m looking forward to seeing my family, all the members of which will be there. This means we’ll have two parents, seven children, and four significant others (at least — others may unexpectedly show up). And I think we’re all staying at my parents’ house, which is not terribly large. I’ll enjoy myself, but I may also be ready to return home when the time comes …
I’m not entirely sure what books I’ll take with me, but I know I’ll include Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. I’m also considering Heather Lewis’s House Rules, Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I tend not to read all that much when at my parents’ place, however; there are too many people around to distract me, and the television is an almost irresistible lure — Hobgoblin and I don’t have a television and I’m quite happy not having one, but when I do get the chance to watch, I like to see a little of what I’ve been missing. Last year we watched many, many episodes of “The Office,” which I thought was great.
So — have a wonderful week everybody, and I’ll be back soon.
A Spot of Bother
I enjoyed listening to Mark Haddon’s novel A Spot of Bother; I don’t think it’s quite as good as his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it’s a good book nonetheless. The charm and interest of the first novel was in the narrative voice; the main character is autistic, and it was fascinating and sometimes funny, sometimes heart-breaking to see the world from his perspective. The tension between the way the narrator views the world and the way the reader can see the limits of his point of view keeps readers hooked.
A Spot of Bother is more traditional in its theme and style than the first one. It’s about a family that is falling apart, beginning with the father, George, who finds an ominous-looking spot on his hip and is convinced it is cancer. When he visits the doctor and hears it is excema, he does not believe it. He is convinced he is dying and falls into a depression that wreaks havoc on himself and his family. All the other members of his family are suffering too: his wife is having an affair and can’t decide what to do about it; his son, Jamie, is in danger of losing his lover; and his daughter, Katie, can’t decide if she wants to marry Ray, the man no one else in the family likes.
If all that sounds serious and heavy, it’s not — Haddon tells the story in a light, comic way. While you feel bad for George, you can’t help but laugh at his crazy leaps of logic and his dry sense of humor, and the interaction amongst all the characters reveals just how amusing family conflict can be — seen from the outside, of course.
The novel has a fairly traditional comedic structure: it’s about life falling apart and getting put back together again, and its plot revolves around weddings and marriages: will Katie and Ray get married? Will George and Jean stay together? Tragedy threatens — especially in the way George confronts the prospect of his inevitable death — but it never looms very large. It’s not terribly hard to figure out how the plot will resolve itself or what the novel’s climax will involve (even for me, who can never figure out plots), but the pleasure of this book is not in its plot twists, but in the dialogue and the records of the characters’ thoughts. The point of view shifts back and forth amongst the members of the family, revealing exactly what each person thinks of the other, a technique that lends itself well to comedy — no one knows exactly what the other characters know or what they think about everyone else, and the effort to guess or discover this truth leads to some amusing mistakes. It’s a story about the difficulty — and the urgency — of discovering the truth about the people one lives with and loves.
I can very easily see how this novel could be turned into a movie — in fact, if it’s not turned into a movie, I’ll be surprised. I feel ambivalently about this; on the one hand, it’s a movie I’d almost certainly enjoy, provided it were decently well-made. On the other hand, this characteristic reveals a certain predictability and formula-following that I usually shy away from. But I don’t want to look down my nose at an entertaining story that’s well told, so I won’t … instead I’ll recommend this book for a time when you need a laugh and some high-quality entertainment.
Here’s a passage from Patricia Meyer Spacks’s discussion of Tristram Shandy in her book Novel Beginnings:
The narrator’s intense involvement with the workings of his own consciousness generates the novel’s unique enchantment. The leaps and sallies of his mind, the alternations of peevishness and jollity, the exuberance of wordplay, the excursions into bawdiness (with attendant rebukes to the reader for seeing it), the liveliness of imagination — such aspects of Tristram’s central subject create much of the intense enjoyment (and perhaps patches of irritation as well) that many readers experience with Tristram Shandy. Much of the enjoyment, but not quite all; some comes from the preposterous behavior of characters besides Tristram, as seen through his eyes. At the heart of the encounter with Sterne’s novel, though, lies the exploration of mind and sensibility, not by means of systematic introspection but by a precursor of stream of consciousness writing.
The passage makes me want to read Tristram Shandy again, although I’ve read it at least twice, maybe three times already. And I have to say, I never felt any “patches of irritation” that Spacks mentions. It was all pure pleasure. To give you a small taste of what it’s like, here’s the first chapter in its entirety, where Tristram complains about the circumstances of his conception and the scattering of the “animal spirits” that then took place, which, Tristram believes, is the cause of all his troubles in life:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. — Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, and how they are transfused from father to son &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them out of it.
Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? —– Good G–! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
Pray, what was your father saying? — Nothing.
Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction
Reading and riding update
I’ve kept up with my running, but still don’t run very far or for very long. But I can feel my body getting used to it. In a way, it’s fun to be new to a sport, because you improve really fast at the beginning and can see a lot of gains right away. After just a few runs, I noticed my calf muscles firming up, and I no longer get that weird quad muscle ache I got in the beginning. All this is hugely satisfying.
Unfortunately, the weather has kept me off the bike more than I’d like; I’ve managed maybe two rides a week for the last few weeks. But still that’s better than nothing, and it doesn’t matter a whole lot if I don’t ride much right now, as long as I’m getting exercise of some sort. I’ll need to ride more intensely in January and February, but for now, lots of cross-training is fine.
And, thanks to Mandarine, I now have something interesting to listen to as I run. I just figured out how to download books from LibriVox (it’s free!) to my iPod, and now I can listen to Jane Eyre. I picked that book pretty much at random, but it’s a good one, of course, and we’ll see how well it keeps me company.
As for reading, I’m very excited to have begun Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. I’m not entirely sure where it’s going or what, exactly, Josipovici is up to, but I’m enjoying finding out. I’m going to be completely vague about it here and just say that it promises to be a very good read — in the sense that it’s very smart, very thought-provoking, experimental in a non-intimidating way, and very entertaining. More later.
I’m also considering whether or not to make any reading plans for next year. Right now I’m in a mood to make no plans whatsoever and I’d like to swear off all reading challenges. At the moment, I’m against any kind of looking ahead. I’m not sure what brought this mood on, although perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve recently looked back at all the books I wanted to read this past year and didn’t get to, and I’m feeling annoyed about it. I’m not the type of person who can be philosophical about not doing the things I set out to do. I’m the type of person to get annoyed at myself for not doing those things. So the logical thing to do is to make no plans whatsoever, right?
These feelings come and go, however, and in another month I may be signing up for three different challenges and planning my reading in detail for the next six months. Or I may look around over the next week or two and see all the cool plans other people have and get jealous and start to make my own. We’ll see.
Best American Essays?
I have finished the 2007 edition of the Best American Essays, and I’m a bit skeptical about whether they really are the best. Or maybe they are, I don’t know, I haven’t read enough essays to know if there were better ones, but I found myself wondering which ones might fit in a volume like Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay or the volume Joyce Carol Oates edited, The Best American Essays of the Century, and I don’t think there are many that would. Perhaps that’s too much to ask, though; how often do wonderfully great essays, ones that are good enough to last for centuries or millenia, get written?
Part of the problem, I think, is that I approached this volume immediately after reading Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic, which is, obviously, good enough to last for millenia. Seneca writes wise, philosophical essayistic letters that attempt to make sense of human nature and the world — their subjects and their tone seem significant and weighty and lasting. The essays in The Best American Essays are often weighty and serious, and they are occasionally philosophical, but they don’t seem lasting to me.
But there were a few that impressed me. I wrote about Marione Ingram’s essay “Operation Gomorrah” here; one other I think might possibly be great is Daniel Orozco’s “Shakers.” “Shakers” is about earthquakes in California, and I don’t think I can describe just how wonderful it is; it starts off scientifically, describing an earthquake’s P-waves and S-waves and L-waves, and then moves into a catalogue of how animals respond to these waves, before humans are aware of what is about to happen (I’m only giving you part of the passage):
Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops. Pet shop parakeets attempt the same maneuver in their cages. In the San Francisco Zoo, every single Adélie penguin dives and swims around and around their Plexiglas grotto, seeking the safety of what they believe to be open ocean. Big cats stop pacing, tortoises drop and tuck, elephants get antsy as pee-prone toddlers. The chimps on Monkey Island go ape-shit. Horses everywhere go mulish and nippy. Implacable cattle get skittish as deer. And a lone jogger on a fire trail on Mount Diablo gets lucky, for the starving cougar stalking her gets spooked by the subsonic pulse that rolls under its paw pads, and breaks off the hunt and heads for the hills, bounding silent and unseen up a hidden defile and leaving behind only a shudder of knotweed grass burnished amber by the waning light of an Indian-summer dusk.
Then the essay moves from scene to scene in places all across California describing people and animals as they feel the earthquake hit. It gives you little glimpses into a whole range of people and it does this dispassionately, describing minor events next to major ones without comment or transition. You read about a telephone repairman who falls off his ladder to his death; a woman stealing cigarettes, who, after the earthquake hits, carefully puts the box back; inmates in Folsom prison who “glare at one another as century-old mortar shakes off the ceiling and sifts down, dusting the tops of their heads like cannolis”; and a day hiker who falls into a ravine and breaks an ankle. He is left only three miles from his car, but he can’t move and has no water or warm clothing for the cold night.
This last story sets up the essay’s remarkable ending, which I’ll quote in full although it’s long:
And hours from now, after the sun has gone down, when he is shivering from the cold, when the cold is all he can think about, something remarkable will happen. A diamondback rattlesnake will hone in on his heat-trace and unwind itself from the mesh of a creosote bush and drop to the ground and seek the warmth of his body against the chill evening, slicing through the sand and sweeping imperiously between his legs and turning into itself until coiled tight against his groin and draped along his belly with the offhand intimacy of a lover’s arm. He will watch his dumpling-sized head in repose on his sternum go up and down with his breathing, its eyes open and indifferent and exquisitely wrought — tiny bronzed beads stippled black and verdigris. And his breaths will soon come slow and steady, and his despair will give way to something wholly unexpected. He is eyeball to eyeball with a rattlesnake in the powdery moonglow of Mojave Desert. He can hear birds calling back and forth — birdsong! — in the middle of nowhere. He can look up at a night sky that is like gaping into a chasm boiling with stars as if the celestial spigots were opened wide and jammed, and he can remember nothing of the life he’s lived up to now. And he will shake, not from cold or fear or from any movements of the earth, but from some vague and elemental conviction about wholeness or harmony or immortality. He will shake, resolute in a belief in the exaltation of this moment, yet careful not to disturb the lethal snake on his best. How cool is this! he will think. Wish you were here! he will think.
Also worth notice are Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Disappointment,” also about California, and Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Onward, Christian Liberals” about holiness and politics (really!). None of the essays are bad, exactly, they just aren’t all exactly great. But I suppose finding three or four great essays in a collection like this makes it worth while.
Devices and Desires, by P.D. James
Devices and Desires is the second P.D. James novel I’ve read or listened to in the last month. This novel is at least as good as the first one, The Murder Room; both novels are long with lots of well-developed characters, both are thoughtful and philosophically-minded, and both fit the description Stefanie gave in a comment to an earlier post: James’s novels aren’t so much mystery stories as stories with mysteries in them.
In fact, the novel itself makes this very point in a passage where a minor character, stuck in a difficult conversation, wants to get back to the detective novel he has been reading:
He wanted to get back to Inspector Ghote, Keating’s gentle Indian detective who, despite his uncertainties, would get there in the end, because this was fiction: problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter.
In a way James is writing this kind of novel, and in a way she is not. Yes, the mystery is solved in the end, truth is revealed, and things are set to rights. But an air of mystery still lingers over the story, not about who murdered whom, but about why people do what they do and about what it’s possible to know of the desires and the longings of others. While by the novel’s end the reader knows the full story — or the facts at least — the detectives involved don’t know everything and never will. There’s a gap between law and justice and the complexities of human interaction.
Devices and Desires is interesting structurally for two reasons; one is that Adam Dalgliesh, James’s protagonist, is only a small part of the book and isn’t the main investigator on the case. He’s on holiday in Norfolk and just happens to be a witness to events related to a murder case. He nearly crosses the line from police officer to suspect, as he is the first one on the scene after a murder, and he finds himself having to decide what to share with the other officers and what information to keep in confidence. He’s in a quiet competition with Inspector Rickards, the chief detective on the case, to see who can put the facts together most convincingly. This tension between Dalgliesh’s role as a regular citizen and his job in law enforcement allows James to consider just how effective — or ineffective — police work can be, just how much an investigation can miss or misconstrue. Dalgliesh himself learns how unpleasant it is to be interrogated and suspected.
The novel’s structure is interesting also because there are two murderers; the first one is found relatively quickly, and the focus of the novel then shifts to the second, who, it turns out, is the real source of the novel’s mystery. This means that the “mystery” part of the novel doesn’t appear until the book’s second half. This seems to be a “Jamesian” technique, or least I can say that the two novels I’ve read both take their time getting to the center of the action. She slowly establishes the book’s atmosphere and introduces the reader to her characters before the narrative tension tightens.
The setting is crucial to this novel (as it was also in The Murder Room); it takes place near the sea on a quiet, nearly-deserted headland where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s habits or proclivities are secret. The beautiful setting is marred only by the presence of the Larsoken nuclear power station, a source of controversy amongst some of the area’s residence and a locus of both hope and fear; it provides much-needed jobs for the local population, but it is also a potential threat — the book takes place shortly after the Chernobyl disaster.
This is a book to savor; it offers many pleasures, from an absorbing story to a cast of memorable characters to meditations on death, justice, and human nature. Here, for example, are Dalgliesh’s thoughts as he watches over a dead body waiting for the police to arrive. It’s a passage that brings me back to my opening thought about the limits of detective work and of mystery stories:
He thought: In youth we take egregious risks because death has no reality for us. Youth goes caparisoned in immortality. It is only in middle age that we are shadowed by the awareness of the transitoriness of life. And the fear of death, however irrational, was surely natural, whether one thought of it as annihilation or as a rite of passage. Every cell in the body was programmed for life; all healthy creatures clung to life until their last breath. How hard to accept, and yet how comforting, was the gradual realization that the universal enemy might come at last as a friend. Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection dignified the individual death, even the death of the least attractive, the most unworthy, mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives man’s perennial fascination with the mystery of his mortality, providing, too, a comforting illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated, order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.
First lines meme
It’s time to do the first lines meme. We’ll see what this uncovers.
January: I’m going to do pretty much nothing today — the dishes and the laundry at most, but otherwise I’ll read books and read blogs and watch movies.
February: I began reading the essay anthology Best American Essays 2006 the other day, and so far I’ve read only the two introductions and the first essay, but I’m looking forward to making my way through it slowly over the next … who knows … month or so.
March: It’s that time of the semester again — the time when I begin to get a little busier and have less time for reading.
April: Let’s just say I’ve got some sore muscles right now.
May: I just checked the last time I rode in a race, and it was April 1st.
June: I’m wondering now why it has taken me so long to pick up this book, The Walk, by Jeffrey Robinson; I’ve had it on my shelves since December, and I’ve kept my eye on it as a possibility, but never quite got around to it.
July: Hobgoblin and I just returned from a trip to Manhattan; we spent a lot of time walking around (my feet hurt!) and looked into a couple of bookstores, the Strand and St. Mark’s.
August: You all know who I’m talking about in the post title, right? [The post title was “More on Jane.”]
September: I think I may try to ride a century this fall — a hundred miles in one ride.
October: I’m in the middle of two novels right now, and let’s just say that the experience of reading these books has been quite different.
November: Charlotte invited me to participate in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month [wait — why national? Shouldn’t it be international?]) this year, so here I am, officially posting every day this month, instead of following my usual most-likely-but-not-necessarily-posting-every-day method.
December: Writing everyday for National Blog Posting Month was hard!
I like the way some of these tell little stories, such as how April and May tell you something about my racing year and November and December encapsulate my NaBloPoMo experience. Otherwise, these are pretty boring. I tend to wind my way around to the real point of my posts (if they have a point), giving some information about my life or my riding before I go on to say something about books. Perhaps I should try for some snappier openings …
Filed under Memes
Sentimental fiction and The Recess
It’s kind of annoying when I decide I don’t like a book, and then a critic comes along and makes a convincing argument about how wonderful it really is. Here’s what Patricia Meyer Spacks says about the meaning of history in Sophia Lee’s The Recess:
Sublimity in this novel finds realization in history, history conceived as a concatenation of irresistible but incomprehensible forces. Obscure, terrible, all-powerful, unmindful of individuals, it possesses all the qualifications of the sublime. To be sure, there is no “it” there: “history” is an abstraction, a retrospective generalization, an unpredictable produce of memory, myth, and desire. The reader, obviously, is in a different position from the characters in relation to history. Lee brilliantly exploits the difference by constantly reminding us that what we accept as truth depends on where we stand … We are all of course caught up in history; this novel insists on how little we can know what that means.
Now doesn’t that make The Recess sound fascinating? And in a way, the book was fascinating … and yet my experience of reading it was too often one of boredom. There is a category, I suppose, made up of books that are more interesting to talk about than to read, and to me, The Recess clearly belongs here.
One of the things I appreciate most about Spacks’s book is the way she thinks about pleasure in reading and how it changes over time. She says, for example, that certain elements of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones — “the systematic construction of suspenseful situations, with purposefully delayed resolutions; the enormous cast of characters; the frequent interventions by the narrator” — helped teach readers to take new and different kinds of pleasure in reading. I like the idea that authors can help readers learn to read in new ways and to find new pleasures simply by writing the way they do, and it’s fascinating to think that readers might not automatically find suspense, delayed resolutions, and enormous casts of characters pleasurable.
She also explains the pleasure readers found in sentimental novels, novels that often seem bizarre and foreign to us today. She argues that readers today enjoy exercising emotions as they read just as they did in the eighteenth century, but it’s the ways of evoking emotional response that seem strange to us now. Sentimental novels of the time depended on two modes that we don’t see today: a “curious withholding of elucidating or corroborative detail” and a “massive accumulation of ostensibly heartrending episodes.” These novels tend to give little detail about the character’s emotional responses, telling us straightforwardly about them rather than showing us with evocative detail. And they tend to include — to be overwhelmed by — story after story of suffering and woe.
In response to the lack of detail, readers learned to fill in the missing details themselves. If an author doesn’t tell us exactly how a character felt but simply says that the character suffered, then we are free to imagine exactly what that suffering was like:
Although the system of extreme understatement allows all feeling to be clichéd, it also leaves room for other possibilities. Engaged readers are at liberty to invent, to imagine, or to perceive afresh … Readers can always or intermittently refuse the implicit invitation mentally to elaborate rendered feeling, but opportunities abound, in this fiction, for their imaginative participation.
The plethora of stories about suffering and woe serve a different purpose; their proliferation implies that life is little else than suffering; they rehearse again and again the sufferings readers themselves can expect to experience. But they also communicate a sense of defiance. Spacks compares the melancholy of these novels to the writing of Samuel Beckett, arguing that while the sense of depression in Beckett’s work is relieved by his “exuberant linguistic power,” the melancholy of sentimental novels is mitigated by “an exuberance of defiance.”
All this I certainly saw in The Recess. Lee uses detail sparingly, so that I never got a vivid sense of what each character looked like or thought about; the characters seemed clichéd to me. She also tells story after story of suffering; the two main characters absolutely cannot catch a break. Nothing goes right — every time something good happens to them, it gets taken away or something else goes wrong.
I did not find myself filling in the details of the characters’ emotional experience, as Spacks says the text was inviting me to do; rather, I resisted the emotional descriptions and found them overwrought and silly. But given the popularity of The Recess in the eighteenth century, people then would not have agreed with me. The introduction to my edition describes reports of readers who found the novel genuinely moving, and tells about a novel by Elizabeth Tomlins in which a character reads The Recess, and has this to say about the experience:
From the moment I first opened it, till the last sorrowful scene which closes the overwhelming narration of miseries, I quitted not the book. As I read, I felt all the pains of suspense at my heart, and I know not a term which can convey to you an idea how infinitely I felt myself interested through the whole: I was frequently affected even beyond the power of weeping, and scarcely could prevail on my aunt, with all my entreaties, to let me read the last volume; but persuading her that I should, perhaps, be less affected when alone, I had all the luxury of weeping over it myself.
I have a hard time imagining weeping over The Recess, and yes, it is a fictional character doing the weeping here, but this response to the novel isn’t meant ironically or satirically; it seems possible real people shed some tears over it too.
The endless tales of sorrow did create an atmosphere of melancholy and darkness, and there was a sense of resiliency and defiance at the same time; so many horrible things happened to the characters — attacks, attempted rapes, imprisonment, enslavement, kidnappings, poisonings and on and on — but they kept up their energy and spirit and their persistence in writing their story. The novel is a rehearsal of a range of horrible things that can happen to a person, but there’s something reassuring in seeing the characters fight their way through each episode. I can see how an eighteenth-century reader might take a perverse kind of pleasure in this aspect of the novel.
I’m not prepared to say The Recess is an enjoyable read, but as I think about it more, those eighteenth-century readers who liked it seem a little less strange to me.
Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction
I’ve been feeling a bit burnt out on a couple things lately, most especially on grading, but also on blogging, so things may be quieter around here for a while, until I get some motivation back (which may happen tomorrow, who knows?).
There were a lot of things I was going to do this weekend, and I’ve done very few of them; mostly I’ve been reading P.D. James’s Devices and Desires and getting a tiny bit obsessed with the idea of racing in a duathlon or a triathlon. This is silly as I can barely run a mile (although I’m better at this than I was just a couple weeks ago!), and I haven’t swum in forever. But I’m that way sometimes — I’ll latch onto an idea, however far-fetched, and for the next few days I can think of little else. I’ve been reading Jenny D.’s blog on triathlon training with great interest for a while now and today I stumbled across the Triathlon Training blog, and read through its archives. I’ll have to keep running and see if I’m still interested after a month or two.
Here are the good things about duathlons or triathlons (not sure which I’d prefer — triathlons appeal, but getting to a swimming pool to train would be a pain):
- I’d be able to compete individually instead of being part of a team. I like my teammates a lot, but I’d much prefer to compete on my own, just me against the clock. With cycling, I’m supposed to be helping out my teammates instead of riding for myself. Now, this doesn’t actually mean much, as I am not good enough to help out teammates and I often don’t have any to help. But still, I’d rather be working for myself.
- I won’t know for sure until I compete in a triathlon, but I’m pretty sure it’s much, much safer than criterium riding. I do have a reckless side, but I also really don’t want to be in bike crashes.
- I like the idea of being able to compete in more than one sport. It’s just cool.
- The training would be more interesting — it wouldn’t be just riding all the time. I don’t mind riding all the time, but I do like the idea of some variety.
The down side to triathlon training?
- I might find it overwhelming. I feel like I barely have enough time to ride now, and if I were competing in three sports … ?
- I’d have so much to learn. This is good and bad — it’s intriguing but also daunting.
- It would cost money. I’d have clothing and equipment to buy. I have some idea of what it would require now (new running shoes, training clothes, a wet suit, aero bars for my bike), but I’m sure there are things I don’t even know about that I’d need.
- I’m pretty sure I have a good body type for criterium riding but not for triathlons. The triathletes I know are rail thin, and rail thin I am not. I do know a lot of criterium riders who look like me, though — fit women with some bulk on them, with lots of muscle.
Those are my thoughts — we’ll see. In a year from now perhaps I will have forgotten about this entirely, or perhaps I’ll be deep in triathlon training.
As it’s a lazy Friday night, one when I’m feeling a bit grumpy I must admit, it’s a good time for a frivolous post. BettyBetty has tagged me for the “seven random things” meme, otherwise known as the “seven weird things” meme, although I prefer the word “random,” as I’m not sure I can think of seven things that are weird about me. Or maybe I should say, I’m not sure I can think of seven weird things I’m willing to share. I’ve done this kind of list before (see here for example), so I’ll try not to repeat myself.
- I have had and still have, although to a lesser degree, an intense fear of being upside down. Gym classes where we did tumbling were absolute nightmares. I couldn’t do a somersault, much less a cartwheel, much less anything more complicated than that. I lied to my gym teacher on those days, pretending to have injured myself or pretending that I was sick. Looking back on it, I wonder what she would have done if I’d told her how petrified I was. She might have understood, but I’m not entirely sure. And there was no way I was going to risk it.
- I didn’t learn how to whistle until I was in college, and even then I didn’t learn very well. I can whistle one note, maybe two if I work really hard.
- I’ve known so many English-major types who are terrible at math, but I’ve always loved it. In fact, I always did better in my math classes in High School than I did in my English classes. One of these years I might take a math class at my college, just for the fun of it.
- Although I’m not exactly the bungee-jumping, parachuting type, I can be a bit reckless. I’ll walk by myself down city streets at night when I know my female friends wouldn’t. I’ll go hiking by myself and not tell anybody where I am. I’ll take a walk with wet hair when it’s 10 degrees out. I’m just not very cautious. This is something I learned from my mother, who is much the same way.
- I have a high tolerance for dirt and clutter. My housekeeping standards are execrable. Were I to hire a house cleaner, I would need to clean up the house before that person came over. This I also learned from my mother. Her high tolerance for dirt and clutter used to drive me crazy when I was young, but now I understand completely. There are so many better things to do than clean house.
- I eat hardly any vegetables at all. In this respect I haven’t yet grown up; I eat exactly what I want when I want with little thought for nutrition. I do think about my weight, but this doesn’t actually influence my eating choices very often. I tell myself I’m going on a ride later, and that will burn off the calories from the bag of chips or the cookie or whatever.
- I fantasize about spending the summer backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. I’d like to see if I could last a entire summer, or if I’d get sick of it and want to come home after a week or two. I’m pretty sure I could make it though. I’d spend the time climbing mountains and swimming in ponds and visiting small towns. I think it would be lovely.
If you haven’t done this yet, give it a try!
Filed under Life
I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer Bloglily’s question about planning for a while now, and I’m finding it difficult, largely because, with one exception, I plan in such a non-planned, unorganized way. I plan only when I need to and I usually make up a new system each time. I keep a calendar during the school year to keep track of meetings and appointments, but the truth is, I could probably do without it and not miss much because I tend to remember what it is I have to do and where I’m supposed to be. During the summer I have no calendar at all. These days I keep to-do lists on emails which I’m constantly writing to myself, but, again, I don’t really need them because I can always remember what they say.
I don’t plan for the sake of keeping my life organized — my life isn’t that complicated; rather, I plan in order to give myself the illusion of control. So when my life gets a bit busier, the to-do lists get longer and much more detailed, and I begin to take more pleasure in writing them up and erasing items off them. I start to add things to the list merely for the pleasure of crossing them off right away.
I also tend to record what it is I’ve done at least as much as I make plans about what it is I will do. This is another way to create the illusion of control and progress. I keep track of how many hours I’ve worked, how many papers I’ve graded, how many hours I’ve ridden my bike, how many words I’ve written, how many books I’ve read. But as I’m unplanned about my planning, all these records are spread out in various places and in various formats. I have journals where I recorded how many hours I worked on my dissertation, files with lists of books I’ve read, calendars with the number of hours I worked, and accounts on websites like Bikejournal where I’ve logged the number of miles I’ve ridden. The point isn’t to accumulate a mass of material about how I’ve spent my life; rather the point is the writing up of it all, the satisfaction of recording the day’s accomplishments.
Cycling is the one exception to this general haphazardness. Here I take great pleasure in creating elaborate plans, beautifully detailed plans, marvelously logical and well-structured ones that, if I followed them, would certainly make me a much better cyclist. I use Joe Friel’s The Cyclist’s Training Bible to guide my race training, and Friel is a man who loves complexity and detail. His book walks you through an elaborate process to help you determine how to set yearly goals, how to determine your current fitness, and how to decide on the number of hours you should ride a year.
Once you have some basic information, he tells you to choose the most important races of the year and to focus your training on those. You should create a calendar (he gives you a template for one) that works backward from those target races to determine when you should start your training season. You divide that period, about six months long, into smaller sections of 3-4 weeks each. Each of these sections has its own training focus and each week within that section gets assigned a certain number of hours of training, based on the yearly hours you have chosen. You take that weekly number of hours and divide it among 5 or 6 days worth of workouts for that week according to a chart in his book; so, for example, if you are supposed to train 9 hours on a particular week, he tells you to ride 3 hours on one day, 2 hours on another, 1 1/2 on two different days, and 1 hour on the last day. You can choose to do these rides on whatever day makes sense, although it’s best to vary long rides with short ones.
But it’s more complicated than that! You’re supposed to do different types of workouts in different training periods, and a certain number of each type of workout each week. So, during the hypothetical week where you’re riding 9 hours, say during a week fairly late in the season when the workouts are more intense, you might need to ride two endurance rides where you ride at medium intensity, one force ride where you work on hills, one muscular endurance ride where you ride fairly fast for a long period of time, and one anaerobic endurance ride where you work on riding very fast for shorter periods of time. And how do you know how fast to ride? You find your lactic threshold heartrate (though testing) and look it up on a chart in the book that tells you your heartrate zones and which heartrates you should be aiming for on each ride.
There are different options for each of these types of workouts; for example, you might do a muscular endurance workout that requires you to ride in a particular heartrate zone for 50 minutes, or another that asks you to ride hard for six minutes and rest for two minutes and to repeat the sequence six times. Or you might do a force workout that asks you to ride hills of a particular steepness that take you, say, five minutes or longer to climb.
Now, I’m imagining that all this will thrill some of you and horrify others. For myself, I’m thrilled by it. I like the idea of following all the rules and doing the tests and setting up a riding schedule with all this great detail. The problem, though, as you can probably guess, is that following through on all this detail is impossible. Every year I have a training plan and each year I fail at it. Usually it’s a combination of weather and work that gives me trouble. What am I supposed to do if we have a week of snow? (Certainly not ride indoors on my trainer — that would drive me insane). What am I supposed to do if work keeps me indoors all day for four days in a row so I have no sunlight to get out and ride in? Or what happens if I get sick? Or burnt-out?
All these things have happened at one time or another. In response, I modify my plan and keep riding, making things up a little more as I go along instead of rigidly sticking to my plan. The thing is, making up a plan is a lot more fun than sticking to it, and so when real life keeps me from doing all the rides I’m supposed to, I don’t get upset; I just do my best to salvage things and keep going. It’s worked pretty well so far, I suppose.
Sophia Lee’s The Recess
I found Sophia Lee’s 1783 novel The Recess a bit of a slog, unfortunately. I had high hopes for it, as descriptions I’d read made it sound like fun, but it was too overstuffed with plot events and too lacking in character development, which, if I had to choose, is exactly the opposite of what I’d want.
The novel does do a number of interesting things, however. It’s an early example of historical fiction, first of all. It’s set during the reign of Elizabeth I, and its two main characters are (fictional) twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. It has many historical characters who sometimes behave in ways true to the history books and who sometimes don’t, depending on Lee’s need to make her plot work. The edition I read carefully footnoted all the diversions Lee makes from historical accuracy, so the reader doesn’t have to worry about getting wrong information. Interestingly, though, the editor’s introduction to the novel describes how some of Lee’s readers got confused about fact and fiction in the novel and thought that Mary really did have twins. At any rate, Walter Scott often gets the credit for “inventing” the historical novel, and wrongly so. He had many predecessors.
The novel is also an example of Gothic fiction and of the novel of sensibility. It doesn’t have any supernatural elements (or seemingly supernatural elements) like you might find in Radcliffe or Walpole, but its atmosphere is dark and gloomy and it’s got frightening castles, scary authority figures, damsels in distress, kidnappings, prisons, murders, and disguises. It’s also full of the extreme emotion characteristic of sentimental novels of the time — it has plenty of sighs, tears, and fainting spells, and it has long passages of overwrought feeling, as the characters respond to the horrors they suffer through. It’s hard for a modern reader to understand that 18C people loved all this; to us it can seem silly and contrived, but, based on the popularity of novels like this one and on what people wrote about their reading experiences, readers took this extreme sentimentality seriously and sometimes responded with their own tears.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the structure. It’s an epistolary novel, although there aren’t actually a whole lot of letters. But still the whole novel is written by one of the characters to another person, usually in the form of what the editor calls “memoir-letters.” There are three characters who tell the story, each of the sisters and Lady Pembroke, a sympathetic mentor and caretaker to the twins. What is interesting about this form is that the sisters’ accounts contradict each other, specifically in their response to the other’s love interest. The sisters are both presented as sympathetic characters, which, in this type of novel at least, means that they are models of perfection or nearly so. There aren’t a whole lot of mixed or ambiguous characters in 18C novels of this type. And yet one of the sisters at least must be getting something wrong. The first sister, Matilda, tells her story for the first 100 pages or so, and we get one view of her lover firmly established in our minds, but then the other sister Ellinor begins to tell her story and offers a much more negative interpretation. Suddenly the ground shifts and the reader doesn’t know which sister to trust and what sense to make of their claims. It makes the reader deal with uncertainty in a way that’s unsettling, especially after having read such a long chunk of the novel already. Matilda then steps in and continues her story, this time casting doubt on the suitability of Ellinor’s love interest. We’re never told whose interpretation is the better one.
Alas, while I found all this intellectually interesting, it didn’t translate into enjoyment in reading the story. It was simply too action-packed. I don’t mind the implausibility of it — it’s highly implausible that so many, many horrible things could happen to two people — but the rapid pace wore me out. After a while, it was no surprise at all when some new disaster struck and the peace and security the sisters were now certain they had found got snatched away.
But this novel was very popular in its day and it inspired many imitators who created their own historical fictions. There’s no proof, but there is a critical consensus that Ann Radcliffe was influenced by The Recess and Jane Austen read it as well. It’s interesting to me the way that tastes and reading preferences change over time. Modern-day critics I’ve read seemed to enjoy this novel, but I wish I knew of more people who had read it so I could see if I’m unusual or if others would agree with me. I suspect, though, that I’m not really unusual and that other people might wonder what exactly people found so moving in this book. Isn’t it fascinating to speculate on why people from a long time ago liked what they liked?
P.D. James’s Mysteries
I finished listening to P.D. James’s mystery novel The Murder Room, and what a fun book it was! I have become a P.D. James fan. In fact, I liked it so much, I went to the library over the weekend to check out another James novel, Devices and Desires, another Adam Dalgliesh mystery. This time I’m reading it instead of listening; I miss having a narrator read the story to me — I miss the voice and the accent — but I like how I can read at my own pace and can back up to catch something I missed without having to push any buttons.
I liked how The Murder Room is long and detailed and takes its time telling the story. James has a large cast of characters, and she lingers over the introduction to each one, telling his or her story in depth. There isn’t anything gratuitous in it, but she never skimps on detail either. It’s a story to get lost in. She takes time to describe rooms and settings and landscape, as well as the characters’ thoughts and moods. It has a slow pace, but in a good way; it’s the kind of slow pace that creates a rich atmosphere you enjoy spending time in.
The story is about murders that take place in the Dupayne museum, a museum devoted to the history of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a small museum with a modest number of visitors, but those who work there and those who visit are a loyal group who want to keep the museum going. But now its future is uncertain as the building is up for a new lease and one of the trustees doesn’t want to sign it. This leaves a lot of possible suspects when this trustee is found murdered …
Part of the appeal of the novel is the way it focuses on the small world of the museum, which has its own culture and history and a hierarchy of people, from the gardener and the housekeeper to the volunteers to the curator and the trustees. These people have worked together for long enough they know each other’s habits and personalities, but still, of course, many secrets remain.
I found myself much more interested in the interaction of the characters than in the mystery itself. I’m not sure if this is just me, or if the mystery aspect of the novel isn’t terribly exciting. When the murderer was revealed, I was surprised, but not particularly intrigued; it didn’t make me think about the earlier parts of the novel to try to put the clues together or to wonder if I could have figured it out if I’d paid more attention. Actually, I never figure out mysteries and can hardly ever predict the endings of novels, except certain kinds of 18C and 19C novels that always end in a marriage between the two virtuous characters. Generally I don’t even try to figure out how things will turn out. Hobgoblin will often be able to predict the ending only a few chapters into a book, but my mind just doesn’t work that way. Perhaps I’m a more passive reader, taking things in as they are given to me and not trying to work out where it’s all heading. Or maybe it’s that I want the experience of a sudden revelation all at the end, the pleasure of seeing how everything fits together all at once. I really think, though, that I never figure mysteries out because I’m not so much interested in the puzzle of it, but rather in the human interaction that takes place along the way. When I enjoy mysteries it’s because I like the protagonist, not because I want to see if I can figure out the clues.
Oh, I just saw that Danielle is reading Devices and Desires, the one I just started, and has similar things to say about the characters vs. the mystery aspect of the story.
NaBloPoMo and other endurance activities
Writing everyday for National Blog Posting Month was hard! I know that might sound odd, as I usually post every day, or nearly every day, but it’s an entirely different experience when I feel like I have to post every day. Then it becomes a duty and I begin to worry about whether I’ll have anything to say or whether I’ll have the energy to write. I’m glad I did it, not least because it’s interesting to find these things out. Now I can go back to telling myself I don’t have to post if I don’t want to, but generally going ahead and posting anyway. That method works pretty well.
It was fun being part of the group — thanks to all the participants and to all my regular readers who stopped by and commented!
Since NaBloPoMo is a test of endurance, I’ll make a not-so-smooth segue into my other endurance activity, cycling. Today I went on one of those rides that wears me out mentally more than physically, although my legs are feeling pretty tired too. The problem is the weather. It may still be officially fall, but it feels like full-blown winter. It was around 30 degrees when I left the house and very windy. I had planned on a two-hour ride today, and I did the two full hours, although I was able to cut a section off my route as my pace was so slow I had no trouble getting two hours of riding in on fewer miles. It’s so hard to ride into a bitterly cold wind! I worked and worked and felt like I was going nowhere.
When I got home I stretched out a bit, enjoying the warmth of the house and feeling grateful I made it home with no flats or other problems. But then what always happens happened — my body temperature dropped once my body figured out I was no longer working hard and I got really cold even though I was indoors. This time it was so bad and I got so cold I started shaking. That, thank God, doesn’t often happen. The only remedy was a long hot shower.
As it’s the racing off-season, I’ve decided to try doing a little cross-training, to keep from having to ride too much in the cold and getting burnt out on riding. The only cross-training I have the means to do is running, and so I tried it out a bit this last week. But I can barely do it! It’s ridiculous the way I can be strong on the bike but can’t run a mile. Right now 50 miles of riding is much, much easier than one mile of running. I’ll get used to it quickly I’m pretty sure, and will be able to build up the distance fairly soon, but for now running a half mile gives me sore muscles. I’ve been taking Muttboy out to the park and taking him out on my usual trail, walking most of the way and breaking into a run a couple times for about a quarter mile each time. I’ll build on this until I can do the whole loop (about three miles) without stopping. Unless I get bored, that is, or unless I decide cycling is more important. But I like the idea of using muscles other than those I’m used to using, and I’ll be happy when the day comes I won’t feel embarrassed because I absolutely cannot run.