Monthly Archives: February 2008

Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day

14272407.jpg I have now finished Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day, and have mixed but mostly positive feelings about it. As I expected, it doesn’t live up to her masterpieces, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and, as I didn’t expect, it has some odd moments and some tedious ones, but overall it’s an enjoyable, interesting novel.

The novel tells the story of five young people who fall in and out of love with each other. There’s Katherine Hilbery and her fiancé William Rodney, first of all; Katherine is the granddaughter of a famous poet and she and her mother are working (not very successfully) on his biography. They spend their days surrounded by his papers and their memories; in spite of her family history, however, Katherine is not terribly literary and prefers to work on mathematics problems in secret. William is a rather surprising choice for Katherine — while she’s fairly free-thinking and open-minded, he’s conventional to a fault, particularly so in his views about proper womanly behavior. His ideal woman is not likely to spend her free time working at math.

And then there are Mary Datchet and Ralph Denham, both of whom come from decidedly less comfortable circumstances than the other characters. Mary lives on her own and spends her days working for women’s suffrage; Katherine envies her independence, although Mary worries where it is taking her — she doesn’t want to end up like the eccentrics she works with, so devoted to a cause that they can’t see beyond it and begin to lose their common sense. Mary and Ralph are good friends; Ralph lives with his family and works as a lawyer, although he dreams of owning a cottage in the country where he can work on his writing.

These four meet early on in the novel and later are joined by a fifth, Cassandra, Katherine’s cousin, who steps in to make this already-complicated love quadrangle even more complicated. I won’t tell you all the twists and turns of who falls in love with whom; I’ll just say that much of the novel involves these young people agonizing over what it means to be in love, whether love is even possible for them, what kind of marriage they want, and when and if they should confess their feelings to each other.

The novel is fairly traditional in its structure — it’s about romance after all — and yet it doesn’t quite feel like a Victorian novel; there’s so much focus on introspection and shifting states of consciousness that it seemed to me clearly a 20C work (published in 1919). In fact, it reminded me a little of D.H. Lawrence’s work (although it’s been a while since I’ve read him) and also of Elizabeth Bowen’s in the way that the characters didn’t act like any people I know and didn’t talk like them either; they do things like suddenly appearing at each other’s houses, making strange pronouncements, and then just as suddenly leaving. But a novelist doesn’t have to create characters who are like people I know, after all, and Woolf seems to have another purpose in mind: capturing the ins and outs of consciousness in all its shifts and ambiguities. What is familiar to me is the back and forth movement of the characters, the way they struggle to know themselves when the “selves” they are exploring never stay the same.

Familiar as it is, this back and forth could get a bit tedious at times, especially towards the end — in fact, the book starts off more traditionally than it ends, I think — and I wished now and then that the characters would just make up their minds. I was flummoxed by one bizarre moment when in the midst of a heated discussion between Katherine and William all the sudden Cassandra appears from behind the curtains, having apparently been hiding there, although Woolf doesn’t prepare us for this and never offers any explanation. It was just a clumsy way of advancing the plot, I suppose. But the plot seems less important than character development, and a device like this one serves to put the characters in an interesting new situation.

In spite of some flaws, though, I enjoyed the way Woolf captures the fleeting moods and emotions of her characters, and particularly the way she portrays the dynamics among men and women in a time when women were close to gaining the vote. It’s painful to watch William casually dismiss women’s intelligence as unnecessary, but even Ralph, a much more sympathetic character, can be dismissive at times, and Katherine remains uncertain about whether she believes in women’s right to vote or not. Mary is the most modern character among them in this respect, but she is also the character who suffers the most, a fact that speaks, perhaps, to the difficulty of taking the political stand that she does.

I plan to read the chapter on this novel from Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life; I’ll let you know if I find new insights on the novel there.

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A cycling post

I went on my hardest ride of the winter this morning — not hard meaning I was training hard, but hard meaning I was battling horrible weather the whole way. One of my first thoughts as I headed away from my house was that I shouldn’t be out here at all. I didn’t listen to myself, though, and spent an hour in terror, first of the ice on the roads and then of the wind.

The problem is that after all the flooding from yesterday, there was a lot of water left on the roads, which froze last night and left patches of ice everywhere. And the other problem is that I could see none of this from my house, situated as it is on a section of road that drains well and therefore was dry. I knew the patches of ice were likely to exist somewhere, but as I couldn’t see them from my windows, it was a little hard to take them seriously.

But they were there, in particular abundance right at the place where traffic was fairly heavy and where I was heading downhill and so was reluctant to turn around and slog back up the hill to head home in defeat. I got lucky, though; every time I came across a patch of ice that covered my side of the road there was no traffic in sight so I could swing over to the other side to get past.

The middle of the ride was okay — I even had fun practicing holding my balance as I rode over ice patches — but the last five miles or so I was out on a road that’s a little more open than the rest and where the wind gusts hit me hard. The gusts were coming from all directions, so I never knew where I’d get hit next or how to compensate for them. I spent the time hoping a gust wouldn’t hit me right at the moment when I was between a car and a guardrail on a section of road where there was no shoulder, so that I’d get knocked over with no room to spare and have a horrible accident. At one point, heading downhill on a section of road with open space next to it so that the wind could really pick up some speed, I got hit by a gust so hard I stopped for fear of toppling over. Once the gust died down I was on my way again, riding my brakes the whole way down the hill.

That was no fun! So far I’ve been lucky this winter to have reasonably good weather to ride in; I don’t mind the cold so much (although 20 degrees is my limit — at least for now), which means that it’s only rain and snow that keep me inside, and the rain and snow have generally fallen on days or parts of days when I’m not planning on riding. But I’m bound to have a horrific ride or two, especially since I’m also bound and determined not to get on the trainer and ride indoors unless I absolutely positively have to. I simply can’t stand the thought of riding on a bike that goes nowhere, and so I’m willing to put up with a horrific ride or two instead. And I’ll admit I enjoy going on rides that I probably shouldn’t go on, at least once I’m home and can feel triumphant in the safety of my own living room.

Oh, and I’m probably going to race with the women in the upcoming race series, with the idea that if it goes horribly I’ll switch to the Cat 5 men’s race. I’m not exactly looking forward to how hard I’ll have to work to keep pace with the other women, but I want to give it a try just to see what it’s like. I’ll spend too much time wondering about it otherwise.

And one more thing — once I settled into it, I had a nice time lounging around yesterday on my day off due to rain and got most of Woolf’s Night and Day read. I’ll finish it tonight.

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This hardly ever happens …

My department chair just called me up and strongly urged me to cancel my classes and stay home today.  Cool!  We got snow yesterday, which has now turned to rain, which is causing some serious flooding.  It’s not the sort of flooding that will put us in danger as long as we’re at home, but it has flooded the roads enough that some of them are probably closed and traffic is surely terrible.  My department chair tried to get to school and turned back when she saw that cars on the highway were in water up to their doors.

So I should be thrilled to have this day at home, but instead I feel anxious.  I don’t like missing class because it messes up our rhythm, gets us behind, and generally confuses things.  And I’ve been so busy lately — I’ve been used to moving at a pretty fast pace (fast for me) — that I don’t quite know how to deal with the free time.  It’s hard to shift gears so abruptly.  Do I just sit around in the middle of the day and read Virginia Woolf?  I guess so …

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Thoughts and a meme

I haven’t had much time for reading lately, which is why the “Currently Reading” section of my sidebar hasn’t changed in a while; I’m enjoying Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, but I’m still ready for something new. Even though I like a book, I can still feel a bit bogged down in it. Well, this weekend will solve that problem somewhat, as I’ll have to read Frankenstein for my class. But I’m ready to pick up something new purely for fun.

The other thing I’ve been reading, though, is a friend’s novel-in-progress, the same friend whose earlier novel I described reading here. She’s been remarkably prolific this year. I decided to read through the manuscript once to get some initial impressions, and then to read it again writing comments along the way. I don’t consider myself to be much of an editor, but I do enjoy this kind of work now and then; as I was writing comments, I was mainly trying to pinpoint what was going on in places where I felt confused or uncertain, where I felt jolted or surprised by something that didn’t fit or wasn’t developed, or simply where I felt something was off. And I was noting places where I liked the writing or the ideas and places where everything fit together for me.

I do like having a little bit of a hand in the direction the novel will go, but at the same time, it’s a scary process — not because I’m scared I won’t like the book, which I know I will, but I worry my feedback will be frustrating or confusing or will get the writer off track somehow. I’m sure my friend won’t use any feedback that doesn’t seem right, but she still seems to take what I say seriously, and so I want to make sure I say very helpful things.

But to another topic entirely — Margaret from BooksPlease has tagged me for a meme: the “10 signs a book has been written by me” meme. Now I don’t think this book will ever get written by me, but, like Danielle who did this meme recently, I’ll play along. So here goes. My book will be:

  1. a novelistic type thing, although not exactly traditional
  2. character driven, not plot driven
  3. about consciousness
  4. with a female protagonist
  5. with long sentences
  6. set in the U.S.
  7. set roughly in the present
  8. in first person point of view
  9. influenced by Virginia Woolf, although (alas!) not nearly as brilliant as her work is
  10. influenced by Nicholson Baker’s attention to detail, although without the scientific/technological interests.

That would be my book, although thinking about it now, the list looks rather … boring. That’s why I’m a reader of novels, not a writer of them.  I generally don’t tag people for memes, but this time I’m changing my mind.  So I tag the following people, although if any of them don’t want to do the meme, that’s fine by me: Hobgoblin, EmilyBecky, Hepzibah, and Amanda.

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In defense of negativity

I got myself a bit riled up by this post — or rather, not the post itself, which is quite good, but some of the comments made by interviewees in the post. It’s about the function and status of book blogs, covering quite a lot of topics including how book bloggers can help small publishers, whether the criticism on blogs is any good, and whether book bloggers should post negative reviews. It’s this last question that gets me all irritated. Well, the second question irritates me too, but the idea that there is no good criticism on blogs strikes me as easily disproven, if only a person is willing to open their eyes and take a look around. But the question of bloggers posting negative reviews is not quite so easy.

I know I’ve written about this before, but what the hell — one thing that’s true about blogging is that it does little good to have an idea buried back in your archives from a few months ago. The post I’m referring to takes the side of freedom to write about books in whatever form you want, positive or negative, but one blogger they interview argues strongly that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t post about it. I think this is the sentence that got me:

… if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully.

Oh, dear. The things this sentence makes me want to say. Which I will refrain from saying, as I do not want to be mean and pick a fight. But I have the right to pick a fight if I want to! And I have the right to post whatever I want about any book I want, and I don’t need any authority from anybody to do it. It’s the absolute language that bothers me — you do not have any authority — whereas if somebody said to me “it might be better if you didn’t …” I would listen and politely disagree but I wouldn’t get angry.

People seem to have trouble accepting just what blogs are and what they do. Now I can understand this a little bit, especially if you are an author and you’d really rather not have random bloggers trashing your work, whom you know nothing about and, for all you know, may not have completed high school. But the reality is that if it’s going to happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. And pretending that there’s some authority out there that grants certain people the right to give their opinions and makes the others shut up won’t help any.

Blogging is a new and sometimes troubling mix of the personal and the public — it often feels like a combination of diary, casual coffee shop conversation, and published work. I can see that it’s hard to come to terms with the way blogging takes that diary or coffee shop conversation and puts it out into the world, giving a public voice to those who would have had none before. “Publishing” now has a new meaning and new connotations. These days there’s publishing as in going through the editing process and appearing in print, and there’s publishing as in typing up a blog post, with what degree of care it doesn’t matter, and clicking “publish.” It’s just not the same thing anymore, and I think it’s better to learn how to deal with it than to try to fight it.

But what I really wanted to say is that it doesn’t make sense to me that bloggers should write only about books they like. No one can stop bloggers from publishing negative reviews, yes, but I also see no reason for them to try to do so. To me personally, it feels dishonest to write only about positive responses, and I’m not sure I’d trust a blogger who never panned a book, ever. But even more significant, I think, is that the attempt to be honest and truthful is more important than an author’s feelings. One lone blogger writing reviews isn’t going to uncover the truth about a particular book — there isn’t any such truth to be found — but her opinions will add to the ongoing conversation about books in general and about that particular book specifically, and the value of that conversation supersedes the feelings of individual people. There would be no depth, no interest, in a conversation with no negativity whatsoever.

Now, really bad-natured bloggers who write nasty reviews are another matter entirely, but still, no one can stop them from publishing their nasty reviews, and any reader with sense will ignore them and move on to better blogs.

So, if you decide you’d rather not publish negative reviews, then you don’t have to, and that’s a perfectly legitimate personal decision, but it’s not one I choose to make. And I do wish people would stop telling me what I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do on this blog where I can do anything I like.

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British Lit.

Some readers seemed curious about the British Lit. class I’m teaching, so I thought I’d write a bit about that. We’ve met for two weeks now and things are going pretty well; teaching a new course is difficult, though! It’s been a while since I’ve taught something brand new, and I’m remembering how much reading and prep goes into it. I’m looking forward to getting to Frankenstein, a text I’ve taught before, so I can rely on my old notes.

So far we’ve covered Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge — ridiculous to have done all that in two weeks, right? That’s the hard thing about a survey course — there’s so much to put on the syllabus and so little time. There are so many authors I can’t cover, and even with the ones that do make it on the syllabus, we only cover a laughably small amount of their writing. Some selections from Songs of Innocence and Experience, some selections from Lyrical Ballads, one Charlotte Smith sonnet, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that’s it. I was pleased that one of my students was intrigued by Charlotte Smith; she was captivated by her rather tempestuous biography and wanted to know more. Perhaps she’ll go on to read more of her work.

I took a course in college that covered the entire history of British literature in one semester, which seems insane to me now. At least with this class I only have to cover the last two centuries, and mostly we’re focusing on the first 150 years of that time.

My students are doing a good job with the material, and I’m particularly happy with the way one of my assignments is working out, an assignment that asks students to come into class every day with two questions or insights about the reading. I told the students their questions or insights don’t have to be particularly brilliant, just genuine. It’s a very informal assignment; they can write their thoughts by hand on an index card if they want. I like this assignment for a number of reasons — for one, I can start class simply by asking them to share their thoughts and questions and that can be a springboard for discussion. Or they have material in front of them that they can share later in the class if they want to.

And then when I read these over after class, I get a good sense of how well they are understanding the reading — if they are thoroughly confused by the archaic language in the Coleridge poem, for example, or if they loved it and have an idea about, say, why that archaic language is there. I’ve been so pleased with their submissions that I usually read some of them out loud in the next day’s class to follow up on the previous discussion and cover things we missed earlier. And then we’ll move on to the new reading for the day.

I’ve believed for a long time in making the students accountable for doing the reading in some way — having tried to run classes where few people were actually doing the reading and I was ready to tear my hair out at their lack of response. Usually I hold them accountable with brief reading quizzes at the beginning of class. It sounds like an annoying, childish assignment, but I’ve had a lot of students comment that they liked the quizzes because it forced them to stay on top of things. But I’m thinking I like my questions/insights assignment better and may use it more often.

So now we’re on to a Maria Edgeworth short story and the later romantics — Percy Shelley and Keats. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels ever.

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Essays on the novel

I’ve now read the first five essays in Franco Moretti’s book on the novel (I wrote about the first essay here), and so far the verdict is mixed, although that’s not really a surprise, given the range of material included. I didn’t finish the second essay, as I found it unreadable — or least not worth the trouble of trying to make sense of out it. The writing was dense and the argument elusive in that way academic writing can unfortunately sometimes be. I don’t mind working hard if I sense there’s a payoff or if it’s a topic I’m interested in — in fact I’m happy working hard in these conditions — but I read enough of this essay to know it wasn’t going to win me over.

But the next three essays were better. One of them is called “Historiography and Fiction in Chinese Culture,” and it discusses the relative importance and respect granted to fiction and history in China up until the early 20C, history being the genre with all the respect, and fiction getting very little:

Since historiography was the highest genre, fiction had to justify its existence by claiming to serve as its popularized illustration, or as its supplementation. Therefore, fiction hardly represented the genuine spirit of Chinese culture but rather its distorted exposition. Some critics even regard Chinese fiction as the expression of the social unconscious, which was silenced in “normal” cultural discourses but let loose in those “inferior” genres.

This essay and others like it make me wish I had copies on hand of the novels under discussion so I could understand more concretely what’s being argued. Or maybe not? When I look some examples up at Amazon, what I find are books like this: Outlaws of the Marsh, a four volume set with 2,149 pages! At any rate, I’m learning things about the history of the novel I certainly never knew before.

Another essay traces the origins of the ancient Greek novel, arguing that rather than originating from one early example, the Greek novel developed from a number of different types of stories that slowly converged into one genre. This essay taught me a lot about the various forms of Greek fiction — and I was only barely aware that such a thing existed — but it did assume that the reader already had a certain amount of knowledge about Greek prose, and so it wasn’t as useful an introduction as it could have been. I’m discovering that about these essays — a general reader can follow any of them, but many of them are best read by someone who already has a solid base of knowledge about the topic. So the essays that mean the most to me are those about areas I’m familiar with — novels from the West in the last few centuries.

So, Walter Siti’s essay “The Novel on Trial” I found quite intriguing; he charts suspicious attitudes towards fiction in the West, pointing out that:

Of all the literary genres, the novel is the only one that feels the need to deny itself.

I come across this attitude in 18C novels frequently — the claim that novels are bad, which appears in the novels themselves. The author has to prove somehow that her novel is not like the others, not frivolous and a waste of time. What’s so scary about the novel, according to Siti, is that anyone can write one; it appears, at least, not to require a whole lot of skill (I’m sure practicing novelists would disagree with that notion, but the novel doesn’t have the “rules and regulations,” as Siti puts it, that, say, the epic has). Not only is the novel dangerously democratic, but it promotes bad habits of mind:

The general accusation was that novels lowered the cultural level and promoted curiosity and gossip, to the detriment of “litérature savante.” Novels wean people from the habits of thinking. “You never reread a novel,” wrote Vauvenargues in 1745.

The novel can also spread “obscenity and sedition” and introduce a vulgarity into society that threatens to undermine high culture. It privileges pleasure in reading instead of edification and high-mindedness.

But Siti argues that here is where the novel finds its source of strength:

… the novel’s vocation to satisfy its reader’s pleasure is what steered it toward those delicate spots where pleasure rubs up against reality; its vulgarity, in short, is the condition for the antisystematic perspicacity that is its strength … the protean and undisciplined surrender to the folds of the present and its dishonorable status drives the novel into murky territories where other genres fear to tread.

It took a long time for people to recognize the strengths of the novel as a genre, however; only in the 18C, Siti argues, did a shift begin to take place that slowly turned the novel into a respectable and serious genre. These days we don’t fear novels in the way people used to:

In the seventeenth century you could pay with your life for having written a novel; nowadays trials against literature generally end in acquittals and embarrassment for the accusers.

While it’s nice to think that novels can have social and political power, it’s a much better state of things that nobody has to pay with their life for having written one. Well, for the most part that’s true; Salman Rushdie might have thought otherwise at certain times of his life.

So — in spite of my mixed verdict on this book, I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the essays have to teach me.

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