One of the more logical things to do while giving one final exam is to grade another final exam. Efficiency, use of time, and all that. This proceeding does, however, have certain dangers. The instructor must refrain from shaking her fist at the heavens, grimacing, laughing, and/or any other overt expressions of disapproval. It is also advisable to be what you could call professional. During one final exam of my innocent undergraduate years, I found myself watching the instructor while I briefly rested my overworked right hand. A student had finished up early, so he took the exam, flipped it open, and started marking it. After the first couple of pages, he stopped marking it, flipped all the way to the end to see if the student had finished, and then wrote a grade inside the bluebook cover. (Bear in mind that I was still just resting my hand; he wasn't exactly devoting hours to the exercise, or even minutes.) At that moment, it occurred to me that I could spend the rest of the exam expounding on Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of poetry, and still get a good grade. I didn't, but it was tempting.
In an afterword, Terry Pratchett describes Dodger, his good-natured reworking of Oliver Twist and--despite the title--Great Expectations as "historical fantasy" (359), and certainly the avid Victorianists amongst my readers would be well-advised to relax any expectations they possess for historical accuracy. There's no other way to explain how Dickens, Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Joseph Bazalgette, Henry Mayhew, Sir Robert Peel, John Tenniel, Queen Victoria, and others I'm no doubt forgetting wind up rubbing shoulders in reasonably convivial fashion. (Obviously, some of these people--e.g., Dickens and Burdett-Coutts--were well-acquainted; others, not so much, and not all at the same time.) The anachronism extends to the literary references, which is why alert readers will spot references not only to Oliver! (as one might expect), but also Shakespeare and James Joyce's "The Dead" (as one might not). Moreover, readers conditioned by, say, Louis Bayard (Mr. Timothy) or Peter Carey (Jack Maggs) to expect Dickens Revisited to be Dickens Darkened should also put their preconceptions aside: despite the requisite neo-Victorian visits to slums and sewers, this is by and large an upbeat concoction.
Pratchett's "Dodger" (no Artful) is a tosher, someone who trawls the sewers looking for money, jewelry, and other goodies, whilst avoiding the less...pleasant...objects one might expect to find in a sewer. Of course, as he admits, he has also been known to do the odd robbery from time to time, but that's just because "he was good at finding things" (15). Despite predating Sherlock Holmes, he has a remarkably Sherlockian talent for reading people, and, although possessing a somewhat lax moral code, he instinctively protects the weak (women, children, the elderly) against the strong; he even works up sympathy for (a chronologically misplaced) Sweeney Todd, suffering from severe trauma, with whom he has a close, er, shave. In other words, our Dodger is a bit of a diamond in the rough. He rooms with the appropriately wise Solomon Cohen, Pratchett's answer to Fagin, a Swiss Army Knife of a Jewish character who speaks just about every language known to man (well, except Welsh--you can't expect too much), is a skilled metalworker and locksmith, has been known to hobnob with royalty, is up on the latest in culture and clothing, is a gifted financier, and has spent his entire life on the run from antisemitic persecution in one way or another. Oh, and had a mysterious chum named Karl, wild hair, interested in the proletariat... Whew. Despite being an inverted Fagin, Solomon is actually a far more chipper rendition of Benjamin Disraeli's Sidonia, although Dizzy himself does not fare particularly well at Pratchett's hands. Last but not least, there's the object of Dodger's growing devotion, a young lady known only as "Simplicity" (she changes her name later), a mysterious escapee from a terrifying marriage with an equally mysterious German nobleman. Far from being a standard Dickensian angel, either in or out of the house, let alone a "damsel in distress" (87), Simplicity can hold her own in a fistfight and has a decided mind of her own.
At one point, Simplicity comments that "I had thought I was in a fairy tale when I first met my husband" (162), and at first glance, the novel appears committed to undermining fairy-tale logic. Simplicity, as I said, is hardly a passive Disney princess (or any other sort), and Pratchett doesn't stint on the more lurid sense of early-Victorian poverty and sexuality. But, as the stereotypically plump cook jokes, it's a shock that Dodger hasn't been named "Lord Mayor" (79), like Dick Whittington, and his rags-to-sort-of-riches transformation combines Oliver Twist's (re)turn to genteel respectability (well, sort of) with a far less conflicted variant of Pip's transformation into a gentleman. "Seem to be a hero, seem to be a clever young man, seem to be trustworthy" (194), Dodger thinks to himself, and this seeming eventually turns into being. In that sense, Solomon is as much benevolent Magwitch as he is sanctified Fagin, his primary gift to Dodger being not money (although he certainly helps Dodger invest it) but the recognition that he might, after all, have a "soul" (42). The quasi-magic of the orphaned and impoverished Dodger's upward rise, in which he can best any opponent, call up yet another of Solomon's astonishing tricks, and get the (wife of German royalty!) girl in the end, remains very much in the realm of fairy-tale heroics. Which is to say that the novel does not, after all, disown Oliver Twist, although it certainly swaps out its annoying protagonist for someone considerably more engaging. (The novel's conclusion, though it lands Dodger in France, is perhaps more Kipling's Kim than it is anything by Dickens, though.)
Even though Pratchett doesn't hold back on the muck, as I've said, Dodger offers up a modest celebration of England and Englishness. Solomon quips that "it seems to me that in the pinch most governments settle for shooting their people, but in England they have to ask permission first," and, more seriously, "people don't mind much what you're doing as long as you're not making too much noise" (118); Simplicity reminds Disraeli and Dickens that "My mother [...] said that in England everybody is free" (163). Despite the potential irony in Simplicity's remark, the novel really does gently celebrate the idea of England as a safe haven for those endangered abroad, even though it also notes the prejudice, the brutality (Dodger's initial encounter with Solomon involved rescuing him from a beating), and the corruption. Everyone's a Dodger, as Dodger notes more than once. But they're Dodgers in a nation where, perhaps, a tosher can become a gentleman, and a gentleman with a soul, at that.
I will admit from the outset that my enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann's aesthetic has always been, shall we say, minimal--which means that I am not The Great Gatsby's ideal viewer. Then again, most critics have already singled out what struck me as the film's greatest problems, especially Tobey Maguire's half-note performance as Nick and Luhrmann's overall substitution of glitz for serious engagement with Fitzgerald's novel. (Shallow people are the subject; it does not follow that the film itself must be shallow.) But I'd like to add two things:
1. The triumph of writing. The Great Gatsby invokes and inverts one of the classic Hollywood signifiers for "adaptation on the screen!": putting the book on film. In the notorious example of Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943), for example, the "book" is not Bronte's Jane Eyre at all, but an entirely new and more overtly political chunk of text. (You can see the book beginning at 1:13.) Luhrmann doesn't put The Great Gatsby at the beginning; instead, the frame shows us Nick rediscovering himself through writing-as-therapy, with the completed typescript at the end. The spartan quality of the typescript, in stark contrast to Gatsby's tacky glamour and the Buchanans' old money luxury, suggests the possibility of a disciplined way out from the film's meaningless revels, sexual escapades, and general debaucheries. Unlike either Gatsby or the Buchanans, Nick turns out to be capable of focused labor, "authentic" creative production; writing transforms him because it is work, even physical work (we see his handwriting, see him collapsed in front of the typewriter, etc.). Nick has, in a sense, earned his redeemed identity, in a way that the endlessly self-inventing Gatsby has not.
2. Race and realism, except when it isn't. We figure out pretty quickly that Tom Buchanan must be a bad guy, because he goes on about the dangers of rising African-American power and miscegenation, then later uses an antisemitic slur for Meyer Wolfsheim. Racism/antisemitism function as historical markers, that is: the twenty-first century viewer knows that these attitudes are bad (or we're supposed to, anyway), and that Buchanan represents something rotten. And yet the film tries to play with race. The African-American characters are almost entirely in the background, true, thinking goodness-knows-what about the whites they're serving or entertaining--but then the speakeasy is strangely well-integrated, and there's Nick's encounter with a group of African-American partiers in a car driven by a white chauffeur. In other words, is Buchanan anachronistic then or now? Or is it supposed to be both? Or, again, should we take the simultaneous omnipresence and invisibility of the African-American characters as a symptom of Nick's own mindset, a fantastic, distorted mental camera? Casting Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim distracted me for a slightly different reason, as it felt like Luhrmann was trying to subvert Jewish stereotypes without knowing that there was a Jewish community in India. (Not being a telepath, I could be wrong--and, granted, one would not expect a Jew from India to be called Meyer Wolfsheim.) More to the point, though, the film does nothing to evade the antisemitic implications of having a Jew be, in effect, the true, new-money power behind Gatsby's glitzy facade; making Wolfsheim scarier than the novel's original is not exactly much help.
Keith A. Francis and William Gibson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 (Oxford, 2012). Everything you wanted to know about the early modern/modern sermon but were probably too terrified to ask; includes evangelicals, Catholics, skeptics, preaching methods, sermons and politics, etc. For some reason, Amazon had this knocked down to $25; they appear to have changed their minds about that price. (Amazon)
Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Widow Green and Her Three Nieces (S. W. Partridge, 1859). Didactic novella about poverty, service, charitable behavior, etc. Ellis is best known as the author of the Women, Wives, Mothers, and Daughters of England books. (eBay)
Mme. Augustus Craven, Fleurange, trans. M. P. T. (Catholic Publication Society, 1872). An orphaned French girl travels to Germany and, after many trials, finds love. More on Mme. [Pauline] Craven here. (eBay)
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013). A middle-aged, frustrated artist involves herself with a new family and their problems. (Amazon)
THE SITUATION: Disraeli, one of my two fourteen-year-old cats, has developed arthritis in one hip.
THE CRISIS: His "ritual" for climbing onto my lap when I'm at my desk involves jumping to the arm of my office chair, then stepping down. Unfortunately, the whole "jumping to the arm of my office chair" bit is no longer working quite so well.
MY SOLUTION: I moved the footrest to give him a "step" up to the arm. This should work, right? Right?
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED:
DISRAELI: *contemplates arm of my office chair while ignoring the footrest*
ME: No, you jump on the footrest first. The footrest. *taps footrest*
DISRAELI: *attempts leap to chair arm, misses, and grabs on to the nearest thing to steady himself--unfortunately, this is me*
ME: *utters words that cannot be repeated here because I am sweet and innocent and unacquainted with such language*
DISRAELI: *slinks off in feline shame*
Some time later...
DISRAELI: *contemplates arm of my office chair while ignoring the footrest*
ME: AAAGGGH. No, you jump on the footrest first, you nitwit. The footrest. *taps footrest*
DISRAELI: *tries to jump, cancels operation in midstream*
ME: Look, cat, just climb up on this thing that is right next to you. *taps footrest*
DISRAELI: *contemplates arm of my office chair while ignoring the footrest*
ME: I don't need more holes in my leg! *taps footrest with greater urgency*
DISRAELI: *notices footrest; ponders situation; climbs on footrest, up to chair arm, and onto target destination*
ME: All those years in graduate school for this, eh?
"The Amish romance novel," like, say, "Jewish conversion fiction," is one of those genres that strikes the uninitiated as hopelessly esoteric ("surely there can be only a few of those things") but, in fact, attracts a wide-ranging audience, especially amongst evangelical Christians. A subgenre of the inspirational romance, studied recently by Lynn Neal, Amish romance novels potentially reveal much about the fruitful intersections between supposedly "religious" and "secular" cultural domains. In its approach to these novels, Valerie Weaver-Zercher's Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels(Johns Hopkins, 2013) is an avowed descendant of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, a study which yokes critical analysis of romance conventions to the empirical study of reading practices--who reads the romance? How do romance readers evaluate and use these books? To what extent do they embrace or resist romance narratives? Given the subject matter, Weaver-Zercher takes things a step further: how do the Amish (of whatever affiliation) respond to these novels, given that the authors frequently have a somewhat tenuous relationship at best to Amish communities?
As Weaver-Zercher explains, the Amish novel has always existed in a problematic relationship to other narratives of American Christian culture, not least because--at least historically--many evangelicals have not believed and still do not believe that the Amish have a saving faith (although, she notes, this is changing). In practice, this means that Amish romance novels, especially ones published in the early years of the genre, have a strong conversionist bent, as the romantic lead (or leads) transitions from a "rule-bound" to "Jesus-filled" (119) faith, from justification by good works to sola fide, from "repressive Amishness" to "liberating evangelicalism" (118), and so on. Those of you who have been reading my blog for the past decade or so should recognize this narrative trajectory, as it also characterizes 19th-c. conversion fiction. (Is there anything that can't be squashed into a "works/faith" dichotomy?) However, Weaver-Zercher posits that even in novels that don't figure the Amish as unchristian (or un-evangelical, anyway), Amish culture and belief offers what she calls a "transport" to an idyllic, faith-filled, organic location, defined by its freedom from the demands of our over-technologized and over-sexed "hypermodernity." Although Weaver-Zercher is at pains to acknowledge that this strategy may have some spiritual positives for evangelical readers, she also warns that it obscures the realities of Amish life (in particular, she notes, the strong commitment to pacifism [222-24]), inadvertently transforms the Amish into historical remnants rather than a living people (134), and, frequently, "risks disregarding the cultural integrity, complicated history, and sometimes recondite spirituality of the people at the center of the books" (218). In particular, the habit of relegating the Amish to "history," to a kind of figurative pre-modernity nestled within contemporary culture, resonates both with Johannes Fabian's famous analysis of anthropological rhetoric and, again, with traditional conversionist and/or supersessionist narratives, in which one religion (Judaism, Catholicism) is summarily consigned to the past so that another (Christianity, Protestantism) can claim sole access to the fullness of divine truth.
Weaver-Zercher's analysis of how these books are produced, marketed, and received can sometimes feel a little ad hoc, especially when it comes to the question of reception; this is a by-product of her sometimes folksy tone, which on occasion makes it seem as though she is rustling up readers over the dinner table. As she notes, the success of this subgenre makes it typical of the ultra-commercial quality of American religion (with its endless supply of inspirational gimcracks, cards, books, music, and what-have-you), and she points to the importance of social media in constructing author-reader relations and, of course, upping sales (92-96). One of the results, she argues, is that "[f]ictional accounts of Amish life slice it into serving sizes such that readers can consume the tasty parts--Amish Christmases and midwives and brides and quilts--without needing to digest the ecclesial authority, pacifist orientation, or communal practices that stick in a modern craw" (101). Amish romances thus form part of a religious bricolage, in which readers appropriate the least challenging aspects of the Other's practices and incorporate them with an entirely different (and perhaps dissonant) lifestyle. (The fondness of some Christians for the Kabbalah Centre is a similar case in point.) This appropriative strategy underlines Weaver-Zercher's finding that, in general, readers find a "replica of themselves and their own ecclesial journey" (118) when reading these novels; the novels are written for those already sure of evangelicalism's rightness. Actual Amish readers are not as harsh on these novels as one might expect: Weaver-Zercher catalogs reactions that range, in effect, from "yikes, no" to laughter to outright enjoyment, although she also concedes that there's no hard statistical data about these readers (184). Still, Weaver-Zercher, working with transactional theory, reiterates the important point that religious fiction can generate complex and resistant responses from readers; the didactic mode does not foreclose alternative or unintended appropriative meanings, no matter how hard it may try.
For those of us who hang out with nineteenth-century religious fiction, this book offers a number of helpful strategies and reminders. First, like F. Elizabeth Gray, Lynn Neal, and others, Weaver-Zercher points out that what look like aesthetic flaws from one POV may, in fact, be a productive part of a work's spiritual or missionary project on the other (74). Second, she reminds us that didacticism does not, in fact, produce a lockstep readership: readers of religious fiction are just as likely to resist and rewrite as they are to agree wholeheartedly with the author's position. Third, her reminder that religious publishing is a business like any other does call us to investigate how and why certain types of religious fiction became popular (or not) at specific moments in nineteenth-century culture, and how such fiction was produced and distributed; in particular, the American habit of pirating everything in sight needs to be taken into account when we think about transatlantic influences, as well as the importance of translation when it comes to the development of Catholic fiction. (It would be interesting to know, for example, just how much "Anglo-American" Catholic fiction was really French.) And fourth, there's room for more archival research on readers responding to and interacting with non-anonymous religious novelists. Did they send fan mail? Did they ask for spiritual guidance? Did they make pilgrimages to authors' homes?
I'm teaching Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" today (a reliable sign that semester's end is nigh), and am once again reminded of how an English exchange student I had about three years ago reacted to the poem.
We were talking about "The Soldier"'s Wordsworthian evocation of nature's beauties and spiritual effects--not least of how the poem defines England strictly in terms of the pastoral. By this point, the student was rolling her eyes a bit, but when we got to the apparently perpetual "suns of home," not to mention all those flowers and non-freezing rivers, she could no longer restrain herself. Was England really this spring-like all the time?
At times, my university's spam filter is, shall we say, over-efficient. Student e-mails have, on more than one occasion, been consigned to Circle Nine of the spam inferno, never to be seen again. One colleague reported that an interesting request for a collaboration was similarly dispatched to the chilly depths. However, this is quite possibly the first time that the spam filter has ever trapped university e-mails--from the bookstore, no less. I'm impressed, for some value of "what on earth...?"
Speaking of filters, as some of you may have noticed as my Twitter feed scrolls by, I have actually finished copyediting Robert Elsmere. I now need to find something productive to do with my time, although I suspect that Notre Dame will soon fill the void by sending me page proofs and requesting an index for Book Two. (Come to think of it, they're probably going to do that while I'm vacationing. Figures.)
Meanwhile, on an entirely unrelated note, I'll have an essay in this seminar over at Crooked Timber.
At this point, opening a new novel by Patrick McGrath involves a reassuring dose of familiarity: whatever happens (murder! psychoanalysis! body horror!) and wherever it happens (asylums! old houses! New York!), there will be a reliably unreliable narrator on hand, whose voice will just as reliably mutate from rational to delusional by the plot's conclusion. Turning the narrator inside-out, as it were, is one of McGrath's hallmarks. In Constance, McGrath ups the ante somewhat by featuring two unreliable narrators, our title character and her much older husband, English academic Sidney Klein. McGrath dissects Constance's and Sidney's increasingly toxic marriage, but he shrouds the corpse of this relationship with meta-Gothic trappings. Constance does not so much exist in Gothic as she self-consciously makes it, and therein lies much of her emotional trauma.
In some ways, this novel is classic Joyce Carol Oates territory. Constance, an editor, meets the already twice-divorced Sidney at a party, and he is immediately taken by her strangeness. Alas, much of Constance's strangeness has to do with her convoluted family relationships: after her English mother's early death, Constance was forced to raise her now-drunken sister Iris (whom she both loves and dislikes) and, worse still, put up with her cold father (whom, she is convinced, loathes her). Under the circumstances, the nature of her attraction to the also-English Sidney, decades her senior, is somewhat questionable. Matters do not improve when her dying father drops the emotional equivalent of a nuclear warhead midway through the book, leaving Constance to spend the rest of the novel attempting to reconstruct her fractured identity. Meanwhile, the reader will be left counting the suicides.
Like many McGrath narrators, Constance and Sidney seek to impose order on their chaotic psyches by carefully framing one story after another. Both characters repeatedly commit sins of omission, either with each other or, occasionally, the reader: Sidney apparently never enlightens Constance about his first marriage, while the reader hears about Constance's affair with a seedy piano player (a.k.a. her sister's boyfriend) from Sidney before Constance gets around to mentioning it. Nor, between Sidney's narrative, Constance's account to her sister, and Constance's address to the reader do we ever learn the full truth about the affair (how did Constance feel about Eddie? How many times did they have sex? And was she raped?). We see Constance's day job crop up in her careful calibration of what story to tell Sidney, what to tell her sister.
But there's another level of framing as well, in the overt literary and pop psychology references. Constance's and Iris' mother Harriet has an affair with the gardener that is suspiciously like Lady Chatterley's Lover redux. Moreover, Constance, who seems on nodding acquaintance with Freud, explains to Sidney that she married him because "[h]er father never gave her what she needed [...] and she'd always felt it was her fault"; in fact, "it was a repetition compulsion complex" (loc. 877). Given the emergence of therapy culture that lurks in the novel's background--"unlike most of the population of New York City she wouldn't see a psychiatrist" (loc. 882)--it's perhaps no surprise that Constance imagines herself in an increasingly literal family romance, in which she is the disfavored child who turns out to be not "one of the family" at all. By contrast, Sidney, at work on a great white whale called The Conservative Heart, brings a kind of chilly critical analysis to every move except his own; Constance tells us early on that "he had no real interest in who I was, only in how I conformed to the image he'd constructed in his mind" (loc. 42), and her instinctive sense of his controlling impulses are confirmed in the chapters from his POV. Sidney glumly contemplates a New York City that seems to suffer from "entropic dissolution" (loc. 1679), a physical and spiritual collapse hinting at the aimlessness and formlessness that Sidney most fears. Sidney insists on shaping both stories and people, not least of all his wives--who then, of course, divorce him. Even at the end, he has only a glimpse of his partial "responsibility"
before running back to his own certainties: "No, I was in the right
here. Surely" (loc. 2766). His best friend notes his "inability to tolerate criticism" (loc. 749), and Sidney is least of all capable of critiquing "my impulse to protect and nourish her" (loc. 775)--to be, as it turns out, a husband who is also sometimes a stringent father-figure.
This multiplicity of fathers--the loathed father (who is not one), the long-dead real father, and the husband-father--taps into one of traditional Gothic's prize tropes, the bad/evil/neglectful/absent patriarch. In fact, it taps into the trope so blatantly that the reader soon becomes aware of how openly Constance's narration evokes its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestry. Figurative "ghosts" abound, from the moment when Constance admits that "I felt like a ghost" in Sidney's apartment (loc. 53). Constance herself will be the last of the Schuylers by the time the novel is over, a famously Gothic predicament and an unsurprising one, given the family's oddness quotient. Her family home in the Hudson Valley is Ravenswood (a reference to The Bride of Lammermoor), and the decor is so screamingly Gothic as to be almost comical, tattered and crumbling, "dripping damp," and, of course, tenanted by a "monster" (loc. 944)--a real "Gothic horror house," in fact (loc. 974). Even the "ghastly ironic symmetry" (loc. 2416) of Constance being invited to kill her not-father, the man who (maybe) killed her real father, itself invokes the inevitability of Gothic repetition. The atmosphere of sexual secrecy, betrayal, and possibly murder permeates everything.
That Constance's mind goes so naturally to the least subtle aspects of an unsubtle genre points, I think, to her yearning for safety--a yearning she shares with the intellectually congested Sidney. That's not as bizarre as it sounds. In my Gothic course, we've been joking all semester about the dangers of skepticism: spend too long disbelieving in Gothic horrors, and you're (unpleasantly) dead! But for Constance, the Gothic is a pat analogy, an easy explanation. In Constance's mind, things once perceived tend to be all too clear. "Then I wondered why he'd been such a vindictive man," thinks Constance of her father, concluding, "it was obvious, it was because I was the living embodiment of my mother's infidelity, of her sin" (loc. 1075); and again, insisting that "Daddy" was responsible for her real father's death, she wonders, "Why couldn't Sidney grasp the obvious here? Daddy was responsible" (loc. 1390). Fleeing to the obvious, Constance evades complexities. In that sense, the creaky trappings of costume Gothic mark another evasion, in which the world can be divided up into black and white, monsters and innocent maidens, and Constance herself can safely identify as a victim--even when she is arguably hard at work at sabotaging her marriage (not that Sidney doesn't lend a hand there). In that sense, Constance finds ambiguity as terrifying as Sidney does. And this makes it difficult to read Constance's flat declarative statement at the end of the novel--"And you will never do him harm" (loc. 2904)--as anything but a sign of yet further danger, an unstated threat lurking beneath one more attempt at order and control.