Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine

51k5gwwbcgl_aa240_.jpg Thank you, Litlove, for recommending this book to us! Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who Waited was the Slaves of Golconda group read this time around; it’s a short novel about a woman, Vera, waiting in a small Russian village for her lover to return from the war. She’s been waiting for 30 years. Actually, what the novel is really about is the unnamed narrator’s attempts to tell Vera’s life story. The Woman Who Waited is the story of how he tries to understand who she is and why she has waited so long, instead of leaving the decaying town and forging a life elsewhere. She’s a mystery the narrative dances around.

The narrator has come to Vera’s town, Mirnoe, on a research project; he is supposed to write reports on “local habits and customs.” His instructions are to “go and jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests” and on the side he will gather material for an “anti-Soviet satire.” And so, befitting this project, he comes to the town with a detached and ironic attitude, ready to observe and pass judgment on the simple villagers clinging to their old ways.

When he arrives in Mirnoe, however, he quickly finds that the reality of the place will not let him keep his distance or maintain his ironic pose. In one episode, the narrator and Vera travel to a nearby village to persuade its last inhabitant to leave her home and move to Mirnoe. The narrator finds himself shaken by what he sees:

I went over to them, offered my help. I saw they both had slightly reddened eyes. I reflected on my ironic reaction just now when reading that sentence about Stalin ordering the defence of Leningrad. Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident intellectual circle. A humour that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it.

He sees the real human suffering that lies behind historical events, events he had only understood before in their broad sweep.

But it is the narrator’s changing feelings toward Vera that really shake him out of his detachment (some spoilers ahead). He cannot understand what motivates her to continue waiting; he cannot pierce the mystery that he sees whenever he observes her. And much of the novel is exactly that — the narrator watching Vera, following her every move, trying to figure out what she is doing, where she is going, what she is feeling and thinking. The novel’s opening portrays his attempts to understand her and the way that language fails him; we first get a sentence of description in quotation marks, as though it’s from a journal or an essay, followed by this:

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But once their secret has been decoded, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorizing … The other one’s mystery has been tamed.

The statement and commentary that comprise the novel’s first page show the limits of language one encounters when trying to understand another human being. The novel is a kind of unraveling, moving from this certainty toward uncertainty and surprise. The narrator never does really understand Vera, and he tries in many ways, spending time with her, talking with her, stalking her, finally becoming her lover. She always eludes him, and ultimately she proves herself to be much more sophisticated, rational, and in control than he could ever be. She may seem foolish and pathetic for having spent her life waiting for a lover who will never return, and yet she has found peace and beauty and a kind of contentment.

The novel’s writing is beautiful, spare and suggestive; it captures the landscape of northern Russia with its forests, lakes, and snow. It makes me long to be there. I must admit that this is one of those books that I’m liking more and more as I write about it; at first my reaction was admiring but a little dispassionate. The more I think about it, though, the more I appreciate what a wonderful creation Vera is and what a powerful evocation Makine has given us of one person’s fumbling attempts to grapple with the mystery of another life.

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Filed under Books, Fiction

Century!

I rode 100 miles today — woo hoo! There’s a century route that leaves from my town with arrows pointing the way painted on the roads, so I followed it, for the most part. There’s a northern loop of 80 miles that I did first and that returns me to my town, and I figured that if I felt up to it once I returned home, I could head out again for the remaining 20 miles, a loop that heads south over roads I’m very familiar with. I’m rather proud of myself for heading out again after having ridden 80 miles — it’s not so easy when the comforts of food and a hot shower beckon.

I had a bit of a hard time on the first 40 miles, as it was quite windy, and I was heading straight into it. There’s little that’s worse on a bike than riding straight into the wind, especially for a distance as long as 40 miles. Things turned around completely, however, the minute I hit the halfway point of the northern 80 miles and started to ride with the wind at my back. My pace picked up considerably and so did my mood. I’d rather have it this way — a rough section early on and then ease after that.

It was on September 1st that I decided I’d try to do a century this fall. I was aiming for late October or early November — I had no idea at the time that by the end of the month I’d be able to complete one. I guess what this means is that my health is fully back to normal, and I can’t use it as an excuse to wimp out on anything I don’t want to do. This is the first time I’ve done a century all on my own, without the support you get from an organized century, and I like doing it this way — no driving to the start point, no crowds, no people passing me, just me and the road and a couple markets along the way. (Although organized centuries have their benefits too, not least of which is people to draft on.  I’ll be doing one of these in two weeks.)

Here are my stats, for the curious:

  • Distance: 101.2
  • Time ridden: 6:29:27
  • Total time, including breaks: approximately 7:00
  • Average heart rate: 147
  • Maximum heart rate: 170
  • Calories burned: 3,355
  • Average speed: 15.6
  • Maximum speed: 36.5

You’ll see from the numbers that I didn’t rest for terribly long; if I remember correctly, I stopped 7 times (not counting traffic lights), and each time was quite short. I stopped twice at a market to resupply with food and water, three times to eat bites of Cliff bars (eating a whole one at once would be too much), once to find a water bottle I accidentally dropped, and once at home. I hate stopping for long because then my muscles get cold and it’s very hard to warm them up again. So I’ll stop, wolf down some food, and start pedaling again while I’m still chewing. Seven hours is plenty long to spend on a bike ride anyway, no need to make it longer.

And all those calories I burned? I’ve replaced them already. Emily, Hobgoblin (who did his own long ride today), and I just got back from dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I stuffed myself with pasta. I had a lovely time hanging out with Emily, and now I’m very sad because she’s moving this week and will no longer live up the road from me. I’ll miss you Emily!

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Filed under Cycling, Life

A book meme!

Stefanie tagged me for a meme, and how, on a pleasant Friday evening, can I resist such a thing? You’ll find the source of the meme at Kimbooktu.

  1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Either one. What I really hate are mass market paperbacks. I’ve read a number of people complaining about trade paperbacks and how expensive they are and how they are just a way to make more money, but I’m willing to pay a bit more for a book that falls open easily and has decent font size and margins.
  2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it… Black Dog Books. Hobgoblin and I have discussed this fantasy a number of times and have it all worked out; of course we’d have to name it after Muttboy who would be a shop fixture, and ideally we’d have an adjoining bike shop called Black Dog Bikes.
  3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is… I don’t have one! I’m not a quotation collector.
  4. The author (alive or dead) I would love to have lunch with would be… Jane Austen. We would sit around, sip tea, and make fun of the other customers.
  5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be… Probably the collected works of Shakespeare or the Bible. I’d want something rich and long and full of things to think about. That’s a boring answer, I’m afraid, but it’s the truth.
  6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… would allow me to do a word search in every book I’ve got. You can look up words in books online, of course, but what about when I’m reading a regular book and am desperately trying to find a particular passage?
  7. The smell of an old book reminds me of… Hanging out in libraries, studying and doing research. Or hanging out in used book stores trying to decide what I should buy.
  8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be… Well, right now (my answer to this would change from day to day) I’d kind of like to be Maisie Dobbs from Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery novels. She’s so intelligent and intuitive both; she understands how people work and she’s expert at getting them to reveal their secrets.
  9. The most overestimated book of all time is… The Da Vinci Code. It strikes me that with so many people living on earth right now, and with a decent percentage of them having read and liked the thing, my claim might well be true.
  10. I hate it when a book… gives away too much of the plot, either on the back cover, the inside jacket, or in the introduction. How could publishing people do this?

I’m tagging whoever would like to do this one!

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Anna Laetitia Barbauld; or, women in politics

I’ve been reading some of the poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) and enjoying them quite a bit; she’s an interesting figure for a lot of reasons (you’ll find many of her works here). She wrote some poems like “To a Lady, with some painted Flowers” with very traditional views of women and lines such as these, comparing the lady to a flower:

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these ;
Your best, your sweetest empire is—to please.

Mary Wollstonecraft criticized this poem in a footnote in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman for its stereotypical view of women. But Barbauld also argued for the importance of women’s education and equality. She wrote lines like these:

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy Right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest …

She wrote on a range of subjects, including domestic themes, for example in the charming poem “Washing-Day“; the natural world, as in “A Summer Evening’s Meditation“; and pregnancy, in a poem called “To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible.” And she wrote poems and essays on political themes, including slavery and empire. She was known as a political radical, arguing forcibly for the abolition of the slave trade and pointing out the injustices of imperialism.

One of the most interesting things about Barbauld is the story of her poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” her most famous poem, which argues that Britain would suffer decay because of the sins of imperialism. Of Britain she writes:

But fairest flowers expand but to decay;
The worm is in thy core, thy glories pass away;
Arts, arms, and wealth destroy the fruits they bring;
Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.
Crime walks thy streets, Fraud earns her unblest bread,
O’er want and woe thy gorgeous robe is spread,
And angel charities in vain oppose;
With grandeur’s growth the mass of misery grows.

It’s interesting to think that while British imperialism was yet to hit its high point when she wrote this poem, eventually what Barbauld predicted did come true.

I’ve been writing a bit about how women writers were relegated to women’s subjects — love, domesticity — and when they wandered into other territory — politics, for example — they were sharply criticized. Well, Barbauld obviously stepped over a line with this poem because the reviews were vicious, and they were gendered in their viciousness. One review by John Wilson Croker has this to say about “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”; in this passage he refers to some of Barbauld’s earlier writing for children:

But she must excuse us if we think that she has wandered from the course in which she was respectable and useful, and miserably mistaken both her powers and her duty, in exchanging the birchen for the satiric rod, and abandoning her superintendance of the ‘ovilia’ [lambs] of the nursery, to wage war on the ‘reluctantes dracones’ [struggling lawgivers], statesmen, and warriors, whose misdoings have aroused her indignant muse.

We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author … Not such, however, is her opinion; an irresistible impulse of public duty — a confident sense of commanding talents — have induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles and to sally forth …

and it goes on in this vein for quite a while. In other words, the reviewer is saying, get back to the nursery where you belong and stop meddling in politics.

This, unfortunately was a common response to women who wrote about “male” subjects. It hit Barbauld particularly hard, though, and although she kept on writing, she chose never to publish anything again. I suppose one could say she should have let the controversy wash over her and kept on publishing, but with a long, long history of such misogynistic criticism, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do so.

So there’s a double bind going on here — how could women experiment and write about dangerous topics when the wrath of the publishing world could fall on them (although many did this anyway), and how could people learn how to read and understand the things women were writing when aesthetic standards are defined by men?

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Filed under Books, Poetry

Women and the Novel

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments on my post from the other day about women and the 18C novel, and I wanted to pick up on some of the ideas. Danielle asks:

I wonder if the reason some of these writings are not in the canon, or really available now is that these women’s writings are not seen as valid as men’s — or to say it a different way–a woman’s experience as valid as a man’s?

My short answer — that’s exactly it. Or perhaps I would say that for much of the last 200 years critics, most of them male, have tended overall to see women’s experiences as less valid than men’s and so have not taken women’s writing that expresses women’s experiences as seriously. In the last 20 years or so there’s been an explosion of interest in women’s writing and an attempt to think about what makes this writing valuable, but for so long 18C novels by women didn’t get attention because of a long tradition of criticism that wasn’t interested in understanding them.

Dale Spender writes about how it wasn’t so bad for women to write in the 17C and 18C as far as their reputations were concerned, but to publish their writings was risky. Here’s what she says about the 17C, before the novel took off:

The public world of letters was already by the seventeenth century a world of the ‘men of letters’, because so many women decided that the price of publicity was too high to pay, and made few or no attempts to encroach on this area of male territory. And this absence of women in print still has ramifications today, for, apart from the fact that it gave men a free hand to decree the literary conventions of the time (conventions which still make their presence felt), there is also the additional difficulty which is encountered when it comes to tracing the origins of women’s literary traditions. Women published much less, and what they published was more likely to be anonymous, little favored, and easily ‘lost’. This is in contrast to the extensive, varied public heritage of men which has been more readily preserved.

This is part of the story, that women writers struggled because entering public discourse was such a dangerous act, which meant that male writers could influence literary trends and decide what constitutes good writing, and women didn’t have much say in the matter. (I just can’t believe in objective aesthetic standards!)

The other part of the story is that once novel writing took off in the 18C and women writers began to publish in greater and greater numbers, male critics started to get dismissive about the value of novel writing. Yes, they said, novels are hugely popular, and yes women are successful at writing them, but the novel isn’t a serious genre, it’s just light entertainment, and so we’ll let women have it. Here is the dismissiveness about women’s writing and experiences that Danielle was asking about. For the longest time I don’t think we had the tools to understand and appreciate 18C novels by women because we didn’t have a tradition of thinking about them and trying to understand them.

As far as romance is concerned (another topic that has come up in the comments), that is more complicated, not least because “romance” can mean a number of things, including novels with marriage plots and novels that follow in the tradition of courtly romances with high-born characters, adventures, etc. But about the marriage plot, men and women both were writing about it — and the marriage plot is really about money and property and status when it comes down to it. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is about a servant girl trying to break into a higher class through marriage and Austen’s plots are about love but also about how women of marginal status survive and about who is going to end up mistress of the big estate. It seems that everyone, men and women alike, were obsessed with what to do about young women and marriageable young men.

Oh, I could go on and on. I’d like to write soon about Anna Laetitia Barbauld who is a great example for thinking about how criticism and canon-formation hurt women writers.

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On not liking books

I thought about giving Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia a proper review — oh, not really, I never review things properly, but I mean as proper as I get — but I just don’t have the energy or interest in it. I didn’t like the book very much. I found myself bored with it, and I only finished it because I’m obsessive that way and it was short, only 200 quick pages.

I think my problem with the book is that I never learned much about Chatwin himself, or his persona, to be more accurate about it. The book’s focus is not on the traveler, but on the people he meets, the places he sees, the stories he comes across, and the history of the land he travels over. Now those things shouldn’t be boring, should they? But I found myself not caring much. The stories he told tended to be short ones, and they tended to focus on externals — what people did and what they looked like. Without some attention paid to internal things — emotions, thoughts — I remain unconnected.

It’s curious that I wouldn’t like this classic of travel literature, since the scholarly work I’ve done is on travel writing. But here’s the thing — I’ve studied “sentimental” travel, meaning travel writing that focuses on emotions and on internal states (see Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey for a prime example). In a way, this is an odd type of travel writing, since one would think the genre is valuable because of what it can tell us about the world, not so much because of what it tells about the traveler (although of course it does both). But, although I like reading about the world, I want to know about the traveler too, or if not the traveler, then I want to know about the people that traveler meets, and I want to know not just brief summaries of their lives, but something about who they are and why they are the way they are. If there’s no emotional element or if there are no ideas, then I’m left cold.

And In Patagonia didn’t have anything in the way of emotions and not much in the way of ideas either. It had a lot of cool facts and some interesting speculations about things like the inspiration of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the Patagonian sources of Darwin’s theories. But this wasn’t enough.

This is not to say that you won’t like the book. You may love it; it’s probably a great book for people who like this kind of book — and I don’t mean to sound judgmental when I say that. In some cases when I don’t like books it’s because I think they are genuinely bad, but in this case, it’s simply that this was not the book for me.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

Mothers of the Novel

I have begun Dale Spender’s book Mothers of the Novel, and I have the feeling I’ll be posting on it regularly, as it’s full of interesting information. The book looks at women’s novels in the time period before Jane Austen, arguing that while we tend to think of Jane Austen as the first great woman novelist, it’s really the case that Austen drew on a long tradition of women’s writing as she created her own work. Mothers of the Novel was published in 1986 and there’s been tons of critical work (tons!) done on women novelists of the 17C and 18C since then, but this book is still a valuable overview. I’ve already added a couple writers to my reading list, including Amelia Opie and Mary Brunton.

Here are some interesting things I learned:

  • The majority of novels in the 18C were written by women, and the novel was so closely associated with women that some men used a female pseudonym when they published their books. This caused a backlash against women writers which was at least partly successful, so that by the 1840s, the situation was reversed and women were adopting male pseudonyms when they published. This backlash is partly why the “canonical” novelists of the 18C are Fielding, Richardson, Defoe, Smollett and Sterne, a list which, of course, doesn’t include any women.
  • Scholars have concluded that women today constitute only 20% of published writers (I don’t know how dated this figure is), which makes the statistic about women writing a majority of 18C novels even more interesting. Spender says this is evidence that the publishing world wasn’t always so unfair to women. I’m fascinated by the fluctuations in women’s status and the quality of their lives over the years; it hasn’t been a steadily upward trend by any means.
  • Spender argues that women were successful at and interested in writing novels because novel writing is “a logical extension of women’s role” — many novels of the time were epistolary, and letters were a form of writing women were encouraged to participate in. She says letters are a good form in which to explore emotional and familial concerns, both subjects of the novel.
  • Spender says her research into the novel has turned up over 100 women novelists before Jane Austen and no more than 30 men. So to end up with 5 canonical novelists all of whom are men doesn’t make much sense, unless it could possibly be the case that those 5 are better than over 100 women writers, which seems highly unlikely (assuming we could establish what “better” means). This is a perfect example for thinking about how the canon is flawed.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction