Monthly Archives: October 2007

Nightwood

Happy Halloween everyone! I’m sitting in my living room armchair, a place I rarely sit, so I can hop up and answer the door in case kids are out trick-or-treating. This is the extent of my Halloween celebrations, I’m afraid.

So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.

I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.

Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:

Suppose your heart were five feet across in any place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.

I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Robin Vote, who then leaves him to pursue Nora Flood and then leaves her to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.

I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.

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Weekend Reading

And now I’m sick! Wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve got a cold that is not quite bad enough to keep me home from school, but just bad enough to make me unhappy about it. It was a beautiful fall afternoon with perfect weather for a bike ride, but I spent the time curled up in bed sleeping. Oh, well, I’m very grateful to have had a chance to take a nap.

The books I took with me on my Albuquerque trip turned out to be different from the ones I listed here. I did take along Sophia Lee’s The Recess, but I didn’t end up opening it; instead I spent my airport time switching among Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel and two new books — Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music and Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time.

The Lehmann novel has turned me into a fan — score another one for Virago Modern Classics! I am nearly finished and so I’ll wait to say much about it until later, but for now — what a great book. I feel as though in the last couple years I have discovered so many women writers who are new to me — writers including Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brookner, Alison Lurie, Barbara Pym, Georgette Heyer, and now Rosamund Lehmann. All of these women write similar types of novels, although there are great differences among them as well, of course; they tend to be quiet, character-driven novels about the emotional landscapes of women’s lives. I love this stuff. Lehmann’s novel is about two married couples — focusing mostly on the women (and one of them in particular), although occasionally veering into the consciousnesses of the men — who find their lives disrupted by the visit of a young man and his sister. The book described visits and conversations and outings, but mostly it describes what the characters think and feel; it has Proustian passages on memory and time and Woolf-like analyses of gender dynamics and moments of consciousness.

The other book, Phyllis Rose’s book on Proust, I’m still figuring out. It’s a mix of her thoughts on Proust and her thoughts on her own life; sometimes these two things are clearly connected, and sometimes the connection is more tenuous. I do like meditations on art and life, and I do like essayistic, rambling, all-over-the-place nonfiction books and memoirs, but I’m not entirely sure this one is making sense to me. I need to give it a bit more time. Maybe the problem is that one of her first chapters describes her love of television, a subject I cannot relate to and one only very loosely connected to Proust. And then the next chapter is about collecting ancient artifacts, and although she connects this topic more closely to Proust, it’s another area that doesn’t mean much to me. This may be a matter of a personality clash; perhaps Rose and I just don’t hit it off. But we’ll see.

P.S.  I forgot to describe one of the best parts of the conference, which was the closing poetry reading.  About a dozen of us gathered to read favorite poems from the 18C.  I didn’t come with any prepared, but ended up reading Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie,” which is a beautiful poem, and another woman gave a very dramatic, funny reading of Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment,” which I strongly encourage you to read — you won’t regret it!

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The Conference

Well, can I just say that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed? I had a nice weekend, but upon returning home last night, I felt that I needed a weekend to recover from my weekend. But I did not get one. No, I had to face one of the busiest days of my semester so far. So I’m tired and a bit disgruntled.

I must say that although I enjoyed myself on Saturday once I got involved in the conference itself, traveling on Friday was kind of miserable. I used to love air travel; I loved people watching in airports, and I loved all the time to read on the plane. Now I just dread it all. I didn’t want to leave home, and I felt the whole trip was stupid — a stupid conference, a stupid paper, and a stupid idea to travel during a busy part of the semester.

But I perked up once I got there. I didn’t see much of Albuquerque, since most of my time was taken up with conference things, but I did get a chance to walk through the old town section of the city, 10 or 12 blocks of restaurants, cute shops, and historical locations. That was on Friday evening.

Saturday I spent the whole day at the University of New Mexico campus, listening to papers and giving my own. The conference was on eighteenth-century women writers, and the best part about it was hearing about books and authors I’m now newly inspired to read. There were a lot of papers on Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, both of whom I’d like to read more of, particularly Haywood’s novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, a book that is a predecessor of Burney’s and Austen’s novels. I also heard a paper on Sarah Fielding’s novel The History of Ophelia that made me want to get a copy ASAP. Both of those books are published by Broadview Press, a wonderful publishing company that puts out editions of lesser-known works; just check out their 18C selection to see how great they are.  I came away from the conference with the feeling that there is so much good reading to be had from the 18C; compared to the average reader, I’ve read a lot in the area, I suppose, but there is so much more!  And I’m still working my way through Dale Spender’s book, which has greatly increased my list of novels I’d like to read from the time period.

My panel went well. People laughed as I read my paper; I find this interesting because I never would have guessed that my paper was funny in any way at all. It wasn’t my writing that was funny, really, but rather the quotations from the novel I was discussing (Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple). It’s fascinating the way that having an audience can bring out aspects of a paper I had no idea were there. I didn’t really get any questions about my paper (a part of the whole process that’s quite scary, as you have no idea what you’ll be hit with), but my panel (there were three of us) and the audience had a good discussion afterward, and I got some nice comments.

It was a small conference and very friendly — unlike some conferences where people are snooty and mean and only want to talk with the important people and take every opportunity to show off. So I hung out with some other conference-goers on Saturday night and we had a good dinner and a couple bottles of wine and I didn’t get enough sleep that night.

And now I’m here, back home trying to recover. Maybe I’ll have a chance to rest next weekend??

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Gone for the weekend

Have a wonderful weekend everyone; I’m heading to Albuquerque tomorrow bright and early, and I’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.  I’ll give you a full report then!

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Georgette Heyer’s Lady of Quality

41h3kg3cfyl_aa240_.jpg I finished Georgette Heyer’s novel Lady of Quality last night, and it was such a pleasurable read! I don’t feel like doing a proper review, still suffering as I am from insomnia and general all-around crankiness, but I do want to say that I’ll have to find myself some more Georgette Heyer books because this was just so much fun.

It was a quiet book, about a 29-year-old woman named Annis living in Bath in the regency period, so, say, around 1810-1820 or so. She has recently left the home of her brother and his wife and family and has set up on her own, a mildly scandalous move for a woman people are beginning to call a spinster but who is still quite young. She is smart and beautiful with wit and a satirical sense of humor; she has received several offers of marriage, but none from any man who really impressed her.

Into her life come Lucilla and Ninian, two young people in their late teens; Lucilla has run away from home to avoid parental pressure to marry Ninian, and Ninian accompanies her to keep her safe. Chance brings Lucilla to Annis’s house, and the rest of the novel is about what to do with the girl, who decides she will not return home and who comes to love Bath and the pleasures it offers. She also brings her uncle on the scene, the rakish and rude but still mysteriously charming Oliver Carleton. Annis has never met a man quite like him before.

One of the interesting things about the book is the way Annis seems like an early example of the “excellent woman” phenomenon of which Barbara Pym wrote so well. Everyone wants to turn Annis into an “excellent woman,” one of those unmarried women who spend their lives taking care of others. They believe she should have stayed at home with her brother, enjoying his “protection” and helping to take care of his children. An independent woman who lives for herself is almost too much for people of the time to comprehend. Living on her own and according to her own wishes is acceptable only because Annis has some money and has the stubbornness and high spirits to insist upon it; otherwise, she would surely find herself drawn into other people’s lives and into their houses, away from her own. But she works very hard to keep her independence and to ward off the prying, meddling people who want to take up her time and attention.

In contrast to Annis is Miss Farlow, a single woman, considerably older than Annis and without any means to support herself — she’s an example of the Miss Bates type (from Emma), a genteel woman without much money who depends on the kindness of others to get by. Annis has kindly agreed to hire her as a companion, which earns Miss Farlow’s great gratitude, but unfortunately she repays her with irritating, never-ending chatter (also like Miss Bates) and vindictive jealousy when Lucilla appears on the scene. Miss Farlow is a figure of fun, but she also shows an alternative fate for women — without her money and without her beauty, Annis could easily be another Miss Farlow, alone and penniless.

The pace of the novel is slow and leisurely; there’s not a whole lot of narrative tension, but the sunniness of the mood and charm of the characters kept my interest. Now I’m off to see if Book Mooch has any more Heyer novels …

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Books for traveling

Well, I haven’t done a pooterish, list-y, rambling kind of post in a while, and since I’m feeling fatigued after getting practically no sleep last night and don’t want to think too hard, this evening seems like a good time for one. I’d like to post on Seneca again, and also on Dale Spender, but those posts will have to wait. I suffer insomnia only occasionally, but when I do, it really knocks me down hard. I desperately need my sleep! And hours and hours and hours of it!

So, I’m going away this weekend. I’ll be heading to Albuquerque to attend a conference. This should be fun, right? It’s a literary conference, and I’ll be presenting a paper of my own and listening to other people read theirs; we’ll all be talking about books and learning new things and generally having fun.

Except I hate conferences. I can’t tell you how much I’d prefer to stay home. I don’t like presenting papers of my own — the whole process makes me nervous. I don’t like listening to other people’s papers because I don’t listen well, being an extremely visual person. And I don’t like the feeling that I should be mingling, meeting people, making connections, and generally impressing people with my brilliance, instead of skulking about in my hotel room watching television, which is what I generally do.

So I’ll cheer myself up by thinking about what books I might possibly bring with me. I should be ready to begin a new novel or two, and maybe a new nonfiction book. So what sounds good?

  • I just mooched Margaret Forster’s novel Lady’s Maid, which Litlove recently wrote about; it’s about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid Elizabeth Wilson and their vexed relationship. It’s long and looks fun — perfect for airports, maybe?
  • I’ve been in the mood for another long 18C or 19C novel, especially after reading about so many interesting authors from Dale Spender’s book, so perhaps Sophia Lee’s The Recess, subtitled “A Tale of Other Times”? Here’s what Amazon says: “First published in an era when most novels about young women concentrated on courtship and ended with marriage, The Recess (1783-1785) daringly portrays women involved in political intrigues, overseas journeys, and even warfare. The novel is set during the reign of Elizabeth I and features twin narrators, who are daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, by a secret marriage. One of the earliest novels to convey the plot from multiple points of view, it was wildly popular in its day.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?
  • But I need to make sure I have some comfort reading with me; I might need to be cheered up if my paper presentation doesn’t go well. I’ve got an Alison Lurie novel on my shelves, The Last Resort; she’s always good for a smart, entertaining read.
  • And for nonfiction? I have a couple short things that would work, books I could possibly finish during the long plane ride, such as Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books or Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal. Long nonfiction books probably wouldn’t work, as I might tire of them, but these would be perfect.
  • Oh, and I have to bring the book I’m presenting on, of course, just in case I want to remind myself of some of the details; it’s this one, Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple.

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Novel writing

T.S. Eliot wrote a Preface to my edition of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, and I thought he had some interesting things to say about fiction:

… most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

This comes from a section where Eliot is comparing Barnes’s prose to poetry — he says those who are trained on reading poetry are better prepared to fully appreciate Barnes’s work.

I feel ambivalently about Eliot’s claims here. On the one hand, I do want to read fiction where the author pays attention to the writing. I certainly don’t want to read prose that might come from a government official or newspaper writer — unless we’re talking about particularly talented officials or journalists of course. But, really, when I sit down to read a novel I’d like to read something well-crafted, and something well-crafted as fiction.

On the other hand, though, I don’t like the elitist tone of Eliot’s comments. Why separate out “ordinary novel readers” from some special group of readers whose faculties are supposedly sharper than the rest and who pick up on so much more? I’m not sure this category of “ordinary novel reader” actually exists. Can’t just about any novel reader — someone who seeks out and enjoys novels — appreciate prose that is alive? Not to say that they do, necessarily — perhaps they read for other reasons than to enjoy the prose — but they are capable of it.

That point aside, though, Djuna Barnes’s prose is certainly alive, and I’m enjoying it. I’m working my way through it very slowly, but I feel like it’s starting to take shape as I near the end, and I’m still planning on reading it again right away to see what it’s like on a second go-round.

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