Monthly Archives: February 2008

Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel

Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel is the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda; check out other posts on the novel here and the discussion here.

I enjoyed this novel immensely, although it’s a difficult read at times — not difficult to understand, but difficult to deal with the emotional content. It tells the story of Hagar Shipley, who has reached her nineties and, understandably, is declining in health. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law who are now threatening to place her in a nursing home. Passages set in the present alternate with flashbacks to significant moments in Hagar’s life, her small-town upbringing; her (rather inexplicable) marriage to Bram Shipley, a rough, isolated, uncouth farmer; the birth of her two sons; her decision to leave her husband; and, most dramatically, the fate of her younger son John.

Mirroring the flight she took from her husband in her earlier years is Hagar’s second dramatic exit: when she feels as though she is being forced to enter the nursing home, she takes off to some abandoned buildings along the sea and holes up there as long as she can. She is in no shape to be out walking around on her own, but her fear of losing her home is stronger than her fear of physical danger.

Hagar is a stubborn, strong-willed woman, with an antagonistic attitude toward the world; it does not do to cross her, as her father discovered when he tried to keep her from marrying Bram, and as her son discovers when he tries to move her into the nursing home. The novel is narrated in the first person from Hagar’s point of view, which means that we get Hagar’s explanations and self-justifications. She’s not an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we are left to infer what effect her harshness has on others rather than seeing it directly. And she has inflicted her share of psychic damage on those around her; she is harsh and unloving to her sons and is unable to express even the small amount of affection she feels for her husband. Now that she is in her nineties and is losing her grip on reality, she has an unfortunate habit of speaking whatever is on her mind without censoring it, sometimes without knowing that she is saying anything at all. The effects of these unintentional outbursts can be devastating.

Hagar is a difficult person, but the novel leads us to feel sympathy towards her, and, in fact, the interest of the novel lies in the tension between our sympathy for her and our horror at the damage she causes. This tension plays out particularly well in the story of John; throughout the early parts of the novel it is clear that some mystery surrounds his life, but the characters don’t want to talk about him, as even his name causes them pain. It is no secret that Hagar has always preferred John, and it’s obvious how much pain this causes the older son Marvin — his “flaw” is that he reminds Hagar too much of Bram, the mostly unloved husband. Obviously this is not his fault, and it illustrates just how cruel Hagar can be. But we’re also made aware of how much Hagar has suffered because of what happened to John, the son on whom she has pinned her hopes for a better life. When we find out his fate, the news is devastating.

Equally devastating is the way the novel depicts old age and the nightmare of approaching senility. The novel moves back and forth between the present moment and flashbacks, and often when a flashback ends, Hagar finds herself in the middle of some situation she cannot understand — she has been speaking out loud unknowingly or has ignored those who are trying to get her attention or has simply spaced out, and she is disoriented and confused. The first person narration captures this confusion painfully well.

Hagar suffers and inflicts suffering; in my more depressed moments I might say that’s everyone’s story. But the beauty of the prose and the liveliness with which Hagar tells her story keeps this novel from descending into unbearably dark depths. The stubbornness and spirit that has caused her suffering in the past is now what keeps her going, and as much as we might judge her, we also can’t help but admire her strength.

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Some random thoughts

  • First of all, Dan Green has written a response to my response to his response to my post on biography from a few days ago. All this back and forth has been fun, but I’m thinking that we’ve reached the point where further responding doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you check out Dan’s posts, don’t miss the comments, particularly the those to his first response. There are a lot of interesting comments on my posts too — thank you readers!
  • So Hobgoblin is leaving for El Salvador tonight, and Muttboy and I will have to spend the week alone, mourning his absence. The house will be way too quiet. I hate the fact that you can’t explain things to dogs, that I can’t tell Muttboy that he just has to wait a week and everything will be back to normal. Fortunately, we’ve got a dog-loving friend who has agree to walk him for a couple hours along with her own dog every day I have to go to work, which means Muttboy will be one tired dog, which I hope will make things easier on him.
  • I received an ARC of Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) crime novel The Silver Swan and have read the first few chapters; so far it promises to be fun. I may want to hunt down the first book in the series Christine Falls once I’ve finished this one — yes, I’ll read them out of order, but that’s okay — and maybe I’ll even be inspired to read something by Banville. At any rate, I’m in need of something light and plotty, and this will suit me just fine.
  • I have also begun Wuthering Heights, which I’ll be teaching in a few weeks. I’ve never taught this novel before, and I have no idea how it will go over. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, in fact.  It’s plotty, although not light — but it will just have to do, no matter what mood I’m in.
  • My first race is Sunday! Yikes. I’m not ready. But then, I never feel ready. I put off registering for the race until the last minute because I was denying the fact that race season is about to begin. I really prefer training and only race to give me something to work towards. And because it would be silly not to. And because afterwards I’m always happy to have done it. But beforehand, I wish I could just keep riding on my own, all by myself.
  • I plan to be back tomorrow posting on Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for the Slaves of Golconda reading group.  I’m looking forward to the discussion!

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Biography, continued

Dan Green has written an interesting response to my post from a couple days ago on the value of using an author’s biography to interpret his or her writing. Dan’s post has made me think a little more about my conclusions and has made me want to defend the use of biography in interpretation more than I originally did.

Perhaps I’ll contradict myself; that would be okay with me, as I felt uncertain about my conclusions in the first place … my first post was exploratory and not meant to be definitive.

So, Dan argues that:

using biographical information, about the author or about others on whom she may have drawn in creating characters, to “interpret” a work of fiction is the opposite of interpretation. Inevitably it reduces the work to “what really happened” or to a disguised form of memoir.

In my view, using biography to interpret fiction can be the opposite of interpretation, but it doesn’t inevitably reduce the work to a “disguised form of memoir.” It depends on how the critic uses the information.

What was irritating me as I read the Woolf biography was the notion that people might use biography in exactly the way Dan describes — as the key to a book, as a source of definitive answers, as a way of dismissing other forms of meaning.

But I also think it’s possible to use biographical information in criticism in ways that aren’t simplistic or reductionist. As I’m reading Frankenstein, for example, I’ve thought about how Victor Frankenstein might be modeled on Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband. The introductory essay to my edition considers this possibility, pointing out correspondences between the two, for example, the drive both of them share to change the world and the obsession they both have with science. What this identification of Frankenstein with Percy Shelley allows a reader to see is that the novel may be critiquing not only the kind of ambition Frankenstein exhibits, but the version of Romanticism and particularly the adoration of the Romantic hero valorized by Percy Shelley. The novel then becomes, in part, a way of rewriting Romanticism itself.

Can you see the larger point about Romanticism without knowing a thing about Percy Shelley? Probably, although you would need to know something about the literary context within which Mary Shelley was writing. The biographical information, however, adds a sharpness and focus to the argument that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Ultimately, I think context is useful in interpreting literature — it can help you understand what is happening in the text itself — and biography is one form of that context. Biography shouldn’t be used to close down other possible interpretations, but it doesn’t necessarily do so, any more than other ways of reading do.

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Reading biographically

I have been putting off writing this post because I am tired, having ridden my bike for three hours this afternoon and having worked pretty hard. Long hard rides leave me feeling content but wiped out. It’s hard to do much else after them.

But I did have something on my mind to write about, which is that I’m not entirely sure what I think about using biographical information to help interpret the books I’m reading. I’m thinking about this because last night I read the chapter on Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and I found myself feeling irritated when I learned about all the real life people that the characters are modeled on. Not that there’s anything wrong with modeling one’s characters on real-life people — in fact, in Hobgoblin’s novel and in the novel of another friend of mine, I have great fun figuring out the real-life people the characters reflect. And there’s nothing wrong with the way Briggs identifies who is who, pointing out, for example, that that a minor character was modeled on Henry James and that while Woolf claims her main character Katherine is based on her sister Vanessa, she bears a great resemblance to Woolf herself. There’s a long list of such correspondences or potential correspondences.

It’s just that as I read the novel I was happy thinking of the characters as simply themselves and not needing any further explanation, and when I read about all the biographical details, I didn’t like the fact that there was a whole other dimension behind the book that I couldn’t know about unless I had access to inside information.

Yes, the book still makes plenty of sense without knowing the background information; that information is there if I want it to add another layer of meaning, and I can ignore it as much as I like too.

Part of what bothers me is the sudden revelation that my understanding of the book is missing a major element, that there are interpretations other people know about that I don’t. Even more so, I don’t like the attitude — not a part of Briggs’s book as far as I can tell but surely the attitude of many a biographer — that biography can be the key to a book, that biographical information trumps other ways of reading. I like to know an author’s biography, but I also believe that the relationship of an author’s life to a piece of writing is only one small piece of a larger picture.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that I’m not temperamentally suited to be a biographer. I may have some of the qualities a biographer needs — patience, organization, an interest in research, an ability to pay attention to detail (though surely there are plenty of other qualities I’m missing) — but I would also feel that what I was doing was a little beside the point. I’d rather stick with the text itself.

This is a purely personal judgment, however, and I’m grateful to biographers for doing what they do. What do you think — could you write a biography? Would you want to?

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Writing and power

One of the things I like most about Frankenstein is its complicated structure — the way there are narratives nestled in other narratives and every part of it is either a letter or a story told by one character to another. We start off with Robert Walton writing a letter to his sister Margaret Saville. Then Walton meets Frankenstein, who tells him his story, which Walton records in his letters to his sister. Then Frankenstein tells Walton the story of how he re-encounters the creature after losing touch with him for several years (I try not to call him the monster, although it’s the word that comes most easily to mind — “monster” reflects Frankenstein’s loathing of him, but “creature” is a little less hateful and recognizes that he had the potential for goodness). During this meeting, the creature recounts his life up to that point in a long narrative that Frankenstein reports to Walton word-for-word — a little implausibly — and that Walton records word-for-word in his letters to his sister — also implausibly.

After the creature’s narrative, Frankenstein returns as storyteller, and then the novel closes with Walton again, so the structure of listeners/readers and writers/speakers goes like this: Margaret, Walton, Frankenstein, Creature, Frankenstein, Walton, Margaret. Or Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Creature to Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Frankenstein to Walton to Margaret; Walton to Margaret. It’s interesting that Margaret is the receiver of all these stories but we never find out much about her and she never speaks herself.

In addition to all this, there are letters embedded in the narratives, so we hear other voices as well, most importantly the voices of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s love interesting, and Frankenstein’s father, who both write to Frankenstein expressing their worry about his secretiveness.

And, making this already very textual novel even more so, there are literary allusions and quotations all over the place, including lines from Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost. Shelley finds ways to show off all the learning I wrote about the other day. This is a very inclusive novel, really, bringing in as much literature and as many voices and as much complexity as it possibly can.

All of this only emphasizes the loneliness of the creature; I just finished reading the creature’s narrative, and, in spite of the fact that he’s a murderer and that he sets out to make Frankenstein miserable, he’s really quite sympathetic. The story of how he lives in a hovel adjoining a small family’s home, how he watches them and learns from them and begins to care for them, how he shows the goodness of his heart by secretly chopping firewood for them, and how he is cruelly rejected by them when they first lay eyes on him is heartbreaking. Shelley makes clear that if only someone, even one person, had shown kindness to the creature, he would not have become the wretch that he is.

The creature’s narrative is nestled in the middle of this novel, passed on from character to character and finally to the reader, to me, but he himself is kept out of this web of communication. Every person who lays eyes on him is revolted, reacting with uncontrollable horror. The only people who will listen to the creature are a blind man who cannot perceive his horrifying body and Frankenstein who is threatened by the creature’s potential for violence and who therefore feels compelled to listen. It seems like the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that I, too, would react with horror if I saw the creature, in spite of my sympathetic feelings after reading his story. There’s something saving, then, in the ability to write to people from a distance, to write without the body being present, for it’s only this way that the creature’s message gets heard.

If only he could use words all by themselves with no traces of the physical, he could make people understand him, but the creature never actively enters this world of writing, or storytelling from a distance; his story gets passed along because Frankenstein chooses to recount it to Walton and Walton chooses to tell the story to his sister. Although his story is at the center of the novel, literally and metaphorically, he ultimately has no control over it and, left powerless to make people understand him, he lashes out in violence in response. The power that Frankenstein wields when he creates life is impressive, but the power that a writer wields is even more so; being left out of web of communication created by writing is another of the creature’s undeserved punishments.

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Reading Frankenstein

I’ve been enjoying re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; this is at least the sixth time I’ve read it, as I was assigned the book once in college, was assigned it at least three times in grad school, and taught the book once a few years ago, which would make this the sixth time around. I’m not in the least bored by it, though. There is so much richness in the book, and I’m continually amazed that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began writing it. She was 20 when it was published in 1818. The introduction to my edition discusses critical reaction to her youth, including the argument, made by Muriel Spark, that

… perhaps the wonder of it exists, not despite Mary’s youth, but because of it. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s best novel, because at that early age she was not well acquainted with her own mind.

I don’t particularly like this argument; it sounds condescending to me, as though Shelley wrote a work of genius in spite of herself. But it does seem that, genius though she was, Shelley was lucky in the way she stumbled upon an idea that would resonate so powerfully for so long, in ways she surely had no conscious idea of. Could she have known how acutely aware of the dangers of science and technology people would become in future years? Sometimes authors are particularly in tune with the spirit of their time, or even of future times, and it’s mysterious what allows them that insight.

My introduction is good, though, at showing all the literary and philosophical influences on Shelley, and all the ideas about science and the nature of life and death that were floating around the group Shelley was living with when she got the idea for the novel, a group that includes not only Percy Shelley, but Lord Byron and John Polidori as well. This is how Byron describes the mood of the time:

I was half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unalterable and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.

Wouldn’t you love to have been able to observe this group and listen in on all their talk?

The story of how Shelley got the inspiration to write the novel is famous; during a stretch of rainy weather, Byron proposed that everyone tell a ghost story and Mary Shelley was unable to think of one until one night she had a vision:

I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.

Soon she realized that this vision could be the basis of the ghost story she had been seeking, and the rest is history.

I’m struck at everything she had absorbed while she was still in her teens. According to my introduction, in the years leading up to the writing of the novel, Shelley had been reading Byron, Samuel Richardson’s novels including Clarissa (whose influence we see in the epistolary structure of Frankenstein), the French writer Madame de Genlis, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, books on chemistry by Humphrey Davy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (both of these at least twice), Rousseau’s Confessions, Emile, and Nouvelle Heloise (the latter two twice), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, her father William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, or The Transformation, and various Gothic novels including those by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, and William Beckford.

And those are only the book the editor mentioned; there may have been plenty more. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In this case the recipe for a masterpiece seems to have called for genius, avid reading, the right group of friends, and a little luck.

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Nonfiction fantasy

Eva has written recently about learning to love nonfiction; I’ve loved certain forms of it for quite a while, although I still read many more novels than nonfiction books. Eva’s post caught my eye because I’ve had a longing lately to read some good nonfiction; alas, I don’t seem to be able to get to it, as my reading time has been limited and when I do have time to read I read novels for class or for book groups. So I thought I’d do a little a little fantasizing here about what nonfiction books I would read if I had the time and energy for them. I’m going to pretend for a few moments that I have nothing to do for the next couple months but read for fun. Here are some of the nonfiction books I’d pick up:

  • Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772 – 1804. Although I didn’t particularly like the Romantics when I studied them in college, I’ve changed my mind completely since then and have become a bit obsessed by them. I just received this biography of Coleridge from Book Mooch, and I’d love to dive in.
  • Also about the Romantic time period is Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England. I so want to know what a woman’s life in Georgian England was like!
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, and it’s high time I get to it.
  • John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. I’ve been interested in this book ever since reading Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders, which is also about the plague. It would be great to have a nonfiction as well as a fictional perspective.
  • Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr. Johnson. Here is what Amazon says about the book: “Loving Dr. Johnson uses the enormous popularity of Johnson to understand a singular case of author love and to reflect upon what the love of authors has to do with the love of literature.” That sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
  • Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. NYRB has an attractive-looking edition of this 17C classic. Amazon says this: “Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure.” That intrigues me …
  • William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. The Romantics again. You can see what kind of nonfiction I am most attracted to — the literary history and biography kind. The title is self-explanatory — about reading habits in the Romantic period, based on quantitative research.
  • Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, or any of her work, actually. I fell in love with her blog (although she doesn’t post much) and must now read her books.

That would keep me busy for a while, wouldn’t it? Are there any nonfiction books you’ve been longing to read?

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