Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Small Room

May Sarton’s The Small Room was a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I’m a sucker for academic novels, so I was delighted to find out that this book is about a young woman who travels to small-town New England to begin her first college teaching job. Lucy Winter is fresh out of grad school, although she wasn’t your typical grad student: she went through her Ph.D. program merely because she wanted a reason to stay near her fiance who was in medical school. But now the engagement is over and she unexpectedly finds herself with a job. As the novel opens, she is on the train heading north to Appleton, a women’s college.

What she finds is a small, close-knit community that appears to be sleepy and peaceful. She goes to a beginning of semester cocktail party to meet fellow faculty and teaches her classes for the first time, all the while trying to figure out her role in this new place. She opens her first class with a long account of her educational life, hoping to make an impression on the students, but she immediately doubts herself afterward. She wants to do a good job and is willing to take risks in the classroom, but she knows she is not entirely sure what she is doing.

Of course, she can’t stay on the outside of this community for long, and, of course, it’s not nearly as sleepy and peaceful as it seems. She gets pulled into its dramas and intrigues through one of her students, a star pupil of the campus star professor. When she discovers this student has plagiarized, she immediately reveals it to a colleague, an act that sets a whole train of events in motion, events that not only cause controversy, but that make the college think hard about what it is and what it stands for.

The novel is fundamentally about teaching — what it means to be a teacher and a student and the ways the two can interact. Lucy struggles with the question of how much of herself she should share with her students. Her opening speech about her education starts things off on a personal note, but she is reluctant to respond warmly when a student shares her private troubles. She feels there should be boundaries between teachers and students, and she also knows that allowing those boundaries to drop away can be exhausting. Teaching demands a great deal of energy, and teachers need to protect themselves from giving up too much of themselves to others.

And yet strict boundaries are impossible to maintain: students are persistent in their efforts to get a personal response from Lucy, and once she stumbles into the plagiarism scandal, she is drawn even further into their lives.

The novel is also about what it means to be a woman who teaches. Early on one of the characters says, “Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?” The novel was published in 1961, and the question of whether it’s worth while to educate women who will just get married and raise children lingers in the air. The faculty at Appleton take a strong stand on this: as one character claims, “We don’t teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies.” Lucy wonders, though, what her own commitment to the intellectual life is, and what it would mean for her to stay on at Appleton. She wants a family, but with her engagement over and her life established in a quiet town full of married couples, she is not sure that will be possible. She considered her Ph.D. program as a joke, after all; does she really want to devote her life to scholarship and teaching, at the possible expense of other relationships? As I read this, I kept thinking about Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, which is also about women intellectuals struggling with the sacrifices the intellectual life can demand. In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?

The novel is short and is a quick read, but it takes up a lot of great questions and offers some interesting answers. It’s satisfying to watch Lucy figure out who she is as a teacher and what she wants her place in the Appleton community to be. It’s also interesting to think about teaching generally — what really helps students learn and what roles a teacher can and can’t play. The novel shows well what a complicated job it is to try to inspire other people with the love of learning and at the same time to remain a satisfied, whole person oneself.

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Firmin

Posting will most likely be light around here for the next few weeks, as I get myself through what feels like the busiest part of the semester. Once I reach Thanksgiving, things begin to wind down a bit. For now, I need quiet evenings for reading more than I need to keep up-to-date with the blog.

But I did want to write at least a little bit about what I’ve read over the last month or so. That includes Sam Savage’s novel Firmin. I’m not entirely sure what to think about this book. I want to say I’ve been in a little bit of a fiction slump and haven’t liked things much for that reason, but I just picked up May Sarton’s A Small Room and am loving it, so I wonder whether it’s my own reading that’s at fault or whether I just haven’t found books that work for me.

The short version is that I hoped to love this book, and I only ended up responding to it in a vague and not particularly enthusiastic way. It should be a book I enjoy, since it’s all about reading and loving books. That it’s about a rat who can read should have made the book quirky and charming. I think it’s the voice that didn’t quite work — it’s jaded and slightly bitter, worldly-wise but also able to remember youthful enthusiasm fondly. That all is fine, but it’s also a bit pompous and affected in a way I don’t like. Even though I liked the first sections of the book and it took me a while before I began to sour on it a bit, it’s passages such as this one, near the beginning when he is describing difficulties writing his life story, that capture what I mean by tone:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. It begins, like all true stories, who knows where. Looking for the beginning is like trying to discover the source of a river. You paddle upstream for months under a burning sun, between towering green walls of dripping jungle, soggy maps disintegrating in your hands. You are driven half mad by false hopes, malicious swarms of biting insects, and the tricks of memory, and all you reach at the end — the ultima Thule of the whole ridiculous quest — is a damp spot in the jungle or, in the case of a story, some perfectly meaningless word or gesture. And yet, at some more or less arbitrary place along the way between the damp spot and the sea the cartographer inserts the point of his compass, and there the Amazon begins.

Somehow, and this is a vague thought, it doesn’t feel like the narrator has earned the right to get all poetical and metaphorical on us in this way. There’s a self-dramatizing quality and a self-consciousness about it that began to grate a little.

But the narrator — Firmin himself speaking in the first person — can certainly claim to have a very sad story to tell. He is the runt of the litter and takes to reading books in consolation for losing the battle with his siblings for food. Somehow by eating the pages, he learns to read them, and soon becomes a voracious reader. He lives in a building that houses a bookstore and spends his time gazing down at the books, the people browsing through them, and most especially the store owner. He feels he has found a kindred spirit in this man who loves books so much too. Alas, when the store owner spots Firmin staring down at him from a hole in the ceiling, all he does is put poison out. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Firmin to communicate his intelligence and sympathy to the people around him. His reading fills his mind with longings and romantic images, but then he glimpses his rat face in a window and despairs. He seems doomed to loneliness.

The story should be touching, and it sometimes is, but the narrator’s tone kept me feeling distanced from it. I do like its exploration of the dangers of reading — that reading can cause unhappiness and dissatisfaction as well as pleasure is an old, old story, and this is a potentially interesting twist on the idea that reading and education can lead to isolation. And yet I’m not sure that making the main character a rat really takes us in a new direction with the theme. It simply makes the isolation deeper and the barriers to communication higher. So he pours his energies into communicating with readers in the form of the book itself. It’s an understandable move, and yet, sadly, his self-portrait failed to win me over.

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Dancing with Dickens

From Jane Carlyle’s letter to Jeannie Welsh, 23 December, 1843. A party to die for:

But then it was the very most agreeable party that ever I was at in London — everybody there seemed animated with one purpose to make up to Mrs Macready and her children for the absence of ‘the Tragic Actor’ [I believe this is Mrs. Macready’s husband, a Shakespearean actor] — and so amiable a purpose produced the most joyous results. Dickens and Forster above all exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts! Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour — the best conjuror I ever saw — (and I have paid money to see several) — and Forster acting as his servant. This part of the entertainment concluded with a plum pudding made out of raw flour, raw eggs — all the raw usual ingredients — boiled in a gentleman’s hat — and tumbled out reeking — all in one minute before the eyes of the astonished children and astonished grown people! that trick — and his other of changing ladies’ pockets handerchiefs into comfits — and a box full of bran into a box full of — a live guinea-pig! would enable him to make a handsome subsistence let the bookseller trade go as it please — ! Then the dancing — old Major Burns with his one eye — old Jerdan of the Literary Gazette … the gigantic Thackeray &c. &c. all capering like Maenades!! Dickens did all but go down on his knees to make me — waltz with him!

Can you imagine?

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Recent Reading

A short post to tell you what I’m reading before I dive back into my books:

  • Gravity’s Rainbow. Yeah. Sometimes I feel like I’m “reading” it. I get it in sections, and then in others, I’m lost. Mostly, I get or eventually get what’s going on in small scenes, but the larger picture is hard to put together. If you asked me to summarize what it’s about, I would say something about World War II, rockets, psychic phenomena, paranoia, and then I’d trail off. I’m reading it very slowly, maybe 10-20 pages at a time, and I’m mostly enjoying the challenge. I don’t mind not really getting it as long as I’m not the only one, which I’m quite sure is the case.
  • Jane Carlyle’s letters in I Too Am Here. These continue to be a delight. The letters are organized not chronologically, but by subject, which means you get to read about a particular aspect in some depth, but you don’t get as strong a sense of the sweep of her life. This is fine by me, as learning about her biography wasn’t my reason for picking up the book. I just finished a section on Jane’s letters about her servants, which were fascinating. Let’s just say that Jane strongly felt she had a servant problem.
  • David Markson’s Epitaph for a Tramp, soon to be followed by Epitaph for a Dead Beat. I’ve read one of Markson’s experimental novels, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and so I was curious to see if his detective novels were similar at all. They are not. They are straightforward hardboiled detective novels, and are tremendous fun. The writing is witty and amusing, and it’s clear that Markson was having fun with the genre.

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Vermeer in Bosnia

I first heard about Lawrence Weschler’s book Vermeer in Bosnia from an NPR interview with the author quite a few years back, in 2004 probably, when the book first came out. There was something about the interview that got me interested, although now it’s been too long for me to say exactly what, and that feeling got reinforced by a couple key mentions on blogs, including Richard’s (I’m pretty sure).

Anyway, it was high time for me to read the book, and I’m glad I did. Weschler is a smart and sensitive writer. The book covers a number of different subjects — its sections are called “A Balkan Triptych,” “Three Polish Survivor Stories,” “Grandfathers and Daughters,” “Three L.A. Pieces,” “Three Portraits of Artists,” and “A Final Vermeer Convergence” — but no matter the subject the essays have a similar seriousness combined with a lightness of touch that make them both thought-provoking and pleasurable to read.

Some of my favorite essays in the collection are about art; as I read I couldn’t help but think that what I really want is to take an art appreciation class from Weschler, or to have him take me on a long, leisurely tour of an art museum. He is an excellent interpreter and also an appreciator, someone who can generate enthusiasm about his subject while also looking at it analytically. I adored his essay on David Hockney’s photocollages, which  made me think about photography in ways I hadn’t before and made me want to read more on the subject, even though I’ve never had a particular interest in photography before in my life. (I do, though, have a book by Geoff Dyer on the subject, The Ongoing Moment, which I bought because I love Geoff Dyer, not because I love photography. The lesson for me is that it’s the author not the subject that matters.) In each essay from the “Three Portraits of Artists” section, he describes time he spent with the artist as well as discussing the art itself, so you get a sense of the person who created the work.

But the best essays are in the “Balkan Triptych” section where Weschler looks at connections between art and war. He spent time in The Hague covering the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal, where onlookers and participants spent days listening to particularly nasty stories of atrocities committed by war criminals. He asks one of the jurists how he handles listening at great length to such horrible stories, and the jurist answers by saying that he goes as often he can to see paintings by Vermeer in the Mauritshuits museum. While contemplating what it is that draws this man to Vermeer, Weschler realizes that the Holland Vermeer painted was remarkably like the Bosnia of today:

For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty …

He realizes that behind the peacefulness of the paintings lies horrible violence, and, in fact, that Vermeer was, in a way, opening up the very possibility of peace in the midst of turbulent times:

I began to realize that, in fact, the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what those paintings are all about … It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace.

The people Vermeer so carefully and realistically captured in his paintings come to stand for the idea that individual beings matter and have value. Art can, in a quiet but powerful way, offer hope in the face of cruelty and senseless violence.

There are two other essays in this section, each one similarly thoughtful and intriguing. Weschler’s writing is something to savor, and I hope I get the chance to read more of it.

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New Books!

This turned out to be a very literary weekend, although by “literary” I don’t mean that I read much. I haven’t had much time for that. First, on Friday I got to walk by Emily Dickinson’s house (picture here), since I was in the area for a work conference, and then I browsed in one of Amherst’s bookstores, just up the street.

And then on Saturday, Hobgoblin and I met up with She Knits and Suitcase of Courage to go on a three-state bookstore tour. We started off meeting for breakfast at the Wandering Moose Cafe in West Cornwall, Connecticut (Suitcase of Courage knows all the great places to get breakfast), and then we headed a block or so up the road to Barbara Farnsworth’s bookstore. It’s a charming two-story shop with a great fiction section, where I spent most of my time. I didn’t buy anything there, but it’s not because there weren’t good possibilities. Sometimes it just takes me a while to figure out what I’m in the mood for.

Then we drove up to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, home of Yellow House Books, where we spent another happy hour or so. This shop is smaller than Barbara Farnsworth’s, but it also has a great selection, and I snapped up The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1. I own volume 3 already, so of course I need all the others. I’ll be on the lookout for a nice copy of volume 2 next.

Then, after lunch, we drove over to Hillsdale, New York, to visit Rodgers Book Barn, a shop that’s been a favorite of mine for many years. The store is out in the middle of upstate New York farm country, and you have to drive past barns and on gravel roads to get there, which is all part of the fun. And they have a great selection of books, priced inexpensively. I was fully into shopping mode by that time, and came away with four books (Hobgoblin found ten!). I got Darkmans by Nicola Barker, which has been on my mind to read for a while because it’s long and experimental, and I’m ready to read a long, experimental novel written by a woman instead of the ones you always hear about written by men. I like the ones by men too, but the ones by women don’t get the same attention.

I also picked up another Mary McCarthy novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, for when I next get in a Mary McCarthy mood, which happens fairly regularly. The last two are Viragos, A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor, and Year Before Last by Kay Boyle. Taylor is a favorite of mine, but Boyle is someone new I’m interested in learning more about.

After a couple hours in the Book Barn, it was time to head home to take care of Muttboy — and to read our books, of course. And that’s exactly what I need to go do now.

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Where I was today

At the Emily Dickinson house! I was only there briefly, and didn’t make it in time to take a tour, so I couldn’t go inside, but I was in Amherst for a conference for work, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stroll by. I’ll be back one of these days, most definitely.

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