Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 6/12/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Kate Atkinson, HUMAN CROQUET (1997)

Friday, 8/14/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Michel Faber, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE (2002)

 

THE AUTUMN LIST: INTERNATIONAL BEST-SELLERS

 

Friday, 9/11/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Minae Mizumura, A TRUE NOVEL, part 1 (2013)

Friday, 9/25/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Minae Mizumura, A TRUE NOVEL, part 2 (2013)

Friday, 10/16/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Amara Lakhous, CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS OVER AN ELEVATOR IN PIAZZA VITTORIO (2008)

Friday, 11/13/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Alina Bronsky, THE HOTTEST DISHES OF THE TARTAR CUISINE (2010)

Friday, 12/11/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Timur Vermes, LOOK WHO'S BACK (2015)

 

THE BIG WINTER NOVEL

 

Friday, 1/8/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part one

Friday, 1/22/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part two

Friday, 2/5/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part three

Friday, 2/19/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part four

Tuesday
Apr072015

Ferrante: Fiction and Autobiography

Ferrante's novels about Naples force us into a corner: how much is autobiography? After all, her (or his) identity remains a secret. We know nothing about the writer who pens under the name Elena Ferrante. What if "Elena Ferrante" really is her name and she's just reclusive? No matter: we're left with the novels themselves--which force us into the corner of intention and interpretation (I would argue, by design).

On the one hand, we can read the novels as (lightly) veiled autobiographies. In fact, we might even think they're "truer" than a more standard novel since we know next to nothing about the author. After all, she has claimed in an email interview that she had a friend like Lila.

What's more, the author wants us to move in the direction of seeing the novels as autobiography. For example, the criticism of Elena Greco's novel in THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY is exactly the sort of criticism that could be directed at the very book in your hands: obsessively personal, vulgar, unfair, too revelatory, too easily based on the character's own life, etc. With hints like these, we're tempted to read the author into the novel in the very absence of said author.

On the other hand, we're also tempted to divorce the novels from the author. Elena Greco cannot be Ferrante, whose actual first novel bears little resemblance to the novel that Elena Greco has written. And if Ferrante were married into a public, intellectual family in Italy as Elena Greco is, we'd certainly know who she is. So perhaps the novel in your hands has nothing to do with Ferrante's identity.

Here's where it gets tricky. Those two poles--"it's about the author" and "it's not about the author"--are in fact the poles that hold up the interpretive debate about any piece of art: literature, painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture.

When I went off to college in the late '70s, the dominant critical theory was called the "new criticism," popularized by certain English professors at Vanderbilt and Cambridge. The main tenet was, to put it baldly, that the artist's life had nothing to do with the work created. In fact, even the historical context of the work didn't matter. Instead, you are confronted with a poem, a painting, a piece of drama in your own moment--right now. You don't have access to the past moment's the author lived. You can't know them. You can't even construct them. To do so is to engage in what was called the "intentional fallacy." How can you know what an author intended? You can do little more than guess. You only have your current moment. It's all that matters in understanding the piece before you. (Thus, new critical professors would pass out Shakespearean sonnets and Bob Dylan songs together because both are "ahistorical" works of art.)

But such a stance seems too rigid, too bound by its theory. Don't we need to know something about English-European relations to understand Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Don't we need to know something about the Civil War to read Emily Dickinson's poems?

Yes to both. But with reservations. It can all go too far. Does it matter that Henry James was a closeted homosexual when you read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY? Does it matter that Faulkner was a drunk when you read his novels?

I would say "no" to  both. Yet nuance is important. Does Beethoven's deafness alter our understanding of the last symphonies? Yes and no. Does Rembrandt's use of his wife and children in his paintings deepen our understanding of the works? Yes and no. Does Eudora Welty's left-wing politics alter the discussion of her short stories? Yes and no.

Where do you draw the line? Can you read Virginia Woolf without reading her biography? Absolutely. Do her personal struggles show up in her novels? Absolutely. Does knowing about them make the novels clearer? Here I would add a controversial "no." In fact, reading Woolf's novels through her own depression throws out a dreaded red herring. MRS. DALLOWAY is not a veiled suicide wish. It is a complex and befuddling piece of art about how we experience the passing of time.

Art both escapes its creator and remains enmired with her or him. It's a muddle that Ferrante is forcing us to experience at every turn. 

Friday
Jan162015

Portraits in the Portrait

As Isabel Archer moves from England to the Continent, the middle third of this magnificent novel is very much taken up with Italian art. Some scenes become almost Renaissance tableaux; others have direct references to paintings and sculpture. I thought I'd take a minute an elucidate a few of the more important references. The page numbers here are those in the Penguin edition we're using, the reprint of the 1882 one-volume Macmillan edition.

1. Chapter 20, page 219. "You may see her; but you will not be struck with her being happy. She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!" And Mrs. Touchett rang for the servant.

Cimabue Madonna di CasteldifliorentoHere, Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle are discussing Isabel's sudden and extravagant fortune at the death of Mr. Touchett. Cimabue was a Florentine painter of the middle and late 1200s, a little bit before Dante. Cimabue strode the line between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance (Vasari claimed he was Giotto's teacher) by adapting Byzantine art to his Italian surroundings. His Madonnas almost always had, as above, a blissed-out Byzantine stare, very other-worldly and calm (as opposed to the more active and "of this world" Christ child in the painting). Mrs. Touchett's reference to Cimabue begins the long stretch in the novel that concerns both Isabel's restlessness and her increasing "serenity." Of course, at this point in the book, Isabel is also a Madonna of sorts: a virtuous (and in nineteenth-century parlance, virginal) woman.

2. Chapter 23, page 258.  "But she [Madame Merle] talked of all things with remarkable vividness of memory--she remembered the right-hand angel in the large Perugino and the position of the hands of the Saint Elizabeth in the picture next to it. . . ."

Perugino, Assumption of the VirginAlbertinelli, The Virgin and Saint Elizabeth

The discussion here is about Madame Merle's rather bored but sophisticated take on Italian art: she doesn't want to go to the Uffizi anymore but she can talk about the art in very good terms. In other words, art has ceased to be an object of gaze and has instead become an object of interpretation. It's hard to know exactly which Perugino James had in mind since they've been endlessly moved around the Uffizi. The canvas above is as good as any to illustrate the busy-ness, the movement, the mood of the Italian master--a work of genius that hardly deserves a flip of the hand, as it apparently does for Madame Merle. However, note in the second canvas, the Albertinelli, one of the more important paintings of Renaissance art, how the two women meet: their close intimacy, their relative positions. They appear equal--but the Virgin (on the left) would be the far "higher" one in the spiritual pyramid. Perhaps this is a direct comment on the novel--but on which pair of women?

3. Chapter 24, page 271. "Indeed, I can show you her [Mrs. Touchett's] portrait in a fresco of Ghirlandaio's. I hope you don't object to my speaking that way of your aunt, eh?"

Ghirlandaio, Birth of Saint Mary in Santa Maria Novella in FlorenceWe'd be hard pressed to figure out which of Ghirlandaio's many frescos Osmond has in mind, but this one in a central Florentine church will do to show his vision. Ghirlandaio was known for letting us peek into private space--and particularly women's private space. Here, we have the miraculous birth of the virgin Mary painted as an event for a community of women. The angelic presence is actually a series of statues in the cornice above (art looking at art?). Yes, it is a Renaissance scene, almost of daily life among the well-off and fortunate. But it is more importantly a typically Ghirlandaio perspective: a private and communal experience of and for women. Perhaps that explains Osmond's sneer.

4. Chapter 28, page 315.  "Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera, she encountered him [Lord Warburton] in the gallery of the Capitol, where he was standing before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator."

We now know this statue is more properly called a "dying Gaul," not a gladiator--that is, one of the "under classes" that served the Mediterranean empires for centuries. It's a Roman marble copy of a lost, Greek, bronze original. The wounded, slumped-over Gaul is rendered quite lifelike, particularly the wound in the lower part of his chest and the look of pain on his face. He is dying on his shield, a noble move. But it's also a very sensual statue, brazenly naked, hauntingly beautiful, sexual but morose, ecstatic but indolent. He is, well, spent. Is this a comment on Warburton? On Isabel? On her thoughts about him? On his thoughts about himself? Or on the novel as a whole?

5. Chapter 37, page 389.  "Why, she [Pansy] had the style of a little princess; if you couldn't see it you had no eye. It was not modern, it was not conscious, it would produce no impression in Broadway; the small, serious damsel in her stiff little dress only looked like an Infanta of Velasquez."

Here's one of Velasquez' many portraits of the Spanish royal children--particularly of the "infanta" Maria Margarita whom he painted over and over again. These portraits are notoriously sumptuous, almost to an extreme, an over-abundance of fabric and texture, the cherubic skin glowing from within. Lovely. But it's also important to note that Pansy is nineteen at this point in the book. The girl in this portrait? About five.

Tuesday
Dec302014

James and Tintoretto

Henry James in his early twenties, painted by John la FargeBorn in 1843, Henry James didn't have a formal education. His father, a New England idealist/reformer, thought the then-standard curriculum of classics and philosophy would harm his children. Instead, the old man tossed his kids in and out of various boarding schools across Europe and America as he willy-nilly moved around, Paris to Geneva, Newport to New York. During many years, the children attended no schools.

When James was old enough to go to college, his father again said "no." However, he did allow his son to attend Harvard Law School (not a post-baccalaureate institution in those days) on the theory that the legal profession was "scientific." Henry didn't go to many law classes over that year. Instead, he attended James Russell Lowell's inaugural lectures on literature, some of the first lectures ever given on this "new" discipline.

James's true education happened in his mid- to late twenties, in the years just after the Civil War. He went abroad and immersed himself in art, stopping for a while in London but really heading toward Italy, the newly unified country that would become his chosen home.

James wasn't yet writing novels. He was writing stories, travel pieces, and many literary reviews in which he was working out a theory of the novel that would sustain him for the rest of his creative life.

Titian's Assumption of the VirginIn Venice, James was confronted by Titian's Assumption of the Virgin, the alterpiece in Titian's "home" church, i Frari. Nineteenth-century critics and scholars considered it the single greatest masterpiece of Italian art. Everything swirls up to the Virgin, a vanishing point of perspective in God the Father above her, shielding her (and us) from the more dazzling light of heaven. The foreshortened apostles below, the uplifted arms, the light that is both cool and warm, the sense of both movement and stasis: these made Titian's work a triumph.

For everyone except James. He found it a "second class" work, a matter of technique, not art. It was form without heart. (It would be many more years before James would come to understand Titian and model his later novels on the artist's techniques.)

Instead, James was struck by the Tintoretto canvases in Venice. He found the drama, the abundant life, the full scene surrounding two or three dominant characters the very essence of art's move toward the human scene. He was particularly enamored with Tintoretto's Crucifixion scene in the small church at San Cassiano. The Roman executioners form a background of spears behind the cross; the clouds are almost abstractions of color, more feeling than form. Your eye seems to wander aimlessly over the canvas until you realize its center, the "true" subject matter. In fact, the "true" subject of the painting is off-center, a curious placement.

Here's how James put it in a published piece on art in Venice:

When once Tintoretto had conceived the germ of a scene, it defined itself to his imagination with an intensity, an amplitude, an individuality of expression, which make one's observation of his pictures seem less an operation of the mind than a kind of supplementary experience of life.

I ask you to think about this very description in terms of THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY: intensity, amplitude, individuality of expression, all leading to something that moves away from mental exercise and into something more living, more expressive. You seem to breathe in the piece. Observing it, feeling it, and analyzing it become something that feels like life itself.

James also was taken with the Tintoretto painting of the Last Supper, a marvel of perspective and mood, of technique and emotion.

The table lies at a diagonal (think of the difference from Leonardo da Vinci's fresco). The apostles are in conversation; Jesus, the center of the theme, is almost unnoticed, a piece of the vanishing point, rather than the foreground focus. You have to find the focus, rather than have it given to you. The light around Jesus is the humid, liquid light of Venice. As James put it:

It was the whole scene that Tintoretto seemed to have beheld in a flash of inspiration intense enough to stamp it ineffaceably on his perception; and it was the whole scene, complete, peculiar, individual, unprecedented, that he committed to canvas with all the vehemence of his talent . . . its long, diagonally-placed table, its dusky spaciousness, its scattered lamp-light and halo-light, its startled, gesticulating figures. . . .

Again: "whole scene." Think of that first chapter of PORTRAIT, the tea on the lawn. Think of the individuals emerging from the scene. Think how complete it all feels. Think of Isabel arriving on the scene, off center, to the side and the back. And imagine "the vehemence of talent."

In Tintoretto, James found an answer to how art is created. Think about these two canvases and PORTRAIT. There are no direct correlations. Rather, there are conjunctions: moods, perspective, technique, form, balance, perspective--and of course, the "vehemence of talent."

Monday
Nov102014

Sarah Orne Jewett and her Region

Sarah Orne JewettFrom Reconstruction through the post-bellum period of American history--and perhaps into the first quarter of the twentieth century--American fiction became dominated by what was once called "local color" and is now called (more appropriately) "literary regionalism."

Beginning in the South and moving across the country, literary regionalism sought to display small pockets of "real America"--or to put it more precisely, the remaining small pockets of real America. These truer-than-true regions were ostensibly passing away. So literary regionalism finds its impetus in nosalgia--or more specifically, in the fear of the rabble of increased southern and eastern European immigration, the migration of freed African-Americans to the cities, and the relentless waves of industrialization.

According to Richard Brodhead in his 1993 book CULTURES OF LETTERS, literary regionalism "requires a setting outside the world of modern development, a zone of backwardness where locally variant folkways still prevail. Its characters are . . . personifications of the different humanity produced in such non-modern cultural settings." He goes on to claim that the representation of regional dialects (think about Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus or Bret Harte's California miners) is the great hallmark of the genre. (Think, too, about Mrs. Todd's lingo in THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS). Local speech patterns offered a direct entree not only into some sort of "real" America but also into its "quiet" virtues away from the decay of the East and West coast. Brodhead and other literary critics ultimately argue that literary reglonalism offered a way to unite the country in the years after the Civil War--as if to say, See, real America is alive and well across this war-torn and industrialized land.

Those critics may have gotten the cart before the horse. Instead, literary regionalism may arise out of the separatist impulse that informed the country up to and through the Civil War. Indeed, separatism enlivened most of the political and economic debates in post-Civil War America. There was little appetite for "one" America outside of certain Northern reconstuctionist politicians who sought to impose laws on the South that they could never pass in their own states. Rather, there was a distinct ploy, especially among Southerners, to prove they were not down and out. As it were: we are not united into a real American by pockets of authenticity. Instead, our authenticity is better than yours. We've still got the real America right here, buddy.

Without a doubt, literary regionalism became the coin of the publishing realm. We can see much of Twain's work (even Huck) as an expression of this movement. (While we're at it, it's possible to see Faulkner as an outgrowth of this movement, too.)

Or take George Washington Harris, in many ways the literary father of Twain, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. This Southern humorist created the wildly popular character of Sut Lovingood, a hillbilly who combined equal parts insanity and brilliance, chaos and truth-telling, political muckraking and sexual antics. Sut is fond of drinking and chasing girls, roaming around the countryside to tweak preachers and librarians as uptight Puritans. His narrates his own stories; his speech is almost untranslatable. Here's a sample from the story "Trapping A Sheriff" found in the 1867 collection SUT LOVINGOOD: YARNS SPUN BY A NAT'RAL BORN DURN'D FOOL, WARPED AND WOVE FOR PUBLIC WEAR:

A illustration of Sut Lovingood turning over a hive of wasps while plowing."Es we sot down, the las' glimmers ove the sun crep thru the histed winder, an' flutter'd on the white tabilcloth an' play'd a silver shine on her smoof black har, es she sot at the head ove the tabil, a-pourin out the coffee, wif her sleeves push'd tight back on her white roun' arm, her full throbbin neck wer bar to the swell ove her shoulders, an' the steam ove the coffee made a movie vail afore her face, es she slowly brush'd hit away wif hur lef han', a-smilin an' a-flashin hur talkin eyes lovinly at her hansum husbun. I thot ef I wer a picter-maker, I cud jis' take that ar supper an' that ar 'oman down on clean white paper, an' make more men hongry, an' hot tu marry, a-lookin at hit in one week, nor ever ole Whitfield convarted in his hole life; back-sliders, hippercrits, an' all, I don't keer a durn."

Immoral, sometimes blatantly un-Christian and other times out-Christianing the Christians, sexually overcharged and yet a proponent of traditional marriage, Sut is not "a uniting force." Instead, he pokes a finger into the eye of East coast gentility and the country's more staid traditions. He is the embodiment of the know-nothings.

Sarah Orne Jewett comes out of this tradition. She's always cast as a literary regionalist, But she's not a Southerner by any means--and she's very late to the game, at the tail end of the movement. So she's another matter entirely. (Whose eye is she poking?) She's not Mark Twain or George Washington Harris; her characters are not Huck or Sut. Yet there's a connection, that same American literary regionalism at work in THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS as in these other works. We'll want to talk more about what exactly Jewett is trying to say in this genre that is as political as it is literary.

Sunday
Sep282014

Forgetting and Remembering Catherine Maria Sedgwick

A pen-and-ink of Catherine Maria Sedgwick, around the time she wrote HOPE LESLIEIn her day, Catherine Maria Sedgwick was one of the most important novelists in the United States. She was considered one of the fountainheads of a new, uniquely American literature. Subsequent generations considered her a trail blazer. Nineteenth-century women writers considered her an icon.

She worked mostly in the genre of historical romance, one of the most popular forms of fiction in her day. In fact, there were three "major" historical romancers of this period: Sedgwick, William Gilmore Simms (a writer Poe considered the finest ever produced in America), and James Fenimore Cooper (he of the "Leatherstocking" or Natty Bumppo tales). Sedgwick mostly outsold the other two--and was often a bigger critical hit, too. Yet she's largely forgotten today. In fact, we're more likely to know about Fenimore Cooper, certainly the lesser light among the three in his own day (and perhaps even so now). How did this strange set of events happen? How have we forgotten Sedgwick and remembered Cooper?

As always, through a complicated set of cultural and political circumstances.

Women writers in the nineteenth century enjoyed outstanding publishing and critical success. Although novels started off with a generalized readership in the eighteenth century, they were fast becoming part of a "woman's world" (as opposed to histories and biographies which were what men read, if they read at all--why that happened is itself an interesting subject for discussion).

Most of the "big boys" we now consider the stalwarts of American literature were troubled by all these women writing. Take Hawthorne's assessment, for example:

"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of 'The Lamplighter,’ [a novel written by Maria Susanna Cummins in 1854 and one of the best-sellers of the day) and other books neither better nor worse?–-worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000."

Brady's portrait of Hawthorne. Ol' Nate was never much a fan of women--except in his fiction.This screed was actually in a private letter written from England in 1855 to Hawthorne's publisher back home, but it exemplifies the "dis-ease" with women's writing among the alleged literati. The women outsold the boys; most of the boys sneered at the women. Yet we've gotten to a point where two "failed" writers--Thoreau and Melville--are considered the lions and Sedgwick is forgotten. Seems the boys won in the long run. But how?

Part of the answer lies in the politics of the early twentieth-century. American literature was becoming a matter of study in the United States (as opposed to American novels lumped in as lesser lights among British novels). There was a need to find a "usable" past, a great literary tradition. Scholars like Harvard's F. O. Matthiessen began "uncovering" the novels like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE SCARLET LETTER, MOBY-DICK, and more. Melville had been out of print for decades; Thoreau, largely forgotten, a footnote in Emerson biographies. Yet in his major work, AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: ART AND EXPRESSION IN THE AGE OF EMERSON AND WHITMAN (1941), Matthiessen codified the thinking of his moment and enshrined a long line of male New England writers at the center of the American experience. In other words, he and others "overlooked" the majority of novelists--women and Southerners--to find a uniquely "American" (read "New England white male") past. Why? Here are three reasons:

  1. New England itself was becoming marginalized in the national discourse. Boston was no longer the center of learning or commerce. San Francisco seemed to have more energy than Hartford or Albany. The United States had pushed to its western edge. The movement of civilization was distinctly south and west from here, leaving vast tracts of New England out of the rush (including our own Litchfield hills and Berkshire mountains). There had to be a way to re-commit New England to the center of the story. There had to be a way to reclaim our--that is, the Puritan--centrality. (Note that even now when we think of the settling of North America, we think of the Puritans--not the colonies further south like Jamestown, settled earlier, or Maryland, settled by Catholics at about the same time.)
  2. An early image of Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Leatherstocking, a.k.a. Hawkeye. Apparently a good man is truly hard to find.Women had gained the vote and had been a major part of the effort to gear up during two world wars (think "Rosie the Riveter"). Political power seemed to be tipping away from the all-boy club. Men were coming home from the wars ragged and defeated. We need to find a bunch of men who represented the best of the country--even if it was in the past, a nostalgia for the day when "men were men."
  3. The South was not reconstructed. Rather, it was regressing back to pseudo-slavery in the form of Jim Crow. H. L. Mencken and other literary critics wanted to dismiss the region out of hand--a country of the "booboisie," as he called it--so there was a need to overlook both Southern women writers like Ellen Glasgow as well as the major writers who had flourished down south before the Civil War, including William Gilmore Simms, one of America's best.

Matthiessen at HarvardThus, Cooper, not Sedwick or Simms. Interestingly, F. O. Mattheissen himself carried on an "out" gay life at Harvard in the '30s and '40s, openly living with his partner and attending events as a couple--until he threw himself off the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel. Perhaps the disconnects were just too great.

Nonetheless, he and others established an all-male curriculum that ruled universities and secondary schools until an American scholar of British literature, Elaine Showalter, published A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN: BRITISH WOMEN NOVELISTS FROM BRONTE TO LESSING in 1978. Showalter wasn't from the New England boys' club: although born in Boston, she'd gotten her degrees from Bryn Mawr and UC-Davis. In what seems patently obvioius today but was a bombshell in its time, she argued that Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf were as compentent and critically exciting as Dickens and James. Of course you can't think otherwise now. But that's only a measure of how far we've come. Indeed, her book was still something of a radical tome when I went off to a Ph. D. program in 1985. The old boys didn't like it one whit.

Showalter at PrincetonAlthough Showalter wrote about British fiction, her book caused a general roiling in American literary studies. Suddenly, there were dozens of women writers on this side of the pond who "needed" to be re-discovered--Catherine Maria Sedgwick among them. And yet the old boys club holds on. Thus, reading HOPE LESLIE still feels a bit like finding something new. In fact, it's something very old--and very foundational to the American experience.