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Friday, 8/11/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)



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Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

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Damian Wilkins, MAX GATE (2016)

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Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891)

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Woolf and Cather

Yes, it's planned that we would come to Willa Cather when we turn to the fifth essay in Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN. For it is in the fifth essay that Woolf turns to a subject of intense personal interest--and dithering.

Here, Woolf imagines herself reading a fictitious novel ("Life's Adventure") by a fictitious novelist ("Mary Carmichael"). Mind you, neither exist. And yes, Woolf has been on flights of fantasy from the beginning of her essays, imagining Beadles who block her from the college lawn or Judith, Shakespeare's tragic sister. However, the fantasy here seems of a different order--for there is no way to know the novelist and her novel are fictitious from Woolf's own text. She drops clues in the first essay about the made-up nature of her college stroll. But in the fourth essay, we turn to a discussion of real writers--Austen, Bronte, etc.--which leads us right to the bits about Mary Carmichael in the fifth. Indeed, Woolf herself links them all up, so the "reality" of the former colors our notion of the fictitious latter. I remember going on a hunt for this made-up novelist when I first read the essays as an undergraduate. It all seemed so real.

As Woolf reads this made-up novel, composed apparently of marginal, halting sentences and otherwise bad prose, she stumbles across a sentence that stops her cold. As she writes: "We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these--'Chloe lied Olivia. . . .' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." And so begins the rather truncated and half-hidden discussion of lesbianism and fiction: "those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are along, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex."

But the path is not clear. Woolf soon diverts back to the question of heterosexual relations, rather than lesbian ones--"A true picture of a man as a whole can never be painted until a woman has described [him]." She time and again questions whether the fictitious Mary Carmichael can be considered a serious artist: "She made me feel . . . that instead of being serious and profound and humane, one might be--and the thought was far less seductive--merely lazy minded and conventional into the bargain." She seems to sneer at her as a "woman writer" and yet also hold her up as an exemplar. In the end, we're left with a muddle. Some say this is the point: the half-hidden meaning in the text is like the hints of lesbianism found throughout literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But I'm not so sure. All this rigmarole for a made-up novelist? All this griping about her "writing," writing which doesn't even exist? All these shifting perspectives--it's up to women to describe women fully; no, it's up to women to describe men fully.

In the end--and this is not a popular reading of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN--I believe that Woolf's own discomfort with 1) the project of fiction (why set up a bad, fake novel as your exemplar of women's feelings and sexual bliss?) and 2) her own sexuality render her essay a muddle, made up of fictitious wobblings about a completely made-up problem in the imagined writing of a not-real novelist. Whew.

Which brings us to Cather. Because Cather never, ever called herself a lesbian. In fact, even today some scholars resist the peg for her. Cather was intensely ambivalent. And became increasingly wobbly in her own notions of what the project of fiction should be. She was a socialite in New York; she was also a recluse on an island in the Bay of Fundy. She lived with a woman and carried on with plenty more; she repeatedly denied claims about her own sexuality. She wrote romantic fiction--which doesn't end up being very romantic.

This deep ambivalence informs MY ANTONIA. Think for a moment about the narrator, Jim Burden. Think about his name. Think about what place he performs in the novel. Why is a book about Antonia told from Jim's eyes? Or is the book really about Antonia in the first place?


A Willa Cather Time Line

MY ANTONIA is, of course, our first Cather novel. We will undoubtedly return to the well several times if we keep up the book group at the library. Cather's novels are so evocative--and so troubling. Real mixed bags.

But before that, you might like a little run-down of Cather's rather full life. (Another mixed bag!) Here are some important dates:

1873. Born December 7th near Winchester, Virginia, on the family farm. Named for her aunt Wilella; called "Willie" by her parents. Family includes members who had fought in the Revolutionary War and for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

1877. Her paternal grandparents move to Webster county, Nebraska, where one son is already a farmer.

1883. After a fire incinerates the barn in Virginia, she, her parents, siblings, maternal grandmother, and cousins pick up and move to Nebraska, which Willa calls "as bare as a sheet of iron." Lives with paternal grandparents. Begins visiting the homesteads of Scandinavian, Russian, German, and Czech settlers. Goes to school only intermittently; develops intense relationships with pioneer women. May have contracted a mild case of polio.

1884. Her father moves the family to a small frame house in Red Cloud, Nebraska (still the site of the Willa Cather museum). Cather attends school regularly. Local grocery man, a British immigrant, teaches her Latin and Greek.

1888. Begins cropping her hair and wearing men's clothes. Calls herself "William Cather." Plays Beauty's father in a production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Red Cloud Opera House.

1890. Graduates from Red Cloud High School in a class of three; delivers graduation speech entitled "Superstition versus Investigation," in defense of science. Moves to Lincoln to enter preparatory school before the University of Nebraska.

1891. Matriculates to the university where she forgoes science for studies in Greek, Latin, Renaissance literature, and French literature. First published essay, "Concerning Thomas Carlyle," published in the Nebraska State Journal.

1892. First short story ("Peter") published in a Boston literary magazine. Before returning home for the summer, writes a love letter to a friend, declaring it "unfair" that female affection should be labeled "unnatural." Becomes the editor of the university's literary magazine and abandons men's clothes.

1895. Graduates from the university and becomes associate editor of the Lincoln Courier. Travels to Chicago for the opera, the beginning of an eduring fascination with the genre.

1896. Returns to Red Cloud. Complains of isolation; begins dating letters as from "Siberia." Moves to Pittsburgh to assume the editorship of "Home Monthly," a women's magazine. Continues publishing stories and poems in national journals.

1897. Resigns from the magazine but continues to be a columnist. Enjoys a week in New York seeing the complete Wagnerian cycle at Carnegie Hall. Returns to Pittsburgh after a summer in Red Cloud to write full-time.

1899. Meets Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Pittsburgh family--begins a lifelong friendship. Loves to visit her at home with her parents ("chez the goddess"). Travels extensively (Red Cloud, New York, Washington D. C., Wyoming).

1901. Moves in the Isabelle in her parents' home in Pittsburgh. Continues a grueling publishing schedule. Visits the popular, romance-fiction novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth in Washington D. C. and is amazed by the thousands of letters sent her every year by her fans. Begins teaching Latin at Central High School in Pittsburgh.

1902. Travels with Isabelle McClung to Europe from June to September.

1903. "A Death in the Desert" published in Scribner's magazine. Collection of 37 poems also published. Is called to New York by S. S. McClure who promises to publish her stories in the magazine and collect them as a book.

1905. First collection of short stories ("The Troll Garden") published by McClure. Travels the west with Isabelle. Teaches English at Pittsburgh high school. Attends birthday dinner for Mark Twain on December 5th at Delmonico's in New York.

1906. Moves to New York City (60 Washington Square South) to work as an editor at McClure's magazine. Describes life at the magazine as "working in a high wind."

1907. Moves to Boston for McClure's where she will research a book on the life of Mary Baker Eddy. Enjoys a very active social calendar.

1908. Meets Annie Fields, the widow of Boston publisher James T. Fields. She and Annie begin an intense relationship. Also moves into 82 Washington Place with Edith Lewis, a fellow editor at McClure's. Travels to Europe with Isabelle McClung. Complains repeatedly of exhaustion.

1909. Assumes sole editorship at McClure's. Goes to England to solicit manuscripts--meets H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford. Cather writes Annie Fields that life is "dark and purposeless" without her.

1910. Hospitalized for mastoiditis. Travels again to England for McClure's. Visits Annie Fields in Boston. Takes leave of absence from McClure's and spends three months in Cherry Valley, New York, with Isabelle McClung, where Cather begins writing long-form fiction.

1911. Ill again--and journeys to Winslow, Arizona, to recuperate at her brother's home. Begins lifelong fascination with the American southwest. Starts writing O, PIONEERS, her first novel of the Nebraska trilogy that will conclude with MY ANTONIA.

1913. O, PIONEERS published to rousing critical and commerical success. Moves in with Edith Lewis at 5 Bank Street in New York City.

1914. Hospitalized with blood poisoning from a hat-pin scratch. Spends most of the year recuperating in Pittsburgh at Isabelle's house (her parents') and writing the second prairie novel, THE SONG OF THE LARK.

1915. Annie Fields dies. Spends summer in the southwest with Edith Lewis; spends fall in Pittsburgh with Isabelle McClung. THE SONG OF THE LARK published. H. L. Mencken declares that Cather is among the "small class of American writers who are serious."

1916. Isabelle McClung unexpectedly marries violinist Jan Hambourg; Cather is devastated. Heads to the Southwest with Edith Lewis. Smarting from Isabelle's marriage, begins MY ANTONIA on her return to New York.

1917. Work on MY ANTONIA is slow. Goes to New Hampshire to visit Isabelle and Jan Hambourg in Jaffrey. Continues working on MY ANTONIA "in a tent pitched in a meadow." Begins almost annual trips to Jaffrey, even when Isabelle is no longer there.

1918. Travels to Red Cloud to cook for the family while her mother is ill. Finishes MY ANTONIA in June; published in September to good reviews but slow sales.

1920. Signs contract with Knopf. H. L. Menken to publish a story ("Coming, Aphrodite!") which eventually proves too salacious for his magazine "Smart Set." Works on her next novel (ONE OF OURS--about a fallen World War I soldier) in Toronto.

1923. A LOST LADY serialized in "Century" from April to June. Wins Pulitzer Prize for ONE OF OURS. Earns $19,000 in royalties, a princely sum.

1924. Sells film rights to A LOST LADY for $12,000.

1925. Film opens to Cather's horror at the adaptations involved; vows that no movie rights will ever be sold from her books again--and so begins lifelong attempt to control any access to her papers or writings. Travels to the southwest and begins writing DEATH COME FOR THE ARCHBISHOP.

1927. Travels extensively in the American west. Moves with Edith Lewis to the Grosvenor Hotel at 35 Fifth Avenue. Returns to Red Cloud for Christmas.

1928. Father dies of a heart attack; returns home to find a renewed connection to her family. Recieves an honorary degree from Columbia (one among many). Summers on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy off New Brunswick. She will eventually buy the only piece of property she will ever own on Grand Manan Island.

1929. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; recieves an honorary degree from Yale. Summers again on Grand Manan. Mother falls ill while visiting children in California; mother is eventually warehoused in a sanitarium in California for the rest of her life. Cather depressed, finds work difficult.

1931. Recieves honorary degrees from Berkeley and Princeton; goes to Europe with Edith Lewis, then returns to Canada. Mother dies--is not able to leave Grand Manan in time to attend funeral. SHADOWS ON THE ROCK published with over 150,000 copies sold by the end of the year. Travels to Red Cloud for Christmas--her last visit to Nebraska.

1932. Moves to 570 Park Avenue with Edith Lewis who is now a copy-writer at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. An increasingly ascerbic figure on the New York social scene.

1933. Becoming isolated and reclusive. Spends more time on Grand Manan Island. Sprains wrist that summer--the inflammation extends up her arm and down into her hand, making writing a painful task. Writes legal prohibition against any of her books being made into films (a provision later carried forward in her will).

1935. LUCY GRAYHEART published; critics pan it, accuse her of a "supine romanticism" that ignores contemporary problems. Spends a great deal of time in Europe with Edith Lewis.

1936. More time on Grand Manan. Claims that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" and that she belongs in the "other half."

1938. Isabelle (McClung) Hambourg dies. Cather writes: "People often write books for just one person, and for me Isabelle was that person." Continues pilgrimages to Jaffrey, Hew Hampshire.

1940. Writes SAPPHIRA AND THE SLAVE GIRL, a novel made from her memories of childhood in Virginia.

1941. Hand pain and recurrent illness keep Cather in the hospital for months. Eventually has her gall bladder and appendix out at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City but never comes back to full health.

1943. World War II keeps her away from her beloved home on Grand Manan Island. Begins spending months on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

1946. Turns down Viking's offer to publish "The Portable Willa Cather"--"I simply refuse to be portable." Writes a will that includes tight restrictions on using her papers for scholarship and also seals off her works from film and stage.

1947. Dies in New York on the afternoon of April 24th of a cerebral hemorrhage; buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.


The Novel: A Product of the Middle Class

In the fourth chapter of Virginia Woolf's seminal A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, the Bloomsburian turns to what might be called the economic engine behind the novel--that is, the middle class. "Towards the end of the eighteenth century," she writes, "a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses."

Overstatement aside, what was this change? "The middle-class woman began to write."

Woolf seems at first a little taken aback because these women did not write the erudite poetry or plays of the Renaissance but instead focused their attention on novels, this (at the time) "new" art form.

Why? According to Woolf, women were forced to write in the sitting room and so were subjected to endless familial interruptions. They could not concentrate on poetic epics because the kids might come busting in at any moment. So these women wrote novels.

While Jane Austen did write in her sitting room, hiding her manuscripts under blotting papers whenever a footfall creaked on the stairs, Woolf's is a rather silly argument, given that Austen and George Eliot and Emily Bronte and almost all the great novelists Woolf praises didn't have many interruptions because of their families--since they were not married and had no children!

That said, Woolf is on to something: the novel is connected to the middle class, rising in Europe at about the time the middle class itself stepped forward. There are two factors here. One, novels were originally considered to be "scientific experiments." We'll see more of this when we read Defoe this summer. A novel was an "investigation" into human motives. And the rise of the middle class was inextricably linked to the rise of science in the West, the rise of the "objective stance." We can talk much more about this in book group, if you like.

And true enough, a novel didn't require years of esoteric learning to write. Were we as a group to set ourselves to read Dante or Milton, we'd find the going pretty slow as we bogged down in the layers of scholarship behind the texts. With novels, we can just light out for their territories. They deliver their messages quite efficiently, despite their length.

And that message, as Woolf points out, is often linked to anger. To that end, she even complains about Charlotte Bronte, about the anger behind her novels. "Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped, and thwarted?"

That's a lot to claim for one of the great English novelists. Too much, in fact. But for Woolf, Jane Austen succeeded where Charlotte Bronte failed. Austen rose "to the level of Shakespeare" because she was able to write "without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching." Woolf then goes on: "When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare; and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare."

And so we come to Emma Donoghue and ROOM. Because if Ferrante is all passion, even anger, Donoghue writes an equally emotionally evocative tale with a calm, steady detachment. Is this why she's put the book in the mouth and eyes of a child? (Imagine if she'd written the same tale through the mother's mouth and eyes.) Do we here have a prime example of the detached, scientific, investigative state we have come to laud? That state of alleged impartiality, of objectivity, so long held up by bourgeois culture in the West as the proper position from which one can ascertain the truth? Is this what Woolf so praises: a stance "with no impediments"? And if so, isn't it ironic that such a state can be found (can only be found?) in a child's eyes?

Wardrobe. Bed. Skylight. Does this pure detachment gain Donoghue anything? And is it in fact detachment at all that so informs this rather remarkable novel?


Woolf and Imagined Women

In the third essay of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, Virginia Woolf takes an imaginative turn from her research into the question of women in culture and the arts to tell the tale of what would have happened had Shakespeare a sister, Judith Shakespeare, who was as equally talented as he.

Woolf sets up an entire life: the fictional Judith lives in rural England, is not able to study at a school with her brother, and so suffers a fully different fate. "She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about."

Woolf imagines Judith soon engaged to a local boy, a "wool-stapler." She doesn't love him. Her father is kind--but forceful. Marry him she must. The family has no choice. So Judith packs her bags and runs away to London to be an actress, to write plays as her brother does. But she can "get no training in her craft." A kindly theater manager takes pity on her--Woolf even gives him a name: Nick Greene. But Judith soon finds herself carrying his child--and so kills herself and now "lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses stop outside the Elephant and Castle."

As Woolf writes: "[W]ho can measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught in a woman's body?"

There's more to the essay, but perhaps we should stop here for Ferrante's sake. Olga, the central character in the novel, also imagines a women with a parallel destiny: the so-called poverella, that figure from her childhood, the one her mother mentions as she sews with the other women. The poverella is made up of "words between sorry and warning, when you don't know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing." (As a side note, I also ask you to think about the word "nothing" in the book--about its force and meaning. Is it a throw-away? Or is it in fact nothing--that is nothingness, the absence of anything, the black hole of nihilism. If so, the spurned woman is indeed left with something--that is, nothing.)

In DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, the poverella enters the narrative at key moments, predicting and even taking part in Olga's narrative arc, much as Judith Shakespeare's fate ultimately shadow Woolf's own suicide (although Woolf of course was not pregnant at the time).

We'll want to talk more about this imagined woman in the novel--because ultimately, she shapes and controls Olga's fate.


Anger and Fiction

Anger may well be the most difficult human emotion to express in fiction--although we have it in spades in DAYS OF ABANDONMENT. Those writers who come in for some snarky ribbing at their attempts to portray human passion might disagree--there are contests every year for the worst fictional depictions of sex (click here if you're prurient and interested). Still and nonetheless, anger eludes even the best writers.

It's easier to express anger on stage, in plays, in dance, even in painting. It's even easier in nonfiction. But fiction functions "at one remove," the world created not real but full of reality claims and so always a conditional world, the words themselves an opaque, unstable, and (semi-)permeable membrane between the imagined (and thus not "real") action and us. Anger is white hot; words, especially those in a novel or short story, are cool, distant, abstract. Yet Ferrante manages to pull it all off, a feat of some daring.

As a contrast, take a look at this music video. It's by a contemporary alternative rock group, The All-American Rejects. It's about anger inside a relationship. Forget about the gay subtext and focus in on how the video tries to express anger--as it indeed does, given its title: "Gives You Hell." (There are some rather adult moments--or at least one adult hand gesture--in this video, so a word to the wise is sufficient. Remember that our website has a low bandwidth and so it's best to let the video load a bit on your browser before you press play. An ad pops up after a few seconds on the bottom of the screen--you can get rid of it by clicking on the "x" in the corner.)

Think for a moment about the differences between this music video and Ferrante's novel. Those differences are profound--and might cue you into the ways she is able to pull off what few others can.