28 March 2018

Virginia Woolf's Final Decade

Today is the anniversary of Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. Tomorrow, I defend a doctoral dissertation with a chapter on Woolf's 1937 novel The Years, and I have spent much of last few years studying Woolf's writings and life in the 1930s especially. Here, a few thoughts on that.

Woolf's last decade is under-appreciated both by general readers and by scholars, although there seems to be growing scholarly interest in her final, not-quite-finished novel Between the Acts. ("Under-appreciated" is, of course, relative — Woolf is one of the most-studied writers of the 20th century, and many of her contemporaries don't have even a small percentage of the attention for their entire ouevres that Woolf has for her least-read writings.) The relative lack of interest in Woolf's life and work after The Waves has various sources, many of them having to do with why readers are attracted to Woolf in the first place. Her achievement with Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves is one of the great literary triumphs of the 20th century — these books reconfigured the novel as a form and the language as a medium. (Orlando, her first bestseller, isn't far behind as an achievement.) She wrote hundreds of essays, with many of her most powerful statements about aesthetics and literature being in the essays of the 1920s, and she finished the decade with A Room of One's Own, one of the most influential essays of the century. It's no surprise that the 1920s is the decade focused on by the majority of Woolf scholarship, and that decade's work what most readers are familiar with. That focus, though, does have an effect on how Woolf is perceived as both a person and a writer.

10 March 2018

BPM and The Young Karl Marx

BPM: Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) tells the story of AIDS activists with ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, and its scenes of ACT UP meetings are among the most compelling representations of everyday political planning and argument I know of other than the extraordinary land reform debate scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. (There's also a powerful debate scene in Loach's later The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but Land and Freedom is even more remarkable in my eyes because it so patiently dramatizes a kind of conversation rarely even imagined by most of its likely viewers. Almost any other director would pare such scenes down to soundbites, but Campillo lets us watch discussions play out and doesn't simplify the arguments into pro/con battles. We see the characters react, think, respond.

Even in a movie like Land and Freedom, the narrative starts with a focal character and brings us into the story via that focal character. One of the most revolutionary moves BPM makes is to flip this structure. We begin with the group, and only slowly get to know the two characters who will turn out to be the protagonists. It's a risky choice, because as audiences we're conditioned to latch on to individuals and to expect a story to be told through them, so a narrative that only slowly moves toward an individual story (or small set of parallel individual stories) may be frustrating, even bewildering. "Who should I root for?" the viewer asks. "What figure should I attach my sympathies to?"

What BPM requires is that we first sympathize with the group and only later find our way toward individual stories. By doing so, we don't reduce the group's complexities to a few individual personalities, but instead, even when the film is heartwrenching within an individual story, we always have the larger context at the back of our mind. This is one solution to the Brechtian problem of what to do with the intellect when individual sentiment threatens to overwhelm knowledge of the larger field shaping the individual story: we don't need to be distanced from the individual story, nor does it need to be defamiliarized; instead, a narrative web needs to be woven carefully enough that the parts are never separate from the whole.

24 February 2018

Speculative Memoir

Electric Literature has now published a roundtable discussion between Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and me about a thing we provisionally call "speculative memoir". This began when Sofia had separate conversations with us all over the last couple years about fiction in fact, the creative possibilities of nonfictional writing, the perils and possibilities of memoir, etc. She and I talked for a long time about it when I was first putting together ideas for my dissertation, and I've kept with quite a few of the ideas we originally discussed. (Perhaps no surprise, as my interest in the topic goes back a ways with one of the subjects of my dissertation, J.M. Coetzee.) And as someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, the distinctions always interest me.

Sofia also has a new book out, Monstrous Portraits, "an uncanny and imaginative autobiography of otherness", with drawings by her brother Del. Seek it out!

09 February 2018

Under the Lines

Sometimes I buy a book for its cover, and this is one, a 1979 Bantam edition of Andrew Holleran's classic Dancer from the Dance. The cover ... well, it speaks for itself.

Flipping through the book, I was at first annoyed to see some pages with underlining from a red felt-tipped marker. I find other people's annotations in books extremely distracting to the point where I usually can't even read a page with someone else's notes on it. (My own notes are fine. Its the imposition of someone else's reading experience — someone else's consciousness — that makes it impossible for me.) But then I was intrigued. Only two pages had underlining. Why only two? It wasn't like a textbook, where sometimes you'll find notes in some of the early pages and then nothing later, the student clearly having given up. No, these were pages 73 and 75. One sentence on each page.

04 February 2018

A Sparkling Sentence

This year is Muriel Spark's centenary, and it's been fun to encounter the various tributes to her. I decided to reread The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most famous book, because I haven't read it in twenty years or so, though much of it remains vivid in my memory. It was my first Spark, and while I think I appreciated the sharpness of her language at the time, I valued other things in the book. Rereading it now, it is her sentences that amaze me most, because I've learned over the years that one of the greatest pleasures in reading Spark is the pleasure of watching her make complex linguistic acts look easy.

Here's an example that I stand in awe of, a single sentence that is a short story unto itself:
Even stupid Mary Macgregor amazed herself by understanding Caesar’s Gallic Wars which as yet made no demands on her defective imagination and the words of which were easier to her than English to spell and pronounce, until suddenly one day it appeared, from an essay she had been obliged to write, that she believed the document to date from the time of Samuel Pepys; and then Mary was established in the wrong again, being tortured with probing questions, and generally led on to confess to the mirth-shaken world her notion that Latin and shorthand were one.
When I read this time, I was amused by the nasty humor at poor Mary's expense, but I also thought to myself, "Wait, was that one sentence?" I went back over it, and yes, just one sentence, complete. It felt like pages of portraiture, but read quickly and easily.

25 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin: In Your Dreams, In Your Ideas...

I am writing this on Virginia Woolf's 136th birthday. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died a few days ago, was a lifelong reader of Woolf's work, and the trace of Woolf's writing and thinking can be found not only throughout Le Guin's essays, but also in her fiction, different as it is in style and substance from Woolf's own. Le Guin not only read the famous novels, but she also cherished some of the works that get less notice these days, including Three Guineas, a fierce critique of patriarchy and militarism, the Woolf book that I think most deserves a revival in our cruel, murderous era.

It's likely that I started reading Woolf because of Le Guin. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I had heard that Le Guin was among the greatest of science fiction writers, so I sought out her work, and the library had some anthologies with her short stories in them (The Hugo Winners volumes, Again, Dangerous Visions, etc.) as well as her essay collection The Language of the Night, so I read that, hoping it might teach me something about SF. I was attracted to the essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" because I thought the title was odd, and so I read Le Guin's riff on Woolf's famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", Le Guin's first sentence being: "Just about fifty years ago, a woman named Virginia Woolf sat down in a carriage in the train going from Richmond to Waterloo, across from another woman, whose name we don't know."

I can't say I read Le Guin's essay patiently or with much comprehension. But one of the better qualities of my younger self was that he did not blame texts if he did not understand them; he blamed himself. Clearly, if I was going to appreciate this essay by the multi-award-winning, highly respected science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, I needed to seek out "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown". Luckily, the library had a copy of The Virginia Woolf Reader, where I found Woolf's essay, which I discovered I understood even less than Le Guin's. Frustrated by this Woolf person, I read around in the book a bit more, and came upon its excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway, which for some reason entranced me. I didn't know you could write fiction like that. I'd glanced at Ulysses and even Finnegans Wake, so I had a vague and superficial idea that not all novels had to be like Johnny Tremain, but I'd never imagined that thought could be represented in the way Woolf did — instead of an ostentatious stream of consciousness, something more subtle and bewitching (which I would later learn is basically a version of what's called free indirect discourse, though Woolf puts her own spin on it). Soon after, at the local college bookstore, I saw a copy of Mrs. Dalloway in its Harvest/HBJ mass market paperback edition, and I bought it for $5.95, a high price for a mass market paperback in those days, a price that required me to save my money for a few weeks, in fact. I pored over the book, trying to learn its secrets. I still have that copy. Its binding broke long ago, its pages are all loose, its cover is battered but still bright yellow. I've got a bunch of other copies of Mrs. Dalloway now, ones in much better condition, but I hold this one most dear.

I have all of the Ursula Le Guin books I got when I was a kid, too, most of which I picked up in used bookstores, though The Left Hand of Darkness was a Christmas present. Its binding somehow remains unbroken, but the cover is bent and scratched, the pages are faded, soft with wear. And then there is The Dispossessed in an old paperback that I picked up for pennies at a used bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, a paperback that might be reinforced with steel, given how solid it still feels now, even after all the times I've read and re-read it. Indeed, I've read The Dispossessed at least as many times as any other novel.

Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I am still casting about in darkness, reaching back to memory, grabbing at anything floating by as I attempt to find words adequate to that fact. No words are adequate to that fact.

22 January 2018

UW Struggle: When a State Attacks Its University by Chuck Rybak

If I had piles of money sitting around, I would buy tens of thousands of copies of Chuck Rybak's little book UW Struggle and send them to state legislatures, public university boards of trustees, university administrators, students, parents, reporters — everybody I could possibly think of who might have some effect on public education in the U.S., because the book is short, accessible, punchy, and gives a vivid picture of the many ways that public education is being systematically and deliberately destroyed.

There are other books about higher education that provide a wider, more comprehensive view, but Rybak's purpose is different. His book is an in-the-moment, personal chronicle that also has much to say about the systems of economics and education in the U.S. To learn more about the origins and motivations of what's happening, it's good to read the work of people like Marc Bousquet, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sara Goldrick-Rab (formerly of UW herself), Henry GirouxChristopher Newfield, and, for an overview of the history and economics of neoliberalism (the fuel in the engine of this disaster), Philip Mirowski — but to know what this looks like on the ground, to feel the assault, there's nothing better than Rybak's gut punch.

11 January 2018

2017: Read, Seen, Heard

Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, November 2017, photo by MC

The year has ended. Indeed, it ended a week and a half ago. People were publishing reflections on the best/worst/whatever of 2017 months before the end of the year, and so now, in the peculiar reality of internet time, reflecting on 2017 seems about as current as reflecting on 1857. But 1857 was an interesting year, and so was 2017. I happen to remember 2017 better than 1857, though, and I want to preserve some of that memory, particularly what was read and viewed and thought about. So here we are.

First, I should say that I published less in 2017 than in any year since 2002 or so. I published no new fiction. For nonfiction, there was only an essay on John Keene's sentences for Emerging Writers' Network and two reviews for the print edition of Rain Taxi (of The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein and Little Magazine, World Form by Eric Bulson).

The lightness of my publishing this year was a direct result of longer projects I was working on. Thus, while I published less, I wrote more than I have in many years. Yesterday, I turned in a rough draft of a complete dissertation to my advisor. At the end of the summer, I completed a draft of a novel, which I'm currently revising. I finished a long article on Virginia Woolf's The Years, which will be published later this year by Woolf Studies Annual. And early in 2017 I wrote a novella-length narrative about Woolf and anti-fascism; because of its length and form (not quite academic, not quite not-academic), it's basically unpublishable, but it was enjoyable work and I've cannibalized a few small parts of it for my dissertation, so I'm not complaining.

A highly productive year, then, but not one that was publicly productive.

It was also a productive year for reading, for movie-viewing and music-listening and general culture-imbiding. Partly, this was because I currently have a Dissertation Year Fellowship from the University of New Hampshire, so I haven't had to work as a teacher since last spring. I miss the classroom, miss the daily contact with students and the challenge of designing and implementing a curriculum, but I'm also benefitting a lot from having a break.

Here are some highlights, as I remember them. This chronicle is neither complete nor definitive, more a stream-of-consciousness meditation, and I have written it mostly for my own sake. In the interest particularly of bringing a sliver of attention to work that ought to get a lot more, I will perform this meditation in public, at the risk of making all my blind spots, bad taste, and human failures available to the masses. I live to serve.

28 December 2017

Land of Doubt by Sam Baker

Sam Baker's music is relatively new to me, and it has become an obsession. I first heard of him when I heard part of his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 2014 while driving somewhere, and I was captivated, but for one reason or another, I didn't remember to seek out any of his albums. Then late this fall, looking for new stuff to listen to, I happened upon his recent album Land of Doubt, which wrapped itself around my consciousness and wouldn't let go. "Who is this guy?" I thought, imagining he was a grizzled old feller something like the Woodsman in Twin Peaks. I soon discovered he was the guy I'd heard on Fresh Air whose music I had wanted to listen to but then got distracted and didn't. Land of Doubt was different enough from my perception of his earlier music that I hadn't connected that musician, who had both a powerful personal story and a powerful talent as a singer-songwriter, with this one.

It's rare that I write about music, because I don't feel any real ability to explain why I like what I like. (That's one of the things I value music for: its mysterious appeal.) Nor do I have any knowledge of the world of the music business, its production, promotion, distribution, etc. But I feel compelled to write a few words in praise of Land of Doubt because after I discovered it, I expected there must be lots of reviews of it, interviews with Baker about it, award nomination for it. Baker's previous album, Say Grace, got him on Fresh Air and landed as number 5 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 10 Country albums of 2013 (don't let that "country" appellation put you off — if he's country, it's in the manner of John Prine, Townes van Zandt, and Steve Earle, not Garth Brooks). But as far as I can tell, there were only a handful of reviews — Austin Chronicle, No Depression, Folk Radio UK — and while the reviews were positive, they didn't lead the album to be included on any best-of-the-year lists that I've found except for the marvelous, eclectic list from Ted Gioia. (If I were a musician, that would be one of the lists I would most aspire to be on, since the choices are always wide-ranging and thoughtful.)

Given how much music is out there, it's hardly surprising that great work fails to get noticed. When the work is as compelling as Land of Doubt, though, that failure galls. Particularly for an audience that gravitates toward roots music, Americana, alt-country, Tom Waitsy grungefolk, whatever-you-want-to-call-it — for that audience, this album ought to be addictive.

12 December 2017

Sentences Seeking, and Finding, Forms: On Some Passages in Barnaby Rudge

William Gass died a few days ago, and, as I do when a writer I value dies, I returned to his work. I read around in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and then A Temple of Texts, where, in the essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", I read:
Between Shakespeare and Joyce, there is no one but Dickens who has an equal command of the English language.
This struck me because I hadn't ever particularly thought of Gass as a Dickens man. You won't find, for instance, a Dickens novel listed in the book's earlier essay on "Fifty Literary Pillars", nor has Gass written at length about Dickens in the way he has so many other writers. (But still, many of us have writers we cherish, or at least admire, about whom we've written little or nothing.) I found, going back through his essays, that Gass has scattered brief insights about Dickens throughout; not only is there the wonderful discussion of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, and details in "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", but in the essay "And" in Habitations of the Word we find mention of the "energetic mounding of ... the Dickens of Dombey [and Sons]", some analysis of a passage from Hard Times in "The Shut-In" in Fiction and the Figures of Life, and scattered, brief references elsewhere.

That sentence from A Temple of Texts most struck me, though, because not long before reading it, I had just finished reading one of Dickens's least popular novels, Barnaby Rudge, and as always when reading Dickens, even when my interest in the events or characters lagged, I was thrilled by his sentences. From his earliest days, Dickens was among the most popular writers in English, and yet now, in an era when endless lines of bland prose scroll across our eyes, I can't help but wonder at the fact of his popularity, given that he wrote such marvelously rich, complex sentences. It is unthinkable today. Not only do few people want to luxuriate in complex sentences, but few readers even know how to read them. Today, popular writers must stick to “shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words" ("unneeded" being a code always in need of deciphering, as, like "cleaner", it refers not to words but to assumptions and prejudices), and even the most valorized of American lit'ry writers tend toward the short, sharp, chopped.

Reading Barnaby Rudge, I noted passage after passage that I wanted to savor and study. I won't go over them all here, but a few seem worthy of public mention.