I finally read Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. The reviews made me think I wouldn’t like it–it’d feel too contemporary, too gimmicky, too young. But the novel feels so effortless and easy and I loved it, reading it in a single day. I think it’s a novel that would be difficult to write about though–how does one capture the feeling of reading this book? What’s good about it doesn’t seem to come up in the reviews and I certainly can’t explain myself. One thing that I really liked though was the gap between characters’ experiences and their interpretations of experience–they were always interpreting experience, of course, but they never had all of the information. Over the course of the novel, there are always new interpretations, new perspectives, new dimensions of the narrator, Frances so that what has already happened is not quite stable. What results is a sense that interpretation, itself, is always ongoing rather than fixed and that is why friendship in all forms is so valuable–that it helps you revise and rethink what you thought you already knew about yourself, your shared experiences, and the world.
I just finished Anna Burns’s Milkman. It was negatively reviewed in the New York Times–the author claimed, among other things, that if Edna O’Brien had written this story, it would have been a 20 page short story. So ridiculous and so telling: Edna O’Brien is read entirely in relation to James Joyce, and all subsequent women writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland are read in relation to her.
This comparison between Burns and O’Brien is frustrating in part because the novel, itself, refers many nineteenth-century novels that the protagonist/narrator reads: Ivanhoe, Castle Rackrent, Jane Eyre, Martin Chuzzlewit (!?!), an unnamed novel by Thomas Hardy. As the protagonist puts it:
“Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century” (5).
The review takes a passage like this to mean that the protagonist wants to escape “the horrors around her” and also sex. The nineteenth century, in this review, is a safe, sexless world. But as a twenty-first century reader with my own predilection for nineteenth-century novels, I want to think about the presence of all of these novels in this novels differently. The protagonist seems to express a desire for the “ordinary” or a desire for realism: a fantasy of a self-contained and stable world produced through the nineteenth-century novel. The nineteenth century is not safe and certainly not sexless, but it can produce and export a vision of ordinary life that seems fundamentally at odds with the everyday life that the protagonist inhabits. Wanting to be able to tell her story in the realist register, the protagonist is constantly thwarted.
As the book unfolds, however, it seems that the differences between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century become less stark as realism seeps into her story. When Somebody McSomebody’s youngest brother falls from the window in a senseless accident, the community invents all kinds of story: that he had jumped purposefully or jumped because he thought himself to be a super hero. As one character explains:
“that was the thing people invented here because you couldn’t just die here, couldn’t have an ordinary death here, not anymore, not of natural causes, not by accident such as falling out a window, especially now after all the other violent deaths taking place in this district now” (145-6).
In other words, community stories reject realism but we get it all the same: Somebody McSomebody’s brother’s death is an accident even if it is never narrated that way. The protagonist seeks realism through nineteenth-century novels to escape her present but realizes that the rigid division between past and present, suggested above by the “not anymore,” isn’t so rigid. In the midst of extraordinary political violence, ordinary life persists in both good and bad ways (ordinary life is not safe: it too has violence). Or, to put it slightly different, instead of thinking of the protagonist’s reading-while-walking as different from our own act of reading (she reads to escape the very politics that perhaps draws us to Milkman, she reads classic novels while we seek experimental novels–or, as the New York Times might put it, she reads plot-driven novels while we are stuck reading a ‘difficult’ novel), the novel encourages us to read in relation, to read with and through–not simply against–the protagonist; to see the nineteenth century at work in the twentieth century.
I just finished Barnaby Rudge, apparently called Barnaby Rubbish by Victorian people because they disliked it so much. I get that it’s a really weird novel, but I don’t know if it deserves all the hate. It’s *way* better than Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance.
I especially liked the ending of this historical novel, which focuses on the raven, Grip. The narrator writes in the final paragraph: “as he was a mere infant for a raven, when Barnaby was grey, he was very probably on talking to the present time” (688). The suggestion, of course, is that the events of the past are not really past as the conclusion moves between biographical, historical, and ecological time.
But I also liked the crowd scenes and its somewhat contradictory reflection on the law. At the peak of the riots, “The crowd was the law, and never was the law held in greater dread, or more implicitly obeyed” (521). Such a sentence shows the power of the crowd: rebelling against the law, the crowd becomes a law onto itself. But it also raises questions about what the law is for. Is it supposed to be held in dread? It is supposed to be obeyed?
Mr. Dennis, the hangman, has the strangest relationship to the law. He happily joins the riot and works to free the prisoners of Newgate, but stops short of freeing those prisoners condemned to die. As they beg to be released, he tells them, “laws have been made a’ purpose for you; a parson’s kept a’ purpose for you; a constitootional officer’s appointed a’ purpose for you; carts is maintained a’ purpose for you–and yet you’re not contented” (543). His logic here is so familiar: think how much care the state shows you as it condemns you to death, how dare you desire to live? The phrase “laws have been made a’ purpose for you” is especially telling, suggesting that laws exist to produce criminals, for criminals. Contentment, here, means accepting a social order where you are doomed to die long before you commit a crime (Hugh’s fate seems to reinforce this point).
It has been such fun to read more fiction while on sabbatical. In addition to the regular nineteenth-century summer reading (i.e. Trollope), I’ve read Maeve Kelly’s Necessary Treasons, Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited. I’ve enjoyed them all (probably Kelly the most), but Macardle is really sticking with me. It’s a story of a perfect house by the sea in England that ends up being haunted by two women: Mary, a ‘perfect’ wife and mother, and Carmel, a young foreigner who had an affair with Mary’s artist husband. Over the course of the novel [SPOILER], we learn that Mary is the dangerous ghost precisely because she upholds the social order in a violently repressive way. Knowing that Mary is threatening rather than angelic frees her daughter. As the narrator declares in a heavy-handed statement, “You can be yourself now, not [imitate] Mary any more” (303). It’s lovely to refuse what the novel calls “dead virtue, dead standards, dead taste” and favor living women, with all their flaws (134).
But the thing that sticks with me is that the novel sets up this home as the perfect house for the two protagonists–as fated–only to question the idea of ownership and property. Looking for a place to escape London, the protagonists have a series of disappointments until they stumble upon Cliff End. The narrator “was seized by covetousness” and they quickly buy the house (8). Their overwhelming desire to live and work in this house is rewarded–the narrator’s writing, long somewhat dull criticism, takes a thrilling creative turn–even as the haunting begins. When the haunting begins, the idea of “covetousness” looks differently: instead of an expression of connection or fate, it is a violent desire for acquisition, “an intrusion” (87). The narrator realizes, “It was an intrusion; this house was old; long before we were born it had its occupants, living and dying here. We were aliens and trespassers in their hereditary home” (87). The novel does a remarkable job of both banishing the ghost and authorizing it, of representing haunting as a threat and an important, necessary reminder. Mary may be a danger, but haunting is not: it shows that the very feeling of belonging and desire can be one of erasure.
Amanda Anderson is an incredible scholar and writer–clear, purposeful, argumentative. Her book, Bleak Liberalism, shows these skills in action. It also shows just how depressing, and hella white, Victorian studies can be (Of course, the scope of this book exceeds Victorian studies). What does it mean to engage in critiques of liberalism without engaging in critiques coming from critical race theory? What does it mean to read Ralph Ellison through Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling? What does it mean to say that Joe Cleary gives too much importance to imperialism, before cataloguing a whole series of historical events and developments that were also tied to imperialism? How can you talk about liberalism without discussing slavery? How can you discuss liberalism without considering how it emerges through theories of property (which, in turn, are tied to slavery, race, and settler colonialism)?
I ask these questions because I think it shows how disciplinarity, which separates out liberalism and postcolonial/critical race theorists’ critiques of liberalism, can be a way of protecting ignorance, of perpetuating old arguments, of moving to innocence.
I just finished George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a novel I truly enjoyed. The footnotes made me laugh about the gap between Victorian and Victorianist readers (how was I supposed to know that *that* signified alcoholism? My that pregnancy came quickly) and was struck by how characters that seem to be protagonists at the beginning of the novel (Virginia & Alice Madden) become minor over time, while minor characters (Rhoda Nunn) become protagonists. There was also a shout-out to the nutritional value of an Irish diet of potatoes and milk, which I loved (the particular woman who celebrated it is the one who takes to the drink later in the novel).
I was especially struck about the novel’s musing on the politics of visibility given the current political climate where killing people (directly and indirectly) seems to go relatively unchallenged. Rhoda Nunn, champion of odd women everywhere, wishes “girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at” (42). But she notes that even gathering the bodies together may have no effect, “Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off” (42).
Her line makes me think about the mass grave ‘discovered’ at Tuam, which people knew existed long before, and the constant circulation of images and videos of Black people murdered by the police. Seeing does not mean knowing–it certainly does not mean intervening–and often it only intensifies the very logics that lead to mass death.
George Moore on England’s design for Ireland:
“And we, sitting on the last verge, see into the universal suburb, in which a lean man with glasses on his nose and a black bag in his hand is always running after his bus” (51)