The Odd Women

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.

The Lesser Bohemians

I am sometimes a really bad reader of contemporary fiction.  It often takes me a while to get into it because I think about the real, living author and approach the novel as a set of techniques (or gimmicks) instead of a narrative to inhabit (which, of course, is also made from a set of techniques).

This was definitely the case in my reading of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, but it pulled me in just in time so I could truly immerse myself.  Because I’ve been thinking a lot about Lukács this semester (why always Lukács?), I found the way in which naming worked in the novel really interesting.  At times, it felt like a gimmick, but I think, at the end, it really worked to show how individual character emerges in the novel, on the one hand, and how social life works, on the other.  For the majority of the novel, characters have no names.  There is the narrator, “I;” her lover, “Him;” her friend, “her;” her flatmate, “Flatmate.”  But by the end of the novel, some characters have names: Eily, Stephen, Grace, Marianne, David, Raf.  For me, this implies that they are no longer simply types, they are individuals.  But, the characters who remain unnamed, “her” and “Flatmate” among others, remain minor and remain types.  They play social roles, but never emerge as individuals within the novel (or to the narrator).  The fact that they remain types while other seemingly minor characters get names suggests that individualization is a result of intimacy and that intimacy is a way of unsettling typification.

More Moore

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to teach stories from The Untilled Field.  They are such good stories!  This time around I was struck by how the ending to “Some Parishioners” subtly echoes the ending to Esther Waters.  In Esther Waters, Mrs. Barfield’s son briefly returns to Woodview and becomes angry with his mother for hosting religious services at their (his) house.  But seeing his mother’s face as she describes the importance of prayer, he relents. Even if he thinks miracles no longer happen, there’s something to his mother’s religious feeling that matters.  “Some Parishioners” ends with the priest and a young man reflecting on Biddy’s religious visions:

“I suppose even miracles are inconvenient at times, Father Maguire. Be patient with her, let her enjoy her happiness.”

And the two men stood looking at her, trying vainly to imagine what her happiness might be” (115).

Moore, the man who, in the words of one Victorian reviewer, “described what should be left undescribed,” also documents what he cannot capture: belief, maybe even happiness, that can only every be an absent presence in the pages of new realism.

A Modern Lover

I love George Moore.  And, one of the things I love most about him is how infuriating he is. I know if I met him in real life, I’d hate him.  Like, really hate him.  But mediated by print, his bluster and contradictions and self-promotions are fascinating and his ideas, because of their imperfections, point to something truly interesting even, at times, inspiring.  I think it’s because I long for stable structures that I don’t want to blow up, and Moore just blows up everything.

Re-reading Moore’s first novel, A Modern Lover, I’m struck by how much Lewis Seymour is a type.  He’s decidedly second-rate, but women (some that are decidedly first-rate) work hard, often invisibly, always unacknowledged to make him successful. Like Nino from the Ferrante novels, he networks entirely through women who remain unaware (until they’re not) of the networks in which they’re entrapped.

I resist the urge to read biographically because Moore’s biography–although important–is unstable and shifting and, like his novels, often fiction.  But (prob. because I’m not-so-secretly cataloguing hilarious descriptions of Irish men’s bodies) I’m struck by his descriptions of Lewis Seymour’s body and how it parallels descriptions of Moore’s body. As Moore puts it: “the weak but delicately featured face was beautiful: the too developed hips gave a feminine swing to his walk” (87).  Each description of Lewis Seymour works this way–it marks him as beautiful but also weak and effeminate. And, in the novel, women love it (until they don’t).

Descriptions of Moore’s body also emphasize how womanly it is (but not his beauty.  Lady Gregory called him a “boiled ghost!”).  Yeats juxtaposes him with J. F. Taylor’s clean, logical lines, declaring that “Moore’s body was insinuating, upflowing, circulative, curvicular, pop-eyed” (283). Elsewhere, someone (I don’t remember the location), talked of Moore’s feminine shoulders and, I think, his hands (don’t quote me on this, and maybe it was Moore’s description of his own body).

This highlights a central contradiction in Moore’s work.  He’s so good at describing and drawing attention to women’s constrained social roles, but he also relentlessly reproduces these constraints by doubling down on patriarchy (see the end of the wonderful “Albert Nobbs”) by having womanly men get ahead by using women. In his novels, androgyny and gender play usually only work one way: men can be womanly, but women are women and, ultimately, should stay women.  Being ‘womanly’ can be another way to exploit women.


The Three Clerks

I truly loved Trollope’s The Three Clerks.  More on it later (I hope), but for now, a brief passage that celebrates political honesty, and, by implication, the slow:

“It has now become the doctrine of a large class of politicians that political honesty is unnecessary, slow, subversive of a man’s interests, and incompatible with quick onward movement. Such a doctrine in politics is to be deplored; but alas! who can confine it to politics? It creeps with gradual, but still with sure and quick motion, into all doings of our daily life”

The Dark

I finally read John McGahern’s The Dark (finally!).  So good. Unable to imagine a future, the protagonist waits for his exam to tell him what to be.  He wins a university scholarship, heads to Galway, and his future (still unimagined) seems to be unfolding in hopeful–even dreamlike–ways.  But, ultimately, the exam and the scholarship it provides him cannot tell him what to be, what to do, or who to become, and the very next chapter begins: “The dream was torn piecemeal from the university before the week was over” (172).  I love this line because it distinguishes between the dream and the reality, insisting that the university cannot provide either a certain or utopic future. The “unclear recognition of . . . reality” that the protagonist gains leads him to leave the university, but it also legitimates him.  In his words:

One day, one day, you’d come perhaps to more real authority than all this, an authority that had need of neither vast buildings nor professorial chairs nor robes nor solemn organ tones, an authority that was simply a state of mind, a calmness even in the face of the turmoil of your own passing” (188).

Nostalgic for Galway, exhausted from donning professorial robes, I, too, seek a real authority.

Ferrante Fever!

I read My Brilliant Friend over the holidays, and just now (thanks to my brilliant friend) finished The Story of a New Name.  I love the novels–especially the first one because of the way it juxtaposes the structures of school with the unstructured ways of trying to create historical change through education, individually defined.  The Story of a New Name shows just how difficult change is–characters who seem ready to define the world in their own terms emerge as repetitions of their parents, and economic growth decays into poverty and hardship once more.

These novels capture the ways in which realism is about social categories. Elena bristles against the role she is assigned by her friend:

“Lila was sure I would never quit school. She had assigned me the role of the friend with glasses and pimples, always bent over her books, smart in school, and she couldn’t even imagine that I might change. But I didn’t want that role anymore” (46).

And yet, throughout the novel, this role also gives Elena comfort, even stability.  For if Lila assigns social roles, her own character is defined through the way she always exceeds her role.  Elena, however, needs the role for her dreams to become real.  This tension–between the stability of roles and the instability of character, between repetition and historical change–is only amplified by the narrative structure where Elena narrates the story but Lila is its driving force.

Martin Chuzzlewit

In Martin Chuzzelwit, the titular character responds to a zealous American accusing him of hating American institutions by declaring, “You can make anything an Institution if you like” (461). Through this statement, Martin insists that the American fails to locate his true dislike (Martin dislikes him, as a person) while also questioning the unruly form of American institutionality (where individual people function as institutions). By contrast, in Britain, “the greater part of these things are one Institution with us, and we call it by the generic name of Old Bailey” (461)! The one (Old Bailey) and the many (American institutionality).

For D. A. Miller, the “one” is a way of obscuring the importance of the many (networks of disciplinary power).  He suggests that the novel functions much more like American institutionality–through circuits and relations and micropowers rather than unified state power.  Certainly, the novel’s circuits and relations are important; and they never quite unify into “one Institution.”  So, why does Dickens assert the importance of the “one” here?  After all, it could be argued that the fact all things are “one Insitution with us” is the precise problem that Bleak House and Hard Times address.

If Dickens is quite good at representing the many (people that statistics don’t want to see), he also has great fear that this diversity will make it impossible to have a shared community–a nation.  This tension makes him criticize American institutionality not simply because of its unruly form, but also because it is “American.” While his novels of social reform in England criticize British institutions, whenever he leaves England he associates these very British institutions with home.  Having things be “one Institution with us” enables him to equate that Institution with home.

The Land of Spices

5411c87904709981f18564a0830209e6-3Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices is a novel set entirely in a convent in Ireland, tracking the Reverend Mother’s thoughts, recollections, and actions alongside the experiences of the youngest pupil, Anna Murphy.  Nationalist, class, and gender politics seep in and out of the narrative–as does religious thought–in part to show that if the convent secures certain kinds of distance from the world, this distance (safety?) is never complete, and can actually be quite dangerous.

The novel is devastatingly beautiful and closes with such feelings of nostalgia, even as both characters march onwards to fight the fights they’ve fought so hard to be able to fight.  This nostalgia transforms the criticism of Ireland implicit and explicit throughout the book into a form of love.  Looking at the Irish landscape, knowing she’s soon to leave it, the Reverend Mother–surprised–notes its beauty. Anna questions her surprise, having assumed–like the good Irish girl that she is–that the nun must have always found it beautiful.  The Reverend Mother responds:

“I have sometimes thought it too easy–like Irish conversational charm. However, occasionally the light does something to this unaccountable landscape, and really makes it seem holy for a minute–an island for if not of saints” (298).

I love this line.  I think it captures something about the beauty of difficulty–the very holiness of it.  Not because difficulty, in itself, is valuable, but because it creates encounters (between light and landscape, here) that may be fleeting but are absolutely sublime all the same. Refusing to be satisfied with what is “too easy”–what is simply charm–creates the possibility of more.