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.

The Story of an African Farm

I’m reading The Story of an African Farm again–what a delightful, strange, and delightfully strange novel.  I’m thinking especially of the role of the one and the many in the novel, and Lyndall’s account of Napoleon:

“He was their master, and all the people were white with fear of him. They joined together to fight him. He was one and they were many, and they got him down at last . . . He was one man, and they were many, and they were terrified at him. It was glorious” (14)!

The image of whiteness is important here, given the novel’s implicit racism (the many, in the novel, are the African people that appear in the background).  But also, I think this musing reflects on how the relationship between the one and the many shifts between realism and naturalism.  Perhaps, to be one, in naturalism, is to be beaten down while, to be one, in realism, is to be glorious.


I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors lately, especially the ways in which certain metaphors become ‘real’ while making the things/people they purportedly represent ‘unreal.’  Think, for instance, of Rayna Green’s amazing line: “metaphor signs the real Indian’s death warrant” (“A Tribe Called Wannabe,” 37).

Which brings me to Maria Edgeworth’s “Preface, Addressed to Parents” from Parent’s Assistant, a collection of rather didactic stories for children. Practicing what would become the major claim of An Essay on Irish Bulls, she says: “almost all language is metaphoric  . . . slang . . . contains as much and as abstract metaphor, as can be found in the most refined literary language” (vii). But Edgeworth continues on: “All poetical allusions have, however, been avoided in this book” (vii).  Together, these two sentences are why I love Edgeworth.  She understands that ordinary, everyday language is literary, and can only ever be literary.  And then claims she’s going to write in a way that avoids the literary altogether for clarity’s sake.

I don’t think this contradiction is a weakness (coherency is over-rated), but I do think it expresses a profound respect for the power/danger of metaphor (whether intended or unintended).

The House in Paris

I just finished reading Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, which, unsurprisingly, I quite enjoyed.  The structure of the book suggests that it was written for people like me (three distinct parts: “the present,” “the past,” “the present”). It builds on the themes of The Last September but history is not always at stake – – it is about ordinary, everyday life.

The story is about potentiality – – events that open up possibilities but do not actually take place so that reality never replaces the imaginary.  Marriages are planned but never occur, anticipated meetings do not happen, and explorations of Paris must be deferred. The point, it seems, is that “the plane of potential” matters: that the very possibility of events subtly changes one’s relationship to the past as well as the future, even if the events, themselves, never take place (66).

Leopold, one the children at the center of the story, comes to Paris to meet his mother only to be told that she cannot meet him. He is disappointed, of course, and yet, the fact that they do not meet preserves something: “the mother who did not come to meet Leopold that afternoon remained his creature, able to speak the truth” (65). She is able to be remain “his creature” in part because he never has to confront her past.  As the opening chapter to “the past” suggests, “He expected from her a past as plain as the present, simply a present elsewhere. She was his contemporary” (65).  What unfolds in this section, however, is a clear indication that she was not his contemporary and her past was not as “plain as the present.” Her past is complicated, unfinished, and disruptive of the present.  Although there are clear breaks in her life–before and afters–they do not correspond to easy divisions: her husband constantly claims and remakes her remembering (and prevents her from certain kinds of forgetting).

Leopold never meets his mother, but by the novel’s conclusion, she is no longer “his creature.” And yet, she is certainly not her own creature.  She is Leopold’s, she is Ray’s, she is Max’s, she is even Mme Fisher’s and her family’s.  This fact, ultimately, suggests that growing up is a process of negotiating potentialities (those imposed by others, those imagined) rather than acquiring power/self-possession.