Wednesday 24 February 2010

The light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary

Okay, confession time: I am a little flabbergasted by Eliot's conclusion to Romola. What follows made sense when I was writing it and editing it but ceased to do so the second I stopped. Yet, I don't know what else to say. So, for those of you who've read Romola - tell me what I'm missing and where I've gone astray. Please!

Spoilers, of course

At the conclusion of Volume two, Romola not only finds herself going back to Florence but returning with a clear purpose as well. This purpose is to help her Florentine brethren in a time of great need and to fulfill her chosen obligation to her unworthy husband. At the beginning of the third volume, we learn that while her marriage is no happier (less so, in fact), Romola has found satisfaction in the help she can provide to those  less fortunate around her.

Romola takes so well to the “place” the Frate describes and sends her back to that when we’re “shown” Romola’s home on the Via di’ Bardi, it is described as filled with families for whom she has taken responsibility; as well, she is frequently described as succoring her fellow Florentines out on the street. She has, it seems, immersed herself in the life of service to others so central to the Frate’s ideas for political and religious reform.

In so doing, Romola finds a powerfully maternal role to play, although it is a sort of maternity quite different from the one denied to her in such painful terms in the novel’s second volume. She becomes the “visible Madonna” whose presence and deeds provide as much comfort as her invisible counterpart, a statue of the Virgin paraded through the streets only in times of great need or suffering.

And yet, Romola eventually finds herself unable, again, to remain with Tito as his involvement in the city’s woes become inescapably personal with the arrest and execution of her godfather, Bernardo del Nero. By this point, she knows of Tito’s cruelty towards his adopted father and suspects his part in other underhanded political machinations; she finds herself tied to a man in whom there remains not one detectable shred of either decency or loyalty to anything but his own base and selfish desires:
Romola went home and sat alone through the sultry hours of that day with the heavy certainty that her lot was unchanged. She was thrown back again on the conflict between the demands of an outward law, which she recognized as a widely ramifying obligation, and the demands of inner moral facts which were becoming more and more peremptory. She had drunk in deeply the spirit of that teaching by which Savonarola had urged her to return to her place. She felt that the sanctity attached to all close relations, and, therefore, pre-eminently to the closest, was but the expression in outward law of that result towards which all human goodness and nobleness must spontaneously tend; that the light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary, because they had ceased to be pleasant, was the uprooting of social and personal virtue. What else had Tito's crime towards Baldassarre been but that abandonment working itself out to the most hideous extreme of falsity and ingratitude? 
And the inspiring consciousness breathed into her by Savonarola's influence that her lot was vitally united with the general lot had exalted even the minor details of obligation into religion. She was marching with a great army; she was feeling the stress of a common life. If victims were needed, and it was uncertain on whom the lot might fall, she would stand ready to answer to her name. She had stood long; she had striven hard to fulfil the bond, but she had seen all the conditions which made the fulfilment possible gradually forsaking her. The one effect of her marriage-tie seemed to be the stifling predominance over her of a nature that she despised. All her efforts at union had only made its impossibility more palpable, and the relation had become for her simply a degrading servitude. The law was sacred. Yes, but rebellion might be sacred too. It flashed upon her mind that the problem before her was essentially the same as that which had lain before Savonarola, — the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacredness of rebellion began. To her, as to him, there had come one of those moments in life when the soul must dare to act on its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in the face of a law which is not unarmed with Divine lightnings, — lightnings that may yet fall if the warrant has been false. (pp. 552-53)
So Romola flees a second time, with neither any guilt about the suffering Florentines she leaves behind, nor with anyone this time popping up out of nowhere to stop her. And in a very strange, almost Absurdist, moment, Romola purchases a boat and allows herself to simply drift away in the hopes that the boat will sink and she’ll die.

I find this narrative choice almost laughable – had Eliot wanted to portray Romola as engaging on some sort of spiritual agony of wandering, something a little more desert-like would have imbued her choice with more obvious spiritual meaning. Yet, absurd as this floating boat choice is, it is appropriate insofar as Romola is in many ways reproducing Tito’s fleeing of his own familial and social responsibilities. And she, like he does at the beginning of the novel, washes up in a mysterious place where she may create for herself a clean slate – which, like Tito, she does.

Of course, it is not really the same at all – her leaving Tito is something that is, I think, more than comprehensible; he has turned into a monster. Further, her escape and severing of emotional ties do not lead to a life increasingly defined by the character defects, crimes, and omissions that lead to Tito’s near death at the hands of an angry mob. On the contrary, faced with a town literally dying of the plague, Romola rolls up her sleeves and gets to work like a stern but loving angel and forces the town’s healthy inhabitants to help those who are sick. She revives her role as ministering Madonna but also accomplishes what the Frate fails to do in Florence – she unites these people in their suffering.

It seems, in other words, that her rebellion against Tito and the ties that bound her to Florence is, indeed, sacred. It seems as though Romola has not only integrated the lessons the Frate teaches her, but also that she transcends them by abandoning any sense of duty propped up only by fragile philosophies and religious superstitions.

And yet, when she has effectively saved this town from death and has rested herself sufficiently to begin to reflect, she immediately begins to regret all she has done there:
Her work in this green valley was done, and the emotions that were disengaged from the people immediately around her rushed back into the old deep channels of use and affection. That rare possibility of self-contemplation which comes in any complete severance from our wonted life made her judge herself as she had never done before: the compunction which is inseparable from a sympathetic nature keenly alive to the possible experience of others, began to stir in her with growing force. She questioned the justness of her own conclusions, of her own deeds: she had been rash, arrogant, always dissatisfied that others were not good enough, while she herself had not been true to what her soul had once recognised as the best. She began to condemn her flight: after all, it had been cowardly self-care; the grounds on which Savonarola had once taken her back were truer, deeper than the grounds she had had for her second flight. How could she feel the needs of others and not feel, above all, the needs of the nearest?

But then came reaction against such self-reproach. (pp. 650-51)
But this recoil from self doubt comes not of the incredible good she has performed in the plague-destroyed town:
The memory of her life with Tito, of the conditions which made their real union impossible, while their external union imposed a set of false duties on her which were essentially the concealment and sanctioning of what her mind revolted from, told her that flight had been her only resource. (p. 651)
Romola is possessed of a fierce moral intelligence which never allows her, really, to stop questioning herself; yet, she also cannot get beyond her own motives to consider the results of her actions. She is curiously forgetful of all the needy people she leaves behind when she floats away from Florence, and she is just as shockingly unreflective of the ties she has both formed and created with and for the inhabitants of the plague-ridden town at which she washes up.

She is, of course, brought back to the friends and family she left behind in Florence and this is neither surprising nor problematic, really. What is problematic is how theoretical her performance of her role as a Madonna of the people is revealed to be. She performs this role to perfection, both in Florence and outside it, but it remains a role; she continually fails to simply live, to recall Piero di Cosimo’s words early in the novel, but must always be spinning rhetoric, if not lies, to explain her own motivations to herself. That the role doesn’t sit as comfortably upon her shoulders as the nun’s habit she wears in her self-imposed exile is made clear by her inability to remain still until she has made Tito’s other family – Tessa and the children – her own. This is the closest she comes to being a small-m mother and it’s where and how she’s happiest.

Yet, her happiness upon returning to Florence and creating this unique family unit for herself is tempered somewhat by the Frate’s fall and execution. What seems to distinguish Romola from him in the end turns out to be false. For it has always been known that while Savonarola is both sincere and a skilled performer, Romola briefly appears to actually and completely embody his tenets of selfless care for others’ well-being. But Eliot doesn’t allow us to maintain this notion of Romola’s spiritual superiority for long, as we see.

As her role begins to chafe enough to send her back to Florence, the Frate’s role and its difference from his religious experience and connection to God are exposed through intercepted letters, confessions exacted under torture, and in his refusal to display his faith in the trial by fire. He is shown to be separable from how he wants people to understand him – and more importantly, from how he has hitherto understood himself. Romola, with much less pain and many fewer consequences, is shown in the end to be similarly divided.

And I suppose I’m not surprised, when I think about the novel’s conclusion in these terms, that Romola is allowed no bright transcendence of her humanity. This novel is really, at the most basic level, about the pain and bewilderment that arise from maintaining, for reasons both noble and base, one’s persona as distinct (usually superior) from one’s real self. Tito and Baldassare are eaten alive from the inside by the effort they expend in this effort and fittingly die in a hateful embrace; Romola continually flits back and forth, slave to philosophical musings about the meaning of her intentions which prevent her from seeing the importance of her conduct; and the Frate is unable to transcend his own humanity to maintain his role as conduit of the divine in a city desperate for a leader who appeals, for a change, to what’s best in them instead of what’s worst.

There are only three characters in this novel who are exactly what they seem to be: Tessa, the innocent (that could well be a capital I) who remains her sweet and trusting self, unsullied by the man who so casually sullies her; Piero di Cosimo who remains irascible, honest, and acutely perceptive throughout; and Bernardo del Nero, whose dislike of Tito as well as honest and above-board commitment to the Medicis all remain constant and un-dissembled until the bloody, ignominious end.

As usual with Eliot (in my experience), the morally steady characters are the quietest and least discussed in the narrative; they function almost archetypally, standing in contrast to the whirling and wailing and wondering of the characters who, for whatever reasons, cannot simply be.

It is this sort of comfort that Romola’s life with Tessa, the children, and Brigada seems to offer. It is not transcendence or glory that is celebrated, but the “still small voice” of the domestic in whatever form it may take (I think again of Silas Marner here). Yet, those images of infanticide at the beginning and middle of the book are difficult to forget, even, nay especially, in contrast to the apparent domestic calm of the new di Bardi household. And the screaming of Benedetto as Romola turns towards Florence, the baby she saves when she first arrives in the plague-ridden town and with whom she seems to spend all her time until the very last moment, echoes in the space her new maternity inhabits. In George Eliot’s Renaissance Florence, beneath political and familial calm and prosperity there remains instincts and desires and memories that very well may have, eventually, to be strangled in the dark.

Monday 22 February 2010

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself; and maybe also the verb "to quip"

I will straight away make two things clear. First, I know the author of A Spy in the House; we went to the same uni for our PhDs, only she fled the academy with much more panache than I did. Clearly. See photo to right.

Second, she neither gave me this book nor asked me to review it. I bought it from the UK where it was released a fair bit earlier than it was in North America.

These two things out of the way, you may think you know where my fears and biases lay. Not so. First, I was terrified of reading this book because it was penned by someone I like immensely and I didn't know what I'd do if I didn't like her book. Yet, I knew I would like her book because of the hilarious and awesome tidbits she used to drop about Victorian lit when we shared an office. Nonetheless, it took me approximately 6 months to work up the courage to read it.

But where my bigger, much bigger, fear about this book lay actually had nothing to do with my knowing the author. It had to do with the fact that I've read only one other book of a similar genre, i.e., Victorianesque YA - Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke. I thought The Ruby in the Smoke was utter shite. I couldn't believe that the same guy who wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy and Clockwork and I Was a Rat! could write that. And yet he did, and so my thinking went something like "Dear gawd, if Pullman can't do it, no one can!!!" Mind, reading The Scarecrow and His Servant helped me get over my irrational belief in Pullman's literary invincibility...

It turns out that my anxiety was entirely wasted, for A Spy in the House is an extremely enjoyable book. I found it to be so enjoyable, in fact, that I did absolutely no work on Friday because I was reading it and couldn't put it down. The novel tells the story of Mary Quinn, a young girl rescued from being hanged by the neck until dead for theft at the age of 12, and how she's brought up in a girl's school designed to teach young women to learn to fend for themselves in a world in which women have remarkably few options. Mary, after 5 years in the school, is recruited into the Agency, which is an all female spy group. Their effectiveness lies in the fact that they can go into others' homes as governesses, ladies' companions, etc and find sensitive information that wouldn't be as likely to be dropped in front of a male spy, who would excite more suspicion. This novel - the first of a trilogy! - tells about Mary's first assignment.

A Spy in the House is a sort of classic detective story but one of the things that I love about it is that Lee also makes fun of, and upsets in various other ways, the very detective novel tropes she uses. So besides being a page turner in the gigantic ball of yarn way I so enjoy, A Spy in the House is also smart and funny and, because of Lee's knowledge of the darker sides of English Victorian history, by turns disturbing for reasons beyond the mystery itself. I'm really looking forward to the second book, which is due to be released in August.

Now, about the verb "to quip." I am not about to reveal that I like this novel except for the author's excessive use of this verb, of which I have an irrational but nonetheless deep-seated and unshakable loathing. Rather, I note it only because it's a verb much (over-)used in YA fiction generally, in my experience, and I noted with pleasure that it appears only once in A Spy in the House. Or, if it appeared more than once, it's a testament to how good this book is that I didn't notice it being used any more than that.

PS-And yes, in case you're wondering, I still plan to write about the third volume of Romola; I just haven't had several hours to sit in front of my computer figuring out what the hell to make of the novel's rather odd conclusion. But I will, I will!

Thursday 18 February 2010

The Sarazens head without New-gate: in which Bookphilia is revealed to be the first and only known victim of a not entirely unsexy new malady

Nothing so glam as being a vampire in the first years of the 21st century
I have finished Romola but need some time to gather my thoughts as well as to muster up the energy to do those scattered thoughts justice; I will blog on the third and final volume of Eliot's, I think, least known novel in a few days. In the meantime, a revelation for you: being a book-seller can be bad for your health, and I don't mean because of the paper cuts, allergies, and bad-smelling people, although these are regular problems.

No, friends, as the result of my first year and change as a full-time bookseller I have turned, not into something so glam or sexy as either a vampire or a succubus; I have just become your garden variety Canadian with "dangerously" low levels of vitamin D. I don't feel or look nearly so bad as a poor Rickets baby from 19th-century London, but I don't look or feel good.

I look and feel like someone who hasn't really seen the sun since the summer of 2008 because...I haven't. Since taking over the shop, I can count on one hand the days I've been outside between the hours of 11 and 9 for more than 5 minutes at a time. Two of those days occurred last summer when I went to my friends' cottage in northern-ish Ontario. Two more occurred in September at a food fair. And another occurred back in the Fall when hubby and I spent the day cycling in and around High Park. Other than that, I can't think of any. I never thought I could get outside less than I did as a grad student, but the fact is, I could then go outside whenever I felt like it. And apparently I felt like it at the right times.

I've felt off for, well, forever, but if forever begins in grad school then perhaps it's not surprising that a year of not being in grad school passed before I noticed that not only was I still really tired all the time, but more so than before! And in the morning I feel like a 78-year old man with arthritis and feet that have been broken 15 times each. So, it got looked into and lo and behold I have what will henceforth be known as "The Disease Which Afflicts Super-Sexy, Not to Mention Super-Smart and Incredibly Funny, Canadian Booksellers". Which, thankfully, is entirely fixable with supplements and fortified drinks of your choice.

But yes, I need to go outside more. A lot more. And with fewer clothes on.

Good timing
Before I found out that I am Ricket-y, hubby and I decided that we needed to hire a part-timer to do weekends for us. We've been working weekends ourselves but haven't been finding enough time to deal with other aspects of our lives (like our 5 cats and 2 bunnies, the latter of which especially, are bloody shit loads of work! Literal shit loads. Not often in their litter box. Sigh.)

So, we've had a sign up in the store, outside the store, and on our website for over a week now and have gotten resumes from a few good prospects. But it's striking how people who apparently love books and want to work in a bookstore don't read. The sign says "Hiring" and then provides a short list of the things I want in an application: resume, cover letter, list of favourite books. More than half of the resumes I've received haven't included the latter two requested items. I just wonder - when these people read the part that says "Hiring" why do they ignore what's directly underneath it? Needless to say, perhaps, but such applicants don't get interviewed by me.

As for the list of books, I ask for this for two reasons, one personal and one professional. Personally, I'm always looking for ideas and this is a sneaky, lazy way of getting some. Professionally, it's shockingly easy to tell who is actually a reader and who is just listing the stuff they had to read for their first-year English class. The latter always list the usual suspects: Austen, Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.

It's not that "real" readers wouldn't list some or all of these authors, but it's never all that they list. The kind of committed readers I'm looking for might well list a whole bucket-load of classics, but they'll also include things that are just way out there - like du Maurier's Trilby or Zola's least known work (i.e., not Germinal) or Hoffmann's The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr or Mishima's The Sound of Waves or R. Murakami's Coin Locker Babies. You know, the kind of "out there" books that'll make you quietly exclaim "Oh!" and raise your eyebrows because you're impressed and maybe a little intimidated. By "you" I mean "me", of course.

So, soon, I will hopefully no longer be working for the weekend.

It's the most nail-biting time of the year
February is a shitty time for book-selling; in fact, it's the very worst month of the year. You'd think January would be ultra-terrible but in fact, it's a very good month for us; in January, besides the kids buying textbooks, it is my belief that everyone's buying themselves the books they wanted but didn't get for Festivus.

By March, people are almost feeling normal again, and hopeful about reading on outdoor patios because Spring doesn't seem like such a cruel joke at that point. But in February, people have no books to buy for school or belated Festivus gifties for self, but they may still be feeling the financial pinch of the holidays. Also, February, not April, is the cruelest month for it's then that we look in the mirror and see a pale, tired shadow of ourselves looking back and don't want to go out to the bookstore, but also when we notice that we've got a bunch of books already we really should read. By "we" I mean "we" who live in the northern hemisphere, which according to the Google Analytics which I recently re-installed, is where the majority of Bookphilia's readers reside. (Hi!)

Good news for book-sellers and book-readers in Toronto
In sharp contrast to the news that seems to come almost monthly about indie bookstores shutting down, a new indie bookstore will be opening up here in March. I don't have more details for you at this point but I will provide as they come along. Opening an entirely new store in a city that pays lip service to indie booksellers but isn't as good as it should be at actually supporting them takes real chutzpah. To the new booksellers I say: Keep on rocking in the free world! KEEP ON ROCKING IN THE FREE WORLD!

Monday 15 February 2010

The silent bed

In my post last week on the first volume of George Eliot’s Romola, I noted the shocking use of the image of infanticide to describe Tito’s moral degeneration: “Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness” (p. 219). In the second volume of Romola, this ghastly image as it relates to Tito’s behaviour is often revisited, and with increasingly lurid intensity.

Faced with an opportunity to either repent and atone, or to continue on his increasingly dishonest path through life, Tito chooses the latter – and the rest of the volume chronicles the consequences both for Tito and those around him.

Spoilers, my friends, spoilers
Tito’s second crime, which is to deny his father’s identity when confronted with him in the flesh, after having decided against searching for the old man sold into slavery, is described in terms of a monstrous birth:
He might have declared himself to have had what he believed to be positive evidence of Baldassarre’s death; and the only persons who could ever have had positive knowledge to contradict him, were Fra Luca, who was dead, and the crew of the companion galley, who had brought him the news of the encounter with the pirates. The chances were infinite against Baldassarre’s having met again with any one of that crew, and Tito thought with bitterness that a timely, well-devised falsehood might have saved him from any fatal consequences. But to have told that falsehood would have required perfect self-command in the moment of a convulsive shock: he seemed to have spoken without any preconception: the words had leaped forth like a sudden birth that had been begotten and nourished in the darkness. (pp. 286-7)
Tito’s denial of his father "begets" a man with nothing left to lose and no desire remaining save vengeance. And because the only thing left to Tito’s father is revenge, we are promised, fittingly, the death of no other than his own child, Tito. Baldassarre's feelings, as vicious as they are, make disturbing emotional sense in the familial vacuum Tito has created:
I watched till I believed I saw what I watched for. When he was a child he lifted soft eyes towards me, and held my hand willingly: I thought, this boy will surely love me a little: because I give my life to him and strive that he shall know no sorrow, he will care a little when I am thirsty—the drop he lays on my parched lips will be a joy to him . . . Curses on him! I wish I may see him lie with those red lips white and dry as ashes, and when he looks for pity I wish he may see my face rejoicing in his pain. It is all a lie—this world is a lie—there is no goodness but in hate. Fool! not one drop of love came with all your striving: life has not given you one drop. But there are deep draughts in this world for hatred and revenge. I have memory left for that, and there is strength in my arm—there is strength in my will—and if I can do nothing but kill him – (pp. 338-9)
Baldassarre, being both unsuccessful and dissatisfied with physical murder, however, attempts a more complete and prolonged death for Tito – social humiliation and the destruction of his prospects. In this he fails as well, and Tito is thus presented with another opportunity to strangle whatever moral uprightness and familial care he has left in him – and he takes it:
All glances were turned on Tito, who was now looking straight at Baldassarre. It was a moment of desperation that annihilated all feeling in him, except the determination to risk anything for the chance of escape. And he gathered confidence from the agitation by which Baldassarre was evidently shaken. He had ceased to pinch the neck of the lute, and had thrust his thumbs into his belt, while his lips had begun to assume a slight curl. He had never yet done an act of murderous cruelty even to the smallest animal that could utter a cry, but at that moment he would have been capable of treading the breath from a smiling child for the sake of his own safety. (p. 422)
Eliot’s previous uses of the metaphor of child murder in relation to Tito’s moral failings have focused more on the instinctive desperation borne out of “giving birth” to hideous consequences unforeseen and misunderstood. Here, we see Tito consciously engage in such cruelty; Tito has been aware of his father’s presence in Florence for quite some time before this confrontation occurs and he has correctly guessed that vengeance will be Baldassarre’s only goal, and he's been mentally and physically preparing himself for the strike.

This scene, shocking as it is on its own, also clearly draws upon literature’s most famous and perhaps most gruesome image of deformed and vicious maternity, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. I have in mind specifically that famous scene in which she convinces her husband to murder Duncan, his metaphorical father:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.55-60)
These images convey the extent and depth of appalling Tito’s familial rejections – for what could be more disturbing than the murder of something so helpless as a newborn babe? But why use images of perverted maternity so pointedly with a male character to begin with? Given that the source of all Tito’s moral failing is his refusal to behave as a proper son to a father, what are the implications of this specifically female image in relation to a crime between men?

I see Eliot here both confirming and denying the centrality of the mother to Victorian notions of the stability of the family. On one hand, the mother remains the source and symbol of ultimate emotional importance and therefore perverted maternity carries the greatest weight for describing the destruction of familial relationships. On the other hand, by leaving Baldassarre to languish in slavery and then by failing his father-in-law, Bardi, in two key ways, Tito destroys the foundation of family life as a whole, handily and with no female help required. The result, I think, is not a rejection of the centrality of motherhood per se, but an insistence upon the equal power - both creative and destructive - of the male in the family unit in the terms normally attributed only to the maternal figure.

Indeed, it is Tito’s rejection of morality and duty which make his promise of an intellectually and emotionally fruitful union with Romola barren. And this barrenness is reflected both in Romola’s increasing distance from her shallow husband as well as in their literal childlessness:
At certain moments—and this was one of them—Romola was carried, by a sudden wave of memory, back again into the time of perfect trust, and felt again the presence of the husband whose love made the world as fresh and wonderful to her as to a little child that sits in stillness among the sunny flowers: heard the gentle tones and saw the soft eyes without any lie in them, and breathed again that large freedom of the soul which comes from the faith that the being who is nearest to us is greater than ourselves. And in those brief moments the tears always rose: the woman's lovingness felt something akin to what the bereaved mother feels when the tiny fingers seem to lie warm on her bosom, and yet are marble to her lips as she bends over the silent bed. (p. 389)
For Romola, the child that Tito figuratively murders is both her own emotional innocence as well as the beautiful potential once promised by their marriage – but he is not the one who must do the majority of the grieving for these losses, for he feels his acts and their consequences much less keenly than the sensitive and alert Romola does.

Further, it is not even that Tito is barren per se; he does, after all, produce a child, with the painfully trusting and mentally deficient Tessa. Like all the ugly actions and difficult consequences Tito has already begotten, she and their offspring are placed safely out of sight, yet sit with cankerous potential just beyond the view of the social circle in which Tito currently finds so much success and meaning for himself.

Conversely, maternity, so venerated by the Victorians, is denied Romola; and indeed, the second volume concludes with her literally abandoning all possibility of ever claiming such an identity for herself by not only fleeing Florence and her husband but also by doing so disguised as a nun. She becomes the visual image of a woman barred from the expectations of a life of literal mothering. And yet, the serendipitous arrival of Savonarola seems mystically to offer another maternal path to be trodden.

And now, onto the denouement, which I am both greatly anticipating and deeply dreading - for no, I do not want this book to end!

Saturday 13 February 2010

My lethal weapon's my mind

Last night, hubby and I were book browsing and I found a most horrifying thing: a new paperback edition of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights geared directly and solely towards the sort of girl who would obsessively read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books but would be hard-pressed to try anything else. This edition not only mimics the (much-mimicked) black with lurid red something-or-other Twilight covers, but also states that this novel is "Bella and Edward's favorite book":

Brook and I mocked and lamented this cover for its lameness. Yes, I know that getting kids who might otherwise entirely skip over the Victorians to read a Victorian novels is something for which one can make a positive argument. But I find I find this approach - presenting a novel published in 1847 as being merely of additional interest to the "core" Twilight texts - to be both offensive from a literary appreciation point of view but also, ultimately, counter-productive to this notion of getting kids beyond their focus on Twilight. I worry this kind of messaging will create an endless loop in which Twilight-invested readers will ask not "What can I read next?" but rather "What, like Twilight, can I read next?"

You may think I am being pessimistic and I don't doubt that some kids will read this icky edition of Wuthering Heights and a love affair with Vic Lit will be born. But as a book-seller, the two most common questions I get are: "Can you recommend something good to me?" and "Can you recommend something like Twilight to me?"

An editor at the Chicago Tribune online noted this edition of Wuthering Heights back in the Fall and referred to the sort of trend such an edition represents as the "Facebookization" of literature. A scornful and insightful jab at the rather sadly apologetic approach to marketing a classic this edition represents - yet, something new and modern in terms of marketing is required to get kids reading books at a level and intensity that was more natural and common when I was a kid, and much more natural and common when my folks were kids. I'm just not convinced this sort of thing is it.

Something rather more positive, exciting, and intelligent is going on in Australia, as the lovely bloggers over at Book Patrol pointed out yesterday: marie claire magazine, in order to help combat shockingly high illiteracy rates in remote indigenous communities, has recruited some of the country's biggest stars to help with a visual marketing campaign to show how amazingly cool and glam books are and, of course, to raise money for literacy initiatives. Showing Australian stars in imaginative relationship to their favourite books, these photos celebrate rather than apologize for the reading of "hard" classic novels. Below is my favourite shot but you can check them all out here.

I think these are incredibly well done and everything about the campaign, including the celebratory and inviting title "The Wonder of Words", speaks to me of a gesture towards the sheer pleasure of reading - which I think is key to creating life-long readers. I have two concerns though: first, where are the famous readers of colour - any colour! - to glam it up for the camera with their favourite tomes? It seems to me that if you want to appeal to indigenous readers a little multiculturalism could go a long way.

Second, why are there no male stars included in this campaign? Like the dubious Wuthering Heights marketing discussed above, this campaign seems to address only female readers. I see no reason why the marie claire campaign can't reach out to male readers, even if it is a women's magazine - because surely this campaign won't be confined to the pages of its magazine.

Indeed, I think marie claire's approach is the kind of approach that would be highly successful geared towards young readers of both genders. The Penguin Classics covers that provide comic book snippets of the classic texts, such as this one of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, might be an effective appeal to boys and young men:

But I think there's a whole untapped resource in male musicians and movie stars, not to mention sports heroes, as an article about NBA players in the Wall Street Journal online implies but doesn't address. Don't be put off by the use of the word "nerd" in the title of the article either; the idea of the nerd is one that's been undergoing some positive evolution over the years and the fact that genetic lottery winner LeBron James dresses like Carlton Banks off-court means that the nerd and the basketball are absolutely not antithetical terms. And indeed, the NBA has its Read to Achieve program, or theoretically it does - the link provided doesn't seem to have been updated recently.

The Toronto Raptors have more recently than this link implies been doing some Read to Achieve activities; but while I like the idea of athletically gifted man-mountains reading kidlets stories, realistically, not many kids are going to get to have that experience. And I wonder, anyway, how much of the joy of that experience is about being in the same room as Chris Bosh or whomever, and not about the book per se. My ideal would be for the NBA to do their own version, with key players, of what marie claire is doing.

And maybe also for Ice-T or someone younger and cooler to do a remake of "My Lethal Weapon" - his lethal weapon being his mind, of course, and the video culminating with him sitting in the library looking tough and reading a book. Ahhh yeah.

PS-I like my idea of the NBA doing a manly glamour shot campaign of its stars with their favourite books so much that I've sent them an email which will likely get lost in the bazillion emails they get each day. But hey, it seems worth trying to get out there.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Je suis tough! J'aime le perseverence!

Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron is a strange beast. Published in 1558 (9 years after the author's death), it presented barely current literary subjects (primarily courtly love) in a by then antiquated form: the framed narrative, known at its representative best via the efforts of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400).

I love me a good framed narrative but sadly, The Heptameron seemed rather derivative to me. It possessed neither the variety of tone and subject matter (never mind gorgeous writing) that defines Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, nor of the intense narrative energy of Boccaccio's Decameron. I found The Heptameron to be hard slogging most of the time, in spite of the occasionally excellent story which appeared gawd knows how, coming from gawd knows whence.

On a more positive note, the frame is not simply a pleasant device here, for Marguerite provides almost as much space for the story-tellers' commentary on one another's tales as she does for the stories themselves, and I think that this is where her book distinguishes itself. (For really, as a fairly well-educated layperson re: medieval literature, I couldn't detect her doing anything new with the excessive use of superlatives that characterizes the courtly love tale - every lady is the most beautiful, honourable, and gentle lady who's ever lived and every knight or gentleman the handsomest, most accomplished, and bravest in the history of the world, never mind France. This can be tiresome.)

But the commentary sets the stage for often quite contentious debates primarily on the differences between the sexes as well as on church corruption. Admittedly, neither of these topics are new to Marguerite and like the structure of the book, were well established at least 200 hundred years before. However, it's the disjoint between the often light and cavalier tone of the tales and the intensity and often anger that infuses the post-story conversations that struck me. Add to this the fact that, as is revealed quite early in the book, the friars from the monastery where the storytellers are stranded every day creep up on them in the meadow and eaves-drop on their tales - and the story-tellers know it - makes for something Very Strange.

All of a sudden, this rather dull little book turned into some interesting, at least academically so if not "sheer reading pleasure"-y so. The result is that the commentary after the stories becomes infused with an odd shabby luridness even when the topic is religious faith or something equally staid. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this. I do know that if I had to, I could probably come up with a theory, but you know what? I don't feel like it; I didn't really enjoy this book and I don't want to think about it anymore.

Back when I was an academic, I found it much easier to engage critically with books I didn't greatly admire but now, in the verdant paradise that is my post-academic life, I want it all - substance and style (see previous post on Romola) and that's what I seem to be responding best to intellectually now. So all I'll say at this point is: don't read The Heptameron unless a) you have to or b) you're engaging on a fool's errand of teaching yourself about French literature.

...You may be detecting some irritation from me re: my French literature project. It's true that I haven't enjoyed the last three books I've read (The Possibility of an Island, La Bete Humaine, and The Heptameron). But I'm not giving up yet. I'm going to persevere in my plan to get a respectable sense of the breadth of French literary history, whether or not you and I like it! But maybe I should really try to rescue this with some Dumas, yes?

Monday 8 February 2010

I find it enough to live, without spinning lies to account for life

The quotation from George Eliot's Romola which serves as the title of this post is spoken by the rather surly artist Piero di Cosimo; he says it in response to Tito's comment that perhaps he is a philosopher disguised as a painter, rather than simply a painter. (Tito conceives this idea based on Piero's habit of what Tito calls "the blending of the terrible with the gay" (p. 247).) Piero is distinguishing himself in this assertion, and therefore the art of painting, from other professions and modes of being distasteful to him.

This offhand comment, for me, in many ways lies at the heart of the first book of Romola. In these 200 or so pages we've met Tito Melema, a mysterious Greek washed ashore (literally) in Florence who, by dint of his intelligence and not inconsiderable and almost universally appealing charm, manages to create for himself a comfortable life out of almost nothing. Being good-looking, learned, and possessed of an easy self-confidence goes a long way in Eliot's 15th-century Florence. Tito quickly finds himself employed, attached to an old scholar who adores him, and engaged to the scholar's beautiful and good daughter.

And yet, Tito harbours a grave secret about a breach of familial duty so appalling that were it to be revealed, all his social successes would be stripped of him and shame would be heaped on his head. His secret appears to be safe by the end of the first book; however, as Eliot reminds us, even if Tito continually refuses to acknowledge it, "Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness" (p. 219).

Such an appalling image! (And so representative of the sharply observant ability to dissect what moves the human animal that, to me, makes Eliot stand out far beyond all her peers, even the beloved Dickens.) One can't help but think of Adam Bede and the literal murder of a child here - but a murder not even quite so visceral as strangling! The presence of such an image in the narrator's meditations on what will be the outcome of Tito's dissimulations speaks harrowingly to how his relationships and life - and the lives of those to whom he connects himself - will in all likelihood turn out.

Piero's comment is a negative reflection on Tito's character, even if neither of them has no real sense of how true, and darkly true, it is. Tito could be living his life, simply, with no self-protective or dishonest accounting necessary - what attracts Romola and her father and most others to him is mostly true, and under Romola's influence could have become wholly true - if he weren't carrying around his desperate secret like a rank cancer growing in his belly.

Tito isn't the only one who spins lies to account for life, however. On the one hand, Eliot outlines (in, to me, sometimes admittedly confusing detail) the political complexities of this central European medieval city at a time of political flux. On the other hand, the seemingly benign lies that Bardi and Romola tell one another and themselves regarding Tito - what he can and should mean to them, and what lies behind his passively pleasant eyes - are no less dangerous for being both conceived in sincere and honest ways, and based on all the information at hand. For there are clues, subtle though they may be (in the case of Dino's vision, not so subtle), that suggest that Romola's godfather is not simply being contrary by refusing to subscribe to the universal approbation of the young Greek golden boy.

The expectations Romola and her father hold for Tito - which are entirely reasonable - are nonetheless lies. And they are lies which not only help them to positively account for the blank spots in Tito's history and his current self-representation, but they also feed both his need and his ability to make false accounts for himself. The social ties that bind, in Romola, are tender and beautiful as well as toxic.

Tomorrow, on to book two! I am really enjoying Romola, although as Rohan over at Novel Readings warned me, the first several chapters are slow going. She also warned me to skip the chapter entitled "The Florentine Joke" altogether; I did not follow her advice in this regard, in part because she didn't tell me why to skip it and because I wanted to discover for myself whatever its "flaws" might be. My feeling is that there are two problems, at least from the point of view of being 1/3 through the novel: 1) It stands out for serving no purpose in terms of either narrative movement, establishing atmosphere, or introducing new and important characters; 2) It casts an until then seemingly nice enough character - the barber - in a rather shabby and cruel light. Okay, and 3) It's not actually funny.

While I am happily reading Romola - because in spite of the above, I am ridiculously happy to be deep into an Eliot novel - here's Piero di Cosimo's (I think) most famous painting for you to admire. And a poem by Wm. Blake, which I think much better than the above gestures towards the mood I feel lurking under the surface of Tito and Romola's current happiness. But maybe things will not turn out quite so luridly and gruesomely as I imagine.

"The Sick Worm"
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. (From Songs of Experience)

Thursday 4 February 2010

I Interview Dead People: Christopher Marlowe

Welcome to Bookphilia's newest feature in which I, by black arts which shall remain secret, interview authors I want to talk to, no matter how long it's been since they've shuffled (or were pushed) off this mortal coil. I begin with the baddest bad boy ever to ruffle feathers and petticoats, or tickle beards and bottoms, in the history of English literature: Christopher Marlowe.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was a gifted poet and dramatist in Renaissance England. He was so talented, in fact, he might have challenged Shakespeare for the title of “Most respected writer, including by those who’ve barely read his stuff” had he not died when he got his own knife planted in his eye at the tender age of 29. He was very eager to chat when I asked him to be the first subject of’s "I Interview Dead People".

Bookphilia: Mr. Marlowe, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m honoured that you’ve agreed to this interview.

Christopher Marlowe: My pleasure. But please, call me Kit.

B: Certainly, Kit. You can call me…anytime.

CM: Oh, so it’s going to be that kind of interview, is it? [Affects to look bored but doesn’t entirely succeed.]

B: I apologize, but I can’t help myself. You were my first literary boyfriend and while I have fallen in love a number of times since, I’ll always hold a flame for you because you wrote Hero and Leander, which I read when I was 14. In my imagination, I was Hero and you were Leander and well…. [Fans self vigorously.]

CM: Well, indeed. Yes, I see. We could re-enact this now, if you like…

B: …Um, I-

CM: It’s been much, much too long since I’ve made the beast with two backs.

B: Kitty, are you hitting on me? I thought you were…a sodomite? Didn’t you say that “he who loves not tobacco and boys is a fool”?

CM: Sure I did, but I didn’t confine myself to pederasty. I loved the ladies too. I was the Freddie Mercury of my age, but without the ridiculous moustache.

B: Well, it may be a long time since you made sweet love via a crude Shakespearean metaphor, but your body is still as straight as Circe’s wand, so-

CM: [Mood broken.] Excuse me, that was my beast metaphor. Why do people continue to attribute all of my pithy sound bites and brilliant ideas to Willy the Lump Lump? Without me, that lice-infested block wouldn’t have been allowed to do more than mop up the slops left after all the penny stinkers had slunk home. [Crosses arms in irritation.]

B: Well, I knew he drew on The Jew of Malta when he wrote The Merchant of Venice and- Wait, “Willy the Lump Lump”??

CM: Yes, of course. Will was quite the lummox you know. He was rather too fond of the ale and toasted cheese…and the result was that he had a fine pair of unctuous paps that were rather more prominent that your average bar wench’s.

B: And these were his lumps?

CM: Yes, his lovely lady lumps.

B: I thought the Black Eye Peas invented that phrase…?

CM: [Laughs long and hard.] Oh no, my silly but ineffective tart, they borrowed it from me! Getting angry again. See, the problem with old Willy is that on the one hand, people tout his originality which he in no way possessed, and on the other hand they use the fact that he stole from me to justify their doing the same. And another thing-

B: But what about New Historicist claims that Renaissance authors’ works were shaped by their culture rather than their writing being the result of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”? Weren’t you and Shakespeare shaped by your culture rather than the opposite, which could help account for certain similarities in your works?

CM: No, my dear. No. The New Historicists used this admittedly clever tactic to try to prove that they were smarter than me and Will and our fabulously brilliant peers, such as Kyd and Sidney, etc. by making us the slaves of historical pressure while exempting themselves from it. They hit on this nefarious method because it erroneously allowed them to claim both moral and intellectual superiority over us, which is likely the only way these wankers were able to muster up the courage to try to talk about our work in the first place. Not that I’m admitting that Shakespeare was “all that,” as your generation persists in believing, but he was still smarter than your average lit critic.

B: Hey now…

CM: But this is boring me. Let’s talk more about me.

B: Okay, of course. My mistake. I’m sorry. Maybe you can shed some light on your death. The official story is that you started a brawl in a tavern over the bill and ended up with your own knife in your eye. Some historians and literary critics have suggested that you were actually murdered, not so coincidentally, shortly after you were accused of heresy. What really happened?

CM: Shakespeare murdered me, out of base envy.

B: What!

CM: It’s true. He couldn’t stand the fact that I had all the talent, not to mention that I was getting all the ladies AND all the boys.

B: Are you fucking with me? I ask this most respectfully.

CM: Well, it may have been because I stole his toasted cheese too.

B: ….

CM: Right, I’m off. You know, we spend all our days in heaven in endless morris dancing…naked. Care to join?

B: Er…maybe next time.

CM: Alright, your loss.

Monday 1 February 2010

A fail, an un-review, and a little treat

It seems I'm going to have to resign myself to getting all my history out of historical novels - only 25 pages into a book on Roman Britain, I gave up and ain't like to try again. It was just so dull. And there were even photos and drawrings to keep me happy. Not for me, it seems, is pretty much any text that doesn't have either a compelling narrative or writing so fantastic it doesn't matter what it's about. As I was slogging my way through those 25 pages, I kept asking myself, "Never mind how stupefying this is to read - did this guy want to kill himself out of extreme ennui while writing it??" I hope he didn't; but I would understand if he did.

Anyway, now that I've got that out of my system, I'm free to go back to reading primarily novels. I do have a couple of biographies I'm hoping to read; my fervent wish is that because they involve real people (as opposed to groups of people or Romans with unpronounceable names who are mentioned once), there will be a narrative structure that my addled brain can maintain paying attention to.

In the meantime, I've been reading Ellis Peters' 7th Brother Cadfael mystery, The Sanctuary Sparrow. It was exceedingly good, as they always are, and I didn't figure out who the murderer was until the very last moment - pretty much when Peters was shaking it in my face and laughing at me for not getting it.

I do so love Ellis Peters! But I think I should next read a book that 1) I can write a proper review about, and 2) I'm going to love. It shouldn't be just one or the other. I love Peters but having read 7 in the Cadfael series already, I don't feel I have anything new to add. All I've got is gushing adoration and personal satisfaction.

So, to make up for this non-review, here's a micro mini-edition of The Sarazens head without New-gate. It's so small, indeed, that it comprises one thing: the contents of a note I found sitting on the edge of one of the shelves in the poetry section. Not in a book, just near some books, face up. Hand-written note on a very small scrap of paper, contents of which are:
Hi Fudgie

Wow...good book isn't it! Way to go, you're almost finished.

Sorry if I've been a dink. I'm just board [sic].

I Love [sic] you,


Let me know when you get this. Because as soon as you do...I'm gonna jump your bones!
I wish I knew how this note came to be where it was; left there on purpose, or more likely, by mistake? And how the recipient if he/she ever got it, is feeling about having lost it...

If Found magazine still exists, perhaps I'll send it to them...