Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 19: Josh Lukin

Read and Appreciated in 2010
by Josh Lukin

For the past few summers, I’ve taken a break from my Areas of Specialization and Course Preparation to read some Victorian fiction. This June, after a tense Spring semester in which my own health and the College’s treatment of its contingent faculty were both disappointing, I flung myself into the short fiction of Mrs. Gaskell, finishing Gothic Tales, A Dark Night’s Work and Other Stories, and Cousin Phillis and Other Stories. Looking at the critical reception of some of the works therein, I noticed that, as with Thomas Hardy (who owes an awful lot to her), critics had been most dismissive of the short stories, such as “The Grey Woman,” that centered on bonds between women (“What about Cranford,” you ask. She gets away with depictions of female community in Cranford by her deft use of the flipness that characterizes early Dickens: readers who are threatened by seeing women interact with one another sans men have the escape hatch of laughter/irony). Gaskell is perhaps most celebrated for her depiction of poverty, but I was also impressed with the way she dealt with disability. Unlike, say, George Eliot’s “Brother Jacob,” in which cognitive disability is used for farcical effect, Gaskell’s “Half a Life-Time Ago” and “Cousin Phillis” are serious explorations of what effects the presence of a mentally disabled man have on a rural community.

My next Victorian adventure, late in June, involved another author who was better-than-average in his depictions of female agency and of people with disabilities, and who I think was taken less seriously than Dickens partly for that reason—the polyamorous stoner Wilkie Collins. I made it through the biggest Collins novel on my shelf, 1864’s Armadale. Wow. Take a look at this passage, in which a bland and gentle aristocrat is forced by his sense of propriety to accept the presence in his train compartment of the novel’s villain:
The train came up at the same moment. Setting Midwinter out of the question, the common decencies of politeness left Allan no alternative but to submit. After having been the cause of her leaving her situation at Major Milroy's, after having pointedly avoided her only a few days since on the high-road, to have declined going to London in the same carriage with Miss Gwilt would have been an act of downright brutality which it was simply impossible to commit.
Admirers of twentieth-century movies and novels will find the situation reminiscent of one that Patricia Highsmith used in 1950 (with Lydia Gwilt in the role of Bruno)—the correspondence led me to consider, using D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, how often post-WWII noir fiction recollects some of Wilkie’s topoi. Miller’s agenda was to present the Victorian novel as a conservative force, educating readers in social norms and showing the perils of violating them; he wrote in opposition to critics who liked to find “subversive” attitudes in an era’s literature. Hence he finds Walter in The Woman in White learning that he may not identify with a victimized woman or bond too closely with another man but must take his position as head of a nuclear family, with his wife safely subordinated to him and male camaraderie relegated to his past. Whether or not Collins’s book in fact endorses that trajectory, that schema is an ideal of patriarchal society; hence I was delighted to notice that Jim Thompson, for example, quite specifically targets tough-guy heroes’ dehumanization of women and rejection of male bonding, and that the pattern Miller finds of a woman being incarcerated, rescued, vitiated, domesticated, and impregnated is the very narrative that Thompson likes to parody.

Aside from its relevance to my Areas of Specialization, however, I was struck by such passages in Armadale as
In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home. While the imperious needs of a commercial country limited the representatives of the male sex, among the doctor's visitors, to one feeble old man and one sleepy little boy, the women, poor souls, to the number of no less than sixteen—old and young, married and single—had seized the golden opportunity of a plunge into public life. Harmoniously united by the two common objects which they all had in view—in the first place, to look at each other, and, in the second place, to look at the Sanitarium —they streamed in neatly dressed procession through the doctor's dreary iron gates, with a thin varnish over them of assumed superiority to all unladylike excitement, most significant and most pitiable to see!
Paragraphs such as that, and indeed the amount of time the novel spends on the first-person narrative of a tragic heroine who, relentlessly used by her social betters and abused by her first husband,  develops a heartless and mercenary approach to life the risks of which she apprehends too late, let me to expect that there’d be some nice feminist analysis of the novel.  But I did not find anyone making even the tentative claim that hey, maybe Wilkie was doing some deliberate social critique concerning women's lot in his society: criticism seemed to move quickly from the 19th century complaint that the heroine didn’t suffer enough for her sins to the Milleresque "Look how he's enforcing the status quo" argument. Indeed, even recent criticism sometimes gets the plot wrong or euphemistically refers to Lydia as “mistreated” (when she is in fact battered) by her first husband.

Late in July, I opened another Victorian novel that had been on my shelf for a couple of years, Margaret Oliphant’s Hester. Mrs Oliphant (to use the name with which she signed her work) wrote ninety-nine novels (as well as twenty-five nonfiction books, fifty short stories, and three hundred essays) because she had to, Mr Oliphant having died early and (to her) unexpectedly; and she thought prosperity would remember her as having worked hard but never having become George Eliot. But I found Hester an interesting experience:  there are passages where the prose is rushed, passages where I thought "This is a great novel of sensibility," passages where I thought "This is a little painful in the way it turns mine eyes into my very soul and there I see such black and grainèd spots as will not leave their tinct,” (The great novels of manners can do that—A Room with a View and Trouble on Triton, for example) times when I mused, "This began like Balzac but is becoming like Jane Austen stretched on a taffy-pull."  But by the end, I was extremely moved and ready to rank it as among the most powerful British novels of its decade, in the company of The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Not only are the events touching and the psychological insights cutting, but the level of realism, the sense that these are in many cases characters whose depth and lives extend far beyond what we see or hear of them, makes a marvelous contrast with that Dickensian irony that enables us to look down smarmily on some Victorian characters (indeed, one or two characters explicitly state that their needs are greater than those of people in Dickens!).

Other, shorter Victorian fiction I enjoyed included Amy Levy’s Romance of a Shop and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Lawyer’s Secret. The latter is a thriller with, if I recall correctly, no redeeming social importance. It’s published by the incomparable Hesperus Press, which also offers a nifty edition of Edith Wharton’s first novel, The Touchstone—a tale of shame and reconciliation that is, as Virginia Woolf said of a much longer novel, “written for grown-up people.”

I see that Locus is reporting coverage of Jennifer Egan’s new story-cycle, A Visit from the Goon Squad, on accounta its storyline extends twenty years into the future so it must be SFnal. It’s a beautifully written book in which Egan reinvents herself as a punk Proust, a hippie Dos Passos, a rock-and-roll Faulkner who uses her mastery of multiple points of view to address the horrors of memory, the ravages of time, the perils of narcissism, and the evolution of PR. Although racism, homophobia, disability, and poverty appear in the world the book depicts, the focus tends to be on educated, mostly-white professionals—some readers have been unhappy with the fact that the world’s more beleaguered peoples tend to appear only in the background.

Of the other living authors whose work I enjoyed this year, three are Aqueductistas:  Rachel Swirsky, whose Through the Drowsy Dark is so clearly the work of a mature and seasoned author that I keep looking for her apprentice volumes, but I guess it’s her first book; Eleanor Arnason, whose Mammoths of the Great Plains is as valuable for its amazing Author Interview as for the eponymous novella; and Suzy McKee Charnas, whose Dorothea’s Dreams contemporary litfic has not yet caught up with, two dozen years after its initial publication. Aqueduct’s latest anthologies, Wiscon Chronicles 4 (ed. Sylvia Kelso) and 80! (eds. Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin), are also too beautiful for words.

Following a link from Matt Cheney, I came across Gary Lutz’s praise for Sam Lipsyte, whose sentences include gems such as “Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back” and “Home, we drank a little wine, put on some of that sticky saxophone music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter squeaks in our hearts.” Most of the stories in Lipsyte’s spectacularly bleak Venus Drive contain prose of that caliber, sprinkled appropriately through his stories of thugs and losers in our neoliberal world—Padgett Powell’s “Paley meets Bukowski” strikes me as an apt description of what Lipsyte is up to.

I had the privilege of seeing Anne Finger at the Society for Disability Studies in June, which motivated me to pick up her short-story collection Call Me Ahab.  The volume left me saying, “This is someone who belongs in the contemporary US fiction pantheon with Powers and Fowler.” Great protest fiction, the quality of which is illustrated by this response from a reviewer who’s confused by irony and could only appreciate the weakest story in the book—remember how Slate dealt with irony in Fowler? It’s often a good sign when the doxosophers are nonplussed.

I’m not a big reader of history, by and large; but I was moved by a couple of volumes in that genre this year. Thanks to my association with Chandler Davis, I tried reading his wife’s Slaves on Screen, which is indeed All That; and thanks to my decision to teach Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate in my contemporary literature course, I read Bruce Cumings’s revelatory The Korean War. It’s remarkable that someone as far left, by today’s standards, as Cumings got to publish this book; and his work is not only an invaluable corrective to past accounts of that conflict but an incomparable guide to some aspects of how the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the permanent militarization of the U.S. began.

Defining “history text” a little more broadly, I must praise Sartre’s 1944 Anti-Semite and Jew, which may have been the first nonfiction volume of JPS to appear in English—I believe it was serialized in Commentary in 1947. Sartre certainly understood the Tea Party: one can readily see today’s analogues of his “anti-semite”s waving signs that say “I want my country back”; and one can read, say, Fred Clark’s analysis of movement conservatism and recognize how closely it meshes with “Since the anti-Semite has chosen hate, we are forced to conclude that it is the state of passion that he loves” or “The more one is absorbed in fighting Evil, the less one is tempted to place the Good in question.” My only objection to Sartre’s schema is to his
A man who finds it entirely natural to denounce other men [to the authorities] cannot have our conception of humanity; he does not even see those whom he aids in the same light as we do. His generosity, his kindness, are not like our kindness, our generosity. You cannot confine passion to one sphere.
Written in 1944, these lines are the product of a situation in which it was a matter of survival to classify others as allies or enemies. But the rhetoric, I think, tends to other the anti-semite in a manner that’s a little too self-congratulatory—Sartre’s insights into the anti-semitic temperament should, I think, be occasions for readers to reflect on themselves and not to say that “we” are incapable of these crimes.

Taking the commuter train from the Philadelphia airport with Chandler Davis, I got into a discussion of Left opposition to World War II; Chan pointed out that U.S. Leftists who opposed the war were not necessarily slavish adherents to the Communist line but, in many cases, came out of a pacifist or anti-imperialist tradition. Hence the Communist Woody Guthrie had to persuade Pete Seeger, a product of the Quaker/pacifist tradition, to support the war effort. “Look at Phil Klass’s ‘Constantinople,’” Chan said. I did, and found it a moving essay thanks in no small part to the beauty of its prose and its deft command of irony.

Another genre which I rarely look at, even though it’s important to my understanding of literature, is the Poets on Poetry book. But this year saw the release of Marilyn Hacker’s Unauthorized Voices, an intense and meticulous set of appreciations of contemporary poets, and of the paperback edition of Adrienne Rich’s A Human Eye. Which is so good that one just wants to point and go, “Oboy!” Or just quote some characteristically nifty lines: “But we can also define the 'aesthetic' . . . as news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what's still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.” And
We may view the imagination as a kind of gated, landscaped neighborhood—or as a river, sometimes clogged and polluted, carrying many kinds of traffic, including pollen and contraband, but in movement: the always-regenerating impulse toward an always-beginning future.
Perhaps the most widely celebrated Poet on Poetry (again, broadly defined) volume of the year, which is certainly worthy of all the accolades it’s getting, is Stephen J. Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat:  Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Sondheim, like Rich, teaches anyone who encounters his words about the ethical demands of creative work—in his case, of the imperative for rigor, seriousness, and a commitment to the highest of standards in approaching one’s craft. Plus he turns out to be a thoughtful and passionate critic and memoirist. I find his prose—even the two sentences that are unsympathetic to feminists and the two pages that decry “academic egos”—to be a lovely expression of his personality.  

Josh Lukin teaches at Temple University, a public university in inner city Philadelphia that serves a diverse student population, as a contingent employee of the First Year Writing Program.. He also belongs to Temple's Interdisciplinary Faculty Committee on Disability. Dr. Lukin’s primary specialty is in noncanonical fiction of the midcentury US; he has also published articles about Alan Moore, Oscar Wilde, and the Black Panther Party. In 2008, the University Press of Mississippi published his anthology, Invisible Suburbs: Recovering Protest Fiction in the 1950s United States; his work has also appeared in minnesota review, The New York Review of Science Fiction, jml: The Journal of Modern Literature, Anarchist Studies, and The Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Earlier this year, Aqueduct Press published It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, which Josh edited.

1 comment:

Josh said...

The great irony in that Sartre passage is that Sartre respected Heidegger.