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Saturday, March 30, 2013

The zigzag of reading and life

I've been reading D.H. Lawrence's monumental Women in Love, because that's the penultimate book in my class that looks at the fifty years between Daniel Deronda and Mrs Dalloway.  I took a whole class on Lawrence while I was working on my Master's at Michigan, and it was terrible for my style, which became overly coordinated, full of appositives and digressions, rather like this sentence.  I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Lawrence, not only because of his style (for, after all, who can argue with the man who profoundly wants to bring the body into the novel and wants to understand the relationship between the body's and the mind's desires), but also because of his revolutionary view of women.  Quite simply, he understood that diminishing or oppressing women simply wasn't on, ethically.  At the same time, however, you can see clearly in him, in his shrill defense of masculinity, the kind of anxiety this new view of women has unleashed.

David Bradshaw's excellent introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition makes clear the extent to which Women in Love is preoccupied with society after World War I, though the war is never mentioned.  Rather, there's an underlying violence that pervades human relationships and makes the characters cynical and wary--particularly Lawrence's stand-in, Birkin.  The book is comprised of these well-constructed, very scenic chapters that almost stand on their own.  Interestingly, because there is no forward thrust of plot (sorry:  I've been reading too much Lawrence), each of the chapters seems isolated from the others, creating the sense not only of a fragmented world, but of people who can't quite get the facets of their personalities to cohere.  In the chapter called "An Island," Birkin is patching an old punt so he can row around Willey Water, and Ursula comes upon him for a little intense, frank conversation.  Birkin confesses to her "It infuriates me that I can't get right, at the really growing part of me.  I feel all tangled and messed up, and I can't get straight anyhow.  I don't know what really to do."  Ursula, in her calm way asks him why he has to do anything; might he not be "really patrician, and to do nothing but just be oneself, like a walking flower"?

"I quite agree," he said, "if one has burst into blossom.  But I can't get my flower into blossom anyhow.  Either it is blighted in the bud, or has got the smother-fly, or it isn't nourished.  Curse it, it isn't even a bud.  It is a contravened knot."  She catches on and asks "And why is it...that there is no flowering, no dignity of human life now?"

I was surprised to find that Lawrence's post-apocalyptic novel resonated so fully with the pre-apocalyptic mood I've experienced from time to time over the last six months or so.  He asks an important question:  why are things refusing to bloom right now?  Why do we find our students, for example, either so filled with anxiety or so indifferent that they have lost the curiosity that almost belongs to the young?  Why, in the face of so many movements like Idle No More or Occupy, do leaders continue to pursue their own agendas so unswervingly?   A "contravened knot," surely.

At the same time, however, I've been reading Haruki Murakami's After Dark.  Like his famous and quite wonderful Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark has its surreal elements.  I'm not entirely sure I "get" him, though After Dark is at least small enough to keep close track of the characters and the way they are interwoven.  It takes place in a large Japanese city and studies the kinds of lives people live between midnight and 8 a.m.  There's a young woman who is finding places to spend the night reading a very fat book because her beautiful elder sister decided, a couple of months ago, to settle down for a good sleep and hasn't for all intents and purposes woken up during that time.  Meanwhile, we are given visions of that beautiful sister migrating in some disturbing way to entirely different spaces she can't escape.  There's a young jazz musician who makes friends with our young reader, and a former female wrestler who now manages a "love ho," and exacts her own kind of justice with johns who beat their sex workers.  What I love about Murakami's work is the sense that he presents a coherent universe parallel to our own where an entirely different (though often consistent) set of rules obtains.  He challenges our self-absorbed or lazy or indifferent sense that we know how the world works.

Yesterday I began re-reading Dianne Warren's gentle and moving Cool Water.  I was trying to explain to my first-years today what Alistair MacLeod was attempting to do with his very elegiac "The Summer Closing Down."  It's such a beautiful story and their silence was suggesting they didn't get it.  Literature sometimes simply seeks to bear witness.  In MacLeod's case, it's bearing witness to all the changes in the Cape Breton town where the narrator lives:  changes in the fisheries, changes to the miners' bodies, changes to relationships because the miners are gone for so much of their lives, changes to traditions, as their children pursue dentistry or law instead of mining.  I realized that this can be said of Warren's novel too:  she is bearing witness to the changes to the family farm, to the towns that support those farms, to the landscape around them. to the shifting dunes of the Great Sand Hills.

I want my students, at the end of English 110, to be able to read independently.  At the same time, I realize that Warren's construction of Cool Water creates some challenges for the reader.  I'd argue that almost any book worth its salt cannot simply be read.  Our first reading is merely a matter of finding out what we should have been looking for.  If we have loved the world, the characters, the world-view, then we know what to look for as we re-read.  Cool Water, which follows its small cast around Juliet, SK for a summer day, could have been a sequence of short stories, a character for each story.  But that wouldn't have given us a sense of how all these lives intertwine in Juliet's landscape.   Instead, the novel is broken up according to the time of day, and we are given brief chapters from the perspectives of half a dozen of the characters.  Combining the goal of having my students read independently with the necessity of re-reading, I spent last week writing questions for each of the main characters or sometimes for groups of characters, and sorted my students into groups to re-read the novel and attempt to understand the developments of a single character.  On Tuesday of next week, they will start teaching one another what they've learned.

After I spent a fairly intense weekend writing questions for eight characters or families, I needed a break.  I found it in Inhuman Resources, a novel by my colleague Jes Battis.  Let me be perfectly clear:  this is not the kind of thing I normally read, so if I'm clueless about this marriage between the crime scene investigation genre and paranormal fantasy, it's not Jes's fault.  I was thoroughly enchanted with his characters, particularly his lead detective Tess Corday, with her skills as a mage.  Like any good detective, she occasionally compromises those skills by being passionate and principled, by being a know-it-all, by over-reacting.  Thus is the detective taken out of the sphere of the superhuman, though that isn't strictly true for Tessa.  I found Jes's depiction of the underworld where the necromancerss live to be so imaginative that I might have wanted to spend time there if it hadn't been so threatening.  They travel by flower sometimes, other times on the backs of nightmares, to the centre of darkness.  The working out of a complex plot involving Velasquez's Las Meninas and a Picasso variation was a complete surprise.  Jes's novel took me out of myself into a world where I was enthralled--no paranormal skills required, only Jes's extraordinary imagination.

Now I am about halfway through Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, this blog post having taken a while--about two weeks of a passionate reader's life.  I'm not going to try to do a quick portrait of what is perhaps Woolf's most accessible novel.  What Woolf values most of all is daily experience and the way people claim and inhabit this experience.  Septimus Warren Smith illustrates how dangerous this intensity can be, while the almost tinselly Clarissa is redeemed by it.  Everything about the prose of Mrs Dalloway, the rhythm, the sentence structures, the detailed observations, the smooth flow from one consciousness to another, is designed to surround  and immerse the reader with that experience.

The psychologists tell us that this kind of immersed reading provides us with dress rehearsals for our own lives.  We learn compassion and empathy from reading, as we attempt to turn little black marks on the page into characters with lives and experiences and emotions that we attempt to recover and comprehend.  What I have loved over the last couple of weeks' intense reading is the opportunity to be so many people, to see many worlds from a myriad of perspectives, which is perhaps why we should read the unfamiliar, the challenging, the seemingly inexplicable.  Doing so, we can occupy many selves and many worlds.

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