Monday, July 20, 2009

Annual Blog Hiatus

This blog will be on its annual hiatus from now until about the 20th of August. Enjoy the dog days!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Reading Journal: "Crossriggs"

Jane and Mary Findlater, Crossriggs. Originally published in 1908. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

Mary Findlater (1865-1963).

A hundred years ago, Scottish writers Jane and Mary Findlater were bestselling novelists. Their novel Crossriggs was published in 1908, and the Findlater sisters were the toast of literary society on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry James was an admirer and correspondent. On a tour of the United States in 1906, the sisters had been entertained by Mrs. William James, Andrew Carnegie, and the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Between Jane's first novel in 1896 and their last co-written novel in 1923, the sisters produced twenty-two books, either separately or in collaboration. Several of their books, including Crossriggs, were bestsellers. A hundred years later, Jane and Mary Findlater are virtually unknown.

In 1923, after their last book was published, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. She survived, but she and her sister never wrote another book. Their time had passed. Their novels were distinctly late Victorian, closer in style and spirit to Mrs. Oliphant than to Virginia Woolf. "The present age must make its own books," one of the sisters said. But Virginia Woolf, whose literary star was rising as the Findlaters' set, was an admirer of their work. Responding to a letter from Mary in 1927, Woolf wrote: "I am particularly glad to think that writers whose work I admire should find anything to please them in mine."

In the middle of Crossriggs, the children of one of the characters are given a treat and taken in a sailboat to a little island off the coast of Scotland, where they visit a lighthouse. Talia Schaffer, one of the few current scholars to write about the Findlaters, suggests that this scene "surely influenced Woolf's To the Lighthouse." Crossriggs itself shows the influence of Jane Austen (especially Emma), George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Oliphant, and represents a kind of missing link between the English women novelists of the nineteenth century and modernists like Woolf.

Jane Findlater (1866-1946) in her early twenties.

Along with writers like Rhoda Broughton and Mary Cholmondeley, the Findlaters were products of Victorian society, with all of its strictures and repressions, but reached maturity at a time when the traditional image of women was undergoing a change, as the "New Woman" of the 1890s reached for greater independence and self-fulfillment. Alexandra Hope, the heroine of Crossriggs, is intelligent, free-spirited, sharp-tongued, and opinionated. At thirty, Alex is still resolutely unmarried. But she still observes the essential decorum of Victorian society, and is shocked by those who don't. She's also conflicted about her own independence. She works for a living, but would prefer not to. If the right man were available, she would undoubtedly marry him. But he would have to be her intellectual, moral, and spiritual equal.

When Alex's widowed sister Matilda returns from Canada to Scotland with her five children, Alex becomes the breadwinner for the family. It's significant that she earns a living from her voice—first as a reader for blind Admiral Cassilis, and then as a teacher of elocution. One of her male admirers starts to write a poem to her that begins, "Your voice—." Alex is a reader, a voice, an intellect. She strives for independence, but finds that it comes at a cost. How can a woman be find fulfillment without a family of her own? How can she be both independent and poor? How can she support herself and still have time to be herself? Alex is filled with the strivings of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke and the questions that Virginia Woolf addresses in A Room of One's Own.

Near the end of Crossriggs, the scholarly Mr. Maitland quotes a poem to Mrs. Scott, the shallow wife of the local minister whose husband is briefly away on business:
The village seems asleep or dead
Now Lubin is away.
The Findlaters comment: "Mrs. Scott probably did not recognize the quotation..." It's from a poem by Anne Hunter (1742-1821), a Scottish poet who published as Mrs. John Hunter and many of whose poems were set to music by Franz Joseph Haydn. The poem recalls absent friends, but it also recalls the forgotten poet—an independent woman's voice from a bygone age.

Perhaps the Findlaters were already envisioning their own obscurity, while celebrating their connection to the tradition of women's writing, that deep underground stream.

The Findlater sisters lived together in happy retirement in England until Jane's death in 1946. Mary, the elder sister, lived until 1963. All of their books are currently out of print.* Crossriggs was last reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. It's a fascinating piece of literary history, but it's also an entertaining and thought-provoking novel with a captivating heroine and an engaging plot. It deserves to be rediscovered.

Talia Schaffer writes about the Findlaters in The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (University Press of Virginia 2000), 64-72. For a biography of the Findlaters, see Eileen Mackenzie, The Findlater Sisters: Literature & Friendship
(London, John Murray, 1964).

*I was able to find two copies of their last novel, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1923), for sale online: one for $138 on and one for $170 on Alibris. com

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Musik in the Park

Acute Achilles tendonitis in my left heel didn't keep me from riding my bike over to Spring Park this evening for a little taste of Lawrence Welk served up by the Bavarian Musikmeisters as part of the Northfield Public Library's summerlong Books and Stars program. On the way home, I stopped to smell my friend Jack's perfect roses.

Earlier in the day, I spent an hour reading under a big cottonwood tree in Southern Lakes Park in Inver Grove Heights while Will had his oboe lesson. With a cloudless sky, low humidity, and temperatures in the upper 70s, this may have been the loveliest day of the summer so far.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading Journal: "Stoner"

John Williams, Stoner. New York Review Books 2003. Originally published 1965. Paperback. 278 pp. $14.95. I found my copy at Central Avenue Bookstore in Faribault.

Early in Stoner, John Williams' spare and beautiful novel about the life of William Stoner, a quiet young man who leaves his parents' Missouri farm to become a professor of English at the state university, Stoner and two other young English instructors sit around over beers and discuss the nature of the university. Dave Masters insists that the university is a kind of asylum for those unable to make it in the world, for the impractical, the incompetent, the irresponsible, the idealistic. "For the dispossessed of the world," Dave says. There's some truth in this. But even for Professor Stoner, quietly tucked away with his study of the medieval grammarians, life is hard. He finds himself unhappily married to a cold, manipulative, unstable woman. Cut-throat departmental politics threaten to derail his career. The one thing that sustains him is his teaching. But even as a teacher he feels his inadequacies, and senses "the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom."
Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.
But through his engagement with his subject, and through his attempts to express what he most deeply feels, he remains alive. Teaching is what redeems him.
He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.
For Stoner, the university is not a cloister or an asylum, but the place where he is best able to become himself. Stoner is a silent and isolated man who finds in the classroom his opportunity to live a life of engagement and a life in words.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
—Tennyson, In Memoriam (stanza 95)

The statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln Cathedral.

I recently watched the film of Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney's one-woman show about her spiritual journey from Catholicism to atheism. Having rejected the God of organized religion, Sweeney attempts to find God in Nature. She goes on a trip to the Galápagos, reads The Origin of Species, and realizes along the way that Nature is harsh and cruel, driven by blind and random forces. Eventually, she comes to accept that there is no God, that human beings occupy no special place in the order of things, and that death is the end. The profound and troubling implication of Darwin's theory of evolution is that we are living in an entirely materialist universe and that humans arose not through some divine plan, but through random variation. To accept this at its full weight is to accept that even human consciousness, even what we call the human soul, is the product of evolution, and has a material cause, and that when the body dies, this consciousness or soul dies with it.

In 1833, Alfred Tennyson's dearest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly at the age of 22. In the years after Hallam's death, Tennyson composed a kind of poetic record of his grief, which was eventually published in 1850. The poem, In Memoriam, became one of the greatest poetic monuments of Victorian England. It is essentially a record of a crisis of faith precipitated by Hallam's death, and deepened by Tennyson's reflections on the idea of evolution. In Memoriam was published nine years before Darwin's Origin of Species, but Tennyson was in the midst of writing the poem in 1844 when the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared and created a sensation with its presentation of a theory of evolution.

In famous lines from In Memoriam, Tennyson wrestled with the implications of evolutionary theory. If the theory is true, what happens to Man?

Man, her [Nature's] last work, who seemed so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law—
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—

Eventually, Tennyson comes to accept evolution not only as a physical process, but also as a kind of spiritual process—a progression "from more to more," in which humans "move upward, working out the beast" that is in their physical nature.

James Secord, author of Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2001) writes: "Man's spiritual sense and reason were the products of development, part of what the unknown author called 'the universal gestation of nature.' There was, Tennyson later concluded, 'nothing degrading in the theory.'"

"I think we are not wholly brain," Tennyson concludes, "magnetic mockeries...; not only cunning casts in clay." In the end, he makes a leap of faith. We have evolved a brain, and something that we call a soul, and with it we can make more of ourselves than evolution alone can. We can love, and remember, and grieve, and write poems.

"So careful of the type she [Nature] seems,/So careless of the single life." Evolution works in the aggregate, producing the "type," the species, through the impersonal process of natural selection. But it's left to each of us to determine what we do with our "single life."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Listening: Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith. Sonatas for Winds and Piano, vol. 1. Massimiliano Damerini, piano. Rino Vernizzi, bassoon, et al. ARTS 47122-2. Available from

One evening last winter, Will and I sat in the car having one of those musical "driveway moments." We were listening to a Schubert piano sonata. Will listened appreciatively for several minutes, then commented, "The problem with classical music is that it's mostly just a bunch of scales." I suppose I had noticed this before, but had never articulated it so bluntly. My favorite example of "just a bunch of scales" is the magnificent and moving pas de deux from Tchiakovsky's Nutcracker:

In the treble clef, it's nothing but a descending G-major scale (the F is sharp) that quickens (from quarter to sixteenth notes) as it descends. It's satisfying because it does what we expect it to do. The ear knows where the music is going. This is true of most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music. Beethoven's symphonies are monumental structures constructed primarily out of scales.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a small private recital of chamber music for bassoon and piano. The first piece on the program was the short bassoon sonata by German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). The piece captivated me because it was lyrical but unexpected. The music didn't always go where my ear expected it to. Here's the opening of the bassoon sonata:

After the lyrical opening phrase, Hindemith begins to ascend the scale. But which scale is it? Unlike Tchiakovsky, who comes downstairs one step at a time, Hindemith seems to play hopscotch on the stairs. The listener is never quite sure which step he'll land on next. Here's how Wikipedia explains Hindemith's compositional method (emphasis added):
Most of Hindemith's music uses a unique system that is tonal but non-diatonic. Like most tonal music, it is centered on a tonic and modulates from one tonal center to another, but it uses all 12 notes freely rather than relying on a scale picked as a subset of these notes. Hindemith even rewrote some of his music after developing this system. One of the key features of his system is that he ranks all musical intervals of the 12-tone equally tempered scale from the most consonant to the most dissonant. He classifies chords in six categories, on the basis of how dissonant they are, whether or not they contain a tritone, and whether or not they clearly suggest a root or tonal center. Hindemith's philosophy also encompasses melody—Hindemith strives for melodies that do not clearly outline major or minor triads.
What this means to me, as I listen to Hindemith's sonatas, is that his music is free from the expectations that scales would impose upon it. The melodies flit like butterflies from flower to flower. Sometimes it seems as if Hindemith has collected broken fragments of melody and assembled them into something that derives its beauty from the beauty of the fragments as much as from the beauty of the whole. There will be an unexpectedly lovely moment—an interval, a resolution—and then it will melt away. Hindemith's sonatas are momentary, not monumental, and for me that's the source of their unexpected beauty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

William Holman Hunt & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision

William Holman Hunt's "Our English Coasts" (1852).

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the founders, along with Rossetti and Millais, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of nineteenth-century British artists who rejected the current academic style of painting, influenced by the classicism of Raphael, and sought to emulate the style of the earlier Renaissance. Their canvasses were generally busier, more rich in color, and more full of symbolism, and were often commentaries on Victorian social, moral, and religious life. "Our English Coasts" (1852), for example, demonstrates Hunt's marvelous use of light and color, his naturalism and attention to detail, and also (though less overtly) his use of symbolism and social commentary. The alternate title is "The Strayed Sheep," giving the painting Christian connotations. The painting also reflects the vulnerability of England to foreign invasion, especially in 1852, when Napoleon III had just declared the restoration of the French Empire.

The Awakening Conscience (1853)

William Holman Hunt is the focus of a terrific exhibition currently running at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, titled Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision. The exhibition fills five rooms, and features genre paintings (scenes from Shakespeare and from the life of Christ), portraits, and landscapes. The exhibition begins and ends with two interestingly similar paintings from the beginning and end of Hunt's career. The exhibition begins with "The Awakening Conscience"(1853), which was a sort of companion piece to Hunt's "The Light of the World," in which Jesus, holding a lantern, is seen knocking on an overgrown, apparently long-unused door. The woman in "The Awakening Conscience" is attempting to rise from her lover's lap and respond to something—the call of conscience, Christ's knock on the door.

The Lady of Shalott (1905)

The exhibition ends with "The Lady of Shalott" (1905), based on Tennyson's poem. The Lady is confined to a tower, where she can only view the outside world through a mirror, and where she spends her days weaving tapestries. One day, Sir Lancelot rides past, and she is so filled with passion for him that she turns and looks out the window. When she looks at the world directly, the mirror cracks, the tapestry is destroyed, and the Lady languishes. Hunt's painting shows the Lady tangled in the threads of her tapestry, with Lancelot reflected in the cracked mirror.

Looking at "The Awakening Conscience" again as I left the gallery, I noticed that the woman in that earlier painting seems entangled with her lover, as the Lady of Shalott his tangled in her threads. Colored yarn is unraveled on the floor near the foot of the piano. She's turning away from a mirror that reflects the outside world. The woman in "The Awakening Conscience" seems to be drawn away from private passions and pleasures toward moral engagement with the world outside herself. The Lady of Shalott is drawn by passion for Sir Lancelot to look outside the closed world of her art, and she sacrifices both the integrity of her art and her life.

Hunt's career, as presented in the exhibition, seems framed between the ideals of moral engagement and artistic purity. Is it possible to answer the call to engage with the world outside oneself while still maintaining the platonic purity of one's inner vision?

The exhibition, which runs through September 6, is both beautiful and thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

Image credits.
"Our English Coasts" and "The Awakening Conscience" are from the collection of the Tate Britain, London. The large version of the "The Lady of Shalott" on display at the MIA is from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reading Journal: "A Partisan's Daughter"

Louis De Bernières, A Partisan's Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf 2008. Hardcover. 193 pp. $23.95. I purchased my copy for 40% off during the River City Books going-out-of-business sale.

After the cinematic sweep of De Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1995), A Partisan's Daughter seems like a one-act play. The novel is set in a crumbling house in a down-and-out district of London in the 1970s. Over coffee and cigarettes, Roza, an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia, tells her life story to Chris, an unhappily married, middle-aged pharmaceuticals salesman. As Chris listens to Roza's sad and often brutal stories, he wrestles with his feelings for her. "I never lost the sexual attraction I felt for Roza, even long after we became friends," Chris explains, early in the novel. "If anything, it increased because she began to touch my heart."

De Bernières is interested in the difficulty of knowing another person, and in how stories create sympathy between people. He's also interested in the tangled history of post-war Europe. The personal—the relationship between Roza and Chris—is tangled up with the political—the ethnic tensions simmering in Yugoslavia under the tight lid of Tito's dictatorship, and the drift of Great Britain toward the conservatism of Thatcher. Is the complicated and fragile relationship between Roza and Chris somehow a commentary on the situation in Europe near the end of the Cold War? Is the world made up of scarred and disappointed strangers, for whom sympathy is always overpowered by lust?

Roza's stories are larded with details about post-War Yugoslavia, but De Bernières is also careful to mark the progress of Roza and Chris's relationship with references to contemporary events in Britain. I first noticed this in chapter eight, which begins: "I came by on the day that Airey Neave was killed by the IRA, and found Roza in a penitent mood..." In chapter eleven (titled "The Betrayal"), Chris comes to Roza's house, and the door is answered by "the Bob Dylan Upstairs" (the BDU), a young man who's obsessed with Bob Dylan. The BDU is wearing a black armband because Dylan has just sold out by recording a religious album (1979's Slow Train Coming). In chapter thirteen, the BDU comes to the door again: "When I next visited, the door was answered by the Bob Dylan Upstairs, who by now had stopped wearing his black armband, but was still very morose. I'd just learned on my car radio that President Bhutto had been hanged in Pakistan, but I was right to assume that it was something else that was bothering the BDU." In fact, the BDU was depressed about a minor romantic disappointment.

Chapter 18: "The next time I saw Roza there was a lot to be depressed about. The Ayatolla Khomeni was saying that there wasn't going to be any democracy in Iran. Everyone was still on strike for preposterous pay rises, and the only good news was that Idi Amin had absconded. Everyone was sing some bloody song that you couldn't get out of your head called 'I Will Survive,' but not many of us reckoned we would. Seeing Roza cheered me up, though."

Chapter 19: "The next time I saw Roza I was feeling uneasy because the Yorkshire Ripper had just killed another woman in Halifax."

Chapter 20: "Mrs. Thatcher came to power..."

Chapter 21: John Wayne dies.

Chapter 22: Muhammad Ali retires.

It seems as if the personal—our romances and relationships, our taste in music, our interest in sport and celebrity—is more real than the distant backdrop of political history. I'd like to think that as skilled a novelist as De Bernières isn't clumsily using these references simply to mark the passage of time. Is he saying something about the shallowness of Western culture, and the increasing isolation of the West from the concerns of the rest of the world? Is he saying something about how we perceive history through the lens of our own personal experience?

Chapter 25: "I came back just after Wimbledon fortnight. I remember feeling a bit sorry because Chris Evert had just been beaten by Martina Navratilova. It was only because Chris Evert was quite pretty. I wouldn't have cared otherwise. I've known for a long time that I'm quite shallow, but I'm reconciled to it. I get consolation from the thought that everyone probably is."

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .