The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in books about literature. Last year it started (and ended) with The Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. What impact that text has had on my reading is unclear. I don’t remember the definition of a sicilian tercet but I have a stronger grip on poetry metres because of Beowulf and other Old English poems. Yes, the formalist chapter probably made the most impact on my poetry readings but less on novels. The theories that the writers most emphatically applied to novels, and about which I did recall a thing or two, were the ones I had little use for — feminist (All that Lacan semiotic vs symbolic, what?), psychoanalysis (still flogging Freud?) — and the others tested my patience so much that I did not complete the relevant chapters (some cultural rebels wanting to analyse literature as one would a chair or a bloody restaurant menu). Mikhail Bakhtin was a flickering glimmer in that land of nonsense but the writers did not spend much time with him and I did not follow up because the libraries either had one or two of his books in translation (and always on loan).

It did not have a chapter on postcolonial criticism but if it did it’s likely I’d have skipped it. No matter, though, since Adrian Hunt’s introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner gave a detailed analysis of how some characters’ use of Scottish dialect not only helped to establish a Scottish identity, individuality, and complexity in opposition to English condescension and simple prejudice but how in certain scenes, it was used to tell entirely different versions or give particular point of views to the same story an English character attempted to analyse. That seemed to feasibly fall within postcolonial theory, as I imagine it, despite the novel’s publication date and Scotland’s present political status.

Claude McKay’s used Jamaican patois far more frequently in Banana Bottom and in a purer form, than Roger Mais did in his novels and Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence, which tended to a more creolised English. It made me hesitate when I began to write my post on the McKay because I wondered how difficult the lines would be for a non-Jamaican reader, knowing that people read my blog for recommendations and that my audience isn’t predominantly Caribbean. Did this impede its universality? Yet, there was a glossary in the back, as there was in the Hogg’s, and I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes. Anyway, that’s another post.

I was too hard on my feminists. I did appreciate the various theories about whether any female characteristics are inherent (biological) or acquired from socialization, and the argument as to whether there was such a thing as a female text ie novels written by women have certain particularities that would not be produced by a male. I just never think like this when I read a novel and so have no use for it. Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s feminist analysis of Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel made me hastily scan for what information I needed before beating a hasty retreat in the face of Lacan’s mirror stages.

Recently, I noted a brief resurgence in online discussion on why litbloggers supposedly hate James Wood and why they are hopelessly wrong to do so in such an inflammatory, pathetically argued manner. Wood is awesome; their critical skills quail before his awesomeness. I felt I possessed insufficient knowledge (and interest) to judge the matter so I read only to see what others had to say. I had not read much from Wood beyond his London Review of Books contributions which I found persuasive enough that I acquired books by the authors reviewed (Edward St. Aubyn and E.P. Jones) but at no time then did I feel as if I were in the presence of a critical god (or misguided nincompoop).

Nigel Beale led me to Wood’s New Republic review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which partly acted as a manifesto on hysterical realism, a term which I often came across without having much of a clue about what it referred to. I’m somewhat clearer now. Some authors’ fictions that are identified as magic realism — Thomas Pynchon (oh? had no idea), Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (for White Teeth) — should be properly called “hysterical realism” because of their inauthenticity and internal disunity. Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character…By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion.


Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith’s hot plot which has had its way with her.

I’m not sure that I agree with him, partly because I’ve not read the authors under scrutiny and intend to read only one (Pynchon). It certainly pushed me one step closer to Mason & Dixon. I have ever been reluctant to boo a book because it does not contain psychologically realistic characters. I acknowledge that there are books to which such characters help to create a marvellous text, and that though an author may have written his book in such a way that such characters would be necessary to make it convincing (even if he did not think so), I don’t look to it as a standard. The examples he gave made me think that he could be right or he could be wrong. I believe that novels, by nature, must deal with some aspect of human experience but I do not think a great one’s defining aspect should be how well it probes human consciousness as Wood has conveyed it.

(I was not heartened by this post which claims that Wood chastised Tristram Shandy for being too “lively”, which is just…what? Would it be indulging in mean pooterish blogger speak to say that all through that Green’s post I imagined Wood as an old man on his porch, holding Bleak House, waving his crane at the hyperactive novelists writing about talking cheeses, wheezing, “Get off my damn high quality (realistic!) lawn turf, you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”)

There’s also been some discussion on This Space, Jacob Russel’s Barking Dog and The Reading Experience, too, about “realism”: what the word means precisely and whether current literary fashion over favours it. It was spurred in part by James Tata’s series on…perhaps it was realism in 20th century American fiction. (I’m not sure because he doesn’t allow direct linking to his posts and I could find it nowhere on the first page, so I assume he is that rare breed of bloggers who doesn’t like to be linked to.) I found this one more engaging but again I could find no one definition to hold on to, in part because it was debatable (and that some said it was being confused with naturalism, another term I should know more about, especially since I reviewed Kokoro).

Finally, The Wooden Spoon‘s running commentary last year on NBCC members selections for books every critic should read, and Esposito at Conversational Reading who occasionally ruminates on his quest to become a better, more insightful reader by reading critical works about literature and close reading, made me idly consider picking one or two such books for myself. The problem is that when I weigh the choice of reading about fiction vs. reading fiction 99% of the time I chose the latter. Life’s too short! I think. I’ll pick it up as I go along.

Reading a batch of review on J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year forced me to reconsider. A few were very, very bad. Many were bad or depressingly mediocre. Of the 13 I’ve read so far I would only rate three as being worth your time not because you have a polished and refined taste for the highest tiers of literary criticism, dear reader, but because you are likely a living, breathing human being with a brain; a brain active enough that when a stranger tells you that something is bad or good you wonder why she thinks so, and the stranger’s is active enough to explain. It’s a real shame that the reader who isn’t inclined to read 3 or so pages of Hilary Mantel wax on (and on) is left with 750 words of plot summary + I’d give him a free hand job that’s how great it is!/No, no I didn’t really get into it.

I’ll save most of my ire for the assigned piece. One good thing out of the experience, I guess, is that it made me look harder at how I do things. I was not too worried about my blog reviews, but I scurried to reassess my Quarterly Conversation piece, and I am now more committed to doing better at other future submissions if they do turn up. Still, I was appalled enough at what I read that I’m tempted to put up a page entitled “Spot the difference?” in which I’ll place examples of erudite newspaper reviews beside regular ol’ blog ones. My god, if that’s the drivel these people think is acting as a gateway for quality, if that is the processed baby food they’re serving to adults…I don’t know whether to laugh or…

Anyway. This rather long post was supposed to be a kind of introduction for my thoughts on Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge, a book in which she seeks to establish what sort of knowledge literary art can provide separate from other art and more pointedly from scientific inquiry. I’ll put up an excerpt and then save the rest for Sunday Salon.

5:01 PM: Frumiousb asked a good question since a sudden mood swing has made me momentarily lose interest in finishing up the Levy novel today.

I’m curious whether anyone else out there in the very bookish Sunday Salon has their own obsessive habits around reading or rereading? How do you process or take notes about a book? How do you fix it in your head, or do you simply not bother?

Frumiousb’s tactic of re-recording all of her notes is what I do for my classes but not my leisure reading. I don’t have a single system because I adjust to however I happen to be responding to a book. For some I feel no desire to take any notes, which includes bracketing notable lines, adding asterisks to words I should look up, or to mark off an entire paragraph as worthwhile. That’s my usual response to genre reads whether good or bad.

For official reviews for my own little projects I first research the author’s life and the literary movements that preceded, were concurrent and even proceeded his writing lifetime if its relevant.

Then I read the book twice, making brief notes in the novel and longer ones in my moleskin. In my second reread I’ll try to answer any questions I noted at the end of the first. I read criticism of his works which I would not make notes for (unless something jumps out at me) but bookmark in case there’s an opinion I’d like to either answer or assimilate into my own ideas. Finally, it’s time to write that review. 😛

In-between those two extremes my notation scheme can fall along several spots. For some books that I want to make a lot of notes on, usually short stories collections if they’re good enough, those will end up in the moleskin. I don’t do any background research unless there’s something I really want to know, or the book pushes me to have any definite or vague concern answered, which happened with Mercé Rodoreda.

Others can get similar attention but if I’m less sure about how my note writing will go — will my thoughts change within seconds, forcing me to cross out, hang missing pieces above sentences with little arrows showing where they should go, or do I simply the need expansive space to scrawl heedless on? — I choose one of three spiral bounded mead notebooks I have lying around. Each is chosen depending on which cover appeals to me on that day. Paulina 1880 by Pierre Jean Jouve asked for the one with zebras sipping from a river on the cover, as did Rilke, James Hogg, and the bad books that made me grumpy over Christmas.

Some only ask me to bracket a few lines here and there and make brief commentary to flesh out any thoughts in my Paper Blanks. The Romance of a Shop would fall into that group, although I’m doing things a bit differently. In the past there would be a few lines that I would bracket and not add any notes beside the passage or in my book because I thought it was not substantial enough and that I’d find it floating in my mind afterwards if I needed it. I even thought romantically of rereading it one sweet day, coming across the passage, taking pleasure in figuring out why I had underlined these words oh so long ago.

Sweet idea but not very practical so Amy Levy has the pleasure of being the first book for which I’m adding at least a few words in my Paper Blank to accompany every mark I make, including page number so that the corresponding lines are easily found.

The last set of books defy my note taking skills either because my grasp on the story is nebulous enough that I prefer my brain to be less busy and more singly focused on taking the words in, or its sheer, particular kind of awesomeness makes me forget (or deliberately ignore) the fact that I should be noting that foreshadowing in chapter 10. I would put Shriek by VanderMeer, all Murakami Haruki and Alan Garner novels in the first group, The Translation of Dr. Appelles by David Treuer and Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino. It doesn’t mean that I’m not observing things but reaching for pen and pencil interferes with how I’m reading the books.

To cement a book in my mind after I’ve turned the last page I turn it over on my mind during solitary walks, whether it’s to school or to the public library, or to more idle destinations like the park. Night is the best time since I can talk it out loud to myself without disturbing any one else’s tranquillity. Sometimes this process is taken further in a book review on my blog.

1:33 PM: Amy Levy appears to fit the description as one of those little known female writers that only Victorian literature enthusiasts would know about.

I didn’t consider myself to be an enthusiast for any particular literary period or even genre, as far as non-contemporary works go. The way I came to authors was because of their big name and their distinctive attributes. In class if they were placed in the perspective of their genre or period it was more done to emphasize how different they were from the rest, rather than what than what they shared.

At least, that’s what I thought until I checked a list of famous Victorian writers on Wikipedia and saw my beloved Charlotte Brontë on the list. Oooh, yeah, I guess she does do Victorian lit but I always thought of Jane Eyre as more of a goth lit deal and goth and Victorian never went together in my mind. Hmmm…Oscar Wilde!? Oh. But his books aren’t in the least stuffy and fuddy duddy at all (which, I now shamefully admit, is my automatic description of that period, even though I’ve been reading The Little Professor for years). Tennyson! Oh yes, I guess though…I kinda figured him to be more Romantic but I guess not…Kipling?! All…right…it’s now clear that I don’t know anything about anything. Let me return to Levy before my ignorance overwhelms me.

The Romance of a Shop (1888) does not remind me so much of any of the Victorian writers but rather reads as a spicier, more daring Little Women. The Lorimer sisters — Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis — are poorer when their father dies after his financial interests fall through. Instead of defaulting to the more typical fates — jobs as governesses or become parcelled out among relatives in England and abroad — they decide to turn their photography skills into a business.

Gertrude reminds me of Jo. She is often described as the cleverest of the girls, the one with the most imagination, and she is the one with literary aspirations. It is she and Lucy who are the primary workers in the photography business, while Phyllis does the odd errand. She is the youngest at 17 and the prettiest who sticks out oddly as an arch, vivacious, insightful Oscar Wilde sort of character. (She reminds me of Amy, to some extent.) Fanny is their half-sister, a daughter from their father’s first marriage, and the oldest at about 30. In her Levy depicts the typically dainty, silly, blissfully incurious woman not good for much except sewing doilies, cooking and chaperoning. Gertrude, in a bewildered tone, describes her as that “mysterious creature, a man’s woman”. Lucy reminds me of the eldest March girl, pretty enough, sensible and closest to Gertrude.

It’s a pleasurable read because it’s something of an adventure story. The girls were very brave to start a new business in London to live on their own, so one is intrigued by how they will do, what mistakes they’ll make, what will be their triumphs, if it will turn out to be a great success. Since they are living on their own, moving among the middle-class art world, their romances are also matters which they are steering through on their own, as there no balls with mamas and duennas to supervise and careful rituals to participate in. (They could not afford to attend those even if the were invited anyway, which they were not, for they had fallen out of that class when they decided to become entrepreneurs.)

Stylistically there’s nothing distinctive here. Levy’s approach to character depictions remind me of Austen but the similarities end there. The Romance of a Shop is properly a “New Woman” novel so the author interweaves throughout the narrative observations and portrayals of how men (and other women) expect the Lorimer sisters to behave and how the girls disrupt that. Lord Watergate, someone who I think is supposed to be Gertrude’s potential beau but Levy’s holding back on me, tells her she’s a democrat because of her belief that society should be built on individual merit rather than inherited status. It’s clear that Levy created Gertrude as her ideal woman, one who is intelligent, bold and with intiative (but not invincible), so it is interesting that Gertrude, because of how she is, expects to die an old maid. There’s a touching scene in which Conny, a daughter in a rich middle-class family, confides her frustrations about finding a man sincerely interested in her rather than her dowry.

“There are other things which make happiness besides — pleasant things happening to one.”

“What sort of things?”

Gertrude paused a minute, then said bravely: “Our own self-respect, and the integrity of the people we care for.”

“That sounds very nice,” replied Conny, without enthusiasm, “but I should like a little of the more obvious sorts of happiness as well.”

Gertrude gave a laugh, which was also a sob.

“So should I, Conny, so should I.”

Go crazy.

Outmoded Authors

Librorum Prohibitorum Liberatorum (Thanks Ted!)

The liberated book site is further along the way to being finished than the other. I am still accepting suggestions for out-of-fashion authors for the challenge. We also need a button maker! Both start on Sept. 1st. I’d like the OA challenge to last for five months and LPL for a year.

Edit: I’ve compiled the poetry posts I did for the recent challenge in the sidebar. I beg pardon from my RSS readers — I added a “Paradise Lost” tag to my older posts.

Then I’ll get to a James Schuyler post waiting in drafts — I promise.

It’s become very cliché to write about how litblogging has changed one’s life but I’m going to indulge myself. The most remarkable change for me is how often I’ve re-read novels that aren’t genre. Ever since I was 11 or so I developed the habit of re-reading my favourite comfort fiction, typically romances: Mills & Boons set in the Australian outback or Greek islands with the shift to single titles. I loved them for the romance, the relationship dynamics, the deliciously painful lows and the important character progress which had to involve overcoming assorted internal and external obstacles.

I read Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was 12. I found it on a charity ship that sold books at inexpensive prices; it offered the opportunity to try a fantasy novel as such books were not stocked in Jamaican book stores until the New Line films. Since then I’ve read LOTR twice (I think), The Silmarillion, my favourite, and stories from Unfinished Tales. I own Letters of Tolkien and read his biography — notable because since then I’ve never read another biography of my own accord (but have had to read a few for classes). All that happened during my teenage years.

As you can see, during that time rereading in my spare time was done for basic pleasure. For thick books like LOTR I kept an eye out for plot related things I may have missed but active analysis, or nurturing intentional sensitivity to the workings of any novel was not even considered. I had to reread for school, of course, and as I’ve often said I enjoyed 99% of the assigned texts, but in that milieu rereading had purely utilitarian purposes. I never intentionally employed any of my thematic sleuthing or historical research abilities to Annie John (Jamaica Kincaid) or A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) (which we ended up reading in class). It never occurred to me that such skills would be of much use for casual reading because the skills were tailored to exam questions. Even now I experience initial difficulty when I attempt to think of a novel’s themes because my brain instinctively leaps back to CXC (‘O’ level) questions about “race and the family”; the pat categorizations make me uneasy and I think, Hmmm, no, the book must offer something more nebulous, less easily defined.

Four years of undergrad had no impact on my position. It took a current break from the classroom, literary magazines/journals, and sites like The Valve, The Reading Experience and Conversational Reading cultivated my interest in literary criticism in a manner that connected it to an everyday reading life. The litblogs I read in general recommended the sort of books that openly demanded deeper readings in comparison to the genteel 19th century classics to which I was accustomed, novels that certainly had heft but also a narrative style that could lead one merrily along, enjoying plot turns here and there, none the wiser to lurking meanings behind paintings of Even stars. Before then, in Jamaica with limited resources and no like-minded friends, contemporary literature for me meant Stephen King and Nora Roberts; when I desired anything weightier I stretched for a dependable Penguin Classic. (The publisher’s advantage in the Commonwealth, except Canada and maybe Australia, is that its popular classics dominate the shelves, with an occasional Oxford peeping through.)

Having my own blog, sharing my own thoughts has organically lead to me rereading novels without official prompting. Black Lightning by Roger Mais was the first to get repeated attention, and since then I’ve reread Jane Eyre (for no particular reason), Sleepless Nights by Hardwick and now Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner. (Other novels get re-read in parts.) I reread Kokoro for an upcoming Quarterly Conversation review, which went without saying, but I was more than happy to do so.

The Warner is so privileged because I’ve decided which “proper essay” I shall do next to submit to literary entities — the fantasy article that isn’t about the books of any magical South Americans. I don’t really know which one I’m going to submit it to, in no small part due to the fact that I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet. I have the “literary” stories collection, Kingdoms of Elfin; the respected-fantasy-collection-by-writer-most-genre-fans-would-recommend-to-sceptical-literati, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (and yes, I know most give more regard to Magic for Beginners); and So Long Been Dreaming by various authors, the what-would-have-been-regular ol’ genre-but-gains-cachet-from-“postcolonial”-label. The label bugs me because of the inherent baggage it brings, but at least within the SF/F genre the angle gains some creative legitimacy because “most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives”, so wrote Nalo Hopkinson who co-edited. (Rest assured I came up with those disposable categorisations on the fly and am not using them seriously; and woohoo finally reading SF.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to what I’ll come up with, if anything. I’ve caught Danielle‘s Reading Planitis and have idly considered other quests. I read two and a half D.H. Lawrence novels as a teen and left that period retaining vague details of their contents but a firm impression that he was a favourite novelist. Very odd. I can never read of him in print without seeing mentioned the typical qualification that he’s unfashionable. (For his portrayal of women apparently, but when has that ever mattered when it came to canon?) So I’m curious to learn a) if he earned the fuzzy favourites spot and b) reasons for the hate/love attitude from academia. George Bernard Shaw suffers from the same “unfashionable” stamp though I’ve yet to learn why that’s so. Recent spate of articles popping up in print and on-line about his plays, including one from the new Penguin Classics blog, and vague (always vague) youthful memories of reading lines from Saint Joan in grade 9 have stirred interest. Maybe I should form an Outmoded Authors reading challenge? Which authors do you know of that are not vogue?

Dickens is another author I used to say was a favourite, but his novels were among the first “serious lit” I read as a little girl, starting at around 12 and dropping off at around 16 or so. I’d like to reassess at least one or two of the ones I read before and a couple I did not. It’s nice to mull about one’s good intentions.

Last week Matt at Variety of Words blogged about his unfortunate experience at his local library. It’s a shame I hadn’t caught it then because I would have posted about it sooner and fully supported his sentiments. (It would matter so much, of course.) My local “library” has more or less turned into a community centre that happens to have books on the stacks. To my conservative, intolerant eye once a library needs a quiet room something has gone terribly wrong. (It should be the other way around — group rooms for people who need to speak at reasonable volumes.)

It’s clear to me that the local librarians see things differently. When I try to do my work at any study carrel it is them as often as anyone else who are speaking with what I like to call “cafeteria voices”, as if the government periodicals are 20 feet away from whatever location they happen to be in. Cell phone abuse is rampant regardless of age. Lessons are held right by the study carrels. (When I lived in Jamaica my tutor and I had lessons at the parish library but it was at group tables and we whispered as softly as possible; it’s not hard.) One has to do a smell check before going anywhere near them anyway, and hope that one’s neighbours are giggly teenagers instead of certain regulars who use the place as a home-away-from-home complete with dozens of grocery bags filled with three meals and assorted newspapers (?).

Quiet reading room? The park benches outside. (Seriously those spots are at any given time quieter than inside the library.) Keep in mind that the situation I describe is not during summer but early spring — the last time I went there before giving up and making the longer walk to campus.

Many persons are simply thrilled that the place is being used. I can’t ignore the benefits that the users are obviously reaping from the library, what with the high computer use and the growing ESL and Chinese books section. There’s still a book club and things have not deteriorated to the point that the place is hosting band practice (yet). Napping homeless people don’t bother me much — they’re quiet. And you can’t beat the offer of free books. I would sign a petition for it to get more government funding, or give a donation, just don’t ask me to go there.

It’s only made it clearer to me that whatever town I reside in must have a university, where the concept of what a library is has not disappeared. If you’re not student or faculty you have to pay for membership, but one can always pick up the books from the happening community spot and go to campus to read undisturbed. Mine has an excellent fiction collection and access to two other university libraries. And Starbucks, maligned as it is, never kicks out customers if they aren’t sitting with a frappuccino.

Since my Nabokov excerpt proved to be so popular — it’s getting a lot of hits from a mysterious “WordPress Dashboard” — I will give in to laziness and post another now. To clarify something in light of the responses to the previous posts, Nabokov’s assertive tone is just that, and not dictatorial. I did not take it to be otherwise. (Nor did it offend me;these days the conspicuous proliferation of so-called “experts” peddling unsupported hogwash has made me narrow my eyes instinctively regardless of the source.)

Before this bit Nabokov expanded on the qualities of a good reader and the necessity of re-reading (“one cannot read a book: one can only reread it”). His thoughts that include the authorial side of things are more interesting so those are in the excerpt.

One thing of note. He recalled a quiz he gave to students at a “remote provincial college” during a lecture tour. It was a list of ten definitions of a good reader and the instruction was to choose four that, when combined, conveyed what was a good reader.

1. The reader should belong to a book club. [ed. Hahahahahahaha]
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.

3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.

4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.

5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie. [ed. hehehehe]

6. The reader should be a budding author. [ed. Bwahahahahahaha]

7. The reader should have imagination.

8. The reader should have memory.

9. The reader should have a dictionary.

10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

I rolled my eyes at the question because the right answers seemed pathetically obvious. To my shock most of the students chose “emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle”. What the…?


Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big grey wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, the prism, is the art of literature.

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simply deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in a butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, a teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts. Alas, I have known people whose purpose in reading the French and Russian novelists was to learn something about life in gay Paree or in sad Russia. Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really, exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

From “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov

This is the danger of summer. My reading has accelerated at a startling speed and every intriguing literary reference must be pursued to an end that does not exist. Elisabeth Ladenson (Dirt for Art’s Sake) cited a quote showing that Vladimir Nabokov was against identificatory readings, taken from Lectures on Literature. Naturally I had to go to the library a few hours later to pick up the book and read a chapter or two or three to see what he was getting at.

I’m knee deep in his edited lecture on Mansfield Park but plan to only read the other on Kafka’s Metamorphosis before returning it. This mad lust for more and more books to read immediately is inhibiting my habit of ruminating on past reads.

His introductory chapter, “Good Readers and Good Writers”, offered opinions that I instinctively disagreed with before I mentally turned them over and decided that our positions were only shades different. He expressed himself in a declarative, authoritative manner that I both mistrust and admire. I don’t think I could ever state my opinions so definitely and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

Anyway I’ll post some excerpts over a period of time. I hope that my readers find my recent habit of grabbing whatever aspect of a book I find intriguing and doing an on-the-spur blog rather than a proper “review” enjoyable rather than dissatisfying.


In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a ready-made generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to an author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

Another question: Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel? Can anybody be so naive as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? But what about the masterpieces? Can we rely on Jane Austen’s picture of landowning England with baronets and landscaped grounds when all she knew was a clergyman’s parlor? And Bleak House, that fantastic romance within a fantastic London, can we call it a study of London a hundred years ago? Certainly not. And the same holds for other such novels in this series. The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales — and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales.

Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction. The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts. The writer is the first man to map it and to name the natural objects it contains. Those berries there are edible. That speckled creature that bolted across my path might be tamed. That lake between those trees will be called Lake Opal or, more artistically, Dishwater Lake. This mist is a mountain — and that mountain must be conquered. Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever.

From “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov

Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills.

I entered this ongoing life stage of literary plenitude a year into my sojourn in Canada. I became a serious book buyer because of my dive into litblogs, 5 or so local new and used book stores and access to cheap books on-line . This vibrant literary conversation introduced me to a lot of authors and a lot of words with which I was not familiar, one of these being “metafiction”. At first my eyes glazed over the term, or I’d forget it five minutes after a dictionary check, but eventually I got it. Sort of. Without having knowingly read any fiction that deserved the word, the concept never quite coalesced. This did not bother me at the time because I had already decided to dislike it. It seemed to be one of those masturbatory post-modernist techniques that would be used by authors enamoured with their clever ideas.

My opinion was an extension of my instinctively bored reaction to any novel advertised as being about…well novels. For many book readers such story lines are nirvana in a cup, double scoop sundaes with everything you adore poured and sprinkled on twice. To me it was a sign than an author had lost all of her creative juice and had resorted to the one thing she had left to get excited about, which was oh so conveniently seen as the sure-fire path to book lovers hearts. (Shadow of the Wind was probably the only book highly touted as a tale for “book lovers” that sneaked past my guard.)As I began to read more and wider, and paid closer attention to the contexts in which it was used I realised it wasn’t such an off-putting technique after all, that I’d been coming across it in fictions old and new for quite a while and that it truly could be used to interesting worthwhile aesthetic and thematic effect. Borges was the one who proved it to me and David Treuer’s The Translation of Dr. Apelles: a Love Story is probably the first novel I’ve read in which its metafictional element is explicit and robustly developed. It is the novel most prominent in my mind when I read Don Quixote because it appears to have been a major influence on Treuer’s novel, from the way both writers introduce their work (Treuer in his “Translator’s introduction”, Cervantes with his “Prologue), to how chapters run on into each other, to both of the main character’s obsession with literature and its effect on them. I’ve picked up on all of this and have yet to reach 200 pages into DQ.

I’m grateful for the metafictional bits in DQ because it’s not only stimulating but humorous, the kind of humour that’s a welcome relief from the ridiculous and scatological (fine in small doses but…). Cervantes yanks us out of the narrative when referring to the “first” narrator of this story, Cide Hamete Benengeli; or Don Quixote addresses the future chronicler of his tales about what precisely he should write; or even Cervantes merely calling attention to the fact that he is relaying a tell third-hand with a line or two. I enjoy it because I like the distance it creates between the reader and the text. The artificiality it reveals effectively highlights and conceptualises the reading experience, the act of reading, to me much better than any fun tale about book auctioneers haunted by the ghost of an author could. (Or so I imagine.) It explicitly asks the reader, ever so nicely, to consider the book as a creative entity, as an art form. And while doing this we are still encapsulated in the world of wandering, mad aristocrats, giants, sheep and chivalry.

I can’t really ask for anything more.

Sheila Heti, the author of the captivating Ticknor, gave an interesting response when Mr. Condalmo asks her for an off-the-cuff assessment of her character’s mental health in a tiny interview.

I think we read literature in a funny way. We try to make sense of it the way we make sense of life, and by this route, look at the characters as though they’re our friends, by which I mean: we gossip about them and cheaply psychoanalyse them. I find this to be a very funny thing to do to a character! In a lot of interviews I’m asked to speculate on Ticknor in this way, as though he is something separate from myself, someone I know, that I can talk about objectively. But of course, he is only my words, my head, my understanding of things, my aesthetic – not a person at all. And so that makes it difficult to say what he’s like much the way that saying what you yourself are like is difficult. It’s stupid to ask an author about their characters, I think.

I imagine that some other feel differently (or maybe not). In other interviews I’ve read, authors have psychoanalysed their characters, or are willing to view them as a bit more separate from themselves. (No over-the-top inclusion of them on Christmas shopping lists, thank goodness.)

This made me wonder if these different writing modes translate into their work and to the reader. Are there certain writers with that particular style, certain novels, that lend themselves to “vivid” characters, the type that emerge in your mind physically resplendent, with memorable personality, ones with whom you could imagine being friends or deadly enemies? And others no less impressively written but whose full realisation is tied to the text, who are more easily conjured by lines running through your mind? Whether they are likable or not, characters to whom you can relate, is irrelevant to your reading experience and memory.

Ticknor is a bit of both, for me. When I think of Heti’s book he is fleshed out in such a fashion that I do engage in the sort of “cheap” psychoanalysing Condalmo attempted. I also instinctively recall a page or two of the book with it’s compact, neat paragraphs, holding lines and lines of Ticknor’s harried, paranoid, anxious words, perpetually uneasy or bummed about something.

For Dr. Apelles I am hyper-aware of him as an artificial, aesthetic, construct. I did find him at times poignant and sympathetic and all that, but I can’t really visual him as a person, as skin and bone. I adore him, but I don’t really adore him the character, as a person. The way that Treuer played with form, both in the sentences and the narrative contributed to that. He is “vivid” certainly, but in the sense that when I think of him I recall certain scenes, certain words and how they were put together.

There are characters like Bronte’s Jane who fairly leap off the page, I could easily imagine having conversations with her, or I could do some really bad fan fiction about her life ten years later, maybe with Bertha Mason rising from the dead as an honest-to-goodness vampire.

My Name is Red is another book that has characters who are impressively written but with whom I can’t imagine being chums or gossipy about. They’re all tied into that interchanging narrative: I think of “Shekure” and I imagine a page out of the story with her name at the top and so on. But, again, you’d be hard pressed to find a novel so saturated with art, history, philosophy and human vices. As a tale, as an aesthetic experience it’s near overwhelming. (It was for me, at any rate.)

I don’t know (and I don’t particularly care) if this is related to how authors see their characters. What does interest me is if anyone else detects such differences in their responses to fiction, from book to book, author to author? Or did the partying I did in Toronto last night befuddle my neural circuits?

At the start of reading Handbook of Critical Approached to Literature one of the chapters I was most eager to read was “Feminisms and Gender Studies”. I’m quite proud to define myself as a feminist, undaunted by the extreme factions. (If I were to shy away from publicly avowing to any ideal because of such things I doubt I’d be able to call myself anything at all.) I wanted to know what the literary criticism looked like, happy to learn that it went beyond judging an author on whether or not he/she wrote three dimensional female characters. I admired the work of scholars focused on resurrecting and promoting the work of overlooked, deserving female authors. (A quick count of the books I read so far this year authored by woman showed a gratifying 9/19.)

But I also had some misgivings. It is essentially political and, not to repeat myself, but I care about the art first and foremost, in most cases. After that I’m concerned about quality and I’d like to say that my understanding of it includes meaty female characters, or at least at ones that aren’t idiots but that’s not true. (LOTR and much of Western mythology, for example.) I don’t invest authors with any mystical, overdeveloped insight into humanity at large, I don’t expect them to know about everything; I’d prefer an author who acknowledged this and avoided the pitfall (though I don’t knock the ambitious) rather than write embarrassing characters like María in For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you wish to recommend a book, observing that the author writes about either gender with god-given insight, warmth and moral complexity will go through one ear and out the other. When I read A.S.Byatt’s Possession I was positively warm with how unapologetically feminine it was in its themes, its imagery, everything was just swimming in it; but if someone had used that as a selling point I would have raised an eyebrow and changed the topic.

There are certain writing techniques and styles that are identified as “feminine” like open endings, free play with meaning, and the epistolary or confessional novels along with domestic themes. The use of “silence” that can either signal oppression or defiance and intractability like the woman being wooed unsuccessfully in Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. (You can imagine what the feminist critics thought of that poem.) The more familiar mythological/archetypal approach where one finds imagery of the “Earth Mother”, the use of metaphors to support the association, and various figures of female goddesses in Eastern and Western mythology that go before and beyond the Greeks. An interesting angle was one taken from feminist film critique called the “male gaze”. Laura Mulvey argued that there are films in which the woman is compelled to “participate in her own humiliation by watching the film as a man”. I’ve always sensed the ambivalence in Hitchcock films toward the major female characters without ever taking time to reflect and figure out exactly what it was so it was gratifying to see Mulvey spell it out here: “…male ambivalence toward the overall image of woman causes viewers to choose amongst devaluing, punishing or saving a guilty female, or turning her into a pedestal figure, a fetish.” Vertigo was the first one that jumped to mind, but I saw North by Northwest last week and the poor undercover agent certainly fit the mold. On Monday Japonisme addressed a similar issue in 19th century European and Japanese art in medium as message.

Pretty enlightening, yes? (For me, anyway, still young and foolish.) Considering how feminism is always criticised for being fragmented and rife with conflicts it was nice to read on the global and multicultural perspectives. There are bodies of criticism for African-American, Asian and Latin American literature; and there are the lesbian critics. You do have the disagreements where the black critics accuse the white of being complicit with the patriarchal culture, and lesbians revere woman with woman as more natural than any other arrangement in the world, but as superficially absurd as such positions may sound they do have the benefit of questioning assumptions and providing fruitful discussion that can depart from extremes.

I only had one problem with the chapter. What is UP with all the Freud terminology, y’all? What is this Female Imagination in babies stumped out by Manly Father Language law, this idea of semiotic being motherly feminine and symbolic being big Daddy Male? What is up with the Oedipal Crisis? Why are literary critics still heavily depending on theories that have been debunked ages ago? The more I read on Lacan the higher my eyebrows went until I was tempted to skip the entire psychoanalytic sub-section.

There was a lot more covered, including the difference between the essentialist feminists who maintain that there are inherent, biological female characteristics and argue for their high value, and the constructivists who say that gender is entirely engineered by society, abandoning any binary ideas of sexuality. The happy world of gender studies, particularly queer theory bears more than a striking resemblance to that dashing group of aesthetes around the late 19th century, approving of desire, deeming it sensible to follow wherever it may lead. For them unruly plots, ambiguities, vernacular idioms and readerly reactions are what count when it comes to the text.

As far as the application of the criticism to the selected books went, I thought the re-evaluation of Gertrude in Hamlet, not from Hamlet’s perspective but outside it, with a more objective look at her words and actions was the best. Again I never thought that Gertrude was as bad as her baggage-ridden son made her out to be, but the essay reasserted her as a generally admirable and honest character, no party to her husband’s murder, and arguably powerless in the matter of marrying Claudius. (Go Gertrude! As an aside my image of her is now Eileen Herlie, while Hamlet is a cross between Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Brannagh.)

This particular branch of literary criticism, more than any of the others I read so far, developed in the academy so there was a higher use of theoretical jargon than I am used to. There were rough spots but I found it ultimately very rewarding.