Sunday, 26 July 2015

My contribution to the Harper Lee controversy

I am usually sceptical of sequels, prequels, midquels and sidequels, although they can occasionally be worth reading for various reasons. I am hugely sceptical of all kinds of Ur-texts, other than for purely academic purposes. There is, for instance, a whole book of early versions of The Master and Margarita, where you can trace all the intricate reworkings in plots and characters, but they are nothing like the final version (and, of course, there isn't even a final version of this particular novel). I am not an archive person, but I have for professional reasons read early unpublished drafts of some famous novels, and they are just that, early drafts. If you are working on a specific text from a specific angle, early drafts can be illuminating. But it's important to remember that they are drafts, not intended for public perusal.

I was sceptical toward Harper Lee's so called new novel ever since it was mentioned, and in the hype just previous to publication I became still more sceptical. I read the first chapter released some days earlier and was not impressed. If I had read this first chapter out of context I would say it was sentimental garbage and never considered reading any further. However, some colleagues had also read the chapter and thought it was good, and I am always prepared to take colleagues' advice and give a book a second chance. I also felt that I could not go on saying that the book was rubbish and merely a publisher's gig (a million copies pre-ordered!) unless I had actually read it. I decided that I would read it for what it was, without comparing it to Mockingbird. As a professional reader, I can do it.

I bought a Kindle copy and started reading the second chapter on the release day. It went from bad to worse. The characters did not interest me, the dialogue was pathetic and used to carry the plot in a most amateurish way; the narrator's voice was didactic, everything was spelt out. There was no conflict, no plot development, nothing at all to attract my attention. Profoundly bad writing. Again, I would have put it away under different circumstances, but I hadn't even reached the episodes discussed in the pre-reviews: the darker sides of Atticus Finch. So I went on. There were a couple of slightly more vivid passages, always flashbacks into the protagonist's adolescence, with some painfully trivial episodes such as her terror when she gets her period or believes that she is pregnant because a boy kissed her on the mouth.

I persisted, and then suddenly, when she discovers that her adored father is a racist, it became intensely good. It was still a typical example of belated parental revolt, accompanied by realisation that all her happy childhood was an illusion (for instance, that their black servant Calpurnia wasn't as devoted as little Jean Louise believed). The good part was perhaps ten pages, followed by an unbearable sermon by Jean Louise's uncle and an explicit quarrel with the father that, if anything, shows that Jean Louise is indeed more prejudiced than he. And they live happily ever after. Sort of.

One star on Goodreads.

It so happened that the cottage where I spent my holiday week had a good library that included To Kill a Mockingbird, so I started reading it immediately after finishing Go Set a Watchman.

To Kill a Mockingbird has never been a great favourite, but it is an important book if you are a reader and more so if you are a professional reader. I first encountered it as a stage version, performed by the State Children's Theatre in Moscow, all the more surprising because the famous film was rated 16+. We had to read it in my English class in college, but I don't think I understood much of it then, definitely not what was so great about it. Which is the narrative perspective. Scout is looking back on her childhood, “when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back”; but she is still very young to understand what happened, and she definitely did not understand what was happening as she experienced it. People around her believe that they can discuss anything in front of her and even allow her to watch a rape case trial, because she is too young to understand. As a narrator, a lightly older version of herself, Scout does not question her own ignorance and does not offer a better understanding. On the contrary, at the time of narration, she is mostly focused on the fact that her brother once had has arm broken. This is exactly the kind of event that a young child would be interested in, and everything else is just a backdrop. The poignancy of the novel is the total discrepancy between what the narrator is saying and what the reader is supposed to infer. To see the backdrop in spite of the narrator obstructing it. This is why I have always said that to use Mockingbird in schools is pointless and even unethical: you have to be a mature reader to cope with this narration. (You also need to know a lot about American history, but that's a different matter). Mockingbird is similar to What Maisie Knew: employing a child as a lens, at the child's expense.

This aspect is still stunning on re-reading. Otherwise, I had no memory of the slow plot in the first half of the novel, mainly telling about two or three summers full of games, interspersed by horrors of school. Had it been told in the Watchman mode it would have been tedious; as it is, it serves as a very long prelude where glimpses of Atticus Finch's human rights engagement may be traced, and Boo Radley's possible crucial role in the plot is hinted at. The famous courtroom scene is quite short, but long enough to see how it has been pruned down from the uncle's speeches in Watchman. Generally, although Mockingbird is endlessly better than the draft, some of the draft's flaws are tangible.

Because I read one text immediately after the other I could spot verbatim passages, but they were few and far between. The Tom Robinson case takes half a page in Watchman, just as an example of how Atticus has changed. But then, Jean Louise of Watchman may misremember. She has an idealised memory of her father. We don't know what he really was like.

To compare Atticus in the two texts or, moreover, claim that Atticus of Watchman can change our view of him in Mockingbird is nonsense. They are two completely different fictional characters who happen to have the same name. Neither is Jean Louise in Watchman the same character as Scout in Mockingbird. She may be an early version, tested and dismissed.

I am glad I have read Watchman, and still more glad I had an occasion to re-read Mockingbird and confirm that it isn't a masterpiece it is always presented as. Maybe, as often happens, most people know the story from the film. It has an important political agenda and has been hugely influential. Every student of literature should read it. Recommend it to your mother-in-law's cousin? Depends on their reading preferences.

As to Watchman, the publisher has made a lot of money out of a soap bubble, as publishers do. If I were ever to teach creative writing, the two texts would be perfect on the syllabus, to show what a long road there is from the first draft to the final one. 


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Press Replay

This is what I wrote two years ago. There is very little I can add. I am tremendously privileged to have a research leave every seventh term, just about once in two years.

I don't have a book project this time, but I have several large and difficult chapters that I agreed to write long ago in moments of weakness, hoping that something would come in between. As usual, it hasn't, so THE TIME HAS COME. For some inexplicable reason, I am giving three keynote talks at conferences in the nearest future and for two of these I only have a vague idea of what I am doing. All in all, the amount of text I have to generate will add up to a book.Therefore I need to plan carefully.

In the next few weeks I will have to grade last term's papers. I will try to do it as soon as possible to take it off my mind. Doctoral supervision is not affected by research leaves so any moment a draft may land in my computer, anything from a chapter section to a finished thesis. I will deal with it when it comes.

The graduate admissions are almost done for this round, and I don't have to attend meetings. My diary is wonderfully empty except for some dinners with good friends or visits from grandchildren.

Soon it will be warm enough to dig in the garden, and my physiotherapeut has mended my shoulder. I am building a gorgeous dollhouse. Can life get any better?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Deep in a dream

I have been in doubt whether to share this experience. It is far too personal. But there are people out there who will have been through something similar, and you, my dear reader, can experience it one day, or your loved one. This is a kind of thing that we know happens but “it cannot happen to me”.

Let me tell you: it can.

Since I am alive to tell the story it obviously had a positive outcome, but most of it is my reconstruction based on what I have been told. What I remember is bizarre, as dreams are, and unless I had evidence of a plastic hospital ID-band (and, presumably, a record sent to my doctor), I might believe that I have dreamed it all.

What I know for sure is that last Sunday I went out for dinner with a colleague visiting Cambridge. The day before, we worked on our joint paper. Staffan drove me to the restaurant, picking up G from her place on the way. I remember ordering, and I remember the canapés and the amuse-bouche. I remember we talked about taking a cooking course in Italy. I eventually remembered, on prompt, that we discussed G's son's scholarly plans. The next couple of hours is a second-hand narrative. Apparently, we had a lovely meal, except that one course contained peanuts, which I had firmly told the waiter I didn't want because I had eaten this course previously, and although I am not allergic to peanuts the taste was too strong for the delicacy of the rest. There were two desserts, and apparently I liked one of them better than the other. G paid the bill, as agreed, the restaurant called us a taxi, we chatted and made plans for meeting on Tuesday afternoon to work further on our paper. G got off at her place, and I continued.

There is no clear evidence of the following, but I got home, supposedly paid the taxi and opened the door with my key.

Staffan's evidence is that I was cheerful, telling him about the meal, including sending the peanut dish back to the kitchen. According to him, I changed into sleeping gear, presumably brushed my teeth, took my pills and went to bed.

Next, some hours later, he heard me calling from the bathroom. He says I was lying on the floor, with my legs in the bathroom and the rest of me in the corridor. I could not get up, but, he says, told him quite soberly to call an ambulance. When we arrived at the hospital, I was asked lots of questions to which I, Staffan says, replied coherently and accurately, in the right language. Among other things, they asked me when the Second World War started. They took blood tests, blood pressure, ran me through brain scan, did all kinds of tests. Everything was fine. Only I don't remember anything of this.

As I said, dreams are bizarre, and I dreamed I was in an ambulance, but I had been inside an ambulance, although not as patient, so I wasn't at all perplexed. The ambulance was going back and forth between home and hospital, and I thought it was fortunate that we live so close to the hospital. (We don't. We live on the opposite side of town from the hospital. My work is close to the hospital). I dreamed that I was lying on the floor in a hallway of an unfamiliar apartment, and again, I wasn't surprised because that's the kind of things you dream. It wasn't in any way an unpleasant dream so I wasn't eager to wake up. I dreamed somebody asked me to look up and down and left and right, and this is exactly what my optician had done last Saturday so it was quite logical to dream it, although in the dream it wasn't my optician but some weird figure from a horror movie. I dreamed I was telling people around me that I was in withdrawal because, close after kidney stones, medical withdrawal is the worst experience I have ever had in my life, and I was very anxious that they gave me my pill. I also dreamed that I was in a euthanasia clinic in Holland, as described in Ian McEwan's novel Amsterdam, and that people around me were just hallucinations caused by lethal drugs. I wasn't particularly upset about it because in the dream it was all properly pre-arranged. I dreamed they pushed me into a tunnel for brain scan, but in the dream I knew it had happened many years ago in Stockholm, so I wasn't worried. There was something else I was worried about in connection with the brain scan, possibly that I would get lost in the corridors – just as you do in dreams. I was worried that they would forget to bring me out of that tunnel. I dreamed I was wearing my blue fluffy slippers and wondered why. I dreamed I was dizzy and thirsty and had to use the bathroom. I frequently dream that I have to use the bathroom and cannot find it, or the toilet disappears just as I am about to sit down. Therefore I wasn't at all surprised when they moved me from the bed I was lying on to a chair with a hole. It's just the kind of thing you dream. (I checked with Staffan later – it happened). I was anxious that I had to attend a symposium (which had been last Friday). I often dream that I am at a conference and don't know what I am supposed to speak about. I was also anxious to know why G was in Cambridge because it didn't make sense, but then of course it was just a dream. I was still begging for my pill, but they told me I should take it in the evening, as usual. I said it was evening and I had to take my pill. I continued insisting that I was in withdrawal and therefore dizzy. Someone without a face told me I was getting anti-dizziness injections which I found pleasurable. I was not at all surprised that I was in hospital, but I was surprised that I was wearing my bathrobe and fluffy slippers. Yet this is exactly what happens in dreams: you dream you are in front of students in a lecture hall wearing a bathrobe and slippers. I was embarrassed because my nightgown sleeves were frayed. Also, the world was blurry (Staffan had not brought my glasses). They told me I could go home soon, and I thought it was fortunate that we lived so close to the hospital. There was no sudden awakening and realisation that I had been dreaming; everything was clear and logical. I asked Staffan what day and time it was. I got scared. I wasn't sure what had happened and what had been a dream. I kept asking the same questions over and over again until he told me, mildly, to shut up.

I read some work on memory studies for my recent research project, and what I know is that every time we retrieve a stored memory it gets arbitrarily connected to something else, real or fictional, and stored again in a distorted form. It is therefore pointless to try to remember. What I may now think I remember can just as well be a false memory prompted by something I have been told. Let's face it: I have a total memory gap of fifteen hours during which people around me perceived me as rational and coherent.

They think I fell and hurt my head. It's a theory as good as any other. Why did I fall in the first place? They think I had an ear infection. But all tests were normal.

“Humans are suddenly mortal” (Bulgakov). Yet another reminder of your own mortality is never pleasant, but it is also a reminder of utter vulnerability. I didn't do anything wrong to cause my fall. I cannot prevent it happening again.

This very moment I should have been on a plane to Bergen, Norway, going to a conference that I had been very much looking forward to. It is not the first time I have to cancel conference participation at short notice. I never learn. But it is the first time I have experienced amnesia. I don't like it.

Conclusion: once again, appreciate the time you have, because you don't know when it may run out. Value people around you who spend the night in hospital beside you in an uncomfortable chair. Reconsider your priorities. And make sure your nightgown is not frayed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Two amazing women


Last week we had a very distinguished guest speaker, Juliet Dusinberre, the author of Alice to the Lighthouse, one of the best critical studies of children's literature, written almost thirty years ago. She talked about Beatrix Potter, and this talk very nearly made me change my mind, once again, about the value of biographical information for literary studies. I didn't know much about Beatrix Potter beyond basic facts (I guess, most of them from the movie, Miss Potter), and the letters and diaries that Juliet spoke about were really illuminating. One of our students wrote an excellent blog post about this talk, so I won't repeat it.

What struck me, however, was the similarity of Potter's life and struggle to her contemporary, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. Once upon a time I was a Lagerlöf scholar (published a book and several articles), and even then I wasn't interested in her biography, and even then I was wrong because there were many facts in her life that were reflected in her writing and therefore worth knowing. For instance, the loss – or threat of loss – of the childhood home surfaces in all her novels. When she got the Prize – first female writer ever to receive it – she bought back her father's estate, and, much like Potter, kept buying adjacent land and expanding farming. As rich and famous, she still had to challenge her male fellow writers and was often referred to as "fairy tale auntie". Unlike Potter, she wrote novels, but she also wrote one book for children that is, at least internationally, better known than her novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Among many remarkable things she does in this book, commissioned as a geography textbook, she is a passionate animal rights promoter. Could she be familiar with Beatrix Potter's books? Possibly. Could Potter have read Nils? It was translated into English early. Does it matter? Not really.

Of the many famous words by Lagerlöf, my favourite is from her diary: "Today I sold twenty sacks of flour and a short story". That could have been Beatrix Potter.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

More from the Western front

After I finished FiveChildren on the Western Front I couldn't help thinking about the allusion, and I decided to re-read Remarque. As It turned out, it was one of those books that you believe you have read when you actually haven't. I know I read Three Comrades as teenager, and possibly The Black Obelisk because I remember the cover of the book in Russian. But apparently I had not read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I am glad I hadn't because I know I wouldn't have liked it and wouldn't have understood much. It is a slow read, and when you are young you have no patience for slow reads. It must be something neuroscientists still have to explain, but teenage brains just cannot cope with slow and deep reading.

But now I am mature enough and in the right mood to enjoy this wonderful and terrible book which I haven't seen mentioned a lot in the centenary discussions. I also see clearly where Kate Saunders has got her ideas from. Although of course for the English soldiers it wasn't the Western front. It was the one and only front.

It is hard to believe that All Quiet on the Western Front was written so long ago. It feels as if it was written today. First-person, present tense. And a disturbingly postmodern ending.

I also thought that today it might have been marketed as a Young Adult novel – the protagonist is nineteen – but YA didn't exist then. And the novel is exactly about being forced from childhood into adulthood. And the author lets the protagonist die rather than grow up disillusioned. 


It was an extraordinary reading experience and completely serendipitous.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Five children and all the rest

Edith Nesbit has been a landmark ever since I read Five children and it exactly forty years ago. I didn't read it as a child, because it wasn't available; I read it as a scholar of children's literature, and of fantasy in particular. I bow to Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald, but all children's fantasy goes back to Nesbit. Her magic code (my coinage, which eventually became the title of my PhD thesis) is as central for fantasy as Asimov's three laws of robotics for science fiction.

I wrote my second academic article, in Russian, on Nesbit in 1979, and it was later revised and published in English in the inaugural issue of Marvels & Tales in 1987. Nesbit's fantasy novels were key texts in my PhD. I taught Five children and it in every course I could squeeze it into.

I don't worship authors, and I have never been particularly interested in Nesbit as a person, but last year I happened to visit her grave.

I am sceptical of sequels and prequels, especially written by someone else. (I have written an infuriated essay on so-called sequels to Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables). But if done well, they can be wonderful. Jacqueline Wilson's Four children and it was a joy to read.

Some days ago I stumbled upon Kate Saunder's Five children on the Western front. I must admit that I had not read anything by this author, but I was intrigued by the title (and it acknowledged “inspired by...”). 

It was, obviously, very different from Wilson's witty and hilarious book, a playful travesty rather than a proper sequel. I could not help comparing Five children on the Western front with A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which is one long, idyllic prologue to the Great War where all title characters die. The mother is of course modelled on Nesbit. 

Five children on the Western front starts with a glimpse of the idyll, portrayed in Nesbit's trilogy, and moves on quickly to the War, with a prolepsis suggesting that two boys of the adventurous five, whom Nesbit calls exceptionally lucky children, will not make it. The reader's privileged knowledge over the character is a tremendously attractive feature for me, as a professional as well as pleasure reader. It makes my guts turn. There they are, the five children – actually six, with an additional sister, cleverly called Edie, short for Edith. There they are, once again exceptionally lucky to meet their old friend the Psammead, on a warm and sunny autumn day of 1914. Cyril is an officer, about to be dispatched to France. Everybody knows that the war will be short, maybe a couple of weeks. If the Psammead knows otherwise he keeps it for himself.

It is a powerful book. It is perfectly stylised: just enough “beastly” and “A1 brick” to feel Nesbit-y without overdoing it. The characters are developed in a remarkably believable and tactful way, from their never-wishing-to-grow-up pastoral to inevitably-growing-up in the shadow of war. I would say, Nesbit couldn't have done it better herself. She most probably couldn't have. The Great War had this effect on writers: they hid in the Hundred Acre Wood with Just William and Swallows and Amazons. But from a hundred years' perspective, it feels profound: all early twentieth-century children's literature children would die in the Great War. I don't believe literary characters have a life outside the text, but this book makes me change my mind.

I have now lived in the UK almost seven years, and even before the centenary last year I had been deeply moved by the Great War indelible trauma. The collective memory doesn't shout: “Hooray, we won the war”, as many other nations do. Instead, it soberly and respectfully mourns its children. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Final reflections

This has been a useful exercise since I had a chance not only to indulge in nostalgia, but reflect on why I stopped doing all these things. I have noticed that most of them have two features in common. Firstly, they are all connected to the place and time of my childhood and youth. We made things that weren't available, and we did things because there were no other options. When I moved to Sweden and things became available, they became less attractive. I have another example: we took incredible efforts to get hold of horoscopes, but when you can read them in any daily paper, what's the point?

Secondly, all the activities I described are things that bring people together; and again, bring together because there are few or no alternatives, of the kind people have now when we spend most of our spare time one-to-one with computers or other devices. I feel frustrated when I see members of my family sitting in the same room, each with a device, often playing the same game or even laughing at the same Facebook joke. We have lost something important, and I am resisting it as much as I can, meeting people in real life, spending quality time with people I love. I'd like to belong to a knitting club, or do Saturday baking for charity, or find someone to play scrabble with. Live scrabble, not virtual scrabble.

Maybe it's my own fault. I haven't been active in finding fishing or skiing companions, and I have recently been consistently choosing solitary pastimes, such as walking or gardening.

Whatever the reason, I don't really regret that I don't do any of these things, because obviously I am doing other things instead. Read my blog if you want to know more.