Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Annual report

At the end of each year I usually make for myself a mental, or sometimes even written, overview. Grandchildren born, travels undertaken, books and articles published, conferences, lectures, awards, new friends and other accomplishments. This year, everything is overshadowed by the Decisive Change. Imagine, a year ago I had no idea where I would be today. Even though a vague idea of a new job was somewhere at the back of my mind it was as far away as the North Pole. (I would like to go to the North Pole, but I don't think it is a realistic desire. I tend to get seasick).

Then everything happened very quickly, and I am still out of breath. I am still expecting to wake up one morning and discover that it has been a dream. And I cannot help contemplating what I am doing right now in the Alternative Reality in which I didn't stay away from a conference banquet in Barcelona.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Closed and open

Today we went to Peterborough to see its magnificent cathedral. It was closed. By contrast, the shopping mall was open.

A spooky city

My daughter and I take a walk in the city. It is dead. Everything is closed, not even a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee. The colleges do not allow visititors. The stalls in the Market place are abandoned. The buses do not run. Almost no cars and still less cyclists. No boats on the river. The streets are empty, save a handful of tourists who obviously don't celebrate Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas is saved!

There is one thing about Christmas that is more sacred than food and presents. Take the ham from a Swede, and he will sigh and comply. Take his Christmas Disney from him, and he'll kill you. Over forty years running, a Disney medley has been shown on Swedish television on Christmas Eve, at 3pm. All family activities are arranged around this important moment. No child, however impatient, would dream of opening a present before Disney. This is the only cultural heritage all Swedish people, young and old, share. The quotes, the songs, the jokes.

So how shall I survive? (I must admit that we survived in California).

Thanks to my clever daughter I now have a link to YouTube. If you want to share the most Swedish of all Swedish traditions with me tomorrow, click here.

Monday, 22 December 2008

A horror story with a happy ending

It is "the day before the day before the day", as the Swedish saying goes, and it is the day to get a Christmas tree. Some people might say: what's the point of having a tree when you have no small children. But we have always had a tree, except maybe some years when we went to warmer latitudes for the holidays. So after we had loaded for Christmas dinner we crossed the road to the garden store, where Staffan some days ago had investigated local supplies of Christmas trees. But, what a chock! - not one single tree. "No sir, sorry sir, we're out of trees, no we are not expecting any more". Unbelieable. We checked the B&Q nearby. Not a tree. "Sorry sir..." I have never been so disappointed since my parents did not give me a dog when I was small. We had a couple of days ago seen a flower shop with a gimmick outside used for wrapping Christmas trees, and I also remembered the farm where we occasionally go for meat. However, I envisioned all the food we had just bought and that I had to cook, so I entrusted Staffan with the task of tackling the tree issue. I did suggest that he might ring before going there.

Off he went, leaving me with ham and red cabbage and beans. It takes a lot of time to cook a proper Swedish Christmas dinner, and somehow it takes just as long time to cook for three as for twenty. I forgot the time, but when it had gone two hours I wondered whether I should start worrying. I know Staffan well, and I know that he is stubborn, but in two hours you can almost go as far as Manchester. I didn't really feel a Christmas tree was worth the trip.

He called some time after, could not explain where he was, but asked me to check an address on his computer screen. Two hours later he came in triumphantly, and I must admit that it is one of the prettiest trees we've ever had.

Friday, 19 December 2008

We are best!

I have during the past weeks heard a lot about RAE. Busy as I am with all kinds of things and confused by endless acronyms, I haven't given this mystery much thought. The day before yesterday an email message announced that the RAE results would be released one minute past midnight. I am sorry to admit that I didn't care then either. Yesterday everybody at the Faculty was agitated, and there were rumours of abundant champagne at high places.

My dear husband who reads newspapers enlightened me when I came home. RAE spells our Research Assessment Exercise, and the results are that Cambridge is best in the UK. Although I haven't contributed anything to this game, I feel proud as if I have won it myself.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The holiest

I have always declared that I am a literature person, not a book person. And especially not a manuscript person. I have never understood the awe of looking at or even holding an original manuscript of a favourite book or a famous book or any book. A manuscript is just a bundle of paper.

I know this is a very immature way of thinking.

I once visited a famous children's literature archive, simply because they invited me to give a talk. I had out of politeness to show some interest and asked to see the file of an author I was just then working on. It was illuminating. But not my cup of tea.

It so happened that I today had a chance to see the original manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh, which is the best book ever written. It is one of the treasures of the Wren Library of Trinity College, and my friends here, who know my passion for Pooh have repeatedly inquired how many times I have seen it yet. I would have gone to see it at some point, just to satisfy them. But it so happened. (OK, I'll brag: I was interviewed for BBC about Pooh in Russia. The rustle of old manuscript pages makes a tremendous effect in a radio programme).

I prepared to fake admiration, but when the custodian opened the case, I felt something very much like awe. Or was it curiosity? The manuscript does not open the way the printed version does, and it set it rolling. What other secrets does the manuscript hide? Piglet has a different name. Some bits are deleted, some additions scribbled in the margins. Does it matter? Can it change my understanding of the text? I am not particularly interested in authors' lives either. I don't tremble at the mere thought that the godlike Mr Milne once held this piece of paper. Yet there is something that touches my heart while the librarian slowly turns the pages. The magic of ink on yellowish ragged paper? The curlicues, the gaps between lines, large margins, indents. The text is no longer just a text, it becomes a work of art, a visual image, a material object. Like seeing an original painting rather than a postcard. I want to spend a long time studying each page, each paragraph, for purely aesthetical enjoyment.

I am afraid I will have to go back to the Wren library. Maybe more than once.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The portrait of the blogger as an old reader

If I write about one book every week, it will take me two years to cover the traditional "Hundred best books in the world". Is it worth while? I may try and see where it takes me.

Condition: no work-related books. This rules out all children's books, but on the other hand the definition is negotiable. There are critics who claim that there is no such thing as a children's book. They give a variety of reasons for the statement. Anyway, no work-related books. But are there any non-work-related books for a scholar of literature? Aren't we all damaged forever by our cynically analytical approach to printed word, and by extension, to all stories? I remember watching The Lion King on television with my kids, who, on hearing my comments on Hamlet and the Oedipus complex, told me to shut up and never watch another movie in their company (they have become more tolerant since then). So can I really read Moby Dick without noticing the figurative language, the symbols, the underlying ideology, the ambiguous point of view, the intertextual links... I'll stop here, before I get lost in terminology. Once again, can I read a book like I listen to music, without critical reflection? Can musicologists, or musicians, like my father, listen to music for pure delight? Can art critics enjoy a painting without contemplating composition and perspective? Does knowledge kill joy? If so, my profession is self-destructive. I really enjoyed Moby Dick more now thanI did forty years ago. But does it depend on my sophistication as a professional reader or my life experience? In any case, to write about the "Hundred best books in the world" I need to dissociate the professional from the individual. What a challenge!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Slow reading

I remember when I was young my mother and I were amazed by the amount of books my father used to read. He was completely omnivorous in reading, novels, poetry, biographies, travel books. For me and my mother reading was - still is for me - a substantial part of work. Reading for pleasure is therefore something reserved at best for holidays, provided that there aren't piles of books that must be read during the holidays, as the case is when you are a reviewer or on a book jury. Reading for work oftentimes implies reading fast, in many cases stating from the first page that the book is poorly written, boring and uninspiring, but still has to be read. Sometimes I see a book and know that I have read it, but have no memory of it. On the other hand, I have discovered that I have forgotten essential details in books I thought I remembered well, so I don't trust my memory and always re-read books before I write about them or teach them, even though I have read them ten times before.

Perhaps I am a snob, but I cannot read trash even when I am very tired. Not even when I am on a plane. Trash makes me irritated. (Trash is a matter of definition of course).

So what do I read when I read for pleasure? Looking back at the year that is almost over, I realize that I have re-read three masterpieces that all require slow reading. Books that you do not read for the plot, but for the pleasure of the language, the sound of words, the elegance of phrasing. Three books similar in that nothing happens in them. Three books that I read when I was young and of course didn't understand or appreciate then. The Magic Mountain. Don Quixote. Moby Dick. Yes, it took me a whole year to read three books, while parallel to them I swallowed dozens upon dozens of children's books for work, and also a good number of airplane books of good quality, to kill the time, and naturally a good deal of professional literature. Yet I think it is the first time I have consistently chosen, one after another, these calm, plotless books in which you savour words, almost reading aloud, lingering on paragraphs; I even looked up some words in a dictionary.

On closer consideration, I believe this slow reading is part of my new lifestyle that includes papermaking, pottery and dollhouses. I allow myself the luxury of reading the way I listen to music. You cannot speed up music without distorting it. We shouldn't speed up reading when we read for pleasure. Also, you can hear favorite music over and over again. You can finish Moby Dick and start again and enjoy it just as much. I did not know this simple fact when I was young.

As a professional literary critic I suddenly find it hard to articulate my response. I am right now grading students' papers including their "self-portrait as a reader". In the beginning of the term I found the topic a bit ridiculous. After weeks of supervision, I realize how difficult it is - if you do it critically. Can I, to my own satisfaction, write a self-portrait of myself as a reader in 2008? Have the three novels been formative for me? Was the time right for choosing them? What have I got out of them? Is it necessary to get something out of your reading?

Fortunately, there are so many books out there. I have already started on the next slow read, Remembrance of Things Past.


The reason for my recent trip to the old country was that a younger colleague whose work I have closely followed defended her doctoral thesis. Now for cultural clashes: I have been a co-supervisor for a doctoral student at Worcester, and when she had her viva recently I was not invited. Nothing wrong wih me; in the UK students defend themselves, confronted on their own with two examiners. A student here at Cambridge has already asked me desperately whether she really will have to go through viva alone, without me holding her hand. Well, that's the way it is.

But I like the Swedish - or Scandinavian - system better because a doctoral defence is a show, a well-deserved catharsis after years of hard work. It is public and entertaining and almost always followed by a feast. In a way, it is more the opponent's task than the respondent, the latter already having done her share. Having experienced both positions, I know that opponents are more nervous. The audience is always on the respondent's side.

I remember my oldest son getting both upset and angry at my defence. He thought the opponent was nasty toward me. (In fact, she was exceptionally nice).

At best, a defence is a professional dialogue of the kind that seldom occur otherwise. This was definitely the case in Stockholm. The opponent was critical in a positive way and a pleasure to listen to. The respondent was alert and confident.

Champagne was served in the library while the examination committee convened, and there was a marvelous celebration in the evening.

Several of my former and present students from Åbo in Finland had come over, which gave me a foretaste of the next weekend and a defence at Åbo Akademi. This famous university has still more festive ceremonies than Stockholm. I have several times hinted that I would like an honorary degree because beside your doctor's hat you get a sword. Wouldn't I look gorgeous with a sword?

For the defence itself the chairperson (kustos) and the opponent must have hats, which they don't put on - just as you don't put on hoods with your academic dress in Cambridge - but carry in your left hand. Every step is minutely prescribed, and every sentence has to be correct. Thus: not "on half of..." but "on behalf of", which is easy to mix up when you are nervous. As a kustos, I was if possible more nervous than the opponent and the respondent together. I also had a bad cold and sounded like a mute swan. But I am good at pretending, so I guess nobody noticed. But nobody could fail to notice my gown. Yes, I did wear my Cambridge gown and sat there in front of the audience, basically having no other function than sit there and look academic. Someone told me afterwards that I looked impressive when I signalled the opponent and the respondent to stand up or sit down, waving my sleeves like vampire's wings.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Catching up

I haven't written anything for almost two weeks. My normal attitude is that I only want to write here when I have something substantial to say, not just write for the sake of writing. Yet I have tons of things to tell. It's just that I haven't had access to internet. You would expect that visiting a civilized country such as Sweden would not imply electronic limitations. But this time I stayed with my daughter, and she took her laptop to work every day... Lame excuse. Try better.

Well, actually it feels weird to be in a place that isn't your place any more.

During many years I used to have the same nightmare. I am in Moscow, have been in Moscow several days, but haven't met any friends or relatives, they don't ring, and I cannot remember any phone number. This is how I felt last week in Stockholm.

To be fair, I had a horrendous cold and spent most of my time in bed. But I have contemplated the options. After I have met all the grandchildren, after I have met all the grandchildren several times, met some friends over lunch or midmorning coffee - what am I supposed to do in a big city that isn't my home any more? Go to a museum?

The reason I stayed in Stockhlm for a week was that I had an event on Friday, Dec 5, and then another in Finland, last Saturday. It seemed so natural to combine these and enjoy a whole week with friends and relatives. But friends and relatives work on weekdays and are too tired in the evenings. Bad planning.

Two friends came to visit me while I was in bed. It was also strange, receiving visits in somebody else's home. Making apologies for the absence of coffee and sugar. Julia says in her blog that I wasn't too disturbing, didn't make much noise, washed up the dishes and didn't move anything. (She doesn't say that I took care of her cats).

I had lunch with a friend. I did see one batch of grandchildren before I collapsed. I met Filip to buy him a Christmas gift that needed trying on. I took myself to the Children's Books Institute to have a look at a book that isn't available at Cambridge University Library, and amazingly, they didn't have it either. I know for sure I've held it in my hands, must have been in the US. It felt very peculiar to come to the Instutite more or less as a foreign guest. They were as usual extremely helpful.

I also went to my old working place, because a younger colleague had her doctoral defence (that was one of the two reasons I made the journey). Some people drowned me in questions, others pretended they didn't see me. Did I really look ghostlike? I browsed through the remaining books in my old office and decided that I needed some of them after all. I am sure I need many books that somebody has taken. Too bad.

Also - I seem to have supressed it altogether - I have signed the final papers and submitted the keys to the house. Somebody else will tend my garden in spring.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Yesterday I received intructions for assessment of student essays. This is the umpteenth system of grades I will have to learn. The first, in Russia, was quite easy, 1 to 5, with the reservation that 1, the lowest, was never used. In Sweden, they first used 1-5 in schools (if they used grades at all), but at the university it was Fail, Pass and Pass with distinction. Except that in teacher traning it was just Fail or Pass. Recenty, school grades have become Pass with exceptional distinction, Pass with distinction, Pass and Not Yet Pass (the latter apparently not to give the students a lifetime trauma with Fail).

A couple of years ago Swedish universities changed to the European system, which is A-F, with E, F and Fx denoting Fail, with some slight nuanses in the degree of failure. In Finland, where I have taught extensively, it used to be 1-3, with four quartergrades in between, that is, 1,0, 1,25, 1,5, 1,75 etc. But for master and doctoral grades, the old Latin grades were, and still are, used: Appobatur, Lubenter approbatur, Non sine laude approbatur, Cum laude approbatur, Magna cum laude approbatur, Eximia cum laude approbatur and Laudatur. I have never met anyone who got Laudatur.

In the US, the grades were A, A-, B+, B, B- and so on, except for final grades, where pluses and minuses were not allowed.

Here in Cambridge, they use A, B+ and B, but there are variations within each grade, so that A can be 70 or 72, B+ 66 or 64 - or something like that, I will still have to study it carefully, to get an A for my grading.

To my complete despair, Morag has mentioned in passing that this system is only used for master; for undergraduate essays, a different one will be applied.