Jul 072014

I began studying at university again today. I’m still trying to do an MA in literary studies! The assessment requirements for this semester don’t appear to be too onerous (famous last words!), but as always, the poor organisational abilities of some of the academics have come to the fore. Why is it impossible to organise the unit readings in alphabetical order, in ONE file, and to ensure all the links are working? Surely a geeky minion would be happy to sort that out for a tech-shy academic. I would be happy to sort it out, just to save myself from all the clicking and searching and frrrustration that will ensue throughout the next twelve weeks.

What is the first theoretical aspect we’re looking at in this unit on the theory and practice of life writing? Yes, it had to be the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘I’. It looks as though we’re expected to explore those concepts with reference to Freud, Lacan, et al., and yeah, I’ve done that already as an undergrad and no, I don’t want to do it again. Buddhist philosophy has a fair bit to say about the ‘self’, but I shall keep that under my hat and pretend to play nice with the psychoanalysts. However, I can’t seem get away from bloody Freud. He is definitely my bête noire. I quit an entire course last year because of bloody Freud. Oh, Sigi, why do you haunt me thus?


The other unit I’m doing this semester is ‘writing for communication media’, which means that I’m supposed to learn how to write a decent press release, report, persuasive letter and academic essay. I think there might be a bit about writing a review, as well. No doubt I’ll learn plenty I don’t already know. Also, I have to nominate the areas of weakness in my writing – um, where do I start? I think that cutting my prolixity and paying more attention to proper grammar are two of the many areas in which I need to improve. :P

Aaand, there are the usual student archetypes on the course: the old white guys who know EVERYTHING, the teachers who know EVERYTHING, the people with 501 degrees who know EVERYTHING, the people who pretend not to know anything so other people will help them, and people like me who don’t want to interact with any of the above. However, I’m resolved to stick my fingers in my ears and keep my mouth shut this time around. ‘Whatever’ will be my watchword. [Yeah, right, but I do intend to try!] Here is this week’s reading for the life writing unit:


I may be a bit AWOL for a while, on and off. I have quite a lot of reading to get through, but at least I don’t have to read Middlemarch and Jane Eyre and six other novels in about two weeks as I did on that other disastrous course that I quit earlier this year. I’m hoping my brain doesn’t seize, that my spirits stay reasonably high, and that no major family drama happens in the next few weeks. My study mate is raring to go! Onward! :P


*I think this course is my SIXTH attempt to capture an elusive MA in literary studies. I just keep quitting, mostly because my brain tends to go haywire with alarming regularity. This is the first MA course I’ve attempted without being on psychotropic medication, so who knows? Maybe it might work out this time.

Jul 062014

Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney, Granta, 2013.

Valeria Luiselli’s slim volume of personal essays is beautifully and intelligently written, and it made me feel quite envious, really. If I were to be a writer, this is the sort of thing I would like to write. It is obvious Luiselli is not kidding when she says she was a voracious reader in her teens, because she references so many ideas and writers in her essays that it made my head spin a little.

The daughter of a Mexican ambassador, Luiselli’s peripatetic childhood has made her a life-long traveller and observer. She notices things that you and I probably would pass by unremarked, and this is the beauty of her essays. Ostensibly, she does not write about big things or take on large issues, but her oblique approach has the same result in the end: her words still made me think and ponder even though her manner of writing is more sideways and poetic. One thing did bother me a lot about this collection, however. I am left wondering whose words I was actually reading. This is the conundrum I experience every time I read a translated work: how does it differ from the original and am I, in effect, reading the re-written version of the translator which is a whole other thing from the original written by the author? This problem bothers me a great deal and I cannot see any resolution besides learning to read other languages, but I doubt that will ever happen.

The essays in the book focus mostly on places and spaces. These passages are chosen at random; I could just as well quote the entire book because the language is so precise and beautiful:

Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book. But the metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments that will be bridges; words that will be like scaffolding with protects fragile constructions.

One day, after a certain amount of obstinacy on my part, the two guards of the ex-Cervantes library finally allowed me to pass into the ruined interior. Inside, there was not the slightest trace of the volumes that had once resided there – perhaps just a screw clinging to the peeling wall, against which a bookcase had rested. But there was still an air of bookishness: a heavy atmosphere, the stink of squandered ink, of ideas bound in hardback.

Wisdom from Cyril Connolly: ‘Imagination = nostalgia for the past, the absent; it’s the liquid solution in which art develops the snapshot of reality.’

But the nostalgia isn’t always a nostalgia for the past. There are things that produce nostalgia in advance – space that we know to be lost as soon as we find them – place in which we know ourselves to be happier than we will ever be afterwards. In such situations, the soul twists itself round, as if in a voluntary simulacrum of seeing its present in retrospect. Like an eye watching itself look for from the perspective of a later time, it sees that remote present and yearns for it.

The difference between flying in an airplane, walking and riding a bicycle is the same as that between looking through a telescope, a microscope and a movie camera.

I have Luiselli’s other book, Faces in the Crowd, to read but I am not sure when I will finish it. Life seems to have overtaken my reading plans yet again, and spare time is one thing that is in short supply at the moment. It seems to me that ‘never enough time’ is the universal reader’s lament. Anyway, I liked Sidewalks a lot. If only I could write like Valeria Luiselli, or maybe, like Christina MacSweeney.

I read this for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Lit event in July, but after my shame-making stuff-up with my previous post, I think I will just hide over here and not tell them about it. :)

Jul 042014

With My Dog-Eyes, Hilda Hilst, tr. Adam Morris, Melville House, 2014.

[Edited to add: OOOPS. Apologies to everyone. Hilst was translated from Portuguese and not Spanish, because as everyone else but me remembers, Brazil's language is Portuguese and not Spanish. I feel really stupid now!]

Oh, my goodness. I borrowed this book from the library because, being a bit pressed for time at the moment, I wanted some shortish *Spanish books to read for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Lit event in July. At only fifty-nine pages, this is more a short story than a book, but the blurb interested me, as did the introduction. Hilst was born in 1930, the daughter of a Brazilian coffee baron, and came from extreme wealth and privilege. She studied to become a lawyer, travelled in Europe and famously, stalked Marlon Brando with the intention of seducing him. Sadly, her plan did not come to fruition, but it seems as though she had a good time trying. Like so many writers, Hilst did not take kindly to the social dictates of her day and gravitated toward the bohemian.

By the time she was thirty, Hilst decided she wanted to write full-time, so she built a house on an old coffee plantation and there she stayed until she died. Apparently, she took to alcohol and used it to blot out ‘reality’. Her father had schizophrenia and this affected her profoundly. Her home turned into something of an artist’s colony and she lived with ‘a rotating cast of friends, lovers, aspiring artists, bohemian poets, and dozens of dogs.’ Her writing career spanned almost fifty years and she wrote poetry, plays and prose. She was very famous in Brazil and won most of the prestigious literary prizes, but she was a recluse and notoriously cranky, it seems, and she once broke a bottle at a public event and threatened to kill a man who had disrespected her work. Hilst died in 2004 and only two of her novels have been translated to English – some of her other work is quite pornographic, I believe, and after reading With my Dog-Eyes I can see that she had a bit of a fascination with the functions of the human body.

I am quite impressed with the translation because it must have been a nightmare to transpose the Spanish to English. I think it is probably a wonderful translation but I cannot be sure about that because, HOLA! Hilst’s writing is mighty hard to follow. It is clear Hilst did not care about writing conventions.


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What if I wrote random words on slips of paper, put them all into a hat and threw the hat up into the air. When the words floated down and came to settle on the floor, what if I crawled around with a pen and paper in hand and just wrote down the words, any old how. This is what Hilst’s writing feels like to me. Occasionally a few words make sense, but so much of it makes no immediate sense at all and weirdly, that is perfectly ok. Non-grammatical stream-of-consciousness is how I would describe this writing which, it seems to me, inhabits the liminal space between poetry and prose. If you read it head-on, it makes little sense, but if you approach it with an eye for metaphor and symbol, as with poetry, then there are little glimpses of narrative, but it is quite hard work, at least I found it to be so.

Clearly, this is writing as art, and avant garde art, at that. Gertrude Stein springs to mind, as it seems to me that she was engaged in a similar project to push language as far as it could go without breaking it entirely. There IS a story in the narrative, but as I said, it is quite difficult to catch hold of, because no sooner did I think I had nabbed a corner and was reeling it in, then the words would dash off again in another direction and I would be left staggering along behind, trying to catch up, trying to make meaning of the words. Maybe that is the wrong approach. Maybe it would have been better to just let the words wash over me, to just look at them without trying to make sense of them, as I do when looking at abstract art, and letting whatever is IN the symbols speak to me. Maybe trying to ‘interpret’ the symbols in the usual way we read is the wrong way to approach Hilst’s writing.

Anyway, it was an interesting reading experience, even though it all soared loftily over my head. I would like to read something else by Hilst and see if it is similar or different. I am not sure what she intended with her writing, but it is so weird and wild that I probably will not be forgetting it for a while.

Jul 012014

My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, Crown, 2014.

I felt very excited when I heard this book had been published. Yes! A memoir about a woman’s relationship with a classic novel! That is right up my crooked little avenue. I must admit to having an intense, one-sided, relationship with a few books (and their implied [imaginary] authors), so I thought I would really enjoy reading about Mead’s love for Middlemarch.

Sadly, the book is more biography and literary criticism than it is memoir. Oh, there are snippets here and there about Mead’s life, and a travelogue of sorts, as she relates how she visits some of Eliot’s homes, and peruses her papers in libraries. And, by the way, how terrible is it that Eliot’s former residences have not been preserved as national treasures? I do not even want to think about Eliot’s ex-study at the now dilapidated Bird Grove being used as a room where young women are taught how to sew – Eliot’s head would surely be spinning if she knew that. Sewing is such a gendered activity and to teach it in the room where Eliot wrote and thought and dreamed is a kind of sacrilege as far as I am concerned. However, although Mead admits to being a little nonplussed at the poor condition of the building, she writes that learning to sew is acquiring a skill and a means of making a living, ‘a way for young women to rely on their energies and resources, and thereby be better equipped to bear the pressures imposed by fathers and brothers’ (p.71). Mead is talking about young Bangladeshi migrant women and she seems quite content with the notion that learning to sew for a living is a positive outcome for them, when clearly, given the tenor of the book, if she had been restricted to sewing for a living she would have gone raving mad. I may be a little biased on this point because once upon a time, in another country and in another incarnation, I worked in a sewing sweatshop for a few months. It was the only job I could find in a small country town – sewing the leg seams of children’s pyjamas. Oh my. The tedium; the aching back; the boredom of spending eight hours a day controlling the wild antics of an industrial sewing machine. I quit one day when I could take no more, and I was so glad to bid farewell to the other women – and the rats that used to scuttle up the aisles and provide us with comic relief from our labours. Commercial sewing is not something to aspire to; it is something (mostly) women do when they have no other choice of employment and I would argue that all young women in England should have other choices – as Mead herself did. She read Middlemarch before she escaped her own provincial life and went to study at Oxford. It seems that she identified with Dorothea’s yearning to live a more full and interesting life than the one for which she was destined, so I am puzzled that she seems to think that learning to sew in order to make a living is a good outcome for other women. Does Mead think that girls and women from the migrant Bangladeshi community do not have the same aspirations as she did? I must admit to feeling rather uncomfortable about this casual display of a privileged mindset – because attending Oxford and doing a master’s in journalism at a NYC university is not the average person’s educational experience. Yes, her own hard work and her brain got her there, but most people are not offered those opportunities. Most people are stuck with the equivalent of ‘learning to sew’, despite their hopes and dreams. Having escaped her own provincial destiny, I thought Mead would have expressed sympathy for women whose future seems to be linked to a sewing machine, but she appears to be quite content with the status quo.

I am not on the ‘same page’ as Mead, either, when it comes to Middlemarch. I do like Middlemarch and think it is a wonderful novel, but I have never been able to take Dorothea seriously. As I see it, Dorothea is extremely conceited and stupid. She shows little evidence of intelligence and has absolutely no common sense, and far from identifying with her, well, she just makes me laugh. I see Middlemarch as social satire with some overly-didactic philosophy mixed in. The narrator attempts to elicit a sympathetic response from the reader towards many of the characters in the book, a ploy that is part of Eliot’s belief that a sense of ‘fellow-feeling’ could be fostered through fiction. I tend to be stubbornly resistant when anyone tries to direct my thoughts and feelings, and my contrary self simply refuses to be empathetic when I read Middlemarch. Instead, I find the narrative hilarious, clever, and often quite vicious. For me, Dorothea represents all the silly young women in the Victorian era who were desperate to fall in love and marry, and then found that their fantasies had nothing to do with reality.

Dorothea had an income of seven hundred pounds a year, which is about half a million pounds in today’s money, so Mead tells us. I could live quite satisfactorily on that, but Dorothea comes from a world of such privilege that she thinks it is a mere trifle and she she thinks that she needs more than she already has in order fulfil the conceit that she is destined to do great good in the world. She wants more prestige, as the wife of a noted scholar, and more money, as the wife of a reasonably well-off man. I think Dorothea gets exactly what she deserves and her stupidity and pride and folly is a lesson to women that they should not project their fantasies onto men, marry them, and expect to live happily ever after. Although, Eliot does allow Dorothea to marry Will and have a more fulfilled life than she would have had as Casaubon’s widow, but I think she would have chaffed at the bit and been unhappy as Will’s parliamentary wife, stuck at home with the children most of the time, doing her little ‘good works’ here and there. Celia, on the other hand, is practical and down to earth. Rather than striving to have what she wants, she is content to want what she can have, and so she marries the rich baronet next door and chooses to be happy. This is, clearly, another telling of the Marianne/Elinor dichotomy in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the philosophical issues surrounding the debates between the Englightenment’s championing of ‘sense’ and Romanticism’s championing of ‘sensibility’ are teased out in the narrative. Indeed, Dorothea is shown in contrast with Mary Garth, the eminently sensible young woman who knows exactly what she wants, and with Rosamond Vincy, who is very beautiful but far from sensible.

Anyway, Mead became a journalist after university and lived in NYC. She is a staff writer for ‘The New Yorker’ and as that implies, she writes beautifully. However, this is simply not the book I was expecting. It is biography lite and literary criticism extra-lite, and there are only tiny little insertions of ‘memoir’. As I remember it, the book was promoted as being a memoir, but we get a narrative about Eliot’s life and what she believed and did. I think that Eliot was a true genius, because she was just so brilliant and learned and intelligent, but this book focuses more on Eliot’s physical appearance* and her relationships with her partners and stepchildren than it does on her wide and varied areas of intellectual endeavour and achievement, and I think that is a great pity.

I have to admit to finding this a rather disappointing read, although I think it will probably suit people wanting a basic introduction to Eliot and Middlemarch. Mead does not give away much about herself and I found her an aloof presence hovering around the edges of the book. She does not seem to see the humour in Middlemarch – and it is often totally hilarious, with its strong satire and deep irony. Yes, Middlemarch is a truly great and accomplished novel and everyone should read it, but I find its intrusive narrator far too preachy and overtly didactic to want to make the book, or its author, my life’s companion.


*Mead seems to be overly concerned that Eliot was considered ‘plain’. She was widely acknowledged as being very plain, but it did not seem to hold her back in life. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage because no one ‘snapped her up’ as a young bride, so she had time to mature intellectually without being dictated to by a husband. I spy a silver lining.