Death of a Writer: the Sick, Sordid World of Academia

September 20, 2008

Michael Collins’ Death of a Writer asks which is the bigger crime, plagiarism or murder?  Society might say murder, but academia might say plagiarism.  In this literary detective story, E. Robert Pendleton started off well and appears to be headed nowhere fast.  After early literary success, he is rotting as a literary professor at a small, elite liberal arts college in the Midwest.  After bringing his successful nemesis to campus, Pendleton attempts suicide but fails.  Directionless graduate student Adi Wiltshire is bequeathed his estate and uncovers a little-known manuscript of Pendleton’s called Scream, which is an existential exploration of the world with a gruesome murder thrown in.  As the republished Scream climbs the charts while Pendleton remains unaware in a coma, cold-case detective Jon Ryder notices parallels between the murder in the book and an unsolved murder in the town.  Did Pendleton murder the young girl and use the material for his book?  If he did, does it matter in terms of the reception of the book?  Ryder seems to be everywhere at once, uncovering the town’s secrets while his primary reason for being there, the murder of Amber Jewel, appears to remain unsolved.

Death of a Writer was an odd book.  At times I loved it, and at times it annoyed me, which I suspect was Collins’ goal.  He structured the book in such a way that everything had a purpose and a meaning.  For example, the Ryder, the detective, appears at times not to be a very good detective and overlooking in-your-face clues to pursue flimsy suspects.  At first I wondered if this was poor writing, but I came to realize that it was a intentional part of the book.  Collins meant for Ryder to be absurd.  

Collins effortlessly savages the academic world AND the detective novel in one fell swoop, and it is marvelous.  Everyone is a suspect for the flimsiest of reasons while the real villain remains unmasked. Oh, and let’s not leave out the German philosophy.  I never read much Nietzsche, but after this novel, I consider myself well informed.   It’s interesting because you are tempted to dismiss the novel as a satire of academia, but then it becomes a very hard-boiled and grim detective novel.  Bad things happen and often without any real rhyme or reason other than that’s the way it was, which is true to the existential spirit of the book.  It’s sad and funny and grim and awful and infuriating all at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book.  It’s slim, yet about 15 different complex things are going on in it.  If you look plays within plays and things like that, then you’ll love this book because it’s like a book within a book within a book:  an novel about academia within a detective novel within a book making fun of both.


The World Before Her: Kinda Sad

July 13, 2008

Sometimes I wonder if I have unreasonably high standards for books.  Or maybe I am simply too ignorant of what “good” is.  It seems like too many books fail to please me.  Am I not discerning enough?  Am I overly critical? 

The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall is one of those books that makes me doubt my competence as a reader.  It tells the story of George Eliot (nee Mary Ann or Marian Evans), author of classics such as Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch, after her marriage to the younger John Cross much later in life.  Weisgall alternates the chapters on Eliot with chapters set 100 years later on Caroline Spingold, a young sculptor married to an older, wealthy man and appears to have an enviable life.  Both narratives begin in Venice…Eliot and Cross have journeyed there for their honeymoon, and it is there that Eliot discovers the emotional, physical and intellectual limits of her marriage.  Spingold and her husband have journeyed there for her husband’s business, but Spingold is left to tour Venice on her own.  Her husband has no time for art or beauty and rues the fact that she seems to have become a real person.  Both Eliot and Spingold have spent time in Venice previously and cannot help but compare their earlier experience with the current one.  The book continues to progress their lives:  Eliot and Cross journey back to England and settle into their new home; Spingold returns to New York, argues with her husband, prepares for her next show and ultimately changes her life.  Eliot’s ending is sad; Spingold’s is happy.

Ultimately, I preferred the Eliot narrative.  And it was horrifically sad.  Why did she marry John Cross after her lover of many decades died?  How could she have not realized in time that he did not see her clearly and preferred to see her as the moral George Eliot, not the flesh-and-blood, doubting, brilliant Evans?  Of course, I’m looking at it through 2008 eyes.  But even though Eliot longed for the normal marriage she had been denied and craved a normal life free from scandal, it seemed as though she had enough money and clout to do what she wished.  But Mary Ann Evans wanted respectability.  What an interesting set of contradictions she was! It was interesting how such an intellect and talent as Eliot/Evans faced crippling self-doubt.  How she considered herself and was considered by others to be fairly unattractive (not simply homely but ugly) but how the regard for her face and figure changed as her intellect was acknowledged and revered.  I wonder if such a change could happen these days.  Has the regard for and weight given to physical appearance taken over completely or is there still enough regard for intellect that it could even overcome a less-than-pleasing countenance?  I would love for my brain to make me beautiful to society’s eyes.  Instead, I’ve often felt my brain warring with my physical appearance:  I’m not beautiful or even pretty and somehow, my brain seems to reinforce that instead of compensate for it.  But back to Eliot/Evans.  ANd how interesting that despite her conventional upbringing and longing for respectability that she should be willing to throw it all away to follow her heart and live unmarried with George Lewes?   And I’m glad she did.  I’m glad that she had decades of happiness with him instead of trying to take cold comfort in doing the right thing and denying herself him.  Good for you, Evans!

I had far less sympathy for Caroline Spingold.  The parralels with Eliot/Evans’ life are many:  dead true love, artist, insufficient, disappointing marriage to a man who wishes you were something else, something more malleable and controllable.  It’s clear that Weisgall wants to examine the decisions the modern, emancipated woman would make when in a similar situation to Eliot’s. Caroline’s story was set in 1980, and I just felt she was foolish.  She was fortunate enough to be able to do something about her situation:  divorce Malcolm, her husband.  Instead, she stayed married to him for 10 years, and waffled over what she should do.  Yes, he did support her art–unlike Eliot, she wasn’t as great a success–but she likely could have worked around that.  Or maybe she couldn’t, but her situation didn’t stir any great sympathy for her.  Her story ends happily: she has renounced Malcolm and married a much more suitable man, but I didn’t like how Weisgall settled it.  There was no great confrontation between her and Malcolm, no great epiphany.  Just a chapter set years later alerting the reader to the fact that she has changed her life. 

Maybe my lack of regard for Caroline’s character is due to the fact that everything came fairly easily to her, and she never had to work hard for anything.  She is very attractive.  She stumbles into a wealthy marriage.  She spent a summer in Venice with her artistic parents when she was 11.  Nice!  I wish Weisgall had given her a bit more depth or had focused all of the book on Eliot.  I don’t think that Caroline is a worthy comparison to Eliot/Evans. 

And what’s up with all the appearances of Venice lately?  Three of my coworkers have gone or are going to Venice this year.  Venice is a major part of Eat, Pray, Love.  All of a sudden, I feel that I need to hop a plane!

The Scandal of the Season: the Birth of the Rape of the Lock

May 6, 2008

Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season fictionalizes the events that led to the creation of Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock.  The poem mocks the quarrel that arose between two aristocratic Catholic families in 18th century London after Lord Petre stole a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor, his crush.  Gee’s book details Pope’s burgeoning writing career and his friendship with neighbors Martha and Theresa Blount.  The Blounts journey to London for the Season, and Pope, in love with Theresa, decides that he needs to go to London as well in order to make progress in his writing.  Once in London, the Blounts and Pope become swept up into society.  Theresa Blount renews an acquaintance with her cousin, Arabella Fermor, and the entire city watches Arabella’s courtship with Lord Petre.  There are Jacobean plots everywhere, and Gee deftly weaves in Petre’s participation with a con man into what ultimately leads him to take a lock of Arabella’s hair.  After a few months, Pope returns home, inspired to write The Rape of the Lock.

 I didn’t know much about Pope before I read this book.  I probably read some of his writing in college but not The Rape of the Lock.  I had no idea of the events surrounding the creation of the poem, and now I want to read it.  Gee is an English professor at Princeton, and the book is full of details about the people and events of the period.  She did a really good job at fictionalizing the events in Pope’s life, and I completely believed that her account could plausibly be what happened between Lord Petre and Arabella.  Some of the plot was a little hard to follow.  For example, I understood the Jacobean scheme, but I didn’t understand the con that was being played on Lord Petre.  I also don’t think I understood exactly why his taking a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission was so awful.  My worst criticism of the book is that I thought all of the characters were fairly unlikeable.  Pope, sympathetic sometimes, was often arrogant.  Theresa was mean.  Martha was…I couldn’t get a read on her character.  Arabella was mean as well.  Their meanness was one-dimensional at times.  Maybe they were really like that. Instead of really feeling vested in characters, I felt like I was watching a scene play out, which was possibly the point.  She was trying to depict history after all. 

If you have any interest in Alexander Pope or 18th century London, I recommend the book.  It was an interesting read.

The Archivist: Do I Dare?

March 12, 2008

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
       T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Archivist by Martha Cooley…I’m struggling with how to summarize this book, which is why it has taken me over a week to post about it.  It was an odd little book.  Ok. Let’s try again.  The Archivist is about Matthias “Matt” Lane, a rare book/documents archivist at a unnamed East Coast university.  The letters of TS Eliot to Emily Hale make up a key piece of the collection; the letters, though, are sealed until 2020.  In his late 60s, Matt has been a widower and contentedly alone and isolated since his wife’s suicide in 1965 (the book is set around 1985), but the arrival of young poet and graduate student Roberta Spire asking to see the letters gives Matt the opportunity to right many wrongs in his past.  For Roberta reminds him of his late wife.  Both women were poets.  Both women struggle with their connection to Judaism, the horror of WW2, and the truth of their parents’ pasts.  Matt, Roberta and Judith (his late wife) also share a love for Eliot’s poetry, and there are also parallels between their lives and Eliot’s life.  Ultimately, Matt, a quiet, solitary, passive man, must find the courage to to do what he thinks is right, to finally act

Sometimes it is uncanny how you  stumble across a book.  I found this book at the county library book sale in 2006 but hadn’t read it yet.  After I read The Secret of Lost Things, I noticed that several reviewers said that it was in the tradition of The Archivist but not as good.  So remembering that I had the book, I decided to squeeze it in. 

It wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be.  I expected it to be more about Eliot.  It was, but he and his writing were in a way just a plot device for the characters and their lives.  The Emily Hale letters actually exist.  Emily Hale bequeathed them to Princeton University, and in reality, they are sealed until 2020.  I am fascinated at the thought of what might exist in those letters.  It seems so rare that we have the opportunity to find out new information or insights about literary greats.  Let’s just say that I hope that those letters avoid the fate they have in the book…when Matt Lane decides to act, he truly ACTS. 

I must admit that I was at times uncomfortable with the Jewish part of the plot–which was a BIG part.  I think my discomfort springs from first of all, a complete inability to comprehend what it must have felt like to be Jewish in America during and after WW2, especially when the revelations about the Holocaust were occurring, a key time in Judith’s life.  The guilt at being in the USA and being isolated from those events and ultimately surviving; the passivity of anyone doing anything to prevent it; the horror at realizing your religion was so despised that members of it had been intentionally exterminated, deemed unworthy to live or exist.  Or the betrayal you feel when you discover (as Roberta does) that your parents were Jewish but converted to Christianity after escaping Germany; your whole life has been a lie.  I can try to imagine what that must feel like, but I feel like my imagination is insufficient for that task.  Some wounds go too deep.  In some ways, perhaps my discomfort is good.  It has made me think, and the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2 have come alive to me in ways they hadn’t before.

Trust, privacy, betrayal and conscience are major themes in the book (between husbands and wives and parents and children), but it was interesting to see them applied to the artist as well.  T.S. Eliot wanted Emily Hale to destroy those letters.  They were his private correspondence not meant to be made public.  Does the artist have a right to privacy?  Where does the art end and the person’s private life begin?  Is it right that we make those letters–any letters–public knowing that it wasn’t what the artist intended even though the artist has long been dead? Eliot felt betrayed by Hale’s decision but she felt betrayed by his decision to end their friendship years before.  I don’t have the answers to those questions.  I’m rather nosy and want to know as much about an artist as possible and what better way than with their letters or private papers?  But do we have a right to them?  Even though Eliot will have been dead for 55 years when the letters are unsealed, is some cosmic wrong or injustice being done in going against his wishes?

 It was a really good book, but I’m not sure if I liked it.  It made me uncomfortable, which is probably a good thing, and I can’t stop thinking about it, which is always a good sign. 

The Secret of Lost Things: Perhaps too much of a secret?

February 29, 2008

I was excited when I found The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay in the library because it was supposed to be a literary mystery, and I enjoy books about books and book/author mysteries.  Unfortunately, this book was not very good. 

The ridiculously naive Rosemary leaves her Tasmanian home after her mother’s death and moves to New York.  She stumbles across the Arcade, a unique bookstore, and recognizing it as a surrogate for home (her mother’s friend owns a small bookstore and Rosemary helped out in it), she manages to land a job there.  The bookstore appears to have very little organization and is peopled with eccentrics.  Walter Geist, the assistant manager, is an albino.  The cashier is a transexual waiting for “her” operation to make her sex change official.  The employee in charge of the art section likes to fondle himself while looking at nude pictures in the store.   Rosemary, who apparently knows nothing about anything, falls in love with co-worker Oscar, who has no time for such a mundane thing as love.  As if reading about the employees’ oddities wasn’t enough, a mystery about a purported lost manuscript by Herman Melville falls into Rosemary’s lap, entangling her, Oscar, and Walter in a quest to find it.   Ultimately, tragedy prevails.

This book was NOT very good.  First of all, I couldn’t believe Rosemary’s gullibility.  Her innocence was too much.   Yes, she lived an isolated life in Tasmania, but for a supposed bookworm, she knows nothing about reality and the cruelty of man to his fellow man.  What kind of books was she reading?  I almost said fairy tales, but fairy tales can be grim.  I think the book was supposed to be set in the present, yet it had a much older vibe to it. 

And I loved how easy it was to figure out what Melville’s lost manuscript could possibly be:  hey, let’s go to the public library and read some of his letters to Hawthorne.  Maybe they will contain a clue!  And so a naive girl and a bookstore employee identify a lost manuscript from Melville’s letters that Melville scholars had somehow managed to overlook.  One explanation for how easy it was to solve the mystery is that the manuscript, The Isle of the Cross, actually existed but truly was lost after Melville’s publisher rejected.  That helps a bit, but gee, if only all literary mysteries were so easily solved!  

Nothing in the book felt real.  The characters seem too contrived and too eccentric.  The only character I felt sorry for was Walter Geist, the albino.  I guess he had to be an albino because it’s a Melville mystery and Rosemary reads Moby Dick?  And Geist must be reviled and hunted like the whale?  I agree with other reviews that said that Melville was the most well-drawn character in the book.  Hay excerpted his letters, and he really came alive.  

If you like literary mysteries, I recommend the following instead:

  • Possession:  A Romance (Byatt)
  • The Club Dumas (Perez-Reverte)  or see the movie adaption with Johnny Depp:  The Ninth Gate
  • There are also about a million books (e.g. Interred with Their Bones,  The Book of Air and Shadows) about various Shakespearean lost manuscripts or who really is Shakepeare, but none of them are very good in my opinion.