I just finished reading The Woman in White and all I can say is: Wilkie Collins, where have you been all my life? This book is a huge, bulging confection of florid phrasing, melodrama, suspense, delicate Victorian sensibilities and plot twists to make the mind boggle. I loved it.
Would I have loved it quite as much if I’d read the whole honking huge thing, rather than listening to it performed by the incomparable Simon Prebble? I don’t know. He mesmerized me with his performance of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well–another weighty volume of fantastic stuff that made me regret getting out of the car at the end of my commute. I have a subscription to one audio book per month and, wanting to get the most bang for my buck, gravitate toward the long novels that will keep me entertained until the next month’s credit kicks in. While my January listen to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment felt undeservedly–well–punishing, Collins delivers a real treat.
Thirty years ago I had my first encounter with a novel like this. Great Expectations was assigned for 9th-grade English and most of my classmates trudged through it and waited for better days. I submerged myself and came out a different reader. Great Expectations was the watershed moment that turned me from the early adolescent devourer of literature–indiscriminate, fast, un-reflective–to a Reader. And the plot twists, the archaic language, the enitre world Dicken’s held together with his skill and words is what did that for me. The way the myriad narrative threads were tied up in a bow, explained and accounted for, at the end of the novel set a kind of bar in my mind that affected (for good or ill) the way I read novels for years.
The Woman in White is generally regarded as the first “suspense novel” or work of “suspense fiction.” There is the mystery of the woman in white herself, who appears to haunt two families (at least) while she is alive, suggests that some wrong has been done to her or by her and sets the tone for the treatment of women in the novel–as potentially both threatened and threatening creatures. This is compounded by the sinister schemes of Lord Glyde and Count Fosco and the selfish indifference of Mr. Fairlie toward the fate of his niece and her half sister. Typical of nineteenth-century novels, this one revolves around questions of agency for women–is it possible?–and questions of class and rank–what is true nobility? And then there is Collin’s pacing: his narrative proceeds at a steady pace until–GASP–he stops to minutely describe a feeling, a sensation, a worry. At this point his observance of the characters and the plot fades into the background while he devotes all his time, energy, and verbiage to exploring the inner territory of someone’s “sentiments.” The pacing masterfully manipulates the reader–in spite of myself, I was anxious for the fact-finding mission of the main plot to continue; I was worried about what would befall the three central female characters.
I’m not much of a re-reader. In part because there is so much out there left for me to read and I’m greedy for those new experiences; in part because I know that loving a piece of literature is sometimes tied to time and place in a way that makes the re-reading of it necessarily diminished. So, I’m unlikely to go back to Great Expectations (although I do go back again and again to the German novels and novellas I teach). The Woman in White served, however, as an excellent reminder of why I love nineteenth-century novels so very very much.
So the Dog and I are playing a little game. The game goes like this:
Scene 1: evening. Jennifer sits on the sofa, knitting, with the Dog curled up beside her. The Dog snoozes peacefully. Occasionally, the working yarn on Jennifer’s project brushes a sensitive part of the Dog’s body (ear, snout, paw) and Dog twitches and snuffles to make it go away. The Dog is uninterested in yarn, in knitting. The Dog likes sleep.
Scene 2: daytime. Jennifer leaves the Dog alone in the house for the day. There are peanut-butter-filled Kongs and other delights to keep her occupied. Evidence has shown that Dog likes peanut butter and kongs. Evidence (see: above) has not shown that the dog has a personal affinity for knitted items. Dog eschews Kongs and peanut butter to find that one skein of yarn, that one unguarded wooden knitting needle, and drag it all over the house, chew it to bits, and slobber all over it.
Scene 1 repeats itself that evening, with the added bonus of Jennifer winding up dog-slobber yarn.
Scene 2 repeats itself the next day.
Obviously, the Dog is training me to keep all of my yarn bits in well-sealed plastic bins. Good job, Dog! Good job, Jennifer!
A link to a story about the best sentences ever crossed my FB feed this morning. There are some good sentences there and they run the gamut from Hemmingway-esque pith to Dickensian clause-tastic and some are obviously there because of the sentiment they impart, others because they are simply monuments to what a craftsperson can do with the raw material of the language.
When I think about what has stuck with me as a reader, I can’t really zero in on the perfect sentence. I know which authors have left an impression on me because of their style, though. One of the single sentences that has stuck with me the longest, perhaps, is MFK Fisher’s opening line from The Gastronomical Me: “The first thing I cooked was pure poison.” This is a confession that the things we most love, are most committed to, are dangerous, perhaps even fatal, to those around us. Is this a Freudian suggestion that killing her mother–or her grandmother, who lived with them and terrorized their kitchen–was the goal of her taking over the stove? The cook who taught her how to do these things did just that, after all, and in quite bloody and dramatic fashion. Cooking is feeding and sustenance but it can be poison and death, as well.
I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment but I recall that several chapters in her memoir are titled something like “The Extent of my Powers,” which indicates that she might have revelled just a bit in the prospect of being able to kill off her family, metaphorically speaking anyway. She left them for France, betrayed home for love and adventure. Later, she left her husband for a different love and a different adventure. Did she have to push away from her family, “kill them,” in order to develop her powers (literary, culinary, passionate) to their full extent? For a woman of her generation and background, this seems a pretty safe conclusion to draw. (And draw it I did, and from one measly sentence. Thank you, graduate school.)
Fisher approached her typewriter much as she approached her stove: with a straightforward confidence in her skill and ability. Her skill at writing was surely just as hard won as her skill in cooking and it probably goes without saying that the first thing she wrote was probably total shit–pure poison–as well. That’s worth keeping in mind for anyone who sits down to write anything. Your first attempt out of the gate–your brilliant idea to decorate your plain custard prose with poisonous berries from the alley of your heart–is likely going to suck for both you and any unfortunate reader who comes along. Don’t let that stop you. Try it again, maybe without the berries, or maybe with a different reader. The fact that you want to be there writing and that you want to dish up something that at least someone will find nourishing or sustaining or interesting or funny or whatever means that you likely have enough commitment to the task to stay there and work on it and get it right.
I just went out looking for an image (available for my use under Creative Commons licensing, natch) to accompany my musings on why I just cancelled my gym membership and. . . just. . . gah! Wanting to attribute the image properly means that I want images that have some sort of attribution/license and those are either hard to come by or hard to decipher (because I’m a moron?). Also, if you google “image woman gym” or something along those lines, the results returned to you will contain scads of images that I don’t want to put on my blog or, really, even look at. (read: soft core porn alert)
So, no pretty pictures for you, my sweets.
But I did cancel my membership. One reason was that (duh) I wasn’t using it and nobody likes paying something for nothing. This winter (I don’t know if you’ve noticed or heard) has been brutally cold and nasty and my love of sleep and general avoidance of getting up before dawn to run to the gym in sub-freezing temps meant that there were a thousand other things (sleeeeeep) I’d rather do than go to the gym. Of course I felt guilty–guilty for my bank account (look, there’s the charge for the gym membership, the one I’m not using. What a bad financial move that is!) And guilty for my body (you’re over 40 you know; you should really lift some more.) And a bit of relationship guilt in there, too (look at Dale. The man is creeping up on 50 and has six-pack abs and can run a sub 3:15 marathon. Why am I not that dedicated?)
My ultimate response to this guilt, though, is why I went through with the cancellation instead of just hoping against hope that I’d guilt myself back to the squat cage. I realized that my guilt at not going to the gym is part and parcel of a punitive attitude I take toward my body and exercise: Make the body hurt, work it out to mold it and sculpt it, don’t let it be soft. I’m not sure this is a new realization. Years ago I told my yoga teacher that I ran to stay fit (read: thin) but that I did yoga to be good to my body.
Goodbye, guilt; goodbye, attitude that equates exercise with punishment. (I’m sure these long-term-resident guests will be back for a visit but I’ve at least shown them the door!) I like yoga; I like the way it makes my body and my mind feel. Therefore I will do it. I also am currently fond of the 7-minute exercise routine, in part because it only takes 7 minutes and works out all sorts of muscle groups and in part because I can do it on my yoga mat with the piano bench alongside. Monday and Tuesday I added 5 minutes of kettle bells to the 7-minute workout because I felt like doing it and wanted to see how it would feel. Today my thighs are in agony so I might or might not do those five minutes tomorrow. I have some persistent pain issues in my piriformis and hip and those kettle bell swings, like too much running, aggravate it in a way that isn’t productive. I don’t need constant pain in my life.
So, add the kettle bells or leave them off, both options are ok. I’ll move my body around, do some things that make me feel strong and capable, and then stop when the timer goes off or when I’ve rested enough in corpse pose. When it is no longer so freaking cold, I’ll leash up Bella the Boodle Dog and let her take me out for a drag.
For years I’ve preached the gospel that working out regularly gives you more energy and makes you feel better. This is true–until it isn’t. If working out is a chore and doing it is fuelled only by guilt or regret, then even if your body benefits, your mind doesn’t. I (we all) exist in my body; it is my permanent home. No, I don’t want it to collapse in shambles and get condemned by the city or anything, but I want to be happy spending time in it. For me, right now, that means no gyms.
The new mattress, while decompressing in the attic, evidently obstructed Bella’s access to one of her favorite chewy toys.
She responded by finding things on the nearby shelves to chew.
Happily, Bella appears to prefer destroying low-cost items. Miraculously, all the playing cards and concentration cards strewn across the mattress survived! Their boxes were damaged; she chewed the spine off a library book (not pictured); and that Nerf ball never had a chance.
I’m reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. (This passes as pleasure reading when compared to the stacks of Holocaust-themed YA books in my “to-read” list.) In her chapter titled “The Origins of the Novel,” she discusses Don Quixote as the first example of an authorial consciousness revealing itself to the reader. Of DQ she also writes: “As with many great works, the original stroke of genius by the author was coming up with a good, simple idea (a middle-aged gentleman who has read so many accounts of knightly courage that he decides to try it himself).”
Today’s equivalent? I mean, I could perhaps dream up a narrative in which a middle-aged man, inspired by the zeitgeist of, say, “do what you love” abandons his secure job and pension and launches his dream business of freelancing as a copywriter for the packaging of OTC pharmaceuticals. But this would be tragic and sad and pathetic. (Or is that my cynicism showing?)
Or, if we see the plot as an exploration of the confrontation between what the protagonist believes the world to be and what the world actually is, we could have, say a member of the 1% live on $30K/year and see what that offers up in the way of hilarity.
OR–middle-aged gentleperson, inspired by No Child Left Behind and the cottage industry of writing about What is Wrong With Education in America–goes to teach in a public school and ends every day curled up in a wee ball of tears under the desk, without the energy to get home. Oh, the funny is just there waiting to be written.
I realize there is absolutely nothing unique about me starting a blog, writing a bit on a blog, casting about for the central theme or premise of my blog–a message or tone to hold things together–failing at that and then failing at regularly writing on the blog. The tubes of the internet are littered with abandoned blogs, faded podcasts, and stranded cats. I feel guilty about it, though.
You started this writing project and now you’re not sticking to it.
That is the sound of the little voice in my head chastising me for not keeping up with the blog.
This little voice sounds a great deal like the other little voice in my head, which, upon further consideration, isn’t little at all. It’s my academic superego voice telling me: You haven’t finished that article draft yet. You need to get working on that. If you were only more dedicated to your career, you’d publish more frequently.
And suddenly this morning it occurred to me that (a) these are the same voice. This voice assumes that my diligence and dedication are called upon each time I sit down to write; that writing is a chore; and that this chore is something I might acquire a type of facility in only after honing it over the equivalent (at least) of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. Realization (b), occurring simultaneously, was that it doesn’t have to be like this. Writing pulls at me. yet when I sit down to do it, I feel confronted with a wall of shoulds, rules, considerations, fears, and doubts about the what, the how, and even the why of writing–especially for a blog. I know well and it’s been asserted elsewhere repeatedly that informal writing begets more formal writing–or that more of one likely feeds into more of the other. I know that free writing as a practice can yield interesting results for the writer and for his/her self-awareness and creative abilities. Yet I’ve always approached writing as a field of activity to which I owe some debt of suffering and time. I’ve internalized Hemmingway’s bon mot along the lines of “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” which means that, on those days when I don’t particularly feel like opening a vein, or that my veins have nothing much to offer up, I’d better avoid the keyboard and the damage I might inflict on the written word if I sat at it.
But–and here’s where the shock to my system occurred–what if I write because it’s fun, because I find it enjoyable? What if I pick silly things to put out there and just don’t worry so damn much? What if I give myself permission to play around with writing, to look inside or around me and allow myself to reflect and comment with no worries about audience or tone or perfection? Consistency be damned–just have fun.