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the music of chance, obsessive writing, intertextuality, conversation -- oh yeah, and some "real" life...

31 December 2011

Carole Maso The American Woman in the Chinese Hat

A plane tree leaf falls.

I realize I don't understand them. Perhaps I never will.

Who can believe what the American friends are now saying? Words meant something once.

She remembers weeping at the limits of things.

But who can believe any of it?

Brilliance of the afternoon. There's no way past the surface. She'll never get beyond it. She'll never understand anything. It's easier to see in another country.

It should have been possible, I think, to have gotten by with the present tense. To have thrived on somehow on the dazzling present.

"Drinking clouds the feeling of the end," she says. "Drinking obscures the obvious implications of the trompe l'oeil." Drinking clouds the loss of everything, she thinks.

I am losing the ability to dream her, to make her up -- this lovely construction of self. The stories had said: I exist. Even when they were sad. It was something. The stories were shelter for awhile. Company.

I was hoping to tame my terror with sex or language, to bear the solitude with stories or --

Love is what is dangerous under the bright surface of saluts and ca vas and many colored drinks.

She tries to hold on. But everything begins to slip. If she could only talk about lipsticks or figs.

One feels on the verge of fluency. And then suddenly not.

...she slips out of this last credential of self.

She puts her notebook away, acknowledging the limits of things.

You take your places...Step into this last pose.

Her notebook gone. Gone the hunger for figs. The hunger for an arrangement of anything. wipe the glass eye bright.

27 December 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot

Eugenides The Marriage Plot begins with the idea that, with the death of the ideal of marriage at the end of the Victorian Age, the novel as a form died as well. This is the thesis one of Madeleine's professors posits and becomes the central question Madeleine herself pursues academically, all the time wondering if she has any original ideas in regards to this or if it is essentially an idea she has stolen. The novel, The Marriage Plot underlines that the above is not a dead issue. Mitchell's feelings about Madeleine vary little from descriptions of 19th century heroes such as Flaubert's Frederic Moreau. Eugenides writes, "And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room He remembered exactly where he's been standing and how Madeleine had stopped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight." The three main characters, despite barely having graduated from Brown University, contemplate their relationships and marriage continuously. The idea of marriage complicated by the realities of sexual desire prevent Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell from exploring themselves, developing themselves because most of their time is spent wondering if/why/why not they are sexually attractive to each other. It is a tale of coming of age in the 1980's after the sexual revolution of the 60's which they have inherited along with a nebulous, melted down sense of a new social order. The concept of the "marriage plot" is finally exploded at the end of the novel when the efficacy of the outmoded duty is exploded and the characters each realize that responsibility and meaning comes first from taking care of yourself and understanding what your needs and desires are separate from those of the opposite sex. Eugenides' novel of the individual struggle for finding meaning in a world where the past tropes of social structure cannot provide answers is a melancholy reminder that we cannot hide behind empty artifices.

26 December 2011

Current Reading

During this interim I am reading two novels: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and The American Woman in the Chinese Hat by Carole Maso. Both of these novels are threading me into a rediscovery of my past that has to do with loving literature and being in graduate school as well as that dream-like appreciation of language and the musical play of it. I am preparing my book order for January this week as well. :)

15 December 2011

Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence

It is no coincidence that Edith Wharton opens her novel The Age of Innocence on the stage of the Academy of Music in NYC with the opera singer Christine Nilsson appearing in a scene from Faust. Wharton juxtaposes this scene containing the actors and the set of Faust with the milieu that makes up the lives of her featured New Yorkers, creating an awareness in the reader of the performative quality of New York society in the late 1800’s. New York society implicates itself into the act of performance by creating alter stages where they perform their own constructed vision of reality.
The curtain “had just gone up on the garden scene” and Newland Archer “could not have entered at a more significant moment.” Wharton reminds us of the design of Restoration Theatre houses where off-stage stage action is as dramatic to the audience as the actions performed on-stage. The construction and relationship of stage and seating in this space is perfectly conducive to both dramas being played out. The construction of theatre space presents Newland with a line of “double” vision: “Directly facing him was the box of the old Mrs. Manson Mingott” where May Welland sits within his view. Newland’s gaze simultaneously takes in the action on stage as well as the action off stage as he gazes on the Mingott box. Actress and young girl are connected through Wharton’s descriptions. Madame Nillson, with her “”large yellow braids” is echoed by May with “her fair braids.” During the moment of attempted stage seduction when Nillson has “downcast eyes,” May also “dropped her eyes,” echoing the actress once again. Madame Nillson appears “pure and true as his artless victim” and Newland notes as he watches May watch the scene, that “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about,” tying the actress and young woman together as innocents. While the actress is acting the part of an innocent, May is a created innocent, part of a “circle of ladies who were the product of the system” who memorize lines given to them. New York society life is showcased to be of theatrical importance with high stakes.
Newland notes that, “No expense had been spared on the setting.” The set is described by him as “covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses...” It was “this enchanted garden.” The fantasy-like quality of the set underscores his fantasizing about his honeymoon with May where “We’ll read Faust together.” He realizes that he is “confusing the scene” with the literature he is now seeing enacted.
The movement from the theatre to private home is almost seamless and underscored by Mrs. Beaufort attending the performance despite the fact that, minutes later, she and her husband will be hosting a ballroom party. She slips out of her box just before the performance ends, “she rose at the end of the third act , drew her opera-cloak about her lovely shoulders, and disappeared, New York knew knew that meant that half an hour later the ball would begin.”
The Beaufort house is similarly described in theatre set terms as “a vista of enfiladed drawing rooms (the sea-green, the crimson, and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lusters reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of the conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.” Like the set of Faust, the color green dominates and the garden replicating decor is noted. The candles echo the stage lights.
Flowers tie the Academy of Music stage, the actress, the Beaufort house and the young women of New York society together. On the theatre set, “falling daisy petals” punctuate the silence that occurs when “the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song.” The girls wear flowers on their heads that replicate those worn by Nillson in her photos. The host, Beaufort, “told the gardeners what hothouse flowers to grow for the dinner table and the drawing rooms.” Newland, “never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his bottonhole” notes that on May’s breast, “ to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia.” These cultivated flowers placed around the house and also on the persons of the girls act as artificial set dressings as much as the flowers on the set of Faust.
The dresses of the young women are drawn in descriptive terms similar to the description of Nillson’s costume. Nillson wears a “muslin chemisette” in “white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle.” At the ball, “the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts.” This is in contrast to the person who is not wearing the correct costume, Ellen Olenska, in her “Josephine look,” who cannot attend the ball because of this impropriety.
New York society, through its own performative gestures, cultivates an artificial life similar to a stage set with actors playing parts. The society members create their own stage where performances of individuals, couples, and families enact a uniquely New York drama. And, “This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded.” The opening performance ends “as they floated away on the soft waves of the Blue Danube.”

11 December 2011

Reveries of a Solitary Walker

Rousseau's ideas about how to live this life include a major theme of how to live with our fellow human beings, who, in Rousseau's case created an atmosphere of persecution Rousseau felt obligated to escape. Rousseau concludes, "The suffering which I do not actually feel has not the slightest effect on me; the persecutor whom I do not see is as nothing to me. I realize this gives an advantage to those who control my destiny. So let them control it as they wish.I would prefer them to torment me unhindered than to be forced to think about them in order to protect myself from their blows." He continues that "All I can do in such circumstances is to forget as quickly as possible and run away. My heart's distress disappears with the object that caused it, and I calm again as soon as I am alone." His brief stay on the island was to him a paradise. He preferred to botanize rather than take part in man-made strife. I would like to compare his thoughts to Thoreau's in Walden.

10 December 2011

Quotations from Jean Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker

However men wish to see me, they cannot change my being, and in spite of their power and all their secret plots, I shall continue, whatever they may do, to be what I am in spite of them.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker
from the chapter entitled “Eighth Walk”

Believe me, that is not the place where J.-J. will go looking for amusement.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker
from the chapter entitled “Seventh Walk”

But I do not regret these experiences, since reflecting on them has given me new insights into my knowledge of myself and the real motives for my behavior on a thousand occasions about which I have deluded myself.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker,
from the chapter “Sixth Walk”

I have never believed that man’s freedom consisted in doing what he wants to do, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do, and this is the freedom I have always craved and often enjoyed and because of which I have most scandalized my contemporaries.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker,
from the chapter “Sixth Walk”

I may be no better, but at least I am different.

When my destiny threw me back into the torrent of the world, I could not find anything there that pleased my heart even for a moment. Wherever I went I missed my sweet freedom and I felt indifference and disgust for anything that came my way that could lead to fortune and fame.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, chapter entitled “Third Walk”

So here I am, all alone on this earth…But what about me, cut off from them and everything else, what am I? This is what remains for me to find out now.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, opening lines to Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Chapter 1 entitled First Walk.

29 November 2011

Notes from Underground

"I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you have never ventured to carry even halfway; and what's more, you've regarded your cowardice as prudence, and found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So, in fact, I may be even more 'alive' than you are. Do take a closer look! Why, we don't even know where the living lies today, or what it is, or what its name is."

"through loss of contact with anything alive"

"lost touch so badly"

Frustration, Humiliation, Fear, Rage

The unnamed narrator in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground is the exaggerated form of the man who continually reasons and therefore does not live. Incessantly, he makes plans that he believes will demonstrate he is a valuable individual. At times he merely wants to be considered an equal by others. But, most of the time, he is obsessed with issues of power, feeling powerless; he dreams of having some kind of control over other people, often involving abasement and humiliation. He ends up humiliated himself. Mentioned in the previous post, the only way for him to realize this power is to fantasize about physically clashing with others, including scenarios where he is thrown through a window or is involved in a duel. The actual encounter with the officer, where he does bump into him, instead of satisfying, leaves him feeling anxious and physically sick, especially when he registers the lack of recognition from the officer that the encounter even occurred. In the end, when he reveals his lack for living life, the reader is still left with the uneasy feeling that even if he, or we, were to actually live life, there might not be very many people to share the kind of intimacy that would be fulfilling to an open person.

24 November 2011

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes From Underground

What to make of the "slap" and the previous "knocking into" of the friend, the police officer? All of the narrator's efforts are focused on this one moment of physical contact.

21 November 2011

Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table

There is a scene two thirds of the way through Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tale where the narrator, Michael, also called Minah, sits on the bed of his beautiful cousin Emily. Michael is eleven. He tells her about the dog the boys brought onboard who was responsible for the bite that killed Sir Hector. Emily tells Michael, “Don’t...I mean, don’t tell anyone else about this -- what you just told me” and the narrator remarks on the “tradition” that has started between them of secrecy. Michael orders her coffee. Emily kisses him but we are not told if it is on his head or lips. She sits up and reaches for her robe and Michael says, “But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart.” Ostensibly, not mentioned, the reader believes he has caught a glimpse of her breasts. Michael experiences sexual awakening at this moment but it is more than this: “Suddenly there was a wide gulf between Emily’s existence and mine, and I would never be able to cross it.” Michael notes that he has experienced this feeling at certain times throughout his life, “And was it pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? It was as if with its existence I was lacking something essential, like water. I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years. I had existed too cautiously with my family, as though there had been shards of glass always around us.” Michael’s thoughts reveal a lifetime experience with melancholy as he questions from what source it has sprung. Michael’s first taste of it allows him to more carefully and slowly consider the people and events around him as Ondaatje’s novel fills and more deeply explores considerations of the complications of experience.

16 November 2011

Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table takes place on the ocean liner the Oronsay with the title referring to the table the narrator, Michael, is assigned to to eat dinner with the other lowest class travelers enroute to England. I am only about a third of the way into this novel and reading this account of the narrator, who befriends Cassius and Ramadhin, their discoveries during the voyage of 21 days which include meeting several idiosyncratic adults such as the botanist, Mr. Daniels; the performer The Hyderabad Mind who is part of the Jankla Troupe; and the musician, Mr. Mazappa. This 21 day voyage, a time of leave taking from Colombo and sailing towards an unspecified new life in England is a time of unprecedented freedom for the boy who, unfettered, grows.

02 November 2011

Entry 2 The Sense Of An Ending

When Adrian contacts Tony to tell him he is seeing Tony's former girlfriend, Tony relies with a pithy "everything is jolly fine by me, old bean." He decides to pretend he does not mind.Given his previous actions and comments, the reader does not see much evidence of why he should mind. The characteristics of the unreliable narrator begin to multiply. Later, he writes a "proper" letter where, "As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples" and tells Tony he thinks Veronica had suffered "damage a long way back." Damage is a consistent, recurring issue in The Sense Of An Ending which in our lack of empathy none of us can fully fathom and that reverberates and echoes in major and minor ways throughout the novel. Tony's estrangement from his own emotional life loom large. He thinks he knows what he is all about. Even Margaret's rather innocent catty nickname for Alexandria, "the Fruitcake" takes on a sinister meaning as we read to the end of the story. No one in the novel is innocent or blameless. And, actually, however much Tony tries to make sense, he cannot. And there is no ending or any kind of sense of one. Barnes' novel kept me awake last night thinking through the various scenarios repeatedly,as Tony does.

Entry 1 The Sense Of An Ending

Julian Barnes latest novel, The Sense Of An Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, begins with the narrator, Anthony, in a secondary school classroom with the instructor, Joe Hunt, asking the boys the "seemingly simple question, What is History?" This question becomes the basis for Tony's quest sixty odd years later and proves to be the opposite of simple when it comes to attempting to determine any conclusions about the motivations and actions that occurred throughout his life once he left that room. Anthony replies quickly to the instructor without taking time to think: "History is the lies of the victors." Hunt states, "I was afraid you'd say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self delusions of the defeated." This is exactly what Anthony forgets until he is well over 60 years old and is faced with Memory.

27 October 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

In Margaret Atwood's novel which takes place in the fictional town of Port Ticonderoga outside of Toronto, the characters are mostly practical people who don't talk about feelings or love and barely seem to recognize these as existing. Yet, underneath this surface, feelings kept at bay wound and burn and, by the end of the novel, the reader feels the effect of emotions bared raw. Once again, Atwood uses various textual tools to shape her fictional Canada. The novel has three fictions residing within it: Iris Chase writing her autobiography, the novel The Blind Assassin, and the science fiction story told by Alex Thomas. In fact, Atwood uses a highly talented writer as her main character, just as she does in Alias Grace, who actually is either writer or collaborator to all the texts. Also included are the newspaper articles written by Elwood Murray -- all glosses or editorials. Once again, Atwood, as in Alias Grace, ponders our capability for knowing or finding truth. As Iris struggles to make sense of her history, her efforts are complicated by the falsity around her. As important as the included text is to the novel,text that is is omitted -- the letters, telegrams, information that is withheld -- is as important as the text included -- it ominously shapes events. Laura's reality reminds me of the clarity in a Sylvia Plath poem -- burning too brightly for many of us to touch. Finally, as the "older woman...with hair like burning spiderwebs," Iris, is the only person left capable of stating things as they are, or at least finally exploring them after a life of denial. Atwood's tale becomes a warning for young women - women whom Iris does not pity as she does not pity herself.

21 October 2011


I am currently reading another Margaret Atwood novel -- The Blind Assassin. I am in a bit over 100 pages. Once again, Atwood layers the present by way of the past. In this novel we have the now -- the daily life of Iris (Chase) Griffen who is recounting the story of her childhood with her sister Laura. Included are other chapters of an anonymous woman's assignations with a man who orally tells her the story of the blind assassin. Interspersed are press releases about the Chase family and other events that occurred during the 1930's. We see the (maybe) downfall of this prestigious Canadian family -- but it is too early (especially with Atwood) to tell!

I plan to order Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, Julian Barne's Sense of an Ending, and for just plain fun and a theatrical lift, The Night Circus for November reading.

19 October 2011


I just finished reading Daphne DuMaurier's Don't Look Now for the Guardian Reading Group and I think, for me, the uncanny was not uncanny enough. The uncanny has to disturb. When I read Poe something resonates after the final sentence. His uncanny unnerves me. I am currently looking at Anthony Vidler's The Architectual Uncanny and it perfectly lends itself to the intertexuality I am experiencing and experience most of the time. Coincidences like these -- now that's uncanny.

15 October 2011

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Similar to novels such as William James’ Turn of the Screw and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Alias Grace features as its protagonist a possible unreliable narrator who may or may not be insane. Like Oskar, she has spent time in an insane asylum. It is tempting to make the answer to the question -- is she insane? -- is she telling the truth? -- the most compelling interest. However, the sanity of the governess, of Oskar, and of Grace actually leads to more complex considerations about storytelling, memory, and performativity -- how we are all implicated in the creation of a reality we project upon the world and others. To me, this is what Alias Grace explores and illuminates.
Near the opening of Alias Grace, Grace states that, “ When you are in the midst of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or someone else.” As the narrator of her own life to Simon Jordan, Grace admits that she is in the process of shaping events into some kind of understandable form. One day she ponders what it will be that she tells him that day. In most of the storytelling, Grace’s recall of events is crystal clear and detail oriented. At other times, “I said I remembered some of the things I did. But there are other things they said I did, which i said I could not remember at all.” The reader wonders what is left out -- memory loss or amnesia has occurred to her on several occasions during the harsh life she recounts. Similar to WG Sebald, Atwood poses questions about selective memory and our ability to piece together the truth of in regard to the past. “Perhaps,” says Simon, “we are also -- preponderantly -- what we forget.” “If you are right,” says Reverend Verringer, “what becomes of the soul? We cannot be mere patchworks!...” Yet the novel seems to be saying that is exactly what we are and the most we can hope to be.
Grace pieces together her identity, through her story, noting at times how wrong others get her. Grace is called a slut from the time she is little. Yet, no character has less interest in sex than Grace, who, having seen her mother’s myriad of pregnancies and Mary’s death due to a botched abortion, naturally is put off on the subject of men on a conscious level. She is quite aware of their motives. Atwood specifically raises questions in regard to male labeling and control of females. One of the most dangerous things to be in Atwood’s novel is an attractive female --merely a projection of male desire. Each male in the novel sees Grace through his own fantasy lens. Reality is continually covered up, such as the beatings Grace’s mother endures, the cause of death of Mary, and the relationship between Nancy and her boss.
Atwood use the motif of quilting throughout the novel and, in fact, titles the chapters after quilt patterns which serve as a metaphor for the piecing of our lives. This quilting metaphor, however, presents us with overlapping concentric layers of meaning. Grace pieces her story together just as she pieces real quilt blocks. For most of the novel Grace pieces traditional quilt blocks. Although there is some flexibility when constructing a quilt square -- mostly in terms of selection of color for effect -- the traditional quilt square pattern itself is rather rigid in design. These blocks represent life as we show it to the world. At the end of the novel, after Grace is free, she is also free to design the quilt top she dreams of -- The Tree of Paradise. Grace takes exceptional liberties when she describes her plan to Simon. She subversively connects three leaves that represent her, Mary, and Nancy and she plans to include a border of entwined snakes. This recalled to me an article I read a few years ago in Raw Vision magazine entitled “Madness is Female” which explored the artwork of women institutionalized in 1920 German psychiatric hospitals. Inside garments sewn were embroidered messages. Grace intends the snakes to look like vines or a cable pattern. To her, “Such an arrangement would appear to be more the way life is.” This is like the story she tells Simon -- her attempt to construct the truth amidst all the lies surrounding her life and her trial. The quilt is an additional re-telling of her story.
Atwood skillfully weaves a sense of the age’s dangerous obsession with Romanticism related to creating a sense of identity. Running through the novel is the recurrent mention of Sir Walter Scott and his epic poem Lady of the Lake. Scott’s influence is experienced through the characters quoting his poem or referring to him. Susanna Moodie, whose account of the settling of Canada was recounted in her 1853 Life in the Clearings -- the first source Atwood discovered information about the very real Grace Marks, is known to be a Scott lover. Another character, a minister, quotes Scott freely. Atwood also uses quotations from William Morris. The referencing of these Romantics reveal this society’s yearning to be part of a bigger plot. In these early days of the settlement of Quebec and Toronto, they seem aware of being part of a bigger story, one full of significance. Atwood includes information about the Scottish rebellion in Canada that is still freshly felt, recalling Scott’s Waverley. In one of the court testimonies it is interesting that the murderer James McDermott name is misspelled Macdermot, thereby suggesting that this incindiary mistake might have brought about “Macdermot’s” hanging as a scapegoat for the Scottish rebels.
The novel is capped by Grace’s consideration of herself as the infamous “murderess.” Grace understands the romantic nature of the use of that label instead of the more mundane term “murderer.” Grace is caught up in her own celebrity, “Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.” Everyone in this region of Canada is caught up in the sensationalist story of the murders. The interest and participation in the myriad occult activities is severely juxtaposed to the harsh mundane details of survival by all of these emigrants to Canada. The governor’s wife’s scrapbook detailing each of the more spectacular crimes of the prisoners in her husband’s care instead of the usual book containing snips of lace or hair reveals a society where romanticism has taken us to a dark place of the soul. At the end of the novel after Grace’s release, she writes, “It was very strange to realize that I would not be a celebrated murderess any more, but seen perhaps as some innocent woman wrongly accused and imprisoned unjustly, or at least for too long a time, and an object of pity rather than of horror and fear. It took me some days to get used to the idea; indeed, I am not quite used to it yet. It calls for a different arrangement of the face...” She seems disappointed to have her celebrity taken away.
Grace’s storytelling is a performance of her own life. Not only is she very artistic in creating a quilt top that interprets her own experience in a rather surreal way, but she is a storyteller, a writer, as good as Atwood, herself. She is the artist who, like any great novelist, creates and populates a complex reality. She is a master of the 19th century novel. In the larger box drawn outside of Grace’s story, Atwood asks the reader to ponder the work of theorists like Judith Butler on performativity and the question of how our reality is constructed.

Atwood closes the novel with two excerpts from poems that make statements about how close it is we can get to fully knowing anything:

So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be...
--William Morris, The Earthly Paradise

The imperfect is our paradise.
--Wallace Stevens,
“The Poems of our Climate,” 1938

12 October 2011

Work in Progress

Working to turn the previous into something coherent. I realize that I get a jumble down and then cut and paste(sometimes literally)and EDIT.

11 October 2011

Alias Grace unformed thoughts

Whatever may have happened through these year,
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.
--William Morris,
“The Defense of Guenevere.” (beginning the novel)

“Perhaps,” says Simon, “we are also -- preponderantly -- what we forget.”
“If you are right,” says Reverend Verringer, “what becomes of the soul? We cannot be mere patchworks!...” (406)

Lying/ How do you tell the truth?/ quilt patterns/quilt piecing
Sir Walter Scott/ Lady of the Lake/ dark Romanticism/quotations from Morris/
Insane asylum/being female/being an attractive female

the darker side of quilting/piecing/art/communication/
storytelling/the stories other people want to hear/storytelling and performativity

Scottish uprising and aftermath of that and the misspelling of name McDermott to Macdermot

Rachel/gratitude/Jamie/forgiveness -- role playing
Grace’s last quilt with the snakes/ the three triangles

So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be...
--William Morris,
The Earthly Paradise

The imperfect is our paradise.
--Wallace Stevens,
“The Poems of our Climate,” 1938 (taken from beginning chapter xv: The Tree of Paradise)

10 October 2011

Alias Grace

Completed this novel today. Have been making notes and thinking about implications. Atwood has definitely created a complex series of boxes about our representation in regard to telling truths. More soon...

07 October 2011


I am now completely taken up with Grace's telling of her history and how she came from Ireland to Canada. Grace relates many people's stories through the telling of her own passage "crammed in like herrings in a box," amidst rats, groaning, retching sea-sick neighbors, and buckets of feces and urine. Simon Jordan, the young doctor who listens to her offer up her tale, reminds me vaguely of the young Victor Frankenstein, totally immersed in his scientific studies against the wishes of his family who just want him to return home and take his place in society. I am as equally curious as to where this study of Grace Marks will take Simon Jordan as I am in knowing whether Grace Marks is a "murderess" or insane. Right now, from hearing Grace's history she seems like one of the sanest characters in the novel. The letters from other doctors to Simon Jordan reveal quirky judgemental phrases that make Simon ponder whether a doctor here and there might not have fallen in love with this beautiful patient. And, of course, this complicates her whole existence. More to come as I move along in this fascinating novel...

01 October 2011


I have just begun Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and her technique of including a series of quotations, poetry, letters reminds me of the early section of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It intrigues! It introduces a variety of viewpoints. The other day I was reading Joan Didion's On Keeping A Notebook and one line caught my eye: "How it felt to me". This seems to be what the Atwood novel is about -- and is complicated by the fact that the setting is in an asylum in the 1800's and the plot involves a crime as well as a sentence for that crime. The truth is elusive -- and how does it feel to be Grace Marks?

22 September 2011

"I love a poetical kinde of a march, by friskes, skips, and jumps."
--Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's "Essay on Some Verses of Virgil"

quoted by Anne Carson in Decreation.

21 September 2011

WG Sebald

I spent most of the summer reading WG Sebald -- Vertigo, The Emigrants, Austerlitz, and On The Natural History Of Destruction. His disquieting meditations on memory, willed amnesia -- his close gaze at survivors of the past -- mesmerized me. His respect -- and disdain -- for humanity with all its complications created an experience for me like no other. I will always remember my summer reading Sebald.

16 September 2011

Daniel Deronda -- George Eliot

Daniel Deronda has been described as George Eliot's most controversial work, an admitted masterpiece, but also as "flawed." Both Christians and Jews have wanted to excise sections from the novel, or in the case of the film version, to magnify love interests over other content. Eliot's exploration of Zionist and Kabbala belief within a framework of her contemporary 1876 British society is brilliant in its depiction of both Christian and Jewish concept of the other. The novel, through mention of Kabbala ideas, posits the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The novel left me feeling uneasy. My reaction is an echo:

“Lewes said his wife was writing with tears in her eyes, and I do not wonder at it. That portion of the proof which I received today certainly made me weep. There is a simplicity and a power about it that has not been reached in my time.” —John Blackwood

“Polly read me last chapter but one of Deronda, and with hot eyes and a sense of having been beaten all over I walked out with her in Park.” —George Lewes upon George Eliot finishing her manuscript.

It does have that effect.

The truths Eliot reveals sadden, for several reasons:

First, there is the hindsight of what is to come 50 years later with the invocation of genocide by krystallnacht and the rise of the Third Reich. Secondly, current discussion of the fact that Palestine was already occupied by natives is not taken into full account in Eliot’s exploration.

Unanticipated history lends an aura of uncomfortable, complicated palimpsest for the reader.

Imbedded in Eliot’s historical /religious contemplation of Christians and Jews in the late 19th century is the portrayal of a society that reveals a milieu where cultures are required to meet and would rather not. The “other” creates a sense of unease. Christians and Jews know little about each other, do not want to put forth the effort in knowing. Categorization denies the “other” as individual -- not someone to be merely tolerated -- and a refusal of the right to exist as valuable stand alone. Eliot’s inclusion of Hebrew heritage informs Christians about Jewish heritage and its rich history and does address attitudes in regard to the difference between tolerance and respect. It is a novel very much apropos of our current state today where immigration irritates.

In terms of the structure of the novel and the criticism leveled at this brilliant work on this account, I have found one fascinating thread which appears throughout the novel that acts as a strand binding the whole. Eliot was writing about the search for authenticity. This anxiety permeates the novel as a whole. She uses the trope of performativity in references to plays and actors as well as in regard to characters and how they construct their identity through the profession of the actor. London has always paid attention to its theatre and we know that Eliot attended plays. Theatre weighs in with many other references to the arts which serves as a baromometer relative to the lives of the individuals in the novel.

The artificiality of society is introduced early in the novel by Eliot’s narrator who lets us know that Grandcourt’s mansion was designed by the famous set and costume designer Inigo Jones. This sets the theatrical atmosphere of high society London. In the novel “acting” is at times artificial or real depending on the circumstances and audience.

The three main females-- Gwendolen, Mirah, and Daniel’s mother, The Princess Halm-Eberstein , and the omniscient narrator of Daniel Deronda frequently use the acting profession as a mirror in which to determine identity issues. Gwendolen, who has aspirations to become an actress, is very well aware of the role she plays in real life off the stage, as if all life was actually lived on the stage and an audience always present. Mirah, a professional actress bent to the will of her actor father, descries the occupation as falsehood as she experiences. The Princess wanted nothing more than a life on the stage, to be a great actress, and gives up her son for adoption to pursue this art form. Eliot’s narrator does not overtly condemn the Princess’s choices but reveals their effect through Daniel’s feelings. I wonder if Eliot was describing aspects of herself in the depiction of the woman who chooses the creation of art over the traditional female role.

There is a juxtaposition of the artificial acting of Gwendolen and Mirah with the true art spoken of and created by both Klesmer , the Princess, and the emotive realness expressed in Mirah’s singing after she enters the Meyrick home. Her innocent voice expresses authenticity and and Mirah, herself, speaks of the potential for the profession of acting to reveal truth.

An interesting scene is the one where Gwendolen and friends act in a private theatrical, including Gwendolen in the tableaux of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Gwendolen hopes to impress Klesmer with her talent. Inadvertently, when she receives a scare during her performance by catching a glimpse of the the portrait behind the wall, the look on her face is real. Klesmer thinks this is part of the scene being played and is highly complimentary of her “magnificent bit of plastik!” At that moment Gwendolen learns the difference between feigned acting and the true art of the actor.

The art of acting and the theatre trope is explored by Eliot throughout the novel and adds complex layers to her exploration of her own society, the only novel, her last novel, to explore and her own contemporary world.