More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!


I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

Language Fun, Canadian Style

Greetings, readers! I had a very wild June and it’s so good to be back in this blog, conversing as I will.

Today, I’m just going to focus on things I find very cool about language. As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of mystery novels, never more so than in the summer. My text is a mystery novel, Old City Hall, by the Canadian writer Robert Rotenberg. (Part of the great NPR “Crime in the City” series.)

Perhaps I should say things he finds very cool, because a character in this novel (a lawyer named Albert Fernandez) is the occasion for extremely interesting observations made about the English language. Fernandez is from South America, emigrated as a child to Toronto, and though outwardly fluent, has worked very hard to not let his struggles with English show. As a kid, falling into a Canadian snowbank, he shouted “aid me” to the other students. And was mercilessly teased by those same kids, for not knowing the proper idiomatic form of “help me.”

So here is Albert, musing about the English language by recalling a college linguistics lecture: “the professor…drew a line down the middle of the blackboard, and wrote…’Anglo-Saxon’ on one side and ‘Norman’ on the other.’” Words with the same meaning face each other across the divide: “go in/enter; meet/rendezvous.” The pairing that previously gave him trouble, “help/aid,” is accounted for: “Thanks to the French invasion of England in 1066, the two main [contributors to the current language] ran parallel throughout.”

Then Albert Fernandez muses on English political speeches: “That’s where Churchill came in…Churchill understood the power of the simple Anglo-Saxon words. He preferred them to the flowery, foreign Norman words. His most famous speech, ‘We will fight them on the beaches…,’ was the greatest example. Every word was Anglo-Saxon, except for the very last one: ‘…and we will never surrender.’ ‘Surrender,’ the only three-syllable word in the whole speech, was a flowery French word instead of the simpler, Anglo-Saxon ‘give up.’ In this way, Churchill underscored how the very idea of surrender was a foreign concept to his British audience.”

Ok, I’ve quoted at some length here. Why? Well, first, this passage exemplifies the kind of close reading that makes study of English so much fun—and so meaningful. It’s what students and teachers in English departments get to do, and this is a very nice example (and done by lawyers, which just underscores how important language is to understanding and analysis). Albert applies this to his experience in courts, observing that a client’s tone changed in a way that caused Albert to believe he was lying; only later, when he reads the transcript and begins to circle the Norman words, does he begin to understand why. When the accused uses Anglo-Saxon words (“I walked into the kitchen”) he is telling the truth; the shift occurs when he begins using Norman words instead (“to the best of my recollection”; “she maneuvered”).

The other pleasure of this is that it’s a clever commentary on the background of the book itself. The maple leaf flagnovel is set in a profoundly multicultural Canada, with a backdrop of many languages, but of course the two official are English and French. Highlighting English and Norman this way implicitly makes a plea that Canada, not Britain or the U.S., is the inheritor and paradigm of the polyglot tongues that underlie contemporary English. (I know the quoted passage about the accused is kind of a swipe at French. Still, the hero of the series—a detective named Ari Greene—drives around listening to the French language stations on his car radio. So there is that.)

And here’s a fun fact I’ve never been able to work in anywhere else: since I referred to the Norman invasion earlier, at least there’s an opening. Early in graduate school, I had to buy The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. To draw a distinction between it and British histories written to assume a proto-empire and English triumphalism already apparent in the medieval period, the introduction implies that the England of this time was more colonized (earlier, by the Danes; by the French) and multivocal than earlier understood. Guess what the last numbered page is? 1066. No accident, think I. A wonderful example, I’ve always thought, of using the physicality of the book to comment on its contents.

Another fun fact:  the picture here is from a great post on the early designs for Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Click on the link here to read.

And happy July!

American (Food) Revolution

Several months ago, the New Yorker published a long essay about vegetarian and vegan cookery. In the process, it critiqued a number of cookbooks of the vegetable stripe—recent titles like Plenty, Vegetable Literacy, and Veg.

In the process, though, it gives a long history of vegetarian cooking, touching on ancient religious prohibitions against eating meat and the English nineteenth century, when a minister’s wife apparently wrote the first vegetarian cookbook. What I want to talk about, though, is a remark made about The Moosewood Cookbook, which the writer characterizes part of a moment where “preachy vegetarian communes and collectives…began to proliferate….remember the breads and carrot cakes that weighted almost as much as the people eating them?”

In this post, I intend to rise to The Moosewood Cookbook’s defense, but also to do a little historical correction and think a bit about the cycles of revolution and how they are overwritten.

So, to begin. Remember The Moosewood Cookbook reader? Two things. The Moosewood Cookbook was published in the late 1970s as a product of a popular café in Ithaca, New York (yes, called Moosewood!). It was communal in style, with many people doing cooking duties. The cookbook was originally a stapled-together version of handwritten recipes that diners had begged for.

More importantly, perhaps—and the point completely missed by the New Yorker–it was one of the first American cookbooks to say that vegetables could be it: could be the main part of your meal. Essentially, they moved vegetables from an afterthought on the margins of a plate to a possible (and desirable) centerpiece. It was a decisive break from the cooking of the 1950s (think Betty Crocker, and even Joy of Cooking). And not only in its emphasis on vegetables: it was far more international (baba ganoush rather than meat and potatoes), and it encouraged handmade rather than technological production. (Betty Crocker is a fictional character designed to give a human face to the laboratories of General Mills.) Betty Crocker cookbooks look like a slickly produced version of homey. Moosewood was designed, even after it was picked up by a mainstream publishing company, to look like a spiral bound, art-filled, hand-drawn book. moosewood cookbook

I started to read some of the history of Moosewood (and two other revolutionary cookbooks, The Tassajara Bread Book and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet) because I was really struck by the New Yorker writer’s dismissal of Moosewood (and lack of mention of other two). At one point, these 3 constituted something of a holy trinity in the college towns among which I moved.

More importantly, they revolutionized American cooking in a way that the cookbooks that followed them didn’t. And that’s what I want to talk about in the New Yorker’s de facto history of the vegetable cookbook. Because she dates the revolution very differently: to Deborah Madison’s Greens restaurant (started, like Moosewood, before the cookbook) and the eponymous cookbook that followed.

I’m sure Greens is a great cookbook and the restaurant stellar. But revolutionary forerunner of the current vegetable vogue it is not. It takes the vegetable revolution exemplified by Moosewood and places it in a slick, expensive package for the successful and the upscale. (Greens was founded, and still is, in San Francisco.) Proof? When the founders of Moosewood looked back 10 years, it would have been difficult to find a progenitor saying that vegetables could be the centerpiece. When the founders of Greens did the same…they would have seen Moosewood, and also Tassajara, and the many restaurants in college towns that served that type of food. (And they definitely would have seen the latter, as its author, Edward Espe Brown, also helped found Greens.)

Coming soon…more on American (Food) Revolution.

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

Today, I’m going to celebrate the opening of a new month by writing about a cultural phenomenon that takes place within it: National Novel Writing Month, or, as the shortened form is known to cognoscenti, NaNoWrMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words on a novel either by yourself, in concert with the Web site dedicated to it, or in tandem with writing buddies. Hundreds of people worldwide participate in it. While the statement on the Web site talks about 50,000 words, you can really set any goal for yourself. The point is to generate words every day for the entire month.  Chinese lantern pictures

And then pat yourself on the back at the end! And publish, revise, or whatever your heart desires.

I’m going to link this to elements in my graduate study, as I love to do. One of the first courses I took talked about the distinction between modern clock time and the festivalization of time that preceded modernity. Modernity is (among other things) about the institution of clock time: a standardized, regimented span of days, continually beginning and ending at designated times. Older eras were defined by feast days, festivals, and so forth. One of my professors argued that, in the contemporary world, widely celebrated holidays (think Thanksgiving, also coming up this month) were one of the few retentions of festival time (a continually replenishing, continually consumed table over the years, containing ritual elements).

Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the academic year also contains elements in common with festival time (very broadly defined, of course). Why? Well, rather than being a series of standardized days of roughly equal length, semesters have periods of waxing and waning, bookended with time that is celebrated as (first) a beginning (think welcomes and invocations) and (second) as ends (think holiday parties and breaks, which are unregimented time).

You can see the components of “festivalization” most clearly, I think, by comparing the waxing, waning, and punctuation of beginning and ends with corporate life. In the latter, one may have a vacation or holiday time off, but it is not celebrated as a beginning or end (certainly not in common), and while there may be busy periods or slow, it is not felt as a waxing in the way that the semester goes uphill, uphill, and then down (final grading!).

Well, I’m going to add NaNoWrMo to contemporary iterations of festival time. First, it has a specific time dedicated to it in which a huge community out there celebrates. It is kicked off with a celebration (there are write-ins that begin on October 31 and kick off as the chimes of midnight herald the month of November). There are numerous mini-celebrations within it (you can get badges and prizes for writing a certain number of words). There are communal write-ins throughout the month, including all-night events. (Talk about unregimented!)

And I think it is no accident that this custom happens during the bleakest month of the year. (I know many people would nominate December for this honor. Not me. Whereas the daylight in December increases after the 21st, the daylight in November only goes downhill.) It’s a shared ritual of harboring the light within, I think, and making sure that you are producing a kind of internal, creative warmth. I find it very encouraging to be part of such a team on these cold and dark mornings. So, all hail, NaNoWrMo!

Texts Then and Now

It is the Halloween season, readers, and what better time to think about why some texts from the past resonate with contemporary audiences? As readers of this blog know, I am particularly interested in how the nineteenth century lives on in the twentieth and twenty-first.  Well, we have at hand one of the most specific examples I can think of, the perennial Halloween favorite Dracula. The novel was first published in the late 1890s, yet its descendants and remakes live on in movie after movie, costume after costume (including a notable recent one at my local CVS, which provided the genesis for this post), and vampires and vampire slayers in almost every reiteration one could name (think TV shows, mashups, fan fiction…and on and on).  bram-stokers-dracula-movie-poster-1992-1020190922

Sure, Dracula shares the stage with Friday the 13th and its more contemporary ilk now. But the fact is, while many wildly popular English novelists of the same century have been eclipsed from public view, Dracula lives on. (Take, as a contrasting case, the mid nineteenth-century novels of Elizabeth Gaskell. They were well known and widely read at the time, yet if one were to tap random people on the street and say her name, it is likely that very few would recognize it. The recognition factor of Dracula would be near 100%.) Similarly, almost everyone would know Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865. She lives on in the story, in multiple movies, in a ballet, and most recently, in a fantastic iPad app.Alice in Wonderland

 Why do both Dracula and Alice have, to use the colloquialism, legs? Well, Dracula deals with fear of contagion by visitors from an Other land (Transylvania, but it’s a handy stand-in for any exotic and unknown) who can look completely normal, and with predatory social relations between lovers and friends, to name just two issues still with us. And Alice in Wonderland trades on images of childhood as wonderful and magical, a belief still holding major sway. Its metaphors of growing and shrinking in dizzying succession still represent childhood well.

 In US writing, a similar dyad exists between the once well-known and now eclipsed and the once well-known and still with us. One might think of the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth; interesting, but few outside academe know them now. The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, takes a contemporary form when adapted into movies like 2010’s Easy A. Hawthorne’s tale of adultery among the Puritans segues into a multilayered comic take: Hester Prynne’s contemporary descendent is ostracized by the religious group in her school, but, unlike The Scarlet Letter’s Hester, Easy A’s heroine is not actually having sex. (The plot doesn’t track exactly, of course; the references are the protagonist’s own references to her scarlet A. And too, the film’s makers are having fun with the fact that Hawthorne’s novel is one of the most read in US high schools.)

The resonant issue here easy-a-movie-posteris scrutiny of a woman’s sexuality and its attendant social shaming: still with us, still the subject of the gaze and gossip, with part of the joke being that her actual celibacy is as hidden as Hester’s affair once was.

I plan to talk about more puzzling adaptation phenomena soon, so stay tuned!

Me ‘n’ Mysteries

Here’s the thing about being in transition from graduate school, for me: I just can’t get enough of mystery novels.

I’ve always liked mystery novels. But in the past, they formed a minor part of any reading pie I was in the middle of. I’ve always read pretty voraciously, but pre-graduate school I was a great aficionado of what bookstores call literary fiction and nonfiction. I was never a huge fan of genre fiction—not, at that point, mysteries or, then or now, any other genre form—fantasy, science fiction (and certainly not horror). From the early 2000s until about a year or so ago, once I began re-entry and then fully being in graduate school, I was seldom outside the realm of required-and-if-not-officially-required-then-you-need-to-know-about-this academic reading.

Then, a halcyon moment arrived: while still paying attention to the field and academic writing, I could once more make an opening for plain old reading. (I find both academic reading and plain old reading pleasurable, mind you. But few things are as wonderful as realizing that I could once again wander through the library stacks unimpeded and pick whatever I wanted to read.  For a similar moment in the postac blog Walking Ledges, see here.)  For me, it was a gigantic moment of feeling knit together: the old pleasures with the enlargement of the new.Book Review Ghost Hero

But what I want to read are mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. In the past year, I have finished catching up with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (both old favorites) and gone on to find S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin-Bill Smith dually narrated series, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan (and Lippman’s really good realist non-mystery novels as well), Laurie R. King in Britain and San Francisco, Susan Dunlap’s series in Berkeley, and Harry Dolan’s in Ann Arbor. (I’m fond of university towns and regionalism, and both if I can get them.) Plus I’ve recently discovered Tana French in Dublin and Rachel Howzell Hall in Los Angeles. (Some of these I’ve found through word of mouth, but others are discoveries made in National Public Radio’s cool “Crime in the City” series.) In fact, I’m feeling very sad that I’ve finished most of these, although the discoveries of French and Hall make me believe that great series in the genre come on a-comin’.  the likeness

Moreover, while I keep trying to pursue my old habits, they basically refuse to be captured. An example? My bedside table is occupied by Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. In the old days, that would have represented an incredibly nice cup of tea: a fascinating person, an intriguing social world, and a wonderfully written biography. Yet when I picked it up recently, I literally thought “…but I know what happens and how this ends.” !!

So why is the burning desire to read at least an hour of mystery a day upon me now when it was pretty dormant before? Well, I think because the transition out of graduate school is a mystery. It’s an arc when what happens and how it ends isn’t fully known. I’m working part-time jobs until I arrive at the ultimate place I will be post-PhD (and still completing a PhD). So whatever the ultimate dénouement of the graduate school scene is for me…I don’t know it yet.

As a genre, mystery novels start with one of the journalistic w’s (what…happened), and the plot is the unfolding of every other journalistic w (why, when, where, and who. And we also usually get the journalistic h, how). Now, I have been holding off on this blog because…hey, mystery novels are kicked off by a bad thing (murder, theft, kidnapping, rape…something not good). So I was a bit hesitant to make the analogy: while yes, the job market post grad experience kind of sucks, for me, the experience of learning more in an environment dedicated to it was the opposite of murder, theft, and kidnapping. It felt like being restored to treasures I considered the most valuable. My inner self made also outer. It was a setting right, not a going wrong.

And then I realized two simple facts. First, the plot device that kicks off mysteries is a change in the given order. For them, the change is the wrong thing. But there is no law against the change being a right thing. (Hmmm…quite an idea for a novel itself!) It can be just a change, which graduate school certainly represented for me.

The second is…in strongly written series like these, one identifies with the investigator(s), not the person to whom X has happened. Indeed, writers on mysteries posit an ethical role for the PI: s/he is the one who sets right the rending of the social fabric. In some sense, being involved in the midst of the completion of PhD and what comes after is the investigator role of your own life.

So, all those mystery series out there…bring ‘em on!

Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part II

In yesterday’s post, I promised more on Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. So, here it is!

This novel is a return to the concerns of her first decade as a writer. So she has returned to maternity and God’s love for humankind, and even to the scene of those early novels, gentrifying London, circa 1960s and later. Like the heroine of The Millstone, the heroine is a single mother; unlike the heroine of The Millstone, Jess Speight of The Pure Gold Baby gives birth to a daughter, Anna, who is in some unspecified way unable to mentally develop past her initial primary grade.

The novel is a meditation on the needs of such a child and the balance between tending to those needs and the contemporary considerations of her anthropologist mother: giving up travel, men (mostly), and a wider social circle. The book, narrated by a friend of Jess’s, is full of entertaining digressions on the efforts of 19th-century Victorians to help the less fortunate–the doctors who built sanitariums for the slow-witted (as they were then called) and the insane–and even Dr. Livingstone on his African sojourns. (Jess’s anthropological interests center on Africa.) Drabble widens her canvas, in a sense, to weave the social history predominant in her mid-career novels (The Ice Age, The Radiant Way, The Realms of Gold) with the earlier focus on how we care for those who most need it.

Given the affectionate portrayals of 19th-century scientists and philanthropists in The Pure Gold Baby, it would be safe to say that Drabble believes a rather 19th-century credo herself: that how the less fortunate are treated is a proxy for a kind of moral and spiritual order. (Indeed, she says as much in the Cooper-Clark interview: “I think the idea that you’re here in order to enjoy yourself is very wrong. You’re here in order to do the right thing and to seek the depths in yourself.”) This could serve as a gloss on The Pure Gold Baby, which is about the tug between Jess’s needs for self-fulfillment and duties as a parent.

Puzzling out the right thing is her books is done via intertextuality; her narrators (and then you, reader!) think in tandem with writers of the past. Affection for past avatars of British concern animates Drabble’s works.

One doesn’t have to read her own remarks about Wordsworth, for example (“he believed in plain living and high thinking, something that always haunted me….He believed in those spots of time in one’s life when one is in touch with something slightly beyond the immediate”), to realize his influence on her books. The epigraphs in The Ice Age, her novel about commercial Britain in the run-up to the Thatcher years, place Wordsworth in dialogue with Milton.  The latter’s epigraph foretells “a year of sects and schisms,” setting the stage for the novel’s tumultuous politics. The former’s, however, from Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802,” specifically calls on the memory of his illustrious forbearer as a guide to order through the chaos: “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee…/ We are selfish men;/ Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;/ And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

One has only to think of the lines left out of the epigraph—“the heroic wealth of hall and bower,/ Have forfeited their ancient English dower/ Of inward happiness”—to realize the implicit analogy. The Drabble of 1977 was calling upon Wordsworth, just as Wordsworth (more explicitly) called upon Milton.

In her biography of English writer Arnold Bennett, Drabble remarked that many times she “wanted to shake his hand, or thank him, to say well done.” Well, ditto, from this reader to her.

Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part I

Today’s post is about the British writer Margaret Drabble, who recently published, by my count,* her 18th novel, The Pure Gold Baby. Drabble has been, since your Meta-ist was a very young woman, one of her favorite contemporary novelists.

 Why? The intellectual play of her books is made for all the actual and incipient graduate students and thinkers among us. They are meta: the characters think and think about thinking, but in a way that portrays thinking as a comradely and pleasant activity. Several years ago, unfortunately, she forswore novel-writing in favor of the memoir. Also, in recent years, Drabble has been known less for her own books than for a feud with her novelist sister A.S. Byatt (the two don’t speak). Both oeuvre repudiation and sibling squabble are a profound shame, because they threaten to end or obscure her novelistic voice–which is very distinctive and very thoughtful. Therefore, it’s a relief to have her back with a new work of fiction.

Although Drabble’s early books (A Summer Birdcage, The Millstone, The Garrick Year) were written before my time, I happily discovered them when I was the age of their narrators. Each features young Oxbridge-educated women facing marriage, children, and possible exciting careers, often in the arts, and speaking in the first person, as if they’d just sat down to recount their current lives. Margaret Drabble young 2(BBC newsreading and acting is very big in the books published during the 1960s and 1970s; Drabble was married to the actor Clive Swift at the time and at one point served as an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave.)

She told the Paris Review that the writing of Birdcage, her first novel, was easy, as if she were writing a letter, and although the books are not epistolary, an easy candor does come through loud and clear. These are very specific to a time: the 1960s on the cusp of full liberation, and the 1970s+, liberation and after. She was giving a considered, intelligent report from the front lines.

The Pure Gold Baby is a return to the scene of these early books, such as The Millstone and The Garrick Year. All these books are about a primacy of bond between women and children, and about what one gives up for children: they are very explicit that careers, friendships, and relationships with men might suffer when children are in their early years, when their care takes precedence. (The Garrick Year has the narrator thinking that flirtatious conversations and affairs must be ended because children require constant attention, lest they tumble down river banks or into mud.) I don’t mean this to sound grim: it isn’t. Being a parent is a source of great joy in these books.

This aspect of Drabble’s writing brought her a great deal of critical attention at one time; critics in her mid-career often viewed her through the lens of maternity. In one interview, conducted by Diana Cooper-Clark, published originally in the Atlantic, and reprinted in the collection Margaret Drabble: Critical Essays (edited by Ellen Cronan Rose), Drabble said “I see motherhood in such positive terms that I feel almost embarrassed to state it. I think it’s the greatest joy in the world….I see parental love as an image of God’s love.”

It is these kind of linkages I like most about Drabble. Her works were once described to me (by someone who wasn’t aware of my fondness for her novels) as being “about relationships.” Well, yes. But also their higher, more abstract reverberations.

Next: More on The Pure Gold Baby.

*A list of her books through 2011, as well a brief biography, can be found on the Web site maintained by musician Jan Hanford.