Sunday, March 30, 2014

Graham Greene's Quiet American

I cruised through the first half of the novel, and then set it aside for a couple of weeks.  As I read the second half, I found it somewhat challenging to reconstruct what had happened earlier.  In some ways, I think my experience gets at a fundamental element of the novel:  there is Fowler's life with Phuong and without Pyle, and then there is his life with Pyle.  They are very different lives.

To put it bluntly, Pyle is a painfully obnoxious character.  Greene does a brilliant job of showing Pyle's earnestness and righteousness as offensive qualities.  Pyle is a New England Puritan who believes that Phuong should be treated a particular way.  That's to say that Pyle wants to Americanize her, and thereby raise her out of what he sees as her benighted state.  He thinks the Vietnamese are childlike, and his condescension is palpable.  But unlike other versions of American superiority in the novel, Pyle's is complicated by his apparent innocence.  What comes out clearly is that those who are innocent, righteous, and earnest are more dangerous than those who explicitly claim and try to impose their superiority.

Greene does an excellent job of making explicit the formula for imperialism:  the desires or deaths of indigenous people matter much less than the abstract good the colonizers think they bring.  To put it differently, Pyle and his kind think that losing a couple thousand Vietnamese as "collateral damage" is a cost worth taking if it leads to a Vietnamese society arranged on an American plan.  In The Quiet American, the names of the colonizers appear to be changing, but regardless of the names, the Vietnamese are still the colonized.

I think Greene does an excellent job of showing, in Pyle, the ability to compartmentalize one's experiences and beliefs.  Pyle imagines Phuong as the mother of his children, and earnestly desires her as a companion.  He lectures Fowler on appropriate relations between men and women.  And yet, Pyle has no compunction about being part of a plan that kills women and children.  These two things take up different parts of his brain, and he keeps them separate.  I think the novel shows that this kind of mental and emotional distinction is possible if one sees people as abstractions.  The Vietnamese are an abstraction, and Pyle does not care about them, only about the desired political outcome.  Phuong is a real person, and he sees her differently--but in the end, he sees her as an object to be raised up into a state of American "civilization."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trying to read during March Madness

I've come to accept one proposition:  if you create a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament, it's unlikely that you'll read anything for the first four days of the tournament.

I wanted to read over the last couple of days, but I've been completely unsuccessful.  I've been completely enthralled by the tournament, which has been outstanding, and have watched lots of games.  Last night I kept thinking I was going to turn off the TV after one game ended and start reading.  I'd get to the end, decide to watch a couple of minutes, and then . . . the outcome was no reading.  Same thing tonight.  I decided to post something to the blog to force myself to turn away from the TV for some period of time.

The whole week has been a very light reading week, due mostly to some distractions at work.  I have fallen behind on my reading challenges, so I need to get started back up again. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Week 2 of March Madness: shift in reading focus

This week I've turned my reading focus to literary criticism and urban studies texts.  I'm skimming through a stack of them as part of my research for a book on cities in nineteenth century lit.  It's a field that's pretty full, but having grown up in NYC, I'm fascinated by city environments and the ways in which people attempt to make sense of the chaos of a city. 

The chaos of the city was really driven home to me last fall when I passed through on my way to visit family on the tip of Long Island.  I flew into LaGuardia thinking that I could catch the Long Island Railroad from there.  I forgot that the LIRR leaves from Jamaica station, which is linked with JFK airport, not LaGuardia, so I had to take a taxi from one airport to the next.  The trip was no fun, because 1) we were in traffic most of the time, and b) my cab drive and the drivers around us drove like they were crazy or tripping on acid--maybe both.  When I finally got to Jamaica station, I had two hours to wait until my train departed, so I sat and watched people move through the station.  The sheer number was striking--no different from when I grew up and did the same without thinking about it, but startling after living in small towns for the last 20 years (except for the year in Kyiv).  The experience was overwhelming, and gave me my first glimpse into what it must be like for people who move to NYC from elsewhere in the country. 

I can't imagine raising children in that environment, and yet my parents raised us in midtown Manhattan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were no cell phones and midtown was not Disneyland.  My youngest son is in 5th grade right now, and he seems young to me; and yet, when I was his age, I walked 12 blocks to and from school each day with my younger brother, and that seemed completely normal.  The occasional addled person would yell at us, and the Hari Krishna folks would try to talk to us (the scene in the airport lobby at the beginning of Airplane reminds me of those encounters), but we had very few problems.  My brother was struck by a car moving at a very low speed which was turning onto an Broadway, but we made it through those years.

I can't imagine the daily anxiety I'd feel letting our boys do that.  I can't imagine the daily hassle of completing basic tasks like getting to and from work, or buying groceries.  But then again, my boys don't know the exhilarating feeling of being independent in a big city, and being able to move freely through it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

March Madness Read-a-thon Update: Week 1

I'm one week into this challenge, and I've completed two of the books on my list: 

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

I've added in Cather's My Antonia because I'm in the middle of teaching it--sure, I could have looked at my syllabus last week when I put the March list together and added it then--and will likely finish that today.  So I'm off to a great start on this challenge.  The big books, though, are still ahead of me.

Philip Pullman's Subtle Knife

Spring break started today, and over the next several days I hope to finish several books that I started earlier this year.  It's not quite spring cleaning, but it is a tidying-up phase.

First up this morning is Phil Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Simply put, I thought it was excellent. When I started the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, several years ago, I found it difficult to get into it, and wondered what I was missing that others were seeing.  It was included on the Guardian's 100 greatest novels of all time list (under the UK title Northern Lights), so I figured I was reading it at the wrong time or in the wrong way.  I put it aside, and picked it up again last year.  The experience was completely different this time, and I started to see what I had missed before.

But I found The Subtle Knife even more compelling than The Golden Compass, and I'm excited about reading the final book in the trilogy soon.  The story moves along briskly, in large part because Pullman is economical when he sketches a scene or describes an event.  He doesn't overwhelm the reader with information.  We get just the right amount of information--through description or dialogue--to see what's happening and understand how things are unfolding.  And yet, at no point did I feel like Pullman's economy made the novel was simplistic.  I think one of the great gifts of a writer is having the ability to employ successfully simple syntax to create complex ideas.  Pullman clearly has this gift, as does Willa Cather, who I've written about recently.

Another element of the success of this novel is the fact that the outcome is not clear.  Unless I missed something, the first two books don't make it clear where good and evil reside.  Clearly Mrs. Coulter is evil, but it's not clear that Lord Asriel is good.  We know Lyra and Will are good, but what is their mission exactly?  I find this more interesting than Lord of the Rings, for instance, where the reader knows from the beginning who will triumph; the only question is how that will happen.  In this trilogy, I am less certain about that, and that makes it all the more interesting.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Cather follow-up

Sure enough, first thing this morning in class I was reminded of what I posted last night about teaching books you love.  Right before we started, one of the students said "I don't know how reading My Antonia is ever going to help me in my life."  Ouch.  It led to a good conversation, but in that first moment, I thought that my decision to teach Cather had been a bad one.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Willa Cather: Teaching what you love

I've had the pleasure this week of teaching Willa Cather's My Antonia again in my American Lit II survey.  It's one of my favorite novels, one that I find deeply moving, beautiful, and beautifully wrought.  I'm not sure how many times I've read it--4? 5? more?--but I always come back to it and marvel at the effect such lean prose can have on a reader.  I should also say that, each time I get ready to teach this book or Marianne Moore's poetry (my favorite poet), I am reminded of advice I was given by a professor in grad school:  never teach books or poems you absolutely love.  I have never actually heeded the advice, but I have had  many moments when I wish I had.

I think that professor meant that the beauty of the thing you love will likely not be appreciated by those who you are teaching.  You will insist on it and show evidence--"look at this evocative passage . . ."--but fail to get most of them to see what you see.  You bring the work to a group of people who cannot possibly love it the way you do.  Some may come to enjoy it after their first readings; others will think it boring; and worse, still others will not care at all.  A chasm opens between your strong feelings about the text and their indifference, and that frustrates and angers you.  Why expose such a beloved thing to such rejection?

In part, I do it to show students a work of art that I think is superior.  But more than that, I do it to show students that it is possible to be passionate about literature.  I make it clear to my students that I love My Antonia.  I know they won't immediately, if ever--in fact, if I assign a large chunk of the novel, they will dislike it because they will associate it with too much work.  But some of them do like it, and in the course of the class conversations, come to understand more clearly why they do.  And that makes it worth teaching it.

When I was teaching at Auburn, I had a football player in one of my courses who enjoyed literature, and what we read in my course in particular.  At the end of the semester, he invited me to the "Top Tiger" banquet, an event that celebrated the academic success of outstanding student-athletes.  During dinner, one of my English department colleagues asked him what book he enjoyed reading most in my course.  The student said Henry James's The American, another one of my favorites.  I was stunned.  I never expected to hear any student--EVER--say Henry James was a favorite.  But he went on to talk about why he liked it.  I came away from that experience convinced that I had to keep teaching books I love deeply as well as others that I just think are important.

And so I am teaching My Antonia; things have gone only ok this time.  I'm not sure my students are reading much of it right now.  Spring break is one day away, and the weather has depressed us all.  The conversation about the book sputters and flounders often.  And yet, I find myself experiencing the joy of re-reading the novel, and speaking passionately about it to my students. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes

During the summer before my junior year in high school, my English teacher Mr. Hull assigned us Joseph Conrad's Nostomo to read before the school year began.  I purchased the book in the middle of the summer, read enough to be miserable (I was only 15 at the time), and put Conrad behind me until last month.  I have NO excuse for having ignored Conrad for this long:  in the intervening time, I also finished a Ph.D. in 19th-century literature, and have taught literature in college for many years.  By this point, I should have read some Conrad.    

One of the things I value in the reading challenges I've discovered this year is the way they make me rethink my reading habits.  Thanks to the Classics Club challenge I discovered in January, I gave a lot of thought to the holes in my reading as I created my 5-year challenge list.  Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes wound up on the list.

I found Conrad's exploration of the complexity of right and wrong compelling.  The novel hinges, generally, on two acts:  Haldin assassinates a Russian official, and Razumov helps the police capture Haldin.  Both things take place in the first 100 pages of the novel, and that's basically the extent of the action in the novel.  What follows, however, is a story about how Razumov tries to escape his guilt, how his act is revealed, and the effects of both the guilt and the revelation on him.

The reader is tempted to see Haldin, the revolutionary, as the hero who has acted against the Russian empire, and to see Razumov as a traitor because he gave up Haldin.  But as the novel unfolds, it becomes difficult to hold these positions.  Haldin sacrifices his life to a revolutionary cause, but he has also committed murder.  By turning Haldin in, Razumov betrays the revolution but also rejects the idea that murder is consistent with a righteous cause.  And yet, Razumov also has a moment where he behaves violently towards a helpless man.  The revolutionaries Razumov meets in western Europe are not saints.  There is no absolutely good or bad person in this novel--only people who respond to discreet things in good or bad ways.

I'm actually glad that I waited until this point in my life to read Conrad again.  I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this prior to 2000, when my interests turned to Russian literature and history.  As I read Under Western Eyes, I kept hearing echoes of Dostoevsky and his obsessions, and that helped place Conrad in a useful context.