March 31 is the birthday of the late John Fowles (1926). Don’t blame him, but The French Lieutenant’s Woman changed my life. I’d never seen a book make use of the past, of tropes and types from the Victorian novel (in this case) in the service of something highly non-Victorian. The novel was still pretty new (six or seven years old), and even Nabokov hadn’t quite prepared me for this, and I knew I had to find out more about this heady business.
The new book hits shelves today. It’s available at better bookstores everywhere. Wondering if your bookstore is better? Ask if they have the book; then you’ll know.
How to Read Poetry Like a Professor hits shelves on the 27th. In anticipation of that blessed event, HarperCollins Academic Marketing interviewed me last week. The results are now available as a podcast. Michael and I had an interesting conversation: https://soundcloud.com/user-639387857/thomas-c-foster
The happiest day in the writer’s calendar? Easy. The one with a large box of books. My work here is done. I was so happy I didn’t even tell the UPS man he needs a muffler. Think he knows?
[This is one of my Pensées, occasional observations chiefly on nature and perhaps our place in it. The title is lifted from Blaise Pascal, who did this sort of thing so much better. But he’s not here, and I am, so there you go.]
Creamy white on snow,
they vanish as they lift off
from field edges
like ghosts of themselves.
Shy visitors from the Far
North, settling down by ditches
only to flee
in parabolic waves, their meals of
weed seeds disturbed by
mechanical giants unknown
on their breeding grounds.
One doesn’t so much see them as intuit
their departures and rearrivals,
catching rumors peripherally.
Today is the seventy-second birthday of novelist and essayist extraordinaire Julian Barnes. His Paris Review interview is, as one might expect, really interesting. I read and taught him for decades, and however students felt about that, I always knew that at least one of us would have a good time. The seemed to enjoy him, too, even if they hadn’t read Flaubert.
Tonight is Twelfth Night, of Epiphany Eve, so feel Christmasy (Christmassy?) for one more evening. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, of course, is set on the evening, and Joyce’s “The Dead” may well be–he’s unclear on whether it’s this night or Epiphany night. No matter, it is generally held to be a sort of magical eve, not because of anything inherent but because we invest it with belief in its magic. If you need me, this evening, I’m busy. I have to read a little Joyce.
The bad girl of Irish (or anybody’s) fiction, Edna O’Brien, was born December 15, 1930. She scandalized Irish readers and especially non-readers from her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), with the astonishing assertion that women might be interested in sex. I think she is the most banned contemporary writer, which never dissuaded her. She has an amazing ear for the English language, as anyone who has read Night, her feminist (and hilarious and heartbreaking) rejoinder to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, can attest. In addition to a long list of novels, she has proved herself a master of the short story, and her memoir, called Country Girl (appropriately), explains much about her life and motivations. I don’t believe she’s capable of being less than interesting. Once upon a time she was described as the best Irish woman writer or the best woman novelist in English, but critics eventually wised up and dropped the gender modifier. Here’s her Paris Review interview:
Prodded by recent events, I’ve been mulling this over since those thought-leaders of the 1950s, novelist J. P. Donleavy and publisher Hugh Hefner died within a couple of weeks of one another in September (having been born that close together in April of 1926). Why is it that those writers and thinkers of the Fifties and Sixties who championed “freedom” conceived of it entirely in terms of masculine freedom, which resulted in treating women so shabbily? I don’t mean to pick on these two, although they commend themselves to the role. Consider the work and thought (and in some cases, lives) of John Cheever, John Updike, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Alan Sillitoe (in case you thought I was letting the Brits off the hook), Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Fowles, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess–the list goes on and on. And let’s not start on rock stars or we might never finish. Some might argue (I would be one) that not all of these are created equal. Burgess’ preferred monster, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is held up not as a model but as a cautionary tale: if we believe in free will, we’re stuck with him. And Fowles’s buttheads are at least problematic within their respective texts. Still, even if some might have been diagnosing a problem rather than presenting their males-run-amok for approval, the trend was, and remains problematic. And it lives on. How many of Jim Harrison’s heroes, nearly all surrogates for the author, were bedding women far too young for them? Once or twice, maybe, but come on! I’m all for freedom, but all too often it comes for one group at the expense of someone else. That doesn’t sound all that free.
First of all, here’s the line as it actually reads: “Players and painted stage took all my love.” It’s there in every version of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” that I (or you or anyone) have ever read. The thing is, that’s not what I have seen. Thanks to my copyeditor’s diligence, I now see that for forty years I have been inserting a “the” ahead of “painted stage.” If you were my student, you heard me put it in there. You may even think, thanks to me, that it belongs. But it doesn’t. And realizing that error was distressing.
You’d think I would have noticed. As written, the line scans: PLAY-ers and PAINT-ed STAGE took ALL my LOVE–the first foot inverted to a trochee (DUM-da) but all the rest iambs (da-DUM). With the inserted “the,” we have eleven rather than ten syllables, and so on. But what’s an extraneous syllable among friends? Most poets, Yeats included, add them from time to time (or drop on out), and how can you rule it out with a poet who ends the following line with a preposition–“And not those things that they were emblems of”–which was a bigger no-no in the thirties than it is now. Mostly, however, it just feels, has always felt, right to me. But I promise to reform. Henceforth, I shall endeavor to read the line as written.
I wish for you, Dear Reader, less shock upon discovering your misreadings. More, I hope you have none to regret.