Withering Bites

“‘Lucky Jim’ Goes to the Internet”

Jane’s Early Reception January 31, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 11:09 am

I’m relatively well-versed in the early English novel, thanks to that class I took as an undergraduate where I read everything but Tom Jones (the lack of reading wasn’t due to the syllabus, but sheer laziness on my part). Let me try to explain something on the significance of Jane Austen and her little book, Pride and Prejudice.

I’ve noticed a few things in my researching Austen’s critical reception during the early years of the 19th century:

  1. To talk about one of her novels is to talk about all of them. Austen is a writer whose canon is what it is, but not in an interchangeable way. Critics genuinely appreciated her body of work as a whole — then again, that’s slightly easier when your ‘body of work’ is six novels and juvenilia.
  2. Critical writing on her works in periodicals wasn’t widespread until after her death. Things did move slower in Ye Olden Daeyes, but not reviewing Pride and Prejudice until 10 years after its initial publication? Seriously?
  3. The focus on gender in reviews of her work — men reviewing men could get away with polemic claims on their lack of breeding and education. In the dozen or so reviews I’ve read of her work, there came a point in each review (shortly before or after the summary of the novel which was about 80% of the review’s total text) in which the reviewer would take a moment to remark on Austen’s sweet character, gentle nature, talent with a pencil, lively disposition.
  4. Slightly related to the above: Everyone. Loves. Jane. Not in a polite way to be kind or (only) because she’s a lady, but adoration for her writing as well. (If you find a 19th century review or article where this isn’t the case, please let me know!)

Reviewers adored her novels for their attention to detail and her ability to turn the completely boring into the extraordinary, as seen in this extract:

You have actually met all her heroes and heroines before — not in novels, but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances; you have talked with them, and never seen anything in them — anything, at least, worthy of three volumes, at half-a-guinea a volume. How could such folks find their way into a printed book? That is a marvel, a paradox, a practical solecism. But a greater marvel remains behind, and that is, how comes it that such folks, having got into the book, make it so interesting? (Jacox 18)

That’s from an 1852 article on Austen, part of a series on female novelists — 152 years later, I completely agree that this is why Austen’s novels appeal, except we would call “portraying prosaic characters in a dazzling manner” something like “exquisite social commentary for the win”. Austen’s characters are rather touched in the head, but more realistically and down-to-earth than, say, Charlotte Lennox’s eponymous protagonist of The Female Quixote (another terrifically funny novel from these early days of the genre).

Next week, I’ll work from the text of Pride and Prejudice, looking at the rather inventive way Austen uses time and events in her storytelling, using Erich Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’ scar” from his book Mimesis. You may not know that I’m the one of this duo here at Withering Bites who writes the ‘now playing’ summaries — I hope next week, I’ll be able to show you how Austen and her writing are smarter and better built than most things I’ve yet to read.

I should also note that it was so very, very difficult to stop myself from simply calling our Author of the Week Jane throughout this piece. And for the slightly morbid among you — one of the articles I found in my research had printed a short account of Jane Austen’s last days, which I screencapped and uploaded here.

References:

Jacox, Francis. “Female Novelists”. New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. 95.377 (1852). 17-23.

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Surviving P&P, Round 3 January 27, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Jane Austen,Pride & Prejudice — noisyhope @ 11:47 pm

I know I promised an entry on Mrs Bennet.  And that it would be delivered on Monday.  Please expect it next Monday, and I assure you, you’ll find it there.  Due to a weekend away, and a few other small upheavals, I still have not finished the tome in question, and have not been able to “cheat,” as I hoped I could, watching the 5 hour BBC version which is, more or less, shot word for word.  That said, onto the entry!

I am a girl who does not adore Jane Austen.

I don’t hate her, either.  I’m just saying.

This is my third time reading Pride & Prejudice and I am dragging my feet.  I first read the book when I was fifteen, required reading during my summer job checking beach tags at the Jersey shore.  My coworkers swooned and the lifeguards gagged when they saw how I was passing my time.  My second time reading the book was more successful – I had just seen and tolerated the Keira Knightley version (more on that Friday), and had a brilliant professor who explained it in terms of comedy rather than its legacy.  Now I am not bound by any external authority, just my own willpower.

And I’m not having much fun, and I’ll confess right now, I’m not even done the damn book.

As Michelle noted on the sidebar, the plot of the tome in question is formula.  It is the formula, played out over and over again by so many great writers and even those not so great popcorn salesmen.  So, I attempted to attack the book with this angle.  It didn’t work.

So I decided to go to my “words are sacred,” perspective (more on that when we get to The Real Thing in a few weeks), and I discovered why I don’t hate Ms. Austen.

For lack of a more high-brow way to put this, her snark.

While the book is narrated in the third person, it shifts between objective and omniscient.  So, while the reader is privy to know that Mr Darcy is pining away for Miss Elizabeth who would rather see him dead because she’s pining away for Mr Whickham (now I remember why these tire me) &c, Austen (to borrow one of her favorite adverbs) archly describes even the most simple activities of the characters.  My favorite of these occurs at Netherfield.  While Jane convalesces and the other members of the party amuse themselves in the library, Darcy is making his way through some tiresome six volume novel.  Miss Bingley, desperate for his attention, picks up the second volume.  I confess, I smirk a little bit everytime I read that passage.  That moment alone could be the saving grace of the entire story.

But then of course, I am forgetting Mr Bennet’s cool analysis of character, Mrs Bennet’s embarrassing hysteria, the hand thing, anything Mr Collins does ever, Colin Firth’s head floating in a tree, Elizabeth’s somewhat hipper extended family, and the wonderful marks of comedy that really make Pride & Prejudice quite a charming story.  Once I finish reading it again, and rely less on film.

Friday I will deliver a comprehensive argument as to why I find the 2005 version to be a successful adaptation (moreso than its older BBC rival), and an in depth look at the heads of the Bennet family next Monday.  Really.

 

I feel like James Harvey.* January 23, 2009

Filed under: Adaptation,Catherine Hardwicke,Courtney,Stephenie Meyer,Twilight — noisyhope @ 12:02 am

I will first take the time to confess: I have read all of the Twilight books.  Including the leaked incomplete manuscript of Midnight Dawn Sun or whatever it’s called. I liken these books, and their films, to Cheetos.  Neither sparkly vampires nor… Cheetos are doing me any favors, they don’t even taste that good, but I can’t put them down.

That said, I feel I have sufficient authority to say the film is a great improvement over the books.

For one thing, so much of Twilight goes on our heroine’s head.  We go with her every step of the way, wondering what the hell is the problem with the really hot pale guy.  Wondering where he went.  Wondering why he can’t go to the Reservation.  Wondering if he’s a vampire.  (And let’s face it, you’re already screaming that he is from the first time he shows up – the dust jacket doesn’t help by including of the line “Of three things I was absolutely positive.  First, that Edward was a vampire.”  Uh, spoiler.  Thanks, book.)  After we all discover that Edward is a vampire – but the good sparkly kind – something like plot comes along in a half-assed attempt to throw in some real evil vampires wandering in during the happy vampires’ baseball game.  Yep.  Vampires and baseball.  (Note: The baseball scene in the movie is kind of awesome.)

So, this is where I doff my cap to Catherine Hardwicke and weep at how I could really miss her by the time New Moon comes out.  First, she made all of the side characters (you know, Bella’s friends who are neither vampire nor werewolf nor… nope, that’s it) actual people.  Jessica is a bit of a vapid skank, and Angela is the well-meaning hip-attempting geek.  (See: Yours truly in high school.  Complete with emo glasses.)  Mike is a loudmouthed jock who really just wants to be with the new girl, and Other Dude (IMDB tells me his name is “Eric”) is a nerd who fails harder than his soon-to-be-gf at being cool.

Given these details, the high school scenes are perfect.  Just as awkward and uncomfortable as I remember high school, which satisfies my nostalgia in a way I shouldn’t find so gratifying.  A friend thinks there should be a word, like schadenfruede, to describe reaching a good deal – in which both parties are completely satisfied.  I feel like that word would apply to this aspect of the film: Hardwicke has successfully conveyed, seemingly effortlessly, Bella’s discomfort in her new environment.  And I, the viewer, feel that discomfort and empathize.  I guess in circumstances like this we call it “pathos.”

Even more than giving life to the characters of Stephenie Meyer (oh if only she could have done that for Bella and Edward!), Hardwicke creates actual suspense.  I don’t know if it’s because Edward’s vampirism is just that apparent, or she relied on the fangirls of the series to flock to the screens, but Hardwicke builds the arrival of the evil vampires.  A “mysterious death” at the mill, Waylon’s murder (can I just say, I love how they take his clothes – great detail), and Charlie’s involvement with both as police chief are all information we have before they drop by the baseball game.  So by then, you don’t feel like the plot finally got there, you’re excited to see these two lines converge.

Other improvements? (Since, once again, I’m over the limit.)  Bella’s goth fantasies about Edward, Michael Welch as Mike Newton (I loved him when he was Luke in “Joan of Arcadia,” there I said it), and how totally uncool Charlie and Billy are as parents.  Downsides?  About any scene of Bella and Edward alone follows the book far too closely and reminds you being fifteen, but in a way that is much less gratifying than any scenes in the actual school.

In short, see the movie; thank me later.

*James Harvey is the author of Movie Love in the Fifties.  I have never read any film historian who wrote with such contempt for other writers’ characters.

 

Twitter! January 21, 2009

Filed under: About This,Courtney — noisyhope @ 11:52 am

For the purposes of keeping everyone abreast of topics, upcoming posts/guests, and in case I’m ever late on a post again (it’ll happen), we’ve set up a twitter account!

Feel free to follow us for more exciting information (or random links that make us happy).

Follow us!

 

Jim Dixon as Marginalia

Filed under: Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Michelle,Theory — m. @ 12:01 am

It has taken me about a week to read the 11-page-long first chapter of James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry, which is shameful and absurd (my procrastinating, not the chapter itself). It’s one of the pieces of theory that will be discussed in my graduate seminar tomorrow, so if I can make it make sense in relation to a novel, maybe it will transfer over to poetry and I won’t be shunned by my friends and classmates just yet.

This introductory chapter by the American critic Longenbach discusses the place of poetry in culture, using a third century BCE Greek poet by the name of Callimachus; Horace; Emily Dickinson; and the modernist poet Marianne Moore. The chapter claims that poets keep poets from reaching the cultural mainstream, and that isolation is something of a requisite for poetry, but I am particularly interested in one idea put forth on the first page: “…the marginality of poetry is in many ways the source of its power, a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large” (1). Essentially, poetry is the ninja of literary forms.

Or should be, in the case of poetry in the United States, according to Longenbach, who cites several examples of how poetry is revered in contemporary American society, ranging from number of Web site hits to front page poetry-related headlines (6). While former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is quoted as claiming that “poetry is part of our shared, communal life” (qtd. in Longenbach 6), Longenbach claims that there are some elements in American life that don’t quite measure up to that ideal:

…We can never quite be sure what constitutes our communal life, especially as it changes over time. The fact that football, Beanie Babies, or even novels are part of that life does not mean that poetry will preoccupy us in similarly meaningful ways…. Culture has expected poems to fulfill prescribed functions rather than discover their relevance (6).

I write this hours after the Inaugural Poem was read for millions of people in Washington, D.C. and surrounding television and computer screens around the world — what effect does that have on this idea of poetry’s marginality? I can only judge from my own experience, and that experience closely mirrors Longenbach’s diagnosis that poems “fulfill prescribed functions rather than discover their relevance”. As the Inaugural Poem streamed on CNN.com, I listened for 10 seconds, opened another tab to check NBC.com for some sign of my beloved Brian Williams, folded some laundry, then returned in time to hear the (fairly awesome) benediction by Joseph Lowery. I think in this case, any poem — as Stephen Fry called it, the careful arranging of language and structure into a form that evokes meaning and emotion from a reader — would have been better served up privately to each individual audience member, rather than presenting something so careful and almost delicate to millions of fidgety, anxious, and impatient people.

Lucky Jim comes into play because though it is a novel, it’s not widely considered a great novel. It’s one of my personal favorites, but I have only heard of it on one syllabus (where I first heard of it and read it as an undergraduate). It still hasn’t been adapted into a film starring James McAvoy; it hasn’t been voted The Greatest Story Ever Told by Every Important Magazine Ever (one exception); and David Lodge is far more well-known for his academic comedies than Kingsley Amis. Yet I can’t imagine Jim Dixon as a figure like Troy Bolton or Indiana Jones. In a very possessive, teenage kind of way — much like the way Longenbach describes poetry as “resist[s] itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large” — Lucky Jim reveals its strength and charm as the Jim Halpert (though decidedly angrier) of the 20th century novel.

References:

Longenbach, James. The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

 

Dixon & Co January 19, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Text — noisyhope @ 8:12 pm

In my last post, we discussed Jim Dixon’s wild fantasy life, and his feelings regarding his surroundings.  Tonight, I say we take a look at how he feels about the people around him, and his impressions remind the reader, once again, that he is too much like us.

Of all the characters with whom Dixon interacts, Christine is the first he acknowledges to have treated unfair.  At the arty weekend, he first decides she’s frigid, and after his own mistake in addressing her as one of Betrand’s other girlfriends, believes she set him up.  He is quick to re-evaluate this decision the following morning when she not only lends assistance to help him cover up the damage done to his guest room, but finds amusement in it as well.  He is completely convinced of her goodness (and perhaps even begins to fall in love) when she agrees to conspire with him to elicit information from her boyfriend, with Dixon calling the Welch household in the guise of a newspaperman.

When the reader is first introduced to Carol Goldsmith, she is at the arty weekend with her husband, a fellow teacher at the college with Dixon.  Dixon’s opinion of her is first altered when he witnesses a private conversation between her and Bertrand, ending in a kiss.  Months later, at the Summer Ball, Dixon offers her a sympathetic ear regarding the affair with Bertrand, and he asks:

‘How have you managed to keep all this out of [your husband’s] way?’
‘You don’t think I haven’t told him all about it, do you?  I wouldn’t dream of doing anything behind his back.’
Dixon fell silent again, reflecting, not for the first time, that he knew nothing whatsoever about other people or their lives. (123)

Margaret is another character who undergoes a radical change, once all the cards are on the table.  For most of the book, Dixon regards her with pity and a little irritation or annoyance, but stays by her side out of a misplaced obligation, believing himself to be the reason for her attempted suicide.  When he ultimately tells her that he is in love with Christine, she dissolves in a fury.  But it is not until Dixon meets Catchpole, to hear a startlingly similar tale to his own with Margaret, that he finds himself completely free and able to leave her for his new life.

And where Amis delivers best is when he offers his readers a chance to reevaluate his hero.  When Dixon reads that he is dismissed from the college due to his atrocious performance at the Merrie England lecture, “Dixon felt a slight stab of conscience at having rather let Welch down over the lecture, and a less-slight one at having spent so much of his time an energy in hating Welch.” (228-229)  This revelation invites the reader, especially if he or she is as fond of rose-coloured glasses as the writer, to re-evaluate Jim, and his possibly misspent hatred.

 

Late!

Filed under: Courtney,Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim — noisyhope @ 1:18 pm

Today’s post (to cover the women in Jim Dixon’s life) will be up by 12:00 AM Tuesday, January 20, 2009.

Thank you for your patience, and have a great holiday!