On the second page of Sally Rooney’s universally acclaimed, Booker- longlisted novel is the following paragraph:
‘He puts his hands in his pockets and suppresses an irritable sigh, but suppresses it with an audible intake of breath, so that it still sounds like a sigh.’
I get the hand in the pockets bit, but how the hell does the rest of it work? A sigh is an exhalation and I have no idea how any attempt to suppress a sigh by inhaling could possibly sound like one. I’ve tried hard to imagine it, but no luck. I’ve tried even harder to do it, but even less luck. In fact, in an effort to understand this twaddle I have tried it so often that I have come close on several occasions to hyperventilating and passing out.
What have those Faber editors been doing? Maybe they have no problem with it because they are all so much cleverer than me and know how to read properly. Or maybe they also tried to do it and actually did pass out, which might explain why they have failed to apply the editorial pencil with any intelligence in the 264 pages that follow.
The more likely explanation, of course, is that the problem is mine – and I offer the following gems from Normal People on that understanding…
‘He looks down into his lap, and exhales quickly, almost like a cough’
It’s hyperventilation time again. I’ve imagined it and I’ve tried it, but I still don’t get it.
‘He can’t even visually imagine himself as a lawyer, wearing a tie and so on..’
Do we really need that ‘visually’?
‘It’s true she is Connell’s type, maybe even the originary model of the type:’
Originary? What does that mean? Am I the only one who had to look it up? (It’s not in Chambers, by the way, so you’ll need the OED)
‘Peggy, watching, took a performatively large mouthful of Cointreau…’
Can anyone explain what ‘performatively large’ actually means?
‘Enraged now, Alan wrenched her back from the sink by her upper arm, and, seemingly spontaneously, spat at her.’
I could go on. It’s not often that I feel the need to read with a pencil in my hand but Normal People drove me to it, and my copy is now covered with question marks and annotations. I retired from teaching last year but reading Sally Rooney’s feted novel felt like I was marking again – in this case marking the work of a precocious, but overindulged, talent.
In ‘Normal People’ alternating points of view are combined with an inconsistent and confusing authorial presence, voices are often difficult to differentiate in an ineffectual free indirect style, the comma splices (Ferrante this isn’t) and the unpunctuated dialogue, far from creating an impressionistic flow, suggest a lack of precision, and the prose shifts from past to present for no apparent reason and even within paragraphs, creating a chronological blur. In short, it’s a bit of a mess.
If I cared about the characters or cared about the story, these things would not matter quite so much but on the few occasions when I saw through the writerly mess I found it difficult to care about them at all.
The novel, though, has been so well received that its very reception has become a news story. ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’: critics unite to praise 27 year-old novelist’ was the headline in last Saturday’s Guardian.
So the problem is clearly mine.
Maybe I’ve read a different book from the one everyone else is raving about. Maybe I’ve read the same book but don’t know how to read properly. Or it could be that I’m the child at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes.
As soon as you reach the end of Roddy Doyle’s extraordinary novel, ‘Smile’, you’re tempted to go back and read it straight through again to work out whether you should have anticipated the narrative trick Doyle has just pulled and whether or not the whole thing actually works.
I have done just that and I have to admit I’m not entirely sure – I’m still baffled, and I still get the sense that in ‘Smile’ the great Roddy Doyle might have, literally and metaphorically, and perhaps deliberately, lost the plot.
‘Smile’ is narrated by fiftysomething Victor Forde. He tells us how he dropped out of University to write music reviews, became an outspoken radio star, married Rachel, a TV celebrity, and started a book on the ills of Ireland that he never got round to finishing. Now, separated from Rachel he has moved into an apartment block and started to frequent Donnelly’s, determined to make the pub his local. One evening a man called Fitzpatrick walks in and approaches Victor, telling him that he had been his contemporary at school. Victor can’t remember Fitzpatrick, can’t quite place him, but he continues to see a good deal more of him in Donnelly’s over the coming weeks as he provokes memories of his schooldays and one memory in particular – the abuse he experienced at the hands of The Christian Brothers.
All the great Doyle stuff is here – childhood memories, working class communities, the minutiae of popular culture, the rhythms of everyday speech, the bawdy irreverence for church and country, the realism, and, of course, the humour. As with so many other Doyle works, though, below the surface, below the apparent simplicity and directness of the prose, below the humour, there’s an underlying, and troubling, darkness. In ‘Smile’ this darkness is the horrifying, haunting darkness of abuse.
There is, though, another kind of darkness haunting the pages of ‘Smile’. This one casts perturbing shadows not over the narrator’s present life and troubled past, but over the reader’s present experience. It’s a darkness that clouds our sense of any narrative certainty, that muddies fiction’s claim to embody or reflect any kind of truth.
Two elements of the novel create this shadow. One is the way Doyle uses Victor as a writer. Throughout the book we are constantly reminded of the narrator’s acts of creation. Fitzpatrick says to him ‘You creative types – fuckin’ writers. You must always be working on some fuckin’ book – I’d say, are yis?’ The answer to his question is that that, yes, Victor is writing a book. It takes us some time, though, to realise that the book he is writing in the novel happens to be the one we are reading.
How do we know this?
On page 139 we have this – ‘I sat at the table and wrote. She pulled me to the floor by the sleeve of my jumper.Then she kneeled in front of me – she wasn’t smiling. She turned her back and dropped onto her elbows’.
The careful first reader, or the lazy second-time reader, will find this familiar, because on page 102 they will have read – ‘She pulled me to the floor by the sleeve of my jumper.Then she kneeled in front of me – she wasn’t smiling. She turned her back and dropped onto her elbows’.
We are thus encouraged to see the novel as something that Victor himself was, at some time in the past, writing. We are also, though, encouraged to see it as something he is still creating. Take this, for example – ‘She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I look at that sentence and I hate it’. Here the present tense writer is being critical of the sentence he has just written. It is not unusual to have a present tense narrator who is writing the novel we are reading and describing past events, a narrator who steps in every now and then to remind us of the fact (think of Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby’ for example) but Doyle’s method is unusual and confusing. By having Victor writing the novel both in the past and in the present he makes it all very puzzling and we’re in danger of disappearing down a hall of metafictional mirrors.
The other question to ask about Victor is whether we can trust him. ‘If I’m being honest,’ he says at one point, immediately qualifying it with ‘ – and I’m still not sure I am.’ The words ‘unreliable narrator’ flash out of the phrase in glowing neon and by the end of the novel we are asking big questions, not only of some strange gaps and silences (why, for example, are we told so little about his son?), but also of some oddities of tone and emphasis (why, for example, does he present his relationship with Rachel, in particular his sexual relationship with her, as such a raging success?) Is Victor’s memory, like all our memories, fallible and partial, or has something else been going on?
The other confusing and complicating element undermining the novel’s claim to ‘realism’ or ‘truth’ is the characterisation of Fitzpatrick. Look at the following descriptions of him:
‘I couldn’t see a younger version of this man. I didn’t like him. I knew that immediately’
‘I hated this man, whoever he was’
‘there was something about him – an expression, a rhythm – that’ was recognised and welcomed’,
‘I didn’t like him but I wanted to remember him. I wanted that bridge’
‘I wondered why I wasn’t like him – or if I could have been like him. How would I have been, who would I have been, if I’d stayed?’
‘I tried to remember his father’s funeral. But all I could recall was my own experience’
The clues about Fitzpatrick are laid on thick but you don’t (or at least I didn’t) notice them at first and it is only when you reach the end that you realise the exact nature of the odd relationship between the two men.
‘Smile’ is about regret, memory, guilt, and the horror of abuse. At its heart lies a sense, of, as Fitzpatrick puts it, ‘what your life would’ve been like if it had been a bit different…’. It’s about having a dose of ‘what-ifs’. The problem, though, is that Roddy Doyle may have taken a fictional ‘what-if’ premise and stretched it too far, causing the novel’s whole house of cards to come close to tumbling down at the end in a trick that’s gone wrong.
On the other hand, Doyle could be in complete control, and this final card-collapsing effect could be intentional, the provocative finale undermining any sense of ‘realism’ (the quality for which, over the years, he has been rightly lauded) and making us question the ‘truth’ of all that we have read. What, in fact, have we been reading? What, exactly, has the narrator been telling us? Are we to dismiss all of it as unbelievable? Are we to fear for the narrator’s sanity? Are we to see the whole thing as some clever post-modern trick , a literary rug-pull that leaves us floored but full of admiration?
Perhaps in this novel about suppressed and fallible memory it is appropriate that the ‘truth’ should be problematised in this way. Perhaps in a novel about duality ( a kind of ‘Jekyll and Hyde Ha Ha Ha’) it is appropriate that Doyle should pull his final narrative stunt. And perhaps in a novel about abuse it is appropriate that the reader should close the book feeling unsettled – compelled to revisit it, to go over it again, to relive it and try to make sense of it all.
It could be that Doyle has simply lost the plot. Or it could be that his character, Victor Forde, has lost the plot, tortured by the memories of abuse at the Christian Brothers school, and condemned to write a novel which, like his book on Ireland, he will never finish. ‘I was crying,’ he says at the end of the novel, ‘ I couldn’t stop crying.’ His final words , though, are in the present tense. ‘And I can’t stop,’ he says, suggesting that for him there will be no comfort provided by any trite sense of closure.
When anyone asked Frank whether he was counting the days to retirement he would answer not with a smile or a yes but with a number. No countdown had ever excited him more and each morning he gleefully crossed another day off the list he kept in his diary. It was with a similar satisfaction that he crossed things off another list that he kept in his diary – Things I Will Never Have To Do Again.
Today Frank was looking forward to crossing one thing in particular off this list. Invigilation. Never again would he walk up and down those aisles hoping his shoes didn’t squeak and that he didn’t let slip an accidental fart. Never again would he furnish exam candidates with extra paper or accompany them to the toilet. Never again would he place exam papers on desks or wait patiently at the end while a candidate fiddled with a treasury tag. Today was the day of Frank’s Last Invigilation.
“The time is 9.15,” boomed the exams officer, “and you may begin.”
Papers rustled, candidates coughed, and Frank sensed that tense silence, that adrenaline- filled hush, that heart-fluttering moment when anxious eyes scan newly revealed questions.
Could it be so long ago that Frank was doing exams himself? O Levels in 1974. A levels in the long hot drought summer of 1976. Finals in 1980. Could it be so long ago that he put the last full stop on his last Finals paper and rushed out of the hall to get very drunk and to kiss education goodbye for ever?
It seemed that it could. Time did not lie and, as retirement approached, Frank allowed himself to look back on the ironic tricks time had played on him over the years. The way, for example, that Frank, who had been so keen never to enter an exam hall again, should have spent so much of his working life walking up and down one. Or the way that Frank, who knew he would never have to do an exam again, was haunted by so many recurring dreams about them. Not being able to find his seat. Not being able to do any of the questions. Not having a pen. Not being able to write legibly. Being given a paper in the wrong subject or one written in an unrecognisable foreign language. And, most spectacularly, sitting an exam stark-bollock-naked.
Perhaps when he gave up teaching for good he would no longer have these ridiculous dreams. Frank smiled at the prospect as he walked down one of the aisles thinking of his list of Things I Will Never Have To Do Again. In forty five minutes it would all be over. No more mind games to make the time pass more quickly. No more furtive glances at smuggled-in crosswords. No more sneaking a look at his phone. No more pacing up and down wondering at the absurdity of it all. No more invigilation.
A hand shot up in front of him.
Frank looked at it and did what years of experience had taught him – he glanced around quickly to see if anyone else was heading towards it and, realising that no one was, pretended not to see it himself. It was always best to avoid any raised hand if you could.
He looked around the hall again. There was still no response from his co-invigilators. Couldn’t they see the arm? Why weren’t they moving towards it? What was going on here?
Still no-one moved towards the boy, whose eyes were now firmly fixed on Frank. He thought momentarily of bending down to tie up imaginary laces on his slip-on shoes or turning round to walk down the aisle in the opposite direction, but he knew that the boy had seen him. More than that, the boy was staring at him in a way that Frank found unnerving. There was something odd about him, something strange, something compelling, and Frank was unable to stop himself moving towards his desk.
As Frank drew closer to the boy he tried to place him. He seemed familiar, but he also looked as though, in some inexplicable way, he shouldn’t be there at all, as though he belonged somewhere else entirely. When Frank reached his desk and could see the boy’s face clearly he realised exactly why this was.
The boy was not one he had ever taught. Nor was he one he had ever come across in school. The boy in front of him was definitely not one who should be sitting English A Level on Tuesday the 13th June 2017.
The boy Frank was moving towards was himself. The boy Frank was moving towards was himself as an eighteen year old. The boy who sat at the desk with his arm raised was Frank as he was in the Upper Sixth in 1976.
His skin glowed with youth. His hair was long and dark. His face, like his body, was thin and angular and his eyes were bright, burning with inquisitiveness and a desire to know, a desire to have questions, and one question in particular, answered.
“Yes?” said Frank as he arrived at the boy’s desk.
Young Frank held up his exam paper. “There seems to be a problem,” he said. “I think I’ve got the wrong paper.”
“What should it be?” said Frank.
“It should be English,” said the boy, holding the question paper towards Frank, “but it’s not.”
Frank took the paper from the boy and looked at the front.
At the top of the paper was the name of the Examination Board – The Board of Very Big Questions.
Underneath this was the date – 13th June, 2017.
Underneath this was the length of the paper – 30-40 years
And below this was the name of the exam – ‘A Level Life’.
“ I can’t do this,” said the boy. “I haven’t studied it.”
“What do you mean you haven’t studied it?”
Frank looked at the boy. His younger self stared back at him, innocent, pleading.
“I mean, I’ve done a bit, but not very much. I haven’t studied Life. I couldn’t. It wasn’t an option.”
Frank shook his head. “You must have, otherwise you wouldn’t have been entered for it. You wouldn’t have been given a paper.”
“But no-one does Life here,” said the boy. “It’s not a proper subject.”
“I don’t see what I can do,” said Frank.
In all his years of invigilation he had never come across anything like this. And in all his years of teaching he had never come across anyone teaching, or studying, Life.
“There must be something you can do,” said the boy. “It’s not fair. This could ruin my prospects, ruin my …”
Frank opened the paper and scanned the questions
1. What is the point of exams?
In your answer consider the idea that exams are a passport to university and that university is a passport to employment and that employment is a passport to…
Frank couldn’t read the rest of the question. It turned into a mess of indecipherable letters as if something had gone very wrong with the printing.
2. If you knew that you would spend your future working life as a teacher would you jack it all in now?
3. ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. Consider this proposition.
4. How important is it in life to make a lot of money?
5. What criteria should be used in deciding whether or not anyone’s life can be described as ‘successful’?
6. Consider the idea that with age comes more wrinkles than wisdom.
7. ‘Who you are is more important than what you do or what you have.’ Do you agree?
8. You are coming to the end of your working life. Write a letter to your younger self giving him or her the advice you wish you’d been given when you were eighteen.
9. ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ Write Alfie’s response.
10. ‘Fuck off, Mr Chips!’ Consider the view that bad teachers have a more significant effect than good ones.
“It’s not fair,” said the boy. “I haven’t studied it. No-one has. I mean we’ve spoken about it a little but no one ever said we’d be examined on it!”
Frank looked around the exam hall, and raised his hand. He needed some help but the other invigilators were still walking around with their eyes fixed elsewhere. None of them had noticed the boy’s raised hand and none of them was now responding to his. It was as though neither he nor his younger self existed.
“What do I do?” said the boy. “What do I do?”
“It’s OK,” said Frank. “It will all be OK.” He leaned down towards the boy. “Don’t you know anything about life?” he whispered. “I mean couldn’t you give it a go?”
“Give it a go?” said the boy. “I’ve been revising Keats and Hamlet! I‘ve learned quotes and everything!”
“Can’t you just busk it?”
“Busk it? Life? ”
Frank looked towards the invigilators, his body trembling with anxiety.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m an invigilator. I can’t help you.”
“Please!” said the eighteen-year old Frank. “Please help me!”
“I can’t,” said Frank. “I’ll get in trouble. It’s my last invigilation and if I help you I’ll get into trouble. I’ll…”
And it was then that Frank realised it was too late for him to get into trouble. What could possibly happen? This was his Last Invigilation. They couldn’t get him now. His pension was sorted. He turned to the boy…
The radio woke Frank at six o’clock, as it had on every working day for as many years as he could remember. Another exam dream. The kind of thing he had told all his students over all those years never to write about. Just like he had told them never to wake up at the end of a story.
Given the revived interest in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (sales of the novel have increased dramatically since Trump’s election and a USA TV adaptation is to be screened by Channel 4 in the UK), I found it interesting to look back at something I wrote in 1993 about teaching it.
An Approach To The Handmaid’s Tale
When he taught Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to a group of sixth-formers Bernard O’Keeffe experienced some unease. Here was a text which was surely ‘feminist’ and here was a class of 17 year-olds in that most patriarchal of institutions, the boy’s boarding school.
The few all-boy boarding schools left in the country create an atmosphere which is oppressively masculine. There may be women teachers, but many women in such institutions are seen in domestic, non-professional roles, central to the atmosphere of family-based community which such schools like to encourage but also subtly marginalised. Such institutions, through their structure, ethos and language, can create a peculiar attitude towards women and the world.
Nightmare of Gilead
The nightmare future for women presented in Margaret Atwood’s novel is, of course, far more frightening. After an unspecified ecological disaster (which we later learn to have been caused by Agent Orange, the AIDS epidemic and a virulent strain of venereal disease), a coup by the moral, Biblical-fundamentalist right has led to the birth of the Republic of Gilead. Gilead represents male power at its most extreme. The apparent advances of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s are swept aside overnight as the state of Gilead is born. All the roles which would previously have been carried out by one woman are now isolated and fulfilled by specific, separate groups. The highest group, the Wives, are attached to Commanders and live lives of arid leisure. The lowest, the Econowives, are household drudges. In between are several other offices. There are Aunts, given a policing role and central in the re-education of women, and there are also Handmaids, fertile women who are allocated to a particular Commander’s household in an attempt to increase the population, devastated after the disaster. The novel is the tale of one such handmaid, Offred, who provides us with a view of Gilead and of what came before it, and who recounts her attempts to resist and escape the regime.
The school in which I taught The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly Gilead, but it is nevertheless an odd place in which to teach a novel so explicitly concerned with the position of women. Prejudices can be deeply ingrained. For many students their idea of ‘feminism’ is one gleaned from the worst parts of the tabloid press; along with the term ‘leftie’ the term ‘feminist’ ‘is often indicative of some laughable, but ultimately suspicious, aberration from nature’s norm and I became worried that teaching Atwood’s novel in the face of such attitudes might be the equivalent of teaching Swift’s A Modest Proposal to a class of cannibals. The average public schoolboy, I feared, might greet the nightmare world of Gilead as a male bigot’s paradise. As it turned out, The Handmaid’s Tale proved a challenging and rewarding text to teach in the peculiar environment I have described, provoking a lively response from the boys, eliciting sensible questions about male-female relations and the whole issue of ‘feminism’.
The novel’s three epigraphs provided a good starting point. The first is from the Bible, the extract from Genesis in which Rachel, desperate for children, encourages Jacob to go to her maid Bilhah:
‘And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’
This is the important biblical precedent used by the regime of Gilead to justify their use of handmaids such as Offred. Its relevance to the text seemed unambiguous and central and led to a discussion of religious fundamentalism which ranged from Mormonism to Islam.
The second epigraph is from the text I have already mentioned, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal:
‘But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal…’
This gave us an excuse to read the whole of Swift’s brilliant pamphlet, but also led naturally to an examination of its relevance to the novel. Was Gilead being presented as Atwood’s own ‘modest proposal’, merely a gross and obscene exaggeration of what was already happening? If so, what was the precise target of her satirical assault?
The third epigraph is a Sufi proverb:
‘In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones’
This proved the most problematic of the three. I assumed there was no need for a sign because nobody would, even in extreme hunger, consider eating stones, and suggested that it prepared us to approach Gilead armed with more than a pinch of pragmatic common sense. Others, though, felt differently and the Sufi proverb remained puzzling.
Language legitimises the outrageous
We next decided to develop a glossary of terms. Gilead, much like George Orwell’s 1984, is a future world in which much of the world’s nature is revealed through its language. The shockingly unacceptable elements of a nightmare world are rendered more shocking by the knowledge that someone has found acceptable words for them. Language legitimises the outrageous. Through the simple technique of developing a Gilead Glossary, defining terms such as ‘gender treachery’, ‘unwomen’, the ceremony’, ‘prayvaganza’, ‘testifying’, ‘particicution’ and ‘handmaid’ as clearly as possible, we were able to get some grip on the structure of the republic.
Work on the glossary led naturally to a broader consideration of language and, more particularly, the sexual politics of language. The Handmaid’s name is Offred because she is literally Of Fred, the Commander’s property. She is one in a line of Offreds, all Handmaids assigned to Commander Fred. Others’ names are derived in the same way – Ofwarren, Ofcharles, Ofglen. This led to discussion of the importance of names and sexism in language. How acceptable or desirable is the term Ms? Is Mrs simply Mr with an apostrophe ‘s’, underlining the way that the woman, in taking the man’s name, has also become his property? Does language have an inherent bias against women? How many pejorative terms, for example, are there for a sexually promiscuous man? How many positive terms are there for a sexually promiscuous woman? What’s the difference between a ‘lady’ and a ‘woman’?
A feminist text?
When we discussed feminism it seemed obvious in what ways The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be a feminist text. We soon, however, wondered how helpful the term is. Are there not elements of the text which hint at an ambiguity towards some of the activities and aims of the feminist movement?
Some claimed that the text is a tale primarily about any form of political oppression, about absurd and obscene suppression of human rights by an extreme government. In Gilead the women obviously seem to be those who are suffering, but it is clearly no male paradise either. What is more significant is that certain elements of contemporary or recent feminism seem to come in for criticism. Offred’s mother in the ‘time before’, for example, is shown deciding to have a child outside a permanent relationship, choosing the man with no illusions about his role in the process. ‘A man,’ she says, ‘is just a woman’s strategy for making other women’. Offred’s cry to her mother is similarly ambiguous: ‘You wanted a woman’s culture,’ she says, ‘well now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.’ We began to wonder whether the text is critical of some of the more extreme elements of recent feminism, encouraging us to consider whether the women’s movement indirectly facilitated the moral backlash, making it easier for Serena Joy to appear on television calling for women to ‘return to the home’?
Gilead could even be seen as ironically fulfilling some of the objectives of the contemporary women’s movement. It certainly contains a separatist culture and female autonomy. Women are valued and protected; some are even considered a vital national resource. Pornography has been banned. Cosmetics are only available on the black market, 1970’s copies of Vogue are considered decadent and degrading. Offred is also free from the threat of rape or any act of unauthorised violence. She has, of course, to subject herself to the monthly Ceremony in which the Commander copulates with her while she lies between the legs of the Commander’s wife, but this is an act authorised by the state. As Offred observes, it is certainly not rape: ‘She chose this…’
Meeting Margaret Atwood
When Margaret Atwood came to Blackwells in Oxford to read from Cat’s Eye we asked whether we could meet her and were delighted when she agreed. Clutching our paperback copies of The Handmaid’s Tale, we climbed the stairs to meet its writer. She seemed genuinely interested in, if a little wryly amused by, the idea of her novel being studied by a group of boys in an all-male institution, and stressed two things in particular: the way in which Gilead is a synthesis of historical actualities and the central significance of ‘The Historical Notes’. She had written the notes before the main body of the text, and had the parallel of Orwell’s 1984 very much in mind when she did so. The Notes are crucial not only in appreciating the books’ whole narrative technique, but also in presenting a degree of optimism to offset the nightmare of Gilead.
Our interview with Atwood provided fresh perspectives on the text – only when we were back in the classroom did we realise we had forgotten to ask about the Sufi proverb.
Logical Extension of Current Trends
We came away from the Margaret Atwood interview to focus on two of her statements, Gilead was, she said, a ‘logical extension of current trends’ and there was ‘nothing in the text that hasn’t already happened’. Or, as Professor Pieixeto observes in his concluding academic lecture, ‘there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead; its genius was synthesis’.
We began to look at the institutionalised, brutal repression of any totalitarian state – the worlds of Hitler and Stalin – and examined how certain features of Gilead were reflected in them. ‘Men’s Salvaging’, in which dissident groups (gays, abortionists, or those of different religions) are killed, seemed suddenly familiar. Gilead’s need for a state-controlled birth-rate seemed not unlike the Ceaucescu regime in Romania. Gilead’s ‘Prayvaganzas’ seemed quite similar to the tacky commercialism of America’s televangelists. Gilead’s disenfranchisement of women by the overnight invalidation of their compucount cards seemed only an exaggeration of the way woman have historically been deprived of the vote and kept economically impotent. Gilead’s idea of surrogacy seemed close to polygamy and developing issues of in vitro fertilisation. Some of the boys claimed that the indoctrination at the Rachel and Leah Centre seemed similar to some of the educational experiences on offer at top-class boarding schools, while all seemed to recognise a system, like Gilead, which has tried to suppress sexual joy.
As we moved through the novel, focusing on particular passages for close reading, we tried to develop a sense of the novel’s narrative technique. The self-conscious artifice of the construction and the difficulties of trying to define the narrative method led us into discussion of our expectations of ‘realism’ in fiction and the nature of fiction itself. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative technique only becomes clear in the concluding section, ‘The Historical Notes’, a withering parody of the academic lecture delivered on 25t June 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit (deny none of it?). Here it becomes apparent that what we have been reading as a conventional novel has been a narrative dictated onto tapes, rearranged and edited by the academic delivering the concluding lecture. This would explain Offred’s uncertainty about her own narrative. ‘Because I’m telling you this story,’ she says, ‘I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.’ We are only clear about how to read the novel once we have reached its end. The Notes undermine any sense we may have of the bulk of the book as conventional narrative. Some students even felt ‘cheated’ by this section, clearly perturbed by the way their expectations of ‘realism’ had been radically challenged, even subverted. Whereas Margaret Atwood clearly regards the Historical Notes as central to the text, these students felt that the novel would be ‘better’ (ie more like a ‘conventional’ novel) without them.
Maybe this experience of the text was determined by the nature of the class and their environment. Was it merely a male reading to find the broad political issues as important as the explicitly feminist concerns? Was the perception of criticisms of feminism an attempt to avoid the text’s savage criticism of male attitudes, and was it a male response to find the questions raised by narrative technique as disturbing as those raised about the position of women?
Ultimately, it is like asking whether a black man’s response to Othello might differ from a white man’s, or indeed whether a cannibal might find A Modest Proposal lacking in satirical bite. The Handmaid’s Tale is a deliberately provocative, ‘open’ text. It is no accident that the concluding words of the lecture, and hence the novel, are ‘Are there any questions?’
John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ is undoubtedly a great novel, worthy of rediscovery and of the universal praise it has received. There is, though, one scene in it which I still find troubling and which, to be frank, I still don’t quite get. This is not a minor scene. It is an absolutely pivotal part of the novel which marks a life-changing moment for William Stoner and is also central to the novel’s concern with English Literature and its teaching. Failing to get this scene is, I think, the same as failing to get the novel, and so I have to confess to a nagging doubt about it, which only now (given that the Year of ‘Stoner’ has passed) do I feel brave enough to raise.
The scene in question is the one in which Stoner studies a Shakespeare sonnet in a ‘semester survey of English literature’, a course ‘rather perfunctorily required of all University students’. Stoner has not found this English course easy – it ‘troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before’ and ‘the words he read were words on pages , and he could not see the use of what he did’. In this particular class the teacher, Archie Sloane, full of apparent disdain and contempt, reads the class Shakespeare’s seventy third sonnet and then asks them the question ‘What does the sonnet mean?’ He calls on Mr Wilbur and Mr Schmidt but they say nothing. He then asks Mr Stoner. Stoner also has nothing to say so Sloane dryly tells him that it is a sonnet and that it is written by Shakespeare before reciting the poem again, this time from memory. When Sloane asks Stoner if he ‘hears’ Shakespeare speaking to him Stoner’s response is extraordinary. Strange things happen to him. Light on his fellow students’ faces seems to come from ‘within them’. His fingers ‘unclench’ their grip on the desk. He marvels at the ‘brownness’ of his hands and he thinks he can feel the blood flowing from his fingertips through his body. When asked by Sloane what the sonnet means Stoner can only say ‘It means’ but he ‘could not finish what he had to say’.
There are several things that puzzle me about this. The first is that we are given Sloane’s words on the page in the form of the sonnet. Williams presents the poem to the reader in the same way that Sloane presents the poem to his class and we are put in the position of the students, invited, like them, to find its ‘meaning’. Yet no discussion, no examination, no scrutiny follows. Stoner has his strange experience and utters the words ‘It means.’ We are told that this is an incomplete statement but it can, of course, be read as a sentence – the poem does mean but Stoner has no idea what.
I have taught poetry for some time and am quite used to some of the responses Williams describes. The blank incomprehension is very recognisable, and so is the sense of uncertainty about what poems ‘mean’. There is something, though, about Stoner’s response which doesn’t quite ring true. If, as a student, I had read Sonnet 73 by myself and then had it read to me twice, and could not come up with the idea that it might be about getting old, I might think twice about wanting to study more of the stuff, let alone, in time, wanting to teach it. If, as a teacher, I were asked what a poem is about and came up with the answer ‘It means’ (either as a complete or unfinished statement) the student might rightly feel short-changed and, in a sense, it is a similar short-changing that is happening in this scene.
What Stoner experiences in this classroom scene is an epiphany, a moment of illumination and realisation when things suddenly manifest themselves. Although Stoner doesn’t get what Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet ‘means’ he is profoundly affected by it at a deep level and suddenly he sees things in a different light (literally in the case of his fellow radiating students). I can accept that poems can move us even if we don’t understand their exact meaning and that, as T S Eliot says, ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, but I still find something unconvincing about William Stoner’s classroom epiphany.
In short, what I don’t get about ‘Stoner’, a novel which has at its heart the teaching of English Literature, is that a poem reproduced in its entirety on the page should be left so curiously unexamined and that an epiphany, crucial to the development of the central character, should be left so curiously unexplained. I have seen students show strange physical reactions when faced with poetry (ranging from yawning to, on one unforgettable occasion, vomiting) but I have never known complete and blank incomprehension of the sort Williams describes be the starting point of an academic career. Maybe, just like the young William Stoner, I’m missing something.
Elena Ferrante, I apologise. Last summer I read the first of your Neapolitan Novels, ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and I was underwhelmed. I wrote about it in a round-up of my summer reading. http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=838
I am not usually worried by being out of sync with majority opinion but In your case something was nagging at me, so I went back to ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and re-read it This time I read it in book form. My summer reading had been on a Kindle and I now realise that this had made it difficult (given my technological limitations) to flick back to the cast of characters you helpfully include at the beginning of the book. Even on second reading I still found it difficult to keep track but it was certainly much easier with my finger stuck in the front (it was a bit like how I watched ‘Dickensian’ – with an A-Z of Dickens characters open on my phone). And yes, Elena, I enjoyed it much more second time round – there were bits I really loved.
I was still, though, puzzled by that wretched comma splice, that thing where you need either a full stop or a semi-colon, where you run-on one sentence into another, that thing I have to correct in my students’ work (and, Elena, I have been teaching for over thirty years – can you imagine how many times in my life I have had to ring the comma and write ‘p’ for punctuation or ‘S’ for sentence or even, once I’ve explained the term, ‘CS’ for comma splice in the margin?). If anything, this feature of your prose (surely not a problem of translation) irritated me even more on this second reading.I still couldn’t buy my colleague’s helpful reference to the critic who wrote – ‘anyone who thinks innovation in prose is at an end should look at the use of the comma splice in Elena Ferrante’.
But then, Elena, with something still nagging at me, I started the second of your Neapolitan Novels, ‘The Story of a New Name’, and I was not far into it when I came across the following, in which the narrator is describing her friend Lila’s prose style –
‘Usually the sentences were extremely precise, the punctuation meticulous, the handwriting elegant, just as Maestra Oliveiro had taught us. But at times, as if a drug had flooded her veins, Lila seemed unable to bear the order she had imposed on herself. Everything then became breathless, the sentences took on an overexcited rhythm, the punctuation disappeared.’
The scales, Elena, fell from my eyes – everything suddenly made sense and I got the idea that you definitely knew what you were doing. So apologies from this English teacher pedant who loved, really loved, ‘The Story of a New Name’ and ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ and who is saving up the last of your Neapolitan Novels as a guaranteed future treat.
PS In between numbers two and three of The Neapolitan Series I read your earlier novel ‘Days of Abandonment’. In it I found this – ‘Hold the commas, hold the periods. It’s not easy to go from the happy serenity of a romantic stroll to the chaos, to the incoherence of the world.’
Apologies again, Elena. You clearly know what you’re doing.
It is easy, and tempting, to see the eighty-two-year-old Leonard Cohen’s magnificent fourteenth album as a farewell. As is often the case with Cohen, though, it is not quite that simple. ‘You Want It Darker’ may seem to be the singer’s farewell to his life, his work, to us, but throughout the album the nature of his goodbye shifts, and we are never sure exactly what or who he is saying goodbye to. The key might lie in a strange case of repetition. Cohen, an artist renowned for spending years on his lyrics (he allegedly spent five years writing ‘Hallelujah’) has chosen to give us a repeated line and a repeated image in two of his songs. The line is about departure from a game and the image is about the extinguishing of a flame.
Here’s the line in the title song ‘You Want It Darker’ – If you are the dealer , I’m out of the game, If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame. And here it is in ‘Leaving the Table’ – I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game
Here’s the repeated image. In the title song – You want it darker, We kill the flame And in ‘Leaving the Table’ – I don’t need a lover, So blow out the flame
It seems extraordinary that Cohen should do this and I think we can rule out carelessness or oversight as a possible reason. Why, then, are these lines and images repeated, and why might it be significant? ‘I’m out of the game’ is a pretty clear image of quitting, but quitting what, exactly? The first thing that comes to mind, obviously, is a game of cards – hence the dealer and hence the table. But othermetaphorcal games, other dealers and other tables are also suggested – the table at which you sit with a lover and the table at which you might sit with someone else and break bread and drink wine. So is it the game of life, the game of love, or is it the game of belief and faith? The same can be said of the ‘flame’. Is it the light of life, is it the hot flame of love and sexual desire or is it the illuminating flame of belief?
Those who know Leonard Cohen’s work will recognise the rich ambiguity of his lyrics, the psalm-like simplicity of the language.They will also be familiar with the depth of his voice. On ‘You Want It Darker’ both the voice and the language become deeper and more profound – it’s like someone talking from beyond, some ancient, wise prophet teasing and tantalising with simple yet gnomic utterances about love, life, faith and mortality.
Particularly puzzling is the ‘you’ of the title and the ‘you’ of the songs. All the songs, bar one, are addressed to ‘you’ but, as with the nature of the game and the flame, it is never quite clear who this ‘you’ is. It could be us, his audience, (making the title an interesting challenge – you want it darker, you’ve got it), it could be himself (‘you’ as the generalising pronoun standing for ‘I’), it could be God or it could be an unspecified love or lover. Whoever the ‘you’ is, though, there is always an issue, always an argument – mistrust, suspicion, struggle, betrayal. What Cohen is searching for is summed up in the title of one of the songs – ‘Treaty’. Whoever he is addressing – God, his lover, himself, us, faith – has let him down ( ‘I try but I don’t get high with you’) and he is hoping for peace, for reconciliation between ‘your love and mine’.
The one song that isn’t addressed to ‘you’ is about a ‘him’ and ends with the lines – I better hold my tongue, I better take my place, Lift this glass of blood, Try to say the grace
Biblical and religious imagery have never been far from Cohen’s songs but on ‘You Want It Darker’ they assume a whole new dimension, becoming absolutely central to the album’s power and effects. Cohen quarrels with God and Faith as if he quarrels with a lover and it is difficult to pin down his position with any precision. Does he believe? If so who or what does he believe in? Who is he talking to? Who or what does he love? Who is he blaming or accusing? It’s like listening to the struggle of John Donne’s divine sonnets – Cohen’s heart is being given a good battering and so is the listener’s. And yet the effect is curiously uplifting. ‘You Want It Darker’ may be an intensely religious, spiritual experience posing, but not answering, the big questions, but it is soothing and pleasurable to listen to. Synagogue choirs, yearning strings, backing female singers accompany the deep, questioning voice – the overall effect offers the consolations of religious ritual.
As Stephen Fry puts it in his introduction to Ian Shircore’s survey of the songs of Clive James and Pete Atkin, ‘those of us who have hugged the secret of this wonderfully gifted pair to ourselves can’t help feeling rather special and discerning, and we don’t need anyone else to clutter up the premises of our small and select club’.
As a long-time fan of the pair’s work (see ‘My Long Weekend with Pete and Clive – http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=452 ) I understand exactly what Stephen Fry is on about. In 1973 the rock critic Charles Shaar Murray included James and Atkin alongside Bowie, Elton John, Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards in a list of the country’s best songwriters. To say that James and Atkin never quite made it as big as the others would be to give new meaning to the term understatement.
That the wide awareness, recognition and acclaim which Atkin/James deserved never quite materialised has made familiarity with their work a passport to Fry’s small club. An encounter with another member has, over the years, led to instant bonding and ritualistic reciting of favourite lines (in my case from ‘Beware of The Beautiful Stranger’ or ‘Girl on The Train’). I had one such encounter with a friend at University whose cartoon of me (now sadly lost) had me holding a pint of beer, wearing a sensible sweater and the line ‘concerning us there are no fables, no brilliant poems airily discarded, just liquid circles on formica tables’ in a thought bubble coming from my head (club members are now nodding wisely and saying to themselves ‘Payday Evening’ from ‘The Road of Silk’) .
And yet it seems this select club has, over the years, boasted more significant members than I had realised – Charlie Brooker, Stuart Maconie and Simon Schama, for example. Ian Shircore’s ‘Loose Canon’ may well spread the news more widely and lead to a surge in membership, but more likely it will be a compulsory purchase for all card-carriers who will press it, together with the music itself, into the hands of those lucky enough (in the sense that those yet to see Venice are kucky) not to have heard the songs before.
‘Loose Canon’ is a great book. Shircore gives an engaging account of the development of the songs, and his relationship with them, over the years. The facsimiles of original working drafts, together with the photographs and the anecdotes, intelligently illuminate both the songs and their contexts, but at the heart of the book lies Shircore’s readings of the songs themselves. Each chapter moves to a focus on one particular song, and has intelligent and thoughtful close reading at its heart. Particularly intriguing is Shircore’s claim that ‘comparison between Clive and John Donne is not at all farfetched’. The beauty of both Shircore’s writing and the James/Atkin songs is that you end up almost believing him. *
(*The Atkin/James song ‘Sunrise’ ( off ‘Beware of The Beautiful Stranger’) directly addresses Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’. ‘How many clever men have called the sun a fool before today’ asks James’s song, cleverly, with Donne’s opening line ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ clearly in its sights. As Ian Dury once sang – ‘there ain’t half been some clever bastards’. John Donne. Clive James. Clever bastards both.)
Well, Ian, what can I say? You’ve done it again – out smarted your clever class-mates and dazzled your teacher with a real tour-de-force.
Your classmates chose a more predictable approach. Many wrote as Gertrude (the closet scene being a particular favourite). Some opted for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, despite my warning that this had been very successfully tackled by a former student some years ago. There were a few Horatios, a couple of gravediggers, an Osric, a Laertes , and several Claudiuses. One smart-arse chose Yorick’s skull and another decided to be the arras.
But you, Ian, have outdone them all. You have outsmarted the smartest.
A foetus! And, what’s more, it seems to be Hamlet’s foetus! What other foetus could have that wit, that command of language, that knowing, yet troubled, take on the world he is about to enter, a world he has been listening to through his mother’s womb – an intellectual world of Radio 4 and highbrow podcasts.
And, Ian, how well you’ve used the language and ideas of the play! Do you know what? The references are so clever and there are so many of them that I might even have missed some. But then you’ve always liked to catch poor old teacher out. All that stuff about unreliable narrators you’re so keen on (remember that balloon story and the crazy stalker?). All that pulling the rug from under poor teacher’s feet and revealing that the story he’s been reading might not be the story he thought he was reading.
But do you know what, Ian? I’ve seen hints of what you’ve done here in some of your earlier work. I’ve taught you for some time now, though taught is probably the word here. We’ve sat in the same classroom would be a more accurate description – if there’s been any teaching going on it’s been you teaching me! I still marvel at how much I learned about brain surgery in that piece you wrote that was set on the day of the Stop The War March and at how much I discovered about theoretical physics in that one about the child who went missing in the supermarket. And it’s that one I want to go back to, Ian, because I think it has some bearing on your latest work.
Not only did that piece, like this one, end with a birth, a delivery – it also had a character defying all notions of sense and reason and regressing so far back that he became…a foetus! Yes, a foetus! You’ve pulled the trick before, Ian, haven’t you, in that scene at The Bell Pub where the character goes back to the point where it as unborn child witnessing his parents discussing whether or not to have him? I’ve dug out the piece and I’ve actually found the passage – ‘His eyes grew large and round and lidless with desperate, protesting innocence, his knees rose under him and touched his chin, his fingers were scaly flippers’.He could, of course, be descending the evolutionary scale but I think we’re looking an embryo here, aren’t we, Ian? An embryo considering whether or not it will be allowed to exist. Very Hamlet, Ian. Very to be or not to be.
And, Ian,how very very well you use the play. The language, the imagery. Everything. As early as page two we have ‘Seems, Mother? No, it is.’ Some of the foetus’s very first words are the same as Hamlet’s. And on that very same page we have the italicised ‘To be’. How well you have followed the assessment criteria for this piece of coursework, Ian, the necessity to show a ‘detailed and specific knowledge and understanding of the original text’. Your piece drips with such knowledge, positively oozes with knowing textual reference. ‘This too solid stench’ (‘too too solid flesh’), ‘the spectral prison that’s lately haunted me’ (‘Denmark’s a prison’) ‘oh, little mole’ ( ‘well said old mole’). Even the take-away food they order near the end is Danish! And then there’s your brilliant take on Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ – the foetus contemplating suicide in the womb, debating whether to strangle himself with the umbilical cord – the ‘mortal coil’. Fantastic!
What is so clever , Ian, is the way that, despite your giving the foetus a level of linguistic competence and understanding beyond an eight- month old foetus (let’s face it, beyond any foetus) you are faithful to the last detail to the limited perceptions of a womb-bound being – sensed physical movement, things heard (all that Radio 4), things felt (including Claude’s invading member) and a lot of speculation. I couldn’t find a moment in which the narrator presented something which was not perceived through his circumscribed senses or which was not marked off with appropriately limiting modals and conditionals.
What’s more, you introduce lovely judgements on, and sideswipes at, the horrors and absurdities of the contemporary world which the foetus is destined to enter. And, as if the whole ‘Hamlet’ thing were not enough you have a little ‘Macbeth’ thing bubbling away on the back burner as well (‘fatal bellman’, ‘we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever’’ ‘if I fail, you fail’, and the whole murder plot) Very smart.
And those poetry lessons, Ian. How well you have used those sheets I gave you on scansion ( I hate to be pedantic but you do use ‘iamb’ as a metaphor twice which I think might be over doing it) and having John as a poet is a masterstroke, allowing you to casually and deftly weave in so many poetic references and allusions. I got them, Ian, I got them ( Drayton, Keats, the whole lot – I won’t list them all).
I think you may have borrowed a bit of your mate Martin’s style here and there (I know how much you and he are rivals but don’t worry, Ian, you have definitely now left him far far behind) but I do like the way you sculpt those sentences, the way you work the language. There were times when I was reading this and my heart soared. And believe me, Ian, given the amount of crap coursework I have to read each year a heart-soar is a very rare event.
It is, though, as well as being an exemplary piece of coursework, very very amusing. You’re meeting all the coursework criteria, Ian, but you’re also having fun – a teacher could not ask for more.
Ian, I bow before your brilliance. I might almost forgive you that last sentence.
Whoever said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture (and I still can’t work out who it actually was) clearly hadn’t read ‘1971’, a brilliant book which shows that when David Hepworth writes about music it’s like losing yourself on the dance floor to your favourite song or admiring a particularly beautiful building.
Hepworth’s thesis is simple – that 1971, for various reasons, is the greatest year in rock, the greatest not only in terms of the music that was recorded and released in that year but also in the way it marked so many significant transitions.
There may be other years that could stake a claim to the crown and there may be other writers who could make a good case for them, but, for me, Hepworth’s case seems absolutely convincing.
It’s convincing for a number of reasons. The first is the extraordinary number and quality of so many of the 1971 releases. Take a look at these
Not bad, eh? And that’s just six of the hundred Hepworth lists as evidence that 1971 was the ‘Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album’.
The second thing that makes Hepworth’s argument so convincing is the quality of the writing. The prose is literate and intelligent ,elegantly and lightly giving form to Hepworth’s extensive knowledge and research, providing social and historical context through tellingly observed and precisely selected detail. I was particularly taken by this reflection on ‘Brown Sugar’ –
‘ (It) was the key single of 1971. I recall Saturday nights that summer turning up to shabbily furnished north London firetraps lugging a Party Seven of sticky sweet Watney’s Red, twenty Benson & Hedges and a copy of that yellow-labelled mono single with the protruding tongue on it, nights that would climax with the sound of ‘Brown Sugar’ rasping and rattling from somebody’s lovingly assembled and nervously guarded component stereo, trainee teachers thrusting their hips in each other’s direction with unmistakably carnal intent while studiously avoiding anything as telling as eye contact, cigarettes held aloft, each recapitulation of the chorus lasciviously lip-synced, temporarily transported to the Dionysian state of peak horn which the Stones achieved more than anyone else, the rented room gravid with lust and throbbing with abandon.’
Hepworth’s judgements are equally convincing. Here he is, for example, on The Stones – ‘Very little has happened with the Stones since that summer that is all that interesting musically. if you went to see them today and their repertoire didn’t go beyond 1972 you’d still feel you’d got The Stones. Since that time the main interest has been in them as a brand, a soap opera, a sitcom, a group of wealthy men fighting the depredations of age, an international attraction…’
So much of the book’s thesis comes back to that sentiment, reinforcing as it does the idea that 1971 serves as some kind of pivotal peak in rock history,a time after which nothing was ever quite the same again and a time to which we return as some kind of musical high water-mark. Socially and culturally, 1971 seems a hundred thousand light years away, but in musical terms it can seem like yesterday or even, more alarmingly, like today. As Hepworth observes of his own children – ‘If any of my children were to be cast away in the year 1971 they would be lost. They wouldn’t be able to calculate in pounds, shillings and pence and would be frightened by the fact there were no seat belts in cars and you could smoke on London Underground, surprised that the only people who could afford to travel between continents were millionaires, and taken aback that there were just three channels on the TV, no such thing as a personal computer and no openly gay public figures. However, they would feel entirely at home with the records that were made that year.’
The third reason why I find Hepworth’s argument totally convincing is personal. David Hepworth was 21 n 1971. I was 13. His experience of that year would have been significantly different, and significantly more adult, than mine, but that’s not to say that my musical experience of that year is any less powerful than his. This is because 1971 was the year in which I bought my first albums, both of which feature in the top 100.
David Hepworth’s book is a fantastic read. If you were listening to records in 1971 it will bring you back to that time. The beauty of the book, though, and a tribute to both the quality of the writing and the strength of Hepworth’s argument, is that it will bring you back to that time even if you weren’t.