November 2009 Archives

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife


Thanks for dropping by the second installment of the Kristin Lavransdatter readalong, hosted by myself and, however reluctantly, Richard. :-) We'll be collecting everyone's responses to The Wife, Book Two in Sigrid Undset's 1920-22 trilogy.

Personally, The Wife was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The first 150 pages continued some of my least favorite aspects of The Wreath: guilt-ridden Christian moralizing, overwrought dramatic shenanigans from main characters, and seemingly ENDLESS weeping on the part of Kristin herself. Indeed, there's hardly a scene after Kristin's childhood in which she doesn't break down in tears for one reason or another. If she can't have what she wants, she cries. If she gets what she wanted, she feels guilty and cries. If nobody is paying attention to her, she cries some more. If she's the center of attention, she takes the opportunity to...cry. No wonder the woman loses weight throughout the book; between the tears and the alcohol consumption, she is probably severely dehydrated. After several hundred pages of listening to her whiny, guilt-stricken interior voice, my sympathy was wearing very thin. Like Lavrans, watching her weep at his bedside, I was continually asking "What is it now, Kristin?"

Kristin's inability to find peace for the sins of her early life is intensely annoying, but not unbelievable. I have to admit that I can relate to the experience of banging up against the same mental/emotional wall for years and years, making little headway, and even being alienatingly self-involved in the process. And a third of the book still remains for Kristin to come to terms with her demons. But what interests me about her spiritual block is how it reflects Undset's relationship to the church.


During the early scene when Kristin is walking twenty miles barefoot in sackcloth in order to be granted absolution by the Archbishop at Nidaros Cathedral (shown above, image courtesy of Flickr user Lisa Day), I thought to myself that, even if this kind of mentality seems harsh to me, belief in a Church hierarchy does at least provide a way out for believers who fall victim to sin. Kristin has to do this intense, painful penance, but after she's done it and the Church higher-ups tell her she's forgiven, she should feel at peace, right? That's one benefit of belonging to something like the medieval Catholic Church: someone else can theoretically decide for you when your sins have been purged, and then you get to start over with a clean slate.

But Kristin? Does not regain peace when the Church fathers have told her she's forgiven. She even weeps herself into two religious visions, and neither of them make much of a dent in her seemingly endless supply of self-recrimination. In some other book (James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, in which Stephen Dedalus is hounded into complete abandon by his religious guilt), I might read this as a judgment of the Church - about how it's unrealistic to attempt to externalize shame, guilt, and forgiveness, or that any other human could know whether or not God has cleansed us of our sins. But it doesn't seem to me that Undset is taking this view. After all, she herself converted from skeptical agnosticism to Catholicism just 2-3 short years after this book was published, so she must have found some value in the structure and ritual it provided, even if, in her novel, it seems to act more as a crutch to prolong Kristin's self-flagellation, than as a comfort to mitigate it.

Most of the time I feel Undset is trying her best simply to present the medieval Norwegian Church: there are earnest, pious priests like Brother Edvin and Gunnulf Nikulaussøn, and there are also people who abuse their position in the hierarchy. Among the lay people, there are those who are victimized by the Church (men and women accused of witchcraft), and those who derive comfort and strength from it. But I continue to wonder about Undset's choice of protagonist - why focus on a character who seems, however pious, to be immune from the comforts offered by the Church - who seems actually to be made a WORSE person by her religiosity? Is Undset working out her own crisis of faith, just prior to conversion? Or is she merely making the point that spiritual journeys can be long and torturous? And why does Kristin have a more difficult time reconciling herself to her past mistakes than certain other characters do - her husband, for example? This is a question I often have about protagonists eaten up by religious guilt. Nobody around Stephen Dedalus seems to think they're going to Hell for a passing crush on a woman glimpsed on the streetcar, but he, for whatever reason, does. The priests have all told Kristin she has made amends for having sex before marriage, but she can't accept it. In both cases, the all-consuming guilt these characters feel erodes their ability to live their lives in a generous and responsible way.

What singles out these super-sensitive, selfish, all-or-nothing believers? A number of Stephen's behaviors (in particular his childhood bedtime ritual, which must be completed properly on pain of eternal damnation) align neatly with a modern diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder; Kristin, though, just seems depressed. One interesting parallel Stephen and Kristin DO share is an extremely close connection with their opposite-sex parent; Stephen spends Ulysses hallucinating his dead mother, and Kristin's relationship with Lavrans is a little too close for comfort. Is an overdeveloped religious fixation tied to some kind of Oedipus/Electra complex? Portrait and Kristin came out within four years of each other, around the time that Freud's theories were beginning to gain currency.

In any case, Kristin and her religious guilt do get to be a bit much. Yet around the 450-page mark (of the omnibus edition), I found myself enjoying the novel more than I had previously. Undset's narrative branches out, and we spend extended periods either outside Kristin's head completely, or observing through her eyes with minimal commentary. Whenever this happened, as in the narratives of Kristin's ex-fiancé Simon or Erlend's brother Gunnulf, I found myself relaxing into the storyline and enjoying the exploration of different corners of the medieval world, whether it be the hostels of Rome or the unconverted wilds of Finland. Occasionally, too, I started noticing moments when Undset made surprisingly poignant use of her plain, unadorned prose. This exchange between Lavrans and Ragnfrid, for example, struck me as lovely:

"Perhaps you may think, wife, that you've had more sorrow than joy with me; things did go wrong for us in some ways. And yet I think we have been faithful friends. And this is what I have thought: that afterwards we will meet again in such a manner that all the wrongs will no longer separate us; and the friendship that we had, God will build even stronger."

Something about the quietness of that "I think we have been faithful friends" is very touching to me, although it's marred by Ragnfrid's wish a few pages later that he had just hit her once in a while. Likewise, Kristin's slow realization of the depths of her parents' relationship, although it seemed a little, um, delayed (what is she here? in her mid-twenties?), struck a chord as well:

While she lived at Jørundgaard, she had never thought otherwise than that her parents' whole life and everything they did was for the sake of her and her sisters. Now she seemed to realize that great currents of both sorrow and joy had flowed between these two people, who had been given to each other in their youth by their fathers, without being asked. And she knew nothing of this except that they had departed from her life together. Now she understood that the lives of these two people had contained much more than love for their children. And yet that love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep..."

By the end of The Wife I felt that the second book is stronger than the first, although still not a knockout. Despite an annoying protagonist, it widens its scope and develops a diversity of characters, and relies less on clichés of gothic and romantic literature than The Wreath. When she's not obsessing on her own sinfulness, Kristin can make an insightful observer, as when she contrasts the feasting styles of her husband and father, and notes that Erlend tends not to get as drunk or boisterous as Lavrans, since he's not as constrained while sober. I'm sure that the Black Death will give Kristin lots of opportunities to wail and sob, but I'm also somewhat hopeful for more non-Kristin time in Undset's third volume.

Visit others' posts:

  • Amy enjoyed The Wife much less than The Wreath, due mostly to Kristin's unremitting sobs.

  • Claire loved the setting but disliked the narrative voice, with which she never really connected. She also has qualms about the lack of forgiveness displayed by Kristin and the other characters.

  • E.L. Fay continues her thoughtful exploration of the "anachronistic feminist," and argues that Kristin is convincingly embedded in her time - for better or worse.

  • Gavin writes that she enjoyed the second book more than the first, particularly the setting and political intrigue, but that Kristin's weeping and religious guilt continues to bother her.

  • Jill compares The Wife to Gone with the Wind, and notes that Kristin becomes less sympathetic while Erlend and Simon both become more so.

  • Lena remarks that, while it was satisfying to see Kristin become a slightly more competent adult, her tears and vengefulness toward Erlend were less compelling. She remarks that the only character she ends up feeling close to is Simon.

  • Richard finds Undset's narration style and content totally generic and uninteresting.

  • Sarah, like so many of us, found Kristin's crying and nagging to be very unpleasant, and coins the phrase "epic nonsense."

  • Softdrink wrote a pithy and amusing post highlighting Kristin's out-of-control fertility and her shrewish domestic stylings.

  • Valerie enjoyed The Wife less than The Wreath, and continues in her opinion that Kristin Lavransdatter is male-centric. (For another interesting conversation about the novel's gender politics, check out the comments on Sarah's post!)

The Inner Life (extracts from The Imitation of Christ)


The Inner Life (a name the people at Penguin invented for their excerpts from Thomas à Kempis's famous The Imitation of Christ) rounds out my first set of four Great Ideas volumes. I have to admit that, outside of the context of the series, this fourteenth-century Catholic devotional tract is not something I would normally pick up, find interesting, or recommend to anyone except those with a strong interest in the history of Christian theology. As an agnostic person in particular, trying to find anything in its pages to which I could personally relate was...well, let's just say that wasn't the approach that worked best for me. Within the curated Great Ideas experience, though, it takes part in a number of dialogues I find fascinating. And when I stop to situate Kempis in the context of the other three philosophers I've read in the series thus far, there are even a few points on which I would align myself more with him than with anyone else. More importantly, and beyond my personal reactions, Kempis represents an important phase of Western Christian thought, which I'm sure will prove a key touchstone as I move into the Renaissance writings of Machiavelli and Montaigne.

First, the basics: Thomas à Kempis espouses a characteristically hardcore medieval attitude toward God and faith. He's an absolutist, arguing that one should give up all emotional connection to the people and physical world around one, and put one's entire trust in God. You shouldn't trust other people, your own sensations, or yourself, Kempis writes: humans are changeable and easily tricked by the Devil, and are therefore much too weak and unworthy to make their own life decisions or attain any meaningful knowledge except through complete and utter submission to the will of God. Even the kind of ecstatic devotion espoused by Augustine should, says Kempis, be mistrusted:

CHRIST: ... Do not hold an exaggerated opinion of yourself, or believe that you are a favorite of God when you enjoy the grace of great devotion and sweetness; for it is not by these things that the true lover of holiness is known, or is a man's spiritual progress dependent on such things.
THE DISCIPLE: Lord, on what then does it depend?
CHRIST: On complete surrender of your heart to the will of God, not seeking to have your own way either in great matters or small, in time or in eternity. If you will make this surrender, you will thank God with equal gladness both in good times and in bad, and will accept everything, as from His hand, with an untroubled mind. Be courageous and of such unshakable faith that, when spiritual comfort is withdrawn, you may prepare your heart for even greater trials. Do not think it unjust that you should suffer so much, but confess that I am just in all My dealings, and praise My holy Name.

In other words, says Kempis, a truly devoted follower of Christ will completely subjugate his own desire, and be equally happy with whatever fate God decides is best for him, however uncomfortable or seemingly tragic it may be, because Christ is all-knowing, and is orchestrating the events of each person's life to best suit that person's spiritual growth.

Like Seneca, Kempis counsels his readers to find "a place apart," to spend time alone for the greater health of their souls. But whereas Seneca recommends spending that time reading philosophy, honing our logical minds and reducing mental busy-ness, Kempis's main object for alone time is coming to a deeper appreciation of just how base and unworthy we are to receive the grace of God. He urges us to "enter deeply into inner things," yet also tells us never to trust ourselves or our own impressions. To Kempis this isn't a contradiction: to him, "entering deeply into inner things" means finding lower and ever lower levels of degradation within, which will in turn motivate us to submit more readily to God's will:

It is a great obstacle if we rely on external signs and the experience of the senses, and pay small regard to the perfecting of self-discipline. I hardly know what motives can inspire us, or what our purpose may be, when we who wish to be considered spiritual take so much trouble and are so concerned with trivial, daily affairs, and so seldom give our full and earnest attention to our interior life.
Alas, after a short meditation we break off and do not make a strict examination of our lives. We do not consider where our affections really lie, nor are we grieved at the sinfulness of our whole lives.

This emphasis on discounting the experience of the senses, of eschewing rationality, is one of Kempis's most interesting positions in terms of the Great Ideas dialogue. Let me briefly and perhaps cheekily paraphrase the conversation thus far as it relates to logic and the rational person:

  • Seneca writes to a friend: hey, look at your situation logically. Today you're alive, and tomorrow you may be dead. Why not make the most of your remaining time by withdrawing from the hustle and bustle, and spending some time engaging with philosophy? You will hone your mind and prepare your soul for your inevitable death. After all, people complain about having to die, but we really have sufficient time if only we would use it to good advantage.
  • Marcus Aurelius, more pessimistically, opines that the world is going to hell because people everywhere are acting against their true natures. The true nature of a man, says Aurelius, is that of a rational citizen, and the only rational way for a citizen to live is to devote himself to the service of his state, rather than becoming a prey to his irrational (carnal, selfish) desires. Rationality, says Aurelius, will save the day, or at least make life more bearable and death less alarming.
  • Augustine of Hippo presents a failure of rationality: a moment (his conversion to Catholocism) when, in order to attain enlightenment, he must put aside his desire to know and learn things logically, and follow his emotions to God.

A thousand years later, Thomas à Kempis (and, I think, medieval Christianity in general) have taken Augustine's break with rationality to the proverbial next level, and then several levels beyond that. The temptation to acquire knowledge through the senses or reasoned logic, he argues, is a crafty ploy of the Devil, who is trying to distract us from the fact that praying and submitting our wills to God are the only ways to attain true enlightenment. The entire physical world, therefore, becomes a minefield of temptations for anyone who has incompletely quashed his curiosity or his impulse towards reason. The best plan for anyone wishing to get close to God, in Kempis's view, is to live the life of a hermit:

You should be so mortified in your affection towards loved ones that, for your part, you would forego all human companionship. Man draws the nearer to God as he withdraws further from the consolations of this world. And the deeper he descends into himself and the lower he regards himself, the higher he ascends towards God.

Kempis's attitude is that a holy person should withdraw from nearly every aspect of life on earth, and focus his entire energy on anticipating the next life - the one in which he will be released from this prison of a body and be united with God in peace. "Be assured of this," he writes famously, "that you must live a dying life." If you are gaining pleasure or satisfaction from anything in life other than submitting yourself to God, Kempis argues, you're on the wrong track. And if you're attempting to reason something out logically, you're falling prey to the Devil. Aside from a few token comments about "helping one another," there's even surprisingly few mentions of charity, which I tend to consider a staple of Christian theology. Basically, Kempis's holy man withdraws farther and farther from all other people and objects, and spends his time meditating on what a despicable sinner he is. It's hard for me to imagine a God who would encourage such conduct, but there you go. (And Kristin Lavransdatter people: does this behavior pattern sound familiar?) I mean, this is certainly not how Jesus lived, which makes the title Imitation of Christ an interesting one.

I think what stood out most to me about Thomas à Kempis is the feeling that something had to give. His theology is just so extreme and so bleak. If it's at all representative of the life of the educated "establishment" in late medieval Europe, it impresses the reader with the inevitability of some kind of pressure release, some swing of the pendulum in the other direction - which did in fact take place with the advent of Renaissance Humanism and the return to a desire for proto-scientific inquiry.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I do appreciate Kempis's acknowledgment of the failures of rationality. Reading Marcus Aurelius, I often wanted to shake the man for his blind insistence that Human Beings Are Naturally Rational, even as he was cataloging all the myriad irrational behaviors around him. Falling, myself, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes (I think most people tend to act irrationally and construct rational explanations for our behavior after the fact), it's fascinating to watch the two philosophical strands develop over the centuries. And having already spent some quality time with Machiavelli and Montaigne, the next two stops on the Great Ideas train, I'm pretty confident that they will add some interesting perspectives to the rationality debate. On to Florence, and the demise of the Republic!

PS - Between Augustine, Kempis, and Undset, it's been VERY RELIGIOUS around here lately! I need to read some Emma Goldman or something, just to shake things up a bit. Seriously.



I spent the first half of Sula feeling vaguely disappointed at the spare, undeveloped quality of its author's early prose, and the latter half exclaiming at how thoroughly Morrison pulls this novel out of the bag. Some of the late scenes (Sula and Nel's final confrontation on Sula's death bed; the final description of Suicide Day, 1941) will probably haunt me for years, and Nel's final realization in the last three pages of the book is heart-wrenching. Nonetheless, even after reading the last page, I still felt that this short novel is made of a different substance than certain other Morrison works, like Beloved and Song of Solomon. Covering over forty years in under two hundred pages, much of its plot and characterization are implied and suggested, rather than explicitly developed. One online reviewer referred to it as a fable, and I think that's a useful approach. Sula, Nel, Eva, and their poor black hillside neighborhood (called "the Bottom" despite being perched on a hill) are allegorial - or rather, they often treat each other and themselves as allegorical, denying their own humanity, and one "moral" of the Morrison's fable is how harmful that treatment can be.

Like other Morrison novels, there is a complicated love/hate nostalgia at play in Sula; as the novel opens, we are told that even now its setting, the hillside ghetto known as "The Bottom," is largely destroyed, and that soon all trace of it will have vanished in the sweep of "progress." And while there is a definite sadness at the disappearance of this place, in which the dramas and everyday lives of human beings unfolded, that sadness doesn't eclipse the narrator's anger and disgust at the more inhuman aspects of life in the Bottom. She lets her love of the nurturing and even the gritty, enduring parts of Bottom life coexist with her other feelings:

It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn - and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn't been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren't any places left...

I think that line is so telling: "Maybe it hadn't been a community, but it had been a place." On the one hand, this is Nel as a middle-aged woman, disapproving of all the jargon talked by the young kids who are more in love with ideas than the realities in front of them. In another way, though, the poverty and cruel conditions of life in the Bottom do erode its ability to be a "community" in the positive sense: in one scene, a grown woman asks her mother if she ever loved them (the children), and her mother tells her probably not, "Not the way you thinkin'." Hannah means, did her mother ever play with the children, snuggle them, and Eva reminds her that people need food and time for that kind of loving:

"You want me to tickle you under the jaw and forget 'bout them sores in your mouth? Pearl was shittin' worms and I was supposed to play rang-around the rosie? [...] Wasn't no time. Not none. With you all coughin' and me watchin' so TB wouldn't take you off and if you was sleepin' quiet I thought, O Lord, they dead and put my hand over your mouth to feel if the breath was comin' what you talkin' bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you can't you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears, heifer?"

Eva's narrative is moving - she obviously cares about her family - but her harshness toward her daughter is also hard to read. One of the themes of Sula is the ways in which love is perverted by poverty, and also, paradoxically, by the desire for upward mobility, for gentility and acceptance. When Sula, Hannah's daughter, returns unmarried, college-educated, selfish and sexually omnivorous to the Bottom as an adult, her very badness serves to transform the place into the community it may not previously have been. She becomes the collective scapegoat. To some extent she earns her reputation and to some extent the townsfolk embellish it, but in a way it hardly matters: she's the foil that makes everyone else kinder toward one another, more tolerant, better fathers to their children and wives to their husbands. They band together against a perceived common foe. And later, when Sula is no longer in the town, these benefits start to unravel; with no resistance against which to push, their relationships veer off the tracks. Morrison doesn't really take a stand on the darkness of this vision - that the people in her novel need an enemy in order to be bothered to love each other properly. It's a reality she just lays out for the reader to see, like she portrays the Bottom in all its beauty, ugliness, and erosion. Sula becomes an integral part of life in the Bottom, even though the townsfolk shun and condemn her. Neither her behavior nor their condemnation is particularly righteous, but both are forces of nature.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about Sula its examination of how things we may not like, or even notice, become so integrated into our lives that we use them as reference points. Sula becomes the townsfolks' reference point for an evil woman, just like the iconoclastic holiday "Suicide Day," started by a shell-shocked, cowbell-toting WWI veteran in 1919, becomes a reference point for the passing days and years.

In fact they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives.
       Someone said to a friend, "You sure was a long time delivering that baby. How long was you in labor?"
       And the friend answered, "'Bout three days. The pains started on Suicide Day and kept up till the following Sunday. Was borned on Sunday. All my boys is Sunday boys."
       Some lover said to his bride-to-be, "Let's do it after New Years, 'stead of before. I get paid New Years Eve."
       And his sweetheart answered, "OK, but make sure it ain't on Suicide Day. I ain't 'bout to be listening to no cowbells whilst the weddin's going on."

Likewise, the two protagonists, Nel and Sula, become the touchstones of each others' emotional lives without fully realizing it's happened. And even after their relationship has been corroded by the selfish independence of Sula and the hard bitterness of Nel, both women continue to think of the other whenever they have a particular realization, or when something happens (or doesn't happen) in their lives. "Wait'll I tell Nel," thinks Sula, while Nel chastises herself for thinking of Sula "as though they were still friends and talked things over." Part of the tragedy of Sula is that the women don't have the resources to recognize the worth of what they have, and another part of it is that they can't find a way to regain what they've lost. Yet another part, it seems to me, is that despite supposedly being the closest of friends, having lived together through "the days when we were two throats and one eye and we had no price," there is still some core of existence in each woman that passes completely outside the understanding of the other.

Sula is a story with a fundamental loneliness at its core. I'm reminded of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's famous argument that all human beings are born and die alone. One of the the only ways for characters in the Bottom to connect is to demonize another human; real, genuine connection is always sabotaged or undervalued. And although it's hard to deny the egregiousness of some of Sula's cruelties, it's also hard to dismiss her cry:

My lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely.

As I've written about Sula, I've realized how deep its questions and motifs go. It's really a small, finely-turned gem, although I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of it if I hadn't stopped to articulate my reading experience. In that way, I suppose it's similar to the Faulkner I just reviewed: it has much to offer to the reader who can offer something in return.

(Sula was my ninth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1970s. And hey y'all, I may actually finish all my challenges this year! Only two more books to go!)

The Sound and the Fury


Theoretically, my latest journey through Faulkner's southern Gothic epic was a re-read. I knew I'd read it before, long ago, but I wasn't sure exactly how long ago until I riffled through it and discovered, nestled between the pages, a three-day visitor pass for the New Orleans public transportation system. I've only been to New Orleans once, which means I last read The Sound and the Fury at the tender age of fourteen, over a chilly January weekend in a hotel in the French Quarter. You have to admire my sense of effective setting. The ironwork grilles, pedestrian arcades and melancholy street performers must have made an evocative backdrop to this tale of familial disintegration in the American South.

Needless to say, however, considering my former youth and relative lack of familiarity with modernist literature, I remembered almost nothing about the novel before picking it up again this time. In fact, I remembered SO little about it that I actually made a list before I started re-reading. This is literally every single thing I could bring to mind about the novel, besides my assumption that, being Faulkner, it would be set in Mississippi:

  • Four sections told from different perspectives;
  • Siblings/family saga
  • First section is from the perspective of the mentally retarded brother;
  • Brother/sister incest (?);
  • A scene where a young girl climbs a tree and a boy (her brother?) can see her underwear.

As you can see, my grasp of the finer plot points was incomplete. Although my question mark in "Brother/sister incest (?)" turned out to be surprisingly accurate, I think the last item actually conflates three different scenes, two in this book and one in Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (in which the girl in question is actually not wearing any underwear! Salacious!). And while the first three items are true as far as they go, they don't exactly add up to the most memorable reading experience.

This time around, though, I thoroughly appreciated The Sound and the Fury. Having read other Faulkner since (most recently Absalom! Absalom!), I was prepared for consistently ponderous, florid-seeming prose, but Faulkner really carries off four distinct narrative voices in his four different sections. We get Benjy's jumpy, grief-stricken stream of consciousness, in which past, present and future are compressed into a single pane of existence; Quentin's obsessive, impotent gallantry and inability to reconcile his past with his present; Jason's flinty-cold, self-justifying righteousness; and the final section, the only one told in what I think of as "Faulknerian" prose, which is told in the third person and focuses on the inexplicably faithful servants in the Compson house. In each section, the same basic story is refracted through a different sensibility, revealing a new set of separate but overlapping facets, until the reader gradually pieces together what happened to the Compson family: how they loved each other, hated each other, and tore themselves to pieces.

If we could have just done something so dreadful and Father said That's sad too, people cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today and I said, You can shirk all things and he said, Ah can you. And I will look down and see my murmuring bones and the deep water like wind, like a roof of wind, and after a long time they cannot distinguish even bones upon the lonely and inviolate sand.

This is one of those books, so many of them modernist, which are sometimes charged with "ruining the literary scene" and "turning literature into an exclusionary, unreadable mess." Forget that I think such claims are a big pile of poop; I'd still like to talk about why I think Faulkner's decisions here are so effective. Because basically, my opinion is this: while the style of the novel is indeed challenging at times, it's all in the service of something that's the OPPOSITE of exclusionary. To me, The Sound and the Fury operates on the same set of audience-baiting techniques that fuel the public's perpetual interest in crime novels. As a reader, Faulkner feeds me just enough information to whet my appetite about what's happened in the Compson house, yet denies me complete understanding until the very end. This doesn't seem to me obnoxiously elitist; it seems like good, solid storytelling technique.

The Sound and the Fury takes, no doubt, more effort on the reader's part than a more standard, whodunit-style story. But there are also many more levels on which the mysteries unfold, and all of those levels are interrelated, making it also much more interesting, at least to me. A reader beginning Faulkner's novel must first ascertain what's going on with the narrating voice: being thrown into Benjy's world, which isn't separated into past, present, and future, is disconcerting, a melange of jerky transitions, italics and effects without causes. As I began to get my bearings, I realized that italicized text signaled that Benjy was beginning to experience something, a scene from the past that had been triggered in his mind by the thoughts or events just preceding in the narrative (often themselves things that happened in the past). He relives these scenes with such vivid feeling that they're indistinguishable from the present, and, as his story progresses, the implied "triggers" that cause him to transition from one scene to another provide intriguing clues about the family's past and present. Why does Benjy cry when he looks at himself in a mirror? Why does Quentin seem sometimes to be male and at other times female? Why are certain places - the basement, the tree by the window - so packed with triggers for Benjy? How did the family decide that saying a certain name is taboo? Moving from one's first impressions to the point of asking questions like these is a bit like emerging from an atmospheric fog bank, and watching the landscape take its gradual shape.

With the transitions from one section to the next, Faulkner even creates cliffhangers: at the end of Benjy's section we share Benjy's priorities, and want to learn the answers to the questions he raises. Instead, we're spirited eighteen years back in time to Quentin's narrative, which introduces us to a whole new set of obsessions and motivations. By the time we're done meandering with the morose Harvard student around the Italian slums of Boston, we feel tenderly frustrated with him, and invested in his ominous trajectory - but we're suddenly yanked back to the day before Benjy's section, where we encounter the thoroughly unpleasant Jason. Every section helps to fit more pieces into place regarding plot, causes, and effects, but the author entices his audience masterfully in the meantime, and lets us swim in the stream of each character's thoughts and associations. It's not only a beautiful example of the old writing-class chestnut "Show, don't tell," but it allows the gaps and jumps in each narrative to reveal as much as the words that surround them. The prose takes on the texture of a canyon landscape, whose real substance is contained in yawning chasms not immediately visible from the ground.

(As a side-note, the sections in the Italian slums around Boston in 1910 were particularly intriguing to me because my partner David's paternal family are Italian-Americans from the greater Boston area. His grandmother was born in 1916, but the area in which she lived would have been very similar to that around which Quentin leads the little girl he meets in the bread shop.)

My point is that Faulkner's difficult prose serves a concrete function in terms of the narrative, and I think it performs that function extremely well. The Sound and the Fury felt more taut and well-controlled to me than Absalom, Absalom!. I think the structural challenges Faulkner set himself in this novel really brought out the best in him, and made for a gorgeous and suspenseful reading experience for me.

(The Sound and the Fury was my eighth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1920s.)

Woolf in Winter!


In case you missed it over at Frances's blog, we have an exciting invitation to extend for the new year. Frances, Sarah, Claire and I will be spending two months with one of my favorite writers in the world, Virginia Woolf.

I'm having a hard time expressing how excited I am to revisit Woolf with these three amazing ladies, not to mention all the other folks who have already responded to Frances's post. I have a major crush on Woolf; I have been known literally to have dreams (at night, while asleep) about wandering by her house at 46 Gordon Square and being invited in for tea. I have also taken entire vacations to England, by myself, in which I did things like retrace Clarissa Dalloway's walk through Hyde Park, and make a pilgrimage to the Stephens girls' childhood summer home in St. Ives, Cornwall (the model for the household in To the Lighthouse). SUCH A DORK! In any case, having the excuse to revel in Woolfiana with several of my favorite bloggers will be a very special way to kick off 2010.

We're planning the following reading schedule, with each of the four of us taking a turn at hosting. Around the dates mentioned, everyone reading along will post on the book, and the host will collect the entries. I've included bits of teaser text, because I can't pass up any excuse to spend time with Woolf's prose.

  • Sarah - Mrs. Dalloway (January 15)

    "Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself."
  • Emily - To the Lighthouse (January 29)

    "So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, a scrubbed kitchen table. It lodged now in the fork of a pear tree, for they had reached the orchard. And with a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind, not upon the silver-bossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, but upon a phantom kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity, which stuck there, its four legs in the air. Naturally, if one's days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark of the finest minds so to do), naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person."
  • Frances - Orlando (February 12)

    "But, above all, he had, he told Orlando, sensations in his spine which defied description. There was one knob about the third from the top which burnt like fire; another about the second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and so curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously and indeed, it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England."
  • Claire - The Waves (February 26)

    "I shall walk on the moor. The great horses of the phantom riders will thunder behind me and stop suddenly. I shall see the swallow skim the grass. I shall throw myself on a bank by the river and watch the fish slip in and out among the reeds. The palms of my hands will be printed with pine-needles. I shall there unfold and take out whatever it is I have made here; something hard. For something has grown in me here, through the winters and summers, on staircases, in bedrooms. I do not want, as Jinny wants, to be admired. I do not want people, when I come in, to look up with admiration. I want to give, and to be given, and solitude in which to unfold my possessions."

And that's the plan. We would all love to have you join us, whether it's for all four books or just one. See you in January!



Boy, it's been kind of gloomy around Evening All Afternoon recently, hasn't it? What with unanticipated abridgments, disorganized Englishmen, and lukewarm responses to historical fiction, things have looked rosier. But here, my friends, is the antidote: Peter Carey's rollicking Australian epic Illywhacker is robust and uproarious - a chewy, stew-like story you can really sink your teeth into, and which also offers a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of lying and the truth.

I've written before about how I would cheerfully devour a phone book if Peter Carey took it into his head to write one, and Illywhacker is no exception - although it is different than the other Carey novels I've read. It doesn't have quite the focused incandescence of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, or the obsessive surreality of My Life as a Fake. Instead, it follows a John Irving-like model of sprawling, character-driven, oddball family saga: a portrait of three generations in the quick-tempered and bandy-legged Badgery clan. Narrating the tales of his progeny and their hangers-on is the 139-year old patriarch Herbert Badgery, an exuberant liar who has yarned, belched, strutted and cajoled his way through the Australian countryside over more than a century. Badgery is the archetype of the charismatic con-man, and Carey depicts him masterfully: we observe, at once, his flatulence and grime, and also his grand dreams of love and aviation, of starting an Australian airplane factory, of building a rambling mansion for the woman he loves. He's simultaneously crass, cynical, and grandly ambitious, and, somewhat predictably, gets his heart broken at least as often often as he breaks the hearts of others. Possibly most important, he's a freewheeling unreliable narrator, telling the reader on the first page, "[M]y advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show."

Apart from his masterful control of sentences and paragraphs, one of the most interesting things about Peter Carey is the complex morality in his novels; all of the four that I've read so far have interrogated the relationship between lying, storytelling, and the truth, and come to complicated conclusions that can't readily be summarized. Mid-way through Illywhacker, Badgery (sort of) wins and then (kind of) loses a puritanically honest woman named Leah Goldstein, of whom he eventually and unexpectedly makes a lying addict. After they are separated, she spends years upon years faithfully writing to him, creating letters which are almost complete balderdash:

Later she would think of these months, when she helped her friend die, as one of the most important times in her life.

But she wrote not a word about it to me. Instead she described long walks with Rosa along the clifftops to Tamarama. She did not date these walks, but the impression given was that they had happened an hour or a minute before, that Rosa sat across from her at the kitchen table, drinking fragrant tea. They were beautiful letters, bulging with powerful skies and rimmed with intense yellow light. Every blade of grass seemed sharply painted, every word of conversation exact and true. Perhaps these things had once taken place. Perhaps she invented them. In any case they gave me that electric, unnatural mixture of emotions that every prisoner knows, where even the best things in the world outside become slashed with our own bitterness or jealousy. This confusion of love and hurt is very powerful. I came to crave it even while I dreaded it. It is a more potent drug than simple happiness.


There was a time, when I finally learned the truth, that I could have killed her for her deception, to have made me feel so much about what revealed itself as nothing. I will tell you, later, how I got on the train with my bottle and my blade. But when I think about her now I cannot even imagine my own anger.

Another word for "lying addict"? "Accomplished fiction writer." When he learns that the lovely world Leah created for him is a lie, Badgery is faced, on a more dramatic scale, with the feelings we all have upon finishing a fantastic book: loss and grief for a world he believed in. Leah has written herself through a gauntlet of lies and somehow become a novelist - and also, argues Badgery, a fully fledged Australian citizen. For, as Carey has his famous fictional historian MV Anderson relate,

Our forefathers were all great liars. They lied about the lands they selected and the cattle they owned. They lied about their backgrounds and the parentage of their wives. However it is their first lie that is the most impressive for being so monumental, i.e., that the continent, at the time of first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated and by that simple device they were able to give the legal owners short shrift and, when they objected, to use the musket or poison flour, and to do so with a clear conscience. It is in the context of this great foundation stone that we must begin our study of Australian history.

Together, these two passages paint an impressively complex view of lying and storytelling. On the one hand, Badgery spends the entire novel fighting for Australian pride - for Australians to invest, for example, in Australian-made cars and airplanes, rather than importing British and American models thought to be self-evidently better than anything "we" could make. He rails against the colonial inferiority complex that motivates many Australians of his day to truckle to the British crown. And so, recognizing that lying and tall-tale-telling are an integral part of his Australian heritage, he embraces them with unmitigated exuberance. I couldn't help loving him for it; the charisma of his voice is intoxicating. On the other hand, though, a big reason that lying has become a national pastime for Australians (and, I might add, Americans) is both shameful and essentially BRITISH: the foundation stone of British colonization in both places was a huge, convenient deception about whether the land they took was already being used. So Badgery's mode of protest against the British turns out to originate with them, and his recommendation to his readers not to look too closely at the truthfulness of his own stories mirrors the cavalier disregard with which they invaded continents and invented the convenient fiction that they had "discovered" them.

But while the lies of Badgery and the British colonizers are largely selfish and convenient, however attractive they may seem, Leah's fictions are a more complicated matter. It doesn't directly benefit her to provide Badgery with false images of a beautiful life which she is not really living. It provides a bit of escapism for her, crafting these letters in which everything she wishes is made true, but it also accentuates the gulf between what she wants and what she has. Whatever results her actions have (and there are both positive and negative repurcussions), her primary motivation, arguably, is kindness. It's painful to Badgery to learn that (almost) everything he believed about Leah's life is a lie, but he's such an inveterate liar himself that it's hard to pity him too much. And if we condemn Leah, what to make of our own decision to pick up Peter Carey's Illywhacker? Of all people, isn't Herbert Badgery, con-man extraordinaire, ASKING to be conned himself, just as we readers of fiction are when we crack open his book? After all, it was Badgery who taught Leah to lie in the first place. Not to mention that through her lies, she manages to demonstrate truths: the truth that she loves Badgery, and that she wishes things were different.

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that toward the end of Illywhacker all these intersecting threads of lies and counter-lies, of the personal versus the national, take a disorienting and eerie turn. I don't pretend to have tracked them all; as Badgery says in the novel's opening, there comes a point when it's best to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did, thoroughly and completely. Carey has yet to disappoint.

(Illywhacker was my seventh book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1980s.)

Confessions of an Excerpted Sinner


I hate to say it, but I have some bad news about the Penguin Great Ideas series with which I'm so smitten. I'm not sure if you'll find this as shocking as I did, but here it is: some of these books are excerpted. And I say "excerpted" only so as to avoid an uglier word: if pressed, I must admit that this edition of Augustine's Confessions is - I can barely stand to write it - ABRIDGED.

To Penguin's credit, they don't try to hide the abridgment, as some expurgators have done before them. Right on the title page, they let you know "this extract first published in Penguin Books 2004," and as the text commences they mark each omission with a [...] symbol. There are MANY such symbols. My full edition of the Confessions is 305 pages of dense, close-set text; the Great Ideas edition is only 114 smaller, wider-set pages. Based on that and on my remembered reading of the whole thing in my senior seminar in college, I think it's a safe bet that about two-thirds of the entire text has been removed, if not more. Which is a huge percentage. Frankly, even with their omissions clearly marked throughout the text, I think it's disingenuous of Penguin to market this book as St. Augustine's Confessions of a Sinner (a very similar title to the more standard Confessions), rather than as something like "Selections from the Confessions." People should know what they're getting before the book arrives in the mail, and what they're getting in this case is a MUCH different experience than they'll have if they read the full document.

Take the famous pear-stealing scene. In both versions, Augustine relates that one night in his adolescence, he and a band of other teenagers stole some pears from a neighborhood tree - not because they wanted or needed the pears, but just for the joy of stealing. In the original text, he then goes on to angst about the theological implications of the pear theft for six densely-packed pages. Got it? He's seriously tortured about the pears. HOW COULD HE HAVE TAKEN THE PEARS? In the abridged version, this angsting is cut to barely one small, medium-spaced page, giving the impression that he's merely remarking, reasonably enough, at the perversity of a humanity that commits a crime solely for the wicked joy of sinning, and that he's then moving on to other subjects.

I bring up the pears not because I have some burning desire to read about them in their entirety yet again. I may not quite agree with Richard, who claims that his definition of hell is having to read the pear-stealing scene one more time, but I've certainly had my fill of it. No, my point in mentioning this passage is that it's one example of how the Penguin abridgment distorts Augustine's character. It makes him out to be a pious, reasonable man, a bit overwrought perhaps, but able to write clearly and concisely about his spiritual journey and eventual conversion to Catholicism. Whereas in fact Augustine is not reasonable AT ALL, and he's certainly not concise. In fact, I think two big points of his narrative are that the spiritual realm evades reason, and that to portray his journey as less than the long, brutal struggle he found it would be to minimize something that he wants, on the contrary, to emphasize.

The struggle with reason, for example, is at the forefront of young Augustine's grappling with the church doctrines. He writes about finding many of these doctrines nonsensical, since for a long time he tries to interpret them literally. Only when Bishop Ambrose explains them to him figuratively can he grasp their value. (And there are pages and pages in which he tries to get a handle on "figurative" - all excised from the abridgment.) Likewise he is only able to make real progress toward conversion when he relinquishes his need to prove and understand things:

Then, O Lord, you laid your most gentle, most merciful finger on my heart and set my thoughts in order, for I began to realize that I believed countless things which I had never seen or which had taken place when I was not there to see - so many events in the history of the world, so many facts about places and towns which I had never seen, and so much that I believed on the word of friends or doctors or various other people. Unless we took these things on trust, we should accomplish absolutely nothing in this life. Most of all it came home to me how firm and unshakable was the faith which told me who my parents were, because I could never have known this unless I believed what I was told.

When Augustine's conversion finally does come, it is a completely non-rational process, described in language more akin to physical ecstasy than reasoned argument. In terms of the curated Great Ideas series, I think this is an important point: Augustine breaks with the Stoic tradition of rationality and constrained emotion represented by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. His emotions run rampant all over the Confessions, and he depicts his relationship with God in language modern readers will recognize from the subsequent literature of erotically-charged romance:

For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways. The memory is bitter, but it will help me to savour your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails. For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest.

Removing the angst from Augustine is kind of like removing the cabbage from coleslaw. And while the Penguin folks don't manage to get all of it, their abridged Augustine is a much different fellow than the full-force version available elsewhere - too bad, since I think he's theoretically a great choice to illustrate the transition from Stoic rationalism to early Christian mysticism.

Similarly, the structure of the complete Confessions is an excellent (if excruciating) example of form reflecting content. The story Augustine wants to tell is one of a disgustingly sinful young man, who knows in his soul that he should convert to the true church, but lacks the decisiveness and strength of character to do so. He struggles over this for nine years, almost converting several times and then losing courage at the last moment. Finally, he is driven to distraction and has an epiphanic moment, wherein the chains of his self-imposed slavery fall away and he is born again in God. From that day on, he is a completely different man: he never looks back or regresses; he is cleansed of all sinful urges and dedicates himself completely to the work of the Church. (The completeness of Augustine's conversion experience rings very false to me, and it's something we discussed a lot in my seminar. Apparently Augustine set the standard for conversion narratives for many years: early church members didn't want to acknowledge that spiritual life might still be a struggle after conversion. According to my professor, it wasn't until the writings of Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century that Christian leaders started telling conversion stories in which the converted person still struggled with sin and doubt even AFTER adult baptism.)

In any case, the structure of the Confessions reflects this story beautifully; it's one of the things I most appreciate about the original document. Augustine's pre-conversion struggles go on for such a painfully long time that the reader, unable to stand any more, joins him in his desperation to make some kind of change. After the conversion happens, Augustine's voice becomes almost completely disembodied: whereas previously he had been writing a story about himself and his actions, his post-epiphanic text is straight theology, with little or no narrative at all. This reflects the heightened, unchanging realm in which his post-conversion existence is supposed to be happening. And while it makes the second half pretty darned boring to a religious agnostic like myself, I still think it's highly effective: the reader can literally see and feel the difference in the person Augustine was versus the person (or saint) he becomes. In the abridged version, we get neither the excruciatingly long lead-up to the conversion, nor as much of the change in mood after baptism. Which I think is a shame.

On the plus side, and rather predictably, the abridged version is much more readable than the original. It flows briskly along, like a fourth-century version of some snappy modern memoir. Had it been published as "Selections from the Confessions," it could have served a valuable role as a quick-and-dirty introduction to the more famous and influential passages from Augustine - and it can still serve that function, albeit not as easily given that people ordering it won't know what they're getting.

Am I still in love with the Great Ideas series? I have to admit that this discovery gives me pause. I've found that offers their "Look Inside" feature on most of the volumes in the series, so I've done a little research about how many are affected. (The second page of this preview, for example, reassures me that Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is presented whole. I could never have forgiven them for altering a single word.) And while most of the remainder of Series One is uncut, the vast majority of Series Two are extracts. This can mean, I think, a couple of things: in many cases, it just means that certain essays were taken from Penguin's "Complete Essays" edition of the author's work. That kind of excerpting doesn't bother me at all, as long as each essay remains complete. But a few editions are, like Augustine, out-and-out abridged, which really rubs me the wrong way. It's one thing if I would never seek out the author on my own: realistically, I'm never going to read the entire Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so I don't really mind getting a taste of it here and there. But a few of the abridged volumes are things I'm actually interested in reading independently of the Great Ideas series: Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, Marco Polo's Travels, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem are the three that leap to mind. I don't think I want to experience those in abridged form, but neither do I want to give up on the curated experience that is the Great Ideas series. Even among the three volumes I've finished, there has been such an interesting dialog that I'm still convinced reading these series in order will be a rewarding exercise.

So...I think what I'll do is to keep ordering them in sets of four, but when I reach an abridged one that I'm independently interested in, I'll find a complete version to substitute for the expurgated one. It kind of hurts me to give up the idea of the full eighty-volume set with all its pretty matching covers, but I think it would bother me even more to wonder what I was missing all the time. Alternatively, if I'm feeling flush it might be interesting to buy both editions and see which parts the Great Ideas people wanted to stress and which they thought could be done away with.

The next in the series, Thomas à Kempis's The Inner Life, is another expurgated title: an extract from The Imitation of Christ. But I get the impression that the cuts are nowhere near as radical as in the Confessions. Anyhow, we'll see how I enjoy the jump of almost a thousand years into medieval Germanic Christianity!

A History of Hand-Knitting


Believe it or not, I started this little history over a month ago: while I was wading through the viscera of Blood Meridian, I occasionally needed something with which to decompress, to take my mind off the gore and scalpings and other grotesqueries that make up McCarthy's novel. And what could be less offensive or more charming to a knitter like myself than Richard Rutt's classic treatise A History of Hand Knitting? Nothing, that's what. I leapt in and interspersed passages from Rutt whenever McCarthy got to be a little too much, a method that kept up my enjoyment of both books quite nicely until I finished the McCarthy and was left with unmitigated Rutt. At which point I immediately stalled. Don't get me wrong, Rutt has his excellent points: he's not only a knowledgeable guide through the history of my craft in the British Isles, but also thoroughly and unintentionally hilarious as only an Englishman can be. I could picture him (in my mind he looks a lot like John Cleese), sitting by his living-room fire with his brandy-snifter, wearing his clerical collar and discoursing with affable long-windedness about various aspects of his pet subject, perhaps boring his house-guests with his strong opinions, although they would probably be too polite to say so. Take this passage, in which he puts forth his view on the proper term for "plain knitting" (the most basic knitted fabric, flat on one side and bumpy on the other):

This fabric is known in the British Isles as 'stocking stitch', a clumsy name including the imprecise word 'stitch.' It was formerly known as 'stockinet', which was probably derived from 'stocking-net.' In America it is called 'stockinette', with a fancy Frenchification of the spelling which is curiously at odds with the rationalism of received American spelling. The older English word has much to recommend it, and I have used it freely in this book.

Oh, Bishop Rutt. So much is funny to me here: his bluntness in bemoaning the "clumsiness" of the term "stocking stitch"; his disapproval of us Americans and our inconsistency in allowing a "fancy Frenchification" to enter our vocabulary; his reversion to a superior English word (of course the English word is superior!), and his neglect of any English-speaking knitters outside the British/American dichotomy. We don't know the term used by Australian and Canadian knitters, and frankly, implies Rutt, we don't care. (As far as I know, Rutt's "fancy Frenchification" has since become the worldwide standard; an overwhelming percentage of the global population of uses "stockinette.")

After the introduction and definition-of-terms sections, Rutt's style settles down to business and becomes a bit dryer. It also becomes a bit more...disorganized. Rutt seems, to me, to belong to the old school of amateur nonfiction writers, laboring away at their books in their off hours, imbuing their manuscripts with their own quirks and biases, and never being exposed to much rigor in the way of editing or streamlining their texts. At times, Rutt's book seems less like a unified narration and more like a series of marginally collected notes: in the section on knitting during the Victorian period, for example, Rutt is in full swing discussing the popularity, among women at home, of knitting for English troops during the Crimean War. Then, with no warning or transition, the reader is faced with the new section-heading "Teacosies," which begins "Teacosies were invented by the Victorians, but, though some connoisseurs of tea believe cosies spoil tea by stewing it, they are not decorative trivia." No connection is ever made between the Crimean War and the vogue for teacosies, which is understandable, because there isn't one. Nonetheless, a basic run-down in high-school-level paragraph transitions would have done a lot to streamline the logic of Rutt's text. I found that it got even choppier as it progressed, degenerating into a series of mostly-unconnected short biographies of the major designers and knitting innovators of the twentieth century.

Rutt is also big into debunking knitting myths. From a historical perspective, I respect and applaud him for his accuracy on this, but at times he comes across as a bit of a wet blanket. About half the section headings feature Rutt dismantling one errant idea or another: in the section on fishermens' ganseys, for example (a traditional form of knitted shirt made around the coastline of England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), he discusses the common romantic notion that each clan or family had a characteristic set of stitch patterns that were passed down through the generations. Not true, says Rutt: all over England, ganseys looked the same. (He discredits this same idea all over again in the section on Aran cabled jumpers.) In the afore-mentioned section about the Crimean War, he discusses the popular idea that the garment "balaclava" got its name from the Battle of Balaclava, and that this is the first place soldiers wore such a thing. Untrue! cries Rutt: the garments themselves existed long before the war, and the modern name for them didn't come into use until many years afterward. Alright then. LIkewise, while it's true that the term "cardigan" derives from the title of the Earl of Cardigan, the man who led the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, Rutt hastens to assure us that

There is no evidence that he wore such a garment during the three short months he spent in the Crimea...A "cardigan body warmer" might have suited his needs, but, if he had one in the Crimea, nobody recorded it. It is more likely that he used the garment during his last years at Deene Park, Northamptonshire. English country houses were notoriously cold.

And so on. I certainly wouldn't want Rutt to sacrifice accuracy, but he seems to take greater glee in debunking romantic misconceptions than in communicating the truly amazing and unusual aspects of knitting history, or even conveying an interest in his subject.

And there are many interesting tidbits stashed away in this book of his, if only he would highlight them. (See that subject transition? Eh?) For example, he discusses the moral outrage that accompanied the rise of knitting during the Elizabethan era: ministers were preaching against it from the pulpit, a fact which is sure to bring a smile to any modern knitter's face. It turns out that stocking-knitting became big business in Elizabethan times, primarily because of the male fashion for extremely short "trunk hose" giving way to brilliantly-colored, tight-fitting stockings (the classic "men in tights" look). Apparently, the fashion in stockings for upper-class men changed so frequently and dramatically that poor cottagers all over England could make extra money by churning out the newest style and selling their wares to wealthy Londoners. In fact, so fickle were the fashions that, even though machine knitting had been invented, it wouldn't really be practical for another hundred years: a machine was a large capital investment that could only knit one type of stocking, whereas a hand-knitter was infinitely versatile and could start immediately. Women's stockings were less flamboyant, but still too showy for many preachers, who reprimanded Elizabethan ladies for their vanity and lack of modesty in showing off their legs. (No record of reprimands to the men, whose outfits were even more revealing.)

Anyway, not something I would recommend except to those seriously committed to learning more about the subject, who are probably the only people who would be tempted to pick it up in the first place. So it's all good.

(A History of Hand-Knitting was my tenth and possibly final book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing, undeniably, England.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography