Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) at the roulette wheel (2002 Daniel Deronda)
Dear friends and readers,
Here I am for the last of 4 blogs on this past post-Christmas MLA at Philadelphia. As I promised, it’s a miscellany: summary accounts of a paper on Margaret Oliphant, and sessions on George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir (with a description of the new translation of La Deuxieme Sexe), and Margaret Atwood.
I end on dining in central Philadelphia, and the nights spent in our hotel room watching Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit on my laptop wrapped up in a blanket.
Monday noon, I attended the panel on “Writing Race and Scotland” and listened to Elsie Browning Michie read a paper called “Scotland, England, and India: Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen (published 1890). I’ve read Kirsteen, having acquired it in a Kessinger Publishing Reprint, and what I remember most about it is how Kirsteen was so independent minded, didn’t want to marry at all, and ended going to London to support her family (left back in Scotland) and makes a life for herself as a successful indeed fashionable seamstress-businesswoman.
Prof Michie wanted to set the novel (as apparently so many do nowadays in Victorian studies) in a context of a larger empire. So she began with reminding us that Kirsteen’s lover had gone to India where he died. While there are echoes of Walter Scott (Jenny Deans goes to London in Midlothian to save her family). The novel is set earlier in the century and undercuts the idea there is a hard fast difference between the prseent economic and older chivalric worlds. The lands surrounding Waterloo, Scotland itself and London are all commercial arenas where money and power are on offer to those who can seize them. Brutality in these three is linked to brutality in the colonies, all backed up by military violence, but commerce is what individually saves and helps creates the identities of the characters in the novel.
7:15 Monday night I made it to a panel entitled “Alterity [oh dear] in George Eliot’s Ethics of Sympathy.” In “Foul-Weather Friends” … Empathy in Adam Bede and Middlemarch, Rebecca Mitchel demonstrated that a failure of empathy and communication is what we find in both novels. Victorian beliefs in norms of sympathy are shown not to go far at all. Proximity does not assure any awareness nor recognition. Dorothea collapses versions of herself into others; Dinah cannot see that Hetty tells the truth when Hetty says “I cannot feel anything like you.” Hetty’s insistence on her otherness and Lydgate’s recognition of this are the bedrock of these novels’ greatness.
Tina Young Choi’s “Probable Feelings” began with the rattle of the roulette wheel in Daniel Deronda.
Prof Choi showed how chance determines what’s to come in Daniel Deronda; it’s a novel where the accidental makes the major happenings: Gwendoleth’s poverty, Daniel saving Mirah and through her meeting Mordecai, Grandcourt’s death. Eliot multiplies daily encounters, ambiguities, and breaks the providential even if the latter ending of the book is insistent on the prophetic.
That is all I managed to take notes on from the session and don’t remember what was said post-papers, but would like to record how enjoyable the whole session was, how the talk afterwards was rich somehow. That I’m not dreaming this is confirmed by an email Ms Choi sent me afterwards, thanking me for coming and joining in so enthusiastically.
What do we go to conferences for? Why I do record them? A hunger for being with our own tribe for real: for me to find myself among those who care about books, who spend their lives on art and research. While these mass parties have their careerists, the graduate students and people seeking tenure, others jobs, there are many people who come year after year well after they have made a successful career (or not). The poignant drawing in ever hoping for that authentic moment in these over-structured formal presentations leaves you connected though you may know no names in the room.
I don’t usually mention the names of those people I look forward to meeting once again at these conferences, but this means a lot to me as well as new acquaintances I make. But this happened again. That it does shows how people want to get together.
Tuesday at 1:45 I was at the Simone de Beauvoir panel. There was one good paper by Bansari Mitri where she outlined the enthusiastic reception of La Deuxieme Sexe, a few of its basic premises (women’s lives are spent in immanence), and showed how its depiction of how women are treated and cri for justice is not at all obsolete.
I bring up this panel to say that the two other presentations and showing of few people were tellingly bad. The first paper was by a woman who analyzed a work by Arthur Miller (not a woman the last time I looked), which she said exemplified a central idea in Beauvoir: that we must live up to our social responsibility and live in solidarity with those around us. I was relieved when the question time came and several women said this thinking was precisely the kind of thing Beauvoir showed imprisoned women in sacrifice, and I asked what a male playwright who wrote masculinist socialistic dramas had to do with Beauvoir and women.
The second paper, by the chair, was made up of meandering assertions about her personal reactions to Beauvoir’s fictions presented without any principled argument. The idea seemed to be these reactions must be feminist as she’s a woman. Online feminist forums ceaselessly show women backtracking, trying to bring male writers into list meant for women writers (you don’t see the opposite), become embroiled in quarrels because the personal is taken as an (unexamined often) principle and some women define feminism as what any particular woman wants. There were no men and indeed few people in the audience and the talk quickly became abruptly argumentative.
The sad state of feminism is also seen in the recent translation of La Deuxieme Sexe. An article in the most recent issue of London Review of Books by Toril Moi tells us this latest one is a great disappointment. The older or original translation by a philosophy professor from the mid-west Pashley was abridged and has now been replaced by an unabridged text translated by two women teachers of English who have lived in France for many years.
Moi says this new English text is very disappointing. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points.
By contrast, Pashley produced a lively, an alive, a readable text. He did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy
Moi says that Pashley did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points
Borde and Malovany-Chevalier did not produce an abridged text and for someone like me it would be a convenient dictionary — all the words looked up for me as I go along. Apparently the two women got the job because the director of foreign rights at Gallimard is their ex-student. This is so typical of what passes for translation, and that the people who get to do it are those who know the right people and it fits in their career plans. The great shame is probably Beauvoir will now have less and less readers if this new translation replaces Pashley’s for English readers.
While at the MLA I saw copies for over $40 of the new translation of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe. On the last day when I came to buy books (prices drop precipitiously) I found none were left. I have a two volume copy of the original French text, uncut and unabridged and have read in it and sometimes great swatches. But it’s eaiser and much swifter for me to read it in English and the first copy I read straight through in the mid-1970s was Pashley.
And so the world rolls along; merit, ability mean nothing — Moi mentions four highly competent good translators of French text who would have been glad to be the translator of such a famous broad-selling book. Probably the translators in this case got a decent sum.
The last session I attended before we left to pick up lunch in a nearby huge outdoor covered market (where we ate each day) and go to wait for our train home — was on Margaret Atwood’s latest science fiction novel, The Year of the Flood. There were six panelists, all intensely adoring lovers of Atwood who all seemed to know one another very well. They kept to 10 minutes a piece.
I put into one summary what they all said: The Year of the Flood is a sequel to Oryx and Crake. it’s apocalyptic, with a speech by Adam at the close, predicting the end of our world because we have ruined our environment. Male insecurity is at the core of very bad male behavior; they are victimizers, sexual predators. Women experience searing heart-break; Irsula Le Guin has talked of how we experience the events of the book through powerless women. Much of the story is violent and cruel. The book laments much that is good in human beings is ground down or out by crazy hate-filled competitive deceivers. The novel nonetheless exhorts the reader to forgive to find or create inner peace; the novel is dedicated to St Julians, who advocated peace, forgiveness.
Desperate times, desperate measures. This is a speculative fiction meant to speak to us. Can we do anything to improve our lives, save our planet. Jeannette Winterson writes about speculative fiction that it models futures for us. There is a porn collector, a gardener who shows us to share work, respect one another, and raise vegetables; so too a digital technologist: cellphones and digital technologies serve the cause of liberation. It’s also an eco-feminist novel which uses the archetype of the cleansing flood; and a dystopian satire where we see corporate men living lives of high luxury. There are fairy tales and folk remedies (as the best cure for what ails you).
I didn’t stay for the talk afterwards. I can’t get myself to read science fiction as I’ve little patience for moralizing allegory; but I do love Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace (realistic women’s novels), her literary study of Canadian Literature (it’s rooted in survival and a hard landscape), and her poetry cycle, The Journals of Susannah Moodie, and her essays.
*Variation on the Word Sleep*
by Margaret Atwood
I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
While Philadelphia is not in as desperate a condition as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (where Jim and I attended the EC/ASECS conference), the center of the city has only few good restaurants. Many stores are discount types, and once you leave the main streets, you find empty ones gone out of business. The first night we were so tired, the wind was felt mortal and raw and we ducked into an Irish pub. It was pleasant, with plain edible Irish food and a healthy variety of drinks. Soon it was filled with locals, lots of single people in their 20s, pairs, groups, and we relaxed and talked.
The second and third nights we fought the even colder air and found two of the recommended places and while I don’t remember what we ate, I do remember both meals were scrumptious, the wine flowed, and while both places were very crowded,with more and more tables brought out and sometimes lone people squeezed in here and there, the noise level allowed us to talk and hear one another and be comfortable. This time the crowd was older, some families and what looked like out-of-towners and people from the MLA conference like ourselves. Lighting is important and in all three places it was soft; none had a TV going.
All around the streets we saw homeless people. We had intended to try to get to the museum, but the weather and street life were demoralizing. So at night we came back to our hotel where Jim soon fell asleep. I cheered myself intensely with Davies’s Little Dorrit: the good people of the story lifted my spirits, I felt for and with them. I did meet and struck up a conversation with a nice woman scholar around my age while waiting for the train with Jim; she looked like Juliet Stevenson and had apparently just written and published a book on Anne Enright. She was headed for a college in Lynchburg, Virginia. I told myself I would read Enright’s The Gathering and it is sitting on one of my TBR piles even now🙂
When we were finally in our train on the way home again, I rewatched 2/3s of Little Dorrit on the train home once again, relieved to be fully absorbed.