Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)

Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)

Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night

On in the North steams
triumphant the train
ceaselessly grinding
a rhythmic refrain

Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.

Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.

Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,

new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.

There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.

No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.

Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!

A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;

Glittering windows
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?

To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun

Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.


Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.

From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)

Free fall
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)

Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.


Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges

I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.

Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter

Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:

“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.

Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.

“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)

In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.

“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)

Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.

However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.

Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)

Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.

Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.

The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.

It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.

Persephone books cover


Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist

The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.

I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.


I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”

Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)

How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle

Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)

Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)


Read Full Post »

Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) at the roulette wheel (2002 Daniel Deronda)

J. W. North (1841-1924), “The Home Pond” (1860s illustration to Round of Days, magazine carrying novels like, say, Oliphant’s)

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.

Perhaps this recent Virago cover for another Oliphant heroine will do to evoke something of the way this novel was then and is now regarded

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.

Douglas Hodge as Lydgate registering discomfort (1994 Middlemarch)

Tina Young Choi’s “Probable Feelings” began with the rattle of the roulette wheel in Daniel Deronda.

2001 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.


Simone de Beauvoir in 1949

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.

A critical study

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.

Margaret Atwood, Eden Mills Writers Festival, 2008

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.

Claire Foy and Matthew Macfayden as hero and heroine


Read Full Post »