Blog begun for school and continued when I feel like it.

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Hanna Schygulla as Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is a novel of silences punctuated by sounds attentively rendered. The swish of a curtain across floorboards, the roar of the ocean’s waves, the tap and slide of dancing feet, the slam of shutters, the rustle of leaves, the rattle of distant trains, the voices of men and women (and dogs): all are registered both by the narrator and the novel’s titular heroine who, standing at the center of all these sounds, listens with an open ear, susceptible to the sounds of voices and swishing curtain alike. Indeed, it is precisely her imaginative susceptibility to sound that catalyzes the oft-discussed “supernatural” plot of Effi Briest, a discussion which risks overshadowing the many later developments of sound in the novel and Effi’s changing reactions to them. For it is not in their supernatural capacity, nor as mere texture for Fontane’s world, that these sounds find their primary function, but as an aural correlative for Effi’s struggle with self.

Effi begins her marriage to Innstetten in listening. On their honeymoon in Italy, she plays the part of pupil to his fastidious lecturer as they make their way through the hallowed halls of Italian culture—of which Effi is woefully ignorant. Writing home to her parents, Effi describes her role, noting that her new husband is “very attentive” which “of course I have to be too, especially when he’s talking or explaining something” (30). “Attentive,” which Effi first applies to Innstetten to convey his concern for and attention to her, shifts when she turns it on herself to mean, primarily, a passive reception of the information he imparts. However, Innstetten’s dry facts do little for the eager ear turned toward him; an ear whose character we have already come to know in the last moment of the opening chapter, in which Effi, leading a funeral ceremony for the bag of Hertha’s gooseberry skins, insists that they sing a dirge—“it doesn’t matter” what dirge, “except that it must have a rhyme with ‘ee’” since “‘ee’” is the vowel for keening” (10). Effi’s is an ear that cares little for content, delighting in the shapes and qualities of sounds in themselves. Read More

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By the Window, C.E. Brock, illustration for Shirley

Fantasies of Female Independence and Self-Definition in Shirley 

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley begins with the promise of “something real, cool and solid. . . as unromantic as Monday morning” (3); in short, it begins with a promise of reality. What the novel delivers, though, is a double-marriage, double-romance, from whose ending the narrator excises elements of “the unvarnished truth” because “plain facts will not digest” and “whenever you present an actual, simple truth, it is, somehow, always denounced as a lie” (471). Though the narrator is here speaking specifically about the fate of Malone (which she withholds for fear of cries of “Impossible!” and “Untrue!” from her reader), her observations in the last chapter throw into doubt the whole rest of her story. If unvarnished truth is, in this case, rejected from the story, how much of what has come before has been varnished? Have we been given fantasy in place of the promised reality? It is long before the capricious narrator’s final comments about Malone that the reader begins to wonder at the presence of fantasy in a text which begins by affirming itself as “real, cool, and solid” (3) and yet traffics in the language of fairy-tale, myth, and legend.  What is posited initially as an essential distinction never materializes as one, as far from belonging to two separate spheres, fiction and reality are consistently confused and blurred in the text, both intentionally and accidentally. Given the novel’s promise of grim reality and its self-conscious interrogation of the line between reality and fantasy, the few episodes in which characters indulge in outright fantasy take on an outsize significance, providing glimpses not only into the fantasy-reality dynamic at work in the text, but also into the ways in which the characters themselves view their world. Read More

Harmony and the Art of Listening in Tristram Shandy

Peter De Voogd, in a guide to reading Laurence Sterne’s discursive The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, advises the Shandean novice to “remember that most books in the eighteenth century were read out loud, and commented upon by fellow readers (or listeners) during the reading, and that it helps enormously when you, too, read out the text, doing different voices” for the various characters. Indeed, Sterne’s text is a cacophony of voices which interweave and interrupt, overlap and unite, grate and collide to create a polyphonic chorus which even the carefullest of readers may find it hard to follow. Though it is the voice of Tristram himself that dominates, others vie for the reader’s attention with operatic bombast, speaking over, under, and around one another in search of “the sportable key” which will “give sense and spirit”  (IX.vi.553) to their tales and fix the attention of their listeners. Even Tristram acknowledges the primacy of voice in his account and particularly the importance of multiple voices: “Writing,” he says “when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation” (II.xi.96)—conversation between himself and his presumed audience, himself and his reader, between the many characters in his tales, and, of course, with himself. Sterne’s many voices, in conversation and in combat, are noticeable not only for their omnipresence, but for the consistency of the scheme by which they are described. Throughout the text, Tristram borrows words from the realm of music to describe voices’ tones and capabilities and, by extension, to approach the character of a voice—and through it, the person. Read More

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Le chevalier Calogrenant verse l’eau sur le perron de la fontaine merveilleuse et déclenche la tempête; il se retourne pour affronter le gardien, Esclados le Roux, sorti précipitamment de son château. 1433. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The world of Yvain is no fairytale landscape: in it, princes die before the giant can be vanquished, the right hand man of the good king champions the wrong person, magic ointments come only in limited quantities, heroes need two-week recovery periods before battles, young damsels get sick and risk failing in their quests, and, though demons may be beaten, their masters are allowed to remain at large. That Yvain’s is not the world of the likes of Erec and Enide is hinted at from the very beginning of the romance, though Yvain is not aware of it himself. Chrétien does not choose the shame and failure of one of Arthur’s knights to serve as the action’s catalyst arbitrarily; rather it is the first (and one of the greatest) indicators of the type of world in which this story will take place. In the world of “The Knight with the Lion,” realism comes to the fore in ways which we haven’t encountered elsewhere in Chrétien de Troyes—particularly existential realisms, not simply the sort presented by the plight of the weavers at Dire Adventure.

In this tale, failure is not an abstract concept, but a real possibility. Death lurks ever-present at the story’s edges and the hero, though he is a force of nature, is not superhuman (as perhaps one might argue Erec is in the context of his tale and his world). Yvain, though, does not initially recognize that his world is not of a kind with Erec’s and that he himself is not superhuman. Yvain, as he listens to Calogrenant’s tale, never considers the implications of the fact that Calogrenant was beaten by Esclados; he only registers the opportunity for an adventure and a flexing of his chivalric muscles in publicly avenging his cousin’s shame. Indeed, Yvain is initially characterized by an unflagging belief in his own prowess and capabilities—his own inability to fail—which goes hand in hand with his misunderstanding of his world. It is this belief—this lack of self-knowledge—which renders Yvain’s failure to keep his word to Laudine such a shock to him, sending him spiraling into self-hatred and madness. Yet it is this very madness which proves the vehicle for the rehabilitation and correction of Yvain’s relation to his world as it retrains him in his interaction with the people around him and allows him to rebuild his sense of self. Read More

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Me on the slopes of Helm Crag above Grasmere (taken by Sarah, another girl on the trip)

Last spring break, I begged off Florida 2.0 with the team and jetted off to England instead. And not just any part of England, but the Lake District—a place I’ve wanted to go ever since I can remember. It was a trip through the English Department to study Wordsworth with Professor Engell. We’d be staying in Grasmere and working with the Wordsworth Trust—studying manuscripts, making pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Wordsworthiana (with a few nods to other Lake District literati thrown in), taking walks, reading, writing, and—almost certainly—falling in love.

The trip was far from a sure thing. I applied just after Christmas desperate for the trip to happen, but at that point all we’d received was an email from the department saying that maybe-perhaps this trip Professor Engell would like to do might happen and if it were to actually be approved would any of us like to go? There was no maybe-perhaps about my answer. My application was off a day later with my fingers crossed—both for my acceptance and for the trip to happen.

In the end—of course—it did, but we didn’t know it was all going to actually work out until 3 weeks before we were to leave (it was all a bit harrying for my coach). And those 8 or so days were some of the most magical of my life. I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with the Lake District often find myself wondering how I could contrive to get myself back there. This post—brimming with photographs of my time there—is long overdue and has only brought on a wave of nostalgia (thoughts of dropping it all and hiding myself away in Grasmere abound). Read More