Session #5: Names and naming

Charming My Name!
Image by jpellgen via Flickr

Session #5: Names and naming, March 17th, 2009

Texts for today’s session:

  1. How Far Can You Go? (1980) by David Lodge
  2. Nice Work (1988), by David Lodge
  3. City of Glass (1985), by Paul Auster. This is the first book in the New York Trilogy.

In session #4, we read an extract from Virginia Woolf‘s novel Mrs Dalloway. One participant pointed out that the movie The Hours (in Japanese here), which is a fictitious story about (the real) Virginia Woolf and (the fictitious) Mrs Dalloway, is being shown on the cable television channel Movie Plus on the 21st, 27th, and 29th of March, in case you are interested.

I haven’t seen the movie, or read the story, but I notice that the music for the movie was written by Philip Glass, an American whose ethereal, electronic music was quite popular in France in the 70s. (Glass also wrote the music for a new movie called the Watchmen).

There is a BBC interview with David Lodge talking about his book “Nice Work” here (audio only)

Thank you all for attending today. I hope you enjoyed it and felt “Hmmmm. Interesting!”

Session #6 will be on April 1st, and the topic will be “the unreliable narrator“.  I will email you the materials for that session in the next few days.

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Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue

Cover of "Mrs. Dalloway"
Cover of Mrs. Dalloway

Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue, March 4th, 2009

Two texts for today:

  1. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce

We read the first two paragraphs of “Mrs. Dalloway”, chosen to illustrate the “stream of consciousness“, and two short extracts from “Ulysses”, chosen to illustrate the “interior monologue” technique.

Both of these techniques allow the reader to “listen” directly to the thoughts of a character, without an intermediary explanation by an all-knowing narrator. The “stream of consciousness” is often mixed with the narrative voice, but the reader has to guess which is which.

The “stream of consciousness” technique was a development of an earlier technique called “free indirect style”, a technique used frequently by Jane Austen.

The “interior monologue” or “internal monologue” is more difficult to read: because there is no explanation or mediation by the narrator, and because the author is trying to give us the raw thoughts of a character. When we think, we know the context of our thoughts, we do not explain them. The lack of context makes it hard for the reader, though.

Here’s an extract from “Ulysses” to illustrate:

On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.

The first sentence is the narrator’s voice. From the second sentence onwards we are “listening” to the thoughts of the character (Leopold Bloom, the “Ulysses” of the title).  The verb is left out, as it often is in our own thoughts. The other sentences are also a kind of shorthand, but the reader can fill in the blanks. The final sentence, “Potato I have” is completely baffling, unless you know that Leopold habitually carries a potato in his pocket for good luck.

The second extract we read comes from later in the novel, and illustrates how one thought leads to another by a quick process of association. Stephen Dedalus watches two nuns/midwives walking on the beach. He recalls that one such midwife assisted at his own birth. He glimpses some knitting in her bag and imagines the strand of wool as a navel cord, and the knitting as a “misbirth” “hushed in ruddy wool”. The idea of a navel cord makes him think of the genetic links that connect all human beings, going back to our original “mother”, Eve. “Navel” reminds him of “navel gazing”, or meditation. His knowledge of Greek  tells him the Greek word for navel, “omphalos” Somehow, the “cord” or cable, together with the idea of monks meditating in order to connect with God, gives Dedalus the hilarious idea of telephoning Eden: “Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.”

Reading this kind of text is very hard work, and requires either a great deal of knowledge, particularly of other languages and literature, or some kind of reference guide.  But it can also be very satisfying.  Joyce did not use this technique throughout his novel “Ulysses”: that would have been too much, for both reader and author.

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Session #3: Mystery & Suspense

Session #3, February 25th, 2009.

Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr
Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr

Today’s themes were mystery and suspense.

To illustrate the various meanings of suspense, I chose a passage from Thomas Hardy‘s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). You can read the passage for yourself online. It is from Chapter 22 and begins “At first, when death appeared improbably because it had never visited him before…”. In order to understand the situation, you need to read Chapter 21.

Henry Knight, out on the cliffs of Dorset, slips down a slope above a cliff, as he tries to catch his hat blown off by a gust of wind. Before the eyes of his horrified companion, Elfride Swancourt, he finds himself unable to climb back up the grassy slope as it is now wet from a shower of rain. She tries to help him, but only succeeds in pushing him further down, and his legs slip over the edge of the cliff. He’s only hanging on by his arms.

A real “cliffhanger”! The word “suspense” originally means “hanging”, and still has this meaning in “suspension bridge”. From the meaning of “hanging” came the meaning of “waiting impatiently to know what happens next”. In this example, both meanings of “suspense” are illustrated.

In addition, the excerpt illustrates the meaning of a synonymouse phrase, “cliffhanger”, which refers to a story or movie full of suspense.  Hardy’s tale “A Pair of Blue Eyes” is considered the origin of this phrase, as the narrative leaves Henry Knight hanging over the edge of the cliff, holding on only by his arms, his feet over empty space and the sea “an eighth of a mile” below, gradually losing his strength. The narrative follows his thoughts and feelings as he becomes increasingly desperate.

To illustrate “mystery”, I chose an excerpt from another writer of suspense stories, Wilkie Collins‘ (Japanese here)  “The Moonstone” (1868).  T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It contains many elements that later became staples of the English detective story, for example in those by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: a large number of suspects, red herrings, an English country house, investigation by talented amateurs, and two police officers who represent the ‘local bungler’ and the skilled, professional, Scotland Yard detective.

Although I did not realize it at the time, other novels by Collins also offer examples of the “cliffhanger”:  “Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?” “Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don’t forget; a woman in white. Drive on.” (The Woman in White).

“The Moonstone” is also an example of a novel which is told in the form of letters written by various characters; such novels are called epistolary novels (Japanese here), and have a long history in English literature. Jane Austen originally intended “Pride and Prejudice” to be in this form, but later abandoned the idea.

Epistolary novels often contain letters by different characters which describe the same event from different points of view. This leads naturally to another technique of fiction, the unreliable narrator: as we read different accounts of the same event, doubt appears – which character is telling the truth? Which narrator can we rely on? This fascinating development is made possible by the use of letters; it is much more difficult to throw doubt on the reliability of a narrator when there is only one narrator. The reader’s natural impulse is to take the narrator’s version as the truth, at least until some evidence appears to contradict it.

Difficult though it is to throw doubt when only a single narrator is used, this was accomplished with remarkable success by Kazuo Ishiguro (Japanese here) in his novel about an English butler in a large country house, “The Remains of the Day” (Japanese here).  Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that the feat was accomplished even in the movie version of this novel.

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Session #2: Author and narrator

Into the Woods Narrator
Image by P Wood via Flickr

Session #2, February 4th, 2009.

The texts used today were:

  1. The first paragraph of Adam Bede (1859)  by George Eliot
  2. an excerpt from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent” (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne,
  3. an excerpt from How Far Can You Go?? (1980) by David Lodge, and
  4. an excerpt from Nice Work (1988), also by David Lodge.

In “Adam Bede”, George Eliot uses an intrusive narrator’s voice:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far‐reaching visions of the past.  This is what I undertake to do for you,  reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of our Lord, 1799.

In “Tristram Shandy”, Laurence Sterne actually berates an imaginary reader with whom he has a conversation: he orders the inattentive reader to go back and read the last few pages again.  While she is “gone”, he then talks directly to the “remaining” reader, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness or cruelty, but from the best of motives… ‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself, – of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infalliby impart with them.”

In the David Lodge extracts, we again have a narrator who  talks directly to the reader: “a girl you have not yet been introduced to…” and “I like the connotations of Violet – shrinking, penitential, melancholy…” The second extract provides a similar example: “And there, for the time being, let us leave Vic Wilcox, while we travel back an hour or two in time, a few miles in space, to meet a very different character.”

All of these examples also illustrate another technique of fiction called “breaking frame”. This expression originates from a sociologist called Erving Goffman (Japanese here) who created a concept called frame analysis or framing. A “frame” means a set of rules, expectations or stereotypes about a particular situation.

In the movies, one of the rules is that the actors should never look at the camera: this maintains the fiction that there is no camera, that we are watching something actually happening. This fiction is a pretence that everyone agrees to, a rule that everyone agrees to play by.  If a character looks straight at the camera, it reminds the viewers that the whole thing is a fiction, that everybody in front of the camera is playing FOR the camera. This is called “breaking frame”.

In literature, one of the “rules” is that the narrator refers only to the story being told, and not to the relationship between the narrator and the reader, for example, by addressing the reader directly. If the narrator addresses the reader directly, as Laurence Sterne does, it “breaks” the “frame”: it reminds us that there is no “action”, there are no real characters; everything is invented out of the author’s imagination, including the narrator!

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Session #1: Beginnings

Week 1: New Beginnings
Image by mseckington via Flickr

Session #1, January 28th, 2009.

We read two excerpts in today’s session:

  1. the first few paragraphs from “Emma” (1816) (Japanese Wikipedia link here) by the English writer Jane Austen (Japanese link here), and
  2. the opening paragraph from “The Good Soldier” (1915) by the English writer Ford Madox Ford

After reading the excerpts and clarifying any questions about vocabulary and meaning, we discussed how each writer introduces their characters and how the narrator makes the reader want to read more.

One participant was intrigued enough to read “The Good Soldier” for herself, and revealed to us in a later session that it is a complicated story about adultery.

After reading Ford Madox Ford’s biography on Wikipedia, I discovered a connection between Ford and myself.

Born Ford Hermann Hueffer, the son of Francis Hueffer, he was Ford Madox Hueffer before he finally–during WWI, at a time when German connotations proved unpopular–settled on the name Ford Madox Ford in honor of his grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, whose biography he had written.

My ancestors came from Germany to England in the 19th century, and during WWI changed the family name slightly in order to lessen the negative Germanic impression.

The Good Soldier is one of Ford’s most famous novels, and introduces a literary device which we did not talk about in this first session, but which we will perhaps discuss in the future: that of the unreliable narrator (信頼できない語り手)

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