Monday, December 11, 2006

The horror, the horror

Simon Gray has a wonderful little essay up at the Guardian about the impossibility of writing a play about Dickens, this is required reading for anyone who's been wrestling with a piece of creative work that will not roll over and submit to one's will. Here's a taste:

[N]o doubt blaming him for my inability to write a play about him, I came close to hating Dickens - especially when he was the subject of a seminar, and I had to read out paragraphs of such astonishing vitality, with such vivid contrasts of tone, such gymnastic jumping from melodrama to tomfoolery and back again, that what I was mostly aware of was my own voice, obviously and audibly too feeble an instrument to do him justice. I would either falter out of the reading into the routine Cambridge-Leavis critical terminology - "great creative genius", "completely and fully and richly on the side of life", etc - or I would close the book with theatrical abruptness, and express in dumbshow, raising my hands to the surrender position, working my bushy eyebrows, pursing and unpursing my lips like a blowfish, the intensity and complexity of my reverence. I wonder what effect these displays had on my students all those years ago. Did I succeed in putting them off Dickens for life, as might have been my unconscious aim?

(I had a Dickens thing like this once, although it never made me hate Dickens: but before my first novel was its proper self it was a different novel about Jonathan Wild called No Questions Asked, with a rather old-fashioned and slightly pompous old-school-historical-novel-type narrative about the real historical Wild and his career alternating chapters with a pseudo-Dickensian-in-the-manner-of-Charles-Palliser's-Quincunx-type nineteenth-century story, it was fairly awful but of course I revised it again and again and polished it compulsively before realizing it would have to be abandoned. It is impossible to ape Dickens without descending into pomposity, just as it is difficult to pay homage to Austen without becoming arch. These are certainly my two favorite novelists, but I have given up any idea of writing a novel that bears any resemblance or even significant indebtedness to either of their respective styles.)

(I've been rereading Persuasion for class, and it really is a quite astonishing novel, particularly on technical grounds. I can't believe what Austen does with point-of-view and narration!)

Posting will continue light round here for the next couple weeks, I think, for reasons more or less beyond my control:

1. Annoying lack of online literary news at this time of year

2. No time for novel-reading (though I did read two things this weekend as necessary solace, an appealing but undistinguished novel by Joanna Trollope called The Choir that I realized half-way through I had actually read when it came out many years ago--I did not have the time for this year for my semi-ritual rereading of certain of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barset--and also the absolutely delightful novella D*U*C*K by Poppy Z. Brite, one of her Liquor books which are absolute must-reads in my opinion) till I have finished the semester's work and also written a book review and revised an article

3. Distracting development on injury diagnosis front

In short, I had an MRI on Tuesday--"Are you claustrophobic?" is the receptionist's question as you make the appointment, I got very nervous thinking about it but of course really all my problems are more on the agoraphobia/fear of heights side and in the end I thought it was a nice little pod, I would sleep in a pod like that if I could get one for my bedroom--and the doctor told me on Wednesday that I have a kind of stress fracture seen almost exclusively in female long-distance runners and military recruits.

Of course the worst of this--I have already been going crazy because of not running, turns out that running withdrawal pangs are about a million times more severe than any symptoms you undergo while quitting smoking--is that I must stop doing virtually all forms of exercise until the middle of January. This is very unpleasant and agitating and distracting and the only thing I can do other than work is read a million articles online about stress fractures and generally make myself insane! It is quite simply an overuse injury, I pushed the running thing too far too quickly and of course was doing far too much other exercise as well. I asked the doctor what I could do to make it get better, and he said, "Rest, rest, and rest." Unfortunately I am not very good at resting, it is not in my nature! However in this case I'm afraid there is nothing else to be done.

I am going to take up swimming in January and I am going to be extremely patient and not rush back into all the other stuff because basically I am absolutely hell-bent on running that marathon next fall and I must make it happen without injury. Meanwhile I can do some very muscly upper-body workouts, the only thing that redeemed my mood on Thursday was that at the end of a very strenuous hour of working out I actually did twenty-five pushups in a row, even though I had already done several sets of fifteen and a ton of other upper-body stuff. Real pushups, which I could never do when I was a kid even (why don't elementary-school gym classes teach you how to do things rather than just asking you either to "play" some awful game like dodgeball that is mistakenly supposed to be enjoyable or to humiliate yourself by doing pitifully small numbers of things that are just counted and marked down on a mortifying chart when they could be showing you baby-step-type ways of getting better at doing those near-impossible things like climbing up a rope or whatever?!?)! The small consolations in life--actually, my mood is perfectly all right, considering, and it will be even better once I throw myself into the project of completing my academic book over the winter break. I know that once I've immersed myself in that work for a few days I will be as delighted to be obsessed with that as I have been with those long runs this fall, it will be remarkably enjoyable....

All right, expect a "favorite books of 2006" post sometime in the next couple days, I might even be able to do it later tonight once I have taught my last couple classes for the semester. Meanwhile I must get back to work--you know, it is curious how strongly we have these temperaments infused in us, this is the first semester for a very long time when I have not worked myself absolutely into the ground and a state of wretched mental and physical exhaustion by December, I am feeling quite energetic, but clearly the same impulse found another outlet in the running thing. It is my goal for my next decade of life to become a more moderate person, but I am not sure this can be done....


  1. I'm sorry to hear about your injury but do take it easy. Swimming is great, and can be just as addictive, I suspect. My eldest son certainly gave it hours every day for many years. And then there are the triathlons ...

  2. Oh, yes--addictive is what I'm hoping--at the moment I am totally dreading it, but I figure that after a few days or whatever it will become enjoyable. I am not a good swimmer at all--I liked swimming when I was a little kid, I could swim pretty well when I was six or seven--but I can hardly have swum more than a handful of times from teenage years till now. The last time, in fact, was in grad school circa 1995 or so, it was like your worst nightmare--I steeled myself to go swimming at the gym & shamingly the lifeguard told me to go and swim in a slower lane, and I literally have not swum since then. Don't own a bathing suit, even (of course that's another part of the horror of the whole thing, the appearing in semi-public in a bathing suit): however I have ordered two online and will hope that at least one of them fits and is tolerably wearable. I think I can get a swimming lesson or two in order to get myself minimally competent again, it is really not just the swimming itself but my ignorance of the whole etiquette/rules of how you deal with swimming (do you wear a robe of some sort from the locker room to the pool, and if so, what kind? Flip-flops? Goggles or no goggles? How do you learn all these things?!?) that makes it so astonishingly off-putting. Arghh....

    (Of course you are quite right, too, I was already reading online about triathlons on Friday, it is too ridiculous!)

  3. I swam instead of running for a few months in college during as shin splints episode, and it had its own charm, namely that if you swim at 1:00, which for some reason I did, afterward you felt like you have slept through the night, i.e. fully awake and refreshed, so it is kind of like having two days in one, energy-wise. That said, when I was able to run again, I went right back to it, and have not swum for exercise since. Mainly though, I want to send you my enormous sympathy, and also, in terms of learning the norms, think about your first yoga class, what, several months ago? and how silly and stupid you felt (presumably--I certainly felt silly and stupid at mine), and keep in mind that the ignorance will maybe last three swim sessions, max, given that you are an observant alert person, so just power yourself through those first few times, and it will be fine within a week.

  4. When I was 40-ish and at a well-maintained high fitnesss level, I got totally psyched (psycho?) one day and increased my running by 50%. I ran 15 miles when the most I had done was about 7-8 and my usual was 4-6. On concrete no less. I got a stress fracture and had to quit for several months. Total bummer, but having quit cigarettes which took a full 10 years to know for sure there would be no temptation ever (going on 19 years hooray)--quitting smoking was the hardest thing ever. But not getting my endorphin rush was very very hard, so my most sincere sympathy. I learned my lesson: if I wanted to be able to keep running I couldn't get psyched and go nuts. But alas, had to stop at 57 because of knees and now I do power walking at about a 12.5-minute mile pace. ruby

  5. swimming is fab - one must always do it, it's so much better than you for running. Actually I have decided to start running now in addition to swimming because then you get a really good balance of upper body and lower....

  6. Oh please don't become more moderate! We love you just the way you are!

    I'm terribly sorry about your fracture—but not sorry enough to be polite and turn down an opportunity to ask to see your MRI! :)

    I can't abide running, don't have any idea how you could do it, but I love swimming. And the Columbia pool is actually quite nice, really. Wear flip flops, definitely, there are lots of nice fungi living on the tile. Goggles would make you happier, probably, it's nice to be able to see.

    The pools here are all outdoors, since the weather is so nice most of the year. I can't force myself to go in December, though—even if it is a nice 50-60 degrees, the water/air temperature differential is really uncomfortable!

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