I’m behind on writing about my reading, so this is a two-in-one. I recently reread Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman, a brilliant novel about an English professor with an untenured job at a midwestern university, and a first read of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring, a satire of the publishing industry.
1. Gail Godwin, a Southern-born writer who won the Award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981, has been nominated three times for the National Book Award. She should have won for her brilliant novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, a women’s classic which has never quite gotten its dues.
The Odd Woman, published in 1974, in many ways lays the groundwork for A Mother and Two Daughters. The Odd Woman explores a woman’s academic and personal life: Godwin, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and taught at Vassar and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer, knows about balance. Her sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract is soon to expire, is utterly realistic. But what can Jane do? Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.
Born in the South, Jane is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties. Her married friend Sonia, a tenured professor, is in her corner, but there are no openings at the college. And the rest of her close relationships are long-distance. Her flamboyant best friend, Gerda, who publishes a radical feminist newspaper in her basement in Chicago, is impatient with Jane’s reserve and loneliness. And Jane’s married lover Gabriel, an ineffectual art history professor who lives in the next state and does endless research (he is like Casaubon in Middlemarch, Jane eventually realizes) but never completes his book about the Pre-Raphaelites, is so timid that he insists she have a separate hotel room on a trip to New York in case one of his colleagues figures out he is having an affair . And Gerda says that is typical of Jane, to fall in love with a guy with his head in the clouds who hides even in huge New York City.
Jane is in a state of stasis. Can Jane change? She is terrified of change. Reading is her life. She was happiest while holed up one winter 12 hours a day in a university library writing her dissertation on George Eliot. Everything seemed white that winter, everything seemed pure. What does that say about her? Jane wonders. Even her relationship with Gabriel started with a letter. Then her grandmother’s death and a visit to her mother, who has for years been happily married to an unintellectual construction contractor, forces her to examine the shape of her life and that of her mother and grandmother, wh0 raised her to be strong. Preparing to teach George Gissing’s novel about single women, The Odd Women, for a women’s studies class, also puts her life in context. One of the reasons I enjoy this novel is that I love Gissing. Every word Godwin writes is brilliant, even Jane’s notes on this classic.
Slowly and thoughtfully, she underscored “COMPROMISE-REBELLION AGAINST ONE’S OWN COMPROMISE-DEATH.” Then she wrote quickly in the margin, beside Monica’s fate: “Theme of literally dozens of 19th century novels–the ‘Emma Bovary’ syndrome. Literature’s graveyard positively choked with women who chose–rather, let themselves be chosen by–this syndrome; also with their ‘cousins’–who ‘get in trouble’ (commit adultery, have sex without marriage, think of committing adultery, or having sex without marriage) and thus, according to the literary convention of the time, must die.
This is a great book, especially for fans of 19th century novels.
2 As a teacher at a prep school in the 1980s in a city I didn’t know, I divided my free time between running 10K races (there went Saturday morning) and browsing at bookstores (often on the same day, in the same clothes). I’d never heard of Anthony Powell when I found a 12-volume paperback set of A Dance to the Music of Time at a used bookstore in Maryland. I bought it for the charming covers, and read the whole thing addictively over the course of a week, laughing aloud at Powell’s wit. I’ve gone back to it many times.
Although I had never come across Powell’s other novels, I recently added What’s Become of Waring to my never-ending TBR list when it was mentioned in D.J. Taylor’s brilliant history of English literary culture, The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 (which I wrote about here). Waring is a satire of the publishing industry, from the point of view of a detached narrator who works as an editor for a small publishing firm.
I started chortling on the first page of Waring. It opens at a wedding.
As the parson was approaching the end of his discourse something flicked through the air and landed in my hat resting brim upwards on the pew beside me. On examination the object turned out to be a page torn from the service paper, folded several times and inscribed in pencil: Put all your money under the seat or I’ll drill a hole through you. It was signed, Red-Handed Mike above a skull-and-crossbones.
It turns out to be his old friend Eustace Bromwich, back from traveling in the Near East. We learn that the narrator used to work in advertising but is now at the publisher Judkins & Judkins. The witty repartee never stops.
“Whom do you prefer? Judkins? Or Judkins?”
The best-known writer at Judkins & Judkins is T. T. Waring, a best-selling travel writer whose addictive style and thrilling adventures keep the firm afloat. The amusing Eustace, who has also traveled in the Far East, tells the narrator he despises Waring’s books, but whether or not Waring is literary, his absent person is the catalyst for the ensuing comedy of errors. When it is reported that Waring has died, Judkins & Judkins is up a creek, because they don’t have his last manuscript in hand and were depending on it. They also want to publish a biography of Waring, but have never met Waring and don’t even know where he lived. Then bold Roberta, a freelance writer who hopes to hustle the publication of a book of her journalism at Judkins & Judkins, admits she was briefly engaged to him in France. (And she does get her book.) Another friend of the narrator, Captain Hudson, who is a fan of Waring, is assigned to write Waring’s biography. The book proceeds at a rapidfire pace, as Powell explores problems of identity, spirtutalism, seances, plagiarism, selling out, romance, and travel.
The books is very, very witty and comical, and I like the Waughish aloofness of the narrator. There’s something about books about books.
I thought of giving it away, but I’ll probably want to reread it.
A fun novel!