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Lucky Hank and the academic warfare

April 4, 2014 16 comments

Straight Man by Richard Russo 1997 French title: Un rôle qui me convient.

Russo_Straight_ManWe’re in Railton, Pennsylvia, in the late 1990s. William Henry Devereaux Jr –Hank— is fifty, has been married to Lily for years and has two grown-ups daughters. He teaches English and manages a creative writing workshop at the local university. Lily teaches in a high school and devotes her career to difficult students. They live in Allegheny Hills, on the best side of town, surrounded by other members of the faculty. Railton is a small town; Hank points out that it’s not possible to go to a restaurant without stumbling upon a colleague from university. They live a quiet and comfortable life.

The whole novel covers a pivoting week in Hank’s life. He rethinks his choices in life, his job is threatened by cost cutting and his colleagues want another chairman, his womanising father is back in his life after a long absence, his daughter’s marriage is sinking and his wife is away to apply to a new job. It seems a lot for one man but Russo makes it entirely plausible. A week born under the sign of Murphy’s law, that’s all. However, the main plot concentrates on the current drama on campus.

At the present, Hank is the reluctant interim chairman of the English department which is as peaceful as the Middle East. Each faction camps on their position, thoroughly hating each other and having no other choice than to bear each other’s presence. Their carry their shared history like a burden instead of building something on it. The book starts with Hank having his nose injured by an angry colleague during a meeting organised to pick up the future chairman. Everything goes downhill from there as the rumour says there is no budget to hire a chairman and that instead, the dean has required a list of lay-offs.

April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics, not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed. September is always too late to remedy the reduced merit raises, the slashed travel fund, the doubled price of the parking sticker that allows us to park in the Modern Languages lot. Rumors about severe budget cuts that will affect faculty have been rampant every April for the past five years, although this year’s have been particularly persistent and virulent. Still, the fact is that every year the legislature has threatened deep cuts in higher education. And every year a high-powered education task force is sent to the capitol to lobby the legislature for increased spending.

Now, they all want to know if Hank drew a list or not and who’s on the would-be list. Hank spends his time dodging questions from all sides, trying to figure out what is really happening. And at the same time, he’s indifferent to his fate as he’s not interested in power and the glamour of a chairman position doesn’t tempt him.

He doesn’t fit in the academic mould, so he’s ill-equipped to face the duties of a chairman. He’s saved by his wicked sense of humour and his propensity to look at events with the lenses of humour. It’s a defence mechanism and Hank is more affected by his surroundings and people’s life circumstances than he let show.

Straight Man was one of my Humbook gifts from Guy. It’s my third Russo; I’ve read and loved Empire Falls and Mohawk. I was happy to meet with Russo again and enjoyed his talented walk on the dangerous line of tragi-comedy. Hank’s adventures are funny and Russo is not lacking in the imagination department. (Hank isn’t either). But there’s also serious thinking about ageing and assessing your choices in life. Hank is fifty, he’s suffering from  the male version of PMS – Prostate Malfunction Syndrom— which never lets him forget he’s ageing. As his quiet life is attacked on all sides, he’s forced to think. If these issues had happened one after the other, he would have been able to shrug them off, one at a time. But now, he can’t avoid them all and he’s obliged to face them just as his failing prostate obliges him to acknowledge his age.

As in the other two Russos I’ve read, Railton is a declining city with an industrial background and it falls apart. The city’s economy is in bad shape; Hank’s son-in-law is currently unemployed despite his degree. The university is underfunded; there aren’t many cultural events. Railton is like a cul-de-sac. A metaphor for Hank’s life?

In Straight Man, Richard Russo describes an academic world as toxic and ridiculous as the one pictured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim. Hank’s nickname is Lucky Hank and I think it’s not a coincidence. I’ve read Lucky Jim recently and the story and characters are still fresh in my mind. Sure, the academic world in England in the 1950s is more formal than the one in America in the 1990s. But the two microcosms look alike. The English teachers in Railton have all something wrong with them, from minor ego problems to pathological drinking. I haven’t been to university and I’ve never had contact with university teachers, but seriously, when you read novels, you wonder if it’s really a good idea to leave young and impressionable minds in their hands. Would I like my children to be tutored by the teachers described by Richard Russo or Kingsley Amis? Like in the other “university” books I’ve read, the atmosphere strikes me as full of intrigues and the path leading to promotion is covered with banana skins. But it’s a caricature, isn’t it?

Russo_RoleLucky Hank could be an older Lucky Jim. They have the same fantasy, the same unwillingness to take themselves seriously and the same tendency to sabotage themselves. They also suffer from a bad self-image. However, both are lucky in love as Hank is in a good relationship with Lily. They try to navigate through the system and both refuse to stoop to anything for advancement. They don’t think that their work is important. They’re both anarchists in disguise and can have hilarious behaviours in stressful moments. In Lucky Jim, the protagonist makes cigarette burns in his bed sheets when he stays at his boss’s house. Follows a hilarious attempt at hiding the mischief. In Straight Man, Hank pees in his pants, hides in the ceiling to conceal his wet clothes and to eavesdrop on a key meeting. You need serious mind juggling capacities to get out of situations like this undetected. They find ways, not always straight, not always efficient but they make it.

I chose to read Straight Man in French, which means I don’t have a lot of quotes to share unless they are in translation. You’ll have to trust me and the little quote above when I say that Russo’s prose is witty, compassionate and utterly human. I didn’t detail the excellent side characters you’ll encounter in Railton or Hank’s manifesto with a goose in front of the media. You’ll have to read it yourself to hear about that. If you decide to read it, I hope you’ll have a great time in company of this novel. Even if Hank’s behaviour is puzzling at times, he’s really a straight man.

Thanks Guy for picking this Russoas my Humbook gift. I loved it. Now I’m reading Stu’s Humbook gift, Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano.

Luck, be a gentleman tonight

January 30, 2014 35 comments

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. 1954 French title: Jim la Chance. (awful title in French)

For once in his life Dixon resolved to bet on his luck. What luck had come his way in the past he’d distrusted, stingily held on to until the chance of losing his initial gain was safely past. It was time to stop doing that.

 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is our Book Club choice for January. Lucky Jim and lucky us. That was fun.

Jim is James Dixon. He’s a young teacher in a provincial university. He teaches medieval history and he’s under the supervision of Professor Welch. Jim is also sort of involved with Margaret, who is just recovering from attempted suicide at the Welches. He doesn’t know how to behave around her anymore. When the book opens, the term is almost over; Jim is still on probation and he’s dying to know if he is going to be fired or not. Dixon is a reluctant medievalist and since his most private thoughts about the Middle Ages would be more like this…

As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.

…it is hard to imagine that he manages to keep his feelings for himself. He doesn’t exactly sound passionate about his work, does he? He hasn’t published an article yet and that weighs against him. He hasn’t made the best impression on Welch either. The older man has probably caught up with Jim’s refrained yawns whenever he talks to him. Welch is the epitome of the pompous and boring teacher who is oblivious to anything but himself. The Professor has a dragon wife and two grownup sons named Bertrand and Michel. He has Dixon at his beck and call and he quietly uses the power he has over the young man’s future. At least, that’s how Dixon feels.

amis_kingsley_jimOnce, Dixon is invited by Welch to spend the weekend at his house where he’s hosting a party in the honour of Bertrand, the painter-to-be. There, Jim feels like a fish out of the water. He doesn’t belong to that crowd, he’s bored, he doesn’t know the right codes and he takes an instant dislike at Bertrand. After he accidentally burns the sheets and covers in his guest bedroom, he’s looking for a way to hide it from Mrs Welch and gets help from Christine, Bertrand’s girlfriend. This moment will create a bond between the two. However, by the end of the weekend, he has managed to alienate every Welch present at the house.

We see Jim struggling with academic rules. He really has a hard time adjusting to this life and the atmosphere of the university, of his boarding house. He’s bored by medieval history; he makes enemies among students and colleagues; he doesn’t know how to behave around Welch. Jim lacks a precious skill in his new world: he’s not good at small talk. Margaret comes at his rescue sometimes, mending with perfectly rounded sentences the hole that Jim’s bluntness has drilled in his credibility.

We see the university and the events through Jim’s eyes. It’s his perception. Mine was that he had a rather low opinion of himself, that it wasn’t all deserved and that it made him clumsy. I thought he was considerate to Margaret, he worked dutifully on the conference Welch asked him to write. He lacks confidence; he finds the article he has written of poor quality when it doesn’t seem that bad.

More than confidence, Jim lacks a strong belief in what he’s doing. Contrary to his peers, he’s not convinced by his own importance. He doesn’t take himself seriously and has a hard time considering academic life as worth it. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t simply quit in order to do something else. Anything sounded better for him that this life. Welch seems to be spreading obstacles along the road to see how high Jim will jump. In appearance, he’s trying to make up his mind about the renewal of Jim’s contract. In reality, his mind is set but he enjoys power, like here, when he’s asked Jim to prepare a new class for the Fall:

The getting together of the syllabus had been, of course, Welch’s idea; on receipt of it, the candidates for Honours in History were to ‘see whether they were interested’ in studying this new special subject, in preference to the old special subjects taught by the other members of the Department and examined in one of the eight papers required for B.A. Clearly, the more students, within reason, Dixon could get ‘interested’ in his subject, the better for him; equally clearly, too large a number of ‘interested’ students would mean that the number studying Welch’s own special subject would fall to a degree that Welch might be expected to resent.

Isn’t it a minefield? Whatever Jim does, he displeases Welch.

I have a hard time making up my mind about Jim. James, Jim, Dixon, Dickinson, who is he really? Sometimes I pitied him as he was so obviously outside of his comfort zone and Welch did seem like a bore. At other times, he did such silly things as getting drunk at the worst moment. I couldn’t help thinking he was bringing it all to himself. I could understand why he got on other people’s nerves but also why Margaret and Christine are so fond of him.

Kingsley Amis depicts the academic world as a society with pedantic scholars who try to mix with artists more for the style than for the art. When I first read about the French names of Welch’s children I wondered where he got the idea to pick such names for his sons. Thanks to a previous discussion, I already knew that Michel sounded effeminate. (It’s like Laurence for me, I never think of a man when I see that name.) But Bertrand! That must be one of the most difficult French names to say in English. Two Rs and a “an”. It reminds me of the poor French kids named Brian or Ethan; it can never be said properly. Well, we learn later that Mrs Welch has a thing for everything Gallic.

The university is a world of sharks where one needs to publish articles to be accepted and where rules may be bent to have a promotion. I’ve never been to university, I don’t have a clear idea of how it is organised in France. However, novels by David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Philip Roth and now Kingsley Amis all draw the same picture. The temples of culture are not always civilised place to live in. This is an atmosphere you expect in the corporate world but not among scholars who are intelligent and supposedly above that kind of petty details such as advancement or competition.

I’ve had a lot of fun reading Lucky Jim. Amis is extremely funny and has a great sense of style. Here’s Jim coming back to the Welches after a long moment at the local pub:

He broke off, panting; it was hard work walking up the dry sandy track to the Welches’ house, especially with so much beer distributed about his frame.

And now Jim the morning after:

He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

I felt bad for him, poor thing. Dixon’s head is a funny one to be in. His imagination runs wild as in a cartoon.

As he left the bar with Christine at his side, Dixon felt like a special agent, a picaroon, a Chicago war-lord, a hidalgo, an oil baron, a mohock. He kept careful control over his features to stop them doing what they wanted to do and breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride.

Jim has a great sense of humour, self-deprecating sometimes but also often at the expense of other people. But lots of it remains safely tucked in a corner of his brain and that’s the reader’s privilege to know what runs through his head. In lots of ways, he’s childish and he shies away from conflicts. During this journey of uncertainty, Jim also learns to accept confrontation as a positive outcome to clear the air, he learns to fight for what he wants and to live under pressure.

For the anecdote, I also loved the stylistic onslaught of Britishness in sentences as this: ‘Upon consideration I feel it incumbent upon me to doubt it. I have miscellaneous concerns in London that need my guiding hand.’ Isn’t that a solid brick of politeness? Ever tried to sneak around a wall of English politeness built out of these verbal bricks and have a British admit that he won’t be doing the job you want him to do? It took me half an hour of rephrasing sentences just this afternoon.

Lucky Jim is a very agreeable read and I sided with Jim all along the book. With his humble background, he doesn’t have the keys to open the doors of academia without a struggle. What he’s facing would have been a nightmare to me. The depressing topics to study, the obligation to lick your boss’s boots to achieve anything, the undermining done by colleagues and the smug students, I would have left running.

For more information about this novel, read Guy’s review here.

PS: Here’s a little challenge to end this post. Read this sentence I expect you know his book on medieval Cwmrhydyceirw and please tell me how to pronounce the last word. 🙂

Changeable Spring and Indian Summer in London: the review

July 26, 2011 17 comments

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. 1984.

“The heart has its reasons that reason ignores.” Blaise Pascal.

Vinnie Miner is a fifty-four year old, petite, gray haired, plain, single literature teacher. She teaches Children’s Literature in Corinth University, New England. She just got a foundation grant to spend six months in London to study the folk-rhymes of school children and compare them to their American equivalents. When the book opens, she’s settling on her plane to London and prepares for her flight. Vinnie has an imaginary dog named Fido which represents her self-pity.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad.

Vinnie Miner is Anglophile and she can’t wait staying in London once more. She feels better when she’s abroad because Fido is under good check and she can leave behind her usual self. Chuck Mumpson, an average American from Tulsa sits by her. He’s on a fifteen days tour in Europe. He breaks into her privacy and start talking to her. She responds with as short phrases as politeness allows and here is how Vinnie feels about the intruder:

She wonders why citizens of the United States who have nothing in common and will never see one another again feel it necessary to exchange such information. It can only clog up their brain cells with useless data, and is moreover often invidious, tending to estrange casual acquaintances.[…] In the British Isles, on the other hand, the anonymity of travelers is preserved. If strangers who find themselves sharing a railway compartment converse, it will be on topics of general interest, and usually without revealing their origin, destination, occupation, or name.

Meanwhile, we get to know Fred Turner. He’s  a 29, heartbreakingly handsome, married literature teacher in Corinth University. He just won a grant to spend six months in London and write a book about John Gay. Fred’s wife Ruth was supposed to accompany him but they had a terrible fight just before his departure and she stayed behind. (I won’t say what she did to upset him, it’s too funny). So he feels terrible and is not so excited about living in London.

On her side, Vinnie Miner feels good. She’s in London, in a British flat, among her British friends, working in British libraries. Unlike Vinnie’s, Fred’s first weeks in London are miserable. He misses his wife and tries to cope with being single again. His wages aren’t high enough for him to enjoy London now that he lacks Ruth’s income. He hates the British Library. He pays regular visits to American friends who hate London too and mopes with them. They try to convince him that Ruth wasn’t the right woman for him. They mean to help him but Fred realises that “When things have gone wrong it is no consolation to hear that your friends expected it all along and could have told you so if they hadn’t been so polite.”

When Vinnie realises that Fred is unwell, she invites him to a party she’s giving for her English friends. There he meets Rosemary, a British actress and they soon start an affair. Rosemary is older than him, beautiful, fairy, unpredictable and unbalanced. On the other side, Vinnie runs into Chuck again and starts a friendship with him, a bit against her will. As you imagine,  Foreign Affair will be the interlaced adventures of Fred and Vinnie in England and I won’t tell more about the plot.

Fred and Vinnie are like a pair of scissors. They are bound by the Literature Department in Corinth University. As they cut through their life in London, some events bring them together, some separate them. Vinnie feels responsible for Fred in spite of her. As a fellow American and as a more experienced colleague, she finds herself paying attention to him whereas she wouldn’t have at home. She is led by the hand of duty, pride – He represents Corinth University, he must behave – and sympathy too. He could be her son; I thought she acted like a mother figure sometimes.

Alison Lurie explores several topics through her tale. The most important one I think is the impact of beauty on people’s lives. Vinnie is described as plain and Fred as beautiful. Vinnie resents her lack of beauty whereas Fred doesn’t consciously take advantage of it but sometimes thinks it doesn’t make his life easier. In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq states:

Sans la beauté, la jeune fille est malheureuse, car elle perd toute chance d’être aimée. Personne à vrai dire ne s’en moque ni ne la traite avec cruauté mais elle est comme transparente, aucun regard n’accompagne ses pas. Chacun se sent gêné en sa présence et préfère l’ignorer. Without beauty, the young girl is miserable because she loses any chance to be loved. Nobody mocks her or treats her with cruelty but she is transparent, no look follows her footsteps. Everyone feels ill at ease in her presence and would rather ignore her.

Somehow, that’s what happened to Vinnie and she never recovered from it. Her childhood ended when she became aware of it. She deducted that she’s too plain to be loved and has built walls around her to protect her from actually truly loving anyone. She expects to be dumped so she doesn’t let anyone the opportunity to do it and leaves first. Her life is full of soothing rituals supposed to bring her safety but her orderly life is artificial. She fills her life with activities but doesn’t really live it.

Fred is too handsome for his own good. He is propositioned all the time and can’t be as friendly with his students as he’d wish to. Indeed, as he’s young and attractive, he ends up being chased by grapes of female students. He dresses seriously not to look too young. His beauty prevents him from enjoying his job as much as he could. When his wife leaves him, he’s lost. He never had to work to win a woman’s attention. To be honest, I felt little empathy for the trials and tribulations of Fred’s love life and he sounded a little too spoiled. I thought his voice was less convincing than Vinnie’s. Even when he feels pretty low, he has an ingrained self confidence and optimism which help him recover. He’s young, handsome, and successful; his present miseries can only end soon. Really I can’t pity beautiful people.

I loved Vinnie Miner despite her flaws and her apparent coldness. She has a very disillusioned vision of her possibilities in life:

As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks, and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirements for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy, and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life.

I felt her fragility under her protective shell and I watched her improve as her wall of self preservation crumbles. At 54, Vinnie has decided she’s old now. Too old to dye her hair and dress nicely. Too old for sex. Too old for love and relationships. Too old for any life outside work and work related activities such as lectures, art and theatre. She has a terribly self depreciating vision of herself. Alison Lurie is a teacher of Children’s Literature in Cornell University. She was 58 when Foreign Affairs was published and was separated from her husband at the time. Is her analysis of over-50 “love market” a first hand experience?

I felt tenderness for Chuck. He’s the caricature of the American middleman from the South. He’s huge, wears cowboy outfits with a leather tie, a plastic raincoat, speaks with a terrible accent and sprinkles his phrases with grammar mistakes. In other words, he’s the exact opposite to Vinnie’s acquaintances. But he’s also a decent man who disregards appearances. He’s not impressed by people’s wealth or by London’s glorious past.

In Chuck’s opinion, London isn’t much of a place. He doesn’t mind the weather: “Nah. I like the variety. Back home it’s the same goddamn thing every day. And if you don’t water, the earth dries up hard as rock. When I first got here I couldn’t get over how damn green England is, like one of those travel posters.” On the other hand, he complains, the beds in his hotel are lumpy and the supply of hot water limited. English food tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant. The traffic is nuts, everybody driving on the wrong side of the road; and he has a hell of a time understanding the natives, who talk English real funny. Vinnie is about to correct his linguistic error rather irritably and suggest that it is in fact we Americans who talk funny, when their tea arrives, creating a diversion.

Apart from Vinnie and Fred’s love lives and how beauty impacted their self-confidence, this novel is also about cultural differences between American and English upper classes. Here is Fred’s first steps in British parties:

She had asked him where he was living; that was a good sign, he had thought, not having yet learnt that in England such inquiries don’t precede or hint at an invitation, but rather serve to determine social class; they are the equivalent of the American question “What do you do?”

People are all friendliness and politeness but it is mere hypocrisy. The friendliness disappears at the first wind of change. I’m not British and I don’t like to generalize but I have to admit it reminded me of Nick’s misadventures (The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst) and of the way Linley treats and hurts Barbara Havers in What came before he shot her by Elizabeth George.

There are also interesting thoughts about the influence of novels on people’s vision of love relationships. I’ll try to post about it later, if I can find the time. It echoes Notes on a Love Story by Philip Langeskov that I reviewed in The Best British Short Stories 2011. It had already left me thinking.

I’m fond of books in university settings, they sound so exotic to me. Usually they’re about literature teachers; I don’t recall reading one with a science teacher, except Rebecca Connell. Are they like their writers? The only thing that bothered me in this book was the parallels Fred could make between his life and John Gay’s literature. I’ve never read John Gay – and I dare think I’m not the only one – I felt confused or left apart as if the character and its author were whispering secrets I couldn’t hear. This was a minor flaw, though. I loved this book; it made me stay up late on a working night to finish it. It had been a long time since my last Alison Lurie and I had forgotten how sensitive, subtle and lucid she can be.  

PS : Summer quizz: now try to reconcile the characters mentioned in the review with the one on the drawing in the teaser post!

 

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