Briefly noted: The Weight of Ink — Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink invites comparison to A. S. Byatt’s , and after I’d read about half of The Weight of Ink I was inspired to re-read Possession, which is amazing and one of the best books I’ve read, ever. In the beginning of Possession I noticed this; the protagonist, Roland, is studying a fictional Victorian poet named R. H. Ash, and his supervisor is Blackadder:

Blackadder was discouraged and liked to discourage others. (He was also a stringent scholar.) Roland was now employed, part-time, in what was known as Blackadder’s “Ash Factory” (why not Ashram? Val had said)…

That re-use of “Ash,” from “Ash Factory” to “Ashram” (which sounds a lot, intentionally, like ass-ram) gives a lot in a short space: about Blackadder’s drudgery; Roland’s feelings towards Blackadder and the work; and even about Val’s witty personality, which is weighted by material circumstances and her shriveling relationship with Roland. We get a lot of material in three sentences that later resonate throughout the novel as a whole. For a while I spent time trying to find something analogously clever in The Weight of Ink, and failed. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but most of the book feels a little dull by comparison.

In The Weight of Ink there are too many sentences like, “He knew that whatever her reputation—and her staunch defense of departmental requirements, her insistence on diversifying the list of acceptable qualifying languages, and a half dozen other hard-fought battles over the years had earned her a fierce reputation—Helen Watt did not make scenes.” As far as I can tell this is meant as straight comment, not as a joke, and the obvious question—who gives a damn?—isn’t asked. People who have actually fierce reputations don’t have them from university department teapot politics. In Possession academic politics are the joke, for good reason, and human needs are at the humane center of things. The Weight of Ink misses this basic philosophical point and feels silly for it.


Had Aaron Levy chosen to study Shakespeare’s Catholic roots, it would have been different; that field had been blessed relatively recently with the astonishing gift of fresh evidence—a religious pamphlet found in the attic of Shakespeare’s father. That single document had upended and revitalized that arena of Shakespeare studies, leaving young historians room to work productively for years to come.

Perhaps the real answer is, “Go study a field that is vital and important?” Unfortunately, the modern-era scholars don’t, or can’t. Aaron has the same problem in his personal life. He yearns for a woman he had a one-night stand with, right before she left for Israel. Solution: Go find someone geographically proximate and available, like everyone else. In Possession, scholarly and romantic problems beautifully mirror each other; here, they grind against each other and the reader’s patience.

I gave up about halfway through. The re-read of Possession was great, though. Don’t believe the comparisons. They’re superficially right but in terms of depth totally off.

A.S. Byatt and Tracy K. Smith speaking in New York

A.S. Byatt and poet Tracy K. Smith spoke in New York last night, and my favorite moment may have been Byatt’s comment on influence: she said, “I learn from dead people. I read books.” Which is accurate, simple, and too seldom mentioned. She also said, “If there is one thing I shall never do it is write a memoir.” But Byatt does watch viral YouTube videos, though I won’t offer the context. No word on whether she’s seen “Gangnam Style.” I wanted to listen to her indefinitely; she seemed low bullshit and subtly, Britishly funny in a way not conveyed by these quotes and perhaps not conveyed by any quotes. I would take her seminar despite the danger of being assigned Henry James and Melville.

IMG_2029Byatt also said that at some point “I got sick of realism. . . and I realized realism is only one way of putting prose together.” That remark—”putting prose together” was deliberate. English’s promiscuous borrowing also delights her (as it does pretty much anyone who really writes), and to that I would add that English has a sophisticated technical vocabulary offering a rich lode of metaphors not always available, or easily available, in other languages, unless they’ve borrowed from English (often in turn borrowing from other languages).

One senses that literature for her is urgent, as it is for Roland Mitchell in Possession (in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Roland Mitchell explains that he stole letters from the British Library “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent,” implying that much of what happens in the British Library and academia is so not urgent that one must wonder if and why it should happen at all) and many characters in The Children’s Book. She makes me want to be a better writer.

Smith said, in the context of mentorship, that having someone ask different kinds of questions of your work can be useful. She’s right, though I’d never conceptualized the issue in those terms, and it’s difficult to find people who will ask questions different but still useful than those you ask yourself.

Does she like Billy Collins?

Rereading A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance

The key moment in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance comes when Roland Mitchell, a prematurely desiccated academic, wonders why he might have stolen letters written by an invented 19th Century poet from the British Library. In explaining why, he says, “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent[….]” Nothing else in his life does, which straddles comedy and sadness. The act propels the action of the novel as well as a return of urgency and of discovery to his own life, implying that when we lack such attributes, we begin to die ourselves.

I’ve previously discussed Possession here), and the novel concerns academics who begin emotionally dead, and their intellects are perilously close to the same state. The key to their resurrection—their return to what one might skeptically call “the real world”—comes in an act of very minor theft by Roland. It’s out of character but brings him rolling to a beautiful academic, to a secret, and to the double discovery of his own romance and of someone else’s. Tracing the path of another person’s romance teaches him how to live his own; without that signal, perhaps he would remain among the academic undead, or the undead more generally. A rare forbidden act—sex has lost its forbiddenness, so theft of an academic nature will have to do—has a rejuvenating effect, reminding us of the limits and limiting nature of bounds and boundaries, sexual, textual, and otherwise. For a novel that is composed heavily of invented texts, stealing carries a larger moral rigor that it might otherwise not, and it helps Roland see his own life and work in way that is, again, finally, urgent.

The Name of the Rose — Umberto Eco

Since beginning The Name of the Rose a month ago, it has become the answer to requests for recommendations. It is a vast, engaging novel that makes me feel its greatness: the subject matter is complex but presented well, the plot moves swiftly, no word feels wasted, and the prose is original—I’ve never before seen through the eyes of a fourteenth-century monk. Even if modern ideas about how to interpret ideas and test hypotheses are discussed, I believe the perspective of a monk, especially because Adso of Melk’s interpretation of the world goes through the Biblical lens. It comes from other places too: the references to how great distance really felt then, in the value of books that took individuals working alone years to copy (which makes one appreciate how relatively little they cost today), and how important food was. Contrast this with The Other Boleyn Girl, a world as foreign as a TV show about attractive Californians in swimsuits.

But The Name of the Rose deals too with eternal human longings: lust for power, lust for control, lust for knowledge, and plain, unadorned lust, all of which appear in many guises. If there is a taxonomy of evil implicit in the narrative, then it finds true evil is that of excess, and the forms of “lust” as I use them in the preceding sentence stretches into a synonym for excess. The reasons for the murders tie back into those base desires, although Eco implies that the desire to control knowledge is the penultimate sin. The library, librarian, and abbot conspire together to control knowledge, though their nominal task is to spread it; instead, William of Baskerville trise to unlock the secrets created by man, and his journey toward knowledge—of murder, most directly, and of philosophy at another level, and many others as well, as David Lodge makes clear in his introduction. I never thought I would write that about a novel with long sections devoted to theological debate as it relates to murders, and yet underlying the theological debate is the pursuit of naked power. To discern what characters mean in The Name of the Rose is a great and powerful challenge.

I can’t stop linking to Carrie Frye (see here and here), and I’ll do so again now: Frye quoted A.S. Byatt talking to The New York Times on Possession, and Byatt said: “It’s like the books people used to enjoy reading when they enjoyed reading … It has a universal plot, a classic romantic plot and a classic detective plot. And the plot was more important than anything else in it. People can get the sort of pleasure out of it they got out of the old romantic novel.” It’s just as true of The Name of the Rose, which, like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, reminds me of why I like to read. All three can be read them for plot, or for symbol, or for ideas more suited to potential future graduate students like me. A few things implied at that abstract level:

* What is the nature of the detective story?

* How do we know what we know?

* What is the nature of faith?

* How do we search for the truth (and Truth)?

You might also ask why I don’t attempt to give a deep answer to these questions, and the chief reason is that to say anything of substance demands another reading at the very least and probably much more. The Name of the Rose is already so interconnected and works at so many levels of abstraction and symbol that it is impossible to imbibe more than a tiny amount of it on a first reading. And it relates to so much else: I’ve already found two passages that led to posts for my work-related blog, Grant Writing Confidential, one on the tendency to idealize the past and the other on how movements grow and fall apart, as well as the nature of rule versus principle adherence to ideals. The latter is related to William of Baskerville’s vision, which is to pursue truth wherever it leads and try to advance knowledge as well as the principles of good, which come from learning, understanding, and empathizing.

This is in opposition to Bernard Gui, the inquisitor who wields rules as implements of terror. In the most marvelous trial scene I have ever read, Adso describes Gui: “His gaze was really fixed on the accused, and it was a gaze in which hypocritical indulgence (as if to say: Never fear, you are in the hands of a fraternal assembly that can only want your good) mixed with icy irony (as if to say: You do not yet know what your good is, and I will shortly tell you) and merciless severity (as if to say: But in any case I am your judge here, and you are in my power).” He twists rules and principles that are supposed to lead toward goodness into their opposite. The characters representing relative good in the world of Adso are those from the Church, but over time it becomes apparent that their rigid compliance and enforcement with rules can cause them to become evil in the same way as whoever is killing monks.

The resonances among the various strands of idea and plot within the novel create an enormous and phenomenal harmony with enough dissonant notes in it for contrast. Thank Alex Ross for these musical metaphors, but they’re worthwhile: the deepest pieces of music seem to have depth that we cannot fully plumb or understand, and the same is true of the deepest novels. I can explain aspects of them, isolate individual parts so as to better admire them, but never encapsulate the whole by taking it apart. One definition of a great novel might be that no dissection of it can ever leave pieces that add up to the sum of the parts. Lesser novels yield their secrets, and novels even lesser still are not even worth the mental energy of the inquiry. At times I point such novels out—though I don’t enjoy slamming books into which writers have poured their energies—and with the greater novels I try to begin the process of understanding them, and with the greatest novels I begin to formulate ideas that might play out over far longer works than just blog posts.

This is so unusual a novel that it has turned this into an unusual post: one where, rather than asserting something about the structure or scope of a novel, or assaying its merit, I can only point to how amazing it is, try to interrogate what I mean by “amazing,” and scratch a hole into the vast mountain of meaning between two covers. This is a post I have anticipated but also dreaded writing—dreaded because there is so much that can be said about The Name of the Rose and so much that has been. I keep mentioning (here too) The Name of the Rose because it is so big that I reach for commentary on it immediately after finishing—I don’t want to give it up, which is a rare thing. I’m going to start The Key to The Name of the Rose shortly. I don’t think there is a genuine key, but I will search for the pleasure and enlightenment I can find in what I anticipate will be many future readings.

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