A detective on Christmas: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison

I blogged about a Christmas film noir, but I didn’t actually mean to read a Christmas detective story as well.  But Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison was calling out to me from the shelf where I’d stuck it, just above a collection of Poe’s mystery stories.  I actually bought the book several years ago in Atlanta, and I’d packed it up and moved it across the country with me, but I’d still never read it.

Well, I had tried once, when I originally purchased it.  But the first chapters are a bit slow, and my attention span was not great, so it returned to the shelf.  This time around, however, I pushed through the clunky opening and found myself totally taken with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The book begins at the end of a murder trial: a neat device for catching the reader up on the details quickly, but the voice of the stodgy judge is a bit much to wade through.  Luckily, he disappears as soon as the hung jury refuses to deliver a verdict as to whether detective novelist Harriet Vane poisoned her one-time lover with arsenic.  Wimsey has been present at the trial and really taken to Vane, who he knows didn’t commit the murder.  He vows to clear her name, find the real killer if he can, and then marry Vane.  She’s grateful for the first two but has some other ideas about the last one.

The Christmas aspect is actually minimal; with the retrial set after the winter holiday, Wimsey spends the Christmas season making his investigation (and trying to convince the Chief Detective Inspector to marry his sister already).  But Sayers uses the holiday setting to get in a few witty jabs:

“Great bore, Christmas, isn’t it? All the people one hates most gathered together in the name of goodwill and all that.”

Sayers creates Wimsey as a sarcastic but lovable aristocrat who has friends in all sorts of unexpected places, always ready to help him out when needed.  I particularly love his “Cattery,” the temp typist pool he maintains and sends off to work typing jobs/do recon on suspects.  In fact, all the secondary characters, who adore Wimsey and help him in his sleuthing, are wonderfully drawn and a joy to follow.

It’s worth noting that Sayers herself was a pretty badass lady, not unlike Vane.  She was one of the first women to take a degree from Oxford and was made a Baker Street Irregular.

Sadly, it looks like the next two Peter and Harriet books, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night, are currently out of print.  I’ll be tracking down used copies as soon as I can, because I can’t wait to read more featuring the two of them.

Virginia Woolf’s brown stocking

I’m currently in the research stages of a paper on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and the narratological metaphors of painting and knitting.  I have a long way to go before arriving at a solid argument, but the idea was inspired by a conviction that Mrs. Ramsey’s knitting is more important than previous critics have believed.

Sometimes, a stocking is not just a stocking.

Woolf herself was surrounded by both painters and textile designers: under Roger Fry, several members of the Bloomsbury group created housewares for the Omega Workshops, including Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell.

Part of my developing argument deals with the material process of creating applied arts objects, like a piece of knitting (which means the endless hours I’ve spend working on my knitted legwarmers are actually research!).

Like Mrs. Ramsey I’m susceptible to the crushing sadness of knowing there’s not enough time to finish a project:

“You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted — the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”

And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something — wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things — she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is — the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

Woolf’s writing characteristically involves the celebration of the everyday, the small domestic details of a woman’s life, and the importance of women’s acts of creation.  But I didn’t realize, until I searched for images for this article, that Woolf was herself a knitter.  According to this short article, Woolf crediting knitting with an immense therapeutic effect after a breakdown.  “Knitting is the saving of life,” she wrote to Leonard.

Vanessa Bell painted Woolf knitting in about 1911, at the same time she was preparing the draft of her first novel, The Voyage Out.  The painting is quintessential Vanessa, who, following Roger Fry, prized form over content.  She thought a painter could leave the faces blank with no detriment to the subject.

I’m fascinated by Woolf’s left hand (the lower one), how it blurs slightly.  I wish I had been able to see this painting in person when I visited London, as that hand just begs to be analyzed in closer detail.  Are the smudges purposeful?  Could they represent some small bit of movement in an otherwise still and static image?

I also have to wonder if any of Woolf’s knitting survives in an archive somewhere.  What kinds of things did she make?  Did she herself practice the process of making Mrs. Ramsey’s reddish-brown stocking?

To the Lighthouse is available as a free ebook from the University of Adelaide Library.  It’s worth reading for a lot more than just the knitting scenes, too.

Spidermamas: Judy Budnitz, Louise Bourgeois, and Kristeva’s abject

One of the perks of grad school is getting to put together class presentations on a range of crazy fun topics.  This week, I’m presenting in my American Gothic class on the stories of Judy Budnitz and their relation to Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection.

I structure my presentations a lot like I structure my blog posts: I pull together quotes and images, offer analysis, and try to expose my audience to related materials they may not have seen before.

So what is abjection and what does it have to do with spiders and mothers?

The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. — Dino Felluga, Purdue U

Much of what we understand about the abject and abjection comes from the French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva.  Her essay “Powers of Horror” details the effects of the abject, especially as it relates to Lacanian psychoanalytic thought.  She writes, “The abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language” (“Powers of Horror” 13).

Judy Budnitz’s short story “Where We Come From” is a perfect example of abjection at work in literature.  The story tells of three mothers in succession: the first a mother in a foreign country, the second a would-be immigrant mother, and the third an American mother who adopts the second’s baby.

Much of what is abject in the story revolves around the second mother, who tries time and again to cross the border and have her baby on American soil.  Where she comes from is unimportant — there is a placelessness to the third world country of her origin that stands in for all third world countries.  Repeatedly rebuffed at the (rather mythical) border, she carries her baby for four years, until she is finally able to give birth in an American hospital.

Budnitz’s evocative fabulism makes this take of twisted motherhood work:

“She carries him for two years.  She constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight.  She uses a cane.  She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks.”

This spider imagery immediately reminded me of the sculpture work of Louise Bourgeois.  She crafted a giant spider sculpture, called Maman (French for mother), for the Tate Modern in 1999.  Bronze replicas of Maman have been exhibited all over the world.

Bourgeois meant her work as a tribute to her own mother, but its grotesqueness does, in a way, comment on how we view motherhood.  (Another version of this can be found in the film Alien, in which a terrifying, acid dripping alien-mother impregnates male bodies, dooming them to be ripped apart by her parasitic offspring.)

Abjection can also be understood as the state of being experienced by women, people of color, unwed mothers, and other marginalized groups.  Budnitz’s story, I think, deftly weaves all these various strands together (spider pun intended!), while at the same time implicating America in the ongoing abjection of the mother.  What does it say about us, if this is indeed “Where We Come From”?

Literary Lady Lights: Kelly Link

There are few contemporary authors that I follow with the same gusto as Kelly Link. There are, I think, few who are doing anything as interesting as Kelly is doing. Her particular brand of speculative fiction — so full of weirdness, and yet so familiar seeming — is not only highly readable but also highly addictive. Once you read the world through her eyes, it’s boring to go back to plain old reality.

Her style is spare and matter of fact; it reminds me of literary fiction writer Amy Hempel, who likewise utilizes short declarative sentences to great effect. (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is the first and still the best Hempel short story I read. It’ll break your heart.) But Kelly’s understanding of youth, and the magical way it can feel, sets her apart for me; she combines the seriousness, writerly-ness of literary fiction with speculative and fantastical elements, without overdoing either. There is hope in her stories, along with the zombies, ghosts, wolf girls, fairies, and evil bunnies.

I recently sang Kelly’s praises over at The Film League, as part of our month on Dawn of the Dead:

There isn’t a lot of gore in a Kelly Link short story.  Nor is there a lot of blockbuster style action.  And yet, for my money, no one gets closer to capturing the unmitigated eeriness of Romero’s zombie-infected world.  These stories belong to the slowly lurching black and white nightmare of Night of the Living Dead, or the bizarre and panicked newsroom and the ravished tenement building of the first act of Dawn of the Dead.

Though I didn’t know it when I wrote that article, the connection has been made at least once before: WPR opened a horror segment, featuring Kelly, with a radio advertisement for the movie.

If you ask me, Kelly’s work deserves much more attention than it currently gets. Unfortunately, there was a break in her publishing — you can ready why here — and only a few stories have recently trickled out.

Many of Kelly’s stories are available to read for free at her site; I highly recommend “The Hortlak” and “The Faery Handbag” (which was, incidentally, the first Kelly Link short story I ever read, and the one that made me fall madly in love with her writing). Kelly is a champion of Creative Commons licensing, and has released several of her pieces, including her entire first story collection, Stranger Things Happen, for free online. (It no longer seems to be available through the website — possibly a technical difficulty that never got resolved — but if you hunt around the internet you can find it.)

She also runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, which has released some great books.

Literary Lady Lights: Edith Wharton

I just wrapped up a paper on food in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and while it may have made my relationship to dinner a little shaky, it only cemented my relationship to Wharton.

It’s my belief that Wharton is just as relevant to us now as she was in the early 20th century, and that we should undertake to rediscover her beyond the pages of endless dissertations.  Her work is perfect for our historical moment; we too are image-obsessed, post-war, nostalgic, and conservative.  We too are navigating the tricky transition between centuries, struggling to integrate new technologies without losing ourselves in the process, and looking to our rich for supreme entertainment and distraction.

The cultural zeitgeist around Wharton is a strange thing.  While she’s well-known, constantly referenced, and still being written about, she is also the type of author that few people these days have actually read.  They’ll nod their heads when one mentions her, but then confess to not remembering a single of her book titles.  And yet, they’re all around us.

Wharton and Gossip Girl

That CW teen drama Gossip Girl is a sophisticated, self-referential version of Wharton’s greatest works just may be the best keep secret on television.  But it’s true, and it has been since the beginning, as this New York piece so lucidly points out:

Von Ziegesar began by modeling Gossip Girl on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, that earlier tale of a closed New York society. Serena van der Woodsen, a beauty kicked out of boarding school, returns to her old school, only to be dogged by envious rumors of lesbianism and love children. Von Ziegesar’s first draft was horribly high-minded, a fusty Wharton imitation; she quickly trashed it and adopted the brassy tones of Gossip Girl, who ends her dispatches with the teasing sign-off, “You know you love me.”

The tv show has taken this jumping off point and swan-dived out into a delicious world of literary reference.  From the series’ first moments, wherein teenage Serena stands alone in Grand Central Station in an obvious callback to The House of Mirth, to season 2’s “The Age of Dissonance,” about a school play version of The Age of Innocence gone horribly post-modern and oh-so-right, not only is the Wharton stamp is all over the show, but that’s the show’s whole point.  You thought you were watching another rich-kids-behaving-badly soap; it turns out you were getting a first-rate education in the literary canon.

Wharton as YA lit heroine

A new biography posits Wharton as young adult heroine, a girl who flouted convention and the wishes of her mother to chase her dreams.   Katie Roiphe at The New York Times reads it as a wake-up call to the very teens cozying up to Gossip Girl every week, though her cry to “stop i-chatting and posting on people’s walls” is more embarrassing than anything.  Besides, who’s to say those girls aren’t dreaming up their own large scale projects on that new-fangled communication device, the computer?

Still, without having read the biography, I applaud the attempt to make Wharton known as a role model to YA lit audiences.  If it gets girls interested in reading her works, even better.

Ethan Frome meets… well, you know

By now, you’ve probably seen the hilarious video adaptation of Wharton’s short novel Ethan Frome, performed in original period dress and the style of an MTV scripted reality show.  If not, I can’t urge you enough to go watch it.  It’ll change your life.

(All the kids in my Wharton class spent the last week of the semester walking around in a daze, quoting it more to themselves than each other.  “I would effing die for you.  I mean, literally,” became our mantra; it may have looked like mental instability, but I swear it saved us from truly cracking up.)

The short film was created by a group called PERIODS., who number Mr. Spock himself, Zachary Quinto, among their members.  A second season of shorts begins in February, though there’s no word on whether they’ll adapt any more literary classics.

See also:

I found some very detailed posts about Wharton’s estate in the Berkshires, The Mount; Suzanne Vega wrote a lovely song called “Edith Wharton’s Figurines“; Studio 360 recently did a segment on The House of Mirth (in which Jonathan Franzen makes an ass of himself); and no trip to New York is complete without an Edith Wharton walking tour.