Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Virginia Woolf would burn down Columbia University. Discuss.

"Rags. Petrol. Matches... burn the college to the ground." 
(Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas")

Yesterday I co-taught a class on Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas" at Columbia University. The text ties in nicely with my research on conscientious objectors for Book Two, so apart from feeling tremendously honoured/flattered/privileged to be invited, I was also genuinely interested in hearing what the students would make of a pacifist essay written just before World War Two.

"Three Guineas" begins with Virginia Woolf's reply to a letter from an anti-war society. The correspondent's question is simple: How are we to prevent war? Oh, and he would also like Woolf to make a donation (one of the three guineas) and become a member of his society.

Woolf responds by citing two other begging letters. One is from a fund to rebuild a women's college; the other, from a society helping "the daughters of educated men", ie women like Woolf, find employment in the professions. Woolf's point is that the question of war, and how to prevent it, links all three letters, all three guineas. Why? Because it is 1938 and women, who spent centuries on the margins of society, now have certain rights. They can vote, they can study at universities that were previously closed to them, they can earn a living. This gives them a choice: the choice between joining the "procession of the sons of educated men", thereby perpetuating a system that encourages war through nationalism, elitism and militarism; or using their experience as outsiders to create something new and different.
As Woolf puts it: "We have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don't we? On what terms shall we join that procession?"

It's a question that keeps feminists - and activists from all sorts of marginalised groups - busy to this day, but the passage that I especially looked forward to discussing with the students was Woolf's response to the treasurer of the college re-building fund:

The guinea should be earmarked 'Rags. Petrol. Matches'. And this note should be attached to it. 'Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire... and let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry "Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done this 'education'!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this passage sparked the liveliest moments of the two-hour class. Students felt particularly strongly about the canon, the core texts that make up Columbia University's idea of the basis for Western civilisation. "Filled with dead white men," was one student's comment (Woolf is one of only two dead white women on the Contemporary Civilization reading list). "Canon-based education is a way of excluding people," said another, suggesting more diverse voices be added.
"Beyond our university education, there are universal aspects of being human that we should tap into," was a third comment, inspired by Woolf's idea of personal experience of oppression and exclusion as "unpaid-for" education.
On the other hand, references to Freud, Plato, Nietzsche and Sophocles popped up throughout the class, so clearly the canon, however narrow by some standards, has its uses.

What would Virginia, who loathed Oxford and Cambridge, have made of all that?
Would she have been pleased to see so many young, intelligent women voicing their opinions in a class at an elite university - and reading "Three Guineas" with such enthusiasm, more than 70 years after it was written?
Or would she have cried out in horror at tuition fees of some $40,000 a year, and gone off to look for petrol and matches?

When I prepared the class, I came across a poignant little fact (courtesy of Woolf scholar Michele Barrett): after the publication of "Three Guineas", Woolf received a real-life begging letter asking her to donate a manuscript to a fund-raising effort for Spanish refugees.
She donated "Three Guineas".

The manuscript of "A Room of One's Own", in contrast, was given to Cambridge after her death. There it was misfiled and lay forgotten for nearly half a century.

No matches. Promise.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Two Frozen Pizzas and a Paperback

We're in Tesco's!
Between a Kate Middleton biography and the Kosher for Passover section.

Buy two boxes of matzoh, get one free copy of the Registrar.

Dan accosted a random Saturday shopper and tried to sell her a copy.
"It doesn't really sound like my kind of book," she said. "I think I'll go for the new Jackie Collins."
Which is fine since Jackie Collins is also a Simon & Schuster author. I'm generous and team-spirited like that.
Look, I can balance three copies on my head. So can Dan.
Then Dan thought of a new sales strategy: telling random shoppers that if they bought a copy, the author - here she is! - would sign it on the spot.
That's when I remembered we had to rush home and water the flowers or paint eggs or something.

Hope everyone had a relaxing & reviving holiday. I'm off to New York on a research trip for a novel about art forgers; any recommendations (galleries, exhibitions, forgers' labs) will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

May the Taste of Honey Linger

The Registrar has just been launched as a paperback. It's very exciting and I should probably use the occasion to blog about book covers, marketing etc, but instead I'm going to dedicate this post to Passover Seder, the feast that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The reason being that:

a) I'm going to my fourth Seder on Friday, thanks to my boyfriend's family

b) I'm finding it hard to write (or think) about anything that isn't related to the Great Rewrite; and Passover is sort of related, in that there's a Seder scene in the new book that I must have re-written about fifty times. 

Passover is one of my favourite religious holidays, and it's one that's particularly accessible to outsiders like me because it comes with a manual, the Haggadah. I'll never forget the enormous sense of relief I felt when I sat down for my first ever Seder, opened the Haggadah and realised all I had to do was follow the instructions (oh, and keep an eye on the other dinner guests to make sure my timing was ok).
It's all in there: the story of the Exodus, an explanation of why it's important, and a detailed series of steps you must take to commemorate it, from reciting prayers to spilling a little wine to show pity for the Egyptian victims of the plagues. It's a precise choreography of remembrance, and perhaps that's why I find it so moving and poignant.

Easter, by comparison, is a much more disjointed affair: there's Jesus, there's Easter bunnies, there's painted eggs. Some of the spiritual and comestible elements link up to form a narrative, eg crucifixion/Hot Cross buns. Others don't, eg resurrection/eggs. Of course they all fit the Spring/rebirth/renewal theme of Easter, but there isn't the kind of precise connection and deep tradition that you get with a Seder.
As Joan Nathan, one of the New York Times' food journalists, wrote recently, describing Passover at her house: "We may not 'eat the flesh that same night, roasted over fire', as the Book of Exodus says, but we still eat unleavened bread (and) bitter herbs."

I'm in the process of re-writing my own, fictional Seder scene once again; let's hope that this re-write will be different from all other re-writes. Maybe a second helping of stuffed artichokes (we're on the Sephardi side of the artichoke/chicken soup divide) will give me an extra creative spark.

In the meantime, I'd like to share this beautiful poem by Adrienne Rich, who died last month. It's about Jewish New Year, not Passover, but I find that it somehow fits the occasion; and it went straight into my heart the way great poems do. Thanks to the New Yorker for re-publishing it:


For more than five thousand years,
This calm September day
With yellow in the leaf
Has lain in the kernel of Time
While the world outside the walls
Has had its turbulent say
And history like a long
Snake has crawled on its way
And is crawling onward still.
And we have little to tell
On this or any feast
Except of the terrible past.
Five thousand years are cast
Down before the wondering child
Who must expiate them all.

Some of us have replied
In the bitterness of youth
Or the qualms of middle age:
"If Time is unsatisfied,
And all our fathers have done
Can never be enough,
Why, then, we choose to forget.
Let our forgetting begin
With those age-old arguments
In which their minds were wound
Like musty phylacteries;
And we choose to forget as well
Those cherished histories
That made our old men fond,
And already are strange to us.

"Or let us, being today
Too rational to cry out,
Or trample underfoot
What, after all, preserves
A certain savor yet -
Though torn up by the roots -
Let us make our compromise
With the terror and the guilt
And view as curious relics
Once found in daily use
The mythology, the names
That, however Time has corrupted
Their authenticity,
Still burn like yellow flames,
But their fire is not for us."

And yet, however we choose
To deny or to remember -
Though, on the calendars
We wake and suffer by,
This day is merely one
Of thirty in September -
In the kernel of the mind
The new year must renew
This day, as for our kind
Over five thousand years,
The task of being ourselves.
Whatever we strain to forget,
Our memory must be long.

May the taste of honey linger
Under the bitterest tongue.

- Adrienne Cecile Rich.