Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Spring came to Chicago yesterday. The sun beat down on the sidewalks, the tender shoots of daffodils and tulips pushed their way through the crust of mud left by winter’s snowy deluge, dogs frolicked on the beach (well, what passes for a beach on the shore of Lake Michigan; it’s nothing like my beloved Carolina coast), and the tennis courts were filled with dreams of future U.S. Opens. Today, however, winter returned with a vengeance; it’s windy and stormy (the famous dark and stormy night of Bulwyer-Lytton and Snoopy in Peanuts) now, the rain beating against my window as I try to stay warm and cozy. Good time to curl up with Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy—about which I’ll write in a few weeks; she’s an elegant writer, as those who have read her on Austen and Pepys already know, and her Hardy book is a real gem—and traverse the heath with the gloomy author of Jude the Obscure (1895) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
I moved to Chicago on January 17, 2007, to become the senior editor of Northwestern University Press. I’ve been living a hermetic existence since I’ve been here, returning to my apartment after work to read, write, listen to WSM 650 AM from Nashville, and watch far too much television. We don’t have cable at home, so whenever I’m in a place that has cable—well, really good cable with 100 channels—I tend to indulge myself in the vice of watching The Andy Griffith Show (being a Southerner who sees far too many of his friends and family in the show) or to expend nervous energy sweating over the outcome of the ACC basketball tournament. Somehow, I can’t resist a rerun of The Dukes of Hazzard (even though I now wonder what we saw in those shows when we sat and watched them on Friday nights in seminary; Bo and Luke are still handsome, and Daisy’s still sexy, but the plot involves little more than the General Lee flying over several obstacles in the roads around Hazzard County), and I’ve seen many newer shows that I never watched—Seinfeld—when they were first on television. In fact, there was a period of about fifteen years when I simply didn’t watch television, partly because we had small children, partly because I was engaged in a new teaching position and finishing my dissertation, but mostly because I was reading.
Flaubert, Madame Bovary—I keep returning to Flaubert’s gorgeous prose, his soaring descriptions of agricultural life and his attacks on romanticism, and his unforgettably strong Emma. Who can forget the wonderfully comic scene at the Agricultural Fair in Part Two in which Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma is juxtaposed with the escalating rhetoric of the fair? At the climax of the scene, Rodolphe declares that his and Emma’s duty is “to feel nobly and to love what is beautiful. Not to accept all the conventions of society and the humiliation that society imposes on us.” At the same time, the chairman of the Fair shouts out “Manure.” In Part Three of the novel, Emma’s excitement over her new affair with Leon subsides into the same boredom she feels in her marriage to Charles, her husband. “Emma had rediscovered in adultery all the banality of marriage.” Madame Bovary turns 150 this year, and I’ll write more about Flaubert and this unforgettable novel in a future column.
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants—Elizabeth Scharlatt of Algonquin pressed this wonderful book on me at BEA, but it sat in my BEA bag until January. Gruen captures in splendid fashion the atmosphere of the circus, and she draws characters with whose longings, memories and desires we can easily identify. Greuen’s novel has all the elements of a coming-of-age novel, a memoir and history. Elderly Jacob Jankowski recalls his youthful days in a circus and the colorful denizens of the troupe that he joins, almost by accident. We meet freaks, clowns, corrupt animal trainers, and a sadistic ringmaster. The center of the novel is Rosie, an elephant who becomes the centerpiece of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth—a two-bit circus that operates one step ahead of the law. By turns hilarious and somber, Gruen’s magnificent novel captures the days when everyone was excited when the circus train rolled into town and offers us a soulful look into the ways of despair, hope and love.
Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward—Lucky Jim might be the king of all campus novels—must be a close second. Campus life is full of humor pathos, and it’s no wonder that Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, David Lodge, Mary McCarthy, Max Shulman, and many others have turned their pens to the shenanigans of professors. Bradbury’s novel features a creative writer, James Walker, who has been invited to spend a year in America as the visiting writer at Benedict Arnold University, somewhere in the Midwest. It’s the Sixties, and Walker thinks the shores of America will bring him freedom to know himself and to experience life as he hasn’t experienced it since he’s been married. Once he arrives at the college, he seeks to divorce his wife and to liberate himself. After only one semester—and a few affairs later—Walker discovers that his search for freedom is more complicated than he ever imagined. Bradbury’s novel pokes fun at the foibles of American academics as well as at the pretensions of the academic life.