Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Butler Did It -- A High School Teacher Remembers

Sections below:

  • The Butler Did It
  • A Head So Old And White
  • "Distant Past" Is An Oxymoron
  • A Great Novel
  • In Black and White
  • Not a Queen of Drama
  • The Challenge of Writing
  • Seamus Heaney--the Man
  • Flattering to know there are others out there, too...

The Butler Did It

Of all the novels I have taught in the IB English program, none other compares with Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day as the perfect vehicle for students to understand and appreciate how a writer creates a unique fictional world, which once encountered, is difficult to forget.

When I first chose to teach Remains of the Day in the IB class I never asked myself what possible interest the memories of an aging English butler could hold for teenagers.  I guess I was thinking more of how Ishiguro’s storytelling might gradually work its magic. Year after year, it worked and students read and reread that 20th century masterpiece well enough to discuss it with confidence born out of deep personal appreciation.

Everything you know about anything in that novel comes from Mr. Stevens’s observations. He tells the entire story from memories of events and people he remembers, and remembers in extraordinary detail, much of which is oddly comical or pitiable to the reader. His memory is prodigious. He remembers, for example, the awkward grammar and writing style of a maid at Darlington Hall, as well as the exact words in the questions Lord Spencer puts to him to prove a point that the “lower classes” and their opinions on important policy matters are worth nothing. Stevens remembers who was at dinner with Lord Darlington at what event, and what Miss Kenton was sewing in the fading summer light. Yet, this man, with the almost annoyingly detailed memory, does not remember clearly when it was that Miss Kenton brought him flowers and how many times.

As we read the novel, I would point out this discrepancy and wait for someone to offer the rest of the class and me their thought on how Mr. Stevens could forget something that was an early and major sticking point between himself and Miss Kenton. 

A question like that didn’t require an “answer” – this is the sort of question that simply says, “Did you notice that? Isn’t it out of character for Mr. Stevens? Oh, by the way, Mr. Stevens doesn’t exist, except in Ishiguro’s imagination. So, why does ishiguro put in that odd detail?”

Mr. Stevens is always and forever Mr. Stevens or merely Stevens in the novel. Miss Kenton is also Mrs. Ben. When is she Miss Kenton in the stories Mr. Stevens tells us, and when is she Mrs. Ben? Does that distinction have a significance? Does it mean anything that we never get to know Mr. Stevens’s given name? In the many stories he tells us, no one, not one person is on first name basis with him. That’s how Ishiguro regulates Stevens’s  world. “Did you notice?” I would ask, and quick impressions would follow, as would scratching of heads or long silences. Inevitably one or more students would find that sort of attention to detail pointless and say so. To which equally inevitably, there would be rejoinders from others. 

Gradually, as our reading deepened, students would begin to inspect their sketchy and impressionistic image of a character, fleshing it out with the many details a gifted and meticulous writer strings together in the process of telling a story.

As for demonstrating in a classroom how easy it is to sense characters through their speaking styles, Remains of the Day was perfect. Ishiguro’s main characters all spoke grammatical English. Regional variations and unsophisticated grammar turned up rarely, except in the case of Mr. Farraday’s Americanisms, which were, in any case, meant to sound out of place.

I don’t mean to say that works written in dialect or slang are less worthy. When you are trying to develop an awareness of literary techniques and rhetorical devices, it is simpler when the author uses standard or normative contemporary language. For that reason, Huck Finn’s diction is not that easy to work with.

To return to Mr. Stevens. Remains of the Day is one novel, some episodes from which I usually assigned for commentary writing pretty early on in the IB program. So, when Mr. Stevens goes up the rickety staircase to see his father or Miss Kenton observes that Mr. Stevens’s room is like a prison cell, students in the class enjoyed a reassuring feeling of familiarity.  Those moments lighten work.

A past student who was cycling through Somerset told me that he was reminded of Mr. Stevens’ car trip when he made a stop to see the village of Marsden, so famous, as he observes with gravity, once for the silver polish that made the cutlery at Darlington Hall wonderful enough for George Bernard Shaw to gaze at his reflection in a spoon.

Ishiguro’s novel tells the story of England’s relationship with Germany between the two World Wars. A number of historical figures with a clear pro-German position appear in the novel. The many allusions to historical figures and historical events establishes a clear context, thanks to which we understand why Miss Kenton is outraged by the dismissal of “Ruth and Sarah”, and why Lord Darlington has Mr. Stevens’s (and our sympathy) when we see him as a broken man at the end.

Gosh, and the stiff-upperlipness of the squeamish British aristocracy.  Ishiguro’s unexpected comic genius mocks Victorian prudery in some of the novel’s most delectable episodes, the one about the bees and birds being a great example. Who finds these episodes funny, it is worth asking in the class, the reader or the characters? When the characters don’t recognize an effect but only the readers do, there’s a nice little device to uncover and a memorable way  to introduce it.

What Mr. Stevens attempts to hide throughout his rambling narrative and what Miss Kenton recognizes so early and so accurately, is “simply a sentimental love story,” sensitively conceived by Ishiguro and elegantly written.

Every year, when we came to the end of the novel, I enjoyed repeating the phrase that Mr. Stevens’s entire journey is in part a recollection of a “sentimental love story,” and would tentatively touch upon “baring the device” and “metafiction” for the small number of students who are enchanted by terminology and theoretical concepts.

There's a question to which one finds really no satisfactory answer and yet many views seem tantalizingly  plausible. To whom is Mr. Stevens telling the story? We have every reason to believe that he didn't write it down. Is everything an inner monologue? Hmm... too easy. What about the conversation at the pier Mr. Stevens has at the end of the novel, when his eyes well up with tears and he has to accept his chance acquaintance's handkerchief?  That gentleman is a butler as well, and perhaps that's why Mr. Stevens is so comfortable talking in excruciating detail about the singularly esoteric and absurdly straight-jacketed world of butlers in his charmingly repetitive narrative.

There was no one structure I ever followed in teaching this or any work in the many IB classes I taught. Books took their own directions, and even when I made sure that some of my favourite and cherished details came up for discussion, the impact of a novel on a group depended on the dynamics among the members of that group. In active classes where opinions and impressions burst forth without inhibition, certain things were gained; equally among the more contemplative and deliberate, other things were gained. I liked that. Fiction comes to life – every time in a unique way – in the reading. That was the excitement for me in the company of youngsters who encountered great works of literature for the first time.

When I was a student in Moscow, Mikhail Pertrovich Gromov constantly drew my attention to Chekhov’s meticulous use of detail, without absorbing which you, as an educated reader, would hardly get a sense of the fictional world of his characters. In other words, if you base your observations of a novel or a short story largely on the plot, you would inevitably arrive at a narrow, if not skewed, subjective understanding of the characters and their actions. For me, as a result, a writer’s use of details—of place, physical appearance, names, gestures, objects—has been a matter of special import. Thus armed, I enter an unknown world, wholly and uniquely created in the imagination of one individual, in whose work, if it is to be cherished as a masterpiece, the center truly holds.

A head so old and white

I wish I had archived all the recordings I ever made of the Oral Commentary examination. The eloquence with which individual students talked about characters, ideas, language, and the stagecraft of King Lear has remained with me through these years. I do not exaggerate when I say with gratitude that every new class gained much in the reading of King Lear because I had learned from the students who had gone before them.

Some presentations continue to stand out in my memory: an explication of the Fool’s interaction with Lear, the analysis of King Lear’s many anguished outpourings of grief and rage, an analytical discussion of the King’s repugnant older daughters’ character portrayal and Kent’s valor and fidelity, responses to Edmund’s tormented expression of plans for patricide, and descriptions of the many-splendored Cordelia.  At least two students left me ecstatic when they analyzed Edward’s meeting with Gloucestor at the edge of the cliff.

In a play marked by exceptionally distinct identities for several characters, Edmund never failed to draw the biggest fan following with the youngsters, and the boys vociferously expressed their support for his sentiments and admiration for his soliloquy.  Equally, the development of his character kept their interest alive, and he earned the title of “loser” as the play moved to the conclusion.

Reading aloud and moving to dramatic readings of chosen excerpts produced some brilliant performances, without fail. This activity was my chance to have the reader/performer focus on the words, the sounds in the words, the arrangement of sounds, and the placement of pauses.

I came to believe that you have to read Shakespeare aloud to recognize how closely sound and sense work together in poetry. I shall never forget a student’s observation that Edmund’s soliloquy, by the time he says that he “shall top the legitimate,” the passage  begins to sound as if every word has to be spat out.  Or another’s bewilderment when I drew her attention to the preponderance of the “h” sound in Cordelia and Lear’s first heartbreaking exchange which exquisitely conveys the heaving and unhappiness of both characters. I would challenge the class to say those “h” words in a booming loud voice, shout out the phrases, and demonstrate that anguished breathing is all you can do when you try to scream a word like “heave”. From the most timid and retiring person to the class clown, everyone would be producing the words and lines to general merriment. The point about paying attention to the sound of words would, in the meantime, gradually take root.

Such things about writing and literature obviously interest some more than the others, in the same way that chem lab does. (Or does not. I found little to thrill me about chlorides, bromides, and iodides when I was in high school).

King Lear is a big play and it is heavily textured, dense, and the emotions it evokes cut to the bone. Teachers have many ways of introducing it before embarking on the reading, and mine was just story-telling with inputs from the members of the class.  Once upon a time there was king, and he had, I might say and pause. Let’s give him daughters, I might say. How many? Sure as the sun sets in the west, most would say “Three”.  Of course it was easy from there to go on to the third daughter being the good one, and perhaps the king’s favorite, and so on. Thus familiar motifs would establish a connection with a story that was going to unravel in its tragic grandeur, where characters are magnificent and immense and therefore dramatic, or scheming and stealthy and therefore hateful, and finally, confused and cowardly, and therefore comical.

With a roomful of students whom I would encourage to be boisterous and voluble during mini-rehearsals for dramatic readings, often laughter would burst forth instead of theatrical rage.

How could a group of adolescents not join the chorus of laughter when the first chuckle began upon hearing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”?  By the time the reader arrived at the oak-cleaving thunderbolts, most would be rolling in the aisles, and why not? That level of rage is ridiculous; naughty words have to crack up just one person to infect everyone present. Those moments and words imprint themselves on the class as a whole, and once the reading is done, the distraught king’s over-the-top rage invites other emotions, such as puzzlement, disdain, pity, and so on, all perfectly understandable.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!

I remember how outraged students used to be when Lear, furious against Goneril, calls upon the Gods to “dry up the organs of increase” and—should she have a child, then for that child to cause such grief that her tears would “fret channels in her cheek.” Yet, by the time Regan and the Duke of Cornwall have turned the old king out into the storm, emotions would run high with everyone anticipating the inevitable tragic end.

The marvelous parallel plot of Gloucester and his two sons with the terrible wrongs that are inflicted on that old man is Shakespeare’s inventive genius. As we read the play, Gloucester’s travails, gory and sad as they are, fail to evoke the level of pity and sympathy that Lear’s state evokes. Okay, that is so for most people, but what is it in Gloucester that makes him less worthy of our compassion, I would ask. Sure, there’s action—I mean, when a man literally falls flat on his face and thinks he is dead, it has to be funny. But literature is more than action. Literature is words.

Lear rages; Gloucester whines. Lear commands the gods; Gloucester meekly accepts the “sequent effects” of the planets. Reading aloud, as ever, showed the tonal differences between Lear’s booming, thunderous rage, and Gloucester’s carping and confusion. Gloucester’s vocabulary is repetitive. For example, all he can think of is one word—villain—to describe Edgar. I merely had to remind the class what words Lear had used to describe Cordelia in the opening scene, first having declared to us that she is his “last but not the least.”

Such delights.

Mood, emotion. Pain, rage, anguish, madness, and then an unexpected gentleness. This is not an essay about King Lear the tragedy, and I wouldn’t venture to write one. Reading and exploring that great tragic play in a classroom did much to elevate the aesthetic tenor of every group of students in the classes I taught.

To  this day I remember with boundless admiration how students would visualize the portrait Kent’s emissary paints of Cordelia, her tear-filled eyes shining like jewels, and through that, think back on the tears that went before it in the play—including Lear’s own, so vehemently denied by him.

The basis of the conflict in the play is the division of land, a land and its magnificent contours Lear describes for its bounties,  even as he chops it up. And yet, it is Cordelia who calls upon the “unpublished virtues of the earth,” of that land, to bring remedy to her father, and she alone knows what “idle weeds” grow among the “sustaining corn.”

When a student noted that Cordelia ‘s regal splendor came from her measured way of speaking, that she spoke little in the beginning when it was to no purpose, and yet spoke with rare self-assurance then and later, I thought, like Fonvizin the great 18th century Russian dramatist,  that I would be happy to “Die and say no more.”

Well, one student has promised to read King Lear to me by my bedside, should I have notice of my end. When she said this during a class when I was on a high,  some sucked in their breath, stunned at her audacity. The memory of that moment has me laughing, just as much as another moment, when a student wrote down the lyrics to a Travelling Wilbury’s song in his examination answer script for me to “enjoy” because he didn’t have much to say on the essay topic but knew how much I loved “The Tweeter and the Monkey Man.”

“Distant Past” is an Oxymoron

Once, while at Brown, trying to recall the title of a vaguely remembered short story by Chekhov, I described the subdued and rather sad characters in the setting of a country estate, where close relationships breakdown and so on to my professor, who made a wry face and shrugged. “Every Chekhov story is about those things, darling,” he said,“ Good luck searching.”

That’s a widespread but erroneous perception, but I didn’t know how to say it to him. In the end, it took me hardly any time to locate “The Neighbours” in a full set of Chekhov’s short stories.

As Mikhail Petrovich Gromov said in an important essay, Chekhov has created over 8000 people in his short stories, enough people to populate a small provincial Russian town of those times.  Those inhabitants are memorable for their quirks and colourless lives, but they are all individuals. Hardly anyone is heroic in those stories; hardly anyone is a world class criminal. That is the best reason to introduce Chekhov through his short stories in a world literature class.

"Van’ka", "Sleepy", and "Misery" to get the reading going, and then "The Man in a Case", "The Grasshopper", "The Darling",  “The Lady with the Lap Dog”, and "The Betrothed". Or something like that: eight or nine out of the hundreds Chekhov wrote.

IB’s focus on world literature in translation is a great idea, when you are teaching in an international milieu. As often as not, you find someone in your class who either speaks the language in which the original is written or knows something about the region from which the work comes. It is also great to be able to pronounce unfamiliar names properly with the help of a student.  The bigger benefits are obvious—whether one is interested in history or geography or politics.

Short stories come in various sizes and with a variety of focal points. Some have great plots that deliver a punch directly to your solar-plexus. For example, Chekhov’s “Sleepy” packs precisely such a punch, leaving young students horrified. Some students are so agitated by that story that spontaneous, heated arguments break out in class about whether such things are possible, and whether the protagonist of the story, a small servant girl and nanny, could be so overworked as Chekhov would have us believe. Opinions differ about whether such things could still happen or this was an aberration, a “foreign” occurrence, a thing of the past.

Sociological observations – for the most part impressionistic opinions – would fly around unfettered when discussions were free and unstructured. I used to enjoy the noise, passion, and energy when students talked among themselves as if they were in their own student lounge and not in my classroom. Some students would dominate the decibel levels, while some would literally lay their heads down on the desk and listen, or follow the haranguers with their attentive eyes. As every teacher knows, these loud conflagrations have a way of suddenly growing subdued. That’s when the students would expect me to say something, may be by way of wrapping up, or sum up the differing viewpoints with wisdom and insight. To me, however, letting the debate develop with direction and deliberation always seemed a better idea.

When debates are really intense and points of view are clearly opposed about a character’s actions, it is great to have a court-room activity for the class. There’s almost no better way to have the reader comb the story for evidence through every detail, however fleeting. In that story of the servant girl ("Sleepy") the tapestry of detail is so rich and so available to interpretation that every time I have tried the courtroom activity, deeply convincing pastiches have resulted, inspired by minor details that often go unnoticed.

Okay, it’s about time I gave an example. The servant girl is sleep-deprived, and as she is pushing the wailing baby’s cradle, her head keeps drooping; when she forces her eyes open, she sees on a clothesline some items of clothing. One of those is the master’s trousers which casts a huge dark shadow on her. And at another point in the story she shines his large boots, and thinks how wonderful it would be to put her head in one of those shoes and sleep and sleep. Why the trousers? Why the man’s boots? And why does she wish that “things wouldn’t grow big and move before [her] eyes?”

Students make inferences from the imagery and arrive at implications. These details require much attention, much interpretation, and the more fanciful they are the better, because each interpretation needs to be backed up by the author’s word. That's where disciplined study enters to guide the process of analyzing a work of fiction.

The courtroom trial of the girl in "Sleepy" also requires witnesses. That means calling upon the characters in this short, short story. Every character’s actions, words, and thoughts gather significance, meaning, and become linked to the plot. Prosecution and defense set up office in the classroom, occupying opposite ends, and plan their strategy in hushed but excited voices, because winning is so important to these students.  Then we have a trial. I am the Judge, who gets to ask probing questions to check for factual accuracy, all of which focus entirely on the story, which,  because it is by Chekhov, I know pretty well.

Var’ka, the little servant girl, has never once been found guilty by the jury in our classroom trials. And in trying her, students have inevitably actively used many details, small and big, to build their response to the issues Chekhov raises in his grim and unforgettable story.

Literature is words, and these words move you to look at life. Var’ka’s fictional tale, made into a courtroom drama, moves the students to consider her story as a representation of child labor, which provokes questions about the rights of the child. The strange and disturbing images that frighten Var’ka hint at sinister things such as abuse at the hands of the master. Her desperation for sleep takes their enquiry into the psychological effects of sleep deprivation. As issues rise up, everything in the story becomes less Russian and distant, and more immediate, and sadly less distant.

A work of literature opens doors for inquiry, becomes the link to connect areas of life and learning that go beyond the curriculum or the classroom.

A Great Novel

F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby left indelible impressions on students whether we read it as a text for the final essay exam or, as I sometimes did, right in the beginning of the IB program to introduce the idea that literary masterpieces grow with you as much as they help you grow.

The opening sentence of that novel is anything but direct or easy to absorb when one is 15 or 16 years of age. Of course, it is nicely oversimplified if one hears it in the recent film version given to us so garishly by Baz Luhrman.

The narrator in the novel, Nick Carraway, is a self-conscious writer, partial to complex constructions that suggest a strained elegance of style and pretentious reflections. Ironically, Nick’s charm comes from those vulnerabilities. The entire first long paragraph with the aphorisms (“Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope” and “a sense of the fundamental decencies is unequally parceled out at birth”) and his affectionate references to his father hardly belong to the troubled workings of a recovering alcoholic depressive’s mind, and I mention alcoholism only because Luhrman’s script has a depressed and alcoholic Nick in a medical facility. The words and turns of phrases, in the attention they draw to themselves, establish a deliberate narrator who knows what he wishes to say and how to say it.

The opening chapter of The Great Gatsby is sheer genius in the way characters are established. The main players are all introduced in those few pages, with distinct characteristics individualizing each one. The narrator tells us what traits represent Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby.

Daisy’s speaking voice—more than her looks or money—arrests Nick.  Her “low, thrilling” voice was unforgettable, Nick says, while observing that her face was “sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth,” but it was her voice that glowed and dazzled, “with a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since, and that there were gay and exciting things hovering in the next hour.”

A little further on in the same chapter, Daisy, a propos of nothing, accuses Tom of hurting her little finger, the knuckle of which Nick notices is black and blue. She calls him a “brute of a man, a hulking brute of a man,” regardless of his warning that he doesn’t like the word “hulk.” Clearly Tom is not a husband who wouldn’t hurt his wife’s “little finger”. He is given to physical violence, as he demonstrates for all to see, when Myrtle, his brash mistress from the grey ash heaps of broken people and destroyed dreams, provokes him by insisting on repeating his wife’s name “Daisy”—and receives in return punches to her face. 

Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, mournfully remembers her bruised face and swollen nose, when he is trying to understand why someone would wish to kill her.

Tom’s cruel body, his racial prejudice, his sordid ill-kept secret, and his money, all imprint themselves on Nick’s observant mind. When he is about to take leave of the Daisy,  Tom interrupts their conversation midway and asks Daisy if she has been having a heart-to-heart with Nick, adding that he shouldn’t believe everything that he hears.

And at the very end of the chapter, Nick introduces Gatsby, seen from afar, mysterious, a man who leaves an “unquiet” darkness behind himself.

It is good to linger on this opening chapter. Reading those pages slowly, getting a sense of the spacious, airy, fragrant, and tasteful home of the Buchanans and then in the next chapter, moving to the cluttered, kitschy, stuffy city apartment where Tom and the sensuous Myrtle rendezvous, encourages the reader to appreciate Fitzgerald’s masterful creation of mood and atmosphere through spaces. All the while, as we decipher the symbolic significance of or infuse with metaphorical meaning the physical details of these spaces, we notice how spare Fitzgerald’s narrator is with overt commentary, and yet how powerfully he steers you towards judgment.

Strangely, the chaotic clutter of Tom’s love nest isn’t that much different from the mad excess of Gatsby’s mansion; similar, too, are the throngs that crowd together to raise jollity to disorderly extremes.  Myrtle has her haven, away from the tenement above the garage where she is doomed to live; so does Gatsby, who has readied a haven for himself and Daisy, who lives across the bay from him, and whom he hopes to reclaim, having once lost her.

Nick’s description, not his commentary, leads us to sense the vulgarity of Myrtle’s city apartment as well as the classy affluence of Tom’s “nice place” with acres of flower gardens and lawns surrounding that elaborate period-mansion.  But the same Nick exercises no such restraint in the concluding chapter as he looks at Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house,” also built in the era of “period-craze.”

In order to get students engage discerningly with words in this novel, it was always worth recalling these spaces by talking or even sketching their uniqueness. Many sense images spring to mind when we think of pungent rose gardens or a saucer of milk with a soggy dog biscuit in a small apartment. 

Daisy’s unforgettable voice floats up in the airy halls of her house, whereas incessant loud music drowns every voice in Gatsby’s blue gardens. 

Do Gatsby’s shirts that fly and flutter around Daisy convey a tactile memory as she bends her head into the fabrics, which is why she sobs? 

Gatsby’s own living space within that enormous house is spare, except for a toilet set of dull gold on the dresser, from which Daisy picks up a brush and smoothes her hair. Is it normal for a visitor to use the host’s hair brush? What does this gesture tell us? At that moment when Daisy smoothes her hair, Gatsby shades his eyes and begins to laugh. What would that laugh sound like in that large mansion? And, by the way, how easy is to imagine Gatsby laughing, given what we have known of him through Nick’s description?

Spaces in The Great Gatsby hold us in thrall. Some enchant and some repel. Some, such as Gatsby’s ungainly home, foreshadow grief, for example when Nick tells us that it was sold with the black wreath marking the original owner’s death still upon the door.

Other than a handful of students, hardly any generally drooled and smacked their lips along with me when I peeled layer after layer of delectable detail, as if each observation were a flaky foil of puff pastry to be unhurriedly allowed to melt on my tongue. As time went by in my teaching experience, I learned to stop when I found myself getting out of hand. I would ask rhetorically if I had lost everyone.

These explosions of my enjoyment undeniably had their impact on a few in the class.  For those students, close reading began to mean exploring a novel using their imagination and their sensitivity to shades of meaning that swell words. To the others, the attention to an author’s description—such as of space or physical appearance of characters— provided a necessary handle to direct their focus as they looked for themes and topics for analytical presentations.

In examinations, students are often asked to compare and contrast ideas, images, characters, and entire works. Those sorts of assignments, under examination conditions, where time is limited and one is not allowed to refer to texts, really do demand students to have entered and experienced chosen texts many times, to plumb a new depth for meaning or climb a peak for perspective.

Speaking of details, it is always fun when authors choose for their characters names that draw attention to themselves. Just “Daisy” might have well gone unnoticed. But “Daisy” and “Myrtle”? Someone in the class is sure to look up the two flowers and interpret the significance.

By what names do we remember the other characters? Nick is mostly Nick, not necessarily Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan is mostly Tom, but Jay Gatsby is Gatsby to most, and Jay to Daisy. Most poignantly, he is “Jimmy” to his father, who lovingly remembers his son’s generosity towards him, carrying in his wallet a photo of Gatsby’s house and treasuring a book of his when he was just a boy. Names may not always have symbolic significance but when they do, they sure have of a way of inviting your attention.  “When something in the writing waves to you and says, notice me, that’s foregrounding, a rhetorical device without which you couldn’t begin to characterize an author’s style,” I might observe, and every term paper from a student or two thenceforth would be peppered with instances of foregrounding.

And just as well. Foregrounding occurs a lot, and when you notice it, you tend to move towards discerning patterns and motifs that shape the work.

In other words, if a student observed validly that, say, apparel and posture are foregrounded, that was good but not enough. What does the foregrounding do, I would ask, seeking analysis and interpretation.

The movie version I saw recently foregrounded glitz and gaudy lights in spectacular 3D, which, to start with made me ecstatic. But when Leonardo DiCaprio began to walk through space towards me like some hata-yogi with impeccable hair, and Meyer Wolfsheim turned up in a crowded and stuffy salon beneath a barbershop, the foregrounding lost all meaning and became an excess of background. 

What advantage did the barbershop and the hedonistic cellar bestow on the Wolfsheim-Gatsby meeting? Hairy nostrils and poor grammar (for example, “would of” and “ he hadn’t eat”) distinguish Fitzgerald’s almost diabolically strange Mr. Wolfsheim, who wears human molars for cuff-links, and sits in an office called “The Swastika Holding Company,” hardly a likely candidate for bawdy bacchanalia, going by the details we assemble from Nick’s narration.

Have I given the impression that students in my class didn’t consider plot, theme, conflict, social relevance, and historical context? If I have, then it is intentional, at least in the case of this novel. Those aspects tend to be the major concern of widely available commentaries on fiction, and which are most liable to be subjective. Themes and ideas of universal human experience, expressed in writing, often descend into banalities except in the hands of sharp and disciplined thinkers.

While young students ought to be encouraged to express themselves with sincerity and conviction on the human condition, I believe that, in the study of literature, it is far more useful to engage in writing that refers back to the text to support ideas than to move into that large and amorphous external world of personal experience to justify one’s responses to fiction. I say that not in absolute terms, obviously. Some works inevitably force us to get out and face the complex world of injustices, destruction, and, now and then, the  triumph of the human spirit…

In  Black and White

That classic of prison literature, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, serves a great purpose of storytelling, which is to be the “living memory of a nation.”  This is one novel where matters of technique and style are thoroughly subsumed into the seeming simplicity of the narrative. When I taught this novel, the themes and characters dominated our consciousness. The central figure, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, told us of the terrible fate millions in the Soviet Union endured under Stalin’s tyranny.

Solzhenitsyn, who lived through the horror of a Soviet labour camp, chose to record a perfectly ordinary day in the life of a prisoner, through the perspective of Ivan Shukhov, a humble man whose good sense, practical wisdom, and innate sincerity make him seem familiar to us. In his story we meet a variety of people: intellectuals, artists, bureaucrats, leaders in their professions, learned people even; then we meet simpletons, shysters, squealers, complete innocents who silently bear their lot, and we meet the jailors—harsh men wielding authority: truth to tell, they come across as prisoners themselves in the perverted power they exercise over the camp inmates.

One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appears frequently in high school reading lists because it is considered a relatively easy novel to read and understand, thanks to the simple narrative line and the moving embedded stories of crushed lives articulated without sentimental cadence.  Besides, this novel is as close to a non-fiction report of a Soviet labour camp, as is Primo Levy’s If This is a Man an autobiographical account of a Nazi concentration camp.

Shukhov’s voice, because it is nothing like Solzhenitsyn’s, has an artless starkness. If there’s imagery, it is entirely organic. For example, there’s a brief picture in the early part of the novel that pierces my heart every time I read it. The prisoners, like prisoners everywhere, have a number by which they are identified. This number is expected to be brightly and clearly painted on their jackets and caps at all times, and it is the prisoner’s responsibility to have it refreshed before it grows faint. There are three artists in the camp, also prisoners, who paint pictures for the prison authorities, besides touching up the paint on the clothing of people like Ivan Denisovich. And when they do it, these bearded artists gently move their brush against the slightly bent head of a prisoner, repainting numbers on the front of the threadbare cloth cap. To Ivan it seems like a priest anointing a worshipper in a church.

That’s the image Ivan gives us. We dwell on it, thinking of the associations, seeing the picture in black and white, in the dark cold frosty Siberian dawn, wondering if Ivan’s fleeting memory of a warm and incense-filled orthodox church sustains him or breaks him.
Towards the end of the novel, Ivan leaves us with another picture, magnificent and splendid, of an old man, perhaps the longest-serving prisoner in that camp.

Shukhov had “heard that this old man had been in prison time out of mind — in fact, as long as the Soviet state had existed; that all the amnesties had passed him by, and that as soon as he finished one tenner they'd pinned another on him.”

Shukhov takes a close look.

“With hunched-over lags all round, he was as straight-backed as could be.  He sat tall, as though he'd put something on the bench under him.  That head hadn't needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out.  The old man's eyes didn't dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov's head.  He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them (other prisoners—KB), he carried his battered wooden spoon up high.  He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them.  His face was worn thin, but it wasn't the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiseled stone.  You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he'd never had a soft job as a trusty.  But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams (of bread—KB) on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly.” 

Solzhenitsyn’s novel is a montage of exquisite black and white images, some still, and others as if in a movie clip. Flashbacks are few and far between, all too briefly recollected, perhaps for that reason the better remembered. Through these flashbacks we learn of Ivan’s life, his personal griefs, the terrible injustice of his prison sentence, and his doomed hopes for a future out of prison.

In choosing texts for the segment on world literature, I leaned towards works that suffered as little as possible in translation. In works marked densely for poetic beauty, say for example, in the richness of a local idiom, translations are unsatisfactory. For instance, I can’t imagine Huck Finn speaking in Tamil. From that point of view, Solzhenitsyn’s One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich served us well. The novel’s obvious and important “what” offered its riches even when its “how” was sidelined.

I guess it is novels like One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that I had in mind, when I said something about works that force us to enter the outside world and hear cries against injustices as well as exhilarating songs of triumphs.

Note: Extract cited is from:


(Accessed at 11.00 AM, IST, on 7 June 2013)

Not a Queen of Drama

Some IB teachers taught Drama as the main option for the final examination segment, where students would be expected to write an essay in two hours or an hour and a half, depending on the level they had signed up for. Essay topics were generic, and the task required candidates to explore one of the topics with close and detailed reference to at least two of the three texts they had studied over a semester, if not longer. My unchangeable choice remained the Novel for the main option in all the IB classes I have ever taught.

The novel lends itself most comprehensively to analysis and interpretation, especially when you talk of types of narrators, narrative voice, and digressions, besides the many other aspects of imaginative writing directly relating to philosophical and socio-historical ideas.  Chronology and point of view have great import in the novel. For me, long descriptive passages become lush autumn woods and sunny groves where you lose yourself in the magic of words.

Drama doesn’t have that, unless it is in the poetry of a character’s speech, and because drama is to be primarily heard and seen, I have found plays, say, as bed-time reading, awkward, if not cumbersome, with stage directions intruding. I have seldom, if ever, read plays again and again for pleasure, except may be Shakespeare and Chekhov, but even those not right through, but picking out familiar scenes or passages that virtually stand for the play. I’d happily go to see a play many times in a variety of interpretations, but unlike in the case of prose fiction, I don’t find myself returning to a play every now and then to reread.

Teaching plays is at once easier and more difficult. Easier because in most plays there is a plot that unravels, some sort of a climax; dialogues are easy to follow—for the most part. In the classroom, role play goes down well, and students are used to readings by the time they enter IB. In the two environments where I taught, we didn’t have the chance to go to the theatre to watch plays. Come to think of it, our theatre visits didn’t take us farther than our simple school auditoriums with poor acoustics and flat single-level seating, with metal chairs screeching and groaning. Interestingly, in both schools there was something of a mini-amphitheatre, where we did our play readings such as they were.

There’s a limitation, though.  Because literature courses in IB aren’t courses on theatre and drama (which are separate courses in the IB program), plays ended up being studied for plot, character, conflict, and ideas, with marginal observations on technique.

How well Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys” served those objectives of presenting characters, a monumental tragic history of a region, and universal  ideas that define humanity’s search for dignity and equality. If I had to pick one play that is perfect for close study in a classroom, this would be my choice.

How would it feel to see two black African men, hardworking employees at work in a tea-room in South Africa during the Apartheid, dancing on stage? Theatre is words plus, isn’t it?

When the internet eventually came to us in Oman, one student downloaded Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan’s music, to which the two men dance in Fugard’s play, and brought it to the class.  Sometimes experiencing tangible and concrete things made a work easier to remember for many students when they were still adjusting to the heavy-duty reading required in IB.  For example, a colleague organized a macaroon contest when our classes were reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Anyway, that music kindly made available by a member of the class invited a discussion on the dancing which is the only visual element in the play.

I would ask where was the action taking place, if all you got to see on stage was this strangely misplaced dance. When someone in the class began to talk about how everything in the play actually happened beyond the stage, the implication of the world we couldn’t see and couldn’t know firsthand became our concern. We saw no harsh and familiar story of racial injustice unravel on stage, no physical violence, but the characters told us about those things and more.

What we don’t see on stage is the huge social conflict and struggle of Apartheid in South Africa, the echo of which unfolds in the mounting tension on stage between the white “master” and the black “servants.”

Drama “shows” without “telling”, which tightens a narrative, and playwrights who have the gift of doing away with stage directions to guide the actors – Shakespeare being a genius in that business  - write lines that are infused with tone and particularities of character in the arrangement of words. In that sense, powerful lines in drama are poetic in nature. Then there’s movement, the choreography of the action on stage, so difficult to visualize without an idea of the setting, the quality of light, and the integration of props. Costume in drama conveys a great deal as well, and again, in the hands of great dramatists, these details are frequently the responsibility of the production team to develop. In short, every dramatist writes for the stage and not for the silent reader in a secluded spot, or if you are not that lucky, then for a group of willing and unwilling readers in a classroom with the clock ticking.

When I was in Moscow, studying dramatic works as part of the literature syllabus meant that I went to the Moscow Art Theatre and saw, for instance, Chekhov’s plays on stage. His understated comic lines came alive there. Everything – the pauses, the intonation, and the accompanying gestures – conveyed character and mood.

Imprisoned in the four walls of a classroom, never being enjoyed in its entirety, a play loses much of its power to affect you. A novel works at a completely different pace. Putting your book down and picking it up becomes habit for the initiated reader, with a little help from the author who uses every device available to trigger our memory to recount things that went before.

Great plays such as Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, worked very well for me, despite my shortcomings in teaching drama as a literary genre. Shakespeare featured as a requirement, which was perfect, as far as I am concerned.

Just recently, an ex-student guessed correctly that as a teacher I chose works that I greatly liked rather than obediently follow a prescribed list. In that sense, I leaned heavily in favor of prose fiction of the longer variety as the mainstay of literature courses I taught. IB let me do that without shortchanging the students, corrupting the curriculum, or ignoring the syllabus.

The Challenge of Writing

Talking about books is the easy part. Writing responses is a challenge.

Young writers need to know about thesis statement, topic sentence, organizing paragraphs and the importance of introductions/summing up.  They have to pay attention to the mechanics of the language and the conventions of formatting formal papers. All this is essential.

You know that I am going to start my next sentence with “But”.

One favorite writing exercise I used comes from blurbs one sees on the back of most fiction books. I would have my class go to the library and pick out three or four works of fiction from the high school section, read the blurbs carefully, and choose one to read out in class. After several have been read out, students would work in groups of 3 or 4, and figure out what these blurbs contain and how the writer has sequenced ideas.

More than anything else, the choice of adjectives in these examples usually astonished the class.  “Interesting” almost never shows up. One novel is “An immensely powerful book that will resonate for generations.” This is the opening after which other aspects of the book find further commendation. Another is “Honest, funny, and at times moving without being mawkish.” And so on.

With this model of a brief and terse piece of writing to introduce a book, each student would write a 50 to 60 word description of the novel under study in the class.  Peer editing in groups followed to tighten the writing as well as fix problems in mechanics. 

Expanding one’s expressive vocabulary requires an apt context. Responding to literature serves as a fine context, as readers have to express opinions, make generalizations, and offer arguments.

Simple, straightforward concrete adjectives such as “sad” “funny” “hard-hitting” “violent” “disturbing” top the neutral “interesting” or  “unique” every time. Putting together a compendium of useful adjectives to describe a character or a situation in a 15 minute activity provides a great break in an IB class, where language work per se hardly features. These activities didn’t happen in class for every novel, but a technique, such as this one, would become part of the student’s brainstorming routine.

A genius of a teacher taught my son’s class in Grade 9, I think, that to write with punch, you had to do away with “is” “was” “are” and “were”.  That magic mantra, when applied to topic sentences, pushes a writer to find a verb that contains an important idea, a clear thought, a specific meaning for the reader.

When I tell a class to choose the active over the passive voice, I see cartoon thought bubbles over the heads of students with things like, “wha…t?” “doodle” and “yawn”. Getting rid of the auxiliary verb does pretty much the same thing as replacing the passive with active.

Obviously, “is” and its family have a place, say, for example in stating facts, in definitions, and so on.

To persuade your reader that you speak with authority, you have to pile up examples when you provide supporting evidence to back up a claim. “But then we can’t stay within the word limit,” a student would argue. That’s the point. Word limits call for compact and concentrated expression, a fine training ground for a student of writing, and all students have to write at some point.

To show that you know more than the first chapter, I’d say, pick four or five instances to cite as evidence, and string them together in paraphrase. 

“Stevens’s inability to express his emotions, when for example, his father lies dying, or Miss Kenton needs a word of  condolence, or significantly, when Lord Spencer mocks him…” etc, adequately conveys knowledge of the work under discussion.  

Or, “Meursault observes things, for example, the wet towels in the office wash room, the bumpy roads on the way to his mother’s funeral, the disfigurement on a nurse’s face, the color of Marie’s dress, and we are hard put to…”

Keep paragraphs short. Give your reader breathing space. Your examiner has to answer phone calls, take breaks to put on coffee, to relieve a cramp, and if your paragraphs are long, she ends up having to reread your page-long drivel, I’d say.

“Why drivel? That’s so rude,” someone  would say with a mock scowl.

“Well, I don’t ever get exam scripts of my own kids, you know. Other kids do write drivel. That’s why I have to take breaks. Your essays are impossible to put down, you know that,” I would say, with mock seriousness.

Many little individual tricks, consciously developed and refined, become handy habits for a writer in a hurry—the high school student—who seldom has the luxury of time to write the nearly impossible on-demand essays. The more we read things carefully together as a class, the more we noticed the craft in writing.

I never did get to read my students’ essays written for the final examination, and that is a pity. For me, it is something akin to being a sports coach and not being able to watch your team’s final game for a championship they won or miss a class recital that we put together.

Writing is performance and those students turned in outstanding performances.

Heaney—the Man

A soggy wet kitten, the bright edge of a shovel, a space on a wall that looks like a bandage has been ripped off, a rotund man slapping the rumps of cattle, and a small boy frozen in fear by scurrying rats with beady eyes.

Seamus Heaney’s poems permeate one’s consciousness because each poem is an invitation to a complete sense experience.

Every poem of Heaney’s that we read in class sparkled prism-like, the words striking us like beams of light. Reading Heaney aloud is a sweet experience, because nothing trips you up, nothing twists your tongue. 

Learning to appreciate the power of sense imagery – something fundamental to understand literature – became a central preoccupation when students read Heaney. May be because we chose for our class poems that adolescents could relate to, responding to his poems came with spontaneity.

So much so that, one particular year, our class wrote to and heard back from Seamus Heaney, bringing the great man close to us.

This is what happened.

We were studying a selection of Heaney’s poems together with Shakespeare’s King Lear for a major oral commentary evaluation towards the final grade in the IB examination in English. The class made several presentations as we worked on the chosen poems and excerpts. 

Heaney’s “Ancestral Photograph” resonated with a young lady from Nigeria, who understood the poignant inevitability of how traditional ways vanish, leaving hollow spaces in one’s mind. In that poem, a small number of physical objects create an unforgettable portrait of a cattle farmer at an auction from another time: a waistcoat, a watch on a chain, a top hat, a cane.  His gestures are expansive, his cheer animated. He knows his work, he is successful. That’s how his nephew remembers him, although now everything is changed, and the uncle is no more.

Then there was “Digging”. What memorable insights that one poem gives to every reader. I shall remember forever (as long as my memory lasts) how during the examination presentation, a student explained why the shovel’s edge would shine and how uniquely cool potatoes dug out of the earth feel.  

The power of a metaphor never was greater, when you heard the speaker in the poem digging with the pen.  In that poem you saw the open fields, heard the scrape of shovel against gravel, smelled and touched the earth, and tasted  the sweetness of milk carried in a bottle… Familiar physical sensations permeated your mind as you read the poem, telling you a big story in a brief sketch.

It doesn’t make sense any longer to merely talk about Heaney’s writing.  Some lines live forever.

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

Synesthesia. Alliteration. Imagery. Regional flavor. Universal experience. So compact, so deep, and yet so accessible.

We read “The Early Purges”, incomparable for its historical allusion suggested by the very title, the poem’s gut-wrenching imagery, its depiction of how we descend into unthinking  cynicism, and, ultimately,  the story of coming face to face with some inescapable facts of life.

How erudite Heaney is goes unnoticed if you don’t peer at every line as if it were a many-faceted polished diamond. The emotional fire and intellectual brilliance come from Heaney’s superior knowledge imbued with sincere humanity.

Lines of verse raised spirits, livened imagination, widened horizons, and made introspection a natural outcome. No amount of theorizing could have conveyed the nature of poetry better than the words students spoke from the lines Heaney gave us.

So, then, to return to my story. A group of students wondered if they could write to Seamus Heaney. “What would we write?” became “Why don’t we invite him to visit our school?” and that set off a project I could never have planned. 

Being a graduating class, they decided that they would invite Heaney as the Graduation Speaker. They met the school head and explained their decision. This was a change from the usual practice of the school board agreeing on a Graduation Speaker. So, the class sent a representative to present to the board Heaney as their choice of speaker. Then they wrote a letter to him, which went from the Head’s office. In the meanwhile, the class wrote a brief note to introduce Heaney, should he consent to visit.

The enthusiasm with which the entire class worked together was wonderful to watch. The letter could only be sent to an agent, and therefore we had no idea when—even if—there would be a response. That didn’t deter the class. Everything they did came from a powerful wish to meet the poet and hear his words in person.

A response came swiftly in the form of a fax. It was typewritten, but in that message, the great man personally addressed by name the students who had composed the letter. He couldn’t undertake the trip “beguiling as the invitation” was, he said, explaining that he was recovering from a stroke, and that his wife as well his doctor would discourage travel. He had signed the message with his full name.

I have a copy of that fax, elegantly framed in wood, given to me by the school head.

That gracious personal response was such an honor Seamus Heaney bestowed on the youngsters in my class that he has occupied a place of the highest esteem in my heart.  

Flattering to know there are others out there, too...

I read the following in my favorite site aldaily.com
Everything this dude says corresponds to my approach as a teacher of literature to older teens.

Excerpt from An interview with the author, essayist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn

I want to end by asking you about your experience of teaching. Do you think it might be worth teaching undergraduates not only how to write academic essays but also how to write criticism of the kind one finds in magazines and popular journals?
First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.
Later on, when they’ve had experience in close reading, when they have a number of works under their belt, they can be introduced to theory—to the wide array of approaches to texts that they already will have “owned,” in some small way. That is exciting. But to flatter the vanity of 19-year-olds by letting them think they know about “theory” before they have read anything in real depth strikes me as preposterous. That very approach bred a generation of academics whose approach to literature is contemptuous.
So would you like to see popular critical essays on the curriculum?
Yes. One of the courses I like to teach is a Great Books course that’s mandatory for first year students, and after I read their first papers it’s always very clear to me that they have no model, no template for what a critical essay is supposed to do—what (or how) you’re supposed to be arguing when you’re writing about a text or a movie or anything. They don’t understand there is a rhetoric of criticism—that there’s a stance you have to have, that you have to position yourself, that you don’t just blather about your impressions or your “opinions” or, worse, your “feelings” about a work. They literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is—no doubt because, in part, they are being raised in a culture where a bland, everything-goes, multi-culti niceness is the paramount virtue. You have to know who you are—as a person, but also as a member of a given civilization—in order to speak about a work.
I always tease them at the beginning of the semester about their writing—I say, “Whenever you write me at 11 o’clock on a Thursday night begging me for an extension on the paper, the prose is always so beautiful and the email is so wonderfully structured.” It’s a joke, but it’s also not a joke—in that situation they understand the rhetoric of the form to which they’re committing themselves: They understand who they are as a writer and a beseecher, they understand who I am as the person in charge, they understand what evidence to adduce in their favour—their dog died, their computer broke or whatever. Which is why the email begging for the paper extension is always a well-written piece. But whenever they have to write three paragraphs about women in Genesis or whatever—when they have to make an argument—it’s basically “word salad,” because they’ve never read anything that presents a text, wrestles with it and comes up with some conclusions. For that reason, I think it’s better that they should be reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida.

More to come


Fatima said...

That promise still holds true today. I will be there just say the word. Love always.

Kamakshi Balasubramanian said...

fatima--i hope that day is not anywhere near at hand. thanks for reading the post.

linda niles said...

curious, K - did you teach this as an "American" novel or as a "novel?" in the states it is always taught as an allegory of the corruption of the american dream. I still liked the new movie for its visual excessiveness - seemed to fit the novel.

Kamakshi Balasubramanian said...

mainly as a novel (for the superlative voice of the first-person narrator)with some reference to the idea of the american dream, which i think is easier to introduce through "Death of a Salesman."
thanks, linda, for reading. you are a good friend to encourage me in this activity.

Unknown said...

Dear Kamakshi

The ambiance of your piece of writing on literature straight away reminds me of the notes on 'Theory of literature' at CIEFL ! - a subject that i always felt closest to my heart, in spite of being utterly unpopular among many other students !Alas, I had the opportunity to study further under your guidance.

Kamakshi Balasubramanian said...

kind words, kanwal. i grew so much when i taught high school. you must have been very very patient with me those days.

Vinay Shukla said...

Dear Kamakshi,
It was really a beautiful reading,so different from the filth I filter every day. I now feel that MGU had real solid literaturavedenie. Unfortunately,it is all going down the drain.

Usha Raman said...


I finally managed to read all the posts on teaching literature/writing, and while I enjoyed them all, I especially liked the last one, on Seamus Heaney. He is one of my favourite poets and I loved the way you described the experience of reading him. I think your students will thank you every time they encounter poetry.