A FORGOTTEN BEST-SELLER: MARIE CORELLI’S THE SORROWS OF SATAN (1895)

Whether you’re interested in Victorian Literature, Gothic fiction or the material aspects of Literature (i.e. the market), Marie Corelli’s name is sure to surface in your reading. I’m interested in these three issues and so, sooner or later, I was bound to read her best-selling novel The Sorrows of Satan (1895).

Corelli (née Minnie Mackay) is a footnote in the history books of English Literature for, although an amazingly successful writer in her own lifetime (or at least between the 1880s and the 1910s), her melodramatic, pre-New Age fiction went out of fashion as one of those quaint things the turn of the century produced. Reading her is, then, an exercise in literary archaeology but also a good starting point to consider whether when we teach a period or wish to learn about it we do well to be satisfied with what has survived from it firmly. After all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) used to be a relic not unlike Corelli’s contemporary Sorrows (well, I exaggerate, as Dracula has never been out of print).

I’ve devoured The Sorrows of Satan. That’s easy to explain: the main character, Prince Lucio (= Satan) is described from his first appearance as a most handsome man and the author devotes many, many lines to mentioning his beauty (that this is done by the other main male character, George Tempest, adds a singular queer frisson to the text –yes, Marie was gay). What annoyed me as usual in this case is that the description of so much beauty is too vague and being a child of the cinema era I need a face to focus on –yet I feel none of the current British actors (for I had to cast a British actor) is handsome enough. Um.

This Lucio is a composite of Milton’s Satan, Byron’s Romantic heroes, dear Heathcliff and even Oscar Wilde. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is also an in-yer-face misogynist (nice, coming from a woman author…). Funnily, quite unlike Milton’s tough devil, he is seeking redemption. I always suspected Satan was God’s undercover agent rather than his opponent and Corelli confirms this: Satan’s sorrow comes from his disgust at the human race –all those he tempts fall, causing him thus to be still barred from heaven. He seeks, thus, believers that resist him since the prayers he asks from them for his own lost soul accrue towards his redemption.

The one believer who does resist him is the author’s delegate in the text, a popular writer called Mavis Clare (yes, same initials as Marie Corelli). Being a non-believer myself this is what I have enjoyed most from the text: the author’s candid views on what constitutes a successful novelist, for they explain much about the state of the late Victorian literary market. Tempest happens to be a writer of literary ambitions who finds himself plucked out of his dismal garret by millions pouring on him out of the blue (actually out of hell). Having had his ‘masterpiece’ rejected when poor he decides to finance its publication and marketing campaign (led by Lucio) when rich. The failure to truly interest the reading public galls him and, so, he pans Mavis’s last novel out of envy. She understands that the anonymous review is his and, quite sweetly, teaches him a crucial lesson about how to become a best-selling author: you need to be above all honest, never pretentious.

That the author has the cheek to put herself in the text as an example of how a successful woman novelist should work and live is very irritating and quite spoils the pleasure in Lucio’s exploits. Yet I could not help thinking how ‘useful’ this novel is to explain the split into different levels which the British novel went through at the end of the 19th century. A character even mentions that this is because “now” everyone has a compulsory education (thanks to a law passed in 1870).

Do I recommend you to read this wonderful piece of trash? Yes, if you care to learn about late Victorian fiction beyond what the men were writing –Stevenson, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Stoker… – always bearing in mind that Marie Corelli is much closer to Ouida than to George Eliot. Then we can talk… and maybe find me help the perfect face for ultra-handsome Lucio.

JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR, 2012, (WITH ZOMBIES)

I read Daniel Defoe’s ultra-realistic fake diary Journal of the Plague Year (1722) with great pleasure a few weeks ago. I was intending to devote the whole post today to Defoe’s novel but reality insists on intruding, this form in the shape of a new pay cut (civil servants will not receive the Christmas pay –anymore?) and I’ve lost my concentration. Thinking about it, though, I realise I am writing a journal of the ‘plague year’, only in this 2012 the epidemic is not caused by a virus affecting bodies but by the virus that affected minds in the so-called ‘fat-cow years’: greed.

Defoe’s classic narrates the Great Plague that swept the streets of crowded London in 1665, when he was a mere five-year-old boy (he seems to have borrowed the pungent first-hand impressions from his the diary of his uncle, Henry Foe). It’s a relentless account of the spread parish by parish of the bubonic plague (yes, caused by bacteria not a virus), with its appallingly fast-mounting death toll and its gruesome symptoms. I haven’t read Samuel Pepys’s version of events in his famous diary but I’m sure I will soon, out of curiosity knowing he was a direct witness. The question is that Defoe’s point in the Journal is to praise the authorities of the City of London for their reliance and general good management of the crisis (although he is also adamant when it comes to criticising them for the stern measure of containing households with a sick inhabitant, thus condemning the rest).

I’m sure you’re beginning to see the analogy. In this, our ‘year of the plague’ 2012, the authorities are sadly mismanaging the epidemic and generally behaving like the unenlightened doctors of 1665, who thought that nice smells and lots of smoke could drive the ‘pestilence’ away. They couldn’t even understand what was going on beneath their noses, much less dream of penicillin. Same here right now. If you think that the recipe to stop unemployment is stopping public expenditure you should get yourself quickly familiarised with the concept ‘New Deal’. Maybe it’s the impact of Defoe’s melancholy text, with its families being quickly wiped out amidst razor sharp pain and hair-raising screams but I do feel terribly downhearted these days. I comfort myself by thinking that at least we don’t have to send carts every night to pick up the dead lying abandoned in the streets but, surely, there are other kinds of death.

Then there’s the matter of the zombies. I have spent a good many hours watching the TV series The Walking Dead and hating every minute of it (also the British equivalent, Dead Set) –call me masochistic. The idea behind these new plague fictions is just the opposite of Defoe’s defence of civilisation: it’s all about survivalism (in the American case) and plain despair (in the British). This is the most direct metaphorical use of the plague to signify the collapse of our 21st century white, Western civilisation. I don’t like it because in narrative terms it’s dead boring –pun intended– and also because I suspect that the constant ripping apart of undead bodies spells out a hardly concealed wish to let go of our thin veneer of civilisation. Yet, funnily enough, when reading Defoe I chuckled now and then, missing the zombies very much.

Here in Spain they crowd the streets. I myself feel right now like a zombie, I’m walking dead as the civilisation I believed in slowly crumbles –‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’. In the conference I attended last week we got really dystopian yet there was a speaker who claimed again and again that nothing will happen, apocalypse will not come, it’s just a crisis. Actually, he made the point of stressing that for the average Chinese and Indian person hope is just rising. The problem is that I happen to be one of those devoting their working lives to the service of a certain idea of public education right here and right now. This is being swept from under my feet and what lies beneath is not the bare ground but a frightening hole. Full of zombies who do know I’m one of them.

Having still 24 more years to endure, I wonder whether at the end of my career I’ll see this ‘plague year’ with the same relief Defoe transmits towards the end. Right now, I don’t see how far we still have to go. I wish it were only one year (yet scattered remnants of the plague lasted until 1750 it seems). Sorry about the black mood –I was going to write that ‘hopefully’ the world will end, as announced, next December but I realise that’s unfair to the Chinese and the Indian. Poor things, we’re their zombies.

A CONFERENCE: KILLING YOUR OWN PAPER

I’m back from a conference, as usual with mixed feelings. Taking a break from admin work and students to focus on sharing ideas with academic peers is always refreshing, much more so when each day ends with dinner in good company and in a beautiful town, as was the case. Yet, inevitably I wonder why we keep on using the same format when it’s obvious that it needs serious improvement, even when the conference itself is well organised as this one was.

I always think of students when listening to my peers delivering papers (and when preparing my own contributions). A standard paper lasts for 20 minutes, sessions usually include three papers (= 60 minutes) and the rest of the 90 minutes of each session is ideally taken up by debate. More often than it is desirable these 90 minutes seem endless, this is why I think of students putting up with lectures of similar duration each day –and not just for three days maybe twice a year. The complaints we have been voicing over coffee are repeated from conference to conference: delegates don’t rehearse their papers in advance, take too much time, mumble the text to themselves, use PowerPoint badly…

Just let me add a few examples. A delegate used 30 minutes instead of 20 despite the desperate warnings of the polite chair and when he finally stopped his comment was that he still had 4 more pages to go… Another one insisted on speaking with the window open and the loud noise of the cars on the motorway outside overlapping her (unintelligible) words for fear that the air conditioning was not on (it was!). Another delegate simply could not manage to make her PowerPoint occupy the full screen and we had to interrupt and teach her how to do it –when the slides became visible we were dismayed to see they contained large chunks in thick print of the paper she was delivering.

I have nothing against reading from papers and using PowerPoint. I tend to be quite nervous before an audience of my peers and prefer using well-rehearsed props to doing a presentation based on notes (or slides). I did that once, was terribly anxious and vowed never to do it again. Students might not believe it but there’s an enormous difference between a lecture/seminar and a conference paper, which has to do with how relaxed you feel before the audience.
What always baffles me is how much some speakers contribute to killing their own papers by failing to adapt them to the requirements of the situation, which simply begs for face-to-face communication strategies. I never ceased to be amazed by the fact that if I can’t connect with a speaker’s style of delivery from the first sentence I may very well not understand a single word in 20 minutes. My brain just switches off. Sorry to sound so smug but I can’t help wondering what kind of teacher some of my colleagues are when I see them boycotting their own papers in conferences.

The safest thing to do, in my modest opinion, is to start from the idea that the audience will be bored to death with your paper and then think of ways to make it more attractive. Make your sentences short, speak loud and clear, look at the audience, use images and not words for the PowerPoint, throw in a bit of humour, make your body language show you do care for their attention… –all those things our students demand and expect from us. After all, aren’t we supposed to be professional communicators?

Having said that, I did enjoy very much the debate time in each session, which makes me wonder whether we could do away with papers and simply talk to each other, perhaps have a gigantic three-day coffee break. I keep on telling myself that’s the conference I want to organise… One day I’ll do it, promise.

SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT READING (AND E-READING)

I finally got an e-book reader three weeks ago (um, yes, a Kindle Touch). It’s taken me a long time to choose one basically because I find the screens which e-book readers are equipped with too small in all cases. I guess the idea is that their overall size reproduces that of a smallish paperback you can easily carry in your handbag but this makes the actual screen tiny. An I-Pad is not an option for me, as its bright screen makes reading far more tiring and, well, it’s also too big to carry comfortably in my several bags as they remain unfashionably small.

I think Virginia Woolf was the one who said that when we start a book the first thing we do is check how many pages it has (I do worse things, such as reading the ending, don’t ask me why, too long to explain). I supposed she meant we assess the effort which reading that particular volume will entail. So far, this is what I miss most in my e-book reading practice. I’m getting used very slowly to the idea that instead of pages the Kindle screen announces the percentage of the text I have read so far. Also, the uniformity of the text is quite mindboggling as, logically, the specifics of each edition are lost (yes, yes, I know I can customize the text but that’s not my point). I’m just a novice e-book reader and there’s, as you can see, little I can say, perhaps I’ll add that Project Gutenberg has become my latest addiction. No, I haven’t bought anything yet –actually, no e-book reader around me seems to be buying any e-books.

The odd thing is that I use my Kindle horizontally from day one, which means that I read roughly the equivalent of half a conventional page with every touch. I’m sure this has to do with the size-matters problem I mentioned and clearly indicates that possibly 8 inches and not 6 would be the ideal screen size (an I-Pad has a 9.7 inch screen). I’m just saying a very obvious thing if I mention that what I enjoy about the e-book reader and dislike in computers is not just the comfort of the e-ink for my tired eyes but that I can avoid scrolling.

In one of the episodes of the BBC documentary series The Virtual Revolution (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n4j0r/episodes/guide) I heard an American lecturer (at Harvard?) argue that first-year students resist having to read books because they’re used to reading just short texts on the net and they don’t see the need for a book-long argumentation of any idea. In the same episode a British researcher demonstrated that we hardly ever read the complete contents of the webpages we check: we just skim through them. This is, precisely, the problem: scrolling results in superficial, partial reading –somehow we need pages to focus. The youngest raised on a diet of scrolling resist page-based reading (except, of course, the bookworms); we, the pre-internet diplodocus have brought pages back with a vengeance thanks to the e-book reader. So, it’s not so much, for me, a matter of paper vs. screen but a matter of scrolling vs. thumbing pages (whether physical or virtual). Thumbing wins, em, hands down.

What I don’t get about the e-book reader is the cult of the cover. I have no idea why people spend roughly 30% of the value of this high-tech gadget (129 euros) on an old-fashioned leather cover seemingly aimed at pretending the e-book reader is a paper book. My Kindle is for that reason still a domestic instrument, as I will not go for the absurd leather cover and will not squander silly money on an over-priced neoprene or cloth cover, which is all it takes. I have even considered making my own cover (yes, there are websites for that!). A friend carries her Kindle in a cute tiny folder with elastic binders and that seems to be plain sensible –though, believe it or not, a cute tiny folder is not that easy to find!

I never, ever thought this would be the main problem when owning an e-book reader… Suggestions welcome!!