Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen



published 2013



Professor of Poetry
Her hands lay in her lap and she considered them… She said: ‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’ Her eyes travelled to her legs sticking out in front of her, the thin shins and dun-coloured tights. She said: ‘And I am sorry, legs, because all your life you sat at a desk and you shifted on the seat of hard chairs.’ She considered the sleeves of her blue mackintosh. She said: ‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’ Her head hurt very much then, and she closed her eyes and said: ‘And I am sorry, head, because you worked for so long and I never rewarded you, only made you work harder.’ Then her eyes were hot and the pain in her chest was very great and it occurred to her for the first time that it came from her heart. She said: ‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’



 
 
Professor of Poetry 2 aobservations: Above is the kind of passage that makes this book well worth reading. But there’s a lot more that isn’t anything like that.

If you could imagine Kate Bush, Jeanette Winterson and Anita Brookner getting together to write a book you might come up with this one. Grace McCleen is obviously a formidable talent, and there are passages and sentences that are amazing. When I started reading it, it pulled me in immediately: I really wanted to know what was happening to these characters.

But then she kept losing me, and/or making me uncomfortable.

The book is infuriating – it’s 50% lovely and interesting, and 50% dreadful, as if written by an undergraduate having fantasies about her tutor and her future life in academia. And, what’s more, an undergraduate in around 2000, not 1980 as claimed. The heroine simply didn’t convince as a student of 1980, nothing rang true. McCleen seems to have decided that in the modern part of the book she wanted Elizabeth to be in her 50s, and the time now, but this put everything else out – how old are Edward Hunt and the porter supposed to be in the second half of the timeframe? It makes no sense.

To take one more problem (and I have a list of them): There is a long detailed description of a tutorial about Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress. The poem is repeatedly referred to as a sonnet. It is not a sonnet. This is not a casual mistake (she refers to it as a sonnet FIVE times, it is being compared to another sonnet). I don’t think I’m just being pedantic: these are students studying English Literature at what is obviously Oxford University****, and the whole book can only succeed if you are convinced of the brilliance of the heroine, her tutor, all the other undergraduates, and the author.

I read the Kindle edition of this book. In the paperback version, after this mistake presumably had been pointed out, the first reference to the poem as a sonnet has been corrected. But the remaining four mentions – over the next two pages – still stand. Is this not positively insulting to the reader, and even more embarrassing for the publishers, editors and author?

*** Though perhaps not. The heroine mystifyingly travels for several hours on a train from Waterloo to get to her ‘city of books’. I thought this was another mistake, but perhaps the ‘city of books’ is Bournemouth?

So this is a book about a very bright young woman, not quite appreciated, but then a male tutor suddenly sees through her shyness and awkwardness and knows she is a genius. You’d say it was wish fulfilment, but then - a bright girl who sacrifices everything to her academic future and has no human relationships - no-one could wish for that. (Anita Brookner, anyone?) I didn’t feel sympathy for her: I thought she was annoying, and found it difficult to believe she had made a success of her career.

The reason this is SOO exasperating is because some of the writing is so good – there are passages, particularly near the end, that are sublime. But the clichéd Oxford interview scenes, the twinkly old porter, the ‘acceptance’ letter (acceptance to what?), the fake humility, the train journey – all drag down the book.

The images are fashion adverts: the beloved male professor is, of course, quite scruffy with scuffed boots and shapeless clothes.











18 comments:

  1. Quite enjoyed your mini-rant there Moira. Probably not going to be appearing in a tub soon around my neck of the woods.
    Top photo initially reminded me of a young Martine McCutcheon. BTW if I'm ever going back through old family photos and see myself wearing anything remotely like the guy in the other image, I will be burning them immediately.

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    1. I think it annoyed me because it could have been so much better. But I was really mean giving the characters those photo appearances...

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  2. Moira,
    Shame that the story itself isn't convincing, because the writing (well, at least the bit you shared) is really fine. And the topic sounds interesting too. But the story also sounds very jarring. And yes, Literature students at any university ought to know the difference between a sonnet and other forms of poetry. Hmm.... think I'll give this a miss.

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    1. I can't really suggest otherwise Margot - I think as an academic you would find other things to criticize too.

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    1. Very close - 1980 - and the awful thing is that this really was the height of fashion, this is a Versace advert. It's a truism that everyone feels they lived through a bad era, but really, those clothes....

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    2. Laura Ashley, anyone? feels like a bad dream, in flannel, now.

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    3. Great description Galdebord, thanks for making me giggle...

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  4. I think I can safely say this does not appeal. Glad you read it for me.

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  5. I LOVE "To My Coy Mistress." That sonnet mix-up would make me throw the book across the room. Inexcusable ignorance, particularly - as you say - in the context. I don't care how good bits of it are, if you are mutton-brained enough to ascribe such casual idiocy to OXFORD! LITERATURE! STUDENTS! AND! LECTURERS! As a literature graduate myself that steams me well and properly.

    I also don't actually think a train to Bournemouth would take "hours" unless it was VERY slow indeed.

    I really don't think I'll bother with this book either. I have little patience for stupid mistakes, and zero patience for repeated stupid mistakes.

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    1. I try not to be too judgemental - I know small mistakes don't bother some people at all. But I am like you: and I also think that I am doing the author the favour of paying close attention - and then finding that they paid less attention when they were writing it. Insulting.

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  6. Moira, a passage like that would prompt me to read this book, even if it might be a letdown, and wonder why I couldn't have written that particular excerpt.

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    1. It IS good writing Prashant, I agree - that's what disappoints me: that the book doesn't live up to that.

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  7. Actually, the quoted passage reads like one of those twee little memes shared on social networking sites with a picture of an elderly person backlit by a pretty sunset. Maybe I'm feeling more than particularly uncharitable today....

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    1. Harsh Daniel, harsh! I think, to be fair, it should be read in context - it forms a climax to her thinking after a very introspective book and rather a miserable life - my opinion would be that that bit works. But have you now spoilt it for me....?

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  8. Yes, I don't think I'd be able to read past the sonnet mistake. Everyone can make mistakes (even me . . .), but that is just too much. What I want to know is this: what has happened to editors? How did this slip through?

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    1. I know - that is what I wonder all the time. And I particularly wonder what was going on when they decided to change one use of 'sonnet' to 'poem' in the new version, but didn't bother to look for other instances. What kind of editing is that?

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