It may well have been Sibelius and not Bartók who said that no one has ever erected a statue in honour of a critic, but he was wrong. There is statue of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve at Versailles, and Samuel Johnson stands outside St Clement Danes Church in London.
James Ley’s review of Freedom (December 2010–January 2011) articulated many of the ironies and paradoxes forming in my mind as I consumed the novel over Christmas. When I wasn’t reading Freedom, I thought about all that Franzen had left out. Though it is encyclopedic – life cycles of migratory birds, defence contracts in Iraq, and details of basketball, for example – I found the book extremely pared back. For instance, there is very little on the characters’ appearances, only a few aspects of child-rearing. It is a very interior novel, concentrating on what’s going on in the characters’ heads rather than on the surfaces of American culture.
An aspect of Freedom that left me puzzled is the thwarted nature of the women. Ley writes: ‘... a raised eyebrow is warranted when the six most prominent characters in a novel divide neatly into three egotistical men and three needy women.’ I couldn’t help but notice that Patty, Lalitha, and Connie all exist around the men in the book; they don’t have independent careers or functions. I wonder whether this is Franzen’s depiction of reality (that is, he wrote these characters and their situations in this way intentionally) or whether it is the expression of his imagination (the roles then being more implicit). The one unattached woman, Jessica, works in literary publishing. Perhaps in her future she will publish someone like Jonathan Franzen?
It is pleasingly characteristic of its non-parochial approach that a magazine calling itself Australian Book Review should have thought to mark the centenary of E.M. Forster’s Howards End in its December 2010–January 2011 issue – and with such an elegant and substantial disquisition by the Editor himself. He misses the opportunity, however, to note a related ‘centenary’ and, by a certain logic, an even more exact and momentous one.
His observation that it’s ‘longer still’ since Lytton Strachey dared to utter the word ‘semen’ in the company of his fellow Bloomsburys is true enough (that was in 1908), but it’s not entirely accurate to say that it was from this instant that ‘Virginia Woolf dated modernity’. She certainly noted the liberating effect of Strachey’s provocation on her select group of friends, but her attribution of a more general shift in cultural consciousness was, rather, to the post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Roger Fry, in London, at the end of 1910. It was this show, and the memory of its extraordinary impact on Edwardian England, that prompted her own provocative aperçu of 1924: ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed.’
One wonders what she would make of the changes in ‘human character’ and art since the onset of postmodernity, and whether, even playfully, one could assign any such specific date to that. Some would argue it has been a far too nebulous (and, in some respects, anti-human) development.
Well, we mustn’t cry over spilt milk. Dr Britain is right, of course, and I apologise for my lazy mistake. Recalling ‘the liberating effect of Strachey’s provocation’, Virginia Woolf wrote in her paper ‘Old Bloomsbury’: ‘With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips.’ Ed.