Having avoided allergies, the flu, and even the common cold for many a year, I suddenly have the constitution of a Victorian miss who does "delicate" for a living. I just can't seem to recover my rude health. I have felt puny for weeks now, and one bug after another seems to be invading my system. One of the most fascinating chicken-and-egg questions of origin has to do with health, I think. Does depression make us sick? Or are we depressed because we feel too poorly to go out and absorb some Vitamin D? My friends are getting weary of my constant and boring lament: "I'm tired." How can I snap out of it? It's hardly the season for rising sap; in fact, a long hibernation seems far more appropriate.
Since I don't know how to kick my bad health blues, I am forced to rationalize them. As long as one is not too ill, a bout of sickliness can do wonders for the reading habit.
I was supposed to attend a Ball on Saturday night, but my floaty black dress and new shoes will just have to wait for another festive occasion. Instead of dancing, I lay propped up in bed most of the weekend. When I wasn't sleeping, I was reading -- and I managed to polish off Zoë Heller's latest, The Believers, and half of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I also watched a film that I had really looked forward to, and then unaccountably didn't get to the theater for: The History Boys. In one sense I didn't have a particularly sociable weekend, true, and yet I felt that I kept extremely good company with these three.
Having recently enjoyed the BBC's production of Tess, I am up to my usual trick of comparing film to book. (I rather like seeing the film first, and then getting to fill in the details from the book.) I hadn't read any Hardy in more than 15 years, and his language is like an impenetrable thicket compared to the modern, clear prose of Heller. It's not that Hardy isn't fit reading material for the sickbed, but he does require a bit more mental concentration. A friend's fifteen-year-old is reading Tess in school this year, and I wonder what those teenage girls -- so used to text-speak -- make of the vanished Wessex vernacular.
I rarely spring for hardcover books, but I've been wanting to read The Believers since the flurry of Heller interviews and reviews. I thought that Heller's last book, Notes on a Scandal, was an absorbingly good book. It also features one of the best examples of the "unreliable narrator" in literature. Like Barbara, the sour snoop from Notes on a Scandal, unlikeable female characters make up the majority in Heller's latest novel. Apparently this is becoming her stock-in-trade, as her interviewers seemed to not want to talk about anything else. Although her main characters – a mother and her two daughters – could be described as shrewish, judgmental and wet, in that order – they are not without their sympathetic sides. A family crisis tests what Heller describes as the “Litvinoff family’s romance of itself” (p. 270), and its members are left floundering. Although they have all of the toughness and sophistication of the average contemporary Manhattanite, they need something to believe in – whether it is religion, political ideals, love, marriage, drugs, rehab or sex. They try pretty much everything but literature, I think. Heller has a very pleasing, truthful way of describing her characters, but the narrative does lack a certain something – not resolution, really, but momentum and depth. Still, any book which I can read in almost a single sitting (or lying-down, as the case was) is worth some praise.
If you are interested in a nuanced story, both funny and poignant, with fascinating characters set against the backdrop of a school, then The History Boys should go to the top of your Netflix/LoveFilm queue. Although the plot of The History Boys is easy enough to grasp, the story has a load of cultural markers -- "Grammar School," "A-levels," "Oxbridge examinations," "Yorkshire" -- which it give it a particularly English spin. Without going into too much detail about the specifics, (English class system, North/South divide, etc.) I think it is enough to say that a group of eight young men from a range of modest circumstances are trying to get into the poshest, most illustrious names in education: Oxford and Cambridge. "Getting in" is the Holy Grail, with little thought given to what the boys will do with the achievement afterwards. But happy futures assured or not, even the non-English know that those hallowed places are like an expensive, rare perfume that trails after you for the rest of your life. The fact that the boys are all trying for places in "History" has a neat double meaning.
Despite the specificity of the setting -- Sheffield Grammar School in 1983 -- many of the questions raised by the film (originally a play) are universal. What does it mean to be well-educated? What is the purpose of education? How do you determine if one has been educated? How important is Truth? And is there even such a thing -- or is it all down to argument, context and presentation? The film handles all of these with a light touch, though, and there is really no pontificating. In addition to these Big questions, a number of other issues germane to education are more or less "touched" upon: student/teacher relationships, sexual and otherwise, corporal punishment, authority, and the desirability of academic selection or streaming. Indeed, the very subject of grammar schools -- which are an academically selective form of state education -- is a matter of ongoing debate nearly 25 years later.
Three teachers-- Hector, Mrs. Lintott, and Irwin -- are attempting to school the boys for these all-important exams and interviews, and each of these three represents a different face of education. Hector and Mrs. Lintott are "old-school" in every sense. Both nearing retirement, they are the kind of teacher often described as an "institution" -- and I like the way that word plays on the idea of "fixture," important customs and handed-down wisdom, and even a touch of the crazy too-long-inside-ness of a teacher who has seen a lot of Septembers roll by. Hector, played by the marvelously original Richard Griffiths, is the rather whimsical director of General Studies. A great lover of poetry, Hector has a suitable quotation for any occasion. When one of the students complains about having to learn yet another verse of obscure meaning, Hector counters: "Learn it now, know it now, and you'll understand it whenever." Showy and theatrical, Hector emphasizes the "fun" and even the subversive in learning -- but the students aren't always too clear as to the point. His "curriculum," as such, is littered with his own personal enthusiasms. As the Headmaster complains, Hector gets results and provides inspiration, but the results are "not quantifiable." Mrs. Lintott, on the other hand, is "straight man" to Hector's rather more flowery and wayward genius. She believes in "The Facts," and one can deduce that good old-fashioned rote learning plays the leading role in her classroom. Played by Frances de la Tour, with perfectly dry and wry wit, Mrs. Lintott is the one female counterbalance to the overwhelming male atmosphere of an all-boys' school.
Irwin, the Young Turk brought in to give some authentic Oxford sophistication to these rough boys, is not all that he seems . . . but then the Stranger never is. He is meant to spice up the meat and potatoes teaching of Mrs. Lintott, but he proves to be more about spin than substance. He doesn't exactly teach the boys to be original, but he teaches them how to appear original -- and convinces (most of) them that the result is all that matters. Irwin represents the arrogant, breezy future, but he is not nearly as invulnerable as he initially appears. Like the snobbish, ambitious headmaster, who fakes his conversational French and has to ask the boys to explain an Anne of Cleves allusion, Irwin's lack of solid scholarship is repeatedly revealed.
All three of the teachers are effective in their own way, and all of them find their adherents among the boys, but Hector -- flawed though he is -- is the teacher that I wish that I had. There is a particularly tender moment between him and the gifted, sensitive Posner ("I'm a Jew... I'm small... I'm homosexual... and I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked. ") which is the quiet center of this story. As they examine one of Thomas Hardy’s poems together, Hector tells Posner:
The best moments in reading are when you come across
something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- that you'd
thought special, particular to you. And here it is -- set down by someone
else, someone you've never met, perhaps even someone long dead. It's as if
a hand has come out and taken yours.