Book Week Scotland – #4

A personal rake through my books for Book Week Scotland

Book 4: The Lecturer’s Tale, by James Hynes (1996; 2001; 2002; 2006)

Not a Scottish book, I know, it wasn’t published in Scotland and Hynes isn’t Scottish [so far as he’s admitted] nor does he live in Scotland. But The Lecturer’s Tale says so MUCH about what’s wrong with Scottish literature and literary history and blasts the WESTERN LITERARY CANON apart – that, for me, it’s one of my favourite books. Hynes shows how to look away from the subject under discussion to highlight the glaring omissions. How could I not love this book?

Hynes doesn’t ‘lecture’ the reader. He makes his point with grace and wit and fun. The tale is steeped in the Supernatural and the Gothic [a clever, academically slanted Gothic and daft supernatural magic finger], sometimes, real laugh out loud guffawing humour. He plays stereotypical university types for big laughs (especially the leather-clad dominatrix!). I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the funniest moments (and also I wouldn’t know which ones to give you because they are in abundance) but, be warned, don’t read this book on a bus.

Above the industrial hum rose the steady murmur of lonely women in their thirties and forties, their cubicles lined up like sewing machines in a shirtwaist factory. … In each cubicle a thin woman in thrift shop couture sat earnestly tutoring some groggy student in a point of grammar or the construction of an argument, and each woman looked up at Nelson as he passed with the hollow-eyed, pitiless gaze of the damned. … They combined the bitter esprit de corps of assembly-line workers with the literate wit of the overeducated: They were the steerage of the English department, the first to drown if the budget sprang a leak. They were the Morlocks to the Eloi of the eighth floor.

The serious undercurrent is not over-bearing. Hynes’ novel came out just at the same time that the very serious topic of bringing out a collected edition of Hogg’s works was being discussed in literary circles -or rather, discussed by some but pointedly ignored and belittled by others. The project eventually took off [thanks to the late Douglas Mack, the founding General Editor] and the Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition will run to around 36 volumes when complete. Reviewers don’t mention this fact – which is so telling and deeply ironic, and makes me so angry. A key point is when the books written by authors within the English literary canon are tossed out of the library tower as it burns to the ground. Always on the periphery, Hogg isn’t in the canon and his books are amongst some of the precious few that are saved and form the basis of the new library.

Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident. Someone called his name three times out of the midday press of students, and as he turned to answer, Nelson stumbled over a young woman stooping to the pavement behind him. Falling backward, he threw his hand out to catch himself, and his finger was severed by the whirring spokes of a passing bicycle.

Only minutes before, in the shadowy office of Victoria Victorinix, the English Department’s undergraduate chair, Nelson had lost his job as a visiting adjunct lecturer. He had sat on the far side of Professor Victorinix’s severely rectilinear desk, his hands tightly clutching his knees, while she told him with a cool courtesy that the department was forced by budget necessities to terminate his appointment at the end of the semester, only six weeks away.

[grabbed from The NYT ] which has the whole of the first chapter & a link to their review – read them both for a glimpse into Hynes’s joyously absurd book.

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