Professor Cox and Mrs Power
'An inaugural lecture, how grand.' But of course he didn't mean it in that way. What he meant to say was grand, fantastic, smashing, cor blimey, what a lark! The lady professor is much too sensitive. And to be honest, she's been getting a little above herself since her elevation. Women do that. They tend to get above themselves. Frank O'Connor called Katherine Mansfield ‘a spoiled, clever, malicious woman’. ‘That clever, assertive, masculine woman was,’ he said, ‘a mistake from beginning to end, and toward the end of her life she recognized it.’ Bret Easton Ellis said ‘Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she's won the Nobel she always will be.’ The Professor would never compare herself to such great figures as Mansfield and Munro. But she sees them often, writing in cafes and railway carriages, stopping now and then to glance through the window at the seasons streaming past. Alice Laidlaw, Kathleen Beauchamp, Juliet and Kezia. She sees them standing on the platform with a suitcase full of diaries, waiting for the story to pull into the station.
Unlike Alice and Katherine, Kezia and Juliet, Professor Cox is English. So far as she knows, there is not one drop of blood in her that is not entirely English, and she was born, in fact, in the black void at the centre of England, where her family have lived for generations, speaking in a dialect that is considered intrinsically ugly, even though it preserves the ancient speech of Chaucer and of Shakespeare. A.S. Byatt says ‘it is not quite nice to think about being English’. Given the job of editing an anthology of English stories, Byatt confessed her initial suspicion that, by definition, she was choosing from the second division. What would be left of short fiction in English if you cut out the Irish, the Scots
and the Americans, the New Zealanders and the Canadians? The Professor intends to start her lecture with a consideration of what it could possibly mean to be a short story writer incubated in the dark heart of the shires.
Coffee arrives at her elbow, and she murmurs a thank you but doesn't look up. The Professor is caught somewhere in a mesh between what she thinks and what she writes, and she's holding herself very still, as if she might spill whatever it is she needs to carry from thought to screen. So which is it then, the mesh or the spillage? You can't have two different metaphors in a sentence. In fact she has a quick mark for making that very point in student assessment, a quick mark labelled CLASH which is itself a metaphor. And mark, come to think of it is also a kind of metaphor, as in a stain or a bruise. There was a character in a story she wrote that she would have called Mark for the symbolic value, were it not for the fact that he was called Mark in real life.
She scribbles a note to herself – METAPHOR – and another, REAL LIFE. Alice Munro wrote an essay called ‘What is Real?’ in which she compares reading a story to wandering from room to room in a house, making connections between these different spaces and the world beyond the walls. When Munro
comes to write a new story she thinks of it as building a house of her own, ‘to
fit around the indescribable “feeling” that is like the soul of the story, and which I must insist upon in a dogged, embarrassed way, as being no more definable than that.’ Munro goes on to describe how she accumulates the material to build that house, the sticks and stones and straw of memory, observation and fact-based research. She doesn’t mention her dreams even though her fiction’s full of them, packed to the rafters in fact.
The Professor often dreams of houses. Not the houses she grew up in, though sometimes she dreams of the library in her hometown, with its statue of a little girl often thought to be Alice in Wonderland. In her dreams, she returns to the flat in Whalley Range and the ex-council house she bought in Chorlton. Each time she’s moving back to one of these in confused circumstances, their interiors seem at once unbounded and inescapable, as the spaces often are in dreams; and the feeling she has in these dreams is the feeling she has when she’s writing a story… of not being sure how she got here, but knowing it is somehow necessary. Of entering through one door and leaving through another.
She gazes down from the top of the house where she lives in real life, gazes down at the grey morning, the monstrous Leyland cyprus blocking the windows of the house opposite, and sees the word SLOW written on the tarmac in etiolated letters. Purple bins are marshalled on the kerbside for collection. On her street, you can always hear the sirens, coming closer, closer, then gone. There is always the sound of a drill and always a dog barking somewhere.
Sometimes a neighbour glances up on her way to work. The Professor’s hard at it, but this morning nothing works. Time gone by, the coffee drained, and already she’s written herself into a corner. All she has is a title, ‘Professor Cox and Mrs Power’. What’s that supposed to mean? This is an inaugural lecture. And she hasn’t even mentioned Mrs Power.
She goes downstairs to where the washing machine has finished its bashing about; she pegs the washing on the line, hoping the day will turn fine She likes fresh air in her sheets. She thinks as she often does of the linen scene in La Belle et La Bete, the shadows and light, Cocteau’s clarity of vision as he filmed Belle’s return to the farmyard on washday, tricked up in all the finery she borrowed from the Beast.
And here’s a topic now, for the Professor of Short Fiction: ‘The Poetics of Laundry’. It almost writes itself, beginning with Raymond Carver at the laundromat with his weekly load, waiting for a dryer to be free. A dryer stops,
some woman takes her stuff out, but only for a second. She shoves it back inside, runs it through another spin. Carver’s standing there, with his wet washing, thinking, this is your life for ever. The way it’s going to be – the haplessness, the hanging round, the dreary and unending cycles of domesticity. Not for him the freewheeling Bohemian lifestyle, the life of the mind. The Professor will repeat those famous words in Fires:
I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing – and brother, I mean nothing – that ever happened to me could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them, always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.
And then the Professor ’ll go on to explain how, as a result of this epiphany, Carver formulated a poetics of short fiction that emphasized its adaptability to a fragmented lifestyle.
But reality isn’t that simple.
According to Carol Sklenicka’s biography, Carver usually ran into fellow members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on his trips to the laundromat. He’d shoot the breeze with the Canadian writer Clark Blaise while a third fiction writer, Blaise’s wife, Bharati Mukherjee, ‘struggled to keep up with their baby’s
diapers’ (96). But Carver is alone, in that epiphanic moment, all except for the annoying woman, of course, who is nothing more than a pair of swift hands slipping more coins in the slot. Perhaps that woman is Mukherjee herself,
sneaking quickly in there while Clark and Ray are disputing the virtues of realism versus postmodernism. Why should we be surprised if Carver has
fictionalized his own life, shrinking an incremental thought into a sudden insight, bleaching out the others in the mental space that he inhabits?
In those days, there was no such thing as disposable nappies. The Professor herself is old enough to remember dashing between the bucket, the typewriter and the baby. At around the same time that Carver, Blaise and Mukherjee were chatting in Iowa City, Alice Munro was in British Columbia, writing in her laundry room. This image has been mythologized, not least by the Professor, picturing a forlorn figure huddled in a corner amongst the diapers and baby clothes. But this story too is more complex than its first telling. 1648 Rockland was what Phil and Kirsty would call a ‘project’, a neglected Victorian mansion with ceilings twelve feet high. Jim Munro was excited by the thought of restoration, his wife Alice not so much, but he slowly managed it, as well as running his bookshop, and you can see the result, [GL(1] almost fifty years later. Alice left long ago; Jim died there not so long ago. That same second floor room has, for years now, been the workshop of Jim’s second wife, the textile artist Carole Sabiston. Even in Alice’s time, it doesn’t sound so bad. How nice to sit by the window, high up among the trees, warmed by the heat of the dryer, the snuggest spot in winter.
Before Alice came to that house, and when she was living in Vancouver, she tried renting an office, to get away from the family, only to find one set of disruptions replaced by another, with an obnoxious landlord knocking on the door. The upshot of it all is that the novel she was working on lay abandoned,
while the landlord himself turned into a story. For the rest of her life, Alice has stayed at home to write, clearing a space in the laundry or in a corner of the dining room, accommodating herself to what at first seems a limitation and then becomes a virtue, turning out short stories that are patchworks of impressions, memories, digressions and dreams.
Philip Hensher claims that an afternoon reading on BBC radio wouldn’t even cover his weekly laundry bill, which makes the Professor wonder how dirty his washing can be. Lurking beneath these anecdotes, there’s a joke waiting to be unearthed – Why is the short story like dirty laundry? But the Professor’s no good at jokes, so she lingers in the laundromat in Iowa City, she loiters round 1648 Rockland Avenue in the 1960s, and she gives Carver’s well-washed phrase, ‘unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction’ another spin. Distraction, she concludes, brings its compensations. Distraction, digression, happenstance and serendipity, dreams and random encounters, a dropped stitch, a change of
weather. The forest path to the spring.
Nadine Gordimer says that short story writers see by the flash of the firefly. Having never seen a firefly, the Professor thinks instead of those bees she saw in France, shiny black as motorbikes, flitting around the wisteria; or butterflies, midnight blue, in that spot where she swam; or the turquoise filaments of dragonflies, barely glimpsed and gone again, an optical illusion. And then there were the swallows that stole her attention as she sat down to write, hirondelles, wasn’t that the name of a wine she used to drink in the nineteen seventies? She remembers sitting at her desk in that house she still dreams about, watching the sun setting over Chorlton meadows, mesmerized in autumn by the etch-a-sketch patterns of migrating birds. All of these diversions that lead her back and forth through time and to her own beginnings.
The statue in the library wasn’t Alice in Wonderland. She was Little Eva, not the singer of ‘The Locomotion’, but the saintly character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant to inspire piety rather than wonderment. The book Little Eva’s holding is the Bible. But no one sees that. So Alice wins. Curiosity, impatience, wordplay, rabbit holes and Cheshire cats win. Everyone knows Alice. As a little girl, the Professor was sometimes called Alice, because of her hair; or sometimes she was called Elsa, after the lion cub in Born Free. People still find her first name difficult; they mishear it or read the letters in the wrong order. In those days, children dressed differently to adults, the boys in short trousers, the girls in frocks that were gathered at the waist and tied with a bow. They were the last Victorians, seen but not heard, routinely slapped and beaten, and made to stand in corners with their hands behind their backs. They were no longer sent up chimneys or put to work in blacking factories, but they were expected to endure long stretches of boredom. The only escape from boredom was to read.
On top of the Professor’s bookcase, a complete set of Dickens is gathering dust, one of the inky blue editions with illustrations by Phiz, from Hazell, Watson and Viney. They were commonplace in the twenties and thirties, sold ̶ or possibly
even given away ̶ through the newspapers, and this is how they came to be handed down to the Professor all those many years ago. The Professor has
read every volume, even A Child’s History of England, that title gone through them innumerable times when there was nothing else to read. She was always at the library, and yet, amongst all those racks and shelves, she could never find what she was looking for. [Actually, ] She didn’t even know what it was she was looking for. There was one particular novel, The Gentle Falcon by Hilda Lewis, set in the reign of King Richard II. Who knows what drove her towards this book at nine or ten, but she would go to the children’s section, stare at the plastic-wrapped jackets, and come back with the same one again and again. And now she discovers by the undreamt-of miracles of the twenty-first century, she can summon this book with a click and hear the voice that called her back like the hawk to its handler: ‘The first time I set eyes on Giles Cobham he did not know who I was. Nor did I know him, though I suppose I might have guessed.’
There were other books the Professor came to know almost word for word – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier; Katherine by Anya Seton. And later she
discovered D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, F. Scott Fitzgerald. She read every single thing by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the biography also. What all of these books had in common was their passion and colour, an intensity of style. The Professor hasn’t read Rebecca for years, but she still remembers Mrs Van Hopper’s cigarettes mashed into a pot of cold cream. She remembers thinking that was how to write.
And those images are still vivid in her memory, more vivid than most of her own life – the moment in Tender is the Night when Nicole grabs the wheel; and Women in Love, when Gerald, looking for Gudrun, accidentally creeps into her parents’ bedroom – or is that Birkin sneaking round in the dark, is that Ursula and Birkin? The Professor scans the random piles of books – she never takes the time to sort them out – and where is it? The orange Penguin, the one with Alan Bates on the cover? She finds instead another book, the burgundy and gold Everyman, Crime and Punishment by Fedor Dostoïeffsky, that’s Dostoïeffsky with a diaeresis, the spine so battered and friable it crackles when she opens it again, forty-five years since she spent her pocket money in a junk shop and started reading, over and over, heart standing still with the murderer Raskolnikoff, hiding in the landing, hatchet in his hand. And next to that book, the illustrated Arthur Rackham Alice, inscribed by her ex-boyfriend, from the long summer after graduation when they thought they’d stay together for ever, when she could not have dreamt of ever being a Professor, nor of being a Mrs Power. When she wore her hair long and her skirts brushed the floor, and she
too had a poster of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, the one that would
feature on the cover of the first book she ever came across that was written by
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ the Mad Hatter says to Alice – the first words he utters in Lewis Carroll’s book. When the Professor was little, her hair was yanked into an elastic band and tied up in ribbons. And then it was suddenly chopped because long hair was untidy. She was an untidy little girl. Clumsy. Cack-handed. Absent-minded. The Professor remembers the landscape of her
childhood, the rough territory bordered by the canal and the railway, and the
brooding presence of the power station, the scale, the size of that mysterious
fortress, the tiny figures cycling in at night. The scale, the size of her, the limits of her memory, the place where none of this seems real. She remembers
roaming that landscape, the other escape from boredom; she remembers crossing through the railway tunnel into forbidden zones, and then her mother suddenly appearing, chasing her through the trees, like an angry giantess. Her mother was afraid of lonely places. She could bring a houseplant back to life,
stick a cutting in a pot and make it grow, yet the great outdoors was full of
hidden menace and dangerous men, gypsies and strangers, and stealers of
And here she is, the grown-up Professor, still wandering off the point, and staring out of windows. This will be an inaugural lecture. All those people, they’ll all be staring at her, just as in a dream, that dream when she’s onstage, playing the title role in Carmen. L'amour est un oiseau rebelle..... Or no people, if nobody turns up. The world’s first professor, and what has she to tell the world about short fiction? About Englishness, about metaphors and memory, about time and transformation? Why is a raven like a writing desk? Onscreen, the cursor winks. Outside, the bins are empty, scattered all askew across the pavement. A lady with a lapdog stoops to pick up, quickly raising a purple lid and tossing something inside.
A sudden burst of sunlight. The stuccoed houses across the street turn the colour of Cornish ice cream, the monstrous cyprus projecting deep shadows on the walls, the finial at their gables standing clean and proud like propellors. On this side of the road, a pair of blue tits are flashing through a tree the Professor believes to be a sycamore, and she struggles to find a way to describe its curlicued branches, thinking rococo, thinking of Rackham, thinking of how to capture this crystalline light, and then the fire is dampened just as quickly as it blazed, the view suddenly switched back to two dimensions. As Cocteau says, in the diary he wrote for La Belle et la Bete, the sun comes out when you least expect it, ‘but if you wait [...] it never comes. It shines when you set up the scene and disappears the moment you give the order to shoot’ (14).
How simple the linen scene at first appears, a few sheets on the line, practical and cheap, but Cocteau went to a lot of trouble to get it right, keeping the sheets damp to maintain their translucency, and using lamps for extra brightness. That was after the job of finding decent linen in the first place, not
an easy thing to do in France in 1945. Then there was the dodgy equipment and the storms of that year, and the actors, of course, stopping them from ‘acting’, stopping all of the crew from doing what is usually expected. ‘I am avoiding all camera movement,’ says Cocteau, ‘[...] which the experts think indispensable. The scene with the linen is done flat, like a house of cards’ (14). A house of cards, so carefully contrived, and fundamentally unstable.
‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ That’s what everyone remembers
at the end of Alice in Wonderland, the sudden waking up, the return to the humdrum. But that’s not the end of the book. It actually finishes with Alice’s
sister alone on the riverbank, Alice having gone back home for tea. The sister
re-imagines the tale she’s just been told: ‘So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality – the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds – and the rattling teacups would change to the tinkling sheep bells, and the Queen’s shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy.’ And in the closing lines of Carroll’s masterpiece, this nameless sister imagines a time when both dream and reality have merged into memory, turned into a story that Alice passes down to her as yet unborn children, and by implication into infinity.
The Professor of Short Fiction often argues that the short story has a special affinity with the passing moment, quoting Edgar Allan Poe on transience; or Gordimer’s fireflies; or V.S. Pritchett via Carver on the glimpse caught in the corner of the eye, and all of that may be true but the ability to ride the tides of time is not unique to the short story. That slippery instant when the present becomes the past and then bleeds into the future is everywhere in fiction. The Professor blows the dust from an inky blue volume, turning to its final damp-stained page:
They all gave place when the signing was done, and Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the
steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning’s bright rays, and then went down,
Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. [...]
Oh, Dickens does go on, telling us what will happen to his characters in the years to come; how the unloved and the destitute will be recompensed in due course.... No, this won’t do – but then she
reads again his final sentence:
They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward, and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.
Yes, thinks the Professor. What she means to say is at her fingertips. She’s almost home and dry.
A voice calls, ‘I’m off, Sweet,’ and before she can get to her feet the keys are turning in the front door and the tail lights glowing ruby red on the drive. No sooner has the van slipped into the traffic than the phone rings in the living room. As she hurtles downstairs to answer she sees he’s left his mobile on charge. Mrs Power takes the message, something about a rock and roll bed while the Professor takes note. A rock and roll bed. And tucks those words into the back of her mind, along with the cigarette end floating in a half-drunk cup of tea, and the plastic toys from McDonalds, and the black coal gleaming in the bucket and the quivering cobweb dangling from the ceiling. This ordinary place is sufficient, everything here touchable and mysterious. Outside it looks like rain, the washing on the line swaying back and forth in a gusty quadrille, a corner of one sheet snagging on a rosebush.
The Professor likes having two names, especially since one of them is Irish. If she’d married earlier, she could have called herself Mrs Power on a full time basis, like Alice Laidlaw who kept the name she was given as a young bride in Vancouver. But she has lived her life in a topsy-turvy fashion, and now it’s too late to re-invent herself even if she is a newly minted Professor. Really, she thinks she is neither Professor Cox nor Mrs Power. She’s a nobody, a nullity, a nothing. Or she might be the nameless sister who, after the tale has ended, replays the memory of Alice – ‘she can hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes...‘ It doesn’t really matter who she is.
Overhead you can hear the steady thud of a typewriter, and the zing of the carriage return. The sweet little Smith Corona portable, with its nifty case or the skeletal black Underwood you had to bang the keys on that one. The massive gunmetal grey battleship, the electric Remington, has gone with the dinosaurs now. Tap, thud, ping, rattle, the music of the stories she has written and
discarded, then rewritten or forgotten, and especially those stories she can’t
get out of her mind but doesn’t know how to write yet. Thinking of the slippage between past and present and future, the Professor remembers the first time she travelled underground to Europe. She was looking out for a sign at the entrance to the Eurotunnel. YOU ARE NOW LEAVING ENGLAND. But it wasn’t like that. There was no point of entry. She glanced up from her book and there she was, looking out at the red roofs of France. Of course she was not a Professor in those days.
These are some of the texts and images I refer to in this
Colour photo taken by camera of the Little Eva statue, which sits within the lending library of Walsall Central Library in the West Midlands. Attributed to
Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice (London: Macmillan, 1965)
Bret Easton Ellis on twitter @BretEastonEllis
Katherine Mansfield, Collected Stories (London: Penguin, 2007)
Alice Munro, Runaway (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004)
A.S. Byatt, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (Oxford: OUP, 1998)
Alice Munro, ‘What is Real?’ and ‘On Writing “The Office”’ in How Stories Mean, ed. John Metcalf and J. R. (Tim) Struthers(Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993)
Jean Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête (Discina, 1946); Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, trans. Ronald Duncan (New York: Dover Pubications, 1972)
Raymond Carver, Fires (London: Harvill, 1994)
Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life (New York: Scribner, 2010)
Robert Thacker, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005)
Alice Munro’s former house in Victoria BC, as it is today. http://www.victoriaheritagefoundation.ca/HReg/Rockland/Rockland1648.html
Philip Hensher, ‘Introduction’, The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (London: Penguin, 2015)
Malcolm Lowry, ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ in Hear us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969)
Nadine Gordimer, ‘The Flash of Fireflies’ in The New Short Story Theories, ed. Charles E. May (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1994)
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
 (London: William Heinemann, 1974)
Hilda Lewis, The Gentle Falcon (New Jersey: S. G. Phillips, 1957) available on https://archive.org/details/gentlefalcon012534mbp
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)
Anya Seton, Katherine (1954)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934)
D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920)
Fedor Dostoïeffsky, Crime and Punishment, undated, translator unknown – Everyman edition, c. 1913
Alice Munro, The Beggar Maid (New York: Knopf, 1979) with cover image, Edward Burne-Jones, ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ (1884)
Peter Barker, photograph of Reedswood Power Station 1978 https://www.flickr.com/photos/pebar/3675564466/
‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ from Act 1 of Bizet’s Carmen. Sung by Elina
Garanca for Metropolitan Opera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2snTkaD64U
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Poe on Short Fiction’ in The New Short Story Theories, ed.
Charles E. May (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1994)
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)
Alice Munro, ‘Everything Here is Touchable and Mysterious’ (Toronto Star 11 May 1974)
And finally, not referred to in the text, but an ideal soundtrack to the final paragraph:
Joni Mitchell, ‘Free Man in Paris’ from Court and Spark (Asylum Records 1974)