From time to time I go to class with an entirely different agenda than normal. This is the Friday before Thanksgiving break, this is Professor Pritchard’s Modern British Novels class, my concern is listening to an entertaining lecture and riding out my hangover.
Professor Pritchard is wearing a pea green blazer, a pair of slacks with nearly the same color but brighter sheen, a darker green button down with write grid, and an on point wool tie with a autumny brown with thin blue and red stripe highlights. Tan socks, brown shoes, impeccable dressing choices. Sometimes Pritchard hits fashion gold, and it makes maintaining attention through the hour an easier task.
The atmosphere feels loose this Friday. The class is thinned by early departures. Pritchard gets laughs early on by pronouncing the full name – “Jenny Abdul Akbar” – of a character in Handful of Dust.
I haven’t read Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, so there’s question as to what I’m doing here. Pritchard says, “You don’t think about the writing here.” I’m not sure what the context is but it seems relevant to the activity of going to an English class for little more than kicks.
Pritchard says something about Waugh “treating non-Englishmen as specimens” and points out a part of the book where characters talk about savage lands and that sort of thing. His comment reminds me of the ramifications this pleasant Friday sermon has in my life as person in society. How did I get to this position, that I can take leisure classes about literature and end up with an degree and decent chance at employment? This is a weird situation. Many people in the world go to college for many years and take only technical classes and still can’t get a job in their field.
My parents paid alot of money for this college. Friday gets grimmer.
Pritchard searches for the title of another Waugh book but can’t find it. He stares at the back of the room for literally like half a minute, gives up, and apologizes. He then talks about how Waugh was walking in downtown London one time and became pleased at a mortuary shop. He forced his family to go into the shop because he thought he could collect material for his next novel. The punchline was that Waugh was quite the character.
After relating this anecdote, Pritchard asks under his breath, “Why do I get onto that?” When Pritchard breaks to reflexivity like this, I enjoy it alot. Maybe that’s perverse.
Pritchard reads aloud from Dust:
“He was prematurely, unnaturually stout, and he carried his burden of flesh as though he were not yet used to it; as though it had been buckled on to him that morning for the first time and he were still experimenting for its better adjustment; there was an instability in his gait and in his eyes a furtive look as though he were at any moment liable to ambush and realized that he was unfairly handicapped for flight. This impression, however, was made soley by his physical appearance; it was the deep bed of fat in which his eyes lay, which gave them this look of suspicion.”
Pritchard reads this section to demonstrate that although Waugh claimed disinterest in the (presumably lowbrow activity of) “writing characters,” he ends up in practice going back on his words. “You can’t go on this way,” Pritchard claims, “caring only about writing tones of voice. If you are interested in tones of voice, you become interested in who’s speaking, eventually.”
It’s the character that interests me to a large extent, Pritchard has made me realize. Characters in all facets of my life: in the books I read, in the professors I choose, in the relationships I form. I want to soak them in and take a piece of them for myself. I’m a lot like Waugh in that way. I can disavow, say that I’m trying to get to uncover life’s greater secrets, but honestly I just notice people’s “furtive looks” and wonder how they got there.
This is what I’m doing with my education. Maybe not the most noble thing, but I’m an anthropology major, so maybe it’s my calling. In any case, I love Pritchard because he’s a compelling character, like a pastor whose sermons you can’t resist. Right now he’s saying, “I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece,” pronouncing “masterpiece” with a haughty British accent that substitutes for scare quotes, “It’s more important to have a sense of the imaginative life.” Amen.