Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Girl's Guide To Modern European Philosophy, A Novel by Charlotte Greig

Susannah is a second year university student, carelessly indulging her confusions in a manner that readers of a certain age will quickly recognize. Watching her drift between her two lovers, her capacity to properly attend to matters is apparently questionable, except when it comes to her curriculum. She mulls over her western philosophers as frequently as she considers the benefits and weaknesses of her lovers, or her wardrobe, but with a little more care. Her moment of clarity is foreordained, of course: she becomes pregnant. Since the year is 1974, and the cultural revolution is only now trying to sort itself out, this moment carries a great deal of freight. Can her philosophers help her, or will they only add to her confusion?

I thought Susannah’s head was an agreeable place to be in for 270-odd pages. Charlotte Greig colors in a point of view that is blinkered, but which is generated by an intelligence that slowly gains the confidence it needs to get beyond the worst of its naiveties. Early in the book Susannah watches a male classmate come apart at the seams after taking Nietzsche just a little too seriously. By book’s end she speculates that western philosophy, with its awe inspiring edifices, might just suffer from being an all-male club: sure, Heidegger considered himself “thrown into the world,” but his mother probably had other thoughts on the matter.

If at first glance that reads like a frivolous tweak, closer inspection reveals some enlivening possibilities. Heidegger’s mother could well have been a voice worth listening to, but for better and for worse, the first generation of women to address the established western canon is the one that roughly came of age in the 60s and 70s. Susannah is it, in other words. Readers might disagree with Susannah’s application of Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling, but I thought it consistent and of a piece with her point of view, and, more to the point, an emotionally powerful conclusion to the story.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that I read this book because of a public critic/author dust-up. I’ve got several scattered thoughts on the matter, which I’ll just lay out for consideration. First of all, now that I’ve read Greig’s novel it beggars the imagination how a guy like A.C. Grayling could put the book down then turn around twice and walk right into it with his chin. If his original review had been as thoughtful as his rejoinder to Greig’s riposte, he wouldn’t have made Greig’s own point so spectacularly.

I think Greig’s objection was chiefly correct, and that Greig was considerably more level-headed when making it than some other authors have recently been. But is Grayling's advice that an author “never reply to negative reviews” essentially sound? In this instance, the truth is I wouldn’t have read Greig’s book if she hadn’t. Now it rests comfortably enough on the same shelf as Elaine Dundy, Jill Neville, Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta. Make of that what you will.

A Girl's Guide To Modern Philosophy by Charlotte Greig (A)

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