Event Magazine Review - A Large Harmonium

Reviewed by: David Ingham

This is an excerpt from a review that originally appeared in Event issue 41.2 in 2013.


[...]

The relationship between literature and life takes on a rather different cast in Sue Sorensen's A Large Harmonium. Late in the novel, the narrator inadvertently has too much (or enough) to drink before she presents a paper at a pretentious, theory-ridden academic conference, and uses the phrase 'self-congratulatory, masturbatory brain swill,' as well as beginning by saying she 'was sorry that [her] paper was a concrete study of actual books and that some of [the audience] might have difficulty following it.' It's her 'Lucky Jim moment' (a reference, of course, to Kingsley Amis's wickedly funny academic satire).

So is Harmonium an academic satire? Well, yes, but it's a lot more than that. To be sure, English departments these days frequently verge on self-satire--as Sorensen's narrator, scanning the program for the conference and finding a ludicrously entitled paper reflects, 'Is this for real? I can't even tell any more what is real at these conferences. Everything seems parodic to me.' It is certainly an academic novel. The narrative arc is a year in the life of a harried English prof, Janet (Janey) Erlickson, who is also a wife and mother, and finds that juggling these roles is almost too much for her. Fittingly it begins in April. As no academic needs Eliot to point out, it's the cruelest month, with its mountains of marking followed by the feeling of being strangely bereft--abandoned--by the students around whom life has revolved for a semester or two.

The details of her teaching life, especially, ring exactly true, which is hardly surprising, given that Sorensen is an English professor. Janey's preferred teaching method should strike a chord with chalk-stained (oops--nowadays that should probably be Jiffy-marker-stained) wretches everywhere:

The way I teach works better if the students have actually read the book. I teach informally, with a lot of open-ended questions and areas of rambling discovery. But I need someone to discover it with me. If it's just me standing up there doing the rambling and discovering, the whole enterprise starts to resemble a dentist working on a mouth that has no teeth. It becomes surreal.

Note also this hilarious marking moment: 'Elizabeth Bennett's pride,' a student has written in an essay on Austen's Pride and Prejudice, 'prevents her from licking Mr. Darcy when he first proposed.' (This has to be from an actual studnet essay--it's too perfect to be invented.) As is to be expected, the novel is thick with literary allusions, from Chaucer to e.e. cummings, but Sorensen supplies enough context to help the reader through them.

But Janey isn't completely happy--with any of her roles--though she keeps on trying. She sends out articles, which don't get accepted, tries unsuccessfully to start an electronic journal, and takes a stab at a mystery novel, to no avail. Her attempts at matchmaking (between one of her colleagues and a charming, rakish musician friend of her nearly perfect husband, Hector, who is a music prof) seem to have gone awry. Little Max, their toddler, emphasizes the terrible in enfant terrible and of course she worries that she's at least partly responsible. There are even cracks in her relationship with Hector. 

By now, though, it's March, the season of hope. Unexpected support lifts Janey's spirits, and even the seemingly unsuccessful matchmaking shows promise. What really pulls it together for her, though, is the titular harmonium, barely mentioned until the end of the novel, gathering dust in a Music Department practice room. Hector has been writing a short opera based on Patient Griselda, hoping Janey will sing the title role, and he plays music from it for her on the harmonium: 'Hector is taking everything awful about the Griselda story into his own body and making it over, making Griselda's nakedness his. But it is also still hers. And mine. So there is no difference, no Other.'

Earlier in the novel, Janey has been tantalized by an idea that keeps eluding her: 'It is something about the entire basis of domestic life, about what it really feels like, from top to bottom, to be a wife and mother... but it will alwasy elude you... I cannot hold it in my head for long enough to trap it, envelop it in language.' Yet this is precisely what Sorensen has done, and not a note rings false. 

The relationship between literature and life takes on a rather different

cast in Sue Sorensen’s A Large Harmonium. Late in the novel, the

narrator inadvertently has too much (or enough) to drink before she

presents a paper at a pretentious, theory-ridden academic conference,

and uses the phrase ‘self-congratulatory, masturbatory brain

swill,’ as well as beginning by saying she ‘was sorry that [her] paper

was a concrete study of actual books and that some of [the audience]

might have difficulty following it.’ It’s her ‘Lucky Jim moment’

(a reference, of course, to Kingsley Amis’s wickedly funny academic

satire).

So is Harmonium an academic satire? Well, yes, but it’s a lot more

than that. To be sure, English departments these days frequently

verge on self-satire—as Sorensen’s narrator, scanning the program

for the conference and finding a ludicrously entitled paper reflects,

‘Is this for real? I can’t even tell any more what is real at these confer90

ences. Everything seems parodic to me.’ It is certainly an academic

novel. The narrative arc is a year in the life of a harried English prof,

Janet (Janey) Erlickson, who is also a wife and mother, and finds

that juggling these roles is almost too much for her. Fittingly it begins

in April. As no academic needs Eliot to point out, it’s the cruellest

month, with its mountains of marking followed by the feeling of

being strangely bereft—abandoned—by the students around whom

life has revolved for a semester or two.

The details of her teaching life, especially, ring exactly true, which

is hardly surprising, given that Sorensen is an English professor.

Janey’s preferred teaching method should strike a chord with chalkstained

(oops—nowadays that should probably be Jiffy-markerstained)

wretches everywhere:

The way I teach works better if the students have actually read the

book. I teach informally, with a lot of open-ended questions and areas

of rambling discovery. But I need someone to discover it with me. If

it’s just me standing up there doing the rambling and discovering, the

whole enterprise starts to resemble a dentist working on a mouth that

has no teeth. It becomes surreal.

Note also this hilarious marking moment: ‘Elizabeth Bennett’s pride,’

a student has written in an essay on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,

‘prevents her from licking Mr. Darcy when he first proposed.’ (This

has to be from an actual student essay—it’s too perfect to be invented.)

As is to be expected, the novel is thick with literary allusions,

from Chaucer to e.e. cummings, but Sorensen supplies enough context

to help the reader through them.

But Janey isn’t completely happy—with any of her roles—though

she keeps on trying. She sends out articles, which don’t get accepted,

tries unsuccessfully to start an electronic journal, and takes a stab

at a mystery novel, to no avail. Her attempts at matchmaking (between

one of her colleagues and a charming, rakish musician friend

of her nearly perfect husband, Hector, who is a music prof) seem to

have gone awry. Little Max, their toddler, emphasizes the terrible in

enfant terrible and of course she worries that she’s at least partly

responsible. There are even cracks in her relationship with Hector.

By now, though, it’s March, the season of hope. Unexpected

support lifts Janey’s spirits, and even the seemingly unsuccessful

matchmaking shows promise. What really pulls it together for her,

though, is the titular harmonium, barely mentioned until the end

of the novel, gathering dust in a Music Department practice room.

Hector has been writing a short opera based on Patient Griselda,

hoping Janey will sing the title role, and he plays music from it for

her on the harmonium: ‘Hector is taking everything awful about

the Griselda story into his own body and making it over, making

Griselda’s nakedness his. But it is also still hers. And mine. So there

is no difference, no Other.’

Earlier in the novel, Janey has been tantalized by an idea that

keeps eluding her: ‘It is something about the entire basis of domestic

life, about what it really feels like, from top to bottom, to be a wife

and mother... but it will always elude you.... I cannot hold it in my

head for long enough to trap it, envelop it in language.’ Yet this is

precisely what Sorensen has done, and not a note rings false.

—David Ing

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