Skip to content

PO Box 609, Stn P
Toronto, ON M5S 2Y4

[email protected]

  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

In the Margins with Merve Emre: A Conversation

From Brick 112

Throughout his career, Paul Holdengräber has chronicled the times we live in by interviewing artists, writers, and thinkers, and he remained a curator of public curiosity when the pandemic hit. With The Quarantine Tapes, which ran for two years, Holdengräber documented shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. On March 3, 2021, he phoned scholar, author, editor, and critic Merve Emre to find out what had been occupying her days during lockdown.

When this call was placed, Emre was a fellow at Worcester College and her Annotated Mrs. Dalloway had not yet been released. She is now the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University and the director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism. She is a contributor at the New Yorker and is at work on two books, Post-Discipline: Two Futures for Literary Study and Love and Other Useless Pursuits.

Emre spoke with Holdengräber from her office at the Wissenchaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Paul Holdengräber: How have you been spending these months of the pandemic?

Merve Emre: I have spent most of my time reading and writing and taking care of my children. I edited a new annotated edition of Mrs. Dalloway, and I have been rather monkish about its production; I transcribed the novel myself. I wanted to use transcription as a way to mark time during quarantine. I was determined to type and annotate ten pages a day for every day of lockdown. As it turns out, I had too many days and not enough pages.

Holdengräber: That reminds me of years past when I studied with Jesuits, of all people. They believe there is a connection between the hand and the page it writes on, the hand and the mind: that when you transcribe—and Walter Benjamin speaks about this as well—something happens, and I’m wondering what happened to you, Merve? Did it feel as though you had nearly written Mrs. Dalloway?

Emre: I think you have the very curious experience Jorge Luis Borges describes in “Pierre Menard,” in which you feel like you somehow inhabited the mind and the sensibility and even, in some strange and oddly disembodied way, the body of the writer herself. After transcribing thirty or so pages, I could almost anticipate where Virginia Woolf was going to place a semicolon or where she was going to use a particular part of speech or tense. You’re absolutely right to describe it as an odd correspondence between your hand and your mind, or in my case, my mind and my fingers, because I was typing. I’ve never experienced that intense rewiring of the relationship between my mind and my body before.

Monk’s House photographs, circa 1867–1967. Houghton Library, Harvard University

Holdengräber: I can’t wait to behold your annotated Mrs. Dalloway. It will provide me with a grand form of tactile inebriation. But what I would like to address here is how by transcribing you, in effect, commit a philological gesture of slowing down.

Emre: Yes, that’s absolutely true, and it’s interesting you bring up philology. The history of philology is one of my recent loves as well, and one of the fascinating aspects of transcription is that you have to make choices about how to take the text apart and how to put it back together. In the case of Woolf, some of those decisions are minor; for instance, there are grammatical errors or spelling inconsistencies in her original manuscript, and you have to decide whether you want to keep those or not. In other cases, they’re major. For instance, there’s a line that appears in the American first edition of Mrs. Dalloway that does not appear in the English first edition. It’s the moment when Clarissa Dalloway is standing and staring at the Westminster sky and thinking about the news she’s just heard, that a young man, Septimus Smith, has killed himself. She thinks she was glad he had done it because “he made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” As an editor, you must decide whether you keep that line or not. The correspondence we were discussing results from both the slowness of philological transcription—a slowness I had timed and thought about in a fairly systematic way—and the decision-making of philological work and its ambition to make a text cohere.

Holdengräber: Did you decide to be American or English?

Emre: Ninety-nine percent of the time my answer to that question is I decided to be American. I kept the line in. It’s a beautiful line, and it’s interesting to think about using another person’s death to feel the fun and the beauty of life, to think about the ethical relation that establishes between the living and the dead.

Holdengräber: Why ethical? In a way, it’s both ethical and, you seemed to say a moment ago, aesthetic. You said it was a beautiful line, and what crossed my mind immediately was, Well, how about if it was an ugly line or not the best phrasing? Would your decision have been different? And why can you take that latitude? Why can you decide? These are questions of transcription but also questions that any translator must also address.

Emre: Then it becomes a quasi-political question too. Why can I decide? Because I’m the editor— because I have the power to make that decision by virtue of cultural and social capital that I have access to and that others may not. Now, I might have to justify that decision, and I think you very astutely noted the flip I made from the aesthetic to the ethical. I can think of different justifications for it. I keep it in because it’s a beautiful line. Or I keep it in because I want us to think about what it means to relate to the lives and deaths of strangers in an appropriative way. It’s difficult for me to answer those questions or offer justifications about the interrelation of the aesthetic and the ethical without thinking about the particular context in which I was making these decisions, in the middle of a pandemic, when we were being asked to think about how to live in the shadow of many people’s deaths. It felt like including the line was also a testament to the moment in which this edition, my edition with my annotations, was being produced.


Holdengräber: This annotated edition of Mrs. Dalloway was published by Robert Weil for the wonderful Liveright press he runs. I’ve loved so many of these editions, whether it’s the Brothers Grimm or The Wizard of Oz or the Sherlock Holmes novels or Peter Pan. I mean, they’re just glorious editions.

Emre: They’re gorgeously made.

Holdengräber: They are. What is extraordinary is to read the very first page. It reminded me of the edition that the Pléiade brought out of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Remembrance of Things Past), where, in the first sentence, so well-known—“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure” (“For a long time I went to bed early”)—longtemps has fifteen footnotes. So you stumble from the start. You can’t really get beyond the first sentence if you are a footnote reader, and in your case, the same thing happens. We know that first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway by heart: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” and there is a wonderful footnote of yours I’d love for you to elaborate on. You write, in describing the changes made from short story to novel, “Why did Virginia Woolf alter the opening of ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street’? ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.’ What is the difference between gloves and flowers?” And you comment on Woolf’s diary entry from January 2, 1923, “Woolf linked her longing for flowers to her longing for life, for childhood, innocence, and the vitality of youth.” Why are you putting the reader and yourself through this?

Emre: You make it sound like torture.

Holdengräber: No, it’s a really interesting aesthetical pleasure, but as with all aesthetical pleasures, it’s something we must go through.

Emre: Of course. I like how the slowness of philology leads naturally to the slowness of reading an annotated edition and how the reading of an annotated edition is always a form of rereading. It’s always a kind of critical reading. It’s never the experience of reading for the first time. It was thrilling to think about Woolf making the change from gloves to flowers. When Woolf wrote “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” the figure of Clarissa Dalloway was based on a close family friend of hers, Katherine “Kitty” Maxse, and Woolf had a vivid memory of how, after her father died, Maxse came to give her condolences and offered Virginia her hand, which was sheathed in one perfect, pure white glove. I suspect that’s where the gloves in the first version, in the short story, come from. So then why replace them with the flowers? During the first lockdown, my family and I were quarantined on the grounds of Worcester College, the college I’m affiliated with. It has the most colourful, most alive garden. I would take my children there every day and spend hours among the flowers, which seemed to buzz with an entirely new vitality. I had never noticed them before in the way I did then. When you consider that Woolf was writing the novel after recovering from influenza after the war, and Clarissa Dalloway is walking around London after recovering from influenza after the war, you think, Well, of course, flowers make perfect sense. They are, on the one hand, signs of life. They are living, blooming, incandescent things for Woolf. On the other hand, the flowers one cuts and purchases are always already dying. You’re seeking life and you’re inviting death into your house, into your party, into your novel. That’s the reading I offer of the change in the first line. As I’m speaking to you about this, Paul, I’m realizing that, like the desire to include the line from the American edition, the annotation of the flowers is a decision inflected by producing this book during quarantine.

Holdengräber: It’s interesting that a philological, scholarly, erudite edition of Mrs. Dalloway should be contextually determined by this moment in which we’re living. It reminds me, because we are talking about the ethical and aesthetical, of a passage I’ve always loved in Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, where she mentions that on “January 18, 1915, six months into the First World War, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think,’” and then Solnit adds “Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.” How does that resonate for you?

Emre: That’s a beautiful and correct reading of Woolf. I would put it in slightly different terms. The last year has felt like an unending moment of impossibility, of stupidity, and of being stuck, literally, in your own home. Yet from that impossibility there has arisen a sense of possibility, of thinking that the world might be different from the world that gave rise to and so dreadfully mismanaged a global health crisis. I’ve always thought moments of crisis are rare opportunities for reconstitution and for thinking about how you would want life to be otherwise. Woolf writes beautifully about groping around in the dark. She’s always groping around in the dark of her characters’ minds, and like you and Solnit, I don’t think that dark is forbidding. It’s simply the sense of possibility in the face of not knowing what is in front of you. I enjoy thinking of the present in that way too, with a slightly transgressive sense of optimism.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Holdengräber: When you mentioned that annotating an edition is a form of rereading, it brought me back to Marcel Proust, who wrote this sublime text called On Reading, on translating John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and The Bible of Amiens. He talks about the footnotes in the latter as being “comme une mémoire improvisée,” like an improvised memory. When we go back to a writer, we recognize their tics, and since Ruskin hadn’t yet been widely translated into French, Proust wanted to give the reader the impression they had already read Ruskin before.

Emre: I love that. It draws together the two dimensions of annotating something. You want to give the person reading it a sense of your experience as a reader, and that experience is to a certain degree utterly idiosyncratic. That idiosyncrasy determines not only the interpretations you offer of a particular line or the decisions you make to include particular lines but also your choice to annotate certain things. We already discussed my haptic communion with Virginia Woolf through her words, but there was a second form of communion at play too. David Bradshaw, the scholar who previously held my position at Worcester College and passed away some years ago, also annotated and edited a version of Mrs. Dalloway. Reading his annotations and figuring out why he chose to annotate certain things and not others, and quietly articulating how I would choose differently, became a wonderful exercise in coming into contact with another person’s mind across great distances in time and space. If experience is one part of annotation, the other part is pedagogy. A lot of my criticism and a lot of the writing is a form of teaching. Footnoting or annotating lets you speak to a reader and say, “Look. Look at this. Do you see this? Here is what you need in order to understand it. If you do, here is one possible interpretation you can produce. You are, of course, welcome to produce other interpretations. But this is a good starting point for a conversation we can have about what justifies my decision to draw your attention to this particular word, this image, this paragraph, or this theme.” The combination of the experiential and the pedagogical, along with the more basic desire to preserve and transmit a text across history, sits at the heart of editing and annotating.

Holdengräber: In a way, you’re talking of the usefulness of literature, the way it can be useful to both understand the text, the work one is reading, and perhaps better analyze the reality we’re living as well. Through your criticism, I discovered a writer I am eager to read. I always say I have holes in my culture so it can breathe. I never came across Sam See until I read your review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins, “I like to imagine that Sam See would have started a new field called ‘Critical Love Studies,’” and then you quote Charles Darwin, and you say that for Darwin, “love was the only emo- tion that did not ‘habitually lead to any special line of action.’” It made me want to discover who Sam See was. I found how you invited the reader into the work of someone who for me was unknown was really like saying, not as your annotated edition does, but in a different way, Reader, here is somebody you should pay attention to.

Emre: I’m very happy and touched you read the essay. Sam was one of my advisers in graduate school. He passed away while I was a student, and that piece was written to commemorate the posthumous publication of his book, Queer Nature, Queer Mythologies. A great deal of what I’ve said up to this point about slow reading, about philology, about pedagogy, about what it means to engage with another person’s mind through their work, I learned from Sam. One of the many wonderful things he helped me ask myself was, What does it mean to write criticism lovingly? It doesn’t mean a kind of uncritical adulation of a writer or their work. It doesn’t require gushing. It requires a willingness to find out what a novel wants to teach you. It requires allowing yourself to be ignorant in the presence of another’s mind. That’s how I put it in that piece.

Novels are some of the most fine-grained and exhilarating repositories of people’s thinking that we can be ignorant alongside. One of the mandates of criticism is to abandon yourself to that ignorance—to grope in the dark, as Woolf might say—and to find some spark, some illumination, that allows you not only to see what the novel is doing anew but also to see the world in a strange and dazzling way. That’s what Sam’s criticism is so good at doing. Of course, criticism, as I describe it, can be purposeless. It doesn’t have to have an immediate political or economic or social effect. Sometimes, criticism’s only effect is the production of knowledge and pleasure for the sake of knowledge and pleasure. For Sam, that linked back to Darwin’s understanding of love. Love doesn’t habitually lead to any particular line of action. You could love someone and not do anything at all about it, right? You can simply love, and I think that’s the connection Sam would have drawn at least, or that I’m drawing now, between the work of love and the work of criticism.

Holdengräber: It’s criticism as celebration, which is a form of criticism I personally prefer, and I have models for that in people like Wayne Koestenbaum, who doesn’t shy away from difficulty but prefers to gravitate toward what is worthy of enthusiasm.

I imagine you think a lot about pedagogy, and I know you think about how literature is now put to use in all kinds of other disciplines. I’m curious to hear what those thoughts are. For instance: Shall we read the ancient Greeks because they might teach CEOs how to lead or lawyers how to adjudicate?

Emre: I’m working on a book now that touches on all those questions, which are difficult questions for me to answer. Maybe instead of answering directly, I will tell you the two things I think you need to hold in your mind to appreciate why these are complicated questions. The first is that it’s wonderful for more people to read. I do see that as a great thing, and in the book I’m writing about the movement of literary pedagogy into other spaces—business schools, medical schools, law schools, and, in a slightly different context, into prison literacy initiatives and adult education—I show people engaging in earnest and intelligent ways with literature. I think having different kinds of critical modalities circulating in the world is good. The other thing you have to hold in your mind is that sometimes claims about the benefits of literary initiatives are linked to claims about how literary scholars are not doing their jobs very well, and that it would be better if literature were read and analyzed by people who didn’t have the specialized knowledge or the credentials that literary scholars do. Even in mostly intellectual writing by magazine writers, you will often find snide dismissals of academics or academics as critics. I’m curious about why those two things increasingly go hand in hand, and I’m certain that they do not need to.

Paul Holdengräber is an interviewer and curator. He was the founding executive director of Onassis Los Angeles. Previously, he founded and directed the New York Public Library’s LIVE from the NYPL cultural series, where he interviewed everyone from Patti Smith to Zadie Smith, Ricky Jay to Jay-Z, Wes Anderson to Helen Mirren, Werner Herzog to Mike Tyson, and hosted over six hundred events.

More Articles

Read from Brick 111