English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

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