Posts Tagged ‘English Literature’

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

The best British novel?

December 8, 2015

51a2J0Q2vbL._AA160_I’ve been reading today that international critics have voted George Eliot’s Middlemarch the best British novel. Interesting.

Such polls of British readers have always had one of Jane Austen’s novels at the top if the ranking: is she too subtle or too parochial for non-British tastes? And what criteria were used for these international critics and their reading: did they have to read in English, or have they read in translation?

Some of the other choices further down the list I also find rather surprising: far too much Dickens, which may have good plots, but was certainly written by the yard; Virginia Woolf in second and third place? And Tristram Shandy – I’m certainly glad it’s appreciated by non-British readers, but also more than a little astonished. What, exactly, determines which British writers readers in other countries come across? I have a cousin who teaches English Literature at a university in China, and some of the texts he has to teach his students certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows…

Back to Middlemarch, which I do think is a very good novel. It’s broad in its scope, painting a panorama of English society at a crucial point in the country’s history; there’s a good range of characters, plenty of plot, and the whole is sustained for eight hundred pages or so, very entertainingly. And there’s plenty beyond this, to make the reader think about issues, people, ideas, language. I suppose one might put it in a similar class to social novels by Zola or Balzac, though I think neither of them have the subtlety of Eliot. Her canvas is broader than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, too.

Where does all this get us? Not very far, I feel. People from other countries also seem to have the picture of the nineteenth century as the great age of the novel. People love lists (shades of Umberto Eco here?) and league tables, and we can all get off on agreeing or pooh-poohing the choices in them. What would an English person’s list of the best French, or German novels look like, and what would a French or German person make of our choices? For that matter, what do you make of my choices in the ‘My lists’ section of this blog?

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…

On determinism

March 16, 2015

I have been thinking about the ways my upbringing, childhood and parents have shaped my world, and in particular, my tastes in reading. Jesuits have said ‘Give me the child until he is five, and I will give you the man’; I rather tend towards the line in Philip Larkin‘s This Be The Verse – if you know the poem, you know what I mean, and if you don’t, you need to look it up and think about it…

What set me to thinking about this particular topic is my increasing awareness that I don’t read very much that overlaps with what my friends and colleagues read, with what is popular or of the moment; I don’t feel that I’m being either perverse or snobbish in this, and it is nevertheless the case. I find relatively few people that I can discuss in detail what I’ve read with; I hope that this blog might spark some responses and dialogues, and sometimes it does.

So, beginning with the obvious (at least as it seems to me): I read a lot of literature from and history of Eastern Europe, and not exclusively from Poland. Given my antecedents, that’s not too surprising. I’m also very interested in religion and matters spiritual; having had a fairly strict and conventional Catholic childhood, that is probably not surprising either. I read a lot of travel writing, as anyone who’s skimmed this blog will be aware; again, given my father’s origins and his extensive (enforced) travels during the Second World War, the idea that there were lots of other unfamiliar, curious, and even strange lands all over the planet took root pretty early on. I was used to hearing a foreign language spoken from my earliest years when my father chatted with his fellow-exiles.

Yet my studies have been in English (mainly) and also French literature, which I can’t say I imbibed from my mother in the same way that I’ve acknowledged my father’s influence above. I have realised that it has been largely English literature which has moved me (sometimes I have strayed into American) and that I have never had any interest in exploring Scots or Welsh or Irish literature in the English language. That leads, of course, into the Englishness versus Britishness debate, and how one views oneself… Though I feel some kind of blood loyalty to Poland, it’s the language and literature of Shakespeare, Donne, Austen and others that have spoken so strongly to me. Although there is Joseph Conrad

And then there are the tastes I have acquired whose origins I cannot fathom. Where did I get my very early love of science fiction from – what made me read Dan Dare in the Eagle so avidly? And whence the (almost) obsession with Sherlock Holmes? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read each of the stories and novels; I know what happens in each of them, the solutions to the mysteries, and I still go back to them. And, why don’t I read the things that I don’t read – if you see what I mean. For a student and teacher of literature, large swathes of it remain literally a closed book to me – there’s a post about that somewhere in here, too.

Is it part of ageing, that one starts to wonder how one was shaped, influenced and became the person that one is, that one inevitably is, and that now, as I accept growing older, I realise that I cannot be anyone else?

How I read…

January 14, 2015

Now that I’m taking my blog seriously, I have found myself reflecting on what has happened to my reading as a result. Am I behaving any differently from before, when I was a teacher?

I’m still reading as widely, and as randomly as I used to: there will be a series of books on a similar theme or by the same author, and then I will strike out at a tangent. You can see that from the sequence of this blog. I think, however, that I’m applying critical skills more sharply and widely. Studying literature, which I suppose I must date from when I studied English Literature at A level, involved gradually developing skills: this continued as I went to university, and then did post-graduate research, and afterwards went into teaching. These skills originally were focused on my reading of prose, poetry and drama, and involved exploring and understanding how a writer works to achieve effects, and evaluating her/his success. Understanding context was also crucial, at least in the ways I was trained.

These skills have never left me (and I always used to be able to assure students who had taken their study of literature to a certain level and were then moving on to something different, that they had a reader’s toolkit for life), but I now find myself applying them to everything I read, whether literature or not. Evaluating and assessing a writer’s use of the language and their ability to communicate meaning effectively, as well as judging the quality of their argument, is what it is all about.

So now, I’m finding myself thinking rather more deliberately as I read, and often jotting things down that occur to me; I reflect on my reaction, on what pleases or annoys me, and consider why. I have often been asked whether having studied literature spoils my enjoyment of what I read, and occasionally students have complained that analysing and studying a book too much spoils it for them; I’ve never felt that to be the case myself, as no matter what skills or analysis I bring to bear on a text, that innocent first reading is always there, the desire to know ‘what happens?’ and the thrill of getting to the end. Even in a non-fiction text, there is still that discovery of newness, and the wondering whether the whole will contribute in a helpful way to my knowledge and understanding.

I love reading: somehow, it connects me to places, people and worlds I’d never otherwise encounter, and I feel more human because of this.

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