Posts Tagged ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

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On censorship and the freedom to write

August 18, 2015

I’ve been thinking about censorship, and the control of ideas and writers, which has gone on in all societies almost as long as writing and thinking, as rulers quickly became aware of the subversive power of words. The basic idea is to prevent, or if that is not possible, to control publication, thus restricting access. For instance, until relatively recently, the Catholic Church maintained an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books) which the faithful were not allowed to read; all kinds of political, religious, philosophical and social writings were not supposed to be read by good Catholics. Books on doctrine were carefully vetted: you can still see nowadays the Nihil Obstat (nothing against doctrine) and Imprimatur (let it be printed) granted by a highly-placed cleric often labelled as Censor…

In Britain, until 1964, all plays performed in the UK had to be licensed by the Lord Chancellor, and there were many reasons why a license might not be granted. The British have always been very wary of any overt sexual content in literature, and the Obscene Publications Act was used to prevent the publication in this country of such books as James Joyce‘s Ulysses, DH Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn. The trouble was, that what couldn’t be printed here could be printed abroad and brought back, in exactly the same way as religious tracts were smuggled around Europe during the Reformation.

We tend to associate censorship with totalitarian regimes rather than our own country, and it’s true, dictatorships can deal with the issues of control of ideas rather more directly and effectively. The Nazis banned books, and publicly burned them (there’s a monument in Berlin’s Bebelplatz commemorating just such actions); given the severity of punishments meted out for small infringements, not much more was required. Writers went into exile – Bertolt Brecht, for instance, knowing that his life was at risk if her remained in Germany. And writers were killed; Irene Nemirovsky, French writer of Jewish origin, author of the astonishing Suite Francaise, was killed in Auschwitz.

The Soviet Union had longer to get ideas under control. Writers perished in Stalin’s purges – the poet Osip Mandelstam, for example – and others had narrow escapes. Some went into exile voluntarily, others were forced out of the country: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had one novella published in the country during a brief thaw, eventually ended up in the USA, a twisted and embittered man cut off from his roots, losing his creative powers. This, one suspects, was exactly what the Soviet authorities desired: he couldn’t be openly tried and jailed or executed, and he couldn’t be kept under control at home; exiled, he was emasculated.

Book production was controlled by censorship and also by paper rationing. Many writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, a euphemism for accepting that, whilst they could write relatively freely, they could not disseminate their manuscripts, and would certainly not be published. As long as they remained quiet, they would be left alone. So a masterpiece such as Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, which has rightly been called a twentieth century War and Peace, sat neglected for years; a KGB officer who read the manuscript was reported to have told Grossman that there was no way the book could be published for at least two centuries…

And every now and then there surfaces from the USA some bizarre story of a school board somewhere wanting to ban a book and prevent students from reading it because they don’t like the ideas in it – To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books, but any book with vaguely left-wing ideas or hints of sexual freedom is fair game for the book-burners in some places.

The situation is rather more sinister in the West, in some ways. Yes, we can read anything we like as long as we know it exists and we can get hold of it: we have that freedom. But, books which challenge the accepted social, political or religious order are tolerated because of their basically relative irrelevance in the greater scheme of things; literary culture is a very minority interest in the days of modern bread and circuses, The Sun newspaper, Sky TV and Netflix being what most people accept that they want, having been told that and been sold them.

(to be concluded)

 

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