Tag Archives: canon

The state of literature

I read this today.

I really just wanted to say that I agree with this article, and this perspective on literary trends. I would also like to say that contemporary best-seller status does not necessarily reflect long-term classic status. Books that sell incredibly well very quickly (which are the books that hit the best-seller list, whether they stay there or not is irrelevant) are not always remembered even a year after publication, and books that do not sell very well at first are sometimes the ones that are lauded and studied in generations to come (The Great Gatsby is a common example of this, but not the only one).  Literary history is just like any other form of history: the full impact of events cannot always be seen until years or decades later.

Just for example, take a look at the bestsellers from 1910-1919, and see how many of the titles or even the authors you’ve heard of.  I am fairly well-read, and I haven’t even heard of that many; and some of the authors I have heard of in other contexts (Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and Arnold Bennett). The only titles I know on the list – a ten-year list – are Pollyanna and In Flanders Fields.

So, while the state of modern literature in all its forms is wide-ranging and sometimes frustrating, this is not a new thing, and in fifty or a hundred years no one will remember the books that are complained about now, except perhaps as a footnote in a literary encyclopedia.

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A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. I haven’t (re)read this recently.  But I was talking with my best friend the other day about the classes we’d taken in college and realized that it had been ten years, almost exactly, since I’d read this book for the first time. And since it is my stated favourite book of all time, I thought I should write something to mark a decade of its being in my life.

It was J-term of my freshman year, and I was taking Reading Fiction. It was the perfect class for me: it combined my favourite professor with my favourite activity (reading books and then talking about them). I don’t remember exactly what else we read in that class: A Lesson Before Dying, I think, and at least one other.  I do remember A Room with a View.

It’s not the absolute best book ever, as many critics have pointed out. Most don’t even consider it Forster’s best book – they usually pick Howards End or A Passage to India. But I just fell in love with A Room with a View. It could be that I identified quite strongly with Lucy – she was about my age, wide-eyed and eager to learn but with a strong sense, almost an oppressive sense, for what “should” be done (stimulated, of course, by Charlotte and Cecil and, to a lesser extent, her mother and Freddy). She also was an amateur musician, who used the piano in particular as a way to find an emotional balance. Sound familiar?

Three years later, when it came time for me to decide on a project for my senior paper, I decided to write about A Room with a View and the other “early” works of Forster (i.e. everything except A Passage to India, which I didn’t finally get through until last year sometime), and the way that they used specific musical pieces as themes within the books as well as structure. It probably wasn’t the most innovative thing ever, but I noticed that each of the books featured music in a significant way, usually a particular piece or style of music, and that piece or style of music was also reflected in the structure of the book.

When I was thinking about doing a Master’s degree, I thought about the periods of literature that I enjoyed and was obsessed with: medieval literature, especially Robin Hood, and early 20th century literature with Forster. That’s why I decided to do the degree I did – the idea was that by studying both periods, I could more easily narrow my interest.  Well, I certainly did  that: I realized that Forster was essentially the only one of that era that I wanted to study further, but I was fascinated by the many, many works of Middle English that I encountered.  I realized that I was more interested in Virginia Woolf, for example, when she was writing about Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen when I could compare her to Forster,  and Joyce not at all.

I recognize that it’s not the best book ever. The film version is certainly not spectacular, although it’s not bad. It’s a bit obvious with some of the symbolism (like, say, the view).  But every time I read it, I find more things to analyze and enjoy in it.  Like Forster’s use of light and shadow with George, for instance. It has entered my consciousness in a lot of ways – I don’t have it completely memorized, but I know it well enough that passages of it go through my head simply by seeing the title.  I also kind of annoyed my companions when we were in Florence by pointing out places that were significant from the book. I freely admit that Santa Croce was one of my favourite places in Florence not just because of the artwork and the tombs and the Dante statue, but because it was the church that Lucy went to with her Baedeker.

It’s been a couple of years since I last read A Room with a View; it may be about time for me to read it again.

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Remembrance Day

I am fascinated by World War One, and have been for years. I am not a military historian: the troop movements and strategies and big-picture things like that do not interest me at all (at least not for this time period, not yet). I am much more interested in the little picture: daily life things, both in the trenches and at home.

One of my favourite books ever is Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the Anne series, which focuses on the Canadian home front. Politics and strategies and “big picture” events are just a background to things like soup tureens and green hats and Dog Monday and falling in love. It’s about how the people live and deal with the war. It honours the soldiers without over-glorifying the war. (You could argue that Walter’s role in the book is that of a “glorious sacrifice”, but I don’t think that they sugarcoat it too much. Walter’s enlistment is a huge dilemma for him, Anne and Rilla both struggle with feelings of resentment toward him both for enlisting and for dying, and the trauma of casualties and capture permeate the whole second half of the book. Yeah, everything gets wrapped up shiny with a bow, but I really hate the assumption that literature must be tragic to be true.)

One of my favourite poems of all time is also a Canadian World War One poem (I think the Canadian thing is a coincidence) – “In Flanders Fields”, by John MacRae. This poem does glorify the sacrifice of war, and is kind of similar to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” in terms of blatant recruitment attempts. But it doesn’t have to be only that. I like the poem because it reminds me that life goes on during and despite war. I also think that the last stanza doesn’t have to be limited to military meaning. “The torch” can be any number of ideas, not just military continuity.

MacRae is not the only “war poet” that I like, though. I love Sassoon and Owen and Rosenberg – anyone who can shine some light on “daily life” of men in the trenches – what they experienced, what they felt, and how they reacted.

World War One is so fascinating to me, I think, because of its ‘transition’ status. It so often gets overshadowed by World War Two (and rightly so, many times; WW2 was horrifying on so many levels) but it really paved the way for a lot of the 20th century. It was the first “world” war, affecting people on nearly every continent. It was the first to use some of the “modern” military equipment like tanks and airplanes. It was also one of the first that recognized PTSD (shell-shock) as a legitimate condition to be treated (granted, there was a lot of misdiagnosis and under-treatment but that definitely still happens today). And let’s not forget that it led pretty directly to the conditions for WW2 – even at the time, people called the Versailles Treaty a 20-year cease-fire instead of a lasting peace.

From a literary point of view, it was the first to really accept daily life/common man poems, not just heraldic glorification of soldiery, as part of the canon. Look at Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” against anything by Sassoon or Owen: the difference in tone is dramatic and far more than would be expected simply from the passing years. It also developed the first cracks in the literary culture that eventually led to “modernism” (and that word is a post in and of itself, not to mention a PhD. For someone else.)

World War One changed the world in so many ways, which is why I think Remembrance Day is such a moving holiday (for me). Memorial Day in the US is so often just another day off, or the de facto start of summer; Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day is still a way to support soldiers and others who serve without necessarily supporting war, as well as remembering others we’ve lost from the world.

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Dickens, Dorrit, and Davies

I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:

  • There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
  • I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).

I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.

It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.

I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick PapersChristmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]

I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.

Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.

*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.

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