To Read or Not to Read – What is the Question?

Rereading Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon this week. Not shy about speaking his (immensely well stocked) mind, it caused quite a stir at the time. It still does.

His basic question is: with each of us having only one lifetime and with a world of books out there, which ones should we read and how should we read them?

Simple surely? No unfortunately. It never is and it never has been.

WEstern Canon

Going through the chapters I’m struck again by a comment the president of an Irish seminary said to me a few years ago. (I had no affiliation to the institution. I was simply there as a paid consultant). “For a young person to enter religious life now is considered radically counter cultural. It goes completely against the prevailing beliefs of most people in society. But in the 1960s when vocations in Ireland were at their peak, the counter-culture meant Bob Dylan. Now he’s an institution and we’re the ones going against the tide!”

Bear with me on this one. Don’t troll me for seeming to give airtime to a “bigoted” counterview just for a moment.

Bloom was pilloried for advocating a Western Canon of writers composed almost exclusively of dead, white (European) males. Challenging himself to condense the canon to a baker’s dozen he named Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Kafka and Proust.

dead white males

In this book and throughout his career, Bloom, a Yale professor and son of a garment worker, held firm to the idea that literature should be assessed according to its aesthetic quality rather than its social context. In simple terms – was the writing art good regardless of who wrote it or if it said the “right” things.

A cracking debate on the two fundamental and opposing views of modern literary theory took place in 1999 between Bloom and Professor Jacqueline Rose on Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio programme, In Our Time. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00545dp. In the latter part of the debate Bloom came across as pompous, patrician (patriarchal?) and, in my view, Rose’s poise and especially her observations on Shakespeare gave her the upper hand.

For Bloom, Shakespeare is undoubtedly at the centre of our western literary canon. But Rose asked which female Shakespearean character, except possible for Portia in The Merchant of Venice, is strong and substantial? Are they not otherwise all accommodating maidens and counterfoils? How do they inform and reflect the experiences she feels as a woman?

All Professor Rose’s points were well made and convincing. But Bloom always held firm to his deep views on literature. He rallied against what he thought was the sinking of real literary studies (“imaginative literature”) into the morass of “cultural studies” departments. Bloom contented that “great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of the worthiest causes: feminism, African-American culturalism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment.” Every great writer is a law onto him/herself and “is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests, which center entirely upon individualisation”. 

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These observations will strike home for anyone who has studied English in college in the last 30 years. I recall one of those endless undergraduate lectures on literary theory and the moment my young heart sank like a stone. This was just before The Western Canon was published. Was the dreary theory lecture on structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism, French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction or formalism? I really don’t remember. But I do remember the “moment of truth”. “You know” the chirpy lecturer informed us “for a deconstructionist critic Shakespeare and a superman comic are of equal literary quality and value. It’s all just a question of how you approach the analysis”.

So what’s was the point? What was I studying? Was it an academic’s PhD thesis or was it the writing of a great mind and original artist. Did I care unduly if the writer was of a certain colour, nationality or background?

Every year interest in studying Arts in Irish universities declines. What is it that will fan the flame of interest in books among young students? In the opening chapter of the Western Canon Bloom states “we are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice”.

Do the universities offer students the opportunity to really develop authenticity, creativity, independent-thought and critical expression – all attributes seen by even the most hard-nosed careerists as essential in today’s lives. Do schools and universities provide a place for the study of the life-enhancing humanities or is it just social theory?

As a parent or teacher, how can we inspire a child to read and learn with curiosity? It’s not easy. Especially as Bloom contented that to grasp the Western Canon in a meaningful way would involve the reading, rereading and contemplation of more than 3,000 books – something all but impossible in one lifetime. (In many ways I’m old-school and I consider myself well read. And I’ve still only managed about half of that number).

We live in a fraught age when literature can help us so much in our personal and professional lives. But with each screaming headline prompting anger, indignation and anxiety and social media gobbling us our every waking hour, where is the physical and head-space to read?

So let’s go back to the basic question. Why would a young person read and re-read? Is it not, as it has always been, for the story? And then for its writing quality and artistic originally? (Something once called “aesthetic quality”. Something, for example, abounding in a book like Wuthering Heights.)

Bloom died only a few months ago – in October 2019. But maybe the old curmudgeon might have had a important point to make to us after all?

Read him yourself. Then you decide.

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What’s Your Covid Read?

First Posted: March 20th 2020

It’s an unpredictable and difficult period for us all. Self-isolation (for those of us lucky enough to do so) isn’t easy. And we’re only just getting into it. This will extend for weeks. Cabin fever will soon take hold! So let’s take care of ourselves.

People are using social media to stay connected, support each other and to suggest good ways to spend this time. Looking to the positive, we now have the unique time and mental-space to read (or re-read) a book that we’ve long had “on the list”. So rather than just scroll and watch screens, why don’t we read “that book” and share our thoughts on it?

I first read War and Peace 20 years ago and I’ve been meaning to go back to it for at least two years. Something always got in the way. 300 pages into re-reading it, here are my five thoughts for those who might be interested in Tolstoy’s classic.

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  1. Give it a chance (it’s a gripping read)

It’s up there with the classics everyone knows but few of us have read – or at least have got no further than chapter two. Who gets past the “snot green sea” Stephen Dedalus describes from the martello in Ulysses, or the tilting at windmills in Don Quixote, or – for the more adventurous – beyond Swann’s Way in Proust’s enormous tome?

The challenge for most people about War and Peace is not its length (my copy has 1,345 pages!) but its panoply of characters. They seem endless! But just remember that the three central characters are Pierre, Andrew and Natasha, and that the Rostovs and the Bolkonskis are the most important families. That way you can’t go too far wrong.

Because like other lengthy Russian masterpieces – Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate – once you get into it War and Peace it really is a page turner.

  1. Life is unpredictable (and it always has been)

If my house ever goes on fire, there are only two books I’d save. My collected Yeats, signed for me by his daughter, Anne, and son, Michael and my 1942 US edition of War and Peace.

Spine

I picked up my copy from one of the wonderful second-hand bookshops in Berkeley when I lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s/2000s. What makes this 80 year old Simon and Schuster edition so special is when it was released. In November 1941, months before the Battle of Stalingrad, nobody (including the publisher) knew if the Germans would, like Napoleon, succeed in driving and destroying all before them to reach Moscow.

Maps of both campaigns – Napoleon’s and Hitler’s – literally bookend the edition. The backcover map shows the terrifying “Farthest Line of Advance” in red to indicate Hitler’s position by the time of the book’s release.

Nazi 1942

It seems to say: “We don’t know how these tumultuous events they will turn out. But similar experiences have happened in past centuries.” Illustrating how calamitous events were experienced in the moment by those in the past, helps us to endure in the present.

Isn’t that one of the values of great literature?

  1. You’re in for a treat (if you’ve never read Tolstoy)

And on that note….if you have never before read Tolstoy, a huge experience awaits you.

Tolstoy doesn’t “write”. Everything in his books gleams with “realness”. It’s as if his hand reaches out from the tome and drags you in real life.

Tolstoy served as a soldier in the Crimea. He knew war. He brings it to life. Even when he does use literary artifice, it never seems contrived. Think of the very first military salvos in War and Peace where he inserts an accountant on the battle scene. Through the accountant’s unmilitary eyes, in just a single page Tolstoy creates the disorientation and fear of war for the reader who has almost certainly never experienced battle themselves.

But War and Peace contains more than army campaigns. While slightly more a “man’s book” than Anna Karenina, it’s also “a woman’s book” too. It tells of courtships, marriages, friendships, enmities, deathbed manipulations and family relationships. It shows life and human-interactions with blinding intensity and in a way that is wholly real for the world we know today.

Anna Karenina, written after War and Peace, is often seen as the more perfect novel. I’ve read it twice and I agree. But to my mind War and Peace contains the finest prose passage in all of literature. Turn to Book 3, Chapter 13 (after reading the chapters with the characters’ meditations in advance of the conflict). This passage describes Prince Andrew’s sensations as he lies severely injured, gazing at a translucent sky, hovering between life and death, on the bloody field of defeat after the Battle of Austerlitz.

It’s an epiphany. It’s wondrous. Read it. Read it!

  1. Countless ordinary people really shape the world (not just the leaders and politicians)

War and Peace deals with the lives of many men and women of all ages over a period of more than a decade. It is however centred on one “great event”, Napolean’s 1812 invasion of Russia. The French Emperor swept across Austria, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia to capture an abandoned Moscow. Ultimately the Russian winter and an army under General Mikhail Kutuzov routed the French on the famous retreat from Moscow. Arguably, just as in the Second World War, it was the Russian campaign that defeated this powerful invader threatening the world’s peace and prosperity.

Perhaps one reason for the enormous scope – and length – of War and Peace is how the author believed history is shaped. The decisions and personalities of “Great Men” (Napoleon and Kutuzov) may influence human affairs. But for Tolstoy, events are predominantly dictated by chance and the individual actions of many ordinary courageous people.

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In our own time of less than stellar international political leaders and often strident, false reporting, it is something for us to think about. Once again, many brave ordinary citizens are quietly battling for those around them. There really is still great humanity out there.

  1. Time passes (we endure)

The Corona virus will “ground” us for weeks, if not months. It will be a time of many concerns and busy households. We could do a few jigsaws, watch endless Netflix TV, take up a new hobby or worry ourselves endlessly. Or we could let a few great writers show us wider vistas – and just how vivid and extraordinary the world and its people can be.

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That’s why I will be reading War and Peace during the Corona virus.

What about you?

3 Questions to Ask When Writing a Book

As you put in those years (it will be years, sorry!) writing your book, it’s essential to repeatedly ask yourself three things.

  1. What’s it about?

Don’t say “lots of stuff, it’s a fascinating story” and then struggle to explain. Most books can only “carry” at most two main threads. Stick to them. If this means you need to cut lots of well written text, do it. If you aren’t ruthless at this stage it will make the writing process endless. At the publication and promotion stages it may make you come across as lacking a compelling story or, for non-fiction, lacking in clear purpose.

snoopy-conts-it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night-suddenly-27172989

     2. Who is your reader?

Some UK newspapers are famously reputed to have reader levels in mind. The Sun is written for an under 14 literacy level, the Daily Express for under 16 and the Telegraph and The Guardian for over 17.

This is eminently sensible because who your intended reader is will define the style and content of your book. Very specifically it determines your “voice”. Are you going to be humourous, informative, colloquial, authorative? How “tight” will your style be? Will it be Hemmingwayesque or Proustian?! Twitter pithy or Sunday supplement effusive?

During the writing of my books, I always reach a stage where I have one (or at most two) people in mind as my end reader. These are named people. Does he/she need this level of (historical/political/social/geographic) explanation? Is that reference too rarefied – or too obvious? Would he/she see the humour? How patient would he/she be with the pace of the narrative? Am I cutting too much – would the reader like more in this section?. Is this too long-winded? Am I adding something just because it’s an interesting detail but not related to the central story/ies?

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     3. Are we there yet? (or when do I know it’s finished?)

Every writer fluctuates between the sense of being an undiscovered genius or an idiot for ever thinking they could put pen to paper. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Writing a book, one you feel really holds together, is an endless process. So when is it “done”?

There’s no right answer here either, I’d suggest. I prefer to draw in (impose upon!) a trusted reader only when I think I can’t proceed without a fresh steer. Don’t waste the time of your good readers (invariably friends) if you want to call upon them again. Most friends, at best, will read your draft only once. Only the most dedicated will read it twice over your years of toil. So be smart and value their time and goodwill.

If you feel truthfully the text needs more work it’s almost certainly not ready to share. Are the sentences polished when you open a page at random? Does the text “sing” (at least to your ears) or are there still jagged sentences and paragraphs? If so, continue to write, edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite. Only then show it to your reader(s).

At some stage you must have the confidence to say (hand on heart!) “yes, this is good. And I’m prepared for anyone to read it without any long preamble or excuses. This is no longer ‘just a draft’. Rather ‘this is it’ (more or less). And in 5 years time I know I’ll feel the same about it too”.

If you feel you’ve done everything you can to prepare your “baby” for the real world, then most likely it’s ready. That’s when you should consider sending it out on its own two feet via a paid editor or indeed by directly contacting publishers. And that’s when another process altogether begins!

Joyce called a halt to his endless (re)writing and tinkering of Ulysses so it would be published by his 40th birthday. Writing is subjective. So is reading. Just as there’s no perfect book, so there’s no perfect way to know it’s “finished”.

So stick with it and enjoy your time with “baby” as you help it to grow and flourish!

Any other thoughts or helpful tips you’d have on this thorny subject please email is on paulmartinwriter@gmail.com

 

Recent Presentations – Dublin/Wicklow

In October and November 2019 it was a pleasure to do presentations and answer questions on the Bicycle Thief and the German Wife with four groups in south Dublin and Wicklow .

My thanks to Jetta and Linda in the U3A groups in Blackrock (Deansgrange) and Bray, to Gabrielle in the Dun Laoghaire Active Retirement Association and to Rosemary from the the Dalkey Women’s Group for their invitations.

If your association/group would like to include a presentation on this very moving family – and intriguing national – Italian story in your 2020 schedule, please contact me on paulmartinwriter@gmail.com.

 

UCD Book Presentation Event

My sincere thanks to Ass. Prof. Ursula Fanning, Ass. Prof. Eric Haywood, Melanie Pape and all in the UCD SLCL for hosting a wonderful event for “The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife” last week and to all who attended. Eric gave a very kind introduction to the book and was most engaging in his role as MC. The observations and experiences shared by Corinna Salvadori Lonergan, Professor Emerita of Italian, Trinity College Dublin, were particularly striking and memorable on this intriguing evening of discussion.

UCD 221019 Eric HaywardAss. Prof. Eric Haywood (with author) in the UCD School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.

“The German Wife”: SudTirol or Alto Adige?

In my three recent launch events in Italy and Ireland, audiences showed great interest in one of The Bicycle Thief and the German Wife‘s central threads. This was Babí’s homeland of the SudTirol which became incorporated into Italy when Babí was aged 3 following WWI. The infamous option and the impact on Babi’s own family – including one brother-in-law who ended up with the German army in Stalingrad – are aspects that have generally been wiped out of Italian history.

The two books (available in English) providing good overviews of these times are:

  • The South Tyrol Question, 1866-2010: from national rage to regional state by Georg Grote (who upto recently taught in UCD)
  • South Tyrol: A minority conflict of the twentieth century by Rolf Steininger

 

 

Three other books (available only in Italian and German as far as I’m aware) which provide diverse perspectives are:

  • Ereditá: una storia della mia famiglia tra l’impero e il fascismo by Lilli Gruber, a well known Italian journalist which recounts the story of her own German-speaking family in the region
  • Eva Dorme by Francesca Melandri which although a (very readable and successful) novel really gives a great sense of the historical background and in some ways could reflect parts of Babi’s own life
  • Dimenticare Mai by Franz Thaler which recalls the personal experience of a German-speaker whose family rejected the option, refusing to leave their native land to move to the Reich in 1940. Thaler came out of hiding from the Germans when his parents and siblings were threatened with imprisonment in the local Bolzano concentration camp. This brought Thaler to Dachau where only due to his youthful strength did he survive upto liberation. “Dimenticare Mai” means “never forget”.