Saturday, 30 May 2009

Reading intentions for June 2009

Dear B___

I would like to take a moment to tell of you of my reading intentions for this month.

Gaskell - Gothic Tales
I first encountered Elizabeth Gaskell in my fifth year at secondary school, when I studied one of her short stories for GCSE Literature. My memories of ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ are vague, but I struggled with the archaic language, which seemed to cloud the plot. It only seemed to become apart what was happening every other paragraph, when certain words and phrases sprang out of the mist. I did not encounter Gaskell again until the spring of 2008, when I came across Gothic Tales in Waterstones. Still haunted by The Picture of Dorian Gray – the last novel I had studied before withdrawing from my course - I was curious to see how another author addressed the gothic genre. I was especially drawn to two tales in particular, ‘Curious, If True’ – which draws on imagery and characters from popular fairytales – and ‘The Poor Claire’ – involving a doppelganger motif, a theme that has left a great impression on me after reading (admittedly, a chapter short) Dostoyevsky’s The Double. However, as with ‘The Sexton’s Hero’, complicated language and imagery made reading the tales a struggle and I began to feel as if I were reading them for the sake of doing so rather than enjoyment.

Gaskell entered my life yet again at the end of year, when I received a colourful, leather bound edition of Cranford for Christmas. I knew nothing of the novel except that it had been the subject of a celebrated period drama – a genre I am not drawn to, since any thought of such stories takes me back to a lecture on Pride and Prejudice at the University of E____ in which we were told that ‘anyone who hasn’t read [this novel] is a dull elf’. I didn’t think I would ever find such a novel in my possession, but I did not want to let another person’s opinion darken my judgement without having experienced the genre for myself. Cranford became my first major literary journey of 2009. It was an interesting experience which gave me a more complimentary taste of Gaskell’s style, and a greater appreciation for her in general. The language once again presented a challenge. I had far greater difficulty remember the names and traits of each main character – for nearly all are referred to, on most occasions, by their surnames. But once I had built up mental images of each, the characters became more engaging. Like many novels, determination is required to penetrate that initial doubt, and very soon the language began to take on an affectionate tone. I really sensed that Gaskell had a touching fondness for her characters through her choice of words alone. It wasn’t until a considerable way into the novel that I realised it wasn’t so much a ‘story’ – in the sense of a narrative concerning a specific episode – but rather an elaborate, episodic portrait of life in this town 'in possession of the Amazons'. I was reminded of such novels as To Kill a Mockingbird and other such novels which relay – in depth – day-to-day occurrences in the lives of its characters, made a little more interesting by the occasional episode; in this case, ghosts, a magic show, burglars, unexpected marriage and lost relatives returning after years of separation. As each episode bleeds into the next, a secondary plot sits below the surface as the river-like flow of every day rushes by, rising to consciousness occasionally before submerging itself again to be resolved later.

Following on from Cranford, I have decided to return to Gothic Tales in my determination to appreciate the books I have to hand instead of purchasing new ones. I have steadily made my way through seven of the nine stories in the volume, and while they have given me an interesting glimpse of her style under a genre she is not as well known for (which, in this case, is vastly different to the social realism of Cranford) each story varies in degrees of entertainment. Some are ‘slow burners’, and the gothic elements sometimes take a while to surface. Some involve intensely detailed accounts of the character’s family history, to the extent that you find yourself having witnessed several generations passing by over the course of the story. Whilst it makes the characters more complex and ‘textured’ (as I like to put it), it can be a struggle to keep up with the significant details. I have decided to leave the two longer stories – ‘Lois the Witch’ and ‘The Poor Claire’ - till the summer, perhaps for our holiday in Scotland, where the rustic backdrop is sure to provide the perfect backdrop.

Lawrence - Sons & Lovers
Sons and Lovers is one of a mountain of novels that I purchased for my university course, but never got a chance to appreciate due to stress and time-restrictions. The literature units were structured in such a way that we addressed a different work each week, and it was heavily implied that we risked failing the unit if we did not read the selected text in time for the weekly lecture and seminar. It was this fear that prompted me to purchase as many of the books as possible, even though I knew I wouldn’t have the time to organize them alongside assignments. It was as if merely owning the text in the first place was a sign of effort. I should have realised the peril of falling behind was an empty threat, used by the department to prompt the lazier individuals to do some work. But I – with a naive tendency to take things literally - often found myself consumed with guilt and misery when finding it impossible to read and dissect every required book for each week, or simply not doing so out of laziness.

In order to handle the heavy work-load of the second year, it was necessary to wisely select works that you could easily manage and focus on for an essay, because it was ultimately the mark for that essay that would contribute towards the final degree. Being a slow reader – coupled with many other anxieties – I frequently resorted to the shorter works (or those I had studied at secondary school) to to make life easier. As a result, I often came away from lectures on longer and unfamiliar works such as Sons and Lovers wondering if I was ‘missing out’ on anything from having not read them. In addition to its length, I was put off Sons and Lovers by the proposal of Freudian and Oedipal undertones presented in a lecture on the novel, the variety of literary interpretation that fills me with frustration. Just like the previously mentioned lecture on Pride and Prejudice, I feel foolish for allowing another person’s individual interpretation of the novel to deform my judgement. I should have formed my own by reading it for myself – and that is partly why I wish to return to the novel properly now, no longer under the disheartening cloud of having to pull it apart for an essay.

Another reason I have chosen to read Sons and Lovers this month is to confront the negative feelings that are attached to the circumstances under which I originally encountered it. It was part of the reading list for a course called ‘Versions of Modernity’. ‘Modernity’ is not easily defined, and therefore it would be impossible to abridge the purpose of the course. But, in the mildest terms, it focused on works as early as the Renaissance through to the modern day, examining what it was that made them ‘modern’ for their time. This was my least favourite unit for a multitude of reasons. The secondary reason was that it involved volumes of archaic poetry from the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge which I struggled with immensely, and which made me feel useless and unscholarly because it seemed I was the only person who couldn’t appreciate them. The primary reason was that my seminar group for ‘Versions’ was peppered with several aggressive and opinionated students whose behaviour – despite them being in a minority - quickly resulted in that class marking the lowest moment of my week. These individuals dominated every discussion from beginning to end, and addressed their ideas so aggressively that I feared contributing myself in-case they rounded on me. Their forwardness made me doubt my studying tactics, making me feel that I – like them – should be coming to class bursting with interpretations. This seminar was one of several major factors that had a damaging effect on my declining mental health, resulting in me withdrawing from the university altogether. Whenever my eyes have fallen on a book from the ‘Versions of Modernity’ course, the emotions that I experienced in that seminar – frustration, bitterness, hatred and loneliness – resurface as raw as when they were first experienced. But two years have passed, and I consider returning to the books as a means of facing those troubles – and, ultimately, defeating them.

Wells – War of the Worlds & Tono-Bungay

I have only just begun my voyage into the rich and captivating world of H. G. Wells, one of the few ‘classic’ authors I did not first encounter on my university course. The Invisible Man introduced me to the genre of science fiction, complimented by Wells' swift style, fast moving plot and interesting mix of comedy, tragedy and philosophy. I am entirely ignorant of his biography and philosophies, but I was captured by the way he took fantastical elements – something we associate mainly with myth and fantasy – and merged it with rational science. I understand that his novels address issues concerning the role of science in modern society, and its relation to the realm of fantasy – realms I have only ever seen as being completely opposite and in a state of eternal conflict. To find a connection between them is – for me – revolutionary. War of the Worlds is the next of Wells novels I wish to try, mainly because I’m curious to see how the notion of UFOs – something I have often perceived as being a very ‘modern’ thing, associated mainly with Hollywood - is addressed by an earlier author. I understand that Tono-Bungay can be read as a critique of corporate advertising. It will be interested to see how deep this critique penetrates, and whether the underlying themes it presents will be applicable to modern society, with its emphasis on image and ego-consciousness.

I look forward to returning from my quests over these literary mountains, and sharing my discoveries with you at a later date.