On the value of literature

Irritably responded to a graduate student regurgitating the “Reading fiction makes you more empathetic…” justification today.

Me: “Literature is not, like you are saying, good because it is a means to some desirable end, literature is an end in itself. If I were on a desert island or in a prison cell, in the full knowledge of no further human contact, I would still wish to read books. To cultivate myself, not to serve the needs of others. I understand why certain individuals make your argument when they wish to connect with others outside the academy, but I am very disappointed to hear graduate students of literature uncritically presenting this argument to their peers, it’s ultimately a very uninspiring take on what we study and why we study it.”

A classmate from Malaysia was nodding his head, I asked if he was in agreement, he said yes.

Professor nodded and repeated, “Literature is an end in itself.”

A pair of blue eyes

Like a Wilkie Collins novel without a crime would be a suitable description of this novel.

It also bears strong similarities to Born in Exile by George Gissing. But whereas in Hardy there’s excessive authorial musing upon the workings of the heart, recalling Jane Austen, in Gissing there’s excessive musing upon the workings of the mind by the novel’s hero. This heart, in Hardy, is a transcendent element, as he also features the class conflict found in Gissing, and produces a split.

Coronavirus and Thomas Hardy

The coronavirus continues to rage. The wife went out to the temple this morning regardless, after warning me once more to refrain from threatening to kill the neighbors. What prompted my murderous fury on this occasion was the noxious old woman opposite, who recycles, banging with a hammer on a piece of metal at the bottom of a concrete stairwell. It was this sound that awoke me at 7 a.m., prompting me to rise, descend the stairs, cross the street, and issue my threat. “Sorry, sorry,” she replied, hammer still upraised. If it were feasible, I’d buy a howler monkey and wear ear plugs.

Discussion on a Barbara Pym facebook group has led to two recommendations of writers to check out: May Sarton and Sybille Bedford, so I have ordered some of their works. But for now I am still reading Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes and greatly enjoying it. There’s a fair amount of truth in George Gissing being dubbed, “The Hardy of the City,” and this novel bears similarities to his Born in Exile, with its love between the classes, though Gissing makes the barriers so insurmountable that an elopement does not occur, and there is none of the rich psychological insight into the lovers’ struggle in Hardy, who instead supplies an authorial commentary upon his characters’ movements of the heart.

The Spanish test is on Sunday, and I continue to read in translation David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction. The usual prejudices have surfaced, with my finding Jane Austen almost unbearable and Salinger impossible. Why he insists on reaching for the same tired old examples…

Medical history

In Taiwan you are free to view your medical history, and this week I obtained a copy of my own. Besides my being reminded of the bacon sandwich that saw me hospitalized for a week with gallstones, the other item of interest was discovering a chest X-ray revealed part of my left lung has collapsed, a fact that was not passed on to me.

No more

There is to be no more teaching children. I have been, no, I did it, for ten years, and now it is over. Walked slowly through the city yesterday, absorbing this fact with each step.

The Spanish test is this Sunday, at an unreasonable hour. Having tired of reading news from Latin America, I turned to a translation of a book by David Lodge, El Arte de la Ficcion, but not before reading in a Mexican newspaper of a clown shot dead protecting a mother and child.

I continue to read the journals of Stephen Spender at a rate of around 10 pages each day. The entries that provoke most resentment are where he notes he had dinner or spent a weekend with some notables, such as the Woolfs, and then manages to say nothing interesting about what happened, only recording that the wine was bad.

First semester over

That was not so hard.

The only low point was withdrawing from a class on Sophocles because the instructor would return from the break reeking of cigarettes.

The class on Victorian novels had a great instructor. I am just finishing my paper on Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and we also read Frankenstein, Dracula, The Island of Dr Moreau, Flush, and Sirius.

Next semester will be more intense as I take five or six classes and become a full-time student.

NTU Graduate Program

I will shortly begin my graduate studies in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University.

National Taiwan University

In the first semester I am taking three courses:

  • Research methods
  • Victorian novels and material culture
  • Sophocles’ Antigone

Naturally, I am very excited about studying at Taiwan’s best university. But before the classes begin, I am desperately trying to finish reading the required texts for the Victorian novels course: Our Mutual Friend, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre.

While ploughing through these enormous novels, I console myself by imagining constructing a term paper on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.

Back in 2019

Here are some of the books I read during the past year.

Pym 12 novels

We’ll to the woods no more

Evelyn Waugh

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Labels

92 Days

The Loved One

Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Rudyard Kipling

Puck of Pook’s Hill

Stalky & Co.

Ronald Blythe

Akenfield

Jack London

John Barleycorn

George Gissing

New Grub Street

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White

The Moonstone

No Name

Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities

Oscar Wilde

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

The Letters of Oscar Wilde

Wilde biog Richard Ellmann

Richard Aldington

The Colonel’s Daughter

2018 Reading 1-10

This is my effort to track my book-reading over the course of the year.

#1 Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn (2013)

Enjoyable memoir from one half of the pop act, Everything But the Girl. Probably the most surprising part is how much Thorn claims the values of punk informed the approach to her musical career. I suppose the key is values, rather than any sonic principles, and Thorn lays out how she forged a career as a woman in the music industry without too much by way of sacrifice and compromise. Deals well with the lived realities of success, then failure, and then a second, even bigger, taste of success.

#2 Aaron’s Rod by D H Lawrence (1922)

The first Lawrence novel I have read, and in parts it was extremely impressive. This novel is not hugely acclaimed by critics, partly because it can fairly be accused of being ‘a lot of disconnected scenes of people talking’, but the intensity of the conversations and the depictions of particular situations and places was jaw-dropping. For example, the section of the novel where Lilly nurses Sisson back to health was beautiful, and, given the social mores of the time, artistically courageous to depict. There is also an impressive section where Sisson reflects upon the dynamics of his relationship with his wife, full of acute insight into the life of human feelings. The latter parts of the novel, set in Italy, are far more evocative of that country than anything E M Forster managed in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). What this novel possesses, at its best, is an unusual vitality. In its weaker moments, it becomes more interesting simply as a period piece, in its worst moments, it regurgitates some species of Nietzchean thought.

#3 Labels by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

Waugh’s first travel book saw him visit a selection of foreign places that were already well-fixed in the English imagination, Paris, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Venice, etc., and consider whether the reality matched the image (the labels). Waugh makes the journey in the same mode as tourists, and draws a similar distinction to that of Paul Fussell between three ages of travel (that both efface and overlap one another to an extent) – exploration, travel, tourism. Thus, Waugh takes off on a cruise on a Norwegian steamer, the Stella Polaris, around the Mediterranean, making it as far east as Port Said.

Considering Waugh was only 27 at the time of publication, Labels is astonishingly self-assured and his inimitable style is already well-developed, with a fine eye for comedy (and less of an ear).

#4 Tristessa by Jack Kerouac (1960)

A groggy novella, centred on Tristessa, a morphine-addicted native of Mexico City, and told in two parts, the story resuming after the narrator, who is supplied with aspects of Kerouac’s biography, returns to Mexico City after a year or more tramping around the US with his beat pals. The action, such as it is, is unremarkable, while the style is a heap of first impressions that appear to have undergone little revision. There was only a single moment of self-reflection in the whole novel, one moment where the narrator grasped, for a second, the absurdity of himself, as a lost white man, setting himself up as the teacher/savior of Tristessa, a woman who already knows, deeply, everything that he does (but doesn’t form it into annoying Buddhist-Christian babble). A very bad novel.

#5 A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

If we return to Kerouac for a moment, the big claim, recycled in endless accounts of The Beat Generation, is that Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were doing something radical, challenging a literary scene that was moribund/had lost its way. While that may be partly true of the early Beat works, Naked Lunch, Howl, On the Road, by the beginning of the 1960s it was no longer the case. In every respect, A Single Man is more accomplished, more modern, more insightful than Kerouac’s contemporaneous work, which has dated extremely badly.

The two things I would note about this novel are its attention to processes, in contrast with events (which are being effaced, largely, by the former). The start of the novel begins with its central character decentred, and becoming a complete human being only by degrees, finally achieving personhood as he unites with his job title, professor, at the Californian university he teaches at. In this, it’s rather similar, though greatly extended, to the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, where we begin with the central character referred to firstly via her marriage (social identity), and then as Clarissa Dalloway when she thinks (personal identity), etc. The event that has rendered all of the processes more visible is the sudden, senseless death in an auto accident of the narrator’s partner, while, at the end of the novel, process and event merge with the narrator dying in their sleep, the death rendered at the physiological level, senseless and inevitable.

The second point about this novel is that in its distancing from its central character, in its observation of processes and, particularly, of the changing urban environment (and the corresponding changes in human behavior), there is a similarity to the work of J G Ballard at times. The difference, though, is that Isherwood’s character is a full flesh-and-blood individual (with its pattern of all the action taking place in a single day, and its scatological moments, there’s a similarity between George and Joyce’s Bloom), whom we share intimacies with, whose thoughts are comprehensible, and traverse the full spectrum of emotions, from innocent joy to fantasies of extreme violence, rather than Ballard’s take, where the characters themselves become as featureless as concrete and as lacking in self-awareness as panes of glass.

A short novel of exceptional clarity and quality.

#6 Baghdad Sketches by Freya Stark (1938)

Travel writing from an independently-minded British woman, Freya Stark. Opens with a lament for how travel is now becoming tourism, even in the Iraqi desert, which now has its own road.

#7 The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (1961)

I reread this book for its references to masks and the Mexican take on death, both of which have relevance for a short story I am writing. Paz notes that, “The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.” This prefaces his argument that for Mexicans, life is seen primarily as combat, with an emphasis on defense. On death, Paz distinguishes between an ancient attitude to death among Mexicans, and its effacement by a modern conception. This was important, because my initial thought had been to typify the fixation on death I witnessed in Mexico (a crowd of people watching silently as the TV news replayed, seemingly ad infinitum, a plane crash) as something ancient. But once I read the comment by Paz and checked the racial make-up of the Mexican town I am writing about (only 1% indigenous), I switched to presenting the modern take on death, while noting the intensity of the relationship.

#8 Norton Anthology of American Literature 1914-1945 (Vol D)

Notable stories in here are by Thomas Wolfe, The Lost Boy, a story worth comparing with Burroughs’ ‘The Dead Child’ chapter in The Soft Machine, D’Arcy McNickle’s Hard Riding, which bears comparison with a Jack London short story where a white man tricks the chief of a tribe into chopping off his head (can’t recall the story’s name), Black Elk’s vision, from where I took the term wasichus for use in a story about gypsies in the UK, and Willa Cather, The Sculptor’s Funeral, an extremely well-written and bitter story concerning the return of an artist’s body to the frontier town he was raised in.

#9 The Penguin Guide to Literature in English (2001)

Useful primarily for its periodization.

#10 Abroad by Paul Fussell (1980)

Endearingly fusty book of literary criticism that acts as a useful starting point for further investigation of a host of English travel writers, some of whom I was already familiar with, Denton Welch, J R Ackerley, E M Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Freya Stark, Robert Byron, D H Lawrence (Aaron’s Rod, The Italian trilogy, and Mornings in Mexico receive a chapter’s worth of attention), while some names were new to me, Norman Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor. An uneven, but still fascinating book, with plenty by way of amusing anecdotes, observations, and jokes.