Category Archives: Classics
This week’s Top Ten meme hosted by the Broke and Brookish is about a few of our favourite things. I’ve neglected my Classics Club project this year but looking back at the list of books I put together 5 years ago reminded me of so many other classics I’ve loved over the years. So here are my top ten classics .
From the Seventeenth Century
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667). I can remember sitting on my bed in
my university halls of residence feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial. It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes to explain Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations not being blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible or the classics. But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but well worth tackling.
From the Nineteenth Century
This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. From early realist texts of the early part of the century, by the end we’re in the realm of stream of consciousness. So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that are novels I never tire of reading.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. This one can be read as a story about romance but as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about social issues. In this novel we get issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways. At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871) Another novel that lends itself to multiple readings and interpretations. I know so many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast. One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him. Look beyond that however and you’ll find a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted. This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.
5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885) My first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him, this is the one that has a special place in my affection. It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter – a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police. Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is unforgettable.
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1898) A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother that was deplored at the time of publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text. Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness. The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?
From the Twentieth Century
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster (1924) Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj. It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs. The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
9. Heart of the Matter — Grahame Greene (1948). Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences. Greene himself didn’t care much for this book but I find his story of a British police officer who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis when he tries to do the decent thing for his wife who has had to endure years with him in a decaying, rotting African outpost of the British Empire. In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.
10. Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton (1948). I’m staying in Africa for my final choice. This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid,. Paton uses the story of a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values. Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. This is a novel of protest in a sense but its also an appeal for justice.
Many many months have passed since I last paid attention to my Classics Club project. In fact it seems that I barely read anything from that list last year. I still have 21 books remaining to be read which means I am not going to achieve the goal of 50 read by August this year. But hey, these are classics so they’ve been around for decades or centuries. Which means they can easily wait for another year or so.
The Classics Club spin which has just been announced has given me a much-needed prod to revisit this list however. The idea is to list 20 of the titles from our list of books remaining to read. On Friday, March 10 we’ll be told which number has come up in the spin and then we should read that book by May 1. Easy peasy….
My Spin List
- Candide — Voltaire 1759
- Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
- Ormond – Maria Edgeworth 1817
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil – Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope 1861
- The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
- Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
- Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
- The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880
- The Diary of a Nobody — George Grossmith 1888
- New Grub Street – George Gissing 1891
- The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
- Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett 1910
- The Voyage Out — Virginia Woolf 1915
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
- Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
- Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
Ideally I would like the ball to fall on number 8 which will re-unite me with Emile Zola or number 7 so I can read the next in the Chronicles of Barchester series. But if that doesn’t come to pass I shall not be too distressed since all titles on this list are ones I want to read (rather than feel I have to read).
Another month further into the year and time for another snapshot of my reading life. March 1 marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere and for once nature is in tune with the calendar – daffodils are in bloom in the garden though the squirrels seem to have snaffled most of the crocus bulbs I planted. Tulip leaves are also pushing up through the earth heralding the pleasure to come. My recovery from surgery is also going well – so plenty to celebrate this month.
As I expected, being unable to do much other than vegetate on the sofa while the wounds healed, meant I was able to do fair amount of reading in the past few weeks. On March 1 itself I was half way through Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. It’s the third book in the Chronicles of Barchester series and though it doesn’t have my three favourite characters from the first two – Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s Wife, Septimus Harding and the most magnificent of all, the chaplain Mr Obadiah Slope – it does have a rather delicious character in the shape of the Squire’s wife. Where the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers, focused on the dealings of the clergy, Dr Thorne takes us into the world of the gentry with their political ambitions and concerns to maintain their status in society. Dr Thorne is a book I’ve long planned to read as part of my Classics Club project and it didn’t disappoint.
State of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I’m amazed that I’ve been able to keep to this plan – largely down to my strategy of immediately deleting from my in box any emails from publishers about new titles and from booksellers about special offers. I won An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J David Simons in a giveaway hosted by Lizzy at https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/. Lizzy’s review is here.
Then I was sorely tempted when asked if I would review The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer that was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”). It’s a historical drama combining two storylines separated by six centuries; one story is set in Cambodia in 1294 during the last days of Khmer imperial glory and the other in 1921 during the period of French colonial rule. Here is the opening paragraph:
“Farther India”, 1861 (Laos, Indochina).It was hard to believe the human body could contain so much water, and yet, there it all was. Phrai twisted the cloth and watched it plop in dull patters on the ground, the pocked earth sponging up sound as well. Sweat had been seeping out his employer for weeks, and he had been at the dying man’s side all the while, pouring fresh water back into his mouth with the devotion of a nun. Phrai imagined nearly half the man had been absorbed and squeezed from these rags, creating small pools just outside the hut. In another part of the world, that half of him would evaporate out of existence, but here it could not; the thick air held eternity at bay.
So with two additions to my collection but five read, I ended February with 311 books remaining in what I call ‘my personal library’.
The collection of owned-but-unread books might be on the downward trend but the same can’t be said for my wishlist in Goodreads. In February I added The Long Dry by Cynan Jones, I Refuse by the Norwegian author Per Petterson plus twelve titles from the Greatest Books from Wales list that I posted a few days ago. I’m hoping I can get to end of June before I start buying any of these but it’s good to dream…..
On the reading horizon…
March is Reading Ireland month, hosted by 746books.com which has given me a good impetus to dig out the Ireland-related books from my shelves. Of the titles I found I’m probably gong to begin with John Banville’s Ancient Light. After that I will see where my mood takes me – I’ve discovered that planning too far ahead doesn’t work well for me. Making a list is good fun but the minute I have to start reading it, my enthusiasm wanes. I much prefer the serendipitous approach.
Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.
I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.
Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
- classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
- a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works
- a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
- a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway
Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.
I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.
Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”.
Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).
So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?
There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain. Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was
… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves
Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that
that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short and rather more considered:
First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.
What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
- The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
- Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
- Removed The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.
I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.
I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….