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Classic status re-evaluated

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:

  1. classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
  5. a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
  6. a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
  7. 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
  8. a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
  9. 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
  10. a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
  11. ‘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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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….

The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola

RougonsWith The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.

In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection  of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches.  The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart

The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.

The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.

The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”

Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”

It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.

End Notes

The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire. 

The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.

50 Questions about reading the classics: Part 2

classicsclub3The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions. 



  1. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend? Biddy in Great Expectations. Loyal, generous and honest. What more could you ask for?
  2. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why? I would stick to the original – what’s to say that 500 more pages make it any better.
  3. Favorite children’s classic? I loved Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl Series, maybe because I had a secret desire to break out of my shell.
  4. Who recommended your first classic? It was probably bought by my mum on the basis that’s what she loved as a child.
  5. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)  There are too many bloggers to mention here whose guidance I appreciate.
  6. Favorite memory with a classic? Reading
  7. Classic author you’ve read the most works by? I haven’t counted but it would probably be Wilkie Collins
  8. Classic author who has the most works on your club list? I’m surprised by this since it wasn’t my intention but it seems to be Charles Dickens
  9. Classic author you own the most books by? This would be C.P. Snow, an author who seems to have completely disappeared from our consciousness. I spent hours scouting the second hand shops in Hay on Wye to collect the entire Strangers and Brothers series (eleven novels written between 1940 and 1970) and then never got around to reading them. They’re in the house somewhere.
  10. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? I’ve overlooked Emile Zola it seems – only one of his titles made it on my list even though I’ve loved everything I read by him and there are many I have yet to explore.
  11. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Zola’s Rougon-Macquet series. I know some other readers have said it isn’t necessary to read them in publication order but I’d like to see how the series developed.
  12. How many rereads are on your club list? Eight out of a list of 60 are titles I’ve read previously. I chose them again because I read them in too much of a hurry to fully appreciate ( they were required reading at university). Having now re-read Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory  I can see what I missed the first time around I’m looking forward to starting afresh with George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede.
  13. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish? Tale of Two Cities. I have tried the latter about three times now and always come to a halt at the same point.  I also gave up on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – very slow and repetitive
  14. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Mice and Men was a surprise
  15. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature? Reading five books from the list!
  16. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s long overdue
  17. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?  Probably The Good Soldier – by Ford Madox Ford. I’m going off the idea of reading it and may well take it off the list
  18. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club? Being challenged by the monthly questions
  19. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs? Fleur in her World; Heavenali; ;Nishita’s Rants and Raves; Roof Beam Reader;  The Book Musings
  20. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber? An explanation of Zola’s theory of naturalism that appeared in the Shiny New Books newsletter – read it here 
  21. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience?  My first – and only experience – was reading Crime and Punishment. It started well but I found I enjoyed the book so much I couldn’t slow down to the pace of the readalong.
  22. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why? Canterbury Tales – it might help me finish it
  23. How long have you been reading classic literature? It started in earnest about 40 years ago one summer when there was a heatwave in the UK and I spent all day in the garden. I took to going to the library and getting as many books as possible by authors with exotic sounding name.
  24. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc. My review of Little Dorrit; A Favourite Classic Poem; My Favourite Literary Era; Love and Hate in the Classics; The Influence of Classic Novels
  25. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!) What book from the twenty-first century will be a classic for the future? And my answer – I have absolutely no idea because I’m still trying to understand what makes some books ‘a classic’ that gets read and re-read for centuries and others (like the C. P Snow titles mentioned earlier, just drop off the cliff).

50 Questions about Reading the Classics: Part 1

classicsclub3The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions. 

  1. Share a link to your club list
  2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? I joined in August 2012 which means I have until August 2017 to read 50 titles. So far I’ve read 18 and given up on two.
  3. What are you currently reading? I have a confession – my current book isn’t from my classics club list. It’s All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, a novelist from Uganda
  4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it? Confession number 2 – my most recent reading was Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, a novel set  in World War 1. . It’s been called a ‘rediscovered classic’ because it was first published in 1930 and then disappeared so I could have claimed it as a classics club read except that I hadn’t put it on my list. It’s uncomfortable reading at times because most of the narrative takes place at the Front and as we all know, soldiers in the trenches endured unimaginable conditions.
  5. What are you reading next? Why? Oh dear, that is one of those questions I find hard to answer because I don’t plan ahead. I choose usually according to my mood at the time. Whenever I plan, I end up changing my mind so I’ve stopped doing it. I know at some point between now and January 5, I will be reading Daisy Miller and Washington Square by Henry James since that was the book which turned up in the latest club spin. But as i’ve already written, I’m not relishing the prospect.
  6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why? This would be L’Assommoir by Emile Zola, part of his Rougon-Macquet series. This is the third book from the series I’ve read and it was just as gripping as Germinal and La Bete Humaine. It’s a graphic story of a woman’s attempt to find happiness amid the grinding poverty of a working class district in Paris. Powerful writing.
  7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?  I wanted to choose some classics that reflected one of my other interests, world literature. I added Things Fall Apart  by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to my list because it is one of the first novels by an African author to receive global critical acclaim.
  8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why? I’m not avoiding anything as much as maybe deferring the moment when I read the three books by Virginia Woolf.
  9. First classic you ever read? This is lost in the mists of time – I do remember reading Black Beauty but whether that’s the first I’ve no idea.
  10. Toughest classic you ever read? War and Peace I found hard going – not only because it was so long but I just couldn’t keep all those Russian names straight in my head. It didn’t help that Russians have three names and Tolstoy kept using them interchangeably so I was always struggling to work out who was being featured.
  11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry? Zola’s Germinal made me both angry and tearful. This is a novel about the desperate conditions of a mining community in Northern France and since my ancestors were coal miners, the book had a personal resonance. I kept thinking of my grandfather and great grandfather working in similar conditions.
  12. Longest classic left on your club list? No idea – Wives and Daughters looks long (and the print size is small) but whether it’s longer than Old Curiosity Shop I don’t know. Dickens can be rather wordy.
  13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list? Oldest one I’ve read is a play, Medea by Euripdes which dates from 431BC.  A surprisingly good experience. Oldest one left is Canterbury Tales from 1381 – I’ve started it but its the kind of book I can read only in short spurts
  14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys was riveting. See my review here 
  15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? The one THEY want to read – who am I to impose my ideas on someone else.
  16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any? My very battered copy of Middlemarch from university. It’s an orange cover Penguin full of tiny scribbles in the margins. I remember clearly sitting for hours reading this, desperately trying to get through it in time for a tutorial
  17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic? There are many TV serialisations I can watch repeatedly (Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth or Martin Chuzzlewit with the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff ) but not many films. Two adaptations of E M Forster novels come to mind as ones I rate highly – Howard’s End with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and A Passage to India  with, I think, Peggy Ashcroft
  18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.  L’Assommoir would make a good film, it has some wonderful set pieces
  19. Least favorite classic? One that I didn’t’ finish – Bleak House. It has a superb opening
  20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read. None – a lot on my list have been around for decades, or centuries in some cases. I think these authors can wait a few more years before I get around to them
  21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?  If i was that excited I would have read them already wouldn’t I?
  22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? ( I was ready to throw Portrait of a Lady in the waste bin but had to finish it because it was part of a literature course. Second time around (yes I had to do a second read in order to write the essay) I warmed to it more.
  23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head? Scobie in Heart of the Matter by Grahame Greene, a man who tries to keep his moral centre but ultimately proves powerless
  24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself? I wouldn’t wish that on any character
  25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like? None of the people in the books I’ve read seem to have very happy lives so I have no desire to emulate them.
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