Thursday, July 14, 2016

`He and the Hundred Best Authors'

“I say `the great literature’ not because of its aura of cultural strenuousness, but simply because, in the past, there is only great literature. Only the great stands the racket of time and survives from generation to generation; the rest dies for lack of staying power.”

My most humiliating act as a reader would be to list the contemporary writers I read, enjoyed and even admired when I was young (one shameful example: Donald Barthleme). In my defense, I should note that I entered literature without context. I knew no one who read seriously and could advise me intelligently. I had no understanding of literary history. Reading in my house was strictly utilitarian (newspapers, textbooks, restaurant menus). “Literature” was defined by others, and I had never met any of them. My adolescence coincided with a much ballyhooed boom in American writing, and I consumed it indiscriminately, vacuum cleaner-style. I was naïve and trusted critics stupid and acute. With time and a well-tended critical sense, one naturally jettisons dubious enthusiasms and embraces new and better ones, while holding on to the best of what one’s callow self read without comprehension.

The passage at the top is from V.S. Pritchett’s preface to In My Good Books (Chatto & Windus, 1942), his first collection of reviews. Its twenty-five essays were published in the New Statesman and Nation, and all were written during the grim early years of World War II, which, Pritchett observes, “brings its medical date-stamp heavily down upon every contemporary book.” All that remains are the “topical” and the “classics,” and Pritchett chose to write about the latter:   

“We turn to literature not only for respite, relaxation or escape from the boredom of reality and the gnaw of suffering, but to get away from uncertainty. And certainty is in the past. There, so it seems to us, things have been settled. There we can see a whole picture. For to see something whole becomes a necessity to people like ourselves whose world has fallen to pieces. Perhaps, we think, the certainty of the past will help our minds to substantiate a faith in the kind of certainty we hope for in the future.”

Not that the past and its literature represent nostalgia for a golden age. On the contrary, Pritchett says: “The past is not serene. It is turbulent, upside down and unfinished.”
He notes that during the Blitz, printers, publishers, bookshops, libraries, readers – civilization itself – were in jeopardy. The same threat festers today, from within and without. A bookless Dark Age is no longer a misanthrope’s bitter vision. Pritchett writes:

“The wise reader is one who prepares himself for the awful moment, a kind of Judgment Day, when only he and the hundred best authors are left in the world and have somehow to shake down together; when he will, so to speak, be stranded in the highest society.”

Pritchett reminds us that literature is part of our education for life, one of the most pleasurable ways we learn how to behave and how to live with ourselves and others. In his brief monograph The English Novel (1930), Ford Madox Ford tells us “the novel supplies that cloud of human instances without which the soul feels unsafe in its adventures.” For readers and writers like Ford and Pritchett, books and life are interleaved. In The Spanish Temper (1954), Pritchett describes a visit to Almería, a city in Andalusia, on the Mediterranean coast. Rather than resorting to economics or politics to make sense of the scene, he turns to a Russian writer of stories:

“The mind drifts to Chekhov in Almería. We are in one of his bright but fading Black Sea towns. One feels the shut-in provincial life ruled by habit and dominated by one or two families. I passed a `school’: twenty little children packed round a dining-room table in a tiny front room, with the master—rather like Chekhov to look at—jammed against the door. A charming sight; but these were privileged children. They actually had a school to go to.”

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