Saturday, April 20, 2024

'We Find It Hard to Read Great Books at All'

A young reader tells me he is unable to read most books written before “about the middle of the 60s. I like Vonnegut. A lot of the stuff before that is like a foreign language to me.” I’m reminded of an English professor who told me more than half a century ago that most of her students couldn’t read anything pre-Hemingway. She was the teacher who introduced me to Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote and A Tale of a Tub. My reader is neither bragging nor lamenting. He seems to sense he is missing something – yet another mutation of presentism -- but unlikely to do anything about it. I encouraged him to try some older books and suggested a few titles. I’m not optimistic and it’s not my job to scold.

F.L. Lucas (1894-1967) was an English literary critic probably best known for Style (1955). In the nineteen-thirties, he was an early critic of appeasement with Hitler’s Germany, warning in 1933 that it shouldn’t be permitted to rearm. In 1939 he published Journal Under the Terror, 1938, a diary of the events leading up to the invasion of Poland and the start of the war, along with personal matters including literary reflections. He eviscerates Chamberlain. He reads Froissart and Shakespeare and follows the news. Not just Germany but the show trials in the Soviet Union and the civil war in Spain. On May 8 he writes: “Walked (lest I catch Carlyle’s dyspepsia).” Later in May he writes (and this is what brings to mind my young reader):


“And we find it hard to read great books at all; easy to read books or articles about them—neat little reflections of them and on them in the pocket-mirror of some bright contemporary mind. Alice forsakes Wonderland for the Looking-Glass; and our decadence tends to live like the Emperor Domitian, in a gallery of mirrors, catching flies.”


To put his distrust of Germany in context, it’s helpful to know Lucas was a veteran of the Great War. He volunteered in October 1914 and served in France in 1915-17 as a lieutenant in the 7th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was at the Somme starting in August 1915 and was wounded by shrapnel in May 1916. He returned to the front in January 1917 and was gassed on March 4. In all, Lucas was hospitalized for seventeen months. He finished the war in the Intelligence Corps, questioning German prisoners of war. The past is ever-present – yet another reason to read the “great books,” a phrase I normally avoid but here I’m quoting Lucas.


Lucas’ Journal is a sort of prose counterpart to Autumn Journal (1939), the book-length poem Louis MacNeice wrote between August and December 1938, in the year of the Anschluss, the annexation of the Sudetenland, Munich, Kristallnacht. To quote Lucas again:


“But above all I think I write , not so much for popularity (I am little likely ever to have it) as for les âmes amies. Life and reading have brought me curious and amusing things that it is natural to wish to share. And one does not know what is in one’s own head (or knows it only untidily), until one has put it down on paper. ‘Writing makes an exact man.’

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

Contrarywise, something in me is increasingly reluctant to read contemporary fiction. I'm reading Janet Lewis with pleasure (The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron; I've already enjoyed The Trial of Soren Qvist and The Wife of Martin Guerre), but more recent historical novels (An Incident of the Fingerpost by Pears, The Tokaido Road by Robson) -- I just can't seem to stay with them. Why? Because of diffuseness encouraged by writing at a word processor? because of college educations that make the authors predictable, like NPR fodder? Because of the influence of movies and prestige television series? But reading Janet Lewis I know I am reading something by an author who understands how to tell a story well. She and W. G. Sebald are the big novelist discoveries for me of the past few years.

Dale Nelson