READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT.
A couple of months ago I discovered a Henry James novel I’d not read. Titled The American, it is his third novel, first published in 1876-7 in The Atlantic Monthly. Later in life James acknowledged fundamental flaws in this novel, and most James’ readers would agree. And yet the novel gripped me from the start with its universal themes of love and honour and clash of cultures. It was only at the send-the-beloved-to-a-convent ending that I felt let down.
The American is not a literary classic in the sense that The Portrait of a Lady is a classic – although both are classic Henry James. Love, deception, misplaced trust, ravenous curiosity, the pitfalls of innocence, and the immorality that can be at the back door of worldliness are all to be found in The Portrait of a Lady, while its leading lady, Isabel Archer, is one of the enduring characters in literature.
I often find myself musing about what makes a classic. In my recent revisiting of Patrick White’s classic Riders in The Chariot (see posting – November, 2013) I quoted James Stern’s definition of a classic (from NYT Book Review in August 1955).
‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’
In his definition, Stern is particularly concerned with the powerful effect of a classic on a reader. There are a number of characteristics of the work itself that promote such an effect. Most importantly, classics canvas fundamental human qualities: jealousy and revenge (Medea), power (Macbeth), fraught love (Anna Karenina), the human struggle (David Copperfield), the complexities of family (Pride and Prejudice), brutality, idealised love, (Wuthering Heights), remorse and redemption (Crime and Punishment), obsession (Of Human Bondage), and thereby reveal what it is to be human. As well, classics provide entry into times and places not your own. So, for example: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and much of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.
Books that can reveal ourselves to our self? That can take us to places and times not our own? That can inform us of the complexities that make us human? This is powerful stuff. It’s no wonder we want to read classics. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore such rich resources.
I finished The American and placed it with all my other James volumes. Then I reached for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
For the third time.
I first tried this book years ago on the recommendation of my Russian friend Constantine. The novel was written in the late 1930’s during the worst of Stalin’s terrors but not published until a quarter of a century later (and, extraordinarily, published in the Soviet Union in an inexplicable lapse of diligence by the censorship authorities). In this fantasy tale the devil arrives in Moscow. He wreaks havoc: lives are ruined, some are ended, people are swindled. Given the novel’s coruscating view of the Soviet system the fantasy form is not surprising; indeed there’s a long tradition of literature using fantasy, allegory and fairytales to reveal dangerous truths.
But barely fifty pages in I gave up. The characters did not hold me. There were too many of them and too thinly drawn, and the society in which they lived too strange. As for the Jesus in Jerusalem sections, I simply could not see their relevance.
A few years later I tried the book again with the same failure. Yes, failure. For when it comes to a classic that you truly want to read, that you want to take it into your life as you’ve taken in other classics, when you are unable to do so you experience it as failure. Here is a book that is recognised as great, what’s wrong with you that you fail to respond to its greatness?
On my third attempt I thought it would be different. In recent months I’ve been reading about the Soviet years and I am much better informed. I understand the workings of this society into which the devil comes. The allegorical nuances that escaped me on my previous attempts would now be comprehensible. And it was true, my reading was easier: I understood the deaths, the removals to psychiatric institutions, the loss of rooms in apartment blocks that occur in the early part of this novel; I understood the devil with his guilt-free, unapologetic brutality. But nonetheless, by page 150 I was lagging; 30 pages later I gave up.
There are so many books I want to read. If a book fails to satisfy I do not persist. Although when it comes to a classic, because I doubt myself more than I doubt the book’s renown I will persist a little longer. I do believe that if the Bulgakov had a lesser reputation I would have jettisoned it much earlier. For that matter, if it had had a lesser reputation I would not have given it three attempts.
I know about the lovely quirk of books that make then uninteresting at one point in your life and absolutely essential reading at another. I had truly hoped that given my current interest in the Soviet years this would be the right time for Bulgakov’s classic. But it seems there are some classics that, desire notwithstanding, will always elude me.
Like Joyce’s Ulysses.
One Bloomsday I attended a twenty-four hour reading of Ulysses in New York. I was in my twenties and absolutely capitvated by the idea of a 24-hour reading of a classic novel. I can still see the darkened room, the scattered tables, the raised platform, the shadows of people, the heavy clothes, the smoke, but for the life of me I can’t remember the words and voices, I can’t see the readers themselves. I was given a copy of Ulysses for my 21st birthday, I tried to read it but failed. I thought the 24-hour reading would help. And it did. For 100 pages. No more.
I have failed with The Master and Margarita as I failed with Ulysses.
And yet I still want these books, and other classics as well. I want to know their power, their originality, their wisdom. I want the pleasure that so many readers before me have known. I don’t mind failing at sport, at baking, at sewing, at bike-riding, at map-reading, at maths (well – I mind a little with maths) but I do mind failing at books. I want to know that any book I desire I can make my own. It’s a terrible disappointment when I can’t.