As an English literature finalist, my life seems to forever revolve around books. I begin my day packing a bag of books for a trip to the Billy B, I see my day through with books (or at least I should), and I often end my day with a chapter or two as I retire for bed. So as we approach a new year and reflect upon 2015, it seems fitting that I should see the last twelve months at least partly through a literary lens: my life in books.
I entered 2015 reading one of the most witty, heart-warming books: What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. I was stunned by Coe’s ability to shock me, have me in stitches and yet utterly moved all at the same time. He combined the personal and political in a way which I had not yet experienced, showing an insight into Thatcherism and its destructive consequences in one moment, only to portray intimate relationships and feelings at their most stripped back, human level in the next. And yet Coe somehow demonstrated how the two are irrevocably intertwined. Achieving this through a dual narrative, he mimics Dickens, self-consciously pairing his narrative with that of a literary predecessor. Indeed, I could not help but constantly recall Bleak House. Despite Coe’s time-bound context, he concerns himself with exactly the issues that Dickens interrogated more than one hundred years previously: the relationship between society and the individual. Coe is indebted to Dickens: thus, a literary bond exists.
Indeed, such traces of intertextuality are something I’m becoming ever aware of as a reader. Without getting too literary theory on you, this year’s reading has shown me just how interrelated literature is: whether consciously or not, purposefully or not, books form a dialogue with their predecessors and ancestors. Each time I pick up something new to read I cannot help but notice its connections to my reading past.
Take, for example, As You Like It, which quickly became one of my favourite Shakespearean comedies this year. As characters move from the civilised court to the pastoral Arden, Shakespeare utilises change in setting to engender a change in character and perception. Spatial transition permits ideological transition.
And yet despite a huge temporal and geographical gap, I found this trope echoed in American Fiction. Reading Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Kerouac’s On the Road, I was haunted by a similar use of setting: new environments allow for new possibilities. Jack and Ennis’ journey into Brokeback permits blissful escape from cowboy masculine norms, while Sal and Dean’s trip to Mexico marks a liberating return to a lost Eden. Though their concerns are unique, Proulx and Kerouac’s use of setting are not dissimilar from each other, nor from Shakespeare. Echoes resound, and we are perhaps more alert to how such techniques operate because of their similarities with what we have read elsewhere.
My lesson this year has been that my interpretation of what I read is never organic: what I am alert to, what jumps out as important, will always be shaped by what already lingers in my mind. When reading Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, I found myself noting the title “Wodwo”, a poem by Ted Hughes that I had read earlier this year, in the margin: Atwood’s protagonist’s descent into madness (and consequent rebirth) is shown through a breakdown of linguistic constructions, and the fluidity of her narrative reminded me of how Hughes’ poem also removes linguistic structures to demonstrate his creature’s pre-linguistic, infantile mind-set. A similarity of style echoed in my mind.
Reading Atwood also made me consider Toni Morrison’s work more closely. Atwood’s concern in The Edible Woman and Cat’s Eye with the individual, relationships, power, and definition of self (namely, woman) are concerns which are echoed in Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby), albeit it within a black cultural context. Since reading Atwood had already opened my eyes to these themes, I found myself naturally thinking about them when turning to Morrison, another writer concerned with self-definition. How is the individual shaped by others? Both authors made me think about this; one led to deeper reflection on the other.
Reading Whitman’s Song of Myself just after Tennyson’s In Memoriam also emphasised recurring patterns. Despite being continents apart, both explore similar doubts. Observations of the natural world, of life cycles and patterns in nature, are used as attempts to find stability in an ever-changing world of declining faith. One cannot read both without drawing comparisons, spotting connections.
I seem to be constantly tracing circular motions. I always knew that literature was interwoven. But as my degree progresses, such patterns emerge ever clearer.
Perhaps my latest reading of American Poetry aptly highlights this.
In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, Wallace Stevens reflects upon the modern world’s “[b]lessed rage for order”. Remarking on a girl’s song about the sea, Stevens writes:
And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
The girl’s singing is not imitation but creation: the sea “became the self/That was her song, for she was the maker.” The poet shares this power to “make” the world. Stevens suggests that fiction has an incredible, important power: it can “make” our vision; it can create reality.
Interestingly, this takes me back to What A Carve Up!, in which one of my favourite quotations is found:
“You taught me to forget about everyday truths […]. You made me see that there’s a higher truth than any of that. Fiction, Patrick.” I thumped the manuscript which was still lying on his desk. “Fiction – that’s what’s important. That’s what you and I believed in once […].”
Coe, though in a different sense to Stevens, also upholds the importance of fiction in understanding the world. What a Carve Up! made me reflect on this question. Nearly twelve months later and Stevens is adding fuel to the fire.
Literature, art, is our mirror. But what we see each time is a little different: what we have already read inevitability changes the image that we next see when entering a new reading chapter (excuse the pun) in our lives.
As we head into 2016, I for one am excited about the new reading possibilities this will bring. June will (hopefully!) see me graduating with a BA in English Literature, and though I do not quite know what lies beyond that, I am hoping that I can finally begin reading all the non-compulsory literature that has accumulated on an ever-growing list in recent years. I will be liberated entirely into my own reading direction, and this will bring new insights I am sure. But 2015 reassures me that there is always continuity: with every book we pick up, the preceding one lingers, shaping our thoughts and feelings. My 2015 reading experience has been one diverse but continuous literary lesson; and I hope that this continues into the years that follow.