Desert Island Lit | Professor Barbara Ravelhofer

Welcome to Desert Island Lit, the segment that asks the important questions: which texts and authors will find homes on our English department’s desert island escapes? And would a lecturer ever voluntarily burn Shakespeare? Today’s castaway is Professor Barbara Ravelhofer, and we can’t wait to see her picks…

Controversial: Which Shakespeare play will be sacrificed for kindling?

Controversial: Which Shakespeare play will be sacrificed for kindling?

You can take five pieces of literature with you – what would they be?

Instinctively I’d reach for Shakespeare’s complete works because they are old friends who reveal a new side to themselves each time you are revisiting them. I’m very partial to Coriolanus but he is at his best in the company of others – the Sonnets or The Winter’s Tale.

My second fellow islander would be Byron’s Don Juan, perhaps aptly so, given that the hero is permanently, and sometimes literally, at sea. The poem has romance, colour, and humour. It’s such a rich canvas, filled with fascinating, beautiful women, and with observations on poetry, politics, war, religion, and caustic asides at the Lake poets … an endlessly rewarding read! Byron lacerates one’s pieties so elegantly as his toothsome ottava rima flows along. I’m thinking of the episode in which Don Juan’s spaniel is sacrificed to the needs of starving mariners. Never was cruelty deployed with such warmth.

The third work would have to be by Victor Hugo. I admire Hugo’s historical novels for two qualities in particular: how he manages to reflect major events in the finely drawn lives of individual characters, and how he casts trenchant political analysis in succinct one-liners. Ninety-Three is set during the terreur of the French Revolution, when thousands were sent to the guillotine. As Hugo puts it, 1793 was ‘the year of Europe’s war against France, and of France’s war against Paris’ – France’s provinces did not share the capital’s zeal for innovation in equal measure. Hugo dissects the conflicted mentalities and interests of centre versus periphery in a way which reminds me very much of the current debates around Brexit. All the Revolution’s leaders make their memorable entry: uptight, incorruptible Robespierre, Falstaffian Danton, and Marat, the people’s butcher who was stabbed by Charlotte Corday while taking the daily bath that eased his skin disease. During one of his audiences, managed, as usual, from the bathtub, Marat is told, ‘you should distrust the bath; Seneca died in one.’ Marat smiles, ‘there is no Nero around here.’ Danton retorts, ‘yes, there is – you.’ And the book is full with this sort of beguiling punchline!

But on to the fourth work. In my personal view, no German author of the twentieth century wrote finer prose than Thomas Mann, and this is why I’d love to take Joseph and His Brothers with me. The book invites you to reflect on classical and biblical myth as much as the political situation of the 1940s. Mann begins with the arraignment of Cain before God and the angels. Cain has the chutzpah to argue with his maker: ‘Don’t blame me for killing Abel. After all, you created me.’ The angels find that Cain might have a point! Then, however, the novel makes a conscious move from bloody fratricide to the happier if fraught story of Joseph, who forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Mann humanizes implacable myth, celebrating mercy in the face of overwhelming odds.

Book number five would be Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. It is the most frightening novel I have ever read because its main character, an indolent aristocrat, invites identification despite his considerable flaws, the chief being crippling inactivity. Anyone who has ever put off writing an essay will know what keeps Oblomov in his bed when he should be up and going about his business. Goncharov endows the man with soulful intelligence and kindness, yet even so Oblomov loses everything, including his estates and the woman who loves him, because he simply cannot muster the energy to rouse himself and take charge of his life. I’d like to take this scary monument to procrastination to the island to keep me from going to seed there.


If you could take the literature from just one era or movement, which would it be?

The era and movement of choice would be the Renaissance because it stretches so wonderfully across countries and has a generous timescale. I could begin in early-fourteenth-century Italy with Albertino Mussato’s delicious neo-Senecan tragedy Ecerinis, which is about Ezzelino, the tyrant of Padua and spawn of the devil; and I could finish in England with Paradise Lost because scholars have obligingly made allowance for a Northern Renaissance which ends sometime in the 1660s. On the way there are Donne, Marvell, Herbert, and many superb tragedies – including one of my favourite plays, Thomas Middleton’s Changeling. Lines like ‘Can you weep fate from its determined purpose?’ come to mind every time there is a Board of Studies to attend.


You can take two writers with you for company– who? (Do you think they would they get on?)

Jonathan Swift would be most companionable! We’d both explore the island looking for intelligent four-legged life-forms. The other writer would be Machiavelli. He would get on with Swift I think. Both had first-hand experience of capricious patronage; both produced works which were regarded by some of their contemporaries as monstrous or blasphemous, and both had the gift of clear-sighted analysis without any self-pity.


A piece of literature that’s a guilty pleasure – if such a thing exists.

The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse is a classic where the great and the good mingle with the obscure. Wordsworth, Goldsmith and Tennyson collect their trophies alongside Cornelius Whur and Erasmus Darwin, author of the sublime ‘The Maiden Truffle’. Failure at a high level is in itself an achievement. I have the deepest respect for good bad verse. It is a great mood lifter.


What is your favourite quotation/ words to live by?

If it’s not too pretentious, I’d embrace John F. Kennedy’s remark ‘I am an idealist without illusions’.


Which Shakespeare play would you burn?

The one written by Francis Bacon.


Finally, a non-literary question: what would you take as your luxury item?

The entire coffee bar of Sant’ Eustachio in Rome. I’m fairly often in Rome, and am very fond of the place. Besides, Swift needs his coffee-house, and Machiavelli must have a decent espresso before he can anatomize the failures of leadership in Shakespeare’s history plays.

Thank you, Professor Ravelhofer! 


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