Dickensians amongst us have been celebrating the bicentenary. Some Dickens-sceptics have tried from time to time to be party-poopers, but they have been politely told to piss off. And quite right too.
Personally, I rather like these anniversaries. Why pass over an excuse to celebrate the works of a writer I love? But while I have already been celebrating Dickens (I re-read Our Mutual Friend), I was considering also having another go this year at the author whose aesthetic values are so diametrically opposed to those of Dickens, that she could justly be described as his antithesis: Jane Austen.
I have long held a theory that each reader leans either towards Austen or towards Dickens, and no-one can love both equally. True, I know of at least two people who claim to love them both equally, and I believe them; however, I see no reason why facts should get in the way of a good theory. These two novelists – the greatest English novelists, according to Edmund Wilson, and I am certainly not going to pick a fight with him on that – split everything between them.
I am firmly on the Dickensian side of the fence (as, I note to my delight, was Vladimir Nabokov, if his idiosyncratic Lectures on Literature is anything to go by). But, instead of sensibly saying that I am temperamentally not suited to Austen and leaving it at that, I have, I fear, said some very rude and intemperate (and frankly very foolish) things about her in the past; indeed, it is only the transient nature of internet posts that saves my appearing a complete idiot.
Feeling there was obviously something in Austen’s novels that I was missing, and being a type that doesn’t like the idea of missing things, I read through Austen’s novels a good five or six years ago. True, I wasn’t converted, but I did get some inkling, at least, of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; and I find them now, rather unexpectedly, resonating in my mind. In other words, they have left behind an aftertaste. The time now is right for a revisit.
There are many other cases, I think, of writers who are so completely opposite to each other in terms of their literary and aesthetic values that a study in comparison can throw light on both. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, for instance, come very obviously to mind, as do, I think, Donne and Milton, or Ibsen and Chekhov. And, moving away from literature, another pair of mighty opposites suggest themselves: Verdi and Wagner. This pairing is one I think we’ll be hearing much about next year, as it happens, very conveniently, to be the bicentenary of both. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at them.
I know I am not qualified to write posts either on Verdi or on Wagner, but lack of qualification has never stopped me before. And in any case, I love Verdi.
Yes, I know, I know, that’s dispraise by omission… But it’s not that I don’t like Wagner: I do. But I don’t like liking Wagner, if you see what I mean. It’s nothing to do with his odious anti-Semitism, deeply unpleasant though that is: it is more to do with the very feature of his works that so entrances his admirers – the ability his music has of completely enveloping the listener, of making the listener forget the passage of time … to forget everything other than that blasted music. I know Wagner’s music can have this effect because I have experienced it myself. Many times. But whether I enjoy experiencing this sort of thing is another matter.
However, it’s still over ten months before the double bicentenary, so I’ll have plenty of time to think out my responses to these two undeniable giants. I think I already know what I’ll be saying about Verdi. As for t’other one, our teenage lad – already a Wagnerian, poor thing – has still to convince me. And who knows? – I may still be convinced. Why listen to music at all – or read books – if one is not prepared to expand one’s tastes?