A bit of literary fun

This post is a bit of fun. Yes, fun. I do that sometimes.

The Guardian, a paper that often publishes cultural commentary that I find myself taking issue with, regularly runs a rather diverting feature, in which various writers are set a literary questionnaire. The questions are fairly general, and the respondent seems free to use these questions as springboards, as it were, to talk about various literary matters of interest to them. Here is an example of what I mean.

Now, I thought to myself, why should only established writers have all the fun? Just because they are distinguished, and have achievements to their name! So I thought I’d have a go at this myself. Some of the questions have been modified, since they ask about the respondent’s writings, and, apart from some blog posts and some technical documents at work, I don’t really have any writing to boast about. But as I said, this is just for fun. And if any other blogger out there wishes to join me in doing this, please do go ahead!


The book I am currently reading
I am currently immersed in Dante – one of the undisputed pillars of western culture who has, so far, eluded me. I have been reading, with great pleasure and profit, Reading Dante by Prue Shaw. In this book, she elucidates most eloquently the historic and theological background of the Commedia (and both, I think, are essential for an adequate understanding); and also traces the various themes, demonstrating how these themes interact, and are developed across the span of this vast, multi-faceted work At the same time, I am reading through, as carefully as I can, the Purgatorio in Robin Kirkpatrick’s admirable translation. (His copious notes and annotations are also most valuable.)

In short, I am determined to crack this bugger! I flatter myself that I am, at long last, making some headway. The Cambridge Companion to Dante (edited by Rachel Jacoff) and Eric Griffiths’ Dante in English are both on order.

The book that changed my life
I don’t think any single book has had such a dramatic effect on me, but, in a sense, each and every book that has made an impact on me has changed my life in some way. One is the product of one’s experiences, after all, and what one finds in books can be an experiences as powerful as anything that happens outside. This applies not merely to books with depth: I doubt too many people will ascribe any great profundity to, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and yet the dark untamed moors and the Hound from Hell have been permanently etched in my mind for nearly 50 years now.

I guess the books that most dramatically changed my life were the books I read in my teenage years. Between the ages of about 5 and 12, I was really familiarising myself with the English language (not having known a word of it in my first five years). But it was in the next 6 years – my teens – that my literary tastes and values, such as they are, developed. The writers I came to love then – Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, the 19th century Russian novelists, and that lone novel so far out on a branch that it still has no near literary relative – Wuthering Heights – remain still at the centre of my literary consciousness, although, I guess, I love them now for reasons somewhat different from those that inspired my early enthusiasm.

But since this question enjoins me to nominate just one book, I think I shall nominate The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner. This was the volume that opened for me the doors to English poetry. I won’t give a history here of my long relationship with this book, since I have already done so in an earlier post.

The book I wish I’d written
I wish I had written King Lear. Or The Iliad. Or Don Quixote, perhaps? War and Peace? The odes of Keats?

All right, I’ll be serious.

Since I am not in the business of writing novels or poems or plays, but, rather, dashing off short (and sometimes not so short) pieces for this blog, I really wish I had the writing skills of Howard Jacobson. He is, of course, an eminent novelist, but I am referring to the short pieces he used to write regularly, and still writes occasionally, for various papers and journals. He could be light-hearted or deadly serious, funny or grave; and he had a distinctive authorial presence that carries the reader (this reader, at least) along, even when I do not agree with him. He couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to; and, at times, he raised the writing of a newspaper column to the level of art.

There are two collections of pieces he wrote weekly on Independent on Sunday. And I wish I could write like that.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I had better rephrase that question, since I am not a writer. Let me consider instead the book that has had the greatest influence on my thinking.

I haven’t really read much philosophy, or political polemics – or religious polemics either, for that matter. Most of my reading has been prose fiction, drama, and poetry. What political or religious views I have, I have acquired through reading newspapers and journals, articles by political commentators, and the like.

My outlook on life, such as it is, has mainly been garnered from the writers who have meant most to me – Shakespeare, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hopkins, Tagore, Yeats. It’s not that I accept everything they have to offer: in some cases – Dostoyevsky and Yeats especially, though not exclusively – I dissent vehemently with what they have to say. But one doesn’t read merely to be able to nod away in agreement. Sometimes, a good fight with an author can be quite invigorating.

The book I think is most under/overrated
I am really not very comfortable with the term “overrated” in this context, as to declare something to be “overrated” – that is, to say that a certain book has received more praise than it deserves – is to imply that I know precisely how much praise it deserves, and that those many who praise it don’t. That strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant. Better surely to concede that no single person’s perceptions and receptivities can encompass the vast range of literature that has been created across the ages, and that there are bound to be some, at least, that lie outside the range of what we may take in.

Which is not to say that one cannot criticise. No book is above criticism, though many, no doubt, are beneath it.

(I might as well confess that the epigram above is most probably not my own: however, I honestly cannot remember where I encountered it, and, until such a time as someone points out to me its source, I am happy to claim it as mine. At all events, it is far too good not to recycle.)

As for underrated books, just about the entire literature of India that is written in Indian languages is underrated in the West. I have ranted about this before, and since I am in a genial mood right now, would prefer not to engage in another angry rant. So let me suggest two novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji (or Bandopadhyay: there are two forms of his surname): Pather Panchali and Aparajito. The trilogy of films made by Satyajit Ray from these two novels (the “Apu Trilogy”) is rightly famous, but these films are very different from the novels. I should add that these novels are by no means underrated in the Bengali-speaking world, but in the Western world, they remain virtually unknown. And they shouldn’t.

The book that changed my mind
I said earlier that I don’t often read polemics. But one of the few I did read, and which I think has made a profound impact on me, was Political Emotions by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. I had long maintained, and still do to a great extent, that when it comes to politics, we must keep as far from us as we can our emotions, which all too often cloud our powers of ratiocination. But , in this extremely erudite and eloquent polemic, Nussbaum proposes that human emotions are not that simple; that while some may no doubt be dark and destructive, there are other emotions too that can and should be harnessed for a better and a more just society. That is an inadequate summary of Nussbaum’s thesis, but since any brief description of so rich a book is necessarily inadequate, I think I’ll leave it as it is.

The last book that made me cry
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill.

I am not really an admirer of O’Neill’s other plays, but this one is different. I suppose I have something of an obsession with it. It is a very long and very gruelling play, emotionally draining, about a family, four people who are closely bound to each other, and who seem to love and hate each other at the same time. I have often tried to work out just why it is this play means so much to me, and I have never quite managed to find an answer. I don’t know how many times I have read it, or seen it – the film adaptation, various stage productions … And I even have a recording on audio! Why do I put myself through this gruelling emotional experience repeatedly? Am I some sort of masochist? Maybe. I just know that it moves me intensely each time.

The last book that made me laugh
Wodehouse would be too obvious a choice, wouldn’t it? OK, I won’t nominate Wodehouse then.

Not a book, I know, but Viz makes me laugh out loud, consistently. For those who don’t know, it is a British “adult” comic – by which I mean it is extremely rude, and frequently quite obscene. It’s not really the kind of thing you’d leave lying around when you have guests coming; and you certainly wouldn’t want your maiden aunts to read them. Or even to know that you read them.

But their combination of obscenity, mad flights of surrealism, and sheer childishness, I find an endless source of delight. As well as a regular cast of comic grotesques – Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist, Roger Mellie (the Man on the Telly), the Fat Slags, etc. – there are frequently some quite inspired one-offs. One that still makes me laugh just thinking about it was called “Fireman Fritter – he’s got Twitter up his Shitter”. (“Fireman Fritter was no ordinary fireman,” it goes on to explain, “he had a social networking site up his jacksy.”) If you do not find that funny, I wouldn’t recommend Viz.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Canterbury Tales. I started with the best intentions. I had read the Neville Coghill translation into modern English, and I thought I would venture into Chaucer’s original (I have a lovely dual language edition). But I really am unfamiliar with Chaucer’s English, and while, with effort, I could piece it out, the spontaneity was lost. There were other issues too. I started on a story about a man who lived in “Surrye”. That’s fine, I thought, this chap lives in Surrey. Then I glanced over at the modern English version, and it turned out he lived in Syria. Well, how was I to know?

I read about half the stories, and promised myself to come back later for the rest. But I must admit, I haven’t yet. And worse, I’m in no hurry.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I am quite ashamed of having read so little outside the western tradition. The Shahnameh, The Tale of Genji … you name it, I am ignorant of it. Even within the western culture, I am painfully aware that I haven’t yet read the whole of the Bible. But I suppose the must-read book I am most ashamed of not having read is Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

My earliest reading memory
This was back in India, which I left aged 5. Abol Tabol, a book of the most delicious nonsense poms by Sukumar Ray. I still love that book, and I need only look at those illustrations (by Sukumar Ray himself, and by his perhaps more famous son, Satyajit) to be carried away into that wonderful mad world. By the  time I left India, I remember, I knew most of these poems by heart,

I tried translating one of those poems here.

My comfort read
I’d like to say that I do not read for “comfort”. That I read to be stimulated, to discover new ways of looking at things. That I read to be disturbed, to expand my horizons into new and unfamiliar territory.

I’d like to say all that, but it isn’t quite true. Indeed, it isn’t true at all. There are all sorts of books I read for comfort – simply because I feel good entering the world they create: the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Brigadier Gerard stories by Conan Doyle; the sunlit comedies of Wodehouse; creepy ghost stories for late night in bed; Dumas’ swashbucklers; Stevenson’s adventure stories; and the like. I am not claiming any profundity for any of these books, but they are products of a craftsmanship so fine and imaginations so fertile that the question of whether they constitute literary art become irrelevant. (But just in case that question is asked, the answer is yes.)

The book I give as a gift
I tend not to give books as gifts, as, in circles I mix in, books as gifts wouldn’t be anywhere near as much appreciated as a good bottle of booze. But I did present someone with a volume of Wodehouse once simply because she was quite unbearably miserable and I wanted to cheer her up a bit.

(I don’t think it worked, by the way.)

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
The great novel that I know I’ll never write. It’s hard enough writing decent blog posts, for heavens’ sake! Why do you think I’m filling up this blog writing easy pieces like this one?

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Di on October 21, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    “But I did present someone with a volume of Wodehouse once simply because she was quite unbearably miserable and I wanted to cheer her up a bit.

    (I don’t think it worked, by the way.)”
    HAHAHAHAHAHA. It helped a tiny bit.


  2. Posted by Fawad on October 21, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    Loved the literary fun you had in this post and made me think about my reading life in each of these categories.

    Couldn’t agree more with your point about the lack of literary appreciation of the non-Western canon though I recognize how difficult it is to truly appreciate those great works in translation. (Aab-e-Gum, an Urdu work by Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi is amongst one of my favorite books in any language. It has not been translated and seems culturally untranslatable to me, similar to the poetry of Ghalib or Faiz). I love the Ray film trilogy but is there a good translation of the novels in English that you could recommend?


  3. Posted by Chris Jennings on October 21, 2019 at 10:15 pm

    “No book is above criticism, though many, no doubt, are beneath it.”

    Anthony Burgess. Though I know this only because you quoted it in a reply to me about five years ago!


  4. Posted by David Gouldstone on October 23, 2019 at 5:39 pm

    I followed your suggestion:
    (I hope you don’t mind my whimsically referring to you as ‘Mr Git’. Apologies if it seems too familiar or just plain rude.)


    • Oh, not at all! Mr Git is rather good actually! 😀

      I’ve only had time to have a quick look at your post, but will get back to it again later tonight, and will have a good look round the rest of the blog too.

      Thanks for doing this!
      All the best, Himadri


      • Posted by David Gouldstone on October 25, 2019 at 4:47 pm

        Dear Mr Git

        I’m sorry – I mean, hello, Himadri.

        I’ve never tried to tackle Dante (another thing I should be ashamed of, probably – I’ll get round to him one day, maybe), but yesterday I went to the Blake exhibition as the Tate, where the Dante drawings are among the highlights.

        By the way, I’ve replied to your comments on my blog, which I mention because I’m not 100% sure that you’ll get a notification (Google’s Blogger isn’t very reliable in such respects).

        Best wishes, David

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