Imagine a ‘literary ad’ with that title as slogan… Okay let’s get serious by discussing the classics – a subject I find a tad uncomfortable because a lot of people think that because you are a writer, you just have to have read these books. I remember those times I and my lit guys would get together – real time or online – and the topic would shift to glowing testimonies of how Dickens and Tolstoy, Austen and Baldwin, Poe and Eliot, Twain and Etcetera have shaped writing, done this or that other thing in their works…yada-yada-yada, and I’m lost and left to wonder what I am missing.
It doesn’t help that some of them go about this subject in an if-you-didn’t-read-the-classics-you-are-not-yet-started-as-a-writer fashion. (Concerning that last sentence, I’m ready to concede that it is just my imagination – really) But…Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, Flaubert… Who are these people? I only started to hear of them this year – what am I saying? – this month! To be fair to myself, let me acknowledge the classics I’ve read. © Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens (abridged) © Shakespeare (apart from R & J and Hamlet, the rest were simplified – thanks to the Lambs:-D) © Animal Farm – George Orwell © Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (abridged) © The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain © Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe (abridged) Mtschw. And I am talking! See how half the ones I managed to read were just not the real thing – abridged this, simplified that.
I tried David Copperfield and Great Expectations (both Dickens) in my junior class but couldn’t get past chapter one without getting bored – especially that Great Expectations; I loved its black cover design, but for where? In my SS classes, we had Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms on our literature plate. While Nineteen Eighty-Four was summarised and discussed by the teacher (sharp guy!), A Farewell to Arms was not touched. In all, I didn’t bother to actually read both novels for myself – I didn’t even have them. And it hurts when I know I could read a book, should read it, yet fail to. Unbecoming, is the word for it. It’s not as if the language in them is difficult – hell, I read Shakespearean wella – no try me oh! Granted, I had an aversion (though involuntary) towards foreign literature as a child, whereas I devoured everything local.
Each time I opened one of these foreign novels, the words were English but seemed so strange; the characters – the way they spoke and what they ate were far removed from my frame of reference. Even the scent of the book was something else to me (lol). Eventually I would have to drop it and pick an Achebe or something. By the time I was able to relax to read foreign novels, my hands didn’t land on a Dickens or Golding, but on popular fiction, and if you know what those read like – fast-paced plot, very lean language where every sentence is another plot step – the chances of my going back to try flowery prose died.
Until recently… I have a couple of these classic works on my reading list now – A Farewell to Arms. The Old Man and the Sea (what a shame). Lord of the Flies. The Sorrows of Satan. Nineteen Eighty-Four. (finally!) – but with the steady output from equally good contemporary authors – both local and foreign – also featuring in this list I wonder how I will cope… In flashes, I worry that one day, a fellow writer might dismiss me as – well – unserious the moment he/she learns I haven’t been such a good friend of the classics. Anyhow sha, until then.
Right now, what I’m more concerned about is craving your indulgence to let me squeeze in Richard Wright’s Black Boy in that list up there. Yep, I read that too and thoroughly enjoyed it. Am I not trying?