Day Five is such a strange strange week at work! Surreal does not begin to cut it! Anyway, back to the challenge and, today, we are looking for
Favourite classic novel.
Oh Lord! Again, just one? One?
And what exactly is a “classic”? Ask a thousand readers and you’ll probably find a thousand definitions, but probably a similar core set of examples. I remember reading Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics – which is perhaps a classic paean to reading! – and he spends a chapter exploring different ideas of what makes a classic.
1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’
2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.
4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.
8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.
11. ‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
12 A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works.
13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics
14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
I love the use of the word “pulviscular” in number 8! I have no idea what he means! Gritty or grainy, I suppose, or composed of particles if the classics are able to shake off the particles of that cloud of critical discourse.
So a classic seems to be something with a life and power and vitality of its own perhaps, something that sings to you and grows with you as a reader. A classic by these definitions, I suppose need not be aged in itself, but is likely to be proven to have that vitality through the years and generations. Or, perhaps, a classic is just those books which you feel to be classic.
So, anyway, my choices.
This is so difficult!
My University course began with Modernism in Year One (Salman Rushdie, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot…) and rapidly delved back in time through to Shakespeare’s Early Modern English and the Middle English of Chaucer all the way to the Greek of Euripides and Sophocles and Aeschylus. I can genuinely say that not one author failed to impress and delight and charm and challenge me and have lived within me ever since – not one author failed that except for Jane Austen. Poor Austen. I could applaud the skill and the societal satire… but they never struck home in my poor hardened flint heart, from which the steel of Austen never struck generous fire.
I cannot not mention the big Gothic beasts, Frankenstein and Dracula.
If we’re looking for novels capable of changing and layering levels of meaning, these are iconic and parts of the cultural capital of the western world, whether you have read them or not! And, behind all those layers of meaning where Dracula can be a metaphor for Darwinian atavism, Irish rebellion, sexually transmitted disease, Freudian and post-Freudian sexuality, patriarchal structures, industrialisation… etc etc etc, both books are a cracking good read at their superficial level! Sometimes, when you read essays and critical discussions on iconic books of this stature, you feel that the critics spend more time reading other criticism than the actual book itself!
Less towering, perhaps but more condensed and, for me, more powerful is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: the texture of the Yorkshire Moors, the brooding violent otherness of Heathcliff, the doomed and tortured love between Cathy and Heathcliff. Lockwood’s nighttime encounter with Cathy
I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause: but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple: a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten. ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’
How to choose? Because now the ghosts of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, Pip and Miss Havisham and Oliver Twist, Utterson and Jekyll and Hyde, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Piggy and Ralph and Simon and and countless others are clamouring to be heard. And where is there space for – how can you compare? – the wildness of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the Shakespearean, Satanic Ahab, or the humanity of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
And I am so painfully aware that my list thus far is painfully white and western. Looking to Africa, where do I put Chinua Achebe’s wonderful and powerful Things Fall Apart, for example?
And should I be looking looking beyond prose? Delve into the glories of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer? Of Gawain and the Green Knight? Of Wordsworth and Shelley and Eliot? No, for Heaven’s sake, let’s try to keep this manageable!
To choose but one? Nigh on impossible!
These and so many more are all so glorious and vibrant and potent!
If I had to pick one…
For the simple fact that on my book shelf, dog-eared and beaten and annotated with horribly juvenile comments – and less than academic doodles – is my old A-Level copy of Wuthering Heights; for the fact that it has never been out of my possession; for the fact that I am equally compelled and horrified by Cathy and Heathcliff, this is the novel I would select in this category. Today.
Tomorrow, I might select one of a thousand different possiblities!