Yesterday, I started reading Kirkpatrick’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. ‘I don’t want to read the whole of his Divine Comedy,’ I joked to the salesperson in Waterstones. ‘Just the gothic bits.’ Divina Commedia is a classic of world literature, esteemed by T. S. Eliot, a medieval epic, and I’m supposed to be embracing a mid-life literary education. I should’ve loved it. Instead, it lulled me into peevish slumber, its gothicism more a ghoulish reminder of High Catholicism’s medieval authoritarianism. Broad-bummed hippopotami might be susceptible to nervous shock, but they’re preferable to popery in any time.
I struggled on for an hour and then flipped to Canterbury Tales, translated by Nevill Coghill. Humans are always more illuminating than God. I was delightfully surprised by the familiarity of Chaucer’s voice and the perspicacity of his characterisation. There is something cosily English about his cast, too: the Oxford Cleric reminded me of me, ‘too unworldly to make search for secular employment’, with my threadbare clobber and my studies yet to discover ‘the stone for making gold’ – although I’m not half so taciturn.
Today, I began the Knight’s Tale, the longest of the pilgrims’ stories, yet told with frequent remonstrations to brevity by the courteous Knight. I imagine some of his audience might have wished his ludicrous romance shorter by half, and I’m aware that the story that follows puts a flea up the Knight’s arse. Some literary theorists steer students away from attributing the voice of a literary work to the author, but it’s hard not to feel Chaucer’s presence behind his words, even in translation, tongue firmly in cheek, affectionately sending up the truly catholic flock making their way to the Saint Thomas’s shrine. Then again, perhaps it’s the voice of Everyman that Chaucer evokes, mocking the hypocrisy of pardoners and plump nuns, sceptical of doctors, yet admiring of honest parsons.
Next, I reread Beginnings, the first chapter of Bennett & Royle’s classic literary theory starter, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory: Fifth Edition (Routledge, 2016). As well as introducing a handful of literary concepts, including peritexts and intertextuality, it reminded me of the importance of beginnings as a facet of literary knowledge: ‘When that April with his shoures sote’ is an opening line we should all know by heart, along with ‘Call me Ishmael’ and ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man is in need of drunken, homoerotic companionship’. The‘intentional fallacy’ was also discussed: the idea of a ‘final’ authorial meaning inherent in a literary work that can be deciphered if we try hard enough. Bennett & Royle also make mention of the mistaken view that the first encounter with a text is the authoritative one. As Chaucer is learning me, the initial read is often the one that provokes more questions than conclusions.
Bennett & Royle’s chapter is an exemplar of a fine literary essay: accomplished, nay, silver tongued in its use of language, erudite, weaving its associated themes and issues around a central premise, a pleasure to read, but a crap learning tool. Style is an advocate: it doesn’t always organise information well, nor does it necessarily win the argument. I completely disagree with this chapter’s core premise, that beginnings are inherently paradoxical, bound up as they are with previous shit. No, mate! Beginnings are relative.
For my penultimate read, I ran my fingers over the intro to Susan Aberth’s Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (Lund Humphries, 2010). I read Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet a few months ago and thought it delightfully subversive. It also touched upon a personal interest of some thirty years past. In my late teens, I fell for Colin Wilson and consequently one of his foremost influences, the master of gurus George Ivegotanitch Gurdjieff. Carrington’s novel sends Gurdjieff up to the rafters, and it felt like I’d found a fellow seeker who had embraced and rejected many truths on her journey through life. Carrington died in 2011. If she were still alive, I might well have written to her. Her artwork is beautiful and intriguing. I’m eager to learn more.
Finally, I started Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod (Harvard University Press, 2015). After so much arty stuff, it was almost a relief to tumble back into some well-written and insightful social science, and better still, Abu-Lughod is an ethnographer. It’s interesting how some things come full circle: the first literary novel I ever read, aged 16, was Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a work influenced by ethnography. There’s no better way to challenge stereotypes and misrepresentations than holding up examples of real-life complexity. Abu-Lughod’s book could easily keep me awake into the small hours — unlike Dante Alighieri’s moralising soporific.