Thursday, 4 February 2010
Arguing about books
Recently on this blog I have been less than complimentary about Cormac McCarthy and J D Salinger. One reader and friend in particular has chastised me and it got me thinking about how we talk about books, publicly and privately. I've just read Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing and enjoyed it thoroughly even when I didn't share her tastes.
Firstly, she takes a positive pride in the lack of organisation of her books, something she invests with a moral quality, as she does so many of her personal preferences. She implies that mere "book collectors" arrange their books; she, on the other hand has had a life "working with books in various ways". Well, lots of us have, Susan, and some of us still like to know where to find a specific title!
This chaos does not extend to the study of her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.
Susan Hill reads Dorothy Sayers' detective stories but finds the Wimsey-Vane romance "embarrassing", enjoyed using the London Library but refuses to be a country member, remembers her extensive reading of Enid Blyton, is left cold by Jane Austen but re-reads Ian Fleming. In all of the above she couldn't be more different from your Maven.
But she loves Dickens and so do I, though we have different favourites. But we agree on the flawlessness of Our Mutual Friend.
"Name-dropping is a tiresome, if harmless trait" she says in the introduction before warning the reader that she has known lots of famous writers and I was glad of the warning. There is a lot of showing off in this book. (A postcard from Dirk Bogarde falls out of Graham Greene's The Third Man, for instance.)
Susan Hill loves My Family and Other Animals, Nancy Mitford,adores P G Wodehouse - I can follow her two thirds of the way here. Admires every other one of Kingsley Amis's novels, which makes her much more enthusiastic than me. And I just can't read his son at all - so fully expect another comment from my friend.
Like so many people, writers even, she hasn't read Proust or Ulysses ("though Stephen Fry ... swears by it"). But at least she says "I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic." Other omissions are Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, Gormenghast, any Terry Pratchett, in fact any fantasy or historical fiction writer.
Hasn't read the Morte d'Arthur either but at least that falls into the category of books she will get round to one day, rather than the often-tried and cast aside like the books in the above paragraph. The writer she loves most is Virginia Woolf.
So her literary mental world is peopled with different authors from mine. We might come together on Dickens and Gerald Durrell but the Malory that fills and furnishes my own brain is missing from hers, which instead has Virginia Woolf. But we both do have brains peopled by literary experiences, writers and their characters and that gives us more in common than either of us would have with many other people.
In the end Susan Hill tries to boil down the books she loves to a strict forty (I can't remember why). In choosing from Shakespeare she rejects all the poetry (why?), 12th Night, the Roman plays and all tragedies except Hamlet and Macbeth.The Scottish play wins. Shakespeare is allowed only one work while PG Wodehouse gets two! So does Trollope but I don't mind that because I love him.
I wouldn't give shelf room in my forty to Graham Greene or Anita Brookner but there again we are up against the immoveable problem of personal taste.
I found the book absolutely addictive because of the moments when I disagreed as much as the moments when I nodded approvingly.
But in the end I think perhaps its best to discuss books, like politics, with people whose general standpoint is closest to one's own. I never discuss politics with a Tory - no point. And there's no point discussing Terry Pratchett with Susan Hill any more than in her trying to convince me that P G Wodehouse is funny. We all have our blind spots.
But I enjoyed arguing about books with her for the duration of reading Howard's End is on the Landing.