So large and so significant is English as a literature that you never really lose sight of the need to learn and study more. Additionally I was brought up to suspect the idea of being just a specialist ( though specialists are obviously necessary) so I never wanted to concentrate my efforts on one period or one genre or one extension. It is a subject in which you want, even as you focus on one of its parts, to keep a sense of the whole.
That said, one feels a certain resistance to the contemporary. To keep up with the sheer volume of modern fiction is both an impossibility and from my point of view not specially desirable. One keeps ones eyes on the reviews; one looks -with decreasing hope- to hear of a new writer who will take the literature and the language-and re-direct it -as Eliot or Lawrence or Joyce did a hundred years ago.
This, however, is one of the irritations. I am surrounded by insatiable readers of the latest Booker Prize winners, or the latest young discovery (we’ve moved from Zadie Smith to Ali Smith to Sally Rooney).
Here I imagine a conversation with a young enthusiast.
Me : I’m interested in Literature too. I spent much of my life teaching it for the Open University and now I write blogs on the subject.
She: Fascinating. I’m looking forward to studying in third year. We’ve concentrated on modules on post-colonial stuff, as well as plenty on how lack of diversity and lots of racism is shown in the in the writing of the past.
Me: Anything on Chaucer or Piers Ploughman?.
She: No they have ditched all that medieval stuff as irrelevant and not sufficiently marketable.
Me: Oh no! Shakespeare?
She: Yes a lot on the Merchant of Venice and anti-semitism in the module on racism. Also Othello came in as the Moor.
Me: So you say you are finishing third year with a dissertation. What do you hope to focus on?
She: Definitely something on Sally Rooney.
Me: But she is still only in her twenties or so isn’t she?.
She: So what, she matters!. She’s the modern voice of fiction.
Me: I am afraid I read Normal People and found it dreary.
She (shocked): Dreary!
Me: Ok the main relationship , the on and off and then on relationship is sharply observed and well-done. It is very immersive as if the author is very personally involved but there is little or no attempt to set it in the perspective of another kind of reality. The novel shows a young writer hopelessly confined to the non-descript land of “anywhere”: depictions of council-house estate, school grades, the emptiness of youth culture, the nonentity of the lives of the rich, condemned because they are rich. Outside the two Connell and Marianne the family relationship is so unexplored. Connell is better with his mother; she at least gives him some moral direction. Of course there is no father and that is just taken for granted. But with Marianne it is as if the brother is a given as a bully and a weakling and the mother is contrived to be opposed to Marianne without sympathy at any point. She is only rich and mean.
She: But this is linked with the father’s abuse of her. Women have to fit in. And the brother learns from that too.
Me: Yes. it is a too easy given. It’s not really explained or developed
She: But the writer cannot include everything.
Me: Perhaps, but apart from that there is no sense of a real other Ireland, Nature, only the naive Marxist reading of spoilt comfortably-off rich and cheated poor. He offers her “The Communist Manifesto ” to read when they are at school for goodness sake. The writer is so caught up in her lived-in world and has no resources to get her beyond being miserable about things. To be so young and dreary! Young creative life shout be a kick against misery not a lament.
She: But that is the world of the young, the world they know. She writes about it and makes it art.
Me: I agree that if you want to learn about the sexual mores and the ways in which the young socialise she is an excellent source allowing for the slant she is taking. As to “art” she gives fine short impressionistic glimpses of the effects of say rain, or as she looks through a window misted by her breath. But then there are other descriptions of her taking a shower and you ask “Why is this here?” So what.
She: Is it not connected with giving a sense of the ordinary, like normal people?
Me: I don’t know. For me art is there to make significant. Too much of the description is just detached observation that does not go any where. The detached objective view, neutral.
She: It often runs as if for a film.
Me: Yes , that’s a really good observation. The narration is like the neutral eye of the camera viewing things. I say “neutral eye” but it is apparently neutral-it is still chosen. It’s like it is being prepared for the cinema or the televising it got.
She: Yes, it’s our way of seeing.
Me: But we need to go beyond our common-sense way of seeing rather than just refining it here or there with fine impressionistic glimpses and I don’t think she does that.
She: Perhaps but she is still young and it is not just dreary. There is a slow movement towards hope.
Me: Mm, I’m reminded of that quotation “The individual condition is tragic yet there is social hope. “- that might describe Rooney with her rather detached Marxism. They moan at what they call capitalism and say yes to activism but remain detached waiting for things to happen elsewhere. But if there is a vague social hope I am reminded of what F.R. Leavis said about that quotation: “Where if not in individuals is, is what is hoped for to be located?” Especially in the young and creative but I don’t get that with Rooney. Connell ends up doing Creative Writing: play around with Creative Writing while you wait for the debacle: it’s not inspiring.
She: The lovers do get themselves sorted out. Marianne overcomes her dependency on being trampled on. He gets to the point of commitment. She is freed by his belief in her.
Me: There is something there perhaps. But put the novel in the tradition. One hundred and ten years ago Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers autobiographically based discovering in himself the problem with finding a relationship with a woman that gets himself beyond the hold on him with his mother. In one relationship he and a secondary girlfriend find a kind of sexual togetherness that connects them with the Nature around them, the “wheeling peewits etc..” There is hardly any sense of Nature in this work certainly not impinging on the world of the lovers. They -or at least Marianne wants to make love in a derelict building. Ok that fits with the theme of her self-negation. But there is also a lack which Lawrence shows in his work: wonder. In The Rainbow the young farmer character looks for a woman with a kind of religious intensity. It isn’t piety it is an understanding his sexual longing belongs to his religious urge for wholeness. I don’t get that with today’s young writers. For these young writers sex is too easy in our world and has become a quagmire.
She: That’s interesting but I think she had to clear the ground first and she did that with this novel. It will be interesting to see how she will progress.
He: Well Lawrence did say after writing his autobiographical novel: ” one sheds ones sicknesses in books -repeats and presents again ones emotions to become master of them” . Then he became free to write his best stuff. Perhaps Rooney will do the same.