April 2021 | Books & Links
After a six month break I have decided to bring back my monthly books & links posts. I borrow most of the books I read because I find that if I buy books, I feel guilty if I don’t enjoy them and end up stalling over a book rather than casting it aside and trying something new. I sometimes buy secondhand books because I feel less guilty about abandoning them if I spend less on them, and I also buy books by authors I know and love when they release a new title.
After partially reopening between the first and second lockdowns, my library closed again in November. It briefly reopened in December but I didn’t bother to visit, because the cross city reservation system wasn’t up and running and my branch isn’t very good. It’s a very shiny, modern building and opened to great fanfare eight years ago, but they specialise in popular fiction, popular biographies and classics, whilst the contemporary literary fiction titles I want to read tend to end up at the suburban branches.
The library reopened after lockdown for a third time earlier this month, and the reservations system is still unavailable, so I browsed the classics section instead, trying to find titles that I haven’t already read and might enjoy. I don’t like English classics. I haven’t any interest in 19th century high society and promised myself, having endured them at school and come out the other side hating literature, never to pick one up again. I like early to mid 20th century classics though, and Russian and East European authors.
As an aside, I think it’s such a shame that the English Literature syllabus taught to school children in the UK focuses on Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens at the expense of titles and authors who might appeal more to younger readers and reflect contemporary society and the issues of our times. The popular trinity of ‘proper’ authors wrote books that were considered popular fiction at the time they were published; stories about the social order as it was, but times have changed and – in my opinion – these stories are hard to relate to or have much interest in these days.
I fell in love with books and literature in my late twenties, having always assumed that literature was a fluffy and boring subject because of the popular canon I had been force fed at school. I wish that I had been introduced to the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Tove Jansson, David Mitchell, Mikhail Bulgakov, Don DeLillo and Donna Tartt when I was still a teenager. I would have sat up and given the subject a lot more attention as they describe worlds, social orders, and historical eras that are far more interesting, recent and relevant than the books I had to read to pass my exams. More recently, and published since I left school, books by authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Fatima Farheen Mirza come to mind and should be front and centre in the current syllabus.
I think my fundamental problem with the label ‘classic’ and the status that accompanies it is that its designation is inflexible and tends to lead to books that aren’t considered classics being dismissed as ‘light fiction’ or of lesser literary merit and interest. My grandfather – whom I adored and continue to agree with on many things in life – used to say of contemporary music and composers “are they dead yet?” and be completely disinterested in their work if they were still alive. As a society though, we need to turn our eyes, ears and attention to art and literature which is current, tangible, and relevant, rather than focusing exclusively on eras of former glory and the established greats. I love Stefan Zweig’s work, and he was at his literary peak in the 1920s. I’m also a huge fan of Frédéric Chopin’s and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s compositions, and again they are both part of the established canon of western ‘classical’ music. But I also love to discover new authors, writing now, some of whom are even younger than me. I love discovering new composers and exploring contemporary compositions. Art and literature need to be in flux. If we are going to pass the baton to the next generation then we need to make sure that we listen to them and help them discover work which speaks to them in some way.
I’m not saying we should abandon Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, but I think it is long past the time where we should begin to see past them to what came next and to broaden the syllabus for a new generation of readers.
The Magician of Lublin – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Translated from Yiddish in which it was first written, ‘The Magician of Lublin’ is set in the Jewish community and shtetls of nineteenth century Poland. Yasha is a travelling magician who is married to a woman named Edith who keeps a house and business in Lublin, but his life is entangled with those of several other women with whom he is having affairs. Struggling to make decisions and understand his desires about his career, his marriage, his relationships and his religion, Yasha travels to Warsaw for a performance that could make or break his career whilst the house of cards he’s built up around him through the years threatens to collapse.
None of the characters are particularly likeable, but I enjoyed this book because the storytelling is engrossing and it is fast paced. It’s short, and was perfect to get me back in the habit of reading after six months of barely picking up a book. The writing and story reminded me a lot of Stefan Zweig’s stories; the anguish, turmoil, high drama and tension are all very similar.