Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A literary tourist

‘What distinguishes the Cambridge English course,’ according to the university website, ‘is its balance between a solid grounding in the essentials of the discipline, and the opportunity to specialise and to innovate’. If so, it has changed not at all since I was there a few decades ago. Then, as now, we studied ‘the broad range of English literature from 1300 to the present’. 1300 is what it always was, only the present has changed with the addition of a few more years.

There was and still is an additional element, described on the website as ‘a course in practical criticism and critical practice, where you write essays on previously unseen passages for comment.’ Preparation for this part of the tripos took the form in my day of something known as the dating exercise. At my first tutorial with Raymond Williams we sat in his rooms (previously occupied by Coleridge) reading in silence the prose passage he had given us when we came in, while he puffed on his pipe and waited patiently for one of us to say when we thought it had been written. It was like a parlour game played for very high stakes, not least the good opinion of Professor Williams.

Learning to recognise the distinctive features of, say, Georgian poetry or Jacobean prose made Eng. Lit. a bit like Geography. A cultural relief map. A walking tour through the literary landscape of the British Isles, from John O’Groats (1300) to Land’s End (the present). That was Part 1, in Part 2 you could go back and visit some of the places again.

An adventurous student might step outside this strictly British syllabus by taking the Grand Tour, visiting the famous landmarks of European literature the way some students spend a year travelling before getting a job. But this is dilettantism. The Rough Guide to Balzac and Zola is not Pevsner on ecclesiastical architecture, the Lonely Planet Guide to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is not Wainwright on the Lakes. I left university well equipped to be a tour guide in any part of English literature, but a mere tourist anywhere else.

For most of us, reading a book in translation is like taking a City Break. We spend a few days with Dante in Florence, a weekend in Paris with Flaubert, a day out with Chekhov at a dacha, an adventure holiday in La Mancha with Cervantes – and never go back. Keeping up with the present in your own literature is challenge enough.

In France, according to an article I read in Le Monde recently, books in translation account for nearly a third of all new publications. A Polish friend tells me that the figure for Poland could be even higher, to the extent that Polish writers hardly get a look-in. My guess is that the figure for Britain is much lower. But it is not just that as a nation we read too little, either through choice or lack of opportunity, outside our own literature. It is that we read like tourists.

Peirene Press, an independent publisher, provides English readers with an invaluable service by publishing three European novellas in translation each year. No. 12, Chasing the King of Hearts by Polish writer Hanna Krall, is due out in September. Books 1-11 include translations from Catalan, Dutch, French, Finnish, Danish, German, Austrian German and Swiss German. The books are beautifully produced. ‘Thought provoking, well designed, short,’ is what it says on the website. ‘Two hour books to be devoured in a single sitting,’ says the TLS, ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film.’ The books are all best-sellers or award winners in their own countries. You can subscribe, as I do, for one, two or three years, and have each book delivered by post as soon as it comes out.

By analogy with tourism, what Peirene Press offers is an overnight stay in a B&B. Nothing wrong with that, especially if it leads to the full walking tour later on. But for that, you need a guide. You need a Wainwright or a Pevsner to show you where to go and what to look out for. You need recommendations for places to stay. The literary walking tour that lets you, with the passage of time, put MA Cantab after your name, is not replicable in a literature you can read only in translation. Too much of it is lost, notably the poetry. You need an interpreter as well as a guide.

I feel partly prepared for Chasing the King of Hearts. A Polish friend and a history of Poland (Poland by Adam Zamoyski) have helped me to get my bearings, taught me how to pronounce the names and shown me some of the landmarks. Relying mainly on second-hand bookshops, I have read from the nineteenth century Peasants by Reymont, Quo Vadis by Sienkiewicz, The Doll by Prus and some of Mickiewicz’s poems. Nothing from the twentieth. From the twenty-first Nine, a novel by Andrzej Stasiuk published in England by Vintage. I have watched on YouTube the first episode of the television series based on Sienkiewicz’s Rodzina Połanieckich. I have rented from LoveFilm Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war films, A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds. I know that Andrzej should be pronounced Andjey.

Great literature is universal, but it achieves universality only by telling stories about particular people in a particular place at a particular time. Translation can be misleading. It fools us into thinking that we can read the book as if it were English and forget that we are in another country. The mistake is even easier to make when a book written in English is not English, in other words when it’s American. British readers need to take the walking tour of the USA just as much as they do of Russia, Egypt or Japan.

The Grand Tour won’t do. You can’t do Calvino as if he was Rome. If you’re serious about Italian literature, you have to take the walking tour and give it three years. I might, with luck, have thirty years ahead of me. Enough for ten countries.

Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams

Coming next – THE FIRST MODERN NOVEL. Read it here on 21 August. Click on ‘Follow’ to get a reminder on the day.

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