Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Why classics?

From Wikipedia
Most of my fiction reading is based on the so-called classics, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Proust, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair etc etc. I’ve often wondered why my taste meandered in this direction though - because it wandered all over the place before I settled on the classics. The only genre I missed out was romance, but most novels are romances anyway. It wasn’t a conscious decision or anything like that. I just ended up preferring the classics, but why?

I may as well say from the start that I’m not entirely sure about the answer, but I think it probably comes in two parts.

Firstly it’s to do with the way the classics take you back to the origins of the novel as fictional writing to be enjoyed. Novels, at least in the UK, originated during a time where craftsmanship (and craftwomanship) still sat alongside early mass-production as epitomised by the dark satanic mills. Novels were carefully crafted for a well-educated readership and I think it shows.

Secondly and far more importantly I think, there is a parallel-world aspect, almost like science fiction but more real. Classic novels depict worlds which once existed but have now gone, worlds similar to our own, but still far enough removed to fascinate by their multitude of differences.

There really was a Dickensian London with its debtor’s prisons and workhouses, a Russia where the elite spoke French, admired Paris fashions and English guns and bought serfs to run their estates. There really was a freewheeling America where people like George F. Babbitt plied their trade and climbed the social ladder.

My absorption with classic fiction isn’t historical though, but more cultural. Things can be different because they have been different - and will be different again. So as evening falls, it's time to draw the curtains, light a candle, stoke the fire and with a glass of wine at my elbow, revisit Victorian England with Wilkie Collins as my guide.


John Page said...

I take all your points. But history has so many astonishing true stories to offer.

Macheath said...

A good point, that, about an educated readership; I have a partiality for British novels of the 1950s, before American novelists flooded the UK bestseller lists and spawned a thousand imitations aspiring to immediacy and egalitarianism. One critic said of John Wyndham that his books are 'a compliment to the reader's intelligence' - some of today's novels make me feel the intelligence the author is complimenting is his (or her) own.

I think that part of the appeal of the great classics is that they provide a satisfying and sustaining meal compared to the fast food of contemporary popular fiction - or the self-regarding nouvelle cuisine of most modern award-winning novels.

Mind you, though I'm very happy with, among others, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins (not to mention a guilty partiality for Mrs Braddon), I find Dickens all but indigestible. If I want nostalgie de la boue, it would have to be Zola every time.

A K Haart said...

JP - I'm not decrying history, I just prefer to pick the feel of other times via fiction written during those times.

M - I like Zola too - I recently downloaded all his novels onto my Kindle.

Sam Vega said...

I had a wonderful moment a couple of years ago when I was visiting Ventnor I.O.W. and stumbled across a blue plaque saying that Turgenev had written "Fathers and Sons" there. Of all the authors you list, I return to him most often.

I devoured everything Hardy wrote when I was living in Manchester, but when I moved to Dorset I merely dipped into his poetry. Dickens and Eliot I am saving for my retirement....

A K Haart said...

SV - I didn't know Turgenev went to the IOW. I like The Hunting Sketches best, although I've yet to read all his work.

I find that even in retirement I can't read everything I promised myself I'd read. Other things take up so much time - blogging for example!