Literary Notes #18: a focus on classics and future classics

Before I get to the books, a bit of housekeeping. Thanks for all the comments recently – it’s been so fun to read through them! You all add something to this little blog when you comment, and I want you to know I appreciate it. I’ve finally responded to each comment, so if you want to go back and read the response, it should be up. Thanks again!

It’s been a bit since I wrote my last book review post and I’ve read some good books since then. I’ve been trying to incorporate more classics into my reading as my post-uni literary diversions have tended to mostly be for pleasure and have veered toward the contemporary. Over the past few months, I have read a few classics, Dracula, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Wise Blood, and I’m currently, and slowly, working my way through Les Miserables. Having grown up reading the classics and benefiting from the “Great Books Curriculum” offered by my college, it’s been great to delve back into this world. Interestingly enough, while I read these classics I often think about how they were the “popular” novels of their day and it makes me think about what books today will survive and attain that status in the future. This entry is going to focus on four classics I read recently and one contemporary novel that I think is destined for that distinction.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

I don’t know how I skipped this when I was younger. It’s sort of one of those American classics that everyone knows and has probably read. I know I’d seen a cartoon version when I was younger and I was familiar with the references to Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, but I had never read the story. For some reason I had been expecting a novel and so when I downloaded it to my kindle, I was surprised to find that it was a short story. Don’t ask me why I expected a novel, but I did. So I read it quickly and checked it off my list. It’s a fine story and it has worked its way into the American lexicon but I found it to be overly flowery in style and even a bit simplistic. If we’re going for stories that bring chills to your spine, I much prefer the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Now this book will give you some chills. I am fully befuddled by the current obsession with all things undead. This trend to romanticizing characters that originally represented the very embodiment of evil is a bit beyond me but I thought that it would be interesting to go back to the original and get a bit of context. Having read one of the Twilight series, I had been given a very perfunctory background on vampires. The original is so entirely different from the modern renditions there really is no comparison. Sparkly, brooding, and romantic are not adjectives you would use to describe Dracula or any of the other undead that haunt this story. No, they are repulsive or horrific. Not really surprising, right? What I did find surprising was the way the story was framed in terms of Christian spirituality. I really hadn’t expected that at all. Vampires are satanic and demonic. The people who fight them are defending what is right, good, and true. And they have a more important motivation. The vampires inhabit the bodies of those they have killed, robbing their victims of the opportunity to truly die and know the peace of heaven. There are lots of references to blood sacrifices, redemption, the power of crucifixes. The story is often framed in terms of spiritual warfare. I found this so surprising.

If you do want to read it, I would recommend a critical edition as the notes will provide very helpful background information. The Norton Critical edition, as usual, is excellent. Interestingly, Norton has only produced critical editions of five other classic “horror” stories: FrankensteinThe Turn of the ScrewHeart of DarknessThe Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Metamorphosis. Having read all the others, it’s not surprising that Dracula is included with this formidable list.

Beowulf, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Beowulf, A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

I am currently in the middle of working on a project involving lots of classic Medieval literature. As Beowulf is one of the original “Classics” I am trying to decide which version to include. There are several considerations and both editions have their merits. Having read a couple other editions, I know that the decision is going to come down to these two. Other versions translate it into prose (blasphemy!), others drop the alliteration and compound words. These versions preserve all these important elements without being too clumsy. I think that the Crossley-Holland version is a bit more accessible, an important thing to consider as it’s going to be read by high school students. The problem, is that Heaney’s version is more beautiful. Heaney’s version is also a bit snooty. By that I mean that I think Heaney makes things more complicated than they need to be – but he does capture the linguistic beauty of the poem. So, what do you go for, especially when you want to nurture a love of great literature in young students? Good, reliable and accessible or beautiful, well-done but a bit affected? Ahhhhhhhh. That’s basically how I feel about it now and that means I’m probably going to have to read them again.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

OK, it’s really already considered a “modern classic” but there is something to this book that sets it apart from so many other contemporary stories. There’s a thoughtfulness, a solemnity and a respect for the characters often lacking in most novels published today. Although her style differs from that of Marilyn Robinson, I am convinced that these two women have firmly established themselves in the great American literary tradition. Their stories are deeply thoughtful and speak to the pain and glory of humanity. The common thread that I believe ties the stories of Dillard and Robinson together in my mind is a delicate and graceful handling of the frailties of their characters. There is a compassion and a recognition that each of the people that inhabit their stories represents some characteristic present in everyone, whether it’s beautiful, strong, ugly, or weak, or a combination of all the above. These characters are never one-dimensional. I remember reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and getting the distinct feeling that the author found his own characters laughable, detestable, and ridiculous. Thackeray stood in judgement of the people who inhabited his fantastic story in a way that was indicative of the mores and customs of his time.

In contrast to this, Dillard and Robinson utilize the element of plot in a way that I believe is much more effective. Instead of writing through a narrator who provides commentary on the story, both these authors provide histories, side-plots, and follow-ups that not only give more depth to the stories, they provide context that allows the reader to understand the motives and effects of action more thoroughly. In The Maytrees, Dillard does not cast aspersions when one character decides to leave his loving wife for her best friend, she provides a context. This grace allows the story to take an unexpectedly beautiful twist while doing justice to the gravity of the action and the devastation it causes. As a reader, I find this style a much more effective mirror to my heart than the more didactic style so often taken by the authors of older classics. The Maytrees is a wonderful book and I’m indebted to my friend, Jeremy, for the recommendation. Check out his thought-provoking blog here.

I’m going to write a separate entry on some of the other books I’ve been reading and will put that up later this week. What have you been reading?

To see my other book reviews, click here.

About Rebecca

Hi! After five years in Europe, I'm adjusting to life back in the US. I use this blog to record my adventures, post photos, organize recipes, and post about things that interest me.
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11 Responses to Literary Notes #18: a focus on classics and future classics

  1. Robert Clear says:

    Great post. I also read Dracula recently, and was surprised at much I enjoyed it. I’d never read a book comprised solely of letters, telegrams, etc. but actually found the format very engaging. I might give Beowulf a go later this year. I’m on a mini classics drive myself, and am currently hacking through Vanity Fair, soon to be followed by George Gissing’s ‘Workers in the Dawn.’

    • Rebecca says:

      Yes, the format of Dracula was very engaging. Are you enjoying Vanity Fair? I thought it was great – there was something so interesting about Thackeray’s take on his characters. He really seemed to hate them and I found that a bit amusing. Thanks for stopping by. I checked out The Cambridge List – looks like one to add to my to-read list.

  2. Katy says:

    Hey Becca,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on The Maytrees. I just finished reading the book and have been trying to process what exactly it was about her writing that touched me so deeply. I think it is absolutely the respect and grace she has for her characters without glossing over their flaws. And you’re right, her writing reminded me of Robinson as well. It made me want to revisit Housekeeping. Have you read anything else by Dillard? I’m thinking about reading Pilgrim and Tinker Creek, and her autobiography, An American Childhood, sounds fascinating. Thanks again for the thoughts, dear friend. Always appreciated and enjoyed!

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks Katy! You and I seem to share many common reactions to the same books. A literary kindred-spirit! I am definitely going to look at An American Childhood – sounds fascinating.

  3. Nathalie says:

    In preparation for our trip to Russia G and I both chose some classics we hadn’t read. A bit of research on various translations led us to the acclaimed Pevear and Volokhonsky team and we are both loving their recently published versions of Crime and Punishment and War & Peace. I am so amazed by translators, such an art!

    • Rebecca says:

      Ooh – maybe I’ll have to try that edition of Crime and Punishment. After too many foiled attempts, it would be good to actually finish it! Thanks for the recommendations.

  4. nichole says:

    19 square meters! NINETEEN.

    You go, girl. Seriously cool. I love small spaces.

  5. Cabbie Notes says:

    Great review of four classics. I will have to check out your more modern “classic.”

  6. Pingback: A Year of Reading | Fumbling toward home

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