Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading the Classics

This was my 20-year-old self!

A couple of years ago, when I first began teaching a junior literature class at my school, I had to reread Crime and Punishment for the first time in four years.  It’s always been one of my favorite novels: I’d read it once in high school and once in college.

However, I’d never thought about it from a writer’s point of view before.  In high school I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I thought fantasy would be my genre.  I didn’t give much thought to the style of anyone other than Tolkien, Robin McKinley and Ursula Le Guin.  Then in college I was beginning to become an active writer, but I had the usual over-confidence of a 20-year-old; I supposed that my style was fantastic. 

When I reread Crime and Punishment just before teaching about it, though, I was in the middle of writing my second novel.  Style suddenly was everything to me.  And I fell in love with Dostoyevsky’s: it was so rich and descriptive – a realism of full and precise detail.   I thought to myself, ‘Eventually I’d love to write a novel with a style like this.’ 

Since then I’ve found that almost every classic novel that I read leaves me feeling that way.  I’m not saying that I don’t also love current novelists as well.  I’ve read stories by Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Mark Helprin, Toni Morrison, Jay McInerney, to name a few.  I’ve enjoyed them all, and particularly been smitten with the beauty of Allende, Rushdie and Helprin’s prose. 

Riding on giants' shoulders!
Still, there’s something special about the classics.  Maybe it’s because current writers are still alive; they ‘own’ their particular style, as you might say.  I would feel as though I had invaded someone else’s territory if I attempted to incorporate elements from, say, Allende or Helprin into my work.  Granted, I learn things from them – lushness from the former or lucidity from the latter – but I have a mental block against actively experimenting with their style.

On the other hand, the much celebrated, occasionally maligned ‘dead white guys’ whom we all end up studying at some point or another – many of whom were great novelists – have bequeathed their stylistic efforts to us, their successors.  A man wouldn’t take his living parents’ fortune to build himself a new house; at their death, however, they may freely leave him that fortune.  Then he honors them if he uses their gift for a something new and beautiful. 

Similarly, I feel that Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, Flaubert, etc., etc. (you see the type of writers I mean), left me a gift in their writing.  If they inspire me to write something beautiful, incorporating elements of their style to flavor my personal voice, then I get a chance to tell the world how worthwhile they are to read.  I’m playing my little part to keep their work alive, and their greatness is supporting me in my efforts. 

It’s a healthy relationship.

Anyway, all this leads up to the fact that I’ve finally gotten a chance to do some pleasure reading this vacation.  Usually when I’m teaching I only have time to read the books in my literature program, so I try to squeeze in something new and interesting during vacations.  I pride myself on being a literature buff of sorts, so I like my pleasure reading to be drawn from the classics.  That way I have fun and educate myself at the same time.  Three cheers for multi-tasking!

I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls this vacation.  Before this, I’d only read The Old Man and the Sea (magnificent) and Hills Like White Elephants (fascinating) out of Hemingway’s oeuvre, so I wanted to increase my exposure. 

Of course literary types are aware that Hemingway is almost universally praised for his style.  I’m pleased to say that I can now confirm this praise (I’m also pleased to announce that I don't hesitate to say preposterously condescending things!).  I have been amazed at how economical his use of words is, and yet at the same time how richly evocative and atmospheric his scene- and character-crafting are. 

Building very high! 
I decided a few years ago that I wanted my next novel to feature a greater minimalism.  You see, I think any artist needs to challenge him or herself to discover new facets of their personal talent.  So far, I’ve mostly used a highly descriptive style.  However, I’d love to become terser when necessary, while still not losing the ability to describe and evoke.  I think I’ll adopt Hemingway as my inspiration.  I won’t try to write exactly like he does, but I’ll try to learn from him: using the exact words needed, and no more, to create a scene perfectly in a reader’s mind.  Wish me luck! 

Anyway, in general any person with a passion for something creative, whether it be art or writing or architecture or carpentry or sewing or cooking or anything else, is well-served by looking to the classics in their domain.  They need do exposure to their peers, as well, in order to become familiar with the environment in which they’re working.  The classics, however, provide continual inspiration and a foundation on which we can all build very high.  

1 comment:

  1. I think in the last two years I've read more poets than I ever have. I mostly write. I always felt I had to have a conversation with, examine, explain while exploring and maybe even answering other poets. So I haven't read them - not wanting to be influenced by them. And yet being inspired by my peers, I find is a very good thing. I have actually learned a few new forms. Learned the names of forms and transformed a few forms. I speak in many voices so I was surprised when I read a comment where another 'friend' recognized my 'style'. Kind of a double edged sword. I sort of knew I had one (not meaning to be at all presumptuous) but on the other hand I'm not a professional either - so where does that leave me?

    Still enjoying the exploration of writing and learning. Sharing and actually thinking about submitting more. Confidence in self can be a good thing, whereas lack of confidence often walks hand in had with procrastination.

    Thank you for introducing me to the classics I missed out on. Maybe I'll actually try to investigate more than light fiction, fantasy or quick murder mysteries. That between normal life and watching my grandson and caring for elders...that will be my balancing act.

    As always thanks for your visits. I like to write and that you read what I write - makes me happy to continue writing. I hope to some day read your novels.

    While we are becoming a 'paperless society' I like how many word dealing with trees and books are synonymous.