Posts Tagged ‘Neil Bartlett’

What to read in English?

October 4, 2017
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Concision against contemporaneity

We are sometimes asked what books (novels) it is worth reading in English by those studying or teaching the language.

We once shared our thoughts on this subject with students in Perm, and on the basis of ten years’ book club experience.  The criteria employed were:

Interest:  you ought to want to read the book for its own sake

Accuracy:  please use the English language precisely and don’t just spread words over the page

Britishness:  rather than American-ness, translations or indeed science fiction.  It should show language in use to describe something recognisably British

Contemporaneity:  and not language and mores of the 19th century

Concision:  it gives you a feeling of achievement to say ‘I have read X [a short book]’ rather than ‘I have read some of Y [a long book’.

We give below the books recommended on that occasion, together with some further comments.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis; Лев, колдунья и платяной шкаф)

Both a children’s fantasy story and a work of Christian apologetics, this book gets a great deal into a very few words.  It is also one of those books that everyone has read as children and so forms part of the general stock of common knowledge and allusions.  The last time I read it, I was struck by how much it was infused by the spirit of English medieval literature–which was Lewis’s academic speciality–commingling the Christian and the pagan-fantastical.

Stump (Niall Griffiths)

Describes the lives of ex-drug-addicts and small-time criminals with wonderful precision and focus.  A rather different world from the one you often meet in novels.  At his best, Griffiths makes you feel what it would be like to live with no skin and no defences.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon) Что случилось с собакой ночью/Марк Хэддон)

The world as seen through the eyes of a boy with…autistic spectrum disorder…or a predilection for mathematics.  Very precise language and also defamiliarisation–he sees and experiences things but doesn’t know what they mean or why they happen, in the same way that a foreigner doesn’t.  You also get some value out of your familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Restless (William Boyd)

Describes a relatively unknown aspect of WWII–the struggle to bring the USA in or keep it out.  Again, the language is very clear and the descriptions of what one would do or need to do in various extreme situations very precise.  You can amuse yourself wondering where the heroine’s surname comes from.

Skin Lane (Neil Bartlett)

It is 1967 and Mr F goes every day from his flat in South London to work as a furrier in the city.  Then he begins to dream of a naked young man.  At the end, he has become Mr Freeman and this book is pure literary magic.

Troubles (J. G. Farrell)

I’m not so sure about this one now.  It’s rather long, and there were an awful lot of novels in the 1970s that offered various metaphors for the collapse of British Rule (in Ireland in this case).

Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)

A young woman goes from Ireland to America and back in the early 1950s.  Very economical evocations of ordinary life, together with tactful application of symbolic realism, and he gets the words right!  Then again, the background of drearily prospectless lower middle class life in the back of beyond, alleviated by the prospect of emigration, was all too familiar to me.

The Night Watch (Sarah Waters; Ночной дозор, Сара Уотерс)

Combines hyper-realistic descriptions of women’s lives during and after wartime with reverse chronology and a truly terrifying backstreet abortion, and also ensures you get good value from your knowledge of Shakespeare.  In many ways, an instantiation of what the contemporary English novel is.