Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What constitutes a classic? It is the question of questions among book lovers (and one to which Harold Bloom, of course, believes he has the answer). Is a specific elapsed time a prerequisite? Or rather: an elapsed time taken alongside a book's aesthetic and moral gravitas? It's a question that puzzles me often -- with respect to what I read and to what those around me read (everyone I've ever known who has read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow wonders how the hell it managed to purchase passage into the canon). I despised Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary when I read it in my early 30s -- what is it about that novel that makes it quite so beloved (and it is beloved, placing second in this list of tallied, weighted votes from well-known authors naming their favorite books)? Did I somehow read a clunking translation (I should note that I've linked to a more recent, and perhaps better, translation above in an attempt to steer readers away from Eleanor Marx Aveling's)? (Such translations are out there and -- in certain cases -- make all the difference. Compare the translations of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter from Charles Archer and Tiina Nunnally. Night and day, the former a linguistically anachronistic nightmare, the latter a sublime rendering of a sublime fiction.) But is the translation the problem when the novel is a study in despicable people behaving despicably (a la the Flaubert)? Leaving translated works aside, what about the notion of national identity or a novel's place in a nation's consciousness as an earmark of its inclusion in the canon? Why, for instance, does (Canadian) Timothy Findley's novel Not Wanted on the Voyage remain in print in Canada as a Penguin Modern Classic despite being long out-of-print here in the States? Can a book be a classic in one place and not another? Or more to the point: can a book be marketed as a classic by a top publishing house in Canada while a branch of that same publishing house in America doesn't even see fit to lift the book from obscurity in the most limited way? (It bears mentioning here that Penguin is the very publishing house that classifies Pynchon's above-mentioned poo-fest novel as a classic.) Isn't the establishment of a literary canon necessarily a nod in the direction of subsuming the insular question of national identities into the larger fabric of shared humanity as expressed in art striving to outdo itself? Having just finished Not Wanted on the Voyage, I consider its absence from American bookshops a tremendous loss to serious readers -- indeed, as great a loss as it would be to Canadian readers if Philip Roth's American Pastoral were to suddenly find itself without an edition in the provinces.

Food for thought. Goodnight all.      

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