Friday, 2 September 2016

Getting into Classics

I know most people find classic literature a chore, even those of us that generally love reading, and honestly it’s easy to see why: Grappling with ‘ye olde pantaloons’ language can be confusing and a lot of people get bored with plots that seems to be nothing but ladies fanning themselves and wandering around in crinolines. I’m the same and used to be very dismissive of classic literature, but over the years I’ve read my fair share and can now say that I while I certainly haven’t enjoyed all of them, there are a lot that I have really loved and a few that I would count amongst my most treasured books. I put it down to the way in which I now select and approach classics, so if you’ve always been apprehensive of them, or have tried and disliked them in the past I thought I’d come up with a few tips and tricks that I think would help anyone looking to try out classic literature.

01. Pick the sort of book you enjoy. Seems like a no brainer right? Well you’d think so but this is something I see a lot of people overlook. What you enjoy in a modern book is probably the same thing you will want from a classic. If your ideal book is an immersive crime thriller, the frilly gossipy world of Pride and Prejudice is probably not going to be something you’ll enjoy. Conversely if you love a good, girly romance, the Sherlock Holmes stories are unlikely to be your cup of tea.
You might think that classics lack the sort of gripping action and human drama that you love in modern books, but you would be surprised. Don’t believe me? A monk who is drawn into and consumed by a forbidden world of lust, violence and black magic by a girl who sneaks into the monastery disguised as a young boy. Sound good? You’ll like The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Beautiful sweet story about a boy growing up in Edwardian England trying to come to terms with his love for another man in a world that would call him sick and sinful, anyone? Read Maurice by EM Forster. How about a young woman who falls in love and gets married, only to find herself haunted by the vengeful ghost of her husband’s first wife? That’s Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are plenty of amazing books in the classics section, it doesn’t start with Austen and end with Dickens.
02. Be mindful of form. This is a nice cheaty one. What I mean here is some classics aren’t supposed to be read. If anyone talks smugly about how much Shakespeare they’ve read, you have my unreserved permission to give them a good clip round the ear. Shakespeare wrote plays, they were supposed to be performed, not read in text form! Having done a Shakespeare module at university I can tell you that reading the script barely scratches the surface of the sheer genius that is some of his work. The text can’t capture the eeriness of watching Lady Macbeth sleepwalk through the castle, trying to claw imaginary blood off her hands, and you’ll never belly laugh just reading the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the actors at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding bumble through a production of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, a supposedly epic love story that’s a car crash of soppy clichés, accidental smuttiness and bad acting. What I’m saying here is if you want to ‘read’ Shakespeare, or Marlowe or Arthur Miller, don’t read it! Watch it instead! I promise you it will be easier to understand and far more enjoyable which, at the end of the day, is what these writers wanted their audience to get from their work. Another great idea is a modern adaptation in which the same dialogue is used but in a modern setting. David Tennant in the film adaptation of Hamlet is a perfect example. You would be amazed how easily 16th Century speech can be understood when the person talking speaks naturally and is in a context we can recognise.

03. Don’t worry about not understanding. There are often a lot of dense narrative passages and references to things you might not understand because of the time period but it’s no reason to give up. Reading Maurice, written in the 18th Century, I often came across bits of speech or words that I didn’t understand, but with a bit of googling and the ability to just shrug and move on to the next line I persevered and it is now one of my favourite books. If you are worried, start with books that are more recent and work backwards as you become more confident. Daphne Du Maurier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, H.P Lovecraft and Evelyn Waugh are all great writers who published mostly in the first half of the 20th Century and the language isn’t really any different from how we speak now so it’s one less thing to deal with.

04. If you’re really not enjoying a book, stop reading it. I’ll let you into a little secret. I didn’t really like Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye. I have never actually finished anything written by Charles Dickens. His stuff just bores me to tears and that’s ok! He doesn’t care! He’s one of the most revered British writers of all time! Also he’s dead, what’s it to him that one little bookseller with a lit degree doesn’t think much of his books? The thing about these well-known classics is that they seep into popular culture and become this thing that all educated, well-read people have to read, understand and enjoy but the truth is they’re just like any other books, you just aren’t going to get on with all of them! This harks back a little to my first point. Ultimately to really allow yourself to enjoy classic literature, you need to stop seeing them as these fusty, highbrow works and start seeing them for what they are. They’re just stories, written by people who wanted to make you laugh or cry or to teach you something, and some you’ll like and some you won’t. There aren’t any that you HAVE to read, whatever book snobs tell you. I’ve tried a lot of the so called ‘canon classics’ but it was only when I stopped thinking about what other people had said about the books and simply went for stories I thought I’d enjoy that I began to find books that really spoke to me and stayed with me.

05. A few of my favourites. Ok not necessarily a ‘tip’ but I thought I’d share a few of my absolute favourites with you that you may not have heard of – just to get you started breaking away from the obvious choices.

Maurice – E.M Forster. A young man struggles with his homosexuality in a time period in which it is considered a sinful disease. Incredibly sweet and very sad.

The Necromicon – H.P Lovecraft. A collection of horror and sci-fi stories, all of them beautifully constructed and chilling to the bone, some are actually scarier than modern horror.

Lolita – Vladamir Nabokov. The story of a man’s sexual obsession for his young step-daughter, might be a bit uncomfortable but the language is just divine. This guy weaves words like no one else.

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell. Young, clever middle class Margaret Hale moves from the south to the industrialised north of Victorian England and deals with the horrible class divide between the maltreated factory workers and the seemingly cruel owners and meets people from both sides of the struggle. Also a nice bit of fiery romance too. What I wanted Pride and Prejudice to be.

King Lear – Shakespeare.(play) An old king is manipulated and betrayed by two of his three daughters, very intense and incredibly cruel and tragic. I utterly adore it. There are some good productions available free online.
So those are my tips and tricks for reading and enjoying classical literature, hopefully if you’ve been put off in the past you might find this useful and feel a little more confident giving the classics a try.

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