Look At Life: Lost For Words

29th November 2013

Lost For Words

Clare Finney

At what point does a book become actively alienating? I asked myself, as for the upteenth time I stumbled across an untranslated phrase of French followed by an obscure art history reference. I’m an English literature graduate. Without making more of my otherwise useless arts degree than is necessary, I would have thought that a pretty good bar. My French is basic, but no more basic than that of most Britons. I’m as wise to the odd rendezvous or coup d'état as the next girl without a French GCSE. Yet when I have to start heaving the French (or indeed, English) dictionary out at bed time just to get through my next chapter, I feel a line’s been crossed.

I’m all for standards (the author in question is Iris Murdoch), but a text that demands you be both bilingual and well versed in everything from horticulture to history must have a limited audience. Is its life shortened as a consequence? And if so, and if the days of Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Angus Wilson and their like are numbered, should we worry what that says about our education and our standards, or just move on?

For my part, I’m torn. The historic association of the French language with being cultured makes me cross that it can leave me baffled, but I’ve no problem with having to google ‘Tintoretto’. He’s hardly Monet, and when I find out he’s an Italian Renaissance painter then I’ve learned something. This is what books are for, after all. If we drew the line at not knowing every historical or political reference in a novel, we’d soon be rejecting books written three years ago, let alone centuries – and with a world of encyclopedic knowledge at our fingertips there’s no excuse for not looking up things. Yet even as I congratulate myself on expanding my non-existent acquaintanceship with, say, asters (Angus Wilson: 'Fresh Air Fiend') I am struck by the disparity between the level of general knowledge writers assumed of their readers in those days, and that shared by myself and my peers.

Nowhere is this more true, I suspect, than with earlier 20th century writers. I returned to them recently after catching Woolf, Lessing and co throwing frosty looks at me from the top shelf (where I’d stowed them gratefully post university) and making me feel small. Three novels and two poems later, and I’m no bigger: my refusal to pick up on key historical references, for example, leaves Lessing (and me) despairing at my ignorance. “Just pass over it and enjoy the story” my mum advises me – and most of the time, I do. However, when I do reach for the universal reference book that is the Internet, I am invariably glad I did.

Like women with baby bumps, once the myth of Tristan and Isolde, the affairs of Dreyfus and the significance of Jezebel are lodged within you, you see them everywhere. Newspapers, books, even everyday phrases refer to them, whether knowingly or not. Operas make sense to you, pictures in old-fashioned galleries become more colourful for knowing their relevance to, say, Pound, and a work itself springs open. That line that Mrs Dalloway repeatedly mutters in the eponymous Woolf novel? It’s from a song in Shakespeare’s 'Cymbeline', the story of which is key to the development of her characters. WH Auden’s 'Musée des Beaux Arts 'is a mere muddle of lines until you’ve seen ‘the white legs disappearing into the green’ on the painting in question, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by Breugel.

“But would readers back then have known that?,” I hear you cry. Of course not; only a very few of them. Nostalgic doom-mongers that we are, we forget that the world of the early 20th century, in which educational reform was only just being enacted, was a very elitist place. ‘The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy,’ literary critic John Carey observed in his study 'The Intellectuals and the Masses', ‘but they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult.’ Philosophical ideas, mythical allusions and liberal doses of French all served this purpose; even Joyce, who in 'Ulysses' made a hero out of the ‘common man’, did so in such a way that ‘the complexity of the novel, its avant-garde technique, its obscurity, rigorously excluded [him].’

Finely educated though these writers were, there can be little doubt that much of this was intellectual posturing: an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario in which no one, not even Joyce, could ’fess up and say, ‘actually, guys, I looked that up’. The same is true in many spheres today. Yet what is wonderful about the democratisation of education that has come subsequently is that now we have a choice. We can shrug and return to Eastenders, or we can look, learn, and review our shared curriculum accordingly. The point of culture, after all is ‘to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere’. Now, who said that?

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