How to Read Literature
(Yale University Press, 2013)
Some blurbs act as warnings. When I see “laugh-out-loud funny” on the back of a book, I wonder whether the blurbist is secretly telling me not to buy the supposed laugh riot. Still, because it is devoted to close reading, an activity I love, I decided to pick up Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature (Yale University Press; 232 pages).
Eagleton, the English literary critic known as a popular explainer of the recondite, has held appointments at Oxford and more recently Lancaster, with guest stints at Cornell, Duke, Yale, Iowa, Melbourne, Dublin’s Trinity College, and now Notre Dame. The author of Why Marx Was Right (2011) is a Marxist who has figured out how to make capitalism work for him. His Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) has sold many thousands of copies.
The opening chapter of the new book deals with some famous first words: the lead sentence of Pride and Prejudice, the first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the witches’ brew at the beginning of Macbeth. Subsequent chapters deal with “Character,” “Narrative,” “Value,” and “Interpretation,” with examples culled from works by an all-star roster of writers (Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, the Brönte sisters, Evelyn Waugh) with a ringer or two thrown in (nursery rhymes, Harry Potter).
Eagleton has a weakness for weird and gratuitous distinctions. “Sophocles,” he observes, “writes out of his own experience in Oedipus the King, though it is unlikely that he was a blind, exiled, incestuous parricide.” “Hamlet is non-realist because young men do not usually speak in verse while berating their mothers or running a sword through their prospective fathers-in-law. But the play is realistic in some more subtle sense of the word.” The effort to appeal to a general audience takes its toll: “Dostoyevski is better than [the novelist John] Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga.” Well, yes, but the author also faults John Updike’s prose for drawing “discreet attention to its own cleverness.” In contrast you might say that some of Eagleton’s sentences draw indiscreet attention to their own cleverness.
Eagleton’s readings are neither original nor profound, but then, we do not expect originality and profundity from primers of this kind—we just like spending time with old friends like Great Expectations or Gulliver’s Travels. I am happy to take a refresher course in unreliable narrators (Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, Marlow in Heart of Darkness) even from an unreliable if academically sound critic.
The first sentence of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India strikes Eagleton as noteworthy, and he is surely right about that: “Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” The message is concealed in the seemingly unassuming subordinate phrases. Although we cannot anticipate this when we start reading, the most “extraordinary” episode in Forster’s novel takes place in the darkness of the Marabar Caves, miles away from the city and its instruments of justice and social order. The Marabar Caves are therefore as “exceptional” as the novel’s first word implies. The subtlety of this gesture is entirely characteristic of Forster, a mark of his artistry and skill.
Eagleton makes sure we know that Forster merits approval for extra-literary reasons, too. Lest you suppose the Bloomsbury novelist an Imperialist, Eagleton informs us that Forster had an affair with a poor train conductor in Egypt who met an unjust fate at the hands of the British. Forster, Eagleton writes, “denounced British power in Egypt, detested Winston Churchill, abominated all forms of nationalism and was a champion of the Islamic world.” The parataxis—defined by Eagleton as what happens when “a writer strings clauses together without indicating how they are to be co-ordinated or subordinated to each other”—implies that each of the four parallel statements is equally a virtue. If, as Eagleton sees it, denouncing British power and abominating all forms of nationalism are implicitly good things, it follows that detesting Churchill and championing the Islamic world are exemplary as well. Readers confronted with such an aggressive opinion, presented as if it were an assumption we all readily share, might want to have their defenses at the ready.
If deconstructive criticism has taught us anything, it is to take a good long look at a peripheral element for the light it throws on the putative center of the text. I propose to do just that here, with particular attention to Eagleton’s use of Winston Churchill.
Eagleton discusses the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” He mulls over whether the clocks striking thirteen in the first sentence might be “a little too voulu, a term meaning ‘willed’ in French that is used to describe an effect that is rather too calculated or self-conscious” (a bunch of words that an editor might have stricken substituting “a little too contrived”). Eagleton quotes the novel’s second sentence—which introduces us to Winston Smith entering the “Victory Gardens”—but neglects to comment on the significance of the name Orwell has assigned to his protagonist. Writing with the Second World War fresh in his mind, Orwell makes the character an everyman (“Smith”) but one with heroic dimensions (“Winston”). Churchill is not directly named but does not have to be. The association of Winston and “Victory” was presumably near to automatic among the novel’s first readers in 1949. It is a pity that Eagleton does not make that association here.
But the opening chapter of How to Read Literature mentions Winston Churchill in another context. The subject is the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien. O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman begins with a bang, the antithesis of Forster’s quiet lead:
“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.”
Eagleton spends time on the sentence, analyzing its fireworks. But he is not content to let O’Brien’s words speak for themselves and their author. He tells us that O’Brien “was a fluent Irish speaker who wrote some of his work in the Irish language.” There follows this arresting sentence: “So he is not exactly writing here in his native tongue, though he spoke English at least as well as Winston Churchill.”
At least as well as Winston Churchill. Wanting to make a claim for the Irish author, Eagleton reaches for hyperbole—and utters a sentence that Wittgenstein would dismiss as nonsense, an unverifiable hypothesis that hinges upon an imaginary competition between two deceased individuals in an activity for which there is no agreed-upon standard of judgment. But leave that laugh-out-loud aside. Why does Eagleton evoke Winston Churchill here?
In Winston Churchill, Eagleton has chosen not just any competent speaker but one who is justly famous for his command of the English language, his well-documented achievements as a writer and extemporaneous orator, his magnificent speeches in the House of Commons that rallied an embattled nation in the darkest days of World War II. How many of even the nimblest and most articulate of us—poets, novelists, actors, grammarians, English professors—would willingly go mano a mano with Winston Churchill in, say, a debate at the Oxford Union?
Note that Eagleton does not say that O’Brien spoke English as well as John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama—that would risk stereotyping himself as a Brit resentful of American power. Nor does he say that the native Irish speaker was the equal of such 20th-century prime ministers as Anthony Eden, or Harold Macmillan, or Harold Wilson, or Margaret Thatcher—each would make an impressive enough claim, but three of the four lack name recognition in the United States, and the fourth, Thatcher, is famous for things other than eloquence. To say that O’Brien “speaks English as well as I, Terry Eagleton do,” would be uninteresting if winningly modest. To liken O’Brien as a speaker favorably to, say, T. S. Eliot or Philip Larkin, James Joyce or George Bernard Shaw, or even Prince Charles, would not produce the laugh the writer wants.
In his own book reviews in the London Review of Books, Eagleton objects to the way authors rely on stock phrases—though like all authors he is not immune from the tendency. With the little superfluous two-word phrase Eagleton sneaks into the sentence—“he spoke English at least as well as Winston Churchill”—he gives the game away, to borrow a stock phrase that turns up twice in the same chapter of How to Read Literature. The phrase “at least as well” is as reflexive as a euphemism: saying something politely that would be laughed out of court if stated baldly. To say that Flann O’Brien may have spoken English better than Winston Churchill did is to patronize the Irish writer. The statement is irrelevant. It is effective to the extent that it is funny and it is funny to the extent that it is false. Its only real purpose is to score off the Tory leader. This is not iconoclasm. It is a gesture toward a doctrinal orthodoxy.
If that is all ye know of this book, that is all ye need to know.
DAVID LEHMAN was born in New York City. He initiated The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and remains series editor of the annual anthology. He is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Yeshiva Boys (Scribner, 2009). Among his nonfiction books are A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocker, 2009), The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Anchor, 1999), and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Reflection (Michigan, 2000). He edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006) with John Brehm. His New and Selected Poems will be released from Scribner this fall. He teaches writing and literature in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City. He lives in New York City.