Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Adventures in Lit Class

Let me know if this is weird to anyone out there, but quite often when my friends and I from St. Joseph's Convent Port-of-Spain meet up, our reminiscing about our adventures in school often meander around to the books we read then. I wonder if anyone else does this? I can explain why we do it. It's probably because we spent so much time poring over these books, discussing them, sometimes hating them (and man did we hate some of them) that they are forever interwoven into our memories of crazy teachers, mind numbing tests, the lame (or adorable) boys across the street and that time a pervert took up a vantage point across the street (remember that guys).

During my own reflections I have found that I am overall rather pleased with the books that came my way during my seven years of exposure to school literature. The selections were supposed to expose us to a variety of classical books which touched on different cultures, and they didn't do too badly. Now a days I can smugly say I've actually read Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott and Tennessee Williams. Even though, the aftermath of some of our literature lectures resembled a battlefield with fallen convent girls sprawled on their desks (not dead but sleeping the sleep of the dead), I still vividly remember some of the insights expressed by our teachers, and the ideas which dawned on me. I loved good class discussions on good books – when everyone had something to say and the reflections and ideas zipped back and forth. Those were joyous times for me.

And we read some good books, especially as we came to the last years of school. I was introduced to Jane Austen in SJC. Saw my first Shakespeare film then too and it's still one of my all time favourites. Perhaps I might never have picked up these books if they had not been introduced to me. Even the books some of us disliked gave me new perspectives and opportunities. I don't like Hardy's "Tess of the Durbervilles" but I love his "Far From the Madding Crowd". I am not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" but I still was inspired by her "flow of consciousness" narrative. I do not think it's possible to read what is considered good literature without getting something out of it. I learned how to define true love as we examined Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities". I got a better appreciation of poetry from Wordsworth's lyrical ballads and I learned to love many works which are still a part of me today. I was surprised to find that my university education didn't have the same effect on me. I suppose my SJC exposure will remain as one of my greatest inspirations.

So in appreciation for these great influences I'm going to do my own tribute to my literary education – the best of times and the worst of times, and I'll start with.....


I don't remember who among my classmates noted that the books we read tended to be depressing. Whoever made that observation was right. There seemed to be a conspiracy among our literature teachers to expose us to the most gloomy texts among the recommended reading lists. In Form One, we read Patrick O'Brien's "Island of the Blue Dolphins", not a terribly sad book, but it had a tasty selection of unhappy situations. In later forms, it just got worse. Second year featured John Steinbeck's "The Pearl", a story of how the discovery of a spectacular pearl brought tragedy and destruction to a guiltless fisherman and his wife. You certainly didn't put down this book with a sunnier, more hopeful view of the human race.

Later on, we tended to study authors as well as the books they wrote, and it became quickly apparent why some of these people wrote the unfortunate tomes which dotted our literary landscape – they were a pretty messed up bunch themselves. Poor Virginia Woolf, besides living through years of sexual abuse from her half brother and the throes of bipolar disorder, apparently sometimes heard birds singing to her in Greek. I personally thought that I would not recognize what languages birds were singing in, but I assumed this was a confirmation of her brilliance mixed with her mental problems. Anyway the poor lady eventually drowned herself. However Tennessee Williams could quite easily compare notes with her. After all he spent a troubled life dealing with his mentally ill mother and abusive father before presumably killing himself by swallowing a bottle cap. (My question here is: Why?!) The fact that evidence has surfaced lately that Williams' may have been murdered doesn't stack up to a whole lot in the scheme of things – not to Tennessee anyway.

Please be assured, I am not of the school of thought that every book should have a gloriously, happy ending. Authors have a right to miserable lives just like everyone else. (They do seem to tend to have miserable lives more than the average person which does not bode well for me, but I digress.) However, we did seem to have a dirge of downers at SJC. This became more apparent to me when I made a comparison with my brother's reading material at his all boys school. He read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in Form One and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in Form Two! Some sort of prejudice was apparent there; I'm sure of it. Are girls more likely to enjoy the tragic and disheartening? Is it necessary to ensure that boys be exposed to the fun, the magical, the uplifting? Someone needs to look into this, but once again....I digress.

Don't get me wrong, depressing books don't equal to mediocre ones. I could wish to be as brilliant as Woolf, Williams, Steinbeck et al for a hundred years and not come close to their brilliance, but their stories didn't touch me and some of my classmates. But the great thing about books is that we are free to change our feelings and opinions about them. I often wonder if I would still feel a bit impatient with Tess Derbyfield of "Tess of the Durbervilles" or feel a little world weary of Blanche DuBois' fragile instability if I took a look back at these stories years later. Who knows? It's definitely worth a try, but I have a particular affection for the books which I felt a connection with almost at once – the stories done by my fellow kindred spirits.....


Once people hear you like to read, they are inclined to pick up any book that comes to hand to give as presents assuming the notorious book lover would be delighted to get anything with words printed on a page. I have no doubt that there are people who would gladly devour anything that is handed to them, but unfortunately this does not work with me.

Since I am incapable of throwing a book away, some of these untimely gifts remain on my bookshelf untouched. Such was the case when my aunt gave me a copy of Jane Austen's "Emma". Out affection for my dear aunt, I made an effort now and then. I glanced at long complex introduction or looked hopelessly at the first lines of the actual story, but of course I had no real interest in diving in. Then some clear sighted, far thinking genius among the St. Joseph Convent POS English literature teachers chose Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" as a book to study for A Level Literature. Oh happy day though I did not know it yet.

Instead, foolish me, I approached the novel apprehensively and read the first, surprisingly brief chapter, then I paused in disbelief. It was interesting; it was fun; it did not lose me with heavy, lugubrious prose. Could it keep up the momentum? Could it? It did. Though many years have passed, I will always recall my first experience reading of the romantic trials of Elizabeth Bennet as one of the most astonishing relationship with a book I've ever had. P&P was everything the critics always say and that you don't dare to believe – it was sparkling, witty, unforgettable etc. etc.

And so Miss Austen and I became lifelong friends, and I was flung with delight into the flood of adaptations, internet fan groups, fan fiction etc which went with it. The 1995 version of the book came out around that time and drew other fans into the fold. (If you haven't seen this movie, you must! I shall expound at a later date.) Miss Austen is now delightfully interwoven into my literary landscape and she and her following are always more than welcome wherever I hang my hat. Since then of course I've read Emma which is - like all of Miss Austen's work - so brilliant, I would be jealous of her if I didn't love her so much, so you see, never throw away those weird books your family, friends and co workers foist off on you. You really never know...

The Bard himself also came into my life more fully during my school career. I had gone through "Midsummer Night's Dream" by the time I'd reached Form Three and thought it was okay. I was mostly smugly proud of having completed at least one work by the intimidating playwright no one understood. But I had not yet learned the true joy of Shakespeare. And once more in my life a movie helped to bring that impression home. If you haven't seen Kenneth Brannagh's version of Henry V, you need to right away as it is one of the most thrilling movies ever. It's dramatic and wonderfully acted. Brannagh delivers the speeches of the Henry V in a gripping way which makes you want to jump into the breach on the next battle charge (even if you've never held a weapon in your life and probably would be crying for your mommy before the fight was half over). Our teachers had taken the entire class to see the movie, and I confess we understood very little of the intricacies of what was going on, but that didn't matter! We had escaped the confines of school for several hours and we were in a cinema. We were watching a show with lots of action and some stirring looking scenes and it ended with a lovely romantic interlude (one of my favourites up to this day). I for one had a wonderful time, and the fact that Shakespeare was to be said out loud, acted out loud and just scene came home to me from that moment. Thanks Kenneth. Thanks Will.

Of course there were other books and authors that worked their way into my universe in my formative years. I won't discuss them at length here. I am really glad that I had a chance to read "A Man for All Seasons" and "Ti Jean and his Brothers". As I say, the books got better as we got older, or maybe we were changing and getting better as we changed. Some stories were still sad like Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" but as I said that doesn't equate to not liking the story. The simplicity and power of Achebe's novel was a joy and though the tale was tragic it wasn't too heavy to bear. Isn't literature wonderful? Without my lit class I would not have experienced the bawdiness of Geoffrey Chaucer for example or the simpler poems of William Wordsworth. I definitely have another reason to appreciate my time in SJC during my best of times and worst of times.

Feel free to share your own literary adventures. Come on! Post already!

1 comment:

Marissa said...

I'm all with you on your views as to be forced to read depressing books - I mean really - giving 12 year-olds "The Pearl" and "Island of the Blue Dolphins" to read is just too much! Still I'm appreciative of having had the opportunity to have read them. Oh and speaking of depressing books apparently this penchant went beyond the English Literature boundaries as well. Do you recall having to study "La Familia De Pascual Duarte" and "Misericordia" for Spanish? Pascual was truly brutal - a first person narrative about just how depressing the life of a man on death row can be; and Misericordia reated the story of a poor housekeeper who sacrificed everything for her employers and got nothing in return. And don't even get me started on "Andromaque" for French Literature...

Still the fact that I recall these stories some 12-13 years after reading them just reinforces their power. Misericordia is still one of the most beautiful books I have ever read with a powerful underlying message about the triumph of the human spirit.

As for those other English 'nasties' - Tess - well what can I say about Tess - I still view her as one of the weakest and stupidest of female protagonists I have EVER come across.I believe I spent more time in Lit class arguing with you on this issue than on any other novel we read! Not once was I able to empathise or even sympathise with her character - I just spent my time annoyed with her!

Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"? As much as I can pity a lady who spent her days hearing birds singing in Greek I think I pitied myself and my classmates more for being forced to have to sit through hours of torture having to read that book! While I was not one of the many girls who slept during the class I certainly used my time to scribble in your notebook and write my own poetry or else doodle and draw strange little aliens and UFO's in your books! And you know you really should check into seeing whether those things are worth millions as yet.

Achebe's masterpiece while depressing was brilliant - I agree with you there - I need to find that book to give it another read.

As for Will Shakespeare I admit I had my first experience with the bard when I was just seven and my sister was doing the play for her Lit class (again reinforcing our shared opinion that the Schools give the depressing books to the chick schools). I remember watching the movie with her - a really old one - may have even been the classic with Olivier and Leigh and while not grasping all that was said I was totally in awe of it! The story was amazing! I mean faking your death so you can marry the man your family hates only to foolishly not tell your intended and have him commit suicide over your death! Come on! That was riveting stuff! I remember borrowing the book from my sister and I read the notes ensuring that I understood and interpreted all that was said - I think I may have even finished the book before her!
I was all too happy to delve into Shakespeare when we finally got the chance. I thoroughly enjoyed each book I read - Lady Macbeth with her lust for power; Hamlet with his prevaricating ways; Beatrice and Benedick with their love/hate relationship; Portia with her cunning and legal maneuverings to turn Shylock's words against him; and of course Henry V and his amazing ways to rally his troops to fight for what may have been a lost cause.

Lyrical Ballads from Colderidge and Wordsworth were good - but oftentimes I think I was more enthralled by the meandering titles like "Lines written while sitting under a yew tree." I believe I penned my own prose entitled, "lines written while fighting sleep in English Lit Class." While not yet published I'm sure it will be one day. I still love "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" though - always a classic.

And Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales - Wife of Bath" was a hoot! It was only upon reading that, that I discovered what the significance of a Gap-toothed woman was!

I dare not even bother to comment on my love affair with Jane Austen less I duplicate everything you already mentioned, save to say this, her life and career were too short.

For me though my top three favorite books contains only one that we studied for English Lit in SJC, that being "Pride and Prejudice" in the number 2 spot. My favorite book is and always has been "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. The characters were memorable and touching - and again another depressing book, but the story of racism and human rights and social justice told through the eyes of a child just grabbed me and I suppose helped push me on the career path I am on today. And rounding out my number 3 spot is "The Animal Farm" by George Orwell. I believe I bawled when they took poor old Boxer to the glue factory. It gave meaning to the phrase that "Absolute power corrupts absolutely". Interestingly enough both these books were also on the list of study at my sister's school (Providence)and I borrowed them from her shortly after I had completed "Romeo and Juliet". I suppose being exposed to these literary classics at such an early an impressionable age is probably why they have left such an indelible impression upon me.