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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.


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January 19, 2012


It's so hard to know. I deliberately set myself the task of mastering the English literary tradition, up through the 19th Century, including the (very small, relatively) world literature that contributed to it. I spent probably twenty-five years doing that. I treasure the sense of location it's given me. I often feel, reading contemporary poets and novelists in English, that I have a far better sense of where their verse and fiction comes from than they do. I have a home.

But of course, what if I'd spent that time instead reading Vargas Llosa and Murakami? Would I be as homeless and rootless as I imagine? Well, I just don't know, and I don't know how I could know. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, now, and much of it I find either difficult or all too easy to place.

-- As you know, I don't think the novel is or ever has been a major literary form, despite its popularity for the last couple hundred years, so I come into any conversation like this a little slantwise :-)

Having said that much, I immediately want to backtrack and say: by the time you know that you inhabit a particular culture, it's always too late. You always know there's a wider world out there, and you will always want to go there. The new global literary culture is forming -- and forming us -- whether we want it to or not.

Ah, my hero Tim Parks - one of the cleverest, most versatile and talented of all contemporary writers, I think. Not as well known or highly valued as he should be, probably because his brilliant mind leaps all over the place and that's not as easily marketable as a writer who does the same thing over and over. I try to remember to check the NYRB blog for his stuff, and missed this one - so thank you! He always makes me think hard and often, as here, makes it impossible to leap to a single view.

His example of the young writer of the historical thriller, neglecting vivid, moving social and emotional detail, perhaps from his own experience, for a huge construct of research and exoticism, definitely strikes a chord. But, does this have to be an 'either-or'? Don't the best writers of fiction - like Orhan Pamuk, like Tim Parks himself - do either kind, or both?

I can never decide if I prefer an intense, searingly focused novel or a huge, sprawling tale. I love both. I love the deep and subtle appreciation I can have of a work that sits within a tradition I know. And I love equally, differently, the way that fiction from a far-off country both excitingly and alluringly takes me to another place and shows me the emotional and intellectual experiences we all, in all cultures, might have in common.

Need to think about this much more. It's an argument about fiction that is also about globalisation and about life today, about everything, really, isn't it?

Dale, Jean, thanks for responding. I wish we could sit down and talk about this over coffee! Tim Parks' essay left me undecided, too, which I guess is the mark of thoughtful essay writing. Like Dale, I've put in a good deal of effort to understand my own literary/cultural heritage and place myself in it -- both the so-called Judaeo-Christian tradition going back before the Greeks, and the span of Anglo/English/American (and now Canadian) literature. But increasingly over the years I've read more and more "World Literature" for exactly the reasons you state in your last two sentences, Jean. Some of it is literature in English but by writers whose roots are in other cultures; some of it is literature in translation. My reading would be so impoverished if I didn't have this! But as a writer, other questions come up, as Tim Parks points out. The old adage about "write what you know" still carries weight for me, but I also feel that somehow my own cultural position has become, if not discredited, far less alluring or even interesting to many readers, and it has made me question "what I really have to say" in a way I wouldn't have thirty years ago. In a post-modern, post-colonial, globalized world I don't think we can ignore the fact that things no longer revolve around Anglo culture, and I'm no longer a person swimming in just that layer; I've been greatly affected and changed by exposure to a multi-layered cultural world too, through reading, travel, marriage, friendship. On the one hand, I wouldn't even consider writing a book set in a place I didn't know personally, that seems arrogant and rather foolish. On the other, I wonder if anyone really cares about yet another story of white middle-class life in England or America - I feel like the tables have been turned, to some extent, leaving us as the literary underdogs! But aren't there universal truths and particular, individual details that ought to be compelling to any reader when a writer goes deep inside themselves, no matter what their tradition is? Maybe this is what Tim Parks is getting at.

I'm reminded, obliquely, of that essay everyone was linking to a month or two ago on facebook: "I realized I was surrounded by environmentalists who didn't really care about any particular environment." There's global, and then there's deracinated.

Interesting read. I find I'm much more comfortable writing from what I know, especially regarding place, though lately I find I wish to read more and more outside. Not long ago I read Shusaku Endo's Deep Rivet a book so far outside of anything I know firsthand I felt I was missing a lot going on below the surface. I liked that feeling of knowing there was more down there to be discovered upon a future, slower read.

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