J surely boils down to a battle of two great Jameses – Henry James and James Joyce. I have soft spots for both.
My tutor at university was a Joyce expert, and I remember the experience of reading Ulysses very clearly indeed. I was sitting on one of my Mum’s quite smart cream sofas, with a cup of tea nearby – perpetually nervous that I might spill it – holding the thick paperback with both hands, amazed that my tutor understood this incredibly dense book so well that she had actually edited it. I was on that sofa for several hours every day for a week. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have a tutorial with her about it. I was so unnerved at the thought of having to write an essay, which she would then read, or, worse still, that I would read it aloud to her, that in the end I wrote about a character who only appears in about six pages – a man in a macintosh.
One of my favourite lines of all literature is the final line of The Dead, the novella at the close of Dubliners:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Incidentally, I mentioned this in a post about Orhan Pamuk a while ago, only to overhear Andrew O’Hagan tell someone – just the following day – that it was his favourite line. Strange coincidence. He definitely thought I was a bit peculiar when I rushed up to him and told him it was one of mine too, and I’d just written about it on my blog.
As for the other James, Henry, well he has an Oxford-related story too. During my entrance interview, I was asked which writers I liked, whose work I hadn’t studied at school. At the time I was obsessed with Milan Kundera. My future tutor (the Joyce expert) was unimpressed. She said she didn’t want to talk about him and asked me for something else. My brain went spectacularly blank. For a moment it felt as though I’d never read anything at all. At last I remembered something. ‘I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ I ventured.
We discussed Ian McEwan for a while. I said I’d liked the way Atonement was told from a child’s perspective, but yet there seemed to be an adult’s sensibility behind it. The Joyce expert introduced me to the word ‘focalised’. Then the other tutor in the room – who was to become my Middle English tutor – piped up for the first time.
‘But then,’ she said, ‘he just does what Henry James did. Only Henry James did it so much better.’
‘Really?’ I asked, remembering that I’d read Portrait of a Lady and struggling to see the similarity.
‘Of course. It’s just like What Maisie Knew. But James was a real master.’
I left the interview feeling that it had gone quite well. I thought I might try to track down a copy of What Maisie Knew so that when it came to my second interview with them I’d be able to say something about it.
At what seemed like an ungodly hour the following morning, someone knocked on my door. I was informed that I was wanted for an interview at another college, in half an hour.
I felt sick and confused. I hurriedly got dressed and gobbled my emergency Kit Kat Chunky. I was escorted to this other college, which was about five times the size of little Exeter. On the way, while crossing one of the quads of this grand college, the heel of one of my stupid shoes, which I wasn’t used to wearing, got lodged in between two paving stones and I was momentarily stuck in the mud. It was a sign of things to come…
With most of these interviews, you’re given a piece of writing to look at for half an hour beforehand. For this one, I was given a piece of poetry. I began to read it.
‘Oh no, I’m so sorry,’ the lady said. ‘You wrote about poetry in one of your essays. John Donne. There’s no need to test you on that. Here’s some prose instead.’
And she handed me a page of prose. I looked down at the bottom, where it said, ‘taken from What Maisie Knew by Henry James’.
I then suffered the most appalling interview you could imagine. Everything I said was twisted around and thrown back at me. I felt as though we were playing some weird game, in which I had to say why I loved English Literature and then they had to show me that actually I’d just said why I didn’t. It was terrible.
Until it came to the questions about the unseen extract. I talked about it for a while. They didn’t appear to be listening to me. Then, at last, I ventured, ‘It reminds me a bit of Atonement by Ian McEwan.’
They both sat up. ‘Do go on,’ said the one who had been marginally less nasty to me than the other one.
I went on for a little while. I used the word ‘focalised’. It was the only three minutes of the interview that weren’t horrific. And then, I’m not sure how, but I found myself talking about John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
At this point the nastier tutor cut in. ‘Given that the course at Oxford is very traditional. Do you not think that your taste in literature is rather too modern?’
Back to the ridiculous game then. I struggled through the rest of the interview, left it in tears, sat on the train back down to London, steely with determination never ever to study under such a horrible man.
In the end, luckily, I was offered a place at Exeter, and only once came across the horrid man in a lecture, out of which I swiftly walked.
Well, I suppose it’s actually not a particularly nice story, that one. But then I did end up reading What Maisie Knew and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. So brilliant that it inspired me to start my own writing. I wrote a few chapters of a book, focalised through a little girl who had quite a peculiar imagination, who was staying in a house with her mother and grandmother, while terrible grown-up things were going on. I didn’t get particularly far with it, but it was a start. And if it weren’t for that, well then I probably wouldn’t still be trying.
I suppose that means Henry James has to win.
There seem to be several Ks who I like. Kafka, Kapucinski, Kapur, Keats, Kipling, Kunzru, in alphabetical order.
But I’m going – surprisingly decisively – to opt in favour of Keats. There’s a great deal about his poetry that should be praised. Not least, that it’s exceptionally beautiful. But I’ve always felt particularly fond of his poetic use of medical and scientific language:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk
Keats mingles hemlock and opiates with the river Lethe. (The Lethe was one of the rivers of the Underworld; drinking from it led to complete forgetfulness.) Poetry is always full of mythical references like this. They make it seem magical and old and mysterious. But the precision of the medical language, of naming these two substances – hemlock and opiates – that would achieve the same effect as drinking from the river Lethe, creates something unique and quite extraordinary.
During A-Levels, I was the only person in my English class who was also studying Science. And I was the only person in my Chemistry class who was also studying English. The Science block was a seven-minute walk from the main School building, where English – and other Arts – lessons took place, which meant that I was always slightly late for everything. Unfortunately, in English, as everyone knew that it was because I’d come from the Science block, it meant that my being late wasn’t remotely cool or rebellious. It just showed that I was a Science geek. And when I turned up late for Chemistry, having come all the way from English, everyone thought I was a wishy-washy arts student.
It felt as though the combination of English and Science couldn’t possibly be resolved. Until I found Keats. And then I saw that really, if the two very different disciplines could be brought together, they could create something that really transcended either one of them alone.
D.H. Lawrence, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, or Emmanuel Litvinoff.
The man who managed to get the C word into literature must be given due credit. And everybody loves The Leopard. Plus those two are double-Ls: Lawrence with Lady C; Lampedusa with The Leopard.
I discovered Emmanuel Litvinoff thanks to Iain Sinclair in his Hackney book. He was mentioned a few times as a writer of the Jewish East End. But then I could never remember his name when I went into a bookshop. Indeed I’d almost forgotten about him, by the time I started actually working in a bookshop.
And then, a couple of weeks in, as I was shelving some books in the London section, I saw it: Emmanuel Litvinoff Journey Through a Small Planet. The book looked rather smart – a Penguin Modern Classic. The cover shows an eccentric-looking man wearing big specs, light shining full onto his broad forehead, in contrast with the dark stairs on which he’s standing. Intriguing.
I bought it, read it and loved it. Litvinoff’s memoir is about growing up around Brick Lane at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was filled with Jewish immigrants.
People spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs
It is rather a subtle portrait of a time and a place – rather than always feeling proud and part of his community, at times he feels ashamed:
The Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation
And yet, it was Litvinoff who stood up at the ICA in the 1950s, to recite his poem accusing T.S. Eliot of antisemitism, even though T.S. himself had just joined the audience.
A great man, and his book is a great story. L is undoubtedly for Litvinoff.