One of the last reads I’ve got left from my Astley Book Farm haul, I picked this up because I spotted Iris Murdoch’s name on the cover (along with Virginia Woolf: the modern writer and HIS world, eh?). I do love old Pelican books, too, and have struggled my whole adult life not to collect them (the same with Observer’s Books – though when I discovered there was an Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books, that all got a bit weird for me). Anyway, quite an intense read, but all done now!
G.S. Fraser – “The Modern Writer and his World”
(3 September 2016, Astley Book Farm)
Originally written in the 1950s and updated significantly in the early 1960s, it’s a brisk survey of English Literature from around 1890 to the then present day, designed as a basic introduction for college and university students, but with a feistiness and lively opinions that makes it less of a dry academic text than it could be. Having said that, I got a bit bogged down and then skippy in the last sections on poetry and criticism. I wonder if a survey by era rather than by genre would have made for a more interesting read?
It was interesting to read opinions that were closer in time to the books than we naturally are today. For example, Anthony Powell’s classic “Dance to the Music of Time” series was only on book 6 (of 12) and Fraser both wonders what will become of it and opines that books of the upper layers of society like Powell’s and Waugh’s will be ignored in future in favour of works chronicling the rise of lower-class people to power, etc. I’m not sure that’s happened, as Powell and Waugh are still popular in their way.
He does talk about women writers, and has quite a big section on Murdoch with a handy chunk on “The Bell” (with none of the concerns that the modern readers in my research study raised). He does sort of dismiss Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym et al, as chroniclers of the domestic, but does point out that they convey the texture of daily living better than their male contemporaries do. He thinks the middlebrow and highbrow are merging in fiction, although sees the comfy suburban middlebrow dying out entirely in the theatre, with drawing-room comedies being phased out in favour of the kitchen sink drama. He pooh-poohs the notion of Iris Murdoch being part of the “angry young men” (where she’s traditionally said to have been placed by contemporary critics) and claims that she has the most striking individuality amongst her contemporaries.
He’s endearingly scathing about new modern drama, mocking critics who instinctively praise anything that criticises something that isn’t usually praised, or is set in a kitchen, indeed. This kind of comment raises it above the dry and while it does offer a fairly traditional close reading of poems and plays and is quite dense, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be bad by getting in close to particularly contemporary literary movements.
What are you reading this Easter? I’m diving into the rather wonderful “Word by Word” by Kory Stamper (pictured here) and unfortunately being a little confused by Lorna Landvik’s “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge”, where I seem to have missed a bit of the story. Watch out for a double review of that and “Patty Jane’s House of Curl” soon, though!