There is a BBC Radio 4 programme called Great Lives in which a celebrity guest chooses a dead person they admire and/or consider significant as the subject. The ‘great life’ is picked over with the help of a so-called expert witness, usually a biographer of the person concerned. It’s a kind of extended, discursive obituary and always entertaining. Back in 2012, the comedian Alexi Sayle picked the Palestinian activist and literary scholar Edward Said as his subject. Sayle called Said ‘very noble and fiercely intelligent’ when explaining his choice. He’d met Said when he was alive and clearly had a great regard for him.
Said’s most famous book is Orientalism, one of the founding texts of postcolonial studies, and was discussed in the programme. At one point, Matthew Parris, the presenter, joshed with Sayle, challenging him to make Orientalism the basis of a comedy sketch. There was some awkward laughter from Sayle and then Parris asked, ‘Have you read the book?’ Sheepishly, Sayle replied, ‘I haven’t, no, but I’ve read commentary on the book, so, er…’ That poignant ‘so, er…’ was left hanging in the studio air and Parris moved swiftly on.
It was an amusing moment, though perhaps not as amusing as it would have been if Sayle had tried to bluff his way through the main arguments of Orientalism. Of course, there are thousands of unread books in all our lives, but I still find it strange that Sayle, a professed admirer of Said, hadn’t read his most famous work. Context is everything. Most of us would not think much of a self-professed Beatles fan who had never listened to Rubber Soul.
In his novel Changing Places (I’d like to confirm here and now that I’ve read it), David Lodge invents a parlour game called Humiliation. The idea is to name a literary work that you haven’t read but that you think others may have. You get a point for each person round the table who has indeed read it. Obviously, the better known the work, the more likely it is that others will have read it and the more points you’ll score. But the more points you score , the greater the humiliation. Lodge’s novel is populated by English literature scholars, so when they play the game, the stakes are high.
The climax of one scene occurs when a character, driven by his competitive desire to win the game, names Hamlet as the text he hasn’t read. This, obviously, is a shocking admission for an English professor. When the gossip about it spreads around the campus, it results in him being turned down for a tenured position. Changing Places is a wickedly funny novel.
The gaps in my own reading of the canon? They are legion, they are many. To take classic nineteenth-century novels, I‘ve yet to get round to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Middlemarch, and Anna Karenina, though I’ve read other books by Hardy, Eliot, and Tolstoy. But the gaping hole, the yawning abyss, in my reading life is Henry James. I haven’t read a single word of his. I’ve watched film adaptations and listened to radio adaptations, and enjoyed them. I’m sure I’d like his novels. I think I might even be a James kind of guy. But there always seems to be someone else, some other book, ahead of him in the reading queue. Though now I’ve confessed, I have no option but to remedy this. Who the hell is going to take me seriously as a writer if I haven’t read any Henry James?
[Image of Edouard John Mentha’s painting Maid Reading in a Library courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]