Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Every so often a question comes along that you really don’t want to answer. There are those we all hate, and those some of us hate more. We could get heavy now, but, being English, let’s quickly sidestep to avoid emotion. Plus, I’m writing this in a wine bar in Brussels, and, somewhere out there – after another glass – is the promise of a late-night waffle, and the few pages of Flaubert I have left to finish (sorry, Hergé).
Questions. One I truly hate is: what’s your favourite novel? I dislike it immensely. Ranking the canonical writers, using branched diagrams – that’s fun. But, ‘favourite novel’? Firstly, ‘favourite’ – that’s asking me to be subjective! And, worse, about something as personal as taste…I’m either going to come across as pretentious (did I mention Flaubert?), or lightweight (yes, I do still love stories). It also implies there could only be one response, and this can’t be right. (Otherwise – having answered – I’d know I’d never read anything I liked more than those I already have, which would be depressing.)
My favourite novel is The Diary of a Nobody. Because it’s hilarious. Because of the picture of them going up the hill, followed by the one of them coming down the hill. And the red enamel paint. And how Lupin is such a Pooter. And because I read it to my dad when he was too ill to read for himself, and it was as funny as ever. That goes for Lucky Jim, too – it’s funnier each time. Take a Girl Like You is undeniably Amis’s ‘best’: the internal narration, experimental but highly readable prose style, dubious morality, and the unbearable set piece where McClintock sings to Jenny in the Italian restaurant. ‘Jim’ is also – less obviously – great, however. More famous, fine; but harder to confess as a favourite. Like preferring the lighter Hardys, or the funniest Greenes. (I should admit here that I have a [dysfunctional] soda siphon purely because it looks exactly how I picture the one that’s fired at Captain Segura.)
My favourite novel is Darkness at Noon. Because it explicates the vice of Communism more clearly than any report. And frightens more viscerally than any theorist. (This was before Koestler got into aliens and euthanasia.) Then, of course, there’s Orwell, for compelling deeply-layered story-telling that somehow avoids patronising didacticism. And Orhan Pamuk, if you want to understand another country. Or Jay McInerney (when he’s in the second person), to be in that brightly-lit New York moment without having to actually do cocaine, yourself.
My favourite novel is Middlemarch. No longer because I feel it should be: I spent the best Boxing Day ever rereading it. Alongside most of those classics of literary realism, it provides unrivalled social commentary, whilst also reminding us of the universality of emotion. This time, Eliot helped me think about ageing and change. The same is true for Flaubert (whom I’ll get back to soon) and Dostoyevsky and Arnold Bennett. Whose near-namesake deserves a mention, too, I suppose. It was an Alan Bennett novel I read, two years ago last week, when I couldn’t sleep the night my dad died. Its superficiality caught me in a way I couldn’t bear to ask of any book I really liked. That familiar light-touch mix of bang-on perception, and distracting, tired dogma. (Exemplified by the following sentence in his latest LRB indulgence: “I’m mildly surprised that outsourcing still persists as these days it’s so generally discredited.”). But, whether you agree with the underlay of worthwhile* fiction, or not, its greedy escapism pulls you towards the exterior, providing constructive discourse with a writer you’ll probably never meet.
And all this matters. Talking about novels isn’t avoiding the hard questions. Rather, it can help you face them. That’s why I ignore the temptation solely to read non-fiction, even though there are so many real things about which I want to know so much more. And why I’m sad for people who don’t see fiction’s value. Surely, the capacity to suspend reality – and enter another place so exotically – is one of our most extraordinary abilities as humans. It’s essential to empathy, and smart reaction during crises. It’s natural and timeless, yet needs cultivation to become a habit.
In On Education, Bertrand Russell describes a child, destined to be a clergyman, who’s locked in an attic for refusing to take learning Latin seriously. Somehow it works: the boy ends up loving Latin (presumably because there was nothing else for him to do, up there). Ok, this isn’t an acceptable method of teaching children to love reading – but its intended point on discipline retains pertinence. Unless novels are present in a child’s life – and some of their time, in this lightening world, is committed to reading – it’s unlikely they will come to love them. For those whose families’ rooms aren’t furnished with books, a classroom might represent the lone ingress to a stockpile of joy, insight, and solace.
This is acknowledged by Michael Gove’s embrace of the acquisition of knowledge over skills. And his eschewal of teaching only those things deemed ‘relevant’ to each child. Great novels are relevant to everybody, but are only open to people who know this. Reading is also (or should be) cheap. Persuading publishers to provide affordable classics for school use is overdue. A teacher friend recently told me that she’d discovered there weren’t any sets of novels – none at all – in her new primary school. That the pupils just examined clippings of disparate texts in English lessons. That most of the oldest refused to read anything but basic spin-off series. And that many of these children lacked imagination and empathy. She’s helping her class with this. Not everyone would, however. Or could.
The needs of the EBacc have pointed up a deficit of good foreign language teachers; the same problem would, no doubt, become obvious with an increased focus on challenging literature. The cause is a long-term failing, best rectified by a prolonged return: something of a Catch 22 (sorry). It must be addressed, now. Reading fiction – in all its unquantifiable, irrelevant, relevant, universal, human glory – counters those who seek to destroy our civilisation, and hate us for our art and thinking. Investing in international space exploration thumbs its nose (it is Shakespeare’s ‘year’, after all) at this. And stories do, too.
*I’m very aware that I haven’t clarified what I mean by this. And that, throughout this piece, I make an assumption that there is such a clarifiable thing as ‘great’ literature. Gaining the ability to argue whether this is true, and what might and might not fit into this category – discernment, I suppose – is a reason in itself as to why reading fiction is important.