WHY READ THE CLASSICS?


By Italo Calvino
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
ISBN 0 224 03729 3

THE STORY BEGINS
Essays on Literature
By Amos Oz
Chatto & Windus, £12.99
ISBN 0 7011 6883 8

(Review by Roger Scruton in Times Newspapers, London.
June 3, 1999.)

Students of literature and the humanities will know what a rare thing is genuine criticism - criticism which reveals and enlivens the meaning of a text, instead of ploughing it in under a clay of theory. Once in a while there emerges a critic who has no other claim to our attention - someone like F. R. Leavis, R. P. Blackmur or F. X. Salda, who animates literature with emotions and concerns of which he is a supremely conscious judge but also a passive conduit.

For the most part, however, the best critics are also creative writers, able to retrace the words and thoughts of their fellow poets and novelists as though discovering them for themselves. Exemplary in this repect were Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; scarcely less so D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann. To this class of creator-critics we can now add Italo Calvino and Amos Oz. The first was one of Italy's greatest novelists; the second is beginning to achieve a comparable status in Israel. And both have the precious gift of introducing a work of literature so as to make it live for the reader as it does for them.

Why Read the Classics? is a collection of short essays, in which Calvino explains important works of the Western canon in a style of innocent wonder. I would recommend this book to anyone who is puzzled over the distinction between a work of literature and a plausible fake - a distinction that could never be made in the pretentious terms of literary "theory".

The true work of literature creates a world that is both enthralling and real, in which characters melt into the words used to describe them and words themselves become deeds. Calvino introduces us to the artistry of Ovid, who does not describe metamorphoses but actually accomplishes them through language which preserves the essence of one creature while shaping itself as another. And he shows us just why this is illuminating, even to those - indeed, especially to those - who regard tales of the gods and their doings as a pack of noble lies.

He has time for the literary imagination in all its forms - the flights of invention in Pliny, Galileo's cosmology, Conrad's vision of England, the labyrinthine city of Balzac, the concentrated metaphors of Francis Ponge which leave us to discover in ourselves the things to which they allude. He ranges widely over the literature of America, Russia, France and Italy, and in a remarkable essay on the Orlando Furioso conveys an exhilarating insight into the technique of Ariosto, whose story never begins and never ends, and who breaks off every narrative in a state of incompleteness, creating a fantastic realm of unfinished actions which rises before us like a castle of dreams.

The only essay that I read with less than complete conviction was the opening one, in which Calvino gives 14 distinguishing features of the classic - all of them interesting (for example: "a classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without"), but none of them really supported by argument. In the essays which follow, Calvino shows by example that the classics matter. Something more needs to be said, however, in answer to the question why.

You won't find this something more in Amos Oz, whose purpose is not to define literary greatness, but to induce the state of mind that might enable us to perceive it. The book consists of a series of short chapters, in each of which Oz takes the opening paragraphs of some famous or not so famous novel or story, and gently encourages us to pause over the meaning and implications of the writer's words. As an introduction to the art of writing it is exemplary. Oz sets out to show that each important work of literature begins from an implied contract between writer and reader, and that the terms of this contract are to be discovered. Part of the joy of literature lies in this discovery, and in understanding just how the action and the characters are to emerge from the words that display them.

Oz begins with a magnificent chapter describing the beginning of Effi Briest - and he does it in such a way that no reader can doubt that Fontane's novel has something very important to tell us. We must enter this novel, as Oz put it, on tiptoe; and what we observe is a near stationary tableau of human failure, and of the resources needed to confront it.

Oz is equally illuminating on Kafka and Gogol, Gabriel García Márquez and Raymond Carver. He shows us how little need a critic has of structural analyses or comprehensive overviews: a keen eye, focused on a single sentence, can open the world of a novel more effectively than any amount of scholarship. But this only serves to remind us of how difficult is the art of criticism - as difficult as the art of writing.

Roger Scruton's book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, is published by Duckworth, priced £ 14.95.