Review: The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman
IT manages to be both passionate and flippant -- veering at times towards the facetious though never reaching the depths of frivolity -- but Sandra Newman's lively and witty book, while knocking down sacred cows with relish, never loses contact with her central thesis: reading should be a pleasure.
On her racy path from Homer to Faulkner she puts Milton firmly in his place, knocks Euripede's Medea (" ... all this murder is surprisingly dull; it's like watching blood dry.") and gives The Canterbury Tales nine (out of 10) for Fun.
This is the way The Western Lit Survival Kit works. Each book is awarded points under the headings Importance, Accessibility and Fun. The last means, is it enjoyable? Is reading it a pleasant experience or a chore?
Most people, I suspect, will race through the Middle Ages -- though she's good on Dante, giving Inferno a 10 but downgrading Purgatorio and Paradiso -- will treat the Renaissance with respect rather than excitement, and get to grips with the whole chapter devoted to Shakespeare. Nine of the plays get 10s (though the Accessibility ratings are lower), including the silly Romeo and Juliet.
She disposes sternly with the regularly aired view that Shakespeare didn't write the plays -- he was uneducated, say the anti-Stratfordians -- noting that "his authorship was never questioned by any of his contemporaries" and the issue belongs in the world "inhabited by those who insist Obama was born in Kenya, that the moon landings were faked ... " And so on.
As a firm believer in gossip, the youthful (judging by her photo) Sandra tells us Milton's first wife left him "because life with her husband was insufferably tedious" and adds that he had no sense of humour, wasn't good with women, "and had puritan attitudes towards drinking, theatre, sex and fun in general." Though she acknowledges Paradise Lost as a masterpiece (a 10), it's "also about as much fun as being trapped in a freezer."
Skipping hastily to the Victorians, where, oddly, she starts with Jane Austen (who died in 1817, two years before Queen Vic was born), she writes: "The perfect prose Gibbons used for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is used by Austen for the decline and fall of a provincial girl's vanity." She hints, if such a mild term is applicable to the forceful Ms Newman, that men don't read the great Jane (wrong), and places the often maligned Emma just below Pride and Prejudice in all three categories (right).
She's good on the Brontes and Dickens (failing, though, to mention Our Mutual Friend, surely one of the best), and a bit hard on the peerless George Eliot, deriding Adam Bede and Silas Marner ("cloying"), though bestowing a 10 on Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest English novel of all. She doesn't even mention Anthony Trollope or Elizabeth Gaskell, and overall, in the 19th and 20th-Century entries, is more at home with Americans. Here, though, she is lukewarm on the wonderful Edith Wharton while, inexplicably, devoting huge space to Gertrude Stein.
Twentieth-Century English novelists? She picks only DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. All through, though, she is knowledgeable about French writers, from Villon to Proust. Her Irish trio are Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (she fails to see the pioneering bravura in Dubliners, is perceptive on Ulysses): no Beckett, Goldsmith, George Moore.
On Hemingway -- her 10 for the short stories, less for the novels, is spot on -- Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Newman is at her most percipient, a word she wouldn't dream of using. Yes, this survival kit is fun.
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