I was in the book store a couple of weeks ago, and I picked up a book from 1990 — The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Now, this morning, I am having a hard time staying focused on the graduate school work that has kept me from posting here for a month — and I find myself wanting to go back to the British countryside where the title character of the novel, Stevens, is “motoring” on what we Americans call a “road trip” through the idyllic British countryside. Now, you have to understand that I picked up this Booker-prize winning novel to get myself some more serious reading and break away from my rising obsession with Agatha Christie — another British writer. And here, as I make my tea first thing in the morning and listen to the hamster running on his wheel I reflect on another favorite Britisher, James Herriott, and his memory of his wife when he met her, wearing “a pair of purple slacks that would knock your eye out.” Since childhood, it has been my perception that “those writers from England” are somehow special.
As yes, it is language that draws me back to British writers again and again. It is what in the writing trade we call “voice.” The characters in Remains of the Day have such an inimitable way of constructing a phrase: “Why, Mr Stevens, why why why do you always have to pretend?” You can hear it, on a different register, in Bridgit Jones’ Diary.
Yes, and Remains was written by an author who was a child immigrant, so we can’t say the British way of writing is born in only to descendants of Shakespeare, Pope and the Victorians, per se. This construction of language is part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, a love affair with English. And I have to admit it is a love affair I share. One of its greatest beauties is that it can be adapted by those who are not ancestral Brits.
Once in a while at work, the differences between different languages, especially comparisons of Spanish and English, come up. And sometimes with my husband, the classicist, comparisons of English and Latin or Greek are made. My father was a Russian scholar, but he admitted to me that he knows that English is a greater literary language than Russian. In his dissertation he wrote that “the beginnings of Russian literature were late and obscure … ” causing his professors to rise up in objections — but here at the outset he admitted why Russian must bow to English. And with a similar aim at honesty, I have to admit that when any language is compared seriously with my beloved English, I begin to feel a certain swelling of indignation. Deep in my heart, I know English is the greatest literary language the world has ever produced, with a wider vocabulary than any except for Greek, with a vaster body of great literature than any, with a prosody unique and quite beautiful.
Great Britain is the source of this language, and even in modern commercial writing, Brits raise the capabilities of English to the utmost. And I think it is their love for tradition, tied up with their love for their homeland, that is operative in this nurturing and refining of language.
Now I have got this initial thought off my chest, I must return to graduate school work. But I promise to return to the topic in further posts, as it has great relevance for the ideals of tradition in classical education, as well as for the consideration of a call for excellence in literature and how this excellence is created and maintained.
(to be continued. Next time I will cover the British psychotherapist — the classical tradition and the Brits — a speaking tradition in regard to tropes, idioms and metaphor — and anxiety and influence in the (post) colonial writer.)