Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Modernism: An Art of Confusion?

I like a good Scotch, but sometimes I'm just in the mood to sip on some cider and relax.  That's the way I feel about literature.  I don't want every book I read to force me to ruminate over each chapter and read multiple essays about it just to understand what it's about.  Sometimes I like a simple narrative, an enjoyable story.  There's nothing wrong with that, though some people tend to think that this attitude makes you a simpleton, that you should always be challenging yourself.  I don't need to challenge myself with every read to feel like I accomplished something at the end of it.
This is not the face of a man who takes things lightly.
I read Bruno Schulz' two collections of short stories first thing this year--technically G.K. Chesterton was first thing, but it was started in 2010--so once that was done, I was tired.  Literally, worn out.  I switched to H.G. Wells.  I didn't think The Croquet Player was going to be as haunting as it was.  Now, I'm reading The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham.  While I wouldn't call him simple, I would say that he has Victorian sensibilities when it comes to storytelling.  He writes a plain narrative, and while he talks about deep issues, he talks about them simply.  And to be honest, I'm getting more out of The Moon and Sixpence then I did out of all of Bruno Schulz.  Maybe Maugham wasn't as good a writer as Schulz, but Maugham was the most popular British author since Charles Dickens.  He wrote things people connected to, and frankly, it's hard to connect to something you don't understand.
T.S. Eliot, looking so cash.
T.S. Eliot said that modern novelists, like modern poets, should be difficult.  I disagree.  I like T.S. Eliot, but there's a reason why Byron is my favorite poet.  Some might say it's apples and oranges.  All I know is, the Romantics had quite a lot of important things to say and they said them clearly and wonderfully.  I'm not entirely sure what Eliot was trying to say; all I know if he said it beautifully.
Let's be honest here, many of the greatest works in literature were simple stories.  Sometimes they told cavernously deep messages, but the stories were enjoyable, even if you missed the message.  The stories of Shakespeare were written to do two things: entertain and sell.  Marlowe was a bit deeper, but he's also not as well beloved.  Don Quixote is a simple, entertaining story.  One could study it for years and find many things to talk about, but to enjoy it, one simply has to read it.  The same can be said of Dickens or Thackeray.  They wrote to entertain, themselves and the people.  They also wrote with important messages, and they felt little reason to hide those messages behind obscure prose.
I'm not saying writers such as Joyce, Kafka, Schulz, or Eliot are bad writers for creating difficult and challenging literature; but I am saying that just because they are difficult does not make them better.  Like I said, I've been more challenged by Maugham than Schulz, and I think the reason might just be that I've comprehended more of Maugham's message.

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