What is literature? How do we decide what is worth studying and what is not? LD#2 asked me this the other day and I found myself faced with the same questions that troubled me years ago when I was deciding whether to study English or Maths at University: Maths is real but is English Literature just words? How do you study just words, when they don’t constitute anything tangible?
I was recently sent a BBC/Goodreads “How many have you read”
and while I had read and enjoyed many of these, I couldn’t help noticing that 14 of the 100 books were written by Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare alone, a bias towards the established canon of respectable dead writers, which I felt sidelined the canon of modern literature.
Also included on this list was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which seems to have been absorbed into the framework of modern literature. Curious to see whether this was justified, I dove in.
Cloud Atlas consists of six stories, loosely linked by the slenderest of motifs – such as the discovery of a diary, the watching of a film. The first story begins with a missionary in the freshly colonised Antipodes, and from here we go through a self-exiled composer in pre-WWII Holland, an adventurous reporter investigating nuclear goings on in the 1970s, a modern day vanity publisher caught up in a Kafka-esque romp, a manufactured human clone bred as a slave in a futuristic dystopia, and ends up in a post-apocalyptic world, where they speak a dialect I found so annoying that I skipped this section altogether and looked up what it was all about on the internet – Cloud Atlas has been made into a film, thank goodness, which means that there are several film buff sites around that helped me with my navigation and comprehension of it.
Having reached the heart of the story, the layers then peel outwards again, so that we travel back out in time and find out what happened to the characters that we left on a cliffhanger.
Cloud Atlas is a curiosity in its scope. It is a book that has attracted plaudits from literary magazine Granta and daytime TV’s Richard and Judy. It boasts a literary confidence that is very much “show not tell”, making it a read where you have to concentrate and work your mind, yet it is also an international best seller.
It isn’t immediately obvious what it’s all about. Actually, it isn’t even ultimately obvious what it’s about. If someone asked me now, the closest I could get to saying what it’s about is that it’s about every that is huge, the swell and movement the evolution of life and society, and it’s about everything that is tiny, like a moment of happiness in a world profoundly without feeling.
On a grand scale, the book is about the way individual and society fit together, with the worst, most repressive aspects of societies, large and small, against both individuals and other peoples memorably presented. It shows a vision of society from the beginnings of the globalisation movement, through to a future in which the evils of globalisation become so intense that the world is taken full circle back to times both simpler and more primitive. In this way, it is itself a “Cloud Atlas”, skimming at breakneck speed as if through the clouds, on an attempt at mapping the world in four dimensions. At the same time, the tangible “Cloud Atlas” of the novel is one of our Holland-adventuring composer, Robert Frobisher’s, pieces, whose fragments and echoes are sought in the future he never knew.
To come back to my original question, literature to me is the following:
– It has something to say, both timelessly in ideas, and about the ideas of its time
– It is well written ie internally consistent, with characters who have plausible motives, and a sense of place
– It is written with the intent of making its reader think
So, yes, it’s very much literature. And strangely, it invoked the same feeling in me as Dickens and Hardy do: I admired it, and thought it was important to read it, but I didn’t love it. Much of it felt rather distant to me. However, there were a few moments, shown through the bravery and predicaments of some of its characters, that will always stay with me, for example, the condemned slave who wishes as a last request to finish an experience begun when “for an hour in my life, I knew happiness”.
And the way the book could be summing up both itself and the whole experience of life in the question: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”