I have a guilty secret.
I have never read a “classic” novel. We have many of them and my wife and daughter will happily read Jane Austen, the Brontes, and even Bram Stoker. My definition is probably that a classic novel is well-known and well-loved book written before the First World War. (I know that modern interpretations are a little more relaxed).
It’s not that I haven’t tried. Unfortunately my attempts were driven by school work. At various stages I remember wading through Dombey and Son and Great Expectations but I loathed them both. I think I probably read around a third of each. I also have huge gaps in my modern novels – I only read Catch 22 a couple of years ago and still haven’t attempted 1984, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and The Sea etc. I have embarrassing conversations where I will cause jaws to involuntarily drop by disclosing my inadequacy.
It’s not that I don’t like reading or even that I don’t like good novels. I have read plenty Booker Prize winners and even more of the shortlisted books and enjoyed almost all of them. I quite like the challenge of a difficult book – I’ve often read books twice and had two entirely different experiences.
I think that my block is to do with reading historical novels. I love history and I love stories but somehow can’t put the two together. Bizarrely I loved I, Claudius as a TV series (so I can handle the extreme past) but the idea of a Victorian Sunday night drama series fills me with horror… don’t even mention Downton Abbey! The combination of enforced school reading and a lack of remotely modern reference points has given me a blind spot. I lack the sensitivity to search out the parallels.
I am working my way back, I realize that the failing is mine. I’ve now read successfully before the second world war with Scoop by Evelyn Waugh and enjoyed it. I am a big fan of P G Wodehouse though I’d struggle to define his work as classic. My next stepping stone is to reread The Secret Agent – by Joseph Conrad – the nearest I ever got to an interesting school set text. Maybe then I will be ready to go for a small Austen, Hardy and Dickens. Why do they all sound like provincial department stores?