This book is a collection of essays published in a Sri Lankan newspaper The Island as a weekly column. Written by the erudite and politically conscious Rajiva Wijesinha, the book is a delightful survey of twentieth century English literature. While he threatens/promises to locate his readings in contemporary Sri Lankan politics, we find that either he has edited them out of the book or that such anchoring was provided only now and then in the original columns themselves. So apart from a few stray references to a few politicians or to the Tigers the book gives us an individual’s view of writers who have impressed him over the years for many diverse reasons. This of course brings us to look closer at the ambiguous title—how does Wijesinha hope to discuss twentieth century classics through reflections on writers and their times without discussing other works including those by the writers themselves? How is he going to identify classics, and then how is he going to justify his choice in terms of other works by the same writer? Can’t a writer write more than one classic, whatever be your definition of the term? And how can one define ‘classic’, especially when talking about the twentieth century?
The last quarter of that century saw complete decimation of the literary canon, the annihilation of the kingdom of Dead White Males, the recovery and restoration of various authors (mostly women), and the establishment of the worship of the popular. The last ensured that literary ambitions, rather academic ambitions to replace certain texts in the canon with others, or to introduce a self-critical set of values to evaluate the lasting impact of texts, or to write a different literary history (as opposed to histories of the book or print history) were all nipped in the bud. So a book like this, setting up or re-viewing a list of twentieth century English (from England) books calling them classics, and by a respected and politically active Sri Lankan scholar seems as astonishing as all Indian cities and roads being renamed after Britishers.
Having said that, who else but academics will share their list of favourite writers from any century with others and try to influence others with their arguments and readings to ensure that their taste in literary fiction finds takers among the public? Notice, I am leaving out ‘classic’ from the rhetorical question. And who else but a post-colonial critic can look at England with the required sense of distance and irony and read it politically without being embroiled in parochial (English) politics? We have carried the burden of the whites for a long time and will continue to do so for quite some time, as long as their handling of their burdens cause political and economic turmoil here! Wijesinha, having set himself this task of identifying English classics, quite wisely changes this to identifying fifty-one English writers from the twentieth century who have impressed him for various reasons. This task he carries out with élan, with just the right tone for newspaper columns—chatty but without sacrificing serious engagement with the writers and their texts.
While the list is large enough to satisfy most readers who make their own lists, it is also large enough to have surprising inclusions. One must of course not expect poets in a list of writers of classics and even the inclusion of the few playwrights by Wijesinha is surprising though understandable (even though debatable) at least in one case (that of Samuel Beckett). Another pleasant surprise is the inclusion of writers of fiction for children—Kipling, Frank Richards (whose Billy Bunter was iconic even in the 1960s in India), Richmal Crompton (the creator of William), Edith Nesbit (many may have read The Railway Children), J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), Enid Blyton, Tolkien (Trilogy of the Ring), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), and William Golding (Lord of the Flies). Of course, quite a few of these writers wrote works for adults and some of the children’s works are read with great enjoyment by all. However, to see these writers in a list of twentieth century classics is a pleasant surprise. One can ask why Frances Hodgson Burnett is missing in this list (the author of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden), for after all she was born in England and migrated to USA only when she was fifteen and maintained a home in England in her adult life. The likely answer is that Wijesinha is unable to make political/social comments on English life through a reading of her novels, for that is how his commentary works. As he says in his preface, he has included books and writers who ‘either raise issues that we should be thinking about, or else … describe situations that are significant for the way the world has developed.’ Not surprisingly, the first few writers to be taken up for discussion are Greene, Scott, Forster, Kipling, and Conrad, and among the last are Rushdie, Seth (?), Jhabvala (?), and Ishiguro. While Greene was a particular favourite of a generation, he is also a writer who critiqued dominant ideologies and attacked Anglo-American policies relentlessly. Thus he is a logical choice. Paul Scott, E.M. Forster, and Kipling all have an India connection, so should make any South Asian poco critic’s list, though it may surprise some to see Paul Scott in this list. One realizes that Scott is a peg to hang Wijesinha’s views on India and its leaders at the time of Independence and also his views on the role India now played in South Asia. Scott hardly merits any attention in this essay while Wijesinha examines the views of Narendra Singh Sarila, Nirmal Verma, and Alex von Tunzelmann to argue that Indians may have been more sentimental than the British at the time of Independence, things had changed over the years and other countries in the region had to learn to deal realistically with India.
While the rest of the list has the usual suspects—Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Bernard Shaw, Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Naipaul, and Muriel Spark (I know some of them are not so usual but this is a long list and a personal one of the author’s) —some of the others force one to look again at the title of the book. While Evelyn Waugh may be on the periphery of such a list, to find Robert Graves, Christopher Isherwood, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Galsworthy (OK, he too could make the margins), Wodehouse (alright, OK), Noel Coward, Rattigan, Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Ian Fleming, Le Carre, Ballard, Simon Raven, George Durrell, and T.E. Lawrence among the writers of classics only showcases the eclectic nature of Wijesinha’s reading. The inclusion of Seth and Jhabvala underlines the personal nature of this list of classics as well as the impossibility of talking of Englishness, a fact that writers like Conrad and Rushdie and Ishiguro also point to. We don’t need much persuasion to read many of the selected writers (and indeed we have) but Wijesinha does manage to make them all sound interesting and illuminating. Ultimately, the test for this kind of a book (or indeed the newspaper column on which it is based) is how the writer manages to make a connect with us and how he manages to persuasively argue that the writers are worth reading for various reasons. This Wijesinha manages to do with ease, never talking down to his (newspaper) readers and always aware of the debatable nature of his choices and views.All in all, a book worth the read. I must add that Yasmine Gunaratne’s introduction adds to the value of the book.
GJV Prasad discusses life and literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.