I was a bad English major. Truth is, I wanted to be a creative writing major, but my college didn’t offer that at the time. I opted for English, basically declaring it as soon as I got there. My was to take as many creative writing courses as I could–I believe the final count on that was two–and soldier my way through the literature courses that I was less-than-enthused about. I fully understand and believe that in order to write, one must first learn to read. The pathway to fine writing goes through the forest of ancestral authors, studying their mastery of the language as a means to achieve greater command over the creative process. I get that. I respect that. Utterly. And yet my problem is frightfully simple and more than a little embarrassing. I have a damnably difficult time connecting with fiction that isn’t roughly contemporary. The more of a crust of refined classicism resides upon it, my more likely I am to find it dull or even impenetrable. This is plainly a personal and intellectual flaw, but it remains there, even now.
I attribute my problem somewhat to the parade of stiff, stilted classic literature that was foisted upon me during high school, and then never contextualized by the teachers in a way that would make it come to life, or at least seem relevant. This was the canon, after all. It’s resounding value was self-evident. This ground me down, even though I was a exhaustive reader, always ready to be enthralled. The classics became the grudge work I finished in order to read something that I wanted to read. That persisted into college, unfortunately, as professors tended towards the most tiresome explications of every little nuance of a work until it no longer seemed like writing and became algorithms built from words, exactly the sort of regimented material I was trying to escape by running from math and science into the sloppy embrace of literature.
It probably wasn’t as dire as I’m making it seem, and there were several writers whose work held the proper wonders for me. But there was one in particular who transcended my unfortunate predilections, whose voice seemed as sharp and contemporary as that of any author issuing material with contemporaneous copyright dates. It didn’t exactly open floodgates to an appreciation of writing that had at least a century’s worth of dust on it, but it gave me all the sensations of intellectual stimulation that I hoped for every time I cracked a new book. This was my uncommon reaction when Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure was assigned in one of my college literature courses.
I was engrossed in the book, especially fascinated by the sardonic way Hardy unpacked the causation and perpetuation of human misery. He demonstrated a keen awareness of our shared failings, particularly the was that base instincts can lead to drastically faulty decision-making. There was a sharpness and freedom to his language that heightened this quality, a beautiful use of the great variances of words, but never done in a way that favored the flowery over the clear. It wasn’t dainty and overly elegant in the way I was accustomed to seeing writing from roughly the same time period, but was instead muscular, shrewd and pointed. It was terrific, by any measure.
I still find this to be the case when I, admittedly infrequently, dip into Hardy’s words anew, most recently in reading Far From the Madding Crowd. The plumbing of motivation is extraordinary, the attention to detail wonderfully acute. Beyond the plentiful signifiers of a bygone era, the writing strikes me as notably modern, truly achieving the sort of timelessness that’s often ascribed to other works that seem to me woefully stuck in their respective eras (like–oh, I don’t know–a novel about the doomed quest to slay a large sea mammal that devotes endless pages to heavily detailed explication of the ins and outs of whaling). I’d honestly be grateful if there was the necessary kinetic movement from whatever spring needs to pop in my brain to make me more open to classic literature, but I don’t expect it to happen. At least I’ve got Hardy to provide some amount of reassurance that I’m not a complete philistine.