Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is Victoria Best, aka Litlove, who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room.
Victoria taught French literature for a decade or so at Cambridge University before taking three years out to recover from chronic fatigue syndrome, during which time she began her blog. The experience of blogging made such an impact that she returned to the university on a part-time basis to work with students in need of study support and to use the extra time to write more widely.
She lives in a village outside Cambridge with her husband and son and a lot of books.
Without further ado, here’s Victoria’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
Janet Malcolm uses what must be the best biographical strategy ever in this book about iconic poet Sylvia Plath: she structures her account of Plath’s life as an investigation and travels around interviewing the people who have written about her or provided significant testimonies of her marriage, picking at the stories they’ve told to see what lies behind them, what motivations, what emotions dictated the portrait of Plath that they gave. In other words, she’s looking at the way that the process of biography transforms a life into a mythic story. Her reason for doing this is that only fiction provides everything we need to know to judge a character. When you enter the murky waters of non-fiction, you can never uncover the final truth of a life — there are only ever multiple truths, each one embodying a different perspective, or a different relationship, to the events that took place. I love Janet Malcolm’s writing because she shows how you can be intellectually clever and completely gripping at the same time.
When I was at university in the late 1980s, critical theory was all the rage. A brand new undergraduate course on it had just begun and I was a guinea pig, having signed up for its initiatory year. This book was recommended on the reading list and when I began it I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. The first half I covered with abusive marginalia, lots of silly remarks and exclamations. And then the penny suddenly dropped and I began to understand what this theory business was all about. My feelings made an abrupt U-turn and I rushed to my eraser to try and remove all my foolish commentary.
In fact, this book put me on the road to becoming a professional literary critic, because it gave me a structured approach to reading that I was desperately in need of at that time. Being sensitive to a text was presented as a sort of divine gift, a sheer knack that you either possessed or didn’t. But critical theory offered a useful alternative — that you could read a book through a framework of ideas and see what you got out of it. This book also introduced me to psychoanalytic theory, which has probably been the saving grace of my life. I suppose that, like the Janet Malcolm, what I like about Eagleton’s book is that it suggests there are no ultimate answers, just many different ways of thinking about things, and I find that incredibly liberating.
Gabriel Josipovici has been writing amazing works of fiction (and some unusual and insightful works of criticism) ever since the 1970s, but he’s never received the recognition he deserves. It may be because there are experimental elements to his writing, and that can put readers off. But he is such an accessible, easy read that it seems unfair to judge him just because he creates stories that are a little different.
This book was the first of his I read, and it remains my favourite. It’s a novella, and on the brief side too at 60 or so pages. It recounts the life of literary critic, Felix, his two wives, his children, his study of Rabelais, but it does so in a series of intense fragments, mostly dialogue, that somehow manage to mobilise an incredible richness of meaning, bringing together life and art, love and suffering, the sense of time passing and the eternal present we live in. Try him; he’s worth it.
Thanks, Victoria, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I love that all the selections are titles I wouldn’t normally come across, and I’m especially intrigued by Janet Malcolm’s book — I read one of her other titles, The Journalist and the Murderer, and loved it, eating it up in the space of a weekend. That, too, explored the notions of truth, but put it in a journalistic context.
What do you think of Victoria’s choices? Have you read any of these books?