800 Books in my life, part 3

Welcome to the Dark Ages… well not quite. But we have come to the University years 1965-1968. There wasn’t the same pressure to read huge amounts of stuff that there had been at school, but overall the pace of life was slower than at school, so I read no more than I had to.

I was doing French as main subject, Spanish as subsidiary. By this stage there was very little study of the language; it was mostly literature. This was perhaps unwise; we knew a lot less French and Spanish than they probably thought we did. For that matter it would have been good to have more on the culture and way of life of France and Spain than we did; and Spanish-speaking South (and Central) America and the French overseas territories didn’t figure at all.

In the French department we covered a wide chronological range, from Chrétien de Troyes to Albert Camus. As time for Spanish was more restricted, we concentrated on the 20th century; this was reasonable as we were at least slightly more likely to find our own way to the classics than to more recent writers that we might not have heard of.

I had dabbled briefly in Anglo-Saxon; it is, to all intents and purposes, a foreign language, but with a little help you can make it out. And it makes later writers, such as Chaucer, a lot easier to fathom. Chrétien de Troyes was 12th century, but, crucially, from Northern France, so he is not too far removed from modern French, at least in writing. We studied his Roman de Perceval, a good choice as it’s related to Arthurian legend which most people know at least something about. There’s a cheerful openness and down-to-earth quality in this medieval literature which I’ve followed up with forays into the Carmina Burana (the poems, and the original songs, not just Carl Orff’s settings). And this led me on into medieval music, which is where I am now.

Moving on through history we included samples of Molière and Racine, both quite hard to get into in their different ways. In later literature, Balzac and Flaubert inevitably loomed large. Subsequently I read a good deal more of Flaubert; amongst the social comment there’s a sly sense of humour at work. By this time I had already discovered Zola, for the usual wrong reasons; he didn’t figure in our University course, but I persisted with him and eventually got to grips with the social and political context of his novels. Victor Hugo didn’t figure much either; but I had already got through Les travailleurs de la mer long before I really knew enough French, and read a great deal of his poetry in a vain attempt to get on with it (In music I had the same experience with Berlioz, a kindred spirit perhaps).

The Spanish authors we studied have also stayed with me. For the course, we needed to buy the complete poetry of Antonio Machado, and although this wasn’t necessary I read all of it; his style is plain and clear and although he is often morose and there is really no positive message to be gained from it, I liked it then and I like it now. Camilo José Cela seems to have gained a little more international recognition in recent years. We had done his Viaje a la Alcarria, a whimsical traveller’s tale, at school, and at University it was Pabellón de reposo, a grim novel set in a sanatorium for the tubercular. The art of this book, as Cela mentions in his prologue, is to tell a story in which, basically, nothing happens. It’s all psychology, changing moods, conversations, relationships, and the unshakeable and unjustified optimism of the doctors and directors. Inevitably García Lorca was on the menu as well; truculent, flamboyant writing which comes dangerously close to the españolada that I mentioned previously. You can hear the guitars in your head as you read him.

After I finished University Life got in the way of Literature, and I read what I could when I could. So the rest of the story will be sorted by language: p.812 for Esperanto, p. 840 for french, p. 860 for Spanish, and so on.


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