How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton: Not so much eagle-eyed as bird-brained

A book that purports “to provide readers and students with some of the basic tools of the critical trade” is chock-full of critical fallacies and flawed reasoning.

How to Read Literature
Terry Eagleton
Yale UniversityPress, 256pp, £18.99

“Like clog dancing, the art of analysing works of literature is almost dead on its feet,” announces the preface to How to Read Literature. “A whole tradition of what Nietzsche called ‘slow reading’ is in danger of sinking withouta trace.” Never fear: Terry’s here, with his “guide for beginners”.

In Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), Eagleton argued that literature as a category does not exist. His two most recent books mark a shift: The Event of Literature (2012) suggested that a common-sense definition of “literature” is possible. Now he aims “to provide readers and students with some of the basic tools of the critical trade”.

The question is, how well does Eagleton deploy those tools? You might expect the theory to inform the criticism. For instance, he has a repetitive formula: he takes a wellknown phrase and suggests a quirky alternative significance for it on another planet. “‘Smoking Kills’ means what it means only by force of social convention. There may be a language somewhere in the cosmos in which it means a song for several voices.”

So, meaning depends on context. Yet he does not internalise this insight: “We should not be afraid to impute failings to the Bard. His comedy . . . hardly leaves us rolling in the aisles,” he writes, without acknowledgement that the early-modern funny bone responded to different stimuli from ours.

The book begins with the cautionary tale of two students talking about fictional characters as if they were real. “It is important . . . not to confuse fiction with reality,” Eagleton warns, though no one is ever seriously in danger of doing so. Over and over, he insists on the fictiveness of fiction: “All that exists of Ishmael as a character is a set of black marks on a page.” However, like his students, he assesses characters in crudely “real-life” terms: “Jane is hardly the most agreeable heroine one could hope to share a taxi with”; Clarissa “is not the kind of woman one would gladly accompany on a pub crawl”; “If Sue were alive today, she could sue for defamation of character”. Sue, as Eagleton might note in another mood, was never alive at all.

In the chapter on narrative, he subscribes to every critical fallacy going. “Almost all Victorian novels end on an affirmative note. Even the work that sails nearest to outright tragedy, Wuthering Heights, manages to pull off a tentatively positive conclusion.” He makes this ridiculous claim after discussions of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Modernism is set in opposition to realism, though he never explains what he means by realism. He tells us that realist novels “generally try to pretend that they are not novels at all but true-life reports”, yet this is unworkable as a definition: the high priestess of 19th century realism, George Eliot, breaks out of the narrative of Adam Bede to discuss its relation to 17th-century Dutch painting.

“Realism” includes all mimetic writing, and therefore much of modernism. James Joyce claimed that if Dublin were destroyed it would be possible to rebuild it from Ulysses; his language might look fragmentary and experimental, but that fragmentation is frequently employed to imitate reality: “A cavalcade in easy trot along Pembroke quay passed, outriders leaping, leaping in their, in their saddles.” How does Eagleton deal with Joyce the modernist’s loudly realist project? By wilfully misunderstanding it. “It is true that [Bloom] is also a fully rounded, painstakingly detailed figure, but this is among other things a satirical send-up of the realist or naturalistic notion of character . . . Bloom is the creation of a dissident Irishman taking a smack at the stoutly realist British.”

I’ve saved the worst till last: Eagleton on the hidden significance of fictional names. In Great Expectations, “Abel Magwitch is an able magic witch who can transform a poor boy into a prince . . . As the name ‘Havisham’ suggests, to have is a sham.” This is thinking by numbers. Literally so – in Harry Potter, counting syllables provides a clue to social class. “Hermione Granger . . . is the most refined of the trio of protagonists, with no fewer than six syllables . . . Harry Potter, the conventionally middle-class hero, has four neatly balanced syllables . . . while the plebeian Ron Weasley has a niggardly three.” (“The plebeian” Ron – Ronald – Weasley has brothers called Percy and Charlie, and his father is the magical equivalent of a civil servant.)

Eagleton can be read as an ironic inversion of conventional heraldic symbolism: not so much eagle-eyed as bird-brained, thinking without a trace.

Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté

Eagleton's idea that all Victorian novels, including Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbevilles", end on an affirmative note is ridiculous. Photograph: Getty Images
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era