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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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times