Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Man Booker International Prize and John Henry Newman

Looking through the list of finalists for this year's Man Book International Prize which was announced today, I was reminded of something Newman wrote in The Idea of a University:

"First, then, it is to be considered that, whether we look to countries Christian or heathen, we find the state of literature there as little satisfactory as it is in these islands; so that, whatever are our difficulties here, they are not worse than those of Catholics all over the world. I would not indeed say a word to extenuate the calamity, under which we lie, of having a literature formed in Protestantism; still, other literatures have disadvantages of their own; and, though in such matters comparisons are impossible, I doubt whether we should be better pleased if our English Classics were tainted with licentiousness, or defaced by infidelity or scepticism. I conceive we should not much mend matters if we were to exchange literatures with the French, Italians, or Germans."

I don't agree with everything Newman wrote in this particular essay but I do recognise the temptation to look for greener grass in the literature of other countries. So what do we find when we examine the list of finalists? Amin Maalouf, who explores his own complex identity in Origins and In the Name of Identity, is a Catholic but the writers from Catholic Spain and Italy (Juan Goytisolo and Dacia Maraini) are less than enthusiastic about the Church. The Australian, David Malouf, though baptised a Catholic, seems to have stopped going to mass as a teenager. Marilynne Robinson is a Calvinist and Philip Pullman we all know about.

Does this mean that these writers are not worth reading? Of course not: they are all fine writers. But it does mean that we are going to be frustrated if we look to other countries for something we can't find in our own. To return to Newman: "One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same; and its literature, therefore, will ever and everywhere be one and the same also. Man's work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man, and, with all its richness and greatness, will necessarily offend the senses of those who, in the Apostle's words, are really "exercised to discern between good and evil.""

No comments:

Post a Comment