What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

Excerpt

The Western literary canon may be an abstraction elsewhere, but in the postcolony it is a key prop in an all-too-familiar scene involving a shelf of European books and a “provincial” writer who dreams of arriving at the hubs of world literature. In a 1989 UK television appearance, Derek Walcott said that the physical sensation of holding the Faber Auden and the Faber Eliot would drive him to copy out a poem in his exercise book, down to its rhyme and meter, but with the cultural content changed to correspond to a Caribbean context. “It was a complete apprenticeship, a complete surrender to modelling, because I knew that I was in a landscape that didn’t have pylons and trains and autumn, or whatever.” V. S. Naipaul, writing about the unpromising circumstances of his English education, recalls how Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from the Collins Classics series was one of the first English texts read out by the headmaster, Mr. Worm, to introduce his class (fifth standard) to general reading: “He looked down at the little Collins Classic, oddly like a prayer book in his thick hands, and read Jules Verne like a man saying prayers” (Literary Occasions, 4). Dissatisfied with Mr Worm’s idea of formative reading for impressionable boys, and increasingly influenced by his father’s prolific and eccentric reading patterns, Naipaul, still under twelve, creates his own private English literary anthology: selections include speeches in Julius Caesar; chapters of Oliver Twist, Middlemarch, and David Copperfield; Conrad’s Malay stories; one or two of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Self-archiving is a recurrent pattern in the fictional and real lives of writing I describe in this book, but, while . . .

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