Magazine article The Spectator

Serendipity Rules Okay

Magazine article The Spectator

Serendipity Rules Okay

Article excerpt


OUP, L (English pound) 25, pp. 1184

It isn't history, it isn't fiction, and it isn't scholarship, although it contains elements of all three: in fact, one might say that The Oxford Companion to English Literature belongs in a genre all of its own. That being the case, one might also say that reviews of Companions to English Literature belong to a genre all of their own as well. The idea is to read the new guide, edited by distinguished author X, and compare it to previous guides, written by distinguished authors Y and Z, either howling at the new elements of political correctness - the entries on `Gay and Lesbian Literature,' say, or 'Hypertext' - or, alternatively, heaping praise upon them.

Handed the new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble, I dutifully flipped to read all of the new entries: not only Gay and Lesbian Literature and Hypertext, but also New Irish Playwrights, Lads Literature, Kate Atkinson, Carol Shields, Louis de Bernieres. Then I checked around to see if any of my friends had made it - I was delighted to find Ian Buruma, as well as A. N. Wilson - and then, quite frankly, didn't know what to do next. The Gay and Lesbian Literature entry is neither as outrageous nor as indispensable as the battling parties in the canon wars would have it: Drabble, or her anonymous contributor, rather interestingly traces the genre back to Shakespeare, Plato, and 18th-century women's diaries, but fails fully to convince me that she couldn't have just got by with giving extra-long entries to Oscar Wilde, the Marquis de Sade, Jeanette Winterson and a few others.

Ditto Hypertext, which in fact refers to the internet: the entry also contained some valuable tidbits - did you know that one Vannevar Bush first began dreaming of something like the internet in 1945? - but still seemed not completely at home in a companion to English Literature.

In fact, the true pleasure of this book lies elsewhere. Most literate people have, over he course of a lifetime, stumbled over names and references which they meant to look up, but never quite got around to doing it: now they can. Most also remember certain names from school - William Dean Howells, The Faerie Queene, Chris tien de Troyes - but would be hard-put to define or describe them: now they can. Reading this book for fun, and not with the polished eye of a literary critic or literary historian, provides the same satisfaction as finishing a jigsaw puzzle. All of the interesting bits of literary lore which one had forgotten (or never known) are now accessible. More to the point, they are readable. This Companion could have been merely dull and worthy. Drabble has made it deliberately enjoyable, gossipy, even funny.

Here, for example, are not one but three entries on 'Arcadia': one refers almost tongue in cheek to the actual place, a bleak and mountainous district in the central Peloponnese which became, thanks to references in Virgil's Eclogues, the traditional and incongruous location of the idealised world of the pastoral.

Another refers, rather obscurely, to a popular series of `verse eclogues connected by prose narratives' published in 1504. …

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