Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Literary confessions & opening lines

In one of David Lodge's comic novels about academia, a group of English literature professors play a parlour game in which they each have to name a book which they really should have read, but haven't. As Lodge recognises, academics cannot resist a bit of professional one-upmanship, and so they are all only too ready to admit to the gaps in their literary knowledge. The game culminates in one of them confessing that he has never read Hamlet and, if my memory serves me correctly, losing his job as a result.

Because I blog anonymously (Ms Heathen is not in fact my real name, nor is it to be read as a statement about my religious beliefs), I can here confess with impunity that I have never in my life read a word of Derrida. I am writing up my PhD in a department that has a formidable reputation when it comes to critical theory, and this would be considered a scandalous oversight by many of my peers. I am sure that one day I will be caught out: I will be asked a tricky question about deconstruction at a graduate seminar, and my ignorance will be exposed for all to see.

I have also never read anything by any of the great Russian novelists. It was with this in mind that last week I bought a copy of Anna Karenina (Derrida, on the other hand, I think I can manage without).

I was hooked from the moment I read the opening line:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Along with Gertrude Stein's "rose is a rose is a rose is a rose", this is one of the sentences I would most like to have written. On its own, it stands as a concise yet profound statement on the intricate dynamics of our relationships with those to whom we are inextricably tied by our upbringing. As the first sentence of a novel, it introduces a theme and opens up a world for me. Already I know that, whatever unhappy family I am to encounter between the pages of this novel, it will be more interesting than any conventionally happy family.


Kim said...

Enjoy Anna, I loved it. Mine is Moby Dick. I just couldn't get through it. And by "through it" I mean, past page 4.

TABI said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TABI said...

I agree, who wants to read about a conventional family- BORING! Good luck on your first IVF apt on Christmas eve! Sorry about the delete, I didn't know how to edit!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Yes, DO enjoy Anna K. Its fabulous (I must confess I came to it following a TV adaptation starring a fave actor, but all routes are good, yeah?!)

And please do not worry about your lack of Derrida. We have a number of books of his in the house and they're basically decoration! I have merely dipped.

There is a reason Cliffs notes etc exist (as per various crit books and overviews): they're to help wearied academics get throgh unreadable texts.

When I met partner, we both had a several hours long conversation about... some Russian thinkers (I think) and in the end we BOTH fessed that we had not read a word of the stuff and had been bluffing each other for the whole conversation...