A Mixed Bag of Learning

My reading material is a bit of a mixed bag at the moment. I am preparing for my Masters that starts in the autumn and have been getting to grips with the reading list. The novels I need to read, so far they have not created a problem. I have been introduced to J.M. Coetzee, renewed my acquaintance with the 'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre'. Soon I shall be bumping into 'Robinson Crusoe' again, and 'Antigone' in a couple of disguises. I am going to circle the room for as long as possible before I have no alternative but to nod politely in Coriolanus' direction and then beat a hasty retreat. It is possible I may take to him a little more at this meeting...but I doubt it.

It hasn't been out and out pleasure. I've been forced into the company of the boffins that stand in the corner exerting their influence over all present. I've always thought of them as party-poopers, whose only reason for existence is to tear apart my favourite books and stick them back together in a form I do not recognise. I used to snatch my book back, cry over it's lost form and innocence and leave it on the floor, pages flipping back and forth in the icy breeze that would fill the room.

I've had to look into the eyes of these 'violators' and step into their theories. I still have the urge to give some of them a jolly good slap (OK, most of them), to try and shake them free from their absorption and obsession. In the past I wanted to shout in their faces, "Leave my beloved books alone. Let me read into them whatever I want to, and if that is nothing, just a good story, without hidden meanings, then let me!" But, and here's the rub, I've learned something from them.

Let me begin at the beginning, 'Beginning Theory' in fact; it is a little soiree with the critics. I've kicked at, muttered obscenities at, and been an ungracious guest to the exponents of Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Modernism. I've flirted a little with the Psychoanalytic critics (I have a soft spot for Freud, make of that what you will). I've been polite to the Feminist, gay/lesbian and post-colonial bods; I can see they have a point. Individually, they're still a little infuriating, but as a group they are interesting, almost entertaining. From the Structuralists I've learned about the paradigmatic chain, something most of us instinctively know but, in my case certainly, did not necessarily consider when reading. I've indulged in discussion with Barthes about the independence of literary text, the point at which he went beyond structuralism and became 'post'. For the record I think he is half-right. Where I really clicked was when discussing Stylistics, when Ronald Carter made me understand collocation.

Collocation refers to an expected co-occurrence of words, words that are often, habitually found inhabiting the same space. British TV viewers of the 1980s and 90s, cast your mind back to those early Saturday evening shows of 'Blankety Blank', where the contestants had to fill in the blank (or blanks) and find the most common occurence of a phrase or group of words. For example,


Would the contestant choose 'cat', 'hat', or 'notch' to fill the blank, or some obscure word that saw them bomb out? What they were playing was actually the 'Collocation Game', not quite such a snappy title and not as easy to put a repetitive jingle to, but that is what is was. As Carter informed me, poetry often breaks these 'habitual patterns' and joins together words rarely, if ever, seen in each other's company. And then it clicked, I'm reading this in action, now, in a book where collocation is given its marching orders...'The Book Thief'.

As I read 'The Book Thief' in those twenty minutes every night before I go to sleep, I have been taken by Marcus Zusak's unusual and interesting use of verbs. (I have an excited bubbling in my tummy just thinking about it.) He takes verbs that are habitually applied to living things and pairs them with inanimate objects, and vice versa. He does the same thing with adjectives, pairing them with what would seem to be disparate nouns. It works. It makes the whole read, as does the concept of the book of course, intriguing and dynamic.

I liked 'The Book Thief' before I knew the name of the 'rule' that the author had so spectacularly and successfully broken.  Sad as it may sound to some, now knowing the technical terminology has increased that pleasure. That may seem to fly in the face of my earlier comments but the point is I recognised the dismissal of collocation without having to dig for it. I did not have to pull the book apart, shred sentences, ignore other aspects of the writing because they do not fit neatly into a specific theory shaped hole. My enjoyment of the book has been in no way diminished by over-analysis, BUT now I understand better.

I do have a Masters to start and finish, and I will have to 'bring a range of relevant theoretical approaches to literary texts' as my course description informs me. But that is OK, because I think I am maturing (finally!); I think I may be able to rub shoulders with these theoretical boffins without resorting to infantile behaviour and you never know, I may be able to find pleasure in them.

Paradigmatic chain  - a chain of related words, for example, hovel, hut, house, mansion, palace. Remove one from the chain and the definition of the others would have to change to accommodate its removal.
Roland Barthes, 'Death of the Author'
My Masters course is with the Open University


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