On Kindle: John Keats, Anna Quindlen, Monica Ali, William Shakespeare, and Dava Sobel. In my book bag: Anthony Burgess, Helene Hanff, and Virginia Woolf. On the coffee table: Zadie Smith.
What am I reading? Why London, of course.
This May, a group of Honors students will accompany Dr. James Ruebel and me to Rome and London as part of a field study colloquium wrapping up our Honors Humanities sequence, a series of Honors classes devoted to the study of Western literature, philosophy, and art. Rome and London, two key cities in the narrative of Western Civilization, are connected by way of the ancient Romans themselves, whose infrastructure—including the ruins of old walls—can still be seen in London today.
There are too many literary connections to name, but our focus settled on English poet John Keats, who spent his last months in Rome attempting to recover from tuberculosis. In ABBA ABBA, Anthony Burgess (English author of A Clockwork Orange) reimagines these last days as a meeting of the minds between the dying Keats and a famous, conflicted Roman poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. The two poets are initially at odds, but philosophically united by the universal beauty of the sonnet form and its ability to accommodate a variety of languages and subject matter. The end of the book was no surprise to me, but Burgess’s language-play and ruminations on the purpose of art and poetry made me long to see Keats’s Spanish Steps and visit Belli’s statue in the Trastevere. And in London, a visit to Keats’s Hampstead residence will be in order.
During Christmas break, I spent a snowy day reading Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City. In this literary travel guide, the author traces her fascination with the city through some of her favorite literature. In this brief overview of the city’s most popular literature, she mentions some of the other texts I am reading this semester, including Mrs. Dalloway, one of my all-time favorite books. In this quintessential London novel, Virginia Woolf trains the readers’ gaze on her characters as their paths intersect in the London streets and parks on a beautiful June day. Thrumming underneath their feet is all of London’s ancient past, and permeating the air they breathe is the far-reaching stench of the recently concluded World War I. In May, some of my students and I will retrace some of Clarissa’s footsteps along Bond Street, and reenact Elizabeth Dalloway’s exhilarating bus ride to the Strand.
A London matron of more recent vintage is Nazneen, main character of Monica Ali’s popular and controversial novel, Brick Lane. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, this novel traces the self-initiated emancipation of a Bangladeshi woman who finds herself on the banks of the Thames, married to a Bangladeshi man twice her age. An uneducated village girl, Nazneen is out of her element and unable to speak English, but uses her native resourcefulness to guide her family through the tense months leading to and following September 11, 2001.
A more pleasant London-American connection is the true story of Helene Hanff, an American writer whose fascination with rare old books led her to a twenty-year correspondence with a London used book dealer named Frank Doel (whom she sometimes calls “Frankie”). Collected in the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, the letters document an increasingly warm and personal relationship between book lovers on separate continents. Far more engaging than the awkward 1987 film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, the letters are full of personality. “WHAT KIND OF BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?” Hanff demands upon receiving a requested copy of the Anglican New Testament in Latin. “Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They’ll burn for it, mark my words.” Doel responds with characteristic British calm and continues to provoke Hanff’s delight and feigned exasperation with his literary finds. Marks & Co. has long since closed, but we will stroll past the old store front anyhow, and pop into a few other used bookstores on Charing Cross Road.
Other texts I’ll be getting to this semester include Dava Sobel’s Longitude, an account of John Harrison’s quest to solve the longitude problem in the early 18th century. We’ll see some of his famous clocks as well as the International Dateline when we cruise down the Thames to Greenwich. And what trip to London would be complete without a visit to the Globe Theatre? We haven’t yet settled on a play, but an hour or two of the flight across the pond will be devoted to reading one of the Bard’s comedies.
After our return to the States? Current luggage restrictions may limit our souvenir shopping while we’re overseas, but I can always revisit London through E.M. Forster, W. M. Thackeray, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Fay Weldon, Zadie Smith, and Nick Hornby.
—Elizabeth Dalton, English Instructor