At first there was just three of us lounging on the big leather couches, surrounded by our books. Two more arrived, making a complete set.
This month’s theme was ‘not this century’ and we ended up with books spanning from the 4th Century BCE to the 20th Century AD. Two thousand, four hundred years of literature in one night. Not bad.
I began with a book that I chose for many reasons. It is an aesthetically beautiful book, one that completely baffles me at times, and a book that not only is written last century, but within it references texts that were written centuries ago: T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of The Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound.
I love this poem because it is so epic and because it is so confusing. It is so vast and meta that each time I come across it, I either have an epiphany or find myself in a moment of literary meltdown. It is a poem that muses on how the modern world has become a wasteland, we have forgotten what the earth once was. Collective memory has failed us. Religion no longer has the influence it used to. Once every being identified with a religion, and each religion had a religious text. When faced a spiritual crisis, as humans are prone to do, we turned to this text for answers, whether it was the Qur’an, Torah, I Ching, or the Bible. But now, few humans identify with a religion and have no religious texts. The Waste Land raises the question: what do you do in a spiritual crisis if you’re not religious?
The Waste Land is perfect for looking at texts that are not in this century because of it’s rich intertextualiy. The Waste Land is host to textual references dating back to 43BCE. One of my greatest joys is reading a text and noticing a literary reference, it makes me feel as if I have the key to all the secrets the book holds. Amongst so many other things, this poem references The Bible (the books of Job, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, Luke, Isiah), The Works of Shakespeare (The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Coriolanus), Milton’s Paradise Lost, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
T had been hiding her book out of fear of judgement from me. Fair enough as it was Go Set A Watchman, a book that I don’t want to read. But she spoke of how it’s not about Atticus anymore, it’s about Scout. And Scout is this grown up, sassy, smart young woman who is the embodiment of a fantastic feminist character. Scout all grown up is the woman we all hoped she would be. It’s not about Atticus anymore, it’s about Scout. Which is ironic as we have this awesome feminist heroine, but we are all stuck focusing on the man instead.
Of course, B had two books, one which he was part-way through. This was Balzac 1835 Old Goriot, a novel concerned with the class system and Paris. In the novel there is a hotel in which the class system is expertly dissected: in this hotel the upper class live on the lower floors, near the warmth, the core, the hearth, while the poor live on the upper floors. The poorer you are, the higher you are. It is a tale of money, and the futility of it; of desperately trying to fit in to the upper class and the lengths one will go to to achieve this.
B’s second book was the classic Lysistrata, a comedy that is essentially about a group of women who want to end the war. How do they do it? They tell the men they won’t have sex with them until there is peace. Penis costumes, crude jokes, innuendos, and cross dressing ensues. Of course.
Latecomer O had read his chosen book The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz while he was in Mexico. On long eight hour bus rides, his boredom was quickly silenced as he read of the men who had to walk that journey. Thank God for buses. Reading of the conquest of Mexico in Mexico, he said, was a surreal experience, and allowed him to just walk outside and see the landscape, instead of having to imagine it. As Díaz’s account is first person, and he wised to merely record the facts, it tells a slightly different story to what we thought we knew.
To conclude, N spoke of the truly interesting play The Roaring Girl, by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. This play is about the historical woman Mary Firth or otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse. Moll was a widely known figure on the 17th Century streets of London, she was famous as she was a cross dresser and a thief. The play explores the role of Moll as a cross dresser and what this allowed her to do. Moll was able to venture into the male world and visit areas that are too dangerous for women, while still being connected to the feminine world. Her gender identity opened doors, shining a stark light on the way society treats cross dressers, not just then, but now.