Monday, August 6, 2018

Auerbach, Kermode, Benjamin, Frye - an invitation to read some classic literary criticism with me

That was useful.

I have settled on a hybrid plan.  More logical.  More German.

A few shorter books to see how things go, then Mimesis.

End of September: The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), Frank Kermode.  Time and apocalypse.  The word “fiction” in the title does not mean “novels.”  Under 200 pages.

End of November: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (essays from the 1920s and 1930s), Walter Benjamin.  A wide range of topics.  I know that there are other ways to read Benjamin in English now, which was not so true in 1968.

End of January: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963), Northrop Frye.  His “practical” companion to the more theoretical (and longer) Anatomy of Criticism.  More essays, really.

Then we can spend the winter in front of the fireplace with a goblet of claret studying Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Erich Auerbach.  Mimesis has twenty chapters, and I can imagine a madman, or genius, simply reading through them, but I will want months.  Not sure how many.  Open-ended.

Each of these books embraces a range of traditions and languages.  Their scope is a good part of their appeal to me.  It is the fantasy of knowing everything.  Here are some writers, readers, who got close to that.  Their subject is literature, but also history, language – civilization.

As far as “participating” in a “readalong” goes, do whatever you want, whenever you want.  These books, even Kermode’s, are well suited to rummaging.  I mean, don’t miss the first chapter of Mimesis, but otherwise do whatever is useful and pleasant.  I hope you will find it useful and pleasant to report back on what you have discovered.  Feel free to do so at Wuthering Expectations.

For some reason Arthur Krystal wrote a 2013 New Yorker profile of Auerbach and Mimesis.  This is a book with its own story, worth knowing.


  1. Exciting! I look forward to taking part in all this. And thanks for linking to the Krystal essay; I well remember when it came out, and perhaps it started me on my attempt on the book (it certainly sent me in search of Auerbach's essay “Figura,” which is quite a dense read on its own).

    For some reason

    It was a review essay dangling from this hook:

    Now there’s a fifth book: “Time, History, and Literature,” edited by James I. Porter and energetically translated by Jane O. Newman, containing twenty essays, only eight of which have previously appeared in English.

    This amused me:

    Auerbach tended to undervalue the comic

    I posted about that several years ago. And if anyone's curious about how to pronounce "Mimesis," there's an exhaustive investigation at LH.

    He neglected American literature entirely, except for a brief allusion to Pearl S. Buck.

    Yes, and Russian literature too, except for a few pages tacked on to the "Germinie Lacerteux" chapter. He calls the effect of the Russians "lasting and important," but clearly doesn't regard them as central to the European tradition. Ah well.

    Krystal mentions Klemperer's diary in passing, and I urge anyone interested in the period to read it. A truly powerful accounting of life in a hellhole by an intellectual who had the tools to analyze what was going on around him.

  2. We'll see if any of these other critics are better with jokes.

  3. I would advise anyone new to literary criticism and wanting to tackle Mimesis to read the epilogue first. Auerbach did not write an introduction and only in the epilogue does he explain what he was trying to do. (Perhaps because that is when he realised it himself. I remember reading somewhere that he never planned his books beforehand.) I struggled with the book as I did not know the texts analysed and could not understand what “mimesis” meant. Still cannot, but for different reasons.

  4. I am absolutely up for Mimesis. I HAVE Mimesis. I might even have two.

  5. Everyone wants to read Mimesis.

    Epilogue-first - that's a good idea.

    Jean, very good. Feel free to substitute brandy for claret. Or whatever. I am a Burgundy person, myself.

  6. Like everyone else, I want to read Mimesis (or some of it). Ditto Illuminations. Since they are already waiting on the shelves.

  7. I've been wanting to read all of these (or at least these authors, since I only knew about a couple of these books), too. What a fun group we are.

  8. For sure I am into a reading of Mimesis.

  9. Fun, ha ha ha ha!

    Everyone wants to read Mimesis. Maybe some of us will. I will keep the pressure on everyone with my good example.

  10. Nice choices! I will try to take part :)

  11. Sorry that Curtius didn't make the cut because the little I've read of that in the last several years seemed really worthwhile. Maybe somebody else will provide me the good kick in the pants I need to return to it. In the meantime, I'll try and join you for at least part of this--a good list & good company. Thanks for the New Yorker link, which I will return to on a future break from work.

  12. Recently read Auerbach's book on Dante. Like Mimesis it is brilliant. Your project is appealing as all of these works are worth reading and rereading.

  13. Maybe after Auerbach we can all just plunge onward into Curtius. There is some logic to that. Stick with the German philologists.

    I assume that at least some of the ideas in Auerbach's Dante book reappear in Mimesis. But I don't know that.

  14. I second (third?) the recommendation of Victor Klemperer's diary. His Language of the Third Reich is also worth reading, especially these days.

  15. Yes, Klemperer's diary is great. I really respect how he hung onto his identity as a German, despite his society rejecting him in such a brutal way. And it's just a fascinating source on the time period.

  16. Regarding Auerbach and Dante, Chapter 8 in Mimesis, "Farinata and Cavalcante", goes into detail about a passage that is mentioned in Dante: Poet of the Secular World.