A labour of love

2012-11-21 00:00

TO spend your retirement writing a book covering 1 000 years of the subject you have spent your working life teaching, suggests it must be a labour of love.

And that is exactly what Peter Strauss, who taught English literature at the then University of Natal in Durban for over 30 years, has done. He says he started toying with the idea around 15 years ago, but has really worked on it for the past five.

The result is From Beowulf to Prufrock, which the author describes as “a guide for the curious and exploratory reader”.

Expanding on that, Strauss talks about three groups of people who would find his book particularly useful: keen pupils at high school or university students who want to read beyond their syllabus; teachers who could find in it background to the period or books they are teaching, and the general reader with an interest in literature and the arts, and the influences that produced them.

The length of the book — over 900 pages — might seem daunting, but the style is easy and approachable, and it is designed to be read in sections. If a reader is interested in the Romantics, or Shakespeare and writers of the Renaissance period, or 19th century American writing, they can turn to that part of the book, read about the historical background and then consider examples of the writing that emerged from it.

I had to ask Strauss: does he really think people now, in 21st century South Africa, read some of the writers he talks about, including the 15th century French writer, Francois Rabelais or John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress? Strauss looks at me with surprise. “Well, I do,” he says. “And they are important in the development of literature.”

It is obvious Strauss sees history as a vital key to understanding writing.

“Profound historical changes change people’s outlook on things, give them new ways of seeing. Great artists and writers are very conscious of this, even if they don’t analyse it. They are able to create forms that would enable them to come to grips with what was happening around them. Shakespeare was aware of the growth of a mercantile civilisation and he asserts human values against that. At the time, maybe people wouldn’t be able to articulate why they were doing what they were doing. And the reasons they gave wouldn’t have been the reasons we would give,” he says.

The importance of understanding the conditions that give rise to the art is one of the reasons that Strauss ends his overview of English literature with T.S. Eliot — it might seem an arbitrary place to stop.

“I wouldn’t have the authoritative sense to say thi


is the important historical movement or work at that particular time,” says Strauss. “Eliot and the Modernists were a watershed moment. The Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century were as important in the history of art as Renaissance painters. What has come next hasn’t settled down yet.”

And so he will leave that to the judgment of history.

It is an approachable book, not dogmatic, but Strauss is not afraid of giving his opinion — he has his likes and dislikes, including reservations about the 18th century and the Enlightenment, saying the writers then were limited to the practical and anti-Utopian, unlike the Romantics who came after them. He often talks about “serious” art and writing, and I query this. After all, a lot of what we might call “serious” writing now was considered as popular fiction when it first appeared.

Strauss agrees with that, but says the honesty of a great writer shouldn’t be brought down to the level of happy endings, or added horrors.

“People sometimes think about writing as if it were an offshoot of things like Hollywood, part of the entertainment industry. It should be more.”

He talks about Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the building of a 12th century cathedral in England.

“I found it a bit of a disaster,” he says. “Follett’s historical research was wonderful, but his story diminishes it.”

Strauss disagrees strongly with writing that has constantly to entertain the reader with salaciousness or violence. “There are plenty of jokes and violence in Shakespeare, but there’s more.”

I feel a little nervous asking Strauss what he reads for relaxation, in case it is only Rabelais and Bunyan. But he is a fan of John Le Carré and American writer Richard Ford — though he does admit he is also reading Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the one Shakespeare would have used. Strauss is very obviously a serious reader, and his book is an approachable introduction to English literature for those who wish to follow in his footsteps.

• From Beowulf to Prufrock by Peter Strauss is published by Solo Collective. For more information, e-mail straussp@eastcoast.co.za

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