Tuesday, 3 June 2014

English and French at Warwick - The Literature Highlights

Having now completed my English and French degree, I thought it would be fitting for my next post to be a list of the Top 10 most memorable reads from my time at Warwick. So, without further ado, here they are:

1. City Gates by Elias Khoury is a post-modern novel depicting the civil war in Beirut. As the 'stranger' protagonist re-adjusts to the city after a bombardment, Khoury contorts and manipulates language to evoke the confusion and disorientation caused by a bomb blast, where the city becomes unrecognisable. City Gates is a fairly short novel but is nevertheless challenging as the reader is thrust into the state of bewilderment felt by the character. I felt great satisfaction in decoding Khoury's poetic use of symbolism - the novel really is a strikingly written piece of prose.

2. The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax (pseudonym of Salam Abdulmunem) is a collection of blog posts by the once anonymous Iraqi blogger. Blogging about the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the West, Pax bluntly and unforgivingly wrote almost daily accounts of the lead up to and experience of the invasion from an Iraqi perspective, contesting the Western rhetoric of the war. The Guardian eventually located the blogger and Atlantic Books published a collection of his posts in a book format. This text has certainly added a new dimension to my perspective on literature, blog writing, and politics and I would recommend everybody to read it. (He still publishes online too!)

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë needs no introduction. The tragic love story of Heathcliff and Catherine is the book that sparked my love of English literature and I needed no convincing to re-read it for my degree.

4. La Peste by Albert Camus is a twentieth century classic. The city of Oran, swept by the plague, is closed off from the rest of Algeria as its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves. Set in the 1940s, La Peste metaphorically represents the French resistance to the Nazis and is an allegorical depiction of the human condition; an exploration of human relationships, dependency, corruption and ultimately, strength. There is a profound depth to the way in which Camus writes which makes him without doubt my favourite French author and alongside La Peste I'd recommend anyone to read L'Etranger.

5. Lignes de Faille by Nancy Huston opens with the narrative of Sol, an egocentric, sexually perverse six year old child who is aroused by images from the Iraq war of dismembered limbs and abused children. The shocking opening part makes for uncomfortable reading but the narrative perspective is somehow endearing. The next three parts are narrated from the childhood perspectives of Sol's father, grandmother, great grandmother respectively. As the novel progresses we learn more about the traumas the family has suffered, and how such traumas are inherited by the next generation, culminating in Sol's perspective. This novel is a truly innovative and original depiction of the enduring consequences of the loss of identity caused by war.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is a must-read. Telling the story of the Buendia family who live in the village of Macondo, Marquez writes a politically engaged novel in the magic realist style for which he is renowned. Time is suspended, human life is extended, reality is contorted and the fantastic is ordinary. There are so many layers to this novel that each time you read it you discover something new.

7. The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh depicts the social, political and personal landscape of a Lebanese family in the midst of civil war. Zahra is beaten as a child by her father because of her mother's infidelity, causing her to withdraw into her shell and become self-destructive as she grows up. When she falls in love with the lone rooftop sniper this self destruction reaches its climax as al-Shaykh provides a social commentary on the futility of civil war and the way in which the political and personal are so fully enmeshed. The 'Scars of Peace' that mark Zahra's body are the result of not just political violence, but the violence suffered in the familial sphere; the novel shows that even in times of 'peace', wounds are made.

8. Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the flooding of Washington DC as the seemingly indestructible superpower that is the United States of America is forced to acknowledge the consequences of climate change. The first part of a trilogy, this novel engages with the way in which climate change has been absorbed into political rhetoric and has become a part of our perception of normality. Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is that it narrates a story that is entirely plausible.

9. La Possibilité d'une île by Michel Houellebecq is a controversial text envisaging the decline of civilisation caused by the narcissistic, selfish, promiscuous modern day citizens who donate their DNA to the Elohimite religion in the hope of attaining immortality. Through a dual narrative which alternates between the diary of the modern-day Daniel and his neo-human clone, Houellebecq depicts the direct evolutionary consequences of a hedonist, immoral way of life. Echoing the post-apocalyptic state of Atwood's Oryx and the Crake but in a more overtly critical presentation of contemporary French society, Houellebecq is explicit in every detail of his presentation of the human condition, sometimes uncomfortably so.

10. NW by Zadie Smith is a story about growing up in a council estate in north west London. Drawing on topical issues of knife crime, university education and the challenges of adulthood in twenty-first century society, Smith composes four formally innovative parts in the novel which narrate the lives of her four protagonists. The prose is fractured and disjointed as the syntax evokes the disjuncture the characters feel in their adult lives. At times the dialogue between the characters is so cold and empty that it is somehow overwhelmingly abounding with feeling. NW is a challenging novel that isn't an easy bed-time read but its originality is what makes it so compelling.

From Zola to Beigbeder, Austen to Atwood, the list could go on and on, but those ten texts are certainly the ones that have shaped my literary tastes over the past four years.

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