Essays Fiction 2009

The Beetle and the Teacup

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Image: Ward Schumaker

Ah yes. The “National Literature” ques­tion. Is there such a thing? Should there be such a thing? If not, why not?

Small nations are frequently told that nationhood is obsolete, at least in their case; whereas larger nations cherish and fortify their national boundaries, not to mention their national defense systems. If you want a world-class national literature, one wag is said to have quipped, get a navy.

Suppose you’re taking a test. You’re given a green beetle, a green spider, a red beetle, a green teacup, and a yellow plate. You’re told to divide them into groups according to their shared characteristics. You swiftly realize you’re in the realm of taxonomy—the science of classification—a discipline that has befuddled greater brains than yours. (Is a platypus a mammal because it suckles its young, despite the fact that it lays eggs?)

You have many choices. Should you put the two beetles together under “Beetle,” or should you class the green beetle, the green spider, and the green teacup together because of their greenness? Should you link cup and plate for being tableware? Do the beetles and the spider belong in a group called “Arthropods”? Or should you put the red beetle and the yellow plate into a brown-paper package tied up with strings, simply because they are a few of your favorite things?

The problems facing the concept “National Literature” are similar. What to put where, what to include, what to exclude, and why? But the adjective national won’t go away, because despite the shiftiness of such categories, every author was born somewhere, and where the infant scribe’s growth to writing age took place is not irrelevant. Books have their roots in the ground, and that ground, like the habitats of birds, is specific. There’s no floating island called No-Name, where a universal language is written and where national flags, national anthems, and national debts are unheard-of. True, you say. But there’s a lot of transplantation nowadays. Hybrids abound. Which is also true.

In his schoolbook, Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man writes a sequence known to many children who have done the same: his name, his class, his school, his town, his county, his country, his continent, “The World, The Universe.” We all live in all of those places. Which ones are definitive? Is Joyce’s novel a member of the class called “First Novels,” or is it a part of early Modernism? Does it belong in a box called “Dead White Males”? Is it a subset of “Irish Literature,” or of “English Literature” taken in the broad sense? Is it a world classic? The general answer is “All.”

But what if Joyce had been from India? What if he’d written a book called A Portrait of the Indian Artist as a Young Man, setting part of it in New Delhi and part in Dublin? Would this book too be classifiable as “Irish Literature”? Many books and authors now slide into and out of the old categories, and why not?

All very well, you may say; but the points at which this doubtless hoary old subject has practical consequences are those where “nationalities” intersect with university course lists and literary prize-givings. Who is eligible? This is a question far different from “What are your influences?” or “Which books do you enjoy?” Influence and enjoyment do indeed disregard national boundaries, just as they transcend gender, race, and time. But professors can’t teach everything, and judges must draw circles. They make choices, and all choices confine.

“Is there a national literature?” people ask me. “Sort of,” I reply. “But the boundaries are stretchy.” There are certainly books you can’t imagine being written anywhere else. In Canada, try Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, or Robertson Davies’s The Manticore, just for instance. For “English Literature,” consider George Eliot’s Romola, set in Florence, or Othello, set in Venice, with not one Englishman in sight: both are unmistakably part of “English Literature.” Then there’s Joseph Conrad, a Pole-turned-English-novelist. What of him?

Nations can’t be ignored as factors, but they don’t define everything. The green beetle can be both green and a member of the coleoptera, just as a writer such as Melville can be a world traveler and influenced by the German Romantics, but also the author of a book that forms one of the gigantic foundation stones of “American Literature.”

“Do you identify as a woman, or as a writer?” I’ve been asked. “A North American? A Torontonian? An environmentalist? A poet, or a novelist?” As if we were so divisible.

“All, all,” I say. And so much more besides.

Margaret Atwood has written many books, including the novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, forthcoming in September.
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