Every year, Tim Parks sends a number of his Italian students in the Masters in Translation program at IULM University, Milan to England on an exchange. Years ago they would take general courses in English and American literature; then it was post-colonial literature; now they study “world literature.”
Looking at the reading lists, which range far and wide chronologically and geographically, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ernest Hemingway, the Tale of Genji to Jorge Luis Borges, it is hard to imagine how a strong sense of context can be built up around any of the individual works. Or rather, the only relevant context is the human race, planet Earth, post 5000 BCE, circa.
The stress will be on the essential and universal rather than the local and accidental; the subtext, as David Shields insists in a recent polemic on contemporary fiction in Little Star, that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.”
But does he? Or she?
For most of us, the set of behaviors we call personality, or self, forms initially in a family of three, four, or five individuals, then develops as it is exposed to the larger worlds of school and, in our teens perhaps, our town, our country. The richness of our individual personalities is a measure of the complexity of the relations that sustain us. A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.
Read the full critique at The New York Review of Books …