Dear Associates,

I am the literary critical detective.

In my work I examine the mise en scene of classic detective stories carefully, paying attention to the smallest metaphorical detail, sifting through the facts and then distorting them according to my whim.
My friends have been kind enough to express some interest in my observations and so to this end I am making this journal available. I hope that you might also find it of some interest.

The Literary Critical Detective.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Literary Critical Detective on Trains

My work as the Literary Critical Detective normally requires me to sit patiently and quietly, here, in the study, surrounded by my scribbled notes, the amber glow of my lamp and the smell of old books. However, over the last two weeks I have been forced to leave my room and travel. More specifically, I have had to take the train. I have spent days dashing across concourses to make connections – an act in which I have taken a curious kind of pleasure, and which I have interpreted as simply another version of the Literary Critical Detective’s work.

I made use of the time to read. Despite the purposefulness of my journeys these trips have actually taken me away from my planned reading trajectory. I sat and read Virginia Woolf’s masterful novel Mrs Dalloway, a text that is itself more concerned with planes and omnibuses than trains.

Françoise has insisted that such journeys are pointless. She begrudgingly waved me off one morning whilst muttering about the number of books that I already owned and the impossibility of needing any new materials.

For my part, I have always enjoyed train travel. In an instant I feel like all those literary characters. Remember that Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson are always jumping onto trains and heading out of London at a moment’s notice. 

And so I have begun to think about the best ‘train’ scenes in literature. Here are some of my favourites. What are your favourite ‘train’ scenes or novels? (Comments below are welcome).

1. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina – this novel begins and ends with wonderfully moving train scenes.

2. Marcel Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe – in this novel Mme Verdurin’s social circle travel by train to her house for the summer season. Here, the train carriage itself becomes a salon on rails.

3. Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express – a wonderful mystery whose action and detection works its way through private carriages and public cars alike.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

On not setting myself ‘reading goals’.

I have never set myself ‘Reading Goals’ – you know the kind of thing: ‘I will read 50 books this year’; or, ‘I will read 25 “classics” this year’.

Many other readers do and I am not criticising them for it. I am glad that those readers are reading so voraciously.

The reason I do not approach my own reading in this manner is that it presupposes I have a certain number of set outcomes that I wish to achieve. It presupposes that I know in advance what I want to find in the chosen texts and that I will, without question, find it there. The novels piled up before me have, as it were, made plain their meaning to me in advance.

At worst, this attitude to reading threatens to turn a careful and attentive approach to meaning into an exercise in which you simply place ticks on a kind of cultural checklist. (Although it doesn’t do this as a matter of course.)

In my work as the Literary Critical Detective my approach to reading is not without purpose. Far from it. In each of my 'cases' I solve literary-critical mysteries that were not even mysteries. I can only do this through a structured response to image and metaphor. However, I am happy to pursue the vicissitudes of study.

An example of my reading: at the beginning of 2011 I reread the first half of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-8), a text that I had first read in its entirety 13 years earlier. Once I’d reached the half way stage in this miraculous novel, and Clarissa herself had been firmly established in London, I put the book down and picked up another – namely, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. This in turn caused me to return to Freud and then, in a sharp turn, to read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf

Those of you who kindly pay attention to my scribbled thoughts will know that I have written of ‘readingtrajectories’. Now that I think about it, I find this term uncomfortable. It lacks the appropriate level of uncertainty. Perhaps I can only know in which direction I am travelling but not exactly where I am.

At the moment I do not know entirely know where I am. I have lost my book mark. However, I do know where I am heading. When I have finished reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment I will read:

Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot quitte la scène (Librairie des Champs-Élysées).
This is the French language translation of Agatha Christie’s Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. I shall read the two texts (original and translation) alongside each other, with a French-English dictionary to hand.

I then expect to read:

Albert Camus, L’étranger.

However, we shall see.