I did not major in English or Literature. My English subjects in college consisted of the required Communications I to III. My grades in those subjects? Just a little over the passing mark, haha. I had one other subject, Humanidades I, where we briefly tackled the merits of Literature and its place in the history of mankind. There.
Early in my college, I was aware that other students had higher English subjects, English 5 among them. English 5’s textbook was called Prism. Prism, if I remember correctly, discussed the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera, among others. During class breaks, I would see those students in the hallways with their copies of The Brothers Karamazov, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. They appeared to be proud of what they were reading and I would look on and salivate, haha.
I so badly wanted to take English 5, too. But it was not in my checklist of courses. I checked and rechecked my curriculum to see if I could squeeze it in somehow, as an elective or a cognate. Tough luck, there’s no way I could pull off that trick easily. The goal would have involved not just lengthy negotiations with the concerned college authorities. It also demanded that I take three more subjects as prerequisites. I would have to do some magic realism myself to realize that ambition. I contented myself with a xeroxed copy of Marquez’s short story, Big Mama’s Funeral.
Years later, I would have my own money and eventually buy copy of those books and then some, by the same authors. I would also get the chance to read Kafka’s The Trial and The Metamorphosis, Sartre’s The Age of Reason and No Exit and Camus’ The Stranger and The Plague. In the mid-90s, a former teacher would introduce me to Ben Okri and his work, The Famished Road, a book that makes her swoon. Two years later, a friend would gift me with a copy of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and thus, begin my foray into the so-called Third World literature.
What did I think of their writings? I enjoyed Garcia Marquez’s creations, immensely. They are very graphic, intense and his characters are leaping out of the pages. The magic realism part bedazzled and confused me at first, but I eventually got the hang of it. His works are what I would call as manly novels, in the same league as Cervantes’ and Miguel de Unamuno’s. I was fascinated as well with Okri, his feast-like rendition of the ordinary street with its extraordinary casts – the peddlers, the loafers and the spirits. Dostoevsky’s work, I found to be dark and vaguely religious. Kundera’s writings maybe full of love, but the author’s too deep and intellectual for me.
Kafka and Sartre, I found too philosophical. I mean, existentialism was cool, back in my early college days. Then, you would hear fellow students discussing philosophy like they were neighbors with Immanuel Kant and Nietzche, went to the same university that Simone de Beauvoir did, and had a chat with Jean Paul Sartre – over a cup of coffee. I am not exaggerating, by the way. Such atmosphere was probably too much for my provincial sensibilities. The only reading materials lying around in our house for many years were old copies of Hiyas ng Wika (Gems of Our Language) I to IV and a dog-eared copy of Hardy’s Return of the Native, haha. I like Albert Camus’ works though, even as many consider Camus second fiddle to Sartre.
I had my fill of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters rather late – post-college, I think. I got to read the works of Edith Wharton first. I prefer the Wuthering Heights over Pride and Prejudice, I know not many do. Anyhow, those novels somehow imprinted in me things English – language, accents and ways. The speech and the manner of dressing of the men during the period (I think their manliness was exaggerated in the novels), the curls and the laces of the women (Errr, they had too much of them?) and the decors of the English living room – portray an emotional yet interesting era, that moves me, in many ways.
In my early 20s, I was reading a whole lot, the eclectic way and came across the works of the Russian authors – Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Tolstoy, I greatly admire for his wide compass. For me, his works painted the Russian landscape with all its tensions and nuances. I am not particularly fond of the character of Anna Karenina, I’ll skip the reason for now. At any rate, I just chanced by three of Gorky’s writings. I did not know then that he or his works, were political. Solzhenitsyn wrote long pieces like Tolstoy, definitely political. They were mostly about the individual’s sufferings and his struggles against the oppressive state. I recall suffering, too, while reading his novels, haha. Among his works, I remember the short ones. It’s Chekhov I like best, I think. His works are the ones I would go back to, from time to time.
It was also in my 20s that I came across some of the writings of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust (Remembrance of Things Past, abridged edition). Except for The Secret Sharer, I was not taken with Conrad’s writings, maybe because am not really fond of sea-voyage stories. Woolf’s novels were way beyond my league, I acknowledged early on. Virginia’s too intelligent and too upscale for me, I guess. But I would reread her essays every now and then, if only to be reminded of the depth of thoughts and feelings, a woman writer could have. Proust is highbrow reading as well, a male and different version of Woolf. His works, I found too Western for my rather Eastern and rural upbringing.
Earlier on, I had already come across the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Andre Gide and Ignazio Silone. I came across Brecht because I used to frequent The Goethe Institute, when the German Embassy was still in the New Manila area. I no longer recall how I was introduced to Gide and Silone, but I remember that their works are very interesting. Coming across the works of Kate Chopin, Willa Cather and Harper Lee must have been through my sibling, who studied their works at class. I like Cather’s novels, chiefly because they talk about the countryside. William Faukner, his works I read over a period of ten years maybe, beginning in the early 9os. His writings, getting progressively darker than the other, I suppose.
I really did not have a program for reading fictions. For a long time, I did not even know which works were considered classic, what genres they actually belonged to and who were the authors hailed as giants or awarded the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer. I just read and if I happened to like a work, I would list down the name of the author and look for his or her other writings in the library or the bookstore. In high school, we were introduced to only a few – Voltaire, Dante and Rossetti. That time, my favorite author was Pearl Buck. I didn’t know many others then. I knew Shakespeare as a name, but I only got to hear a bit about him when my teacher in junior year recited four lines from King Lear. I never really read any of his works until my nieces bugged me to please, please, write their book reviews.
Upon entering college and living in the big city, I was surprised to learn that my classmates who studied in preppy schools in Metro Manila, have already read the Pride and Prejudice, Death of a Salesman and Of Mice and Men. Some even boasted of having read the works of John Galsworthy, including the saga. At that time, my readings consisted of borrowed copies of the works of Richard Bach, Robert Ludlum and Margaret Atwood. On the formal side of things, I was then being introduced to the works of Charles Dickens, Henrik Ibsen and Ernest Hemingway plus The World’s Greatest Short Stories (this necessitated trips to the library’s reference section).