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The Cambridge Companion
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(-) : solid, nicely wide-ranging overview
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The Cambridge Companion to World Literature collects fourteen essays, presented evenly divided, seven each, in the two parts of the collection: 'Worlds' (in which the chapters: "raise general problems of conceptualization and interrogate some of the major frameworks and theorists in the field") and 'Practices' (in which the chapters: "work from particular genres, techniques, modes, and forms out to the configurations and networks of literary traditions and worldly institutions that these set into motion").
The purpose of this Companion is not to advocate for any particular model of the totality of verbal arts, but to enable readers to navigate the diversity of approaches to world literature so that they themselves might wield the critical possibilities these make available.In the first essay, Timothy Brennan considers 'Cosmopolitanism and world literature', which helpfully already offers at least something of a counter-story to the popular notion of Goethe as the starting-point for the concept of 'Weltliteratur', suggesting instead that it's Johann Gottfried Herder (who in any case pointed out the idea to Goethe ...) who is: "the true founder of world literature in its European guise'. If nothing else, it's a helpful shift away from too-common obsession with Goethe as some sort of starting point, and an overemphasis on his role and position in any discussion of notions of world literature -- Brennan reminding readers that, in any case:
for Goethe Weltliteratur is really about the creative process and artistic genius in a world of market forces.The spread and availability (or, especially, the lack thereof) of literatures is frequently alluded to throughout this volume, a relevant issue from many of the perspectives, including the essays on translation, Liz Gunner on 'Ecologies of orality' (noting oral literature is often pushed aside in discussion of world literature by: "the heavy weight of print"), and Anna Bernard's consideration of 'Nation, transnationalism, and internationalism'.
In 'Scales, systems, and meridians' Ben Etherington points to: "Martin Seymour-Smith's autodidactic folly Guide to Modern World Literature" (1973) -- and specifically its failures to see much beyond:
the works of European modernism that are his gold-standard. 'Arabic poetry', he states, 'has changed in form over the past hundred years; its content has remained consistently dull'. Together, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, whose modern literatures are 'exceedingly impoverished', need only a short paragraph.A dozen years on, in the 1985 'completely revised edition', Seymour-Smith still managed to get no further with this trio (or many of the other literatures in his chapter on 'Eastern Minor Literatures' (under which he also lumps Korean, Maltese (!), and Persian)). In considering (for all intents and purposes ...) only works available in English for my own The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction I was constantly reminded -- and I hope reminded readers often enough -- that what is available in English is, in many cases, not or barely representative of the actual literature of any particular country and/or language, especially in the case of languages (and types of fiction) that are particularly poorly represented in English (such as, as I have often noted, that from South East Asian). This difficulty of access (direct and indirect) leads to an overlooking of much of the wide field of actual world literature beyond the dominant languages -- though, one hopes, generally not quite as egregious as Seymour-Smith's example -- and while the Companion does lean heavily on English-speaking-reader-accessible-texts and examples, there are at least reasonable reminders of some of what (and, indeed, how much) lies beyond.
So too, Chris Andrews points out in his piece on 'Publishing, translating, worldmaking', the kind of foreign literature available in English already gives a fundamentally different sense of 'world literature' than it might in other languages, as: "the proportion of literary to commercial titles is much higher for translations into English than for translations from English, which are dominated by mass-market fiction".
In ranging fairly far and wide with their examples, the pieces in this Companion at least largely avoid the Euro-/Anglo-centric blinders that still affects much discussion of world literature. Of course, a volume like this can only go so deep; still, the effort at inclusivity, in all respects, is admirable, especially in looking beyond the obvious (as, for example, Pascale Casanova's market-centric The World Republic of Letters -- a work that, unsurprsingly, is frequently mentioned and discussed -- does), with separate pieces not only devoted to oral literature, graphic works (Charlotta Salmi on 'The worldliness of graphic narrative'), and cinema (Keya Ganguly on 'World cinema, world literature, and dialectical criticism') but also (writing-)scripts and systems, as in Sowon Park's quite fascinating consideration of 'Scriptworlds'. So also, while the discussion of world literature is often novel- and epic-focused, Shital Pravinchandra usefully looks into the 'Short story and peripheral production' (surveying also the conditions in which short story production (and consumption) thrives), while Boris Maslov reaches far back in considering 'Lyric universality'.
Many of the pieces focus on specific examples (texts, works) at greater length, using them as case studies: so, for example, in considering 'The novel and consciousness of labour' Neil Lazarus takes a closer look at, among others, Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone Upon Stone, while Chris Andrews' piece focuses on works (César Aira's Ema the Captive) and authors (Roberto Bolaño) he's translated and written about elsewhere. While the examples, and the discussions around them, are often interesting, the balance between the more general wide sweep of the pieces and such specifics proves a hard one to strike and doesn't always work well, especially given the limited space each author has (the pieces are all of roughly the same length, generally around fifteen pages).
The Cambridge Companion to World Literature helpfully pushes the boundaries of any idea(s) of 'world literature' -- and, usefully, does so from a variety of angles, as it were. As the Introduction makes clear, there's no ambition to be comprehensive here; instead, the Companion presents a variety of perspectives and foci, and usefully projects beyond them, making for a nicely wide-ranging starting point; the bibliography of Further Reading provides a useful overview of more in-depth coverage of the subjects already addressed, while there are also sufficient pointers to territories beyond.
'World literature' should be, in every respect, far-reaching, and the Companion does manage to reach quite far. Obviously academic -- this is a scholarly collection, and written by specialists (almost all of them with university-positions) -- and thus tending towards to the academic in its focus on theory (and, often, in the prose). Nevertheless, it is accessible, and interesting enough, to hold some appeal for the more casual reader who is thinking about different aspects of and openings to a greater world of world literature. With perspectives and foci that should help expand even casual readers' horizons, in what they think of and look to as far as 'world literature' goes, it's a worthwhile collection: part of the appeal of 'world literature' is in giving the reader new experiences of reading, from subject-matter to form, and this collection can certainly help point readers to what more lies still beyond, and why it is of value and interest.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2019
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