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Re-viewing the Canon

G.J.V. Prasad

By Rajiva Wijesinha
Foundation Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 217, Rs. 325.00


  This book is a collection of essays published in a Sri Lankan newspaper The Island as a weekly column. Written by the erudite and politically conscious Rajiva Wijesinha, the book is a delightful survey of twentieth century English literature. While he threatens/promises to locate his readings in contemporary Sri Lankan politics, we find that either he has edited them out of the book or that such anchoring was provided only now and then in the original columns themselves. So apart from a few stray references to a few politicians or to the Tigers the book gives us an individual’s view of writers who have impressed him over the years for many diverse reasons. This of course brings us to look closer at the ambiguous title—how does Wijesinha hope to discuss twentieth century classics through reflections on writers and their times without discussing other works including those by the writers themselves? How is he going to identify classics, and then how is he going to justify his choice in terms of other works by the same writer? Can’t a writer write more than one classic, whatever be your definition of the term? And how can one define ‘classic’, especially when talking about the twentieth century? The last quarter of that century saw complete decimation of the literary canon, the annihilation of the kingdom of Dead White Males, the recovery and restoration of various authors (mostly women), and the establishment of the worship of the popular. The last ensured that literary ambitions, rather academic ambitions to replace certain texts in the canon with others, or to introduce a self-critical set of values to evaluate the lasting impact of texts, or to write a different literary history (as opposed to histories of the book or print history) were all nipped in the bud. So a book like this, setting up or re-viewing a list of twentieth century English (from England) books calling them classics, and by a respected and politically active Sri Lankan scholar seems as astonishing as all Indian cities and roads being renamed after Britishers.   Having said that, who else but academics will share their list of favourite writers from any century with others and try to influence others with their arguments and readings to ensure that their taste in literary fiction finds takers among the public? Notice, I am leaving out ‘classic’ from the rhetorical question. ...

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