I have a book called Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy which does what it says on the tin. It has ‘The Cossacks’ in it, which is my favourite shorter bits of his writing. This book was the first Tolstoy I’d ever read, and I loved it. The only trouble was the introduction by John Bayley: it utterly spoils a certain death in War and Peace. If you’ve read W&P you know the one I’m talking about, the big death. If not, I’m not going to repeat Bayley’s bastardry in needlessly saying who cops it.
I think I mentioned before that due to our superhuman reading load, in my M.A. Nineteenth Century Russian Novel class several people only learned of this and other deaths during seminars because they hadn’t managed to finish the books before then. Often a wail would go up when a death was casually mentioned: “What? Not so-and-so!” Most introductions to W&P also discuss the plot in detail, but they now tend to come with a spoiler warning at the beginning. And it is reasonable to assume that an introduction to War and Peace might contain such details. I’m reading Moby-Dick at the moment, and had to stop reading the Penguin Deluxe Edition’s foreword because of very detailed spoiling going on there – but I plan to go back and read the rest at the end.
The trouble comes when you’re reading something completely different, or only slightly related, in the case of the Bayley introduction. I think Bayley was probably justified in assuming that readers would probably start with War and Peace and then go on to Tolstoy’s shorter works, but this was still annoying in my case, as I hadn’t. Often, though, you come across utterly wanton spoilers in completely unrelated articles, when you have no possible warning that such a thing might occur. People blow plots willy-nilly. Sebastian Faulks was merrily spoiling a whole shelf of books on his tv programme last week: I had to stop watching it.
It’s difficult to say where to draw the line when it comes to the classics. Writers have to assume knowledge on the part of their readers otherwise the slightest inroads into culture would necessitate endless explanations of plots and characters from various sources, or alternately, endless warnings over possible spoilers to well-known plots in classics. Part of the cultural importance of the classics, and the idea of a literary canon, is that they create a common set of references that enrich both written and oral dialogue. Pop culture is largely taking over from other forms of culture in this respect: when I say “like that bit in The Simpsons …” I have more confidence that the another person will know what I’m talking about than when I say “like that bit in War and Peace…” although obviously it depends on who you talk to.
Actually – to digress – this is the main trouble with modern literary culture: it has become fragmented. Rick Gekoski made this point a while ago. You have to tailor your references to your partner in conversation. If I’m talking to a fellow survivor from Russian and East European Studies, I’ll say “like that bit in Oblomov…” whereas if it’s someone from English Lit it’s more likely to be “like that bit in Moll Flanders…” or, more realistically, “like that bit in Moll-sodding-Flanders…” There is no universal pool of literary references any more, it’s more like a literary puddle of famous bits of Shakespeare and things you did at school. The more universally-known stuff is on the telly (like that bit in Friends when Rachel spoils Little Women for Joey).
To veer back in the direction of the point: there is a balance to be had between assuming knowledge of widely-read books, discussing them, and spoiling the plots of the same. When a newly-written book is published, everyone goes out and reads it at more or less the same time. For a while people are mindful of the fact that not everyone might have read it, and withhold plot details just in case. But, apart from the odd flurry of reading when a new translation comes out, you don’t get the same sort of universal reading with the classics. The same books are largely still being read, but in an ever-diluted order, so you rarely find yourself on the same page as your friends. If I was American I might have read Moby-Dick when I was at school, and could therefore assume others knew it as well: but I’m not, so my experience of reading it is isolated. I can’t talk about plot details without sounding out who among my friends has also read the book first, otherwise references will be missed, the way the second harpoon hurled will often miss the whale and dangle on the line as an additional danger rather than a means of connection.
It’s easy to forget that no matter how long ago a book was written, it is still brand new to the person reading it for the first time. Needlessly spoiling this reading is a shame. While the fragmentation of literary culture means that the classics are no longer a part of common knowledge the way they used to be, what we’ve lost in common references we’ve gained in terms of the freshness with which we can approach these famous works.
Obviously some of the shock value of past things is irrevocably lost. No matter how much you pored over the exhibits at the V&A’s Ballet Russes exhibition, or no matter how well the Royal Opera House might perform it, you cannot recapture the feeling of shock at seeing the Firebird or the Rite of Spring when it was new. But a lot of classic literature doesn’t involve the same sort of diminished returns. The effect of that death in War and Peace is still as profound now as it was when Tolstoy’s first readers came upon it. I think refraining from spoiling the plot of these works is another way of keeping them current: it assumes they are still being read, rather than assuming they have been read. We need to find a way of integrating classic literature into the conversation without lessening the experience of actually reading the books, and thereby diminishing their freshness.