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Ex Libris

March 23, 1986|ROBERT S. KINSMAN | Kinsman is professor of English at UCLA and a reader at the Huntington Library. and

In one of her novels, Nadine Gordimer has her hero encounter for the first time a complex attitude that he is soon to recognize as familiar among South Africans, "an unexpressed desire to dissociate themselves from their milieu, a wish to make it clear that they were not taken in, even by themselves." It is a post-colonial attitude, similar in a way to what I have heard Canadians complain about in themselves. I bring it up because it raises a crucial point skirted in Margaret Drabble's otherwise judiciously comprehensive and beautifully compiled fifth edition of "The Oxford Companion to English Literature," published last fall to universal and well-merited acclaim.

The fifth edition holds to a criterion introduced in the fourth, by which coverage accorded "foreign authors" in the "Companion" is not made to reflect "any scale of merit which would satisfy students of those literatures" but simply the extent to which they are followed in Britain.

There was a time when "foreign authors" who happened to write in English measured their own importance on just this scale, but that time is past in the United States and, more important, it is passing elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Will a sixth edition of the "Companion" finally take this change into account?

Alison Lurie, a vigorous and brilliant American writer of the '60s and '70s (not to mention the first lustrum of the '80s) is given 11 lines in the Drabble Fifth because "her ironic detachment and sense of social nuance" have won her warm acceptance in Britain. Her niche is a bit larger than that assigned Kurt Vonnegut or John Barth, the latter "admired more in (U.S.) academic circles" for an "inventiveness and wit . . . than in Britain." Her coverage is the same given Carson McCullers and Bernard Malamud, greater than that accorded Eudora Welty (who is not listed at all!), less by half than that provided Norman Mailer, less by 27 lines than that granted John Updike, yet greater by three lines than that furnished John Cheever!

Most American readers will recognize a certain distortion in this treatment of U.S. literature, and that distortion is matched or surpassed by the "Companion's" treatment of "Commonwealth literature." The apparently reasonable disclaimer that there has been "no attempt made to provide comprehensive coverage of Commonwealth literature, although many individual new entries have been added," no longer quite suffices to justify the "Companion's" piecemeal approach. The trouble is that Drabble draws so freely on the embarrassment of riches that is to be found in other national literatures in English. She includes so much that she makes us demand more.

We find, for example, as first-time or greatly expanded entries, those for the African writers Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. But where is the Amos Tutuola so enthusiastically received in the '50s? There are entries for the Australians Christina Stead and Patrick White. But where is A. D. Hope or Judith Wright? The expatriate New Zealander Fleur Adcock is listed; her countryman Janet Frame is not. The South Africans Roy Campbell, W. C. F. Plomwer, Athol Fugard and Nadine Gordimer are included, but the powerful J. M. Coetzee is omitted.

Among Canadians, amazingly, only Margaret Atwood is mentioned. (Brian Moore, nicely acknowledged, is presented as of international literary citizenship, Northern Irish by birth, Canadian by citizenship, an adopted American by residence, seeking his artistic inheritance abroad.) Where are Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies? Can they not have cracked the British shell? O Canada, indeed, who stands on guard for thee?

In short, as we sense the implications of the voluntarily, eclectically expanded contents of Drabble's Fifth, as we note its generous acknowledgement of the fact that post-war Britain has been a literary haven for many Commonwealth-born, we hunger for a wider outreach to writers of all literature in the English language, whatever the local idiom. We would have from this judiciously comprehensive work better, more important signals of the state of English literature worldwide. We want it to become not just a splendid vessel but the flagship of a new and expanding fleet.

There are signs that the time has come for such a distinction. As sister ships of the line, we see at anchor James Hart's "Oxford Companion to American Literature," itself in a handsome and recent fifth edition; the recently issued "Companion to Canadian Literature" of William Toye, replacing an older Oxford companion that combined Canadian history and literature; and the Wilde-Hooten-Andrews Australian Companion, launched within the last year. Can no mutually intelligible code of signals be developed among them? Or is each to ship all the others, as the English companion does, to the extent that they are followed in the title country?

The alternative, of course, is a summary, world-in-English volume, the volume that Drabble's Fifth already is straining to become. Let the lively acknowledgement of English interest in Commonwealth writers, whether in exile or safe at home, lead on to a still wider acknowledgement of the spread of "English" literature. Let the implications be carried to their logical conclusions. It must be so if the pride of the Oxford University Press is to live up to its proud title and not settle merely for The Literature of Little Britain.

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