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Inmaculada Errea Cleix > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2003 | Pamiela

3.- The deep pool of ideas, a broad swimming pool of data

(...) Another piece of mischief occurred to Brigita. Several years ago the Basque Translators' Association and the Basque Autonomous Community Government began to publish a collection devoted to `Universal Literature'. With the hundredth title ready and another fifty knocking on the door, the collection is aiming to be a representative sample of universal literature, as the title itself clearly indicates, translated into the Basque language. It is possible to consult the list of authors, titles and translators that make up this collection on the Internet. Brigita counted the number of woman who figure among the writers selected for the collection, and came up with nine. In other words, nine percent. Brigita feels she is on the threshold of what Harold Bloom1, the author of the essay The Western Canon, christened `The School of Resentment'. That is how Bloom referred to "the critical mishmash made up of Marxists, feminists, devotees of diverse cultures, neoconservatives and neohistoricists" whose apparent symbol is, in his view, `the politically correct thing'. In order to oppose them, he took twenty-six authors, whom he felt were representative of western literature, and produced a western canon in his book. Brigita does not know whether Mr Bloom would send the results of her counting up venture to the School of Resentment, but four of the twenty-six authors are women: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Fifteen percent, to be exact.

Brigita finds it amusing to use numbers to specify a subject which has such unclear limits. The numbers emerging from the examples she has examined have, however, motivated her to go on with the game. Could adding up be an attractive idea? Of course it could: sixteen plus eleven plus nine plus fifteen. Fifty-one in all. Now divide it by four. Twelve point seven five. Is that the number which could represent the limited presence women have in literature? The temptation is too strong. Brigita has written: "If we take a sample of one hundred writers, we will discover that twelve and three quarters of them are women". But that is a joke which has no scientific basis, even though Brigita knows very well that a lot of research -the pieces of research that appear to be serious on the surface- is conducted on the basis of this method of getting figures to dance. Brigita has scribbled down this affirmation: "If we take a hundred writers, as a sample, we will find that twelve and three quarters of them are women". It was not valid. The fact is she came across other data -numbers- here and there, and they were all absolutely incompatible. In 1997, in the book Euskal Kultura Gaur (Basque Culture Today), Joan Mari Torrealdai has women writers accounting for eleven per cent of Basque writers. Torrealdai said, "The figure is not very high, (Ó) but it's the highest so far". In 2000, Mari Jose Olaziregi said in a paper 2 submitted in London that there were about 300 writers producing works in Basque and that 10% of them were women.

Brigita has not found out yet but the American Linda White has discovered that the number of women Basque writers is much higher: in the 20th century alone she counted one hundred and twenty-four.

Once again Brigita resorted to the encyclopaedias. And has found another aspect of the issue by the name of Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The husband and wife. Both were writers. A great romantic poet and the creator of the monster Frankenstein. How will an encyclopaedia that reflects the culture of these Anglo-Saxons treat these two? Will it treat each one differently? Let us see, said Brigita.

Mary's entry comes first in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It starts off with the usual details: date and place of birth and death (1797-1851, London), and then a brief explanation: "Writer, best known as the author of Frankenstein". After that whose daughter she was, because Mary had famous parents, the philosopher William Godwin and the suffragette Mary Wollstonecraft, and after that who she married: "She was the second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley." That is followed by a very strange sentence, which more or less says that Mary managed to satisfy, as far as a woman was able to, the obligations that the poet demanded of his wife. Brigita understood that, but it seemed so surprising to her that she wondered whether she knew enough English to interpret the sentence properly: "...and apparently came as near as any woman could to meeting his requirements for his life's partner...". The word Apparently also worried her. What does it mean? Did it appear to the author of the quotation that Mary genuinely did not manage to satisfy the poet's expectations? These expectations were very highbrow indeed. The encyclopaedia has summarised them in what could have been the poet's words: "one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy". Brigita is finding this task she has undertaken more pleasant than she thought it would be initially. Because it is nice to notice that a nineteenth century poet should appreciate such qualities in a woman. Able to feel poetry and understand philosophy. That's not a bad thing. But why are they referring to Shelley the poet, when the entry in the encyclopaedia refers to Mary? However surprising it may seem, it goes on in this vein. "After his death in 1822 she published his Posthumous Poems and edited his Poetical Works". So the efforts the wife made to get her husband's works published were apparently more important than those devoted to her own worksÓ Is that how Mary would have felt? Is that how she would have accepted it? It could be that Brigita remembered an idea that she had been turning over and over in her mind for a long time: the quality of women is to be at the service of others. Of course, she thought in any case, there was a difference when one tried to put oneself in Mary's shoes: even if one is at someone else's service, there is a world of difference between washing his dirty socks and getting his works published. But what comes after that has nothing to do with Mary's wishes. It must have been something directly connected with the authors of the encyclopaedia. Because it says her diary, in other words, Mary's (that her banishes any doubts about that) could not have provided a richer source to learn about Shelley's (i.e. Percy's) biography (Brigita receives confirmation from time to time that she is in fact in Mary's entry and not Percy's). Likewise, "her letters", which also means Mary's letters, is an essential resource for that purpose. We can only learn something about Mary's works when we read what followed these sentences that give us so much information on her husband, Shelley. Naturally, they start off by mentioning the famous Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus and then Valperga, which the critics regard as her best work. Then the rest are referred to briefly and then a few references on Mary's biography. A total of 41 lines, about half a column in the encyclopaedia.

Mary's entry is followed by the one on Percy Bysshe. Brigita glances at it first of all to see how much space it fills. Four columns. Not bad at all. Plus what comes in Mary's entry... (...)

(1) Bloom has aimed to put together a list of books which could be regarded as the symbol of Western culture.

(2) "Taking note of the fact that there are now some 300 writers in teh Basque language, their sociological features can be summed up as follows: 90% are men and only 10% women." Mari Jose Olaziregi: THE BASQUE LITERARY SYSTEM AT THE GATEWAY TO THE NEW MILLENNIUM 1st International Simposium on Basque Cultural Studies. 2000-06-30

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