Books Culture Ideal Reading Lists

A BA in 5 texts: the essential reading for a snapshot of an English degree.

An English Undergrad’s guide to compiling interesting multi-media research grounded in a study of Belorussian artist Marc Chagall.

As an Oxford English Student, the concept of a ‘reading list’ is integral to my degree. I constantly surf SOLO and JSTOR looking for the next pdf to download. However, I never really find this process to be particularly satisfying or even educational. I feel a reading list should aid in all-encompassing, holistic understanding of concepts- particularly for those studying humanities but also just for those of us trying to further our understanding of the vast realms of the human experience within academia. 

To illustrate how my opinion of the ‘ideal’ reading list works, I have chosen to provide a model of how to compile a reading list based on one subject. In this case, I have chosen the idea of the effect of World War Two on interpersonal relationships with a focus around communication and romance, particularly that of Artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella. I aim to adopt a representation of the Barthian ‘work’ the ‘growing organism’ that encompasses a creation. Using this template, pop culture and academia intertwine, Multi-Media and Literature create each-other and ‘reading’ becomes the act of experiencing utterances. 

  1. Burning Lights, by Bella Chagall, with Illustrations by Marc Chagall 

This novel is an incredible woman’s first person account of life growing up in pre-war Vitebsk, a Belorussian town with a thriving cultural scene. With Bella Chagall’s powerful yet gentle prose paired with Marc Chagall’s highly emotive and expressionistic illustrations, the understanding and collaboration between the couple becomes a maze of juxtaposition and loving elaboration. What shines through this novel is a sense of mutual artistic respect grounded in the couple’s shared experience of the Hasidic Russian-Jewish community and their warm reminiscence of this community’s beauty, light and charm which is now sadly extinguished. Their shared and separate memories combine to portray perfectly the meaning of individual subjectivity and interpersonal correspondence.

  • La Mariée, 1912, by Marc Chagall 

Next, is Chagall’s painting La Mariée, a depiction of Marc and Bella flying over their beloved town Vitebsk, married and in love. Chagall’s use of colour, shape and placement provide interesting reading material and require intimate investigation and thought. Love, here, is a combination of contrasting colour, a connection of shape and a face painted in an adoring glance. Bella is afforded her own autonomy in her gaze out of the painting, into the eyes of the onlooker. Their relationship is a combination of sensations, touch, sound, sight- with each represented on canvas, the visual page. This is a piece produced out of love, communication and shared history and meaning.

  • Notting Hill, written by Richard Curtis, directed by Roger Michell

Then, we run on over to the film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, a love story to love which features La Mariée as an important plot point. The two protagonists share a love of Chagall, and specifically this painting, which they feel pulls them together and acts as a cultural link between their two disparate existences. This culminates in Roberts’ character, an affluent actor, gifting the ‘real’ painting to Grant’s character, a very ‘low-key’ travel bookshop owner (and a hottie). This cultural exchange represents a very ‘postmodern’ transference and adoption of past themes and works. The painting is a simulation of itself, the past, love and the film itself- it offers new meaning and use to itself as a cinema-prop and acts within the propulsions of Grant and Roberts’ relationship. 

  • The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, by M.M.Bakhtin

This highly influential work of literary criticism focusses on how literature, specifically novels, are an exchange of dialogue, communication. Bakhtin argues that all writing is someone talking to someone, even if that person is themselves. Bakhtin briefly resided in Vitebsk with Chagall and the larger circle of creatives and free-thinkers focussed on German Philosophy and corresponding with structuralist studies of literature. Bakhtin worked on the side of imperfection, of multiplicity and language as ultimately protean. His theory focuses on duplicity, contribution and inter-communication and is easily read as a reaction to the tumultuous pre-war Russian cultural scene. How can language be singular under multiple governments, regimes and moralities all with different understandings of meaning? History informs intercommunication which informs writing, placing relationships at the forefront of creativity. 

  • The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, written by Daniel Jamieson, directed by Emma Rice

To finish the list, I chose this recently produced play, made as a collaboration between Wise Children and Kneehigh theatre companies and streamed for ease of interaction during lockdown. This play has only two characters, Bella and Marc Chagall, and uses 1930s music, the art of Marc and the writings of Bella, along with other theatrical conventions, to pull together a biography of the Chagall’s told by ‘themselves’. They are in constant monologue, talking out to audience but next to each-other- representations of their interiority told through accounts and speculation but ultimately heart-warming and with a feeling of authenticity. I’m particularly drawn to the song choice within this beautiful performance, ‘I’m making believe’ by The Inkspots, played by an onstage band, sung by the two characters in both French and English. Chagall is ‘Making believe’ that Bella is in his ‘arms’ and vice versa, a presentation of connectivity not unlike any of my aforementioned reading list. Human connection in opposition to and including distance seems to permeate all these forms of media and story-telling, pointing towards ideas of post-war grief, love as a connecting force among many more. Although these choices may seem disparate or wildly similar, I hope they offer a welcome model for research which spans time and medium, offering differing perspectives and forms. Research in itself is an artform of shifting understanding, branches on a tree which need to be painted with lush foliage to remain healthy. Maybe now you’ll have more confidence to ditch the typical cannon and embark on a natural journey through your chosen topic, offering academic validity to all forms of ‘reading’.

Do you want to be part of this series? We want to hear the 5 essential texts to your degree that anyone should read to start to get a diverse and intersectional approach to your subject. Contact Gaia Clark Nevola or Katharine Spurrier on Facebook or Oxford email to get involved.

Elena Trowsdale

Outside her degree Elena works for the BNC Arts Committee, enjoys playreading and painting. During lockdown she has cultivated a 5* Animal Crossing Island and spend many an afternoon walking in the woods.