Lovely or pretentious?

Reading Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment In Love, came across this charming bit:

“She hummed to herself, spooning out instant coffee. The obvious bit of T.S. Eliot sprang to my mind.”

Which, y’know, I love, but honestly, is it perhaps a tad pretentious to have your narrator not only immediately associate Prufrock with caffeine, but to consider it obvious? (I mean, I am fairly sure I have had a similar thought, but between you and me, internet, I’m not sure it’s any particular virtue or useful life skill. Mind you, it does answer that great question posed by Avenue Q. In Mantelesque style we’ll refer to it as the ‘obvious bit’.)

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

7 responses to “Lovely or pretentious?

  • Sarah

    I think this is DIFFICULT becuase obviously when I am reading your blog I am possibly subconsciously LOOKING OUT for things that I associate with you. So possibly I would not spot TS Eliot references in the big wide world, but here I was like, “oh, the coffeee spoons!” And also, as you say, she points it out. I don’t think that coffee is WHOLLY THE DOMAIN of Prufrock, no. (Unlike PEACHES.)

    On the other hand, I BARELY LOOKED at the title of your next entry without immediately thinking of Seinfeld. Because ALL OF MY CULTURAL REFERERENCES revolve around Elaine Benes and I refuse to feel guilty about this.

    • clairehennessy

      Oh, god, peaches. They are not allowed to be eaten without Prufrock references. I mean, surely that goes without saying.

      And then later there is a bit in the book where she explains Malory Towers (only it’s misspelled as ‘Mallory Towers’, which I wish people would stop doing!) is a school story, and talks about a bit of Jane Eyre… what, Prufrock + coffee is oh-so-obvious, Blyton is obscure? What parallel universe is this?

      I am SO GLAD that you appreciate that. Because it saddens me that other people are not quite as fabulous as you and might go ‘oh, right, Seinfeld, that was kind of like Friends, right?’ which… just…. incoherence.

  • Margaret

    Yeah, I kind of got the Prufrock reference, but only after I reread it after the Prufrock reference was mentioned. Personally, I would find it…not necessarily pretentious, but a bit of a stretch to call that an obvious Prufrock reference. After all, measuring out spoonfuls of coffee isn’t so unusual an activity that it would automatically bring a poem to mind.

    Actually when I was at college and we were doing “The Wasteland”, our lecturer asked us in tutorial if we’d read any T.S. Elliot before and when most of us said yes, she asked what. When we said “Prufrock” she started laughing and said “is that on the Leaving Cert. course or something?” (which it was) “It wouldn’t exactly be one of his better known works.” So I’m thinking that if a lecturer in English didn’t think it that obvious that people would be familiar with the poem, then yeah, saying that a reference to coffee in it might be a bit of a stretch all right.

    • clairehennessy

      Really surprised that a lecturer would say that actually – it’s certainly the best known of his early work, and one of a handful of ‘obvious Eliot poems’ if such a thing does exist. (It wasn’t on the Leaving Cert when I sat it, either, though think it is still on whenever Eliot’s year to be on the syllabus rolls around?) Don’t think academically it’s viewed as a ‘lesser poem’ either, maybe in comparison to The Wasteland or The Hollow Men or Four Quartets, but, y’know, that’s splitting hairs a bit, isn’t it. 🙂

      But yes, it’s not an ‘obvious bit of Eliot’, is it? Unless of course there’s ANOTHER famous coffee reference in Eliot that I’m missing…. hmm….

  • Margaret

    Yeah, it seemed kind of weird that she was so surprised. Maybe just that everybody had read the same one? I don’t know. This was the old Leaving Cert. course with the same poems ever since the 1960s or something. Surprised she didn’t know it was on the course actually. She was only about in her late 20s or so, so you’d think she’d remember (or maybe it’s just I who remember details like that!)

    Elliot wouldn’t exactly be one of my favourite poets, actually. Prufrock is pretty much all I know. I’ve forgotten most of what we did of “The Wasteland”. I’m more into stuff like Yeats and Philip Larkin.

    Those Twitter accounts are rather amusing. I once found an account for de Valera on something. Facebook or Bebo or something. What was kind of weird was that it sounded really like him. Somebody put a whole lot of effort into it.

    And I should be correcting Junior Cert. pre History papers right now. I’ll get back to them in a couple of minutes.

    • clairehennessy

      I like Eliot a lot, which is part Prufrock and partly to do with the fact that at college when we had a Modernism course, his work made the course bearable (still shudder when I think of the rest of it though – just not my thing at all). But yeah, I guess it does depend on your own interests as well, there’s a whole load of stuff that one is ‘expected’ to know about and if it’s just not your thing then it’s not your thing. I am fairly sure I’ve come across tons of Yeats, and also that he was on at least one of my college courses, but honestly, Maud Gonne and cloths of heaven, basically all I know. And Larkin is one of those writers I know mostly through other writers’ references, so I get Larkin-as-filtered-through-Alan-Bennett, Larkin-as-filtered-through-David-Lodge, etc. 🙂

      I love the idea of Dev on Bebo, I have to say. It does seem like a lot of fun, though as you say, a lot of effort. (Mind you, might be something to try with the history class at some point…) 😉

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