By Kate Camp
Penguin, NZ$29.95 | Reviewed by Andy Armitage

Kate’s Klassics arose from Kate Camp’s discussions with Kim Hill on their monthly Radio New Zealand programme, and offers an engaging survey of ten classic works of literature that have had a profound impact on Western culture and sensibility, ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular work, giving a brief overview of its significance, plot, and characters before going on to consider the peculiar responses each text provokes. What sets Kate’s Klassics apart from less satisfying overviews of canonical literature is the unapologetic bias of its author. Anyone who has already encountered Camp’s essays will not be surprised by the agreeable blend of intelligence, research, anecdote and humour she brings to her subject.

In her introduction Camp claims “to do no critical reading or research, to ignore the books’ cultural and scholarly baggage, to come to [the texts] with blithe and salutary ignorance”. Despite this, she manages to sneak in a few contextual references, such as the autobiographical information about Dickens she uses to support her assertions about the authentic feel of David Copperfield’s childhood scenes. But Camp’s research is merely anecdotal and the cultural and historical information does not bog down her analyses. Kate’s Klassics is more concerned in describing the relationship of its author and the texts she explores, than in justifying some hermeneutic agenda.

Camp brings a modern sensibility to her subjects, often describing the texts in cinematic terms, and this allows her to draw some eclectic parallels. She describes “the ‘lustrous goddess’ Calypso” in The Odyssey as “a glistening nymphomaniac, an ancient-Greek Pussy Galore to our hero’s James Bond.” And considers the synchronous character relationships in Eliot’s Middlemarch make it “the ultimate literary soap opera”. Camp endows Tolstoy’s War and Peace with documentary-like realism and in considering a scene in Moby Dick, she remarks: “Homoerotic nautical imagery would not reach such giddy heights again until the Village People released ‘In the Navy’.”

At times Camp is clearly playing for laughs but usually her humour lends some peculiar insight. In her chapter on the Old Testament, for example, she observes that:

It is philosophically paradoxical: its central figure is an all powerful god who spends most of his time warning people not to worship wooden gnomes.

Camp reviews the poetry contained in the ‘Song of Solomon’ as though it had only just appeared on New Zealand bookshelves:

‘Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep’ is unlikely to make it into a Hallmark card anytime soon, but it is easy to see why the less obscure passages of the Song of Solomon are popular at weddings.

Camp is respectful of the literature she reviews but is unflinchingly partisan in her responses. Such as in her reaction to Jayne Eyre’s Helen Burns:

I have to admit, I’m never sorry when Helen goes down with the disease; I’ve always found her calm self-sacrifice and Christian certainty rather irritating.

Even when Camp cannot provide a reasonable argument to justify herself she is reassuringly human:

Heathcliff is a rapist, a bully, a kidnapper, a wife-beater and quite possibly the world’s worst father. He is also, despite my best efforts to grow out of him, irresistibly sexy. I still want to marry Mr Darcy, and Middlemarch’s Will Ladislaw looks great in a long maroon coat, but I’d give them all up to be tearing Heathcliff’s hair out on one dark and stormy night.

Occasionally Camp could be accused of trivialising the texts she considers, but there is something refreshingly audacious about her unfettered criticism of these canonical works. Rather than utilising some literary theory to unlock the texts' meaning Camp describes her intuitive, emotional, and intellectual responses as a woman and as a human. Camp is similarly unabashed in her enthusiasm for the texts she considers, and describes her usual reaction to Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as follows:

When I get to this point in the novel I always feel like punching the air, high-fiving and doing a victory dance in a most un-Jane-Austen-like way.”

And when Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine De Bourgh to get stuffed, Camp exclaims: “Ha! Take that you old bag!”

Camp describes Pride and Prejudice an old friend (‘Pride and Prej’) and the chapter devoted to this novel is a good example of the authentic simplicity of her approach:

The pleasure we get from Pride and Prejudice is better likened to the pleasure we get from a familiar piece of music; the way it always draws us forward and knocks us back, offering satisfaction and then withdrawing it; the way different themes and refrains are repeated, leaving us with a delicious sense of rightness when the final, conclusive notes are struck.

Here Camp offers a satisfying description of how a plot-driven novel’s familiar terrain can be enjoyed over and over again.

Camp ignores the epic drama and violence in The Odyssey, in order to focus upon the poem’s preoccupation with sensuality, noting how the most elaborate scenes are brought down to earth by mortal needs such as food and rest. And Kate’s Klassics is itself a kind of Odyssey in establishing Kate Camp as a heroine of the essay genre, and in bringing its subjects safely back home, to the place they set out from, their reader.