Is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin deserving of canonical status?

Photograph: 'Parthenon, Greece Landmark/ Pexels'

The ‘Canon’ refers to the established body of literature formed by works regarded as: ‘timeless’, of ‘artistic merit’ an influence in shaping Western culture; and ultimately worthy of inclusion in a variety of academic syllabi.

Even though it is not wholly formalised, the authority of the Canon is the subject of continued condemnation. Critics such as Terry Eagleton view canonisation, not solely as an assessment of ‘value’, but as an instrument to assist serving “the ruling ideology”. Credence can be paid to this assertion. Indeed, the Canon has been largely dominated by white bourgeoisie males, a pattern which demonstrates an inability to “empathise across boundaries of cultural and ethnic difference.”

In many respects, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin reinforces such a tendency. Published in 1994, the social status of the author Louis de Bernières alone could determine whether his work is indeed deserving of canonical status. However, in assessing the extent to which literature is worthy of inclusion within the Canon, it is paramount to set aside the trivialities surrounding the author’s demographic. Instead, the sole focus should surround their ability to create a work that embodies the “fundamental truths of humanity”, whilst adding value to literary genres.

For literary works to be considered deserving of canonical status, they are expected to wield a “complexity of plot” and “ideas”. Yet, in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the plot of which the narratives centres is simplistic, reflecting the genericism of most romantic formulas: The “beautiful Pelagia and Antonio Corelli are two lovers whose relationship is threatened by circumstances beyond their “control”. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding this “passionate” yet “turbulent” coupling can be summarised by Pelagia’s lament of Corelli, in which she questions whether a “nauseous” Corelli is really “a victim as much as us”. Of course, emotive as this is, such an outburst simply reaffirms the “rude arrogance” and “unappealing pain” of the wartime circumstances that threatens their relationship.

Nevertheless, the theme of love, however, is where de Bernières demonstrates complex ideas with a sophisticated use of sub-plots conforming to the rigorous expectations of the Canon. Indeed, the notion of love is bound up heavily with the role of conflict and is explored in a variety of forms through an epistolary structure and first-person narrative to create what Richard Eder has called “an exuberant jumble of a novel”. Aside of the conventional romance between Pelagia and Corelli, we learn from Carlo Guercia’s letters in the chapters L’Omosessuale “the value of love”, how even in the face of conflict “soldiers grow to love each other”- which suggest that man has the power to completely reject the dogma of war. This is, of course, an intricate idea, driven not a complex plot albeit, but a structured subplot and exposes how in the “darkest” of conflicts, a love of the fellow man can flourish.

Even though the main plot focuses on how the love between Pelagia and Corelli is threatened, the subplot and epistolary element explore a more fundamental issue: how loving is “the best thing about humanity” and it goes a long way to redeeming it from the “evils humans are capable of”. Therefore, certainly in relation to a “complexity of “ideas” and “plot”, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is more than deserving of canonical status.

Or, is it? Although the text, in some respects, exhibits the complexity of ‘valued’ text, the recurrent elements of political polemic ultimately prevent the novel from being “considered to be serious”, and thus deserving of true canonical status. Whilst typically regarded as falling into the genre of romantic drama, the text is overtly political and “inflated at times”, especially when portraying the “barbarian” ELAS through the lens of Mandras. Indeed, we witness-from the third-person perspective of a “frightened” Pelagia-the dramatic transformation of the once “rose-eyed” Mandras into the “overweight”, “communist guerrilla” who attempts to rape her. Such a portrayal does validate the author’s later comment: “they [ELAS] well versed in the arts of atrocity and oppression”.

However, the portrayal of Mandras as the “…savage/brute”, from the perspective of the third-person, is disingenuous and not as impartial as we would think. The portrayal of Mandras here reflects not an example of authorial ‘craftsmanship’, but rather a symbol of De Bernières’ anti-Communist sentiment. This is arguably where Captain Corelli’s Mandolin falls short of deserving canonical status. Works, that are considered of literary value are expected to embody “the universalising aims of great literature”, but in politicising the narrative, the novel resembles something of a polemic, “beneath serious study.”

Whilst the politicisation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may suppress its true value, through combining elements that are relatable to the reader, De Bernières has created a novel with “universal themes” which is undoubtedly deserving of canonical status. In respects, it is a comedy whilst resembling the character of a historical chronicle, espousing a narrative focused on real historical events whilst weaving in an element of humour for the entertainment of the reader.

Whilst arguably comic texts are “rarely accorded status”, the evident humour strengthens De Bernières’ moral message. The satirical character of Mussolini reinforces this view. Portrayed as a “ludicrous buffoon”, the moment he discovers the cat “SHAT IN MY HELMET”-shooting it and suddenly “feeling sick”-illustrates the absurdity of his megalomania. Whilst instilling hilarity, this theatrical display of horror and irony conveys a sense of disquietude as we witness the man powerful enough to query “…But why not take both Greece and Yugoslavia” and impose untold suffering in the name of war. Such a demonstration of both horror and irony without “seeming forced” demonstrates that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is far more explorative than a mere romantic drama. Indeed, It strongly conforms to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘polyphonic novel’, in which character’s voices predominate over authorial insight. Parting with the monologic narrator enables De Bernières to explore and convey with a range of voices, the “dilemmas of moral choices”, throughout combining elements of realism with the satirical. Crucially, one must remember that ‘timeless’ classics such as the works of Shakespeare were highly popular and while exhibiting many comedic aspects, were ultimately canonised due to their ability to discuss universal themes.

However, the use of language, which is expected to be complex, is where the novel fails to meet the requirements of a canonical text. De Bernières’ diction does not always demonstrate ‘elegance’, ‘beauty’ and therefore carry any ‘resonance’. In many instances they are simplistic, mostly resembling short sentences and this is particularly exemplified by the abrupt, mechanical speech of Mandras: “I suppose I don’t. Everything has become a dream. There is a veil between me and them”.

The frequent use of expletives “fu****g” and “s**t” during the monologues of both Mussolini and Corelli arguably erodes the value of the novel. Their coarse and abrasive connotations demonstrating not ‘beauty’, but rather a lack of ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘authorial control’. These are not only criticisms of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but arguably of comic texts and political polemic in general. There is a consensus that they often fail to meet the ‘universalising aims of great literature’, driven more by ideas that often dispose of complexity and beauty; components that ultimately constitute literary value. Whilst, de Bernières has arguably-through techniques such as subplots- demonstrate complexity of structure and ideas, this is not the case when it comes to choice of language which in order to meet the expectations of the canon should be “skilled in ways that other writers are not”, and this where Captain Corelli’s Mandolin ultimately falls short.

Yet, it is sensible to argue that although not “elegant” in many respects, de Bernieres’ use of language can at least be seen as “witty” and “patterned”, demonstrating that “authors are in command of writing”. This claim is particularly reinforced by John Mullan who describes de Bernieres as having crafted a text of “wit that is incandescent and overheated by turns”.

Whilst on the surface, the simplicity of short sentences such as “I suppose I don’t” may prevent Captain Corelli’s Mandolin from being considered deserving of canonical status, the skill that sets de Bernieres apart from other writers is his narrative variety and the range of different languages that help to create an understanding of human variety in the context of war. Indeed, not only do we experience a variety of different viewpoints, but we are immersed in a rich diversity of cultural languages which reflects the ‘mutual misunderstandings’ endemic in the chaotic nature of the conflict. This is exemplified through the language used in the discourse and subsequent confusion between both Dr Iannis and the Eton-educated agent. Forced to speak a Chaucerian “Sire of your gentillesse”, “by the level of yow wol I speak in pryvetee/ of certain thyng”, the simple monosyllabic “What?” of Iannis’ reply and his espousal of ungrammatical English (“you accent terrible-terrible”) demonstrates the power of language in creating a sense of incomprehension and lends verisimilitude to a narrative that aims to reflect the chaos evoked by war. So, whilst language may not be sophisticated, it is more than successful in reinforcing de Bernieres’ intentions.

For the most part, then, whilst Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may be distanced from some of the characteristics that determine a canonical text-such as a sustained level of complexity and elegance, ultimately the novel exhibits the ideas and delivery required to be deserving of canonical status. Undoubtedly, de Bernières succeeds in discussing ‘universal themes’ through his exploration of love, war and the nature of the human condition, which bestows his novel with the “qualities of durability” required of a canonical text. Additionally, the various narrative forms: satires, third-person narratives and letters,  reflect a range of viewpoints and this sets him apart from other writers, reinforcing the narrative to pose an answer to the universal questions he faces. Although the simplistic use of language and inclusion of satire arguably narrows the “sense of aesthetic”, it would be unjust to suggest that this text from the perspective of complex “ideas” is not “sublime and timeless”. Therefore, with this in mind, it is clear that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is more than deserving of canonical status.


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Oliver Murphy 24 Articles
Oliver is currently an A-Level Politics student. He is also a contributory writer, campaigner for MakeVotesMatter and Media Manager for DARROW. His work focuses on British politics, contemporary political events and European politics. Supplementing this is a passion for Literature and History.

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