A text cannot exist without a reader. This reflection is worth bearing in mind when we think about literature and particularly the internationalization of literature. If a novel were found, from the past, in a language no one knows, it would not exist as a novel. We would recognize that the signs on the page were probably writing, but unable to complete the act of communication that began with whoever set down those signs, we would have no idea whether this were a technical manual, or a history chronicle or a surreal account of space travel.
The novel comes into existence when someone who shares its language reads it. And that someone is an individual, holding particular opinions and attitudes that intersect with the novel in different ways. However stable and absolute a work of literature may seem sitting on its shelf in a bookshop, as soon as it meets a reader and begins to exist as a novel, or poem or play, its identity is extremely unstable. When we read a book from the past, some of the language may seem odd to us; some of the characters’ actions may seem improbable. We become aware how much times have changed. We are aware that this period is now admired for its enterprising spirit but condemned for its treatment of the poor. We read with a certain sense of superiority perhaps, or awe, or envy, or pity. From time to time we have to check a word in a dictionary, and then we realize how different it is to know and feel a word, because it is part of our lives, and to learn its dictionary definition. Each person brings a different competence to a work.
Is there an ideal reader who will fully grasp the author’s intended meaning? Does the author really know what he or she meant? Is literature really about meaning? Perhaps the one thing we can say is that the closer the reader is to the world in which the writer writes, the more context they share about daily life, about other books, about cultural behavior and beliefs, the more aware the reader will be of possible nuance, more likely to assent, but also perhaps to disagree. In short, the more our own experience and knowledge overlaps with that of the writer, the more intense our reading of the novel is likely to be. If I read about Dickens’s London, or Flaubert’s Paris, I accept their descriptions on trust. I presume their observations are generally accurate. I don’t argue with the book. If I read Martin Amis writing about London, I have a right to say, yes, that is exactly what London is like, or no, I’m sorry, London is not like that at all.