Tuesday, June 2, 2009


On Facebook I got tagged with a task: list the 15 books you find to be the most memorable. Not necessarily ‘the best’ or ‘the greatest,’ but the books that stayed with you. The ones, as I understood it, that marked you, made you a certain kind of reader. For fb, I simply listed the books, but here I’d like to spell out a little bit what the experience of reading these books meant, and to that end I’m presenting them in the order of my first readings, more or less, so that what emerges is a bit of a bildung, or educational development through a sequence of discoveries. And, as discoveries, I’m unapologetic about the fact that these are all literary texts. Books about science or history, to me, are books about things as they are or were; one reads them to learn something. Books of argument are likewise for the development of thought and knowledge. But literary texts are experiences, and it’s as experiences that I value them.

1. Alice in Wonderland (1865) / Through the Looking Glass (1871) -- Lewis Carroll (British)
This is the book I most readily associate with childhood, with the kind of humor, whimsy, wit, and sense of the fantastic that I’d claim as part of my own make-believe and which, as rendered by Lewis Carroll, stayed with me through adulthood -- as witnessed in my unflagging love for Monty Python’s madcap antics, in my joy at Finnegans Wake’s verbal pyrotechnics, and in my sense that the best books should include narrative, poems, jokes, talking animals and objects, and amazing pen and ink drawings. Whether reciting ‘The Walrus and The Carpenter’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ or ‘Jabberwocky’ to bewildered children, or reading this book aloud, as I have done for younger brothers, daughter, other people’s children, I remain a devotee of Lewis Carroll’s peculiar imagination. I think it’s because this book so resourcefully played hide-and-seek with the conventions of genteel children’s fiction, while remaining genteel children’s fiction, and yet something so much more (‘go ask Alice’) that the book stayed with me, indelibly, from about age 12 or so. I read them in an edition with both books, and here’s a case where I think the sequel is at least as good as the original.

2. David Copperfield (1850) -- Charles Dickens (British)
Dickens, for me, is forever the novelist of early adolescence and no one will ever take that mantle away. The starting place of my love for the English language is Victorian prose, but not just Victorian prose -- Dickens’ Victorian prose. No one does it like Dickens, no one writes prose so enjoyably read aloud, so full of personality and voice. And the story is such as can be read to ten-year-olds with no worry about too much being over their heads. Dickens’ narrators preside over a moral universe and, as with Austen who I didn’t read till much later, the fun is watching how it will all come out and be put more or less right. Copperfield remains in place as the most memorable Dickens for me because of that sense of vocation that permeates it; we are reading of the life of the narrator who will come to be a writer (much like Dickens himself) and that fascinating alchemy, life into art, captured my imagination and never quite let go, for that, to my mind, is still the greatest story, witness my later and longstanding fascination with Joyce and Proust. But that’s not to say that the characters -- each with their familiar tag -- are not also justly indelible, from Barkis is willin’ to the most ’umble Uriah Heep, to the princely, dastardly Steerforth, to Betsy Trotwood, Mr. Dick, the incomparable Mr.and Mrs. Micawber, and all the rest, this is the book most teeming for me with a major supporting cast of ‘character actor’ turns. Which, again, makes it all the more fun for read-aloud performances.

3. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) -- Friedrich Nietzsche (German)
I first read this book in 1973, in the era when pseudo-wisdom texts were quite the rage -- The Prophet by Kahil Gibran, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Teaching of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada (I read Seagull, not the others) -- but this one was by a major thinker of the 19th century who had already produced at least two formidable works -- The Birth of Tragedy and The Gay Science -- when he chose to go off the rails even more and produce this unlikely book in the ‘voice’ of Persian/Iranian prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster). The book, even for readers and scholars of Nietzsche, is a bit of a hard-sell (I base this on a seminar I took at Princeton in 1989, led by the Nietzsche scholar Alexander Nehamas), but for others its sui generis quality is intriguing, even if it is ultimately judged as not rigorous enough as philosophy, not dramatic enough as narrative, and not artistic enough as literature. But a book this odd -- philosophy with jokes and poems and allegories, dramatic scenes, and plenty of pithy aphorisms -- for me was a must. If you weren’t, like me, subjected, from first grade, to the teachings of Christ as interpreted by nuns and priests of the RC Church, then maybe this book would be a much less necessary antithesis in your teens, but I read it annually each year of high school (is it any wonder I didn’t go on dates or participate in many student activities?) and stand by it as the book that made Nietzsche matter to me. In it can be found the most joyous acceptance of life -- a life in which we won’t really know what the truth is and won’t necessarily be able to make anything happen the way we want it to -- that I’ve ever met with.

4. The Brothers Karamazov (1881) -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
When we come to Dostoyevsky, it’s very hard to say which is the novel of The Big Four (Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Possessed (or, Demons) (1872), The Brothers K) that was the most memorable to me. Each was, in its own way. C&P because it was the first I read and because I was instantly hooked by the ├╝bermenschlich dissatisfaction of Raskolnikov, who entered my pantheon as yet another great misanthrope to set beside Hamlet; re:The Idiot, it would be hard for a teen, still nominally a Christian trying to work out what the true imperatives of the faith were, not to be struck by the Christlike travails of Prince Myshkin; and The Possessed was the one I conceived most readily in cinematic terms, casting the novel as a film in the manner of recently successful period films -- I’d say it’s the novel that gave me my strongest sense of scenic structure; but I chose The Brothers K because it shared much of The Possessed’s cinematic power, but gave us protagonists who weren’t played mainly as targets of satire or as cautionary fables. And for all Dostoevsky’s attempts to render the true value of religious faith, I was irritated at Raskolnikov’s conversion, and was, in the end, not willing to accept Myshkin as Christlike, nor even as a Quixote, but at the end of Brothers K I recall -- I was fifteen -- crying real tears with Aloysha, the saintly brother. More than that, I recall that I read Ivan as a more mature version of Raskolnikov, with bits of Rogozhin and Ippolit (my favorite characters in The Idiot) thrown in for good measure, to say nothing of actually meeting the devil, and recognizing, via The Grand Inquisitor, that if Jesus returned his first task would be to separate himself from his believers, but that his believers would reject him just as readily as did the mob of his own day. Then there’s Smerdyakov, and old man Karamazov, characters just waiting to be rendered by some great character actor at the top of his game.

I’m looking forward to reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers K, as I have of the other three; I don’t think my admiration will suffer as a result. I should also say that the great attraction of Dostoyevsky, as my supreme 19th century novelist, was that his stories, prose, and characters had none of the genteel mannerisms of Victorian or Edwardian English prose, that he, unlike Shakespeare-hating Tolstoy, rendered characters that had some of the same wild passions, obsessive griefs, voracious monologues, and hearts of darkness that one found in The Bard, and that, unlike the French, the spirituality of his characters was always in crisis, about to be born or to be killed once and for all. Then there’s the humor of Dostoevsky which seems to be a wicked irony aimed at human foibles, an irony necessary if we would avoid drowning in sentimentality when faced with his waifs and whores and drunken rogues and suicides.

5. Faust I (1806) and II (1832) -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German)
It should be said that Nieztsche, Dostoyevsky, and Goethe would not be on this list so early in my reading, were it not for Hermann Hesse. It was reading his novels, beginning in 9th grade, that turned me to Nietzsche, one of his heroes, and it was probably some Kaufman intro to Nietzsche that gave me the name Dostoyevsky to track down. But Goethe was a bit more of a stretch, mentioned in Hesse (remember the portrait in Steppenwolf?), but as a distant figure, as Shakespeare might be for a Romantic poet; what led me to him was the fact that he wrote Faust, a story that fascinated me as it combined elements from other favorite reading not listed here: the Gothic (I was an avid Poe reader around eleven years old), the occult (read lots of those kinds of tales), the meeting with the devil (as in The Brothers K), and the notion of the heroic tragic figure (which Shakespeare’s plays planted in my mind from the summer between 8th and 9th grade).

But Marlowe’s version didn’t deliver, for me, something that I wanted, without knowing exactly what that ‘something’ was. Maybe I simply didn’t want an Elizabethan Faust, wanted to feel something more medieval at work in the tale. But in saying ‘medieval’ I believe now what I mean is ‘allegorical,’ or ‘metaphysical’ in the sense that Goethe’s version provides. His Faust is epic drama, which was preferable to me to epic poems -- Homer, Dante, Milton -- and to dramas so banal as to be playable on stage. Faust takes place in the poetic imagination, and its tragic sense has to do with human limitations on their grandest scale of conception. Ok, grandest scale for scientists, scholars, artists. In other words, not the epic of battle and adventure, but the epic of the searching, striving soul. Faust became the romantic hero par excellence because his battle was a battle of wits with Mephistopheles, but was also a battle against mediocrity, against staying trapped in what should only be a momentary identity for the man of ceaseless thought, and was further a battle against God as the one who had wagered on him, making him a kind of Job figure, or even a Christ -- doomed to do what his creator had already determined. That’s what I mean by metaphysical. Lear can rage against nature and fortune, as can Macbeth against instruments of darkness, and Milton’s Lucifer can rail against God, but only Goethe’s Faust can question his own identity as the one who must question. And the defeat of Mephisto in the name of Gretchen-transfigured had a kind of quotidian mysticism satisfying to a reader who was already starting to wonder what it was, exactly, that so-called modernism did to romanticism.

In other words, Goethe’s Faust is sui generis not only in the sense of not being containable as a particular genre -- making it one of the most unique reading experiences in all of European literarture -- but also ahead of its time in being as ‘modern’ as you can stand. I like to say that Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Rimbaud ended the 19th century for me (as retrospective reader), but in a sense Goethe had already looked beyond all three. I’m not saying I saw that in my first acquaintance with the text, but the sense of finding a work bizarre enough to qualify as something wholly other (not ‘literature’ in any traditional, disciplinary sense) was there in both the early and the enduring fascination.

To Be Continued...

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