A Personal Canon

FlowervilleMelissa Beckand Anthony have recently posted their personal canons. Do I have such a thing? I am not sure that I am a good reader, my reading has too much to do with my writing, and is perhaps not generous enough. I do not often turn back to the same books, not as a whole – more often it is parts of books that suffice, and that I feel I have never exhausted, either because they remain unclear to me or because I have continued to fail to integrate what is true about them.

  1. Of course, Proust, whom I do reread, in the original and in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enwright version. Flowerville’s choice of volumes is curious; although the last one always breaks my heart, and I love the part about the old lion, I would opt for the first part of the first volume and The Fugitive, I think, if I had to choose. The passage about the noise of the train in the distance is one of my earliest, strongest literary impressions.
  2. The Brothers Karamazov. One of the few books I reread with any frequency, probably every three years. I largely agree with Nabokov that Dostoevsky was less a proper writer than a “genius of spiritual morbidity,” but isn’t that enough? I like his other books less: The Idiot and The Demons are slipshod, Crime and Punishment schmaltzy (I should say though the unpublished chapter of The Demons Virginia Woolf edited is as good as anything he wrote). The episode of the cannon and Ivan’s tortured pronouncements on God and children are remarkable.
  3. Jean Grenier: Sur la mort d’un chien. Beautiful.
  4. Simone Weil’s journals. Weil’s particular brand of Christian socialism seems to me the only ideology both practicable and morally thorough.
  5. Vladimir Jankélévitch. There is no place to begin. Above all L’irréversible et la nostalgie. I may yet do a translation of La mort, I have an interested and amiable publisher, but it’s very long and money is always at issue.
  6. Cristina Campo’s poems. Flowerville introduced me to these, to my great gratitude. There are only 40 pages of them. I translated them all, for my amusement; some of the translations are rough, some I think are good.  But no blame falls to one who surfeits thus / with hypotheses the desert. As a project I think it’s dead in the water, no one seems to care.
  7.  Juan Benet: Una meditación. A masterpiece. Oneiric, brilliant, profoundly unsettling. Benet paid a handyman to make a special roller and bought a reel of paper so that he could type the novel on one continuous sheet of paper without reviewing it. No one reads it, but Pascale Casanova rightly recognizes it as revolutionary. Gregory Rabassa translated it into English, but there are a lot of mistakes. Rabassa is a famed translator (I can’t remark on his work because I don’t know it other than his Benet) and the rhythm and diction of his version are pleasant enough that one wonders if he was under a tight deadline.
  8. Heidegger: Being and Time. I more or less reread this lately for a translation by Hartmut Lange coming out this fall. Heidegger’s unpleasant personality keeps getting in the way of serious approaches to his writing – not so much among scholars as among general readers who ought to know better.
  9. Madame Bovary. It’s almost perfect.
  10. Pere Gimferrer: L’agent provocador. I read this on a train along with two other books I love, Hermann Burger’s Brenner and Stanislaw Lem’s Imaginary Bestiary (I think that’s what it is called). Gimferrer is often barely perceptible behind his abstractions; this book told me a great deal about him and his work, summarized in the beautiful phrase “Life is already a metaphor of life.”

But more than books are the little snippets that stick with me: the suggestion that touch was fundamental to the development of moral consciousness, which I found in a book I didn’t care for much, Linda Holler’s Erotic Morality; the much-disparaged neuro-psychological approach I first encountered in Harry Harlow and in A General Theory of Love that has been an abiding interest since, particularly in the essays Are Words Predictors of Disease and Death and Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Non-Suicidal Poets; that anecdote about Wittgenstein cutting off a bit of a friend’s dress and considering correctness as a matter of intuition; that passage where Socrates declares he is in danger of viewing his own death unphilosophically; the line of Philip Larkin’s At Grass in which he asks of the horses, “Do memories plague their ears like flies?”


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