So when everyone was posting their personal canons on Twitter, Flowerville remarked that one had surely left things out, and that we should revisit the notion after a week. I was traveling and tired and couldn’t do so for a bit, now I’m still tired, but home, and lack much inspiration for the work I’m supposed to do, so I will try again. I am thinking not only of my own canon but also my canon to come, and there are works here that I do not know so well, but that I believe I will continue to read and think about in the years before me.
- Natalia Ginzburg. It is strange how the language you read a writer in initially can affect your thoughts about them. Ginzburg’s magnificent Le piccole virtù is one of the first books I ever read in Italian. Now I can’t read her in English. There is a certain scrupulosity, an equipoise in the wording, that doesn’t come across well to me in translation. In a recent blog post, Shigekuni remarked that “Writing simply… is much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose.” I don’t know that I agree, but his reasoning when I asked him about this, to the effect that reduction brings a text closer to poetry and renders the excess more obvious, is intelligent. Júlia Martí, who I hope reads this, since I don’t know who she is but was impressed by her little review of Ginzburg in La Central’s free paper, writes of Le piccole virtù: “Aquests onze fragments, a mig camí entre l’assaig i l’autobiografia, es caracteritzen per una prosa simple i concisa, l’aparent senzillesa de la qual és només una natural reticència a descobrir-se…” This reticence I don’t think is an affectation but the mark of an absence of vanity, which is a precondition of attendance. In Lessico famigliare, she writes beautifully of the need to find the right words, the true words, and I think about that often:
C'erano allora due modi di scrivere, e uno era una semplice enumerazione di fatti, sulle tracce d'una realta grigia, piovosa, avara, nello schermo d'un paesaggio disadorno e mortificato; l'altro era un mesco- larsi ai fatti con violenza e con delirio di lagrime, di so- spiri convulsi, di singhiozzi. Nell'un caso e nell'altro, non si sceglievano più le parole; perché nell'un caso le parole si confondevano nel grigiore, e nell'altro si perde- vano nei gemiti e nei singhiozzi. Ma l'errore comune era sempre credere che tutto si potesse trasformare in poe- sia e parole. Ne consegui un disgusto di poesia e parole, cosi forte che incluse anche la vera poesia e le vere paro- le, per cui alla fine ognuno tacque, impietrito di noia e di nausea. Era necessario tornare a scegliere le parole, a scrutarle per sentire se erano false o vere, se avevano o no vere radici in noi, o se avevano soltanto le effimere radici della comune illusione. Era dunque necessario, se uno scriveva, tornare ad assumere il proprio mestiere che aveva, nella generale ubriachezza, dimenticato. E il tempo che segui fu come il tempo che segue all'ubria- chezza, e che è di nausea, di languore e di tedio; e tutti si sentirono, in un modo o nell'altro, ingannati e traditi: sia quelli che abitavano la realtà, sia quelli che possedeva- no, o credevano di possedere, i mezzi per raccontarla. Cosí ciascuno riprese, solo e malcontento, la sua strada.
- Ilse Aichinger. I believe these books are at my in-laws’, so I can’t consult them as I would like, to see whether they mean as much to me as I think they might. I wrote a bit about Aichinger here; I wouldn’t like to add much to this right now. I believe Uljana Wolf is translating her work for Seagull. I hope people will buy it.
- Chekhov. I have read probably 100-plus stories by Chekhov, and most of them I can’t remember. Misery is the one I return to the most, and his letters, which I am rereading now.
- Gogol: The Nose and Diary of a Madman are magnificent, and Dead Souls is one of the funniest books ever written, I suppose. Among Gogol’s tricks is to detach an experience from its wonted reaction and substitute the latter for something incongruous, as when a man in the country rhapsodizes of how, at the end of a long day, nothing is so pleasant as to have a person scratch your feet (?). Dostoevsky does something similar, and Turgenev decried it as a cheap ploy, but whereas in Dostoevsky it creates a perverse atmosphere as a backdrop for a perhaps tasteless grandiosity, in Gogol the effect is disorienting and ribald. Nabokov says something wonderful about Gogol’s peripheral characters:
“The simplest method such peripheral characters employ to assert their existence is to take advantage of the author’s way of stressing this or that circumstance or condition by illustrating it with some striking detail. The picture starts living a life of its own—rather like that leering organ-grinder with whom the artist in H. G. Wells’ story The Portrait struggled, by means of jabs and splashes of green paint when the portrait he was making became alive and disorderly. Observe for instance the ending of chapter 7, where the intention is to convey the impressions of night falling upon a peaceful provincial town. Chichikov after successfully clinching his ghostly deal with the landowners has been entertained by the worthies of the town and goes to bed very drunk; his coachman and his valet quietly depart on a private spree of their own, then stumble back to the inn, most courteously propping up each other, and soon go to sleep too.
‘… emitting snores of incredible density of sound, echoed from the neighboring room by their master’s thin nasal wheeze. Soon after this everything quieted down and deep slumber enveloped the hostelry; one light alone remained burning and that was in the small window of a certain lieutenant who had arrived from Ryazan and who was apparently a keen amateur of boots inasmuch as he had already acquired four pairs and was persistently trying on a fifth one. Every now and again he would go up to his bed as though he intended to take them off and lie down; but he simply could not; in truth those boots were well made; and for a long while still he kept revolving his foot and inspecting the dashing cut of an admirably finished heel.’
Thus the chapter ends —and that lieutenant is still trying on his immortal jackboot, and the leather glistens, and the candle burns straight and bright in the only lighted window of a dead town in the depth of a star-dusted night. I know of no more lyrical description of nocturnal quiet than this Rhapsody of the Boots.”
4. Chateaubriand. I read his memoirs in the magnificent translation by José Ramón Monreal for Acantilado. NYRB is bringing out a 400-page selection in English, but there ought to be a complete one. Chateaubriand’s style, impeccable across some 2000 pages, has few rivals.
5. Adalbert Stifter, Limestone. The description of the shirtcuffs, the moment when the brother is told that he cannot begin his life again. For me, this is a perfect story, less cruel and less idle that Flaubert’s Simple Heart, which might otherwise be its rival.
6. Diego de San Pedro, Cárcel de amor. When I interviewed Pere Gimferrer, I asked him whether there were any books he might recommend. I think he found the question a little stupid, and said he read the same books everyone else did, but after some caviling, he replied that the medievals inhabited a completely different world. Cárcel de amor I translated at one of the worst times in my life, to keep myself occupied, when I lived in Chicago; it is one of the links between Boccaccio, Cappellanus, the Occitans, and love as it came to exist in the modern world.
7. Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Hester Thrale’s memoirs of Johnson. I don’t know why I like these books so much except that Johnson is such an unrelenting dick and his habit of ending the most withering remarks with the honorific “sir” never gets old.
8. Jorge Manrique, Coplas por la muerte de su padre. I read this in a failed stab at graduate school and didn’t like it. “It is full of clichés, life as a river and so on and so forth,” I complained to a friend more cultured than I. He rightly noted that what was a cliché then might well have been less so 500 years before. And later, a friend who had met Borges in the seventies told me Borges had told him the only dignified metaphors were the old ones, which are the animating forces of language, and that everything else was airy ostentation. The poem defies translation: Longfellow did an interesting version, but it is not at all like the original, with respect to which it feels to me too flabby. The beautiful verse: Tú que, por nuestra maldad, / tomaste forma servil / e baxo nombre; / tú, que a tu divinidad / juntaste cosa tan vil / como es el hombre; / tú, que tan grandes tormentos / sofriste sin resistencia / en persona, / non por mis merescimientos, / mas por tu sola clemencia / me perdona” reminds me of that beautiful verse of Dante: “tu, duca, tu, segnore e tu maestro.”
9. Nabokov. I argue with Nabokov constantly in my head, with his aesthetics, which would seem so pompous, had he not produced the most optically perfect English prose of the twentieth century.
10. Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder. One of those books that not only defies interpretation, but is impoverished by any interpretation applied to it. Dreadful, oppressive, horrifying. As strange as anything by Thomas Bernhard.
11. Francis Ponge. Need more be said?