Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Confessions of a Bookophile 

It's the end of summer. There are howling wolves on every front, personal and universal. War talk escalating, American presidential campaigns more depressing than ever, human scum and villainy continuing to gain momentum and influence where they should never have been able to insert even a toe. What better escape than to find temporary relief and shelter among the books, the books, according to Apollinaire, that are

"Friends in weather foul or fair
If not for them how would I fare"

My fellow blogger friend Bob from Brockley in his sage kindness (or his kindly sagacity) offered us just such a relief, here. He challenges us to draw up two lists of novels:

" The first one is the novels that shaped me, inspired me, made me think about literature the way I do. [--]

The second list is books I have read as an adult, books I have loved reading, which I count as my favourite novels of my adult years."

My first list of favourite novels between the ages 11-18 I deposited at Bob's post and it speaks for the callow, romantic, naive, clueless barbarian that I was.

The second list is much tougher to compile. Titles zip in and out of my mind as I try to remember, frantically, which, which novels I read that re-shaped, or at least modified my thinking, my ideas, my expectations from life and humanity. I came to the conclusion that it was too big a net to cast and I needed to pare down such demands for self-clarity and introspection. So I decided to re-draw the lines and re-articulate the criteria. I will list the novels - or books - that for some reason or other had a memorable impact on me. It could be any type of impact: negative, positive, emotional, intellectual, informational, linguistic. 

So here goes:

1. Black Dogs / Ian McEwan - Because nothing I had ever read inspired a more poignant sense of the sadness and hopelessness of human relationship to actually solve or end a tragic existence than the preamble to that novel. I read those 5 pages and put the novel aside for five years before I could pick it up again and continue to read it. To this day I have not looked at those 5 pages again. 

2. Darkness at Noon / Arthur Koestler - Because a true believer, a Stalinist, a highly cultured and creative mind, could be so turned inside out that he almost forgets that he is a human being. When he mutely pleads, though not expecting, pity, he is denied it. The last few pages of the novels he manages to reach a state of grace and dies with images of childhood beauty in his mind. If we talk of salvation, this is it.

3. 1984 / George Orwell - Because for all the explanations and interpretations of the ending of the novel I still maintain that it is impossible to make someone love Big Brother and believe that 2+2 is 5. And I think Orwell's conclusion clarifies that. Certain memories, or traces of memories, cannot be erased or their significance neutralized, despite the rats and the fear and the misery.

4. The Mill on the Floss / George Eliot. For this passage in it: 

“I didn't finish the book,” said Maggie. “As soon as I came to the blond-haired young lady reading in the park, I shut it up, and determined to read no further. I foresaw that that light-complexioned girl would win away all the love from Corinne and make her miserable. I'm determined to read no more books where the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness. I should begin to have a prejudice against them. If you could give me some story, now, where the dark woman triumphs, it would restore the balance. I want to avenge Rebecca and Flora MacIvor and Minna, and all the rest of the dark unhappy ones. Since you are my tutor, you ought to preserve my mind from prejudices; you are always arguing against prejudices.” 

5. Solaris / Stanislaw Lem  - I liked the concept of God being a childish, arbitrary, ignorant, tantrum-inclined mind making mischief and mimicking the grownup humans that it rather ineptly observes.

6. The Chosen / Chaim Potok  For its tender and forgiving humanity:

"There is a story in the Talmud about a king who had a son who went astray. The son was told, 'Return to your father.' The son replied that he could not. The king then sent a messenger to the son with the message... 'Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way."

7. Women in Love / D. H. Lawrence This novel I read during a period when I abandoned myself to being in love with Lawrence's novels. That was before I noticed the innate racism and what can only be seen as his subconscious contempt for women. As I read this novel, I found myself wondering: Did Lawrence really know much about women and how they are when in love?

8. The Stranger / Albert Camus  

"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure."

9. The Scarlet letter / Nathaniel Hawthorne

Question: How different is Hester Prynne from Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov?

10.Sister Carrie / Theodore Dreiser  A novel I would never willingly read again. 

11. The Sea Wolf / Jack London  Don't know why. I read it as a teenager and then again for a course about ten years ago. The first time I read it for fun and found the narrative compelling and satisfying.  The second time I read it for the characters: the macho, the sissy, the lady. And found that these categories tend to leak into each other and thus create more uncertainty and inevitably, more (unrequited) longing for greater clarity and classification. 

12. Death of an Expert Witness / P. D. James  

My very first and blessed encounter with Adam Dalgliesh, detective and poet who reads Jane Austen and is standoffish, cold and implacable in the pursuit of a murder inquiry. As perfect a gentleman as can be. The beginning of a long and adulatory relationship, not least supported by the quintessential Dalgliesh played by Roy Marsden in the dramatization of the novels :) 

13. The beauty of the Husband / Anne Carson Not a novel in the classical sense but "a Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos" :

 Loyal to nothing
My husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood
to late middle age
And the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him
for his beauty.
As I would again
If he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty
makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

14. The spy who came in from the cold /  John le Carré

15.  The Master and Margarita / Mikhail Bulgakov 

16. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin / Vladimir Voinovich  

2 Comments:

At 8:08 AM GMT-4, Anonymous Will James said...

I guess I'll have to give that Scarlet Letter another try ;)

Interesting list indeed. And a very worthwhile question. Someday, when I have time for introspection again, I'll put myself to the task of assembling my list.

 
At 8:08 AM GMT-4, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Hm... the list is partially matching what I would have compiled, but P.D.James? I am sure that you put George Eliot in the list out of pure contrariness ;-)

 

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