In the spirit of William Gass's "Fifty Literary Pillars" (in A Temple of Texts) this post begins a series of memoiristic micro-essays about 'the books in my life' and, more importantly, the life in (some) of my books. These are the works that have shaped my mind, the books I have returned to over the years. Some of them I no longer love as I once did, but for others my passion is undiminished. The original list of titles that forms the basis of this series was improvised late one night between midnight and twelve-thirty and is thus in no particular order. Pater comes first because I happened to be re-reading The Renaissance when the idea of doing an imitatio Gassei struck like summer lightning.
The Renaissance by Walter Pater. I am a lover of beautiful prose, and Pater's little book is quite simply, and quite marvelously, one of the most beautifully written books in the English language. A reference in Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae first brought Pater to my attention as an undergraduate (tellingly, I don't think any of my professors ever mentioned him, not even in passing), and The Renaissance has been one of my (un)holy books ever since. As I read beyond the sheer loveliness of its language (which is enough, more than enough, to justify any number of readings), I felt the very depths of myself vibrating in harmony to Pater's ideas about the nature of beauty, the paramount importance of art, the definition of success in life (to burn always with that too-often parodied and too-little understood 'gem-like flame.'), and I found myself deeply attracted to the theme of homoeroticism that underlies Pater's text, popping up frequently like a Wagnerian motif. (Rereading the previous sentence, I note the unintentional phallicism of the 'popping up' image, a little textual erection tent-poling itself into my rhetoric and telling the bawdy body-truth about my attraction to The Renaissance.) I was already on the road to aestheticism when Pater found me, but his book strengthened my resolve, focused my explorations, and licensed my transformation into the kind of person who hops onto a plane and screams all night across the freezing North Atlantic at 30,000 feet just to attend an exhibition at the Tate.
Dispatches by Michael Herr. Michael Herr is a one-book writer. He has written other books, but he is destined to be remembered for this book alone. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's okay to be a one-book writer when your one book so definitively kicks the ass of every comparable book that readers finish it shaking their heads and saying, "Well, that's it, man. That is most absofuckingposilutively it!" That's how I felt when I came to the end of this book one sweaty, sunny summer afternoon during my college years. I was so impressed that I did something I've hardly ever done: I turned back to the beginning and began to read it again. Like a child taking apart a mechanical toy, I needed to understand how this book worked, how so much disparate information and so many diverse stories seemed to cohere into a text as seamless as the surface of a pond. A second reading showed me that the mainspring of Herr's prose machine is his incomparable narrative voice, that wild, charging, soaring, screaming, amphetamine-fueled voice that sometimes seems like the voice of the war itself whispering in your ear. It's a voice that comes out of Faulkner as well as the Beats, and is equal parts Kerouac and Hemingway. It's a voice so American that it should be painted red white and blue and held aloft during parades. It's a voice so authoritative that it forms itself into the most fearsomely eloquent indictment I have ever read of the omni-murderous American way of war. No other writer, not even Melville, has given us an example of American nihilism as cogent and exact as Herr's shortest and most terrible story: "...There was a famous story, some reporters asked a door gunner, "How can you shoot women and children?" and he'd answered, "It's easy, you just don't lead 'em so much."..." There, in a single sentence, is the story of Vietnam, and of Iraq, and of Afghanistan--and of the next war the neocons will start, somewhere, eventually. A civilian's question, fueled by moral outrage, is answered in the psychotically flat, matter-of-fact tone of technological amorality. It's the voice of Haditha and My Lai. It's a message from that darkest part of America that always blows a mean wind back from our foreign wars, sowing suicide and murder across the homeland.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It's entirely appropriate that Proust comes next, because Herr's Dispatches is one of the very few American books that, as a work of aestheticized memory, approaches the majesty of A la recherche du temps perdu. I still remember the day I learned to love Proust. I was sitting in a plastic lawnchair in the shade of an evergreen tree on a summer day abuzz with bees and fragrant with the breeze-blown breath of flowers when I came to the section of Swann's Way that describes young Marcel reading his beloved Bergotte in the garden of the Combray house one lazy childhood summer, and I looked up from the book into yellow sunlight dappled through dark branches and luxuriated for a moment in the swooning sense that my life had become a mise en abyme of the Proustian text, that Proust's book had captured not only his characters' lives, but mine too; that I, living a century later in a country he never knew, was also a bundle of tics and neuroses and prejudices to be deliciously anatomized by this exquisite doctor's son; that my life too was to be laid open by the scalpel of the Proustian pen; that I was not reading Proust so much as Proust was reading me. Whenever I return to his books I sometimes feel the slightest tremor of that initial vertigo, but nothing more. I had my moment of perfect ecstasy. The rest is appreciation.
The Stories of John Cheever. Published when I was about twelve years old and just beginning, somewhat precociously, to read adult fiction, this then-ubiquitous orangey-red paperback was the first volume of literary short fiction I ever purchased and read. I recall carrying it around the hallways of my junior high while I was reading it, hoping someone would remark upon it and give me the opportunity to open their eyes to the wonders of Cheeverland. (Predictably, no one noticed. The students at my school were almost as illiterate as the teachers.) I don't remember exactly how much I understood, as a rural Ohio preteen, of Cheever's Don Draperish world, but something about his fiction caught me early and has never let go. I found myself most attracted (and this remains the case) to the weird, 'surreal' side of Cheever as best exemplified by "The Enormous Radio," "The Swimmer" and "The Death of Justina," the last two of which are nearly perfect, and perfectly beautiful, stories that can stand alongside anything by Hawthorne or even Henry James in the American canon. I also find myself returning again and again to "The Five-Forty-Eight," "O Youth and Beauty!" "The Sorrows of Gin," "Metamorphoses," "The Hartleys" and "Brimmer."
The Symposium by Plato. Like all the best Platonic dialogues, the Symposium is a masterpiece of irony, almost as impressive as the Phaedrus (which utterly deconstructs itself in its second half, obviating the work of Derrida) or the Crito (in which Socrates is condemned by his own failure as a teacher, for he did not teach Crito well enough to out-argue his master). Perhaps the greatest irony surrounding the Symposium is that most modern readers are more attracted to Aristophanes' myth of human origins than to the ostensible climax of the piece, the ladder of love and beauty that made Platonism so intellectually appealing for so many centuries. I too am of the Aristophanic persuasion and have come to consider his speech the 'secret climax' (a closeted climax, perhaps?) of the dialogue. The Republic may contain a more profound poetry (in the myth of the cave), but the banquet of love remains the apex of my Plato. (Every true reader creates his own Plato, as every authentic reader molds an inner Shakespeare having perhaps little relation to the money-mad, shadowy Shaxpo of the few surviving documents.) It's also worth noting that the Symposium is actually a dialogue, rather than, as is the case with the Republic, a monologue occasionally interrupted by purely decorative 'interlocutors' who exist solely to play Ed McMahon to Socrates' Johnny Carson, occasionally interjecting, "Yes, Socrates" and "You are correct, Socrates."