The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. We all know what happens to Gregor Samsa, but what's it all about? There are as many answers as schools of interpretation. Psychologists will tell you that Gregor is externalizing and literalizing the self-image thrust upon him by his family; psychoanalysts might see an eruption of the Freudian id or a horrifying outburst of the Lacanian 'Thing'; Marxists will argue that he has been dehumanized by the ideological structures of hegemonic capitalism; Christians will speak of him as a blameless saintly figure suffering martyrdom in a godless modern world; Foucaultians might position him as a victim of the ubiquitous and inescapable power relations that define family and society; Derrideans could read him as a deconstructive subversion of the human/bug polarity that puts the very nature of definition into question. (I'm caricaturing, of course, but only slightly.) And not one of these interpretations will be satisfactory; all of them will leave questions unanswered and aspects of the text ignored. All of them will reduce Kafka's work to an allegory of the critic's paradigm of choice. (Susan Sontag made this same general point half a century ago in "Against Interpretation." Too bad no one was listening.) Easy to allegorize, difficult to understand: that's the problem with Kafka. More emphatically, understanding is the problem with Kafka, and the first sentence of The Metamorphosis shows us why. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The matter-of-fact irruption of the irrational at the end of the sentence confounds its calmly reasonable tone and rationally grammatical form. This confounding of reason, this problematizing of understanding, is one of the things The Metamorphosis, and much of Kafka's best work, is about. Kafka turns understanding into a problem, a dilemma. The very notion of understanding, of interpretation, is contrary to the spirit of Kafka. His work repeatedly brings the irrational into troubling contact with modern reason and forces the rational into retreat; the task of interpretation, by contrast, is to argue unreason away, to tame it, to dissolve it into rational allegory. Interpreters have done their damnedest with this story, but in the end Gregor Samsa remains a gigantic dung beetle and no rational interpretation can satisfactorily tell us why.
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. And speaking of interpreting the irrational... Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Sigi! Freud spent decades in Vienna doing the exact thing that Kafka, scribbling away in Bohemian obscurity, repeatedly showed to be impossible. The original German title of his best book is much better: Die Traumdeutung, with the traum reaching toward trauma and inflecting the English dreams into drama. For every Freudian dream is the drama of a trauma, the imaginative expression of unconscious conflicts. For me, the best parts of this book are not Freud's interpretations, which sometimes seem a little too clever, too slick, but the dreams themselves. Nearly every dream Freud records is a surrealist masterpiece in miniature, a strange, troubling, mysterious, and medievally anonymous work of art. The mind is a craftsman as amazing as any who carved Chartres, and we are all members of its guild. I've read quite a bit of Freud in the quarter-century since my first interpretation of the Interpretation: many of his papers in the great Collier paperback editions with a triple-faced Freud on the covers (Sexuality and the Psychology of Love is an essential volume), papers and case histories in Peter Gay's Freud Reader, The Ego and the Id, Civilization and its Discontents, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Totem and Taboo. But the Traumdeutung is still the most important to me. What other book has the power to wrench open a door to the unknown third of our lives?
The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri. After arguments about money, disputes about translation tend to be the nastiest and most personal conflicts in which writers engage. This is especially true of the translation of poetry, in the criticism of which it's quite common to see a translator attacked with the kind of ad hominem 'arguments' that form the lingua franca of American right-wing radio. Not only did the translator in question, the critics assure us, misinterpret this word and this line and this poem, but she's also naïve, foolish and incompetent, a child sent to do a man's job, and she probably has smelly armpits too. That last part was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. And sometimes this kind of hatchet job reduces itself to Pythonesque comedy when the hatchet-wielder, halfway through his chopping, remarks in passing that he cannot read the original language... I suspect that most of this misdirected passion is born of love. When we fall in love with a translated poem, the words of that translation become the object of our affection. And when a new translation appears, and the new translator alters our beloved words, how can we not feel enraged, how can we fail to lash out at this interloping translator, this foul rapist of our beloved? I understand these emotions because I've been falling in love with translations for years. I fell in love with the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy in the wonderful 1980s translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in paperback by Bantam with illustrations by Barry Moser. (The Mandelbaum translation is also available in a single hardcover volume from Everyman's Library.) These are three of the greatest books I have ever read. They soar for pages through that exalted realm of beauty and sublimity that Shakespeare reaches only at his greatest moments (Hamlet, the latter acts of Lear, some of the sonnets). If you care to know the most terrifyingly beautiful thing I've ever read, I'll tell you: it's the description of the river of light in canto 30 of the Paradiso. It's the aesthetic equal of Rilke's sublime "garden where flowers eternally open" in the Duino Elegies. It may well be the most unspeakably, unenvisionably beautiful thing ever imagined by the human mind.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. We misread Walt Whitman in my high school English class. That was typical. We misread most everything under the direction of a Christian fundamentalist teacher who confused pedagogy with preaching. She wasn't the only incompetent among the faculty at my high school, but she was surely the most annoying. Our misprision of "the good Walt," however, was not entirely her fault. Our textbook, doubtless designed for the delight of reactionary Texans (the kind of people who tie guys like Walt Whitman to fenceposts and torture them to death), presented a deballed and bowdlerized Walt, a Whitman without a body, a singer who sang of himself, but only from the waist up. This Texan dehorning turned Whitman's greatest work into pages and pages of seemingly pointless catalogs with some ideas borrowed from Emerson to make them look meaningful. I didn't buy it for a minute. What I did buy was a Signet Classic paperback of Leaves of Grass, and therein I discovered the real Walt. I still have the book, and it has held up admirably over the years: a little wear on the edges of the cover, a spine crease near the middle, the pages foxed but not badly. It's still the book in which I first encountered the 'Calamus' poems, correctly understood by some of their early readers as the most significant group of gay love poems in the English language since Shakespeare's sonnets. Whitman became my poet, the singer of (some of) my secret desires. Displaying a kind of courage that I can now hardly credit to my teenage self, I carried the book around my homophobic high school (that was in fact its name, Homophobic High) like an identification badge, a public proclamation of booknerdy queerness. Nothing happened. Fortunately, homophobes tend to be too semiotically challenged to interpret the sexual implications of literary signs.
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The Italian title is best, l'Arcobaleno della Gravita. Not only is it better music, but the baleno suggests balena, the Italian word for whale, thus linking, in an appropriately roundabout way, the greatest of all American postmodern novels to its ultimate source in the work of that postmodernist a century and more ahead of his time, Herman Melville. (I won't bother punning on Roberto Bolano.) Beginning in a dream and ending in apocalyptic fragments, Pynchon's arcing whale of a novel did to my mind what the Luftwaffe did to much of central London. Whole mental neighborhoods were laid waste; neuronal Underground lines were torn open and their blind denizens forced into squinting sunlight; my internal power grid was knocked out and total rewiring necessitated. Gravity's Rainbow is that kind of book. I've always been most powerfully attracted to novels in which 'anything can happen,' (Kafka, Nabokov, Borges, Garcia Marquez) and GR takes that phrase to its surrealistic limits and beyond. I have but to mention Slothrop's toilet trip, Brigadier Pudding's fecal meal, or the voyage of the foolship Anubis to establish how far this novel goes, how much the Pynchonian 'anything' entails. Pynchon's probably the only American writer--the only one, living or dead--with enough crazily imaginative artistic intelligence to conceive and accomplish the kinds of things Garcia Marquez could pull out of his hat. It's easy to imitate that side of Gabo, to turn oneself into a magic realist epigone, but how many writers can be that brilliant and still be themselves?