Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Rest of My Sixty-odd Literary Pillars

(I'm bringing this series to a close now with some shorter takes on the rest of my Gassean 'pillars'.)

Vertigo by W. G. Sebald. I can't choose just one of Sebald's four major fictions. Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are four books I hold more closely than any I have read in the past decade. I've flown across the Atlantic many times and spent many hours, days, weeks in the galleries of Europe standing in front of paintings and sculptures and looking and thinking until I began to understand them. I discovered Sebald on one of these trips, bought a copy of Vertigo at Waterstone's Piccadilly (Europe's Largest Bookstore, the sign outside boasted most unBritishly), read it, then read it again, then read Emigrants, Saturn and Austerlitz in quick succession (all three in a single week, as I recall), and soon found myself identifying deeply with the narrator of Sebald's books. Rarely have I so closely identified with a fictional character. His bookishness, his aestheticism, his intellectuality, his wanderlust, his haunting by the horrors of history: these were all aspects of my personality before I knew Sebald existed, so finally reading him was like gazing deeply into a mirror that reflected through my face and showed me the shapes of my mind. Reading him was and is an unsettling and troubling experience. That's why I value it.

The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. Very few books possess the power to change the way you read everything else. For me, The Anxiety of Influence was one of them. Reading this slim but Borgesianly enormous volume altered my understanding of the shape of literary history. No longer was it trapped in chronology and historically delimited isms. Now an Elizabethan writer could be seen to reach across the centuries and decisively influence a Modern; and even more startlingly, the Elizabethan could now be re-read as a writer impossibly influenced by the Moderns, the way Blake sometimes reads like a disciple of Yeats, and Cervantes like a brilliantly wayward student of Barth. My understanding of Melville and Sterne as postmodernists, my notion that the novel since Cervantes (hell, since Petronius, if we want to press the issue) has always been a 'postmodern' form, these ideas were licensed by the freedom Harold Bloom granted to my reading mind. And another thing (there's always another thing when you're writing about great books): Somewhere in Anxiety, Bloom states that the meaning of a poem is always another poem. He's speaking of literary influence, but I creatively misread the line to license a truly aesthetic form of criticism, an as-yet purely hypothetical school in which criticism will be as beautiful as the objects it attempts to apprehend. In our publish-or-perish, jargon-or-die world, that would be a refreshing change.

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Paglia suicided her credibility a few years back when she slipped off the rightwing deep end and started making birther noises, but back in the first half of the 1990s, she was the most dynamic, most media savvy, and most intelligently provocative scholar in America. Sexual Personae is another book that transformed me as a reader--and also, to some extent, as a human being. I read it at just the right time, as a college student during the P.C. early 90s, a time when many ideas that had formerly been genuinely revolutionary--feminism, the subversion of gender and sexual roles, the liberation of desire--were becoming institutionalized and hardening into Foucault-influenced academic dogma and kneejerk puritanism. (In a graduate seminar ca.1995, I remember a professor mentioning Paglia as a 'pro-pornography feminist'--a description Paglia herself would've endorsed--and this phrase brought one Women's Studies student to a state that could only be described as 'flabbergasted.' She shook her head in disbelief as she said, "Wait, wait, wait a minute... There are pro-pornography feminists?!") I was looking for a way to understand art that neither reduced it to ideological exemplarism nor treated it as a sacrosanct, quasi-religious object. Reading Paglia during the summer of '93 validated my nascent intellectual aestheticism by giving it a name. Her book introduced me to Walter Pater, showed me the connection between Michelangelo and sadomasochism, and taught me the true and wondrous meaning of decadence. Sexual Personae could only have been written in the late 20th century, but in many ways it's a nineteenth-century book, a throwback to an age when scholarly ambition was still encyclopedic, before the shades of the prison house of overspecialization closed upon our culture. 

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The Waste Land is the only poem that has ever made me cry. That's not literally true; there were a few others, but this poem by a man whose public persona was reserved to the point of mummification brought me to a place so nakedly emotional that I wept--no, not the 'copious tears' of schlock fiction, but at least one or two authentic ones. The part I found so emotional was Part One, lines 35-42, the 'hyacinth girl' passage. By a strange alchemy, this sketched scene of emotional strangulation set my emotions free in a way that mere words have rarely done, before or since. No reader of this blog will be surprised to learn that today I'm fascinated by the homosexual erotics of The Waste Land. I find something very cruise-y and Whitmanesque (and Cavafyesque, too) in the Thames-side workingmen's pub where the poem pauses (lines 259-265) for a few lines before escaping to the aestheticized interior of a church--a poor escape strategy, for the aestheticism of the image invokes Pater and Ruskin, two men of decidedly non-normative sexuality, the former gay and the latter a pedophile. The crux of any gay interpretation of The Waste Land, however, must be a passage near the end of the poem (lines 402-405) in which the speaker addresses a 'friend' (a possible allusion to the 'master-mistress' male friend addressed by the speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets, the greatest gay poem in the language), speaks of the blood shaking his heart, and invokes the memory / fantasy of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," saying, "By this, and this only, we have existed..." And what is "this"? This, quite simply, is what this always seems to be: the main thing, the Edwardianly unspeakable thing: white-hot homosexual amour, gay sex hotter than poured steel. That'll set a seal on your bowler-hatted life, Mr. Eliot. These lines are as close as the proper and prudent T. S. E., OM, will ever come to what jacket copy writers like to call "sulphurous gay confession."

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the second week of June, 1990, reading War and Peace cover to cover. That's right: I read the whole thing in one week. I'm still not entirely sure how I pulled that off, but it was probably a combination of youthful energy, 21 year-old eyes, and the absolute lack of a life. (About this same time I read McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in five days--not quite so impressive, but still...) This marathon immersion in early 19th century Russian life reminded me (at a time when I needed a reminder) that great novels have the power to bring us into contact with vanished lives, gone worlds, and to make those worlds, for the duration of a reading, more vital than the world we inhabit. We return from such an experience with an unexpected boon, a revitalized vision of the wonder of living. (This all sounds very Romantic and naïve to me now, but that's because I've become jaded in my middle-age.) The fat Signet Classic that inked-up my thumbs 23 years ago still sits on my bookshelf next to the Signet Anna Karenina I read a few months later. It's time to read them again; I've been away from Tolstoy for far too long.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read it in the spring of my depressive, neurotic, Raskolnikovian twenty-first year. I remember sitting in a metal chair amidst the warped and creaky floorboards of my parents' front porch and losing myself in Dostoyevsky's fever dream of a warped and spooky St. Petersburg. While I read it, the novel held me like a nightmare from which I couldn't awake. I often find myself re-reading books that impress me this deeply, but in the case of Crime and Punishment, I stayed away for more than twenty years--my punishment for the crime of enjoying it, I suppose. When I re-read it a few months ago, it seemed written in the jagged lines and glaring colors of Expressionist painting. It is surely the greatest crime novel of its century.

The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser. In any good secondhand bookstore (shouldn't it be 'secondbrain'?) you should be able to find the four Vintage paperback volumes of Hauser's Social History of Art. Don't pass them by. Hauser is where any modern understanding of history's effect on artistic expression should begin. Shortly after reading them, I traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and spent a day walking around the European painting galleries and spotting example after example of sociopolitical change affecting the forms and contents of art. Some of these examples were obvious: the effect of Protestant iconoclasm on the subject matter of 17th-century Dutch painting: the triumph of still life, landscape and portraiture over "papist" religious scenes. Others less so: the flattened, wind-up toy-like figures in Seurat's Grand Jatte as a response to an industrialization and mechanization that escaped the factory floor to inf(l)ect all of life with its inhuman rationality.

Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass. Gass's essays are a recently discovered love. I started reading them (and re-reading them, compulsively) within the last ten years. Even when I disagree with Willie-the-G(and I do, profoundly, on the importance of story and plot in novels (negligible, he thinks; I say, essential)), I read his incomparable sentences with, to coin a phrase, mindful pleasure.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. I remember reading Henry Miller's obituary in the newspaper when I was twelve years old and thinking that these scandalous Tropic books sounded like hot stuff. A decade later, I devoured Cancer in two days and discovered one of the most deeply European and philosophically pessimistic of all American novels. (Perhaps only Djuna Barnes' Nightwood exhibits a more cosmopolitan sensibility.) It's also the most iconoclastic of them all, a surrealist-influenced tearing down of aesthetic idols, a Dadaist gob of spit in the face of artistic pretension and Jamesian elegance. (Stylistic warning: the next sentence begins with an ironic pastiche of Henry James's stuttering qualifications. Unlike Mr. James, I can't control myself.) Additionally, and not least, Tropic of Cancer is, at times, quite beautifully written, an aspect of Miller's work that finds an echo in the eloquent ranting of Philip Roth's iconoclastic characters. (Which reminds me of a little example of the decline of American culture. A few years ago, one of the cable 'arts' channels produced a series titled Iconoclasts. In each episode, two wealthy celebrities interviewed each other. All of the interviewees had one thing in common: not a single one was any kind of iconoclast.)

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was one hell of an iconoclast. It's too bad that he's misread in schools as an official philosopher of Americanism, because he's much greater and much, much more dangerous than that. To read "Experience," "Self-Reliance" and "Circles" is to put yourself inside the mind of a man who writes, "The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is." and "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. This is the book in which Vollmann invites us to wander the world alongside him. It's a breathtaking journey, written in some of the finest prose of his generation. The Atlas is one of the best recent books I've read since the turn of the millennium, a real "you gotta read this" book.

The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche. To my mind, Nietzsche is the first Western philosopher to get the God stuff absolutely right. Not only is the Transcendental One dead, He only ever existed as a symptom of human weakness. "...[A] poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want anymore: this created all gods and afterworlds" (Thus Spake Zarathustra). If I must choose a single essential book by Nietzsche--and there isn't one; great stuff is scattered all over his oeuvre--my candidate would be The Gay Science.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Larkin's poems pull off the neat trick of being both exquisitely crafted and bracingly direct. "Church Going," "An Arundel Tomb," "The Old Fools," "The Trees," "Aubade," "Deceptions," "Mr. Bleaney," "Dockery and Son," "Ambulances,"... there are so many good ones. He's such a fine poet that one easily forgets he was a reactionary doofus. That's the way it should be.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann. I am an existentialist, and Sartre is my philosopher. It's been fashionable for a while to dismiss him as a chicly radical commie stooge, but like the parallel dismissal of Heidegger as a Nazi (and, for the record, Heidegger's Nazism was much more egregious than Sartre's communism; anyone who fails to distinguish between being a communist in De Gaulle's France and being a fascist in Hitler's Germany lacks the ability to distinguish anything; it's the difference between opposing the power structure in one's country and licking its jackboots), but, as I was saying before that parenthesis, the contemporary western elite's ideological dismissal of Sartre is a convenient way to avoid the hard work of reading and thinking about his writings. The best introduction to Sartrean existentialism is the lecture "Existentialism is a Humanism," included in this exceptional volume. The other selections from Sartre here are also very good. Being and Nothingness, which I've been reading in a piecemeal way for many years, is a quite difficult book that contains scattered passages of beautiful lucidity. It was written for a professional philosophical audience, and no one should confuse it with an introductory text. The several volumes of his translated essays and interviews (in English under many titles from many different publishers; New York Review Books has just published a good selection in one volume) and the novella Nausea are other good places from which to leap into the Sartrean world. I also enjoyed Ronald Hayman's biography of Sartre, a good enough and highly readable popular bio.

Novels and Other Writings (A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, etc.) by Nathanael West. This Library of America book brings together the complete works of the almost-forgotten father of the American dark comic novel. I discovered West when Harold Bloom mentioned him in passing in one of his books as an important precursor of Pynchon, an opinion I found amply confirmed when I read West's four novellas. He's not a Faulkner or Hemingway, but he's easily the equal of Flannery O'Connor and deserves to be as widely known and read. A Cool Million, published in 1934, is the Great American Political Satire. The demagogic rhetoric of West's American fascist leader, ex-President Nathan "Shagpoke" Whipple, will ring eerie bells in the minds of readers who've been paying attention to the Tea Party 'movement.' (In this context, that last word must carry its full complement of scatological overtones.)

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett or Genet? Well, Beckett was more important to me in my formative years. (I recall once telling the Russian  playwright and translator Sergei Task that my three favorite writers were Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov. Now, two decades later, I wouldn't be able to choose just three.) But today I'm leaning more toward Genet. A Parisian lowlife who can write like Proust trumps a terminally exhausted Irishman any day. It's too glib, but perhaps true nonetheless, to understand the dour Irishman as the end of something (Modernism) and the queer Frenchman as the beginning of something else (Postmodernism). When I was 20, though, and I first read Godot, it was like opening a door onto a world as bizarre and funny and bloody awful as the one I lived in. My reaction to that first reading of Godot bore a family resemblance to the effect of the films David Lynch was making during these same years: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart. There's a similar irrational strangeness in the two men's works, a Kafka-like quality that makes it difficult to draw any hard distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism. The latter is perhaps best seen as the late, late stage of the former, an analysis that can be analogized to contemporaneous developments in capitalism--but that's the stuff of Fredric Jameson's and David Harvey's works, not Beckett's, Genet's or Lynch's.

Collected Plays and Prose by Oscar Wilde. I will now attempt something completely original: I will write about Oscar Wilde without quoting him. The Wilde One is the most quotable writer of the past 200 years. He's even more quotable than Nietzsche (and that's saying a lot). He also wrote the funniest English play of the 19th century (The Importance of Being Earnest) and the most exquisite horror novel of a century that also gave us Frankenstein, Dracula and the bifurcating Dr. Jekyll. But he has been remembered as a wit, and that would likely have been his preference. For the Wildean paradox is not merely a game of words; it is a carefully crafted act of social satire, a verbal timebomb  elegantly tossed into the gaudy drawing rooms of late Victorian England. No wonder they destroyed him.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Relax, Ayatollah. It's only a dream. Several of them, actually, all amazing. Rushdie brought magic realism into British literature in a huge way with Midnight's Children, but Satanic Verses was the first of his novels to cross my stateside reader's radar. (A dubious thanx to the extreme hatchet-jobbers in Tehran for alerting me to this great novel by giving it the ultimate bad review.) Verses was the first magic realist novel I ever read, so of course it impressed me enormously. As a college student at the time, I even became something of a minor evangelist for the book, trying to convince professors to add it to their syllabi. Like all evangelists, I was ineffectual.

Close Range by Annie Proulx. Annie Proulx kicks ass. She kicked mine when I picked up this book and read "Brokeback Mountain." She kicked it again with "The Half-Skinned Steer." And several other tales herein left my posterior battered and bruised. She is one of the major American prose artists of our time.

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. For some reason, I put off reading Flaubert until my 30s, and the first book I read was Steegmuller's edition of his travel journals and letters, Flaubert in Egypt. Then came the beautiful Bovary, the brilliant Trois Contes, and finally the magnum opus, Sentimental Education. It's probably the greatest of all 19th-century French novels. It's no Sharknado, but it's good enough.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Like Walt Whitman and Michael Herr and (arguably) David Foster Wallace, Sterne was a one-book writer (Sentimental Journey is a comparatively slight and forgettable performance), but his one book was a mind-blower. Kundera writes somewhere that all novels descend from either Fielding or Richardson. I want to trifurcate that paradigm and propose a third line descending from Sterne and running straight on through Joyce and Pynchon to the infinitely jesting Mr. Wallace.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Speaking of Kundera, I think I'll let Kundera's novel speak for itself: "The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become."

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. He died so obscure that one obituary writer misspelled his name and another titled the obit "Death of a Once-Popular Author." Too bad he was dust before the opportunity for a last laugh arose. I think we should take a cue from Spanish writers who refer to Cervantes' masterpiece as 'the Quixote' and start referring to Melville's as 'the Dick.' For me, the Dick is one of the two greatest novels ever written by an American. Absalom, Absalom! is the other.

Great Short Works of Herman Melville. None of Melville's other novels have impressed me as much as the Dick, but much of his short fiction is brilliant--and often deeply weird, another quality I value in fiction (and life). Bartleby, Billy Budd, "Benito Cereno," and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" especially impress me.

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath. I haven't read Plath for years, but there was a time when she was the only poet for me, and Dostoyevsky was the only novelist. A bad time. Now I compare her to Van Gogh, another artist who achieved true originality, whose work became most vital, lucid and crystalline, while his life rushed toward self-destruction. This is the most dangerous aesthetic game. No one should play around with it.

Complete Poems by Anne Sexton. After Plath, I discovered Sexton, the second of the suicide sisters who presided over the 1960s American poetry scene. I preferred Sexton because her work was crueler and funnier; her deathwork was full of life.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Yes, she stole the novel's basic idea from Ulysses, a book she snobbishly derided. (Usually a fine and discerning critic, she allowed personal prejudices to get the better of her here.) And yes, To The Lighthouse is probably more beautiful and formally adventurous. But I find myself repeatedly drawn back into Clarissa Dalloway's day, maybe by Woolf's rather outrageous decision to counterpoint her prim and proper title lady with the shellshocked and impoverished suicide Septimus Warren Smith. The book has become so canonical by now that we've lost the sense of just how radical a choice this was.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I seem to be on a suicidal roll here, so let's not leave out the most recent inductee to this most dubious of literary societies. Infinite Jest is DFW's one great book (relatively few writers have written even one truly great book); there are very good things in the others (Bombardini, the Great Ohio Desert, the 'Brief Interviews,' "The Depressed Person," "Octet," "Good Old Neon," much of the journalism in Supposedly Fun Things... and Consider the Lobster), but much of Wallace's writing now reads like either preparation for or reaction to that one great book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It took me several tries to finally read Blood Meridian. My first attempts were waylaid early by the violence and stupidity of the characters and the general ugliness of the tale. I repeatedly returned it barely read to my bookshelf, but the beauty of McCarthy's prose lingered in my mind, and I repeatedly picked it up again. When I finally read the whole thing, it was like a bomb going off in my brain. For two or three days after finishing Blood Meridian, I wandered aimlessly around the crater it had blown.

Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings by Jonathan Swift. Swift is the secret English father of Voltaire. Swift is a Rabelais who knows when to stop. Swift is a satirist whose irony indicts us all. Swift is seriously funny, and major-league filthy. Decades ago, a scatology-free Gulliver was cartooned for the kiddies. That's too bad. Swift without shit is like Joyce without Guinness, Shakespeare without sack, Nabokov without little girls. "I like obsessions," Luis Bunuel has written, "my own as well as other people's, because they make it easier to deal with life; I feel sorry for people who don't have any." Don Luis was a foot man; Swift's obsession aimed higher.

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell). Solely in terms of his facility with images, Rilke was a poet of Shakespearean power. There are precious few of those; they are rarer than Vladimir Putin's smiles; they happen about as often as Kim Jong-Un says something sane. Rilke, at his best, is an inexpressibly beautiful poet. Death-obsessed, he imagines metaphors that leap into life. Rodin and Cezanne taught him to see, and he is their equal in words.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. How's this for a slick segue: One of Rilke's mistresses, Baladine Klossowska, was the mother of the painter Balthus, one of whose trademark nymphets adorned the cover of an early paperback of Lolita. I first read the novel in Alfred Appel's annotated edition, which was a great initiation into the parallel universe of Vlad the Inscriber. It might be interesting to read Lolita in terms of Nabokov's conflicted relationship to homosexuality. His brother and (if I recall correctly) one or two of his uncles were gay, and it seems clear that one of the targets of Lolita's satire is the rhetoric of homosexual apologetics, as refracted through the prism of Humbert's self-serving rationalizations of pedophilia.

Seven Plays by Sam Shepard. In our overspecialized society, where a person is permitted one function and one function only, most people know Sam Shepard only as a character actor who often turns up in westerns, the thinking man's Sam Elliott. Alternatively, those who know him as a playwright tend not to rate his acting too highly. Like most people outside theater circles (and those are very small circles indeed when set against the vastness of America), I knew him first as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Five years later, when I read Buried Child and True West, I learned that he was one of American theatre's few true geniuses. These two plays don't deserve comparison with O'Neill or Miller or Mamet; they deserve comparison with Faulkner and Melville, the two titans at the top of the American mountain.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This short novel is one of my Bunuelian obsessions. I reread it every two or three years. Everything that needs to be said about Gatsby has already been said by Lois Tyson in her highly readable textbook Critical Theory Today, which submits Fitzgerald's novel to readings based on all the major schools of criticism. So I'm going to take this opportunity to write about the Robert Redford / Mia Farrow film, a fine adaptation that everyone seems to hate. I've found very little to dislike in the movie: Redford, Farrow and Waterston are as good as can be expected, and Dern is great; it's a faithful adaptation; the cinematography is memorable if a bit too gauzily sentimental (but that was a 70s stylistic tic; it's in all the period films of the era). I suspect that so many people claim to hate the film because the negative opinion gained currency early and makes the criticizer feel culturally superior. It's a lazy opinion that has fossilized into general wisdom.

How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong. Erica Jong was one of the first writers to take me inside a woman's life, so she's tremendously important to the development of my literary mind. I had read Alice Walker earlier, and later I read Austen, Bronte(s), Eliot, Porter, Cather, O'Connor, Oates, H.D., Dickinson, Bishop, Sexton, Plath, Woolf, Rich, Morrison, Nin, Proulx, Murdoch, Sontag, Barnes, Hobhouse, Colette, Jelinek, Paglia, Lessing, Dove, Forche, Carter, Dworkin, O'Brien, Cixous, Atwood, Le Guin, Beauvoir, Gaitskill, Minot, Carson, Sappho, Kempe, Holmes, Welty, Roiphe, Irigaray, Olds, Wharton, and on and on... I'm surprised by how many women writers I've read, because I don't think of them as 'women writers;' I stopped making that distinction a long time ago. At the beginning of my adulthood, I read Jong's Isadora Wing trilogy (Fear of Flying, How to Save Your Own Life, Parachutes and Kisses), and the second one seemed the best: the smartest, funniest, and sexiest of the three. For a long time now, Jong has been paying the penalty that our literary establishment enforces upon writers who achieve phenomenal success: academic ignorance of her work, which is officially considered as weak and ephemeral as most other bestsellers. This is simple snobbery. And in the case of a writer as bookish, as unabashedly literary as Jong, it is also simple stupidity.

l'Assommoir by Emile Zola. Zola's greatest novel is insufficiently known to English-language readers, perhaps because its title obstinately resists easy translation. Penguin Classics avoided this problem by publishing it under the French title. An assommoir is a lower-class drinking establishment, a low dive, a boozer, a beer joint, and English lacks a single word to clearly signify both the establishment and the nature of its clientele. One English publisher called it The Dram Shop, which just sounds odd. Under any title, it's the defining novel of 19th-century naturalism. It will show you many things, and it will break your heart.

United States by Gore Vidal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, before he became a television creature, Larry King was the best thing on American radio. He was the Mutual network's late-night man, hosting a talk show that broadcast live (live!) from midnight to 5:30 every weeknight. The guests ranged from politicians and pundits to writers and musicians to comedians and conspiracy theorists, and King kept every guest on the show for three full hours, usually an hour of interview followed by two hours of listener questions and Kingly follow-ups. Then, after the guest made his drowsy exit, the host threw open the phone lines and spent two more hours fielding unscreened calls on any topic anyone awake at 4am wanted to talk about. If this sounds insane, well, it was insane--and it was also great entertainment. (I still remember King 'conversing' with an anonymous numerology fanatic from Winnemucca, Nevada, who thought he could prove using numerical equivalents of the letters in Gary Hart's name that Hart was the Antichrist. When the caller finished his crazy spiel, King asked calmly, "Okay, now can you tell me who's gonna win the second race at Aqueduct next Saturday. 'Cause that's some information I can really use, ya know?") The King show was popular liberal radio (something virtually unknown today), and it attracted Washington insiders and Tonight Show-level celebrities. During the early Reagan years, it was the little bit of late night sanity in my young life. It introduced me to Erica Jong and the concept of zipless fucking; it was where Dr. Ruth informed me that masturbation was perfectly natural (a big load off my tweenage wanker's mind); and it was the place where I first encountered Gore Vidal. The Greatest Gore circa 1982 was Mr. Savoir Faire. I delighted in his haughty voice, polished periods, withering wit and suave sparring with the krazy callers. His appearances on the King show led me to his novels, which led me to his essays, which will Horaceanly instruct and delight me until the end of (my) time.

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany. Who will be the Melville of our time? What great writer presently living will the future use to indict us with blindness, the way we look back on the late 19th century and want to scream, "Open your eyes, you dolts! There's this great book called Moby Dick by a great writer named Melville, and he's still living among you and you don't realize any of this because you're too busy memorizing 'Thanatopsis.'"? What rough and incomparable literary genius exists among us all-but-unacknowledged outside a small coterie? My candidate is Samuel R. Delany. Science fiction fans have known him for a very long time, but most of them know him the way aficionados of sea stories knew Melville--as a writer who did important work in the genre many years ago. Delany continues to write big, important books, but he now writes in the genre called 'literary fiction.' The Mad Man may be the most amazing of these.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I've said it before, and it's worth saying again: Upon finishing The Master and Margarita I thought, "This is it. This book is the reason writing was invented." Surely the Sumerians didn't go to all that trouble just so we could read Danielle Steele. The Master is the greatest Russian novel of the Soviet era written inside the U.S.S.R.. Given that Bulgakov worked during the Stalin terror, it's amazing that he died of natural causes. If he were writing today, Putin would imprison him.

Selected Essays by John Berger. One of John Berger's books is titled Just Looking, and that's how some of his best essays begin, with Berger standing before a work of art and just looking at it, letting it trip him into thought. Berger is that rare and necessary thing, a politically engaged aesthete. His work should be paradigmatic for all leftist criticism of art and literature. Like Arnold Hauser, Robert Hughes and Robert Herbert (and unlike the equally perceptive but less talented T. J. Clark), Berger combines a perceptive mind with an admirably agile pen. His criticism is literature.

(There are of course many other books that have rewired my intellectual circuitry, but they're not specifically literary pillars: Noam Chomsky's works; Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States; the complete works of the art critic Robert Hughes; Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul; Inwardness and Existence by Walter A. Davis; Joseph Campbell's Jungian flights; The Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek; John Richardson's multi-volume biography of Picasso; David Cook's History of Narrative Film; Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation; many others...Lewis Carroll's Alice books should've been included on the list of 'pillars;' they're two of the most subversive works to emerge from Victorian England, and I hold them closer than anything by Dickens.)

1 comment:

undergroundIshmael said...

Thanks for posting these. Informative and entertaining. Your leap to Ulysses echoes mine to The Dick (which it should be called). Luckily, Ishmael was also suffering a damp, drizzly November in his soul, so I followed him to the sea.