I published this list a few years ago, and as my ideas haven’t changed I thought I’d publish it again.
1. A Coat of Varnish
A detective story, but a rather odd one, lacking a detective, or rather what passes for the detective is oddly lethargic. A mystery with, on the one hand, an excess of mystery, and on the other very little. Embedded in this book is a deep critique of how our obsession with facts and knowledge distorts our understanding of what is truly important, ideas not unexpected from the man who started the two cultures argument. Written in Snow’s limpid style, utterly readable. He did write another detective story in the early 30s, Death Under Sail, which is clever, but primitive in comparison to this one.
2. A Dance to the Music of Time
Much the best serial novel among such competitors as Snow’s Strangers and Brothers and Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion. With a little thought, however, this initial judgment seems facile. There is Proust, of course. What about Mishima’s four-volume The Sea of Fertility? What about Lord of the Rings? Powell’s massive story is to some extent a roman a clef (see Hilary Spurling’s handbookInvitation to the Dance) It’s chock with interesting characters all through, and with the requisite upstanding colorless fellow at the center of it all, the window which looks out on the ocean shore, the eternal ocean which brings us these bottled messages. The character Kenneth Widmerpool who is woven through the book is a very grating monster of unfeeling who the reader will think impossible to humanize, but the narrator manages this feat. Other feats await a long, placid, satisfying investment.
3 A Room of One’s Own
Advice to writers on what is necessary, Woolf’s manifesto is also a statement of female independence. Actually, it is addressed to all of us, and concerns the fully realized life of the mind. A core statement of the respect which is due everyone.
4 A Year in the Maine Woods
Ravens n Winter
Here is much of what we know of one of the smartest creatures on earth, coupled with magnificent nature writing. Heinrich is in a right relationship to the spiritual world as well as the material one. A natural hermit, he spends winters alone, entering the lives of these wonderful birds. The books are also narratives of research and discovery (some of his graduate students can be seen in the background) and contain many insights into how this work is conducted. In 1960 Niko Tinbergen published a book on gulls, some of the founding work in modern ecology. Heinrich is a worthy heir to that. Maybe, as Thomas Nagel says, there are some experiences beyond the conscious mind’s ability to comprehend. Heinrich thinks it’s worth a try, anyway.
5 Alice in Wonderland
What is there to say? Martin Gardner’s annotations only add to the delight. Ranks with Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Rabelaise’s Gargantua and Pantagruel as examples of the profundity of games.
6 The Ambassadors
A bildungsroman. Lambert Strether is a likable naïf, the agent of convention, on whom Europe works as it did James himself. James’s familiar delicate, probing nuances are all here. From the inventor of the modern novel of 20th century realism and the master of The Art of Fiction
The first spy novel. Before Ashenden, spying was an adventure, not a job. Maugham the story-teller turned his eye on the melodrama of amateurs and showed us the first professional. Hitchcock made this into silly and ignorant film. Ashenden
8 Bartleby the Scrivener
Moby Dick was too obvious. Bartleby is the Great Inscrutable, with his mantra “I prefer not to.” rivaled only by Poe’s never more. Bartleby is an open rebuke to us all, whether we prefer to or not. Whatever it is, we’ve got it wrong.
9 I changed my mind about #9
10 Blood on the Dining Room Floor
I can’t imagine any list without Stein on it. This is a charming murder mystery in Stein’s inimitable, intelligent style. Hemingway observed that Stein discovered many things about rhythm and repetition, and so she did. It begins:
They had a country house. A house in the country is not the same as a country house. This was a country house. They had had one servant, a woman. They had changed to two servants, a man and woman that is to say husband and wife.
The first husband and wife were Italian. They had a queer way of walking, she had a queer way of walking and she made noodles with spinach which made them green.
Delicious. This is not Agatha Christie. This is not The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
As to who dunnit I will say nothing.
11 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Biographies of canonical Indian heroes and an encyclopedia of Native American history. Put it on your bookshelf next to Galloway’s One Vast Winter Count and a few others. What can be found here is knowledge essential to understanding the American West – the Old World, already civilized by the time of the Babylonians. I’m not qualified to comment on this book, other than having grown up a couple of hundred miles from Wounded Knee Creek. My college band played a concert in Pine Ridge one year and we were billeted on the residents for a night. I didn’t see a lot of difference between that place and the town of six hundred or so where my family’s home farm was. Tourists never see anything.
12 The Canterbury Tales
Must read aloud in Middle English to appreciate the poetry. Over-analyzed, as are most such cultural monuments. These are tales, as the title says, a form supposedly inherited from the bards and their ilk but in fact nothing more than the banter around the campfire (fireplace, stove) in the evening when the work is done, or to pass the time while the tribe is on the move to summer quarters (in flight to Hawaii). Some of them are of the killing the mammoth sort, some are what you say to strangers when asked who you are and where you’ve been, some are clever tales to be exchanged in something like a story-slam. And the whole thing is a shaggy dog story intended to go on however it may. Chaucer’s eye was sharp, even sly, but kindly. Therein lays the deep meaning of the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Also: Derek Pearsall The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography
13 China Men
Maxine Hong Kingston
The lives of Chinese men who immigrated to America, leaving their families behind, in search of money which they would send home from the Gold Mountain. Lives lived for the most part alone, for most never returned. Bachelor lives of toil lived in squats. An upsetting read, with a clinging odor like boiled cabbage. Kingston wrote another book about Chinese women, Woman Warrior, more formally autobiographical.
The Woman Warrior
14 Crime and Punishment
A poor student, one Raskolnikov, murders an old woman for a trifling amount of money. Raskolnikov occupies the first half of the book trying to be convicted of his crime. He succeeds, with the help of the policeman Porfiry Petrovitch, in making himself confess. The second half of the book is occupied with Raskolnikov’s efforts to be punished and recover his humanity. Not every writer could bring off the moral earnestness to be found here, nor this lugubrious plot of seeking guilt and punishment. Notable for the character of Porfiry Petrovitch. Lacking evidence, but convinced of Raskonikov’s guilt, he simply wears his victim out and uncovers the need to confess. Inspector Slimane in the 1937 film Pépé le Moko is an exact copy. (Remade in English as Algiers.)
15 The Crying of Lot 49
Much smaller and more efficient than V or Gravity’s Rainbow, but with all the Pynchon themes: paranoia and conspiracy, period detail, manic sex, done up in Pynchon’s arch, satirical style. Oedipa Maas, wife of small-time disc jockey Mucho Maas (typical Pynchon names) finds herself the executrix of the estate of the wealthy Pierce Inverarity and embarks, with a lawyer who she promptly seduces, on disentangling it. Matters quickly focus on a stamp collection containing stamps of the medieval courier Thurn and Taxis. And what were they up to, and why had Inverarity been interested? Pynchon’s first three novels are worthwhile. Everything else is perfunctory, derivative, and tired.
Also: Slow Learner: Early Stories a new book of self-criticism. What Pynchon thought he was up to.
16 The Death of Virgil
The last days of the Roman poet Virgil, evoked in a poetic, interior, lyrical way that does more justice to the poet than a simple narrative. Requires close and thoughtful reading, which it will repay.
17 Death on the Installment Plan
Journey to the End of the Night
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Destouches)
Proletarian doctor confronts depravity and desperation. Appalled .by the human condition, he decides to write about it. A breathless style marked by frequent ellipses to mark unfinished thoughts and incomplete assertions and an infinite and horrible continuation of more or the same. The first-person narrator is very angry. In his personal life Céline was an anti-Semite who was interned for a time after the war as a German sympathizer, but was ultimately freed. These books are worth reading. The rest are not.
Tom Clark. The Exile of Céline
18-20 mysteriously redacted
21 Dog Years
The postwar continuation of Grass’s path-breaking The Tin Drum. The same political commitments the same incantatory style. Big Money dominates the German reconstruction. This sequel casts its net wider, is more capacious, if that can be believed.
A murder mystery (incomprehensible) from the author of Jealousy (obsessive) and Last Year at Marienbad (boring). A detective, Wallace, arrives in a bleak de Chirico town in northern France, assigned to investigate a reported murder of which nothing is known, including whether there even was one. What Wallace discovers will amaze you. Robbe-Grillet was a spokesman of a 1950s reform movement which aspired to expunge from contemporary writing all limp description, meaning among other things most adjectives, which infect and detract from the actual facts of what happened.[See the affective fallacy in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity] Robbe-Grillet’s principles can be found in the book For a New Novel. The method is well suited to stories concerned with what we think we know, but actually do not, such as detective stories. The method is (or is thought to be) forbidding by those who limit their reading to less ambitious, more timid books, and so we have learned little from this intelligent author.
Michel de Montaigne
A much-admired exponent of the situational ethics now despised, a spite which only exposes the confused and specious thinking which Montaigne rejected. A standing rebuke to our pundits of frightened thought control. Montaigne is always lucid and humane, even in the long essay Apology for Raymond Sebond. in which he argues that as we cannot determine the truth of religion we might as well believe – a lucid exposition unlikely to convince anyone not already convinced. The authoritative translation is by Donald Frame.
Jorge Luis Borges
What is astonishing about this book (and others by Borges) is not so much the cleverness of the stories (fables?) themselves but the incredible density of them. In the shortest and possible space Borges fits references and associations which resonate with vast areas of human culture and endeavor. The tardis of literature.
26 The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney
Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson)
Volume one, Australia Felix (1917); volume two, The Way Home (1925); volume three, Ultima Thule (1929). Acquired its collective title 1930. Notable for rich characterizations, and especially more than the eponymous Mahoney, his wife, a young initially self-deprecating woman who finds herself thrust into resourceful competences when her husband is disabled by mental illness. One of the great Australian novels. Check out Wikipedia for a many-page plot summary.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Originally published in 1982, I reviewed it in 1987 – fortunately laudatory, since it has acquired a formidable reputation since her death shortly after the book was published. It’s hard to say what this book is. Formally classified as fiction, but just as easily regarded as history, memoir, poetry, manifesto. Dictée was a power word of the Surrealists, associated with Breton’s ideas of automatic writing. There is indeed an air of taking dictation, a semi-controlled passion. Cha was a Korean nationalist. Much of the book is concerned with Korea during the years of Japanese occupation; to give a full précis or even an adequate summary would be impossible. It is divided into nine parts, named for the nine Classical muses; Dictée is stuffed with references of this sort but emphatically not limited by them. A challenging but enlightening book.
20 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
If you thought you knew why some things are good and others bad, read on and be exposed as the follower of fashion that you are. Chock with data. One of the key concepts here is that of habitus, a set of linked practices and beliefs which persons of a particular class, economic status, or other group hold in common. These things come in packages. If you believe or prefer this thing, then you are more likely to prefer this other thing. Given this insight, it becomes possible to ask (and answer) questions on matters of cultural capital, tastemakers, the influx of new standards, and so forth. The ideas in this book are explored further in Bourdieu’s The Field of Cutural Production. A book which puts to work the same methods is Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies. Among Collins’s discoveries is that the optimum number of competing systems of thought is three. A monopoly, such as Confucianism had at one time, smothers growth. More than four systems of thought produces a muddle. Philosophies tend to fuse or fission to settle on the optimum three systems.
This way of thinking tends to undermine ideas of fixed truths, aesthetic standards, canonical lists.
21 Pierre Bourdieu
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature
The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change
27 Hadrian VII
Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe)
Rolfe was a frustrated man, desperate to become a Catholic priest, a vocation which he repeatedly failed to be admitted to. So he wrote a book about the first English Pope. By far the best part of the book is the long initial section detailing the Papal election procedures and the machinations which produce the stalemate of the Cardinals.
AJA Symons wrote quite a good biography of Rolfe. The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons
28 The Heart of Darkness
A foundational metaphor for what lies below human civilization, an ineradicable element of humanity itself. Tapping the mythic core of story, Conrad’s tale has been many times borrowed and adapted, but remains definitive. Told impeccably by the unimpeachable Marlow to some friends relaxing on a ship awaiting the tide on the Thames, the story approaches its black and horrifying center with excruciating and methodical stealth, leaving us to imagine until the very end what evil might await. A tense and compact short novel from one who is among the best of writers and a one of the three, with James and Ford, who codified the principles of literary Modernism.
29 Invisible Cities
Calvino is possibly best-known for Cosmicomics, but I like this better. It’s a quiet little meditation or poem, a set of little inventions told by Marco Polo to the aging Kublai Khan who senses the end of his empire and himself. Marco describes for him the cities he has seen – fat and thin, hidden, cities and eyes, and names, and the dead, and the sky – but in the end they are all the same city: a temporal succession, “future cities already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”
Impeccably voiced, a claim more than usually apt, as the book consists entirely of dialogue. Gaddis’s skill at capturing the subtleties of the way we speak is uncanny. No he seds and yet we always know who is talking. No it izzes and yet we always know where they are and how situated. No authorial remarks and adjectives and yet we always know what these people want and how they intend to get it. Gaddis’s previous book The Recognitions is also much admired, and with good reason, but it has no hold on this one for acid humor. The subsequent A Frolic of His Own is just as funny but less acid; there is little to prefer among them.
Frolic of His Own
31 Japanese Inn
Statler recounts the history of a single Japanese inn which stands beside the road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto over the last 400 years. Because of its location and of its high-born guests, a great deal is known about this inn and its generations of innkeepers, and we ourselves learn a lot of Japanese history from this charming book.
Alone on a vast banana plantation, a man whose wife is cheating on him, told in a manner ideally suited to such a subject. The jealous observer goes over and over the facts of his surroundings and the little which happens there, resolutely ignoring, as a jealous man would, his jealousy, thereby reducing it to a thing which can be pushed under the bed with the dust kittens. Resembles the minimalism of Philip Glass or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Riveting.
33 Judge Dee
Robert Van Gulik
Van Gulik was a Dutch Sinologist long resident in China. Dee was a real person, a Confucian public official living around the year 800, about whom tales were told of his acuity and the strange problems with which he was confronted. Van Gulik translated a selection of these (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) which he modernized with respect to style to make them both more readable and self-explanatory. Having done so, he decided to write more of them himself, the first of which, The Chinese Maze Murders, tells of the first assignment of the young magistrate and his family retainer Sargent Hoong. In the course of the following tales the Judge meets and subdues two robbers who become his loyal assistants, and through successive promotions rises in stature and reputation. These are charming and clever detective stories.
34 The King
Barthelme wrote also a version of Snow White which is decorous but not quite virginal. This is a story of King Arthur and his troubles with the unfaithful Guinevere and her philandering paramour, Lancelot. It is marked by a distinctive voice which is part children’s story and part Gertrude Stein – an excellent voice, humorous and elegiac at the same time. Deceptively simple.
35 Life on the Mississippi
If you like comprehensive books, this is one of them. Twain’s instantly recognizable voice with its undertone of amusement. Facts, experiences, history, tales, sights and sounds, how to steer a riverboat in two feet of water at night when you can’t see where you’re going – what more could you want?
36 Life, A User’s Manual
Perec is the fellow who undertook to write (in French, of course) a book without the letter e. He was a member of a group of writers organized under the acronym Oulipo, which translates as “workshop of potential literature”. Prominent members have been Raymond Queneau (a founder, in 1960) and Italo Calvino (see this list under “Invisible Cities”. La vie, mode d’emploi concerns the residents of a single apartment house (hôtel) in Paris. Among the numerous subplots in this ensemble piece is one concerning a maker of jigsaw puzzles of the intricate precision-cut wooden sort. As you might guess, this is of wider significance.
Oulipo founder Raymond Queneau’s most popular book Zazie in the Metro has been translated into a bazillion languages plus a movie. Queneau also wrote Exercises de Style, which was a staple of the stage revue Les Freres Jacques (a troupe of four men) at the Rose Rouge for years after WWII. If you can imagine such a book turned into vaudeville. I can’t.http://ocotilloarts.com/Nine/Nine8.jpg
37 Lord Grizzly
Frederick Manfred (Feike Feikema)
The story of Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear on the northern Great Plains far from any habitation, White or Indian. Glass crawled two hundred miles on his hands and knees. He bound his wounds, found food and water, and survived. A masterpiece of adventure writing, far above anything else Manfred wrote. Unfortunately, he attached the story of Glass’s subsequent quest, which is a piece of ordinary work, but it remains a memorable read in spite of that.
22 The Maine Woods
Henry David Thoreau
The best of Thoreau’s less read travel books, an account of a climb of Mt. Katahdin. Astute as always, with nothing stinted of Thoreau’s unique voice. Thoreau was a dedicated armchair traveler. John A Christie’s Thoreau as World Traveler (Columbia, 1965) amounts to a compendium of the best travel books of the first half of the 19th century.
38 The Martin Beck novels
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö
This husband and wife pair of Swedish writers set out in the 1950s to produce a set of ten novels which, taken in chronological sequence, would form a critique of declining Swedish society along with a portrait of group of detectives, headed up by Martin Beck, as they age. Hardly a new idea, but unusual in the detective genre, similar to the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain but constructed as a set rather than an open-ended series. The crimes and their solutions are competent and interesting but mixed. What carries the series forward is the aging detectives themselves.
39 The Master and Margarita
I read this book so long ago that I’ve forgotten what it was about. Connoisseurs of tequila? Mustard pizza? Oh, yes.. It was, um – The plot alternates between two venues, 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate. Stuffed with historical characters, it concerns of the Devil (a dapper gentleman) and … Well, there is a whole website devoted to this book.
40 The Master of Go
A newspaper reporter recounts the passing of mastery from one generation to the next. This elegy contains much knowledgeable discussion of the progress of the game over many days, just as an account of a Western chess tournament would. Sad and uplifting simultaneously.
#41-43 changed my mind
44 The Metamorphosis
Who hasn’t heard of poor Gregor Samsa and his life as a beetle? This has to be one of the most frightening and melancholy metaphors for the human condition ever invented.
45 The Mysteries of Paris
Eugène Sue, 1843
With Alexandre Dumas, the originator of the newspaper serial. Sue got rich from this book. Originally a writer of adventure stories copied from Fenimore Cooper, Sue began in the 1840s to write longer and more complex tales. The Mysteries of Paris concerns the efforts of a minor German noble, Baron Gerolstein, to find his daughter, kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He appears in the Paris underworld as Rodolphe, and in this guise pursues his inquiries. Sue discovered a social conscience in the writing of this book, which was immensely popular and read by all classes from the nobility to the servant. A romping good melodrama, undeservedly little known in English since the 1870s. There is no contemporary translation, but used copies are not hard to find. It is available on Kindle for free, and there are a few paperback reprints also. The only biography of Sue is in French, by Jean-Louis Bory: Eugène Sue, le roi du roman populaire.
46 The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Pye distinguishes between two major regimes: the workmanship of certainty and the workmanship of risk. The first corresponds to machine processes; the use of machines is intended to achieve incremental progress toward the goal of flawless reproduction. The second corresponds to handmade processes which value the process equally with the product and seek chance and accident rather than control, a set of concepts close to the Japanese idea of wabi sabi. Much flows from this.
If you Google “Pye workmanship” you will see some of the range of activities to which Pye’s ideas have been applied. What about reading? There are the analytically inclined people who survey the possible interpretations, gather the evidence and the expert opinion, crafting what they hope will be a definitive argument. So how would you describe a risky, handmade style of reading?
46 Novel on Yellow Paper
My copy of this book actually is printed on yellow paper – the stuff an underemployed secretary might use to write a novel on in idle moments, as is the case here. Smith was a poet, with one of the all-time great book titles to her credit – Me Again – a title which gives the flavor of her poetry and of this book.
47 Pale Fire
Everyone who wants to tone up their list mentions this book.
A novel in footnotes. The pedantic neighbor of the poet John Shade attempts to explicate the 1000-line poem left at Shade’s death. It’s quite a good poem. The explicator goes awry at a number of points – in fact, assumes or concludes quite the opposite of the truth, misreadings and false assertions about false premises which we are expected to disentangle ourselves. Not as hard as it looks, unless you are expecting a firm conclusion. Nabokov had some cogent ideas on how to read a novel which he delivered in a series of classes at Cornell and which the students very presciently recorded. Lectures on Literature
48 The Palliser novels
A set of six novels published between 1864 and 1879, in order: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children. They are political novels, but the first is also about the condition of women and the third is a detective story of sorts. During much of the last century Trollope stood in the shadow of Thackeray and was thought rather plodding.
My copy of Phineas Finn is apparently the first American edition (Harper, 1868) which I rescued from the trash. It had lost its covers, the sewing was almost gone, and the paper is very brown. Its one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it.
49 Parade’s End
Ford Madox Ford
A set of four novels concerning the life of one Christopher Tietjens, something of a sad sack who bungles most of the problems he encounters due to an extreme sense of propriety and what is the right thing to do. Lugubrious. Morbid, almost. These should be sufficient recommendations for the author of some very fine historical novels, that masterpiece of unreliable narrators The Good Soldier and the editor of the Transatlantic Review.
Ford’s style is like a massive low-pressure system which sucks you in and won’t let go, usually accompanied by unrelenting rain. Hemingway complained of his bad breath. He was originally named Ford Hermann Hueffer and was the grandson of Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite painter of moralizing history pictures.
50 Philosophical Investigations
As was the case with Nabokov’s Cornell lectures, these are class notes. Wittgenstein’s place in contemporary philosophy needs no more discussion than Shakespeare’s in theatre. The book is by turns puzzling as a koan, witty, and epigrammatic, a species of poetry. At random, #326:
We expect this and are surprised at that. But the chain of reasons has an end.
The World as I Found It
This last is quite a good novel about the relationship of Wittgenstein and Russell in Cambridge.
I’ve decided not to include this book because of Pale Fire above, #47 already discussed. This is a small book, anyway, and not typical of Nabokov. It belongs to the genre of “college novels” which is in turn a sub-genre of the bildungsroman except that in this case Timofey Pnin seems to learn nothing from the shabby treatments and humiliations which are his lot except how to endure them. There are no Nabokovian challenges here. There is little of his famous pyrotechnics. It is, in fact, a simple story so heartbreaking as to be unbearable and so I have chosen to say nothing about it.
Here are three bits for comparison
When Continents expire
The Giants they discarded – are
Promoted to endure –
We expect this and are surprised at that.
But the chain of reasons has an end.
on the philosophy mattress tonight.
My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after
and Aristotle’s Ethics
Which of these is by Dickinson? Is there any important difference between them? They are from very different projects – different enough that we might say contradictory or mutually exclusive – but if you didn’t know that? If you took them all to be enigmatic little stories requiring rather more of the usual exegesis? The Collected Stories of – who? You. For the record, the second is from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations quoted above in item 50. The third is from Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. (Phillips is a book artist who paints or scribbles on the pages of books so as to bring out hidden qualities. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel )
My point is this: that we limit ourselves in our reading in entirely unnecessary ways. Heidegger’s Being and Time is notoriously difficult, but what is not known (except among the cognoscenti) is that it was actually written by James Joyce under a pseudonym. It is also true that many poems thought to be Dickinson’s are actually bits which Gertrude Stein edited out of Tender Buttons. Who says otherwise? Literature is supposed to liberate the mind, isn’t it? Help us to new ways of thinking with the right side of the brain? Why is it supposed to be hard?
There are a lot of editions of Dickinson. Use the reading edition of the poems edited by RW Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)
53 Pogo: The Jack Acid Society Black Book
Cold War humor. A talking opossum bandies metaphysics and political doctrine with a crocodile. Kelly was completely out of the box in his time and he still is.
Not Cold War humor. A talking mouse bandies history and moral wisdom with his father, another talking mouse.
55 The Rabbi’s Cat
Jewish humor. A talking cat bandies metaphysics and Jewish doctrine with her rabbi. Hilarious drawing, great story lines. Out of a proliferating number of comic strips, one of the best.
56 A Contract with God
Not Jewish humor. Eisner wrote and drew The Spirit in the 1940s. In his preface to this book his remarks on the early history of graphic story-telling suggest how much needs to be studied and written about this art form.
57 The Smiley trilogy
John le Carré
The definitive spy novel, which invented much of the terminology now used by actual spies.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People sandwich the rambling and neglected The Honourable Schoolboy. This is hard-edged stuff for the most part, with occasional breaks for one of Smiley’s peeved sermons. The best of his earlier work, such as A Murder of Quality or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is mushy by comparison, and everything since has been whiny and self-involved.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Honourable Schoolboy
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
A Murder of Quality
58 The Rings of Saturn
This appears to be a collection of 91 short pieces on diverse subjects grouped into ten – um, ten what? There is some order hidden here. Sebald’s epigraph reads: The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.
Ten rings, then. The remnants of a destroyed self. An autobiography taken to bits and recast – literally strewn like grain – into this new form. But not fertile seeds. Rather cold crystals and flinty rocks. And what is this planet at their center, the fons et origo, shrouded, immense, too near?
Bits of stuff in orbit will sort themselves in time into an internal order. What order? From the outer ring to the inner, from one edge of each ring to the other, there is a principle at work, a force analogous to gravity which locks these apparently diverse remnants into some reminiscence of their former whole.
Ought there not be 100 of them instead of 91? Perhaps I miscounted. Perhaps
the absence of formal symmetry points to something deeper. Perhaps it’s an explosive accident of lost wholeness. Perhaps it’s a snare, drawing you through the rings in search of truth, of reasons, until you get too close.
59 Rites of Spring
An absolutely lucid exposition of the development of avant-garde Modernism. Who were these people and what did they hope to accomplish? Find out here.
60 That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana
Carlo Emilio Gadda
One of the best detective novels of all time, despised by that curmudgeon Jacques Barzun, itself a recommendation of sorts. Detective Ingravallo of the Roman constabulary investigates the robbery and murder of a cousin, an inquiry which steadily expands to include all of Rome and its people of all classes and origins. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the crime is solved in the end. The solution hinges on a green scarf.
Jacques Barzon and Wendell Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime/Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres This is the second edition.
I must say that on a trip to Rome I located the Via Merulana and the building in which the crime occurs. It is exactly as Gadda describes it. even now. Since I almost never visit literary landmarks, this is a measure of my liking for the book. In London I once stayed at the end of the curved street where Jane Austen lived, but this was an accident and doesn’t count. Then, in the mountains where I now live there was a cabin occupied by Zane Grey, which I went to look at. Shortly afterwards it burned down. There is, I assure you, no connection between these events.
61 To the Lighthouse
A family drama now wrongly overshadowed in the public mind by Mrs Dalloway, which is this novel’s inferior. At a summer home, the residents plan a trip to visit a lighthouse offshore. The plan falls through. In a long center section, time passes as the house stands empty and begins to decay, a tour de force on this subject, in which the house is the only character. In the third part some of the characters of part one return, and the trip is finally completed. As with all of Woolf, to be read for the writing and the character portraits equally. Both are notable for subtlety and nuance. To be savored like a meal in a five-star restaurant.
62 Tropic of Cancer
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Here we have two books on the same subject, which is how to live fully. The salacious reputation of the first is of course an artifact of its time and greatly over-rated. Miller arrived in Bohemian Paris after it was over, which did not deter him from writing this book about a poor bohemian living hand to mouth and surviving the joy. Toward the end of his life, Miller arrived at the hippie commune party twenty years early, which did not deter him from writing a charming book about the community of Big Sur, a remote area of California seacoast south of Monterey. I finished both books consumed by envy. On the subject of Miller, the third volume of his Paris trilogy, Black Spring, contains a short piece “The Angel is my Watermark” which is one of the great descriptions of the creative process. If you don’t know it, take a look.
63 Trout Fishing in America
The only worthwhile thing Brautigan ever wrote, but worthwhile it is. Quirkedly poetic, episodic, goes nowhere. “Trout Fishing in America” is an embodied fishing magazine, the main character, who (which?) begins by commenting on the cover of its own book, that being a photograph of Brautigan himself with a companion in a San Francisco park. As a new graduate student at the University of Oregon with hopes of admission to the MFA program, I found a just-published copy of this book in the University bookstore before classes started. It was utterly revolutionary for me then and has remained so.
Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan
64 Under the Volcano
Drunken diplomat, lots of tequila and some of it dubious, bodegas, Mexican peasants, relationships twisted like ropes of yucca fiber. It’s The Day of the Dead, 1938. This is Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels he completed, neglected but withal one of the formative texts of the last century. A must read.
65 War Music
Logue has re-created a piece of the Iliad which will take you by the throat in a way no translation ever could.
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upward of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal fleet.
Now look along the beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty’s silent power stops your heart
Logue was one of the expatriate generation in Paris after WWII, and an editor of the little magazineMerlin which first brought Samuel Beckett to wide attention. Around this time he was making a small living publishing pornographic novels with Olympia Press. In this photo of the Merlin people, Logue is at the left of the front row. http://ocotilloarts.com/Nine/Nine17.jpg
66 Memoirs of Hadrian
Published in 1951, twenty-five years after it was first conceived. The Roman emperor Hadrian writes a letter to his cousin and successor Marcus Aurelius, in which he meditates on poetry, music, and philosophy, recalls his military campaigns, and recounts his love of Antinous. A first-rate, fully imagined historical novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian
The Fantômas tales were written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre beginning in 1911. Souvestre died in 1914. The series was carried on after that for another eleven volumes by Allain alone.
Fantômas comes from the long tradition of the picaresque and his particular type would have been best known to the English as Raffles. But Fantômas is a more ambiguous and dangerous character than Raffles. He can be seen as a prototype combination of the early, dark Batman, the insouciant James Bond, and the modern-day serial killer. Cover illustrations portray him against a lurid Technicolor background, in evening wear with cane and top hat and an ominous smile. The official detective in the Fantômas tales is one Inspector Juve. Needless to say, Juve makes no headway, and his obsession with catching the arch-criminal draws suspicion onto himself as possibly insane. Might he himself be Fantômas? Juve has a sidekick/partner (Jérôme Fandor, a reporter) and gets occasional indirect help from Fantômas’s mistress Lady Beltham, and Fantômas’s daughter Hélène. The real, iconic Detective is of course Fantômas himself, and one of the central and enduring interests of the tales is how he is able to play both roles, detecting his own crimes, working through surrogates like Juve to see that all the right people (excepting himself) are punished. The basic plot has roots in ancient theater and folklore and is also the parent of, for example, the modern caper flick such as The Thomas Crown Affair. The Fantômas website supplies more infrmation http://www.fantomas-lives.com/fanto3.htm but repositions the character and the series into something for teenaged genre fandom.
Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
The Collected Fantômas
68 The Man Without Qualities
May be the world’s longest unfinished novel. The ordinary American reader will struggle with the apparent silliness of the satire, which has a Monty Python quality but as with Python requires a lot of history and culture to appreciate – in this case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To be “without qualities” is more or less a state of existential alienation, the condition of “absurdity” later described by Camus, Sartre, and others. This is one of those books where you read a couple of hundred pages and then ask “Why on earth am I reading this?” and then go on reading another couple of hundred pages anyway. While you are poring it, you might look into these associations:
Boredom. Patricia Meyer Spacks
A Brief History of Time
Tristram Shandy (thought to be the world’s longest shaggy dog story)
Considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, this anonymously authored and illustrated book was printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love. Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours – well, you see what sort of thing goes on with Musil. Your eigenschaftlich mind tends to wander…
Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind
A Brief History of Time
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
More Italian Hours & Other Stories
Aldus & His Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
69 The Arcades Project
A ragbag book. For years, Benjamin acquired quotations, anecdotes, and any sort of thing related to the covered shopping arcades to be found around Paris. As the project continued the connection with the original interest became more tenuous – the most significant part of the book is a long essay on Baudelaire. The entire collection is organized in Benjamin’s own filing system; it is a repository from which he drew the material for many of his published articles. The contents of the (virtual) file drawer itself were published in 1999. The closest literary form would perhaps by the Japanese pillow book; it is something like a dictionary arranged according to an inscrutable logic. So, for example, item T5.2 (modes of lighting) “The cashier; by gaslight, as living image – as allegory of the cash register” (p570) What does this mean? I don’t know. Benjamin was a powerful thinker, a major figure of the inter-war years. The Arcades Project is the material of that creativity. It is a pirate’s treasure, Monte Christo’s bottomless chest of loot. There’s too much of it to spend, so you needn’t be burdened with any pusillanimous warnings to spend it wisely.
Here’s a link to the Paris Review interview with Matthewshttp://www.theparisreview.org/intervi…
Cigarettes is a fairly conventional novel constructed according to rules known only to Matthews himself. The book plays close attention to the subtleties and nuances of relationships – an attention which, it has been observed, is close to that of Jane Austen’s. Matthews wants to show how relationships are based on false perceptions, so that one character’s view leaves its impression on another’s narration, producing endless revisions and versions… This is beginning to make Cigarettes seem a difficult, dry intellectual novel, which it very much is not. It’s small and tart, just right after a heavy meal.
71 Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan
Earl Derr Biggars
Biggars based Chan on a real detective, Chang Apana. The original novels (there were only five) are much better than the films. Chan is taken seriously there as a working detective, and he may be one of the first appearances of a fully humanized Chinese man in American literature.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang
72 Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders
At the time this book was written (1995) The Museum of Jurassic Technology actually existed. It was the creation of David Wilson, one of the great polymath eccentrics. On one level there is the magnitude, the splendiferous variety of the things which Wilson has collected. On another level is the arrangement of this material by a curatorial logic that opens new sets of ideas and associations. And then there is the cautious, playful hedging of the scientist, the artist – perhaps, it may well be that, consider this alternative …
A marvelous little book which will remind you of the joys of thought and discovery.
73 The Alexandria Quartet
Four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) providing four perspectives on a single set of events and characters. The first three are set in Alexandria before and during WWII; the fourth takes place in Corfu after the war. In what is for me a unique instance of synesthesia, this book tastes salty-sweet like nachos. Or perhaps it’s Turkish Delight. It certainly is exotic. Combines hothouse love and menace in a compelling story which deepens with every retelling.
Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1968)
A nice problem in explication, a restatement of Molly Bloom’s final chapter of Ulysses (Penelope), which I consider to be in its turn the best expression of adult love ever written. Jefferson Airplane was the epitome of San Francisco rock along with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Santana.
Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip
75 Da Vinci’s Bicycle (Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier)