Friday, May 23, 2008

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Hilarious story by William Grimes in the New York Times today about 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (edited by Peter Boxall; Universe, 2006). After casting a skeptical eye over the list, Grimes picks three books he hasn't already read: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Uwe Timm's The Invention of Curried Sausage, and Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter. He gives a thumbs-up to Edgeworth ("a rollicking satire about trashy English aristocrats") and Timm ("an offbeat quest novel....The issues are big, the prose brilliant [it was translated by Leila Vennewitz], the execution deft"), and thumbs-down to Williamson ("T. E. Lawrence loved it. I didn't").

Of course, any list of this kind is intended to provoke an argument, so here goes:

1001 Books (you can see the list for yourself here) is supposedly limited to novels and short stories, but that limitation is applied pretty haphazardly. No poetry means no Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Ariosto, or Milton, though somehow Ovid's Metamorphoses makes the list. No drama means that Shakespeare is excluded. No nonfiction means that Montaigne's out, though somehow Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Rousseau's Confessions, Thoreau's Walden, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude (all, of course, essential reading) are in. Boccaccio's Decameron, Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are inexplicably omitted. Mark Twain is represented only by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while Paul Auster--admittedly a worthy inclusion--has fully eight titles on the list (counting each novel in The New York Trilogy separately). Three of Angela Carter's books are on the list, but not my two favorites. Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and Margarita is on the list, but not his brilliant Heart of a Dog. None of Bohumil Hrabal's novels make the cut, while eight of Ian McEwan's do. There was apparently no room for Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, or Eduardo Galeano; Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, and Kobo Abe are also absent. And despite the scolding imperative of the book's title, I will probably die without having read David Gemmell, Bret Easton Ellis or T. C. Boyle.

Anyway, I'm going to offer a much more modest selection of titles that didn't make onto the list of 1001. You don't have to read these books before you die, but if you do you may encounter some unexpected pleasures. In alphabetical order:

  • Felipe Alfau, Locos (Dalkey Archive, 1988). A series of interconnected short stories featuring the unruly denizens of Toledo's Cafe de los Locos: pimps, professional beggars, poets, runaway nuns, police. Trapped in the absurdities of their everyday lives, the characters rebel against their author, seize control of the narrative and start cropping up unexpectedly in each other's stories. Locos might be reminscent of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds or Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, except that it was published before either of them.
  • John Berger, Pig Earth (Pantheon, 1979). Another novel in short stories, Berger's book is set in the peasant villages of southeastern France. The rural struggle for survival--the unceasing labor, the sudden violence, the always-present possibility of catastrophe, the unexpected moments of beauty--is unforgettably described in Berger's stark, poetic prose. If you find Pig Earth compelling you may also want to read its sequel, Once in Europa.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (translated by G. H. McWilliam; Penguin, 2003). Ten aristocrats, five men and five women, flee 14th-century Florence to escape the plague. To pass the time, each character tells one story every day for ten days. The hundred stories that result are by turns comic, moralizing, tragic, anti-clerical, and bawdy--but mostly bawdy.

  • Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Penguin, 1996). 15-year-old Melanie, suddenly orphaned, is sent to live in London with her mute aunt and creepy uncle. That uncle runs a toyshop filled with bizarre creations, and he begins to include Melanie in grotesque tableaux featuring his life-size puppets. Carter's modern-day gothic is decidedly dark, but lusciously written. If you like this, you may also want to read Carter's The Bloody Chamber.
  • Géza Csáth, Opium and other stories (edited by Marianna Birnbaum, translated by Jascha Kessler & Charlotte Rogers; Penguin, 1983). Csath was indeed a morphine addict (as a doctor, he had ready access to the drug), and his stories are often hallucinatory. But it's not just drugs that distort the perceptions of his characters. My favorite short story in this collection, "Saturday Evening," is told from the point of view of a child for whom Saturday nights offer pleasures and terrors that loom impossibly large.
  • José Donoso, The House In The Country (translated by David Pritchard & Suzanne Jill Levine; Vintage, 1984). A fever dream of a novel, in which the adolescents of the extended Ventura family revolt against their parents and engage in incest, homosexuality and gender play while around them their estate descends into chaos.
  • Eduardo Galeano, the Memory of Fire trilogy (translated by Cedric Belfrage; Pantheon, 1985-1988). A history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day, told through a series of vignettes full of outrage, humor, and sadness. Galeano employs the skill of a historian, the techniques of a journalist, and the sensibility of a poet; it's a book that should be read by everyone in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Bohumil Hrabal, I Served The King of England (translated by Paul Wilson; Vintage, 1989). A comic novel of Czechoslovakia's tragic history. Ditie, a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, first serves aristocrats, then Nazis, then Communists, all the while doing his amoral best to survive the dizzying reversals of fortune, both of himself and his nation. If you enjoy this, you may want to read Closely Watched Trains.
  • Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (translated by Edith Grossman; New York Review Books, 2002). All seven Maqroll tales brought together in one volume. Maqroll is an adventurer, and the hopeless quests and impossible loves of this existential hero make for a series of ripping yarns.
  • Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (translated by Ian McLean; Penguin, 1996). A series of Arabian Nights-like stories within stories whose chief elements are the supernatural and the erotic. The recurring adventures of a soldier in 18th-century Spain travelling to his new post provide a frame for these fantastic tales, which are related by the Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and outlaws he encounters.

  • Philippe Soupault, The Last Nights of Paris (translated by William Carlos Williams; Exact Change, 1992). One of the few Surrealist novels that is truly dreamlike, Last Nights follows the narrator's pursuit of a femme mystèrieuse through the nocturnal landscape of 1920s Paris.
I could go on, but perhaps I'll list some additional titles in a future post. Comments and alternative lists welcome.

1 comment :

  1. Hi Pessimisissimo

    Just letting you know that after many years of being unavailable, Wojciech Has' film adaptation of 'The Saragossa Manuscript' is now out on DVD. Click on the name link to go to official fansite set up to accompany release:

    Best wishes