Loose Canon: Top books from the bottom shelf
Show hosts: Dmitry Kharitonov
In 2007 Normal Mailer was asked who his favorite hero of fiction was; he replied: “Let's say not the hero but the protagonist from whom I learned the most. That might be Anna Karenina.” This enigmatic answer certainly invites further questions, but the message is, I suppose, clear enough: Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” published in 1877, is not something to be taken for granted, that is to say, not just another great novel. It’s one of those great novels that almost everyone knows, one of the most visible symbols of Russian literature and one of the most distressing stories ever told.
Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” is many things, but it’s not funny; call it awesome, call it iconoclastic, call it what you will, but it doesn’t even remotely resemble what we’re accustomed to call “a comedy.” This is why “Dead Souls”, a novel by Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842 – he preferred to call it “a poem,” though – could be the most daring parody ever.
This is the best I can write ever for all of my life, said Ernest Hemingway of his 1951 novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” He also called it an epilogue to all his writing and what he had learned, or had tried to learn, while writing and trying to live. An inner cynic in us should probably utter something like “never trust a novelist,” but whether we trust this novelist or not, such a confession may make us want to take a closer look at this work. Then there is the Nobel prize Hemingway won in 1954; yes, it is a lifetime achievement award, but “The Old Man and the Sea” had to have something to do with it.
We know next to nothing about Homer, one of the founders of our culture, and it’s good, because this lack of knowledge somehow brings us closer to the poetic absolute his two epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” created around the eight century BC, represent. He is more than a myth and yet not exactly a person, so his poems are completely devoid of him and cannot be reduced to his personality.
Great books become and stay great mostly by being read into; there’s no way of escaping that. Things read into them vary, but never run out, and not every great book is capable of sustaining their weight. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, published in 1884 in England and in 1885 in America, still seems to be standing, although the weight it has to carry is a great one, no doubt about that. It’s one of those seemingly children’s books that became canonical works of fiction and are treated accordingly, which means, among other things, that critics wouldn’t show mercy to them.
There is a lot of funny moments in Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” but one of the most hilarious comes when the protagonist, a writer, finds himself in a bed with a groupie who tells him that she wrote some film scripts and asks if he has ever heard of Chekhov; he says that he has and then she says: “I write like him.” The funniest thing is that she’s probably telling the truth, because Chekhov invaded and largely transformed everything that had to do with theatre, so the script writing couldn’t remain intact. Rather than trying to single out the play that made the biggest impact, let’s assume that “The Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya”, “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” composed between 1895 and 1903, are to be regarded as a grand single work that pushed the limits of playwriting and therefore acting, directing and understanding of plays.
Anthony Burgess once called “Ulysses”, a novel by James Joyce that is generally and rightfully regarded as one of the most magnificent, ambitious and difficult books ever, “inimitable” and “possible mad.” Some decades before that Karl Jung had read it and decided that Joyce was a schizophrenic. It’s ironic, because the “madness” of this book, if one chooses to call it that, is tremendously rational; indeed, “Ulysses” is very sane, actually it’s one of the sanest books we’ll ever know, which, of course, is not to say that it’s not almost impossible to read.
We necessarily judge everything from our point of view, or rather from our perspective, which, frankly, is the best we can do; does it mean that we can’t hope to understand products of other cultures? In a way, it does; do we have to abandon all hope? Not necessarily. What we need to do is to accept it, and, luckily, we have some pretty good instructors. In 1969 John Fowles published a novel called “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” that looked very much like your typical Victorian novel at first but was, in fact, not only modern, but postmodern.
The psychology of reading is a peculiar and mysterious field, and no less peculiar and mysterious should be the nearby field of the psychology of discussing works of fiction; sometimes one can’t help feeling rather awkward discussing a text which is probably due to the ever-astonishing fact that certain texts matter so unbelievably greatly. Or used to do so, which leads to other overwhelming ruminations. One shouldn’t be embarrassed to feel ill at ease when talking about something much bigger than him- or herself, and some books surely do qualify. “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is certainly one of those; this dramatic play in two parts, published in 1808, 1829 and 1832, is of such importance to Western culture that it’s impossible to imagine it without the story of a knowledge-eager scholar who makes an arrangement with the devil who, in his turn, made a frightening bet with God.
“That's not writing, that's typing” was Truman Capote’s scathing remark concerning Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road”, written in 1951 and published in 1957 to serve as an embodiment of the Beat sensibility. Although it’s well known that Capote wouldn’t miss a chance to show off his merciless wit, Kerouac kind of brought it upon himself by insisting that he had written the novel in three weeks typing it on a roll of teletype paper. Whether this story was true or not, it augmented the legend this book was to become, demonstrating what the Beat movement Kerouac represented was like and what it was about.
Few Russian novels can be said to have acquired a cult following; then again, there are few Russian novels so designed as to facilitate such an acquisition. That is not to say that Mikhail Bulgakov has consciously intended his novel “The Master and Margarita” to appeal to susceptible people prone to take certain things all too seriously.
Everything great has a way of perpetually fascinating us, and though it may seem hard to be fascinated by the same thing over and over again, it’s actually not. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813, is fascinating in more senses than one. It’s not only because this novel remains relevant regardless of the huge gap between our world and Austen’s: after all, every great book is relevant despite having more or less nothing to do with our present condition.
One of the best thing about reading is to see the connections between books of our times and those of times long gone. It’s not about the good old “nothing ever changes” routine; it’s about our ability to comprehend how something beautiful and complicated works. “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio, completed around 1351 and revised 20 years later, is a book that has contributed greatly to the formation of modern storytelling and the modern self.
There is no shortage of terrific and terrifying books about the human condition and the mankind and the world we create, yet, obviously, some books stand out. These books are hard to love and hard to forget: they simply won’t go away, which is why we need them. We have to understand ourselves and – sad but true – these books help a lot. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, published in 1954, is probably one of one the most harsh and disturbing works of fiction ever created; the worst part, the really bad news is that the word “fiction” might actually be misleading here.
If a novel set in the past becomes a symbol of this past, it has to be regarded as something much bigger than a period piece, especially if this novel is also one of the most famous representations of, say, the American Dream. “The Great Gatsby” by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925, meets these conditions: it symbolizes the Jazz Age and it represents the American Dream, embraced in the novel by Jimmy Gatz, or Jay Gatsby, who becomes a millionaire by somewhat questionable means – but, as we learn as we read, it’s not money he was really after.
In 1962 John Steinbeck, an American novelist, won the Nobel Prize for literature; according to the committee, he was awarded “for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” There is little doubt that he should have been most grateful to his 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” defined by the committee as “the epic chronicle” and “the great work that is principally associated with Steinbeck's name.”
As we know now, J.D. Salinger has left us some work to be published between 2015 and 2020, including stories said to have something to do with Holden Caulfield, the magnificent and impossible kid of “The Catcher in the Rye”, the 1951 novel Salinger is best known for. I guess, one might call it “a teenage version of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’” but in that case one should make it clear that he or she doesn’t mean it in a bad way.
An adventure novel about a compulsive reader who may or may not be insane sounds very postmodern and academic. One might be quick to imagine some kind of a campus story from the 1960s told by an aging literature professor, but that would be a mistake. Actually, it’s “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. What seems to be a tale of an eccentric gentleman who sees himself as a knight-errant whose duty is to fight evil is, in fact, a subtle, funny and sad meditation on writing, reading and reality.
Good books don’t normally justify anything, even great books don’t. Bad books try to, but fail. One might argue that books sometimes justify people, as in mankind, but that’s open to a discussion. What’s more obvious is that true writers are capable of sublimating unsavory or downright terrible things into literature that makes our lives less trying. Take politics, for example; there’s often something wrong even with good politics so we owe lots of remarkable works to it. In 1946 Robert Penn Warren, a poet, a writer and a literary critic, published a novel “All the King’s Men” that became his most famous creation.
Does it seem right to judge history by novels? Of course it doesn’t; and yet we do that. Sometimes it seems difficult, or impossible, or needless to tell history from mythology; novel deals with both and we need both. Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”, published in 1936, is a historical novel, a romance novel, a war novel, a coming of age novel and an important part of the Southern myth, one of the greatest monuments to it, actually.