Monday, January 31, 2011

Books That Should Be Read More Than They Are, and Books That Should Not

When I write about a book over on the obscure end of the spectrum, I try to place it in one of two categories.  The first is:  Should Be Read More Than It Is, or Books for Everyone.  For example:

John Galt, The Entail, a Scottish family saga, tragic and comic.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Beach at Falesá, thoughtful adventure in the South Seas.
Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet, love and greed, greed and love.
Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman, so funny, so sad.
Victor Hugo, his poems, not at all forbidding, huge in spirit.
Theodor Storm, Immensee, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Gérard de Nerval, Sylvie, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Prosper Merimeé, Carmen, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair, while waiting to be hanged.
Herman Melville, Clarel, a jolly vacation lark.

One of these does not belong, but I’m not sure which one.  I’ll fix that later.  My guess is that many people would enjoy, even love, these books, far more than their reputation would suggest.  They are not particularly difficult, or weird.  Some of them, like Storm, are beloved in their own literature, not remotely obscure.  English-language readers should catch up.

Am I wrong that people like short delicate reveries etc?

The second category:  Should Not Be Read More Than It Is, or Not for Everyone, Oh No No No.  Such as:

Gérard de Nerval, Les Chimeras or Aurélia, esoteric poems and a descent into madness.
Bysshe Vanolis, The City of Dreadful Night, visionary pessimism.
George MacDonald, Lilith, a desperately peculiar dream novel.
S. Anski, The Destruction of Galicia, low-intensity genocide at firsthand.
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Kantian idealism in a handy pre- postmodern semi-novelistic form.
Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas – Bolaño is surely clear enough with that title: Stay Away!

Just trying to stick with things I’ve written about,* but I could add many example to both lists.  I could create more categories, too, like Famous Books That Are Perhaps Read Too Much, where I would include Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, and so on, weird books that do not seem to have properly signaled their weirdness.

Most people do not want too much weirdness, do they?  Some readers, of course, jaded, ravaged by ennui, only alive out on the edgy edge of edginess, scoff at the exquisite domestic beauties of Theodor Storm or Victor Hugo (poems about his grandchildren! How bourgeois!) and demand the dangerous, the esoteric, the stark raving mad.  The City of Dreadful Night is just where they want to spend their time.  A descent into Hell, whether with Dante or Herman Melville, is their idea of good fun.  These readers are right - it is fun!

When I write about books, I try to communicate this difference.  I have no idea if I succeed.  I am in no way arguing here about the merit of the books in the two categories.  Both lists above contain books of extraordinary artistic value.  They all have their aesthetic purpose; they all succeed, or at least fail in fascinating ways.  Both groups include innovations, human insights, great writing.  I’d hate to have not read them, and hope to revisit every one.  But universalism has its own value.  I hope I make that clear.

All of this is just a throat-clearing preface to the rest of the week, which I will spend with a novelist who is much read and anything but obscure.  The book at issue, though, belongs in that second group.  Does it ever!  Not for Everyone, and then some!

Welcome, if that’s the right word, to Salammbô week.  There will be some interesting challenges.

* I could put in links, but that little search box in the upper left works well enough, I hope.


  1. Very useful categories! I actually have a copy of Salammbo because I like the time period and read that it influenced the French aristocracy to start having Carthage parties! I tried to read it, but... I'll be interested to see what you make of it. I'd like to finally read Sentimental Education this year too.

  2. I've just reserved *Tevye the Dairyman* at the library. "So funny, so sad" coming from you was more than enough to convince me.

    I don't think I'm sufficiently distanced from my own feelings about books to determine whether or not they're for everyone or quite the opposite. E.g., I really don't understand why Soseki Natsume's I Am a Cat isn't everyone's favourite novel; but it isn't, and I'm the resented subject of many people who blame me for getting them excited to read a "boring" book.

  3. Are you reading Salammbo in French or English? I think it's a book where the language does make a big difference; Les Bienveillantes is another recent example. Books written in French can have a detachment which is difficult, if not impossible, in English.

  4. The Carthage craze was real - led by the Empress herself. I assume it's the French period you're interested in, not 3rd century BC Carthage?

    You tried to read it but what? But what? C'mon, spill! I mean, I have a good guess, but your experience can aid others.

    It's all guesswork, Colleen. Maybe I should have included scientistic percentages, just made up. "The read of Tevye who does not skim will have a 68% chance of loving the book, a 22% chance of liking it, and a 10% chance of indifference or worse. For the reader who skims, the percentages are 14%, 20%, and 66%."

    One key to success is not to recommend good books to boring readers.

    Whenever I get to Soseki, that'll be the one I read. No way it's gonna be my favorite novel, though.

    Roger - English. If detachment is the goal, the old Chartres version does just fine. If it were any more detached, I'd have to get out the Elmer's (or the duct tape - does this joke work at all? never mind).

    It's a Flaubert novel: translation is a nightmare.

  5. Objectivity- or froideur- if you prefer: an emotional detachment that is natural to French prose and not to English.
    It isn't just my own feeling, but native French-speakers I know say the same thing.

  6. Have the native French speakers said this in a place I can read about it, so I can figure out what it means? The undefined single words are no help.

    They - you - can't mean all French prose? Surely it's a matter of voice, of style, and literary voices will vary enormously, in all languages. Emotional detachment is not really something I'm getting from Victor Hugo. But I suspect I am misunderstanding the concept.

  7. Hi A R

    Philosophically I know what Kantian Idealism is. It is an attempt to answer Hume’s skepticism. That is, we can have knowledge of the phenomenal world, the world of all possible experience, but we cannot have knowledge of the noumenal world, the world of the things-in-themselves.

    What I don’t know is how in the world this would translate into a literary genre or subgenre. Is there a short way to explain what such literature would be like?


  8. Vince, you're a step ahead of me - I barely know what Kantian idealism is. And I do not know a short way to explain what Carlyle is doing, running Kant through Goethe and dragging it into English.

    I do know two longer ways.

    That second one is directly relevant to today's post. Meaning, I'm repeating myself.

  9. Looking forward to your Flaubert posts this week, Amateur Reader, but am a little disappointed that you left Maldoror out of your first group's list. Tsk, tsk!

  10. I would think it a subjective feeling if French friends hadn't agreed. I don't know if it's a matter of the French language or the French novel, and- as you say- it doesn't apply to every French writer, but if you compare French novelists with novelists in English the latter are more emptionally involved with their characters and narrations, I think. For examples, it might be worth looking at why Beckett and Julien Green chose to write in French or examining Marguerite Yourcenaar's books in French with the translations into english that she supervised.

  11. You've really shifted the argument. More French writers use distancing techniques than English writers of similar status. I agree with that, absolutely. I don't agree that it has anything to do with the properties of the French language. It has a lot to do with the legacy of Gustave Flaubert.

    Beckett certainly switched to French to get more emotional distance - emotional distance from James Joyce!

    Richard, I was saving Maldoror for today's post.

  12. Further back than Flaobert- Stendahl's style is an obvious example and influence on later French novelists that had no English equivalent. I don't know if it's cultural, linguistic or the history of French literature and/or the novel, but I think there is a difference in the psychology of French and English novels- attitudes to the story and the characters- as a result of history and the way they use language. There are exceptions of course, but a French novelist is more detached from what he relates.
    I think this applies more widely- compare French and English tragedies and comedies.

  13. We should stop here. You insist on some essential property of the French language, while I am deeply suspicious of essentializing theories. The work of a few geniuses is evidence of nothing. I can be convinced, but you really need to send me to someone who can lay out the argument.

  14. I don't know what happened, but most of my post has vanished. I'll just say that we diagree; the work of a few geniuses is what makes a language's literature.

  15. For a moment I was afraid you were recommending Atlas Shrugged! I wonder if being a real person and being named John Galt makes your life more interesting, or less?

  16. Galt is the one writer, in the entire history of the blog, that I really tried to push on people. With what effect, you can guess. Oh well. Maybe I should try again.

    The Ayn Rand appropriation (likely a coincidence) does complicate internet searches for Galt.