Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The most famous books I had not read but now have, 2018 edition, Cather and Wharton and Tintin

Ten years ago I assembled a little post about my 19th century Humiliations, the term, from a David Lodge novel I have not read, meaning the books it would be most shameful not to have read - if one were an English professor.  Which one is not.  It is just a game.  “Your bloody Hamlet” is the winner, I believe.  For non-professionals, it is in no way humiliating not to have read Hamlet.

Still, in a moment when I feel that I somehow know less than ever, it is nice to glance at that post.  I’ve read ‘em all, now.  Not bad.  Not so bad.

Based on a vague sense of prestige and imperfect memories of how often I see them mentioned in good literary writing, here are the Top Ten Humiliations I knocked off my list this year.  I had not, but now have, read:

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke
The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton
My Ántonia (1918), Willa Cather
Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sherwood Anderson
R.U.R. (1921), Karel Čapek
Red Cavalry (1926), Isaac Babel
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder
La nausée (Nausea, 1938), Jean-Paul Sartre
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), Aimé Césaire
Illuminations (1966, but really most from the 1930s), Walter Benjamin

Some are more famous.  Those last two are more on the prestige end.  I am probably overrating the status of the Čapek play, but c’mon, the word “robot,” right?  I am probably overrating the status of the Sartre novel at this moment.  It was still a super-high status art object when I was in college.

The only one of those I would put on my Top Ten Best of the Year list would be Red Cavalry.  For the little that is worth.

My perspective about prestige and fame is United Statesian, with some sense that the rest of the world exists.  From the French perspective, though, I could add some books that are much-read in France but have made much less impression here:

“L’attaque du moulin” (“The Attack on the Mill,” 1880), Émile Zola
La Gloire de mon père (The Glory of My Father, 1957), Marcel Pagnol
Le Lion (The Lion, 1958), Joseph Kessel

These are all books the French read when young.  School stuff, sometimes.  The charming Pagnol memoir is read in the U.S. by real Francophiles.  Kessel was a journalist and travel writer who also wrote fiction.  This particular novel, about an English girl whose best friend is a lion, was on the shelves of every bookstore, along with a less predictable selection of other Kessel books.  It was translated long ago, but seems to have vanished in English.  It seemed good to me.  Not a thriller as we use the word now, but tense and frightening.

Really, from the French perspective, the most famous books I read this year, the most universal books, were:

Tintin, volume 4 (Cigars of the Pharaoh, 1934) through volume 9 (The Crab with the Golden Claws, 1941), Hergé
Blake and Mortimer, the first six volumes, meaning The Secret of the Swordfish (1950-3), The Mystery of the Great Pyramid (1954-5), and The Yellow “M” (1956), Edgar P. Jacobs
Asterix, volume 1 (Asterix the Gaul, 1961) through volume 3 (Asterix and the Goths, 1963), René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

The first two are Belgian.  All three are on the curious Le Monde100 Books of the Century” list, alongside Camus and Proust and The Little Prince.

The Asterix volumes were the hardest to find at the library – meaning, always checked out – which is why I read so few.  I became fascinated by the Blake and Mortimer books because they are, in many ways, quite terrible.  Nuclear war as envisaged by an eight-year-old obsessed with model airplanes, just to kick things off.  Barely a woman in sight, even in the backgrounds, in any of these books.

It would not be true to say that everyone in France has read the first volume of Asterix and, say, Tintin’s The Blue Lotus.  But it must be pretty close.  I am not exactly sure what I learned about French culture reading these comics, but I certainly felt I had joined in.

So this was my continuing Education, 2018.


  1. This is tangential to your wonderful post, but the reference to Pagnol reminded me of how much I loved the films made from his two memoirs. La Gloire de mon Pere and Le Chateau de ma Mere were on tv all the time when I was a kid. Maybe I should read the books.

  2. I saw those in theaters when they came to America, but have not seen them since. I remember them as beauties.

    That was the cap of our little Pagnol moment here, after Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring.

  3. Reading Asterix certainly brings you closer to French pop culture.

    And yes, the Kessel and the Pagnol are often read in school.

    If you can, try to get Les cahiers d'Esther by Riad Sattouf. It's great.

  4. Years ago we talked of Nathanael West, just wondering if you have yet to read any of his weird and wonderful works. His whole production is under six hundred pages

  5. It's nice to know that my childhood reading of many Asterix and Tintin comics puts me in touch with French culture (pop or not), which I had never ever thought of before. I *would* really like to visit that Asterix park...

  6. Just as an example, the first line on Asterix, the one that is a parody of Julius Caesar ("All Gaul is divided into three parts. No, four!" etc.), is itself parodied a lot. Ma femme found it as the first line of a pretty serious history of French wine, for example.

    Thanks, Emma, for the recommendation. I knew about L'arabe du futur, but not the Esther books.

    Now, West, I still have not read. The 1930s still seem kind of distant. I'll get to it. I have been reading other things that are under six hundred pages! And over.

  7. While some years I make little progress on the list of “classics” I think I should have read aka “humiliations”, this year I read: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The End of the Affair, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dracula, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Grapes of Wrath, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Notes from the Underground, Candide, and Invisible Cities. I don’t usually do a top ten list, but on the list of books I keep thinking about (or want to press on people) are Notes from the Underground, Candide, and The Grapes of Wrath. Looking at your list reminds me of my own experiences/inexperiences — good grounding in nineteenth century/early twentieth century American/English lit, some grounding in nineteenth century Russian writers, smatterings elsewhere. My biggest remaining “humiliation” — magic realism. Maybe next year.....Thanks for an interesting slant on a year’s reading, and a happy new year to you!

  8. Thanks, happy new year to you, too. That is a solid list of de-Humiliations. I will pull in a favorite quotation from Joseph Epstein on the subject:

    "There is also a danger: once begun, there is no end. I myself would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a strong hunch about which will come first."

  9. Good to catch up with you again, Monsieur l'Amateur. While I commend you on the successes of your latest reading adventures, the contrarian in me would like to know which of the famous/prestige books you read last year came nearest to letting you down. Anything you appreciated less than expected?

  10. Just sticking with books mentioned above, and setting aside the bizarre Blake and Mortimer books:

    How amazing that the Sartre novel's "have you ever looked at your hands - I mean really looked" twaddle was taken seriously as philosophy for so long! It is no more a Novel of Ideas than any number of novels that do not get that boost in status. Also no less. It is a novel.

    The Rilke book had great parts and gassy parts, and I had no idea how to relate the one to the other, except that they both were part of the personality of the writer.

    I do not understand the high status of My Ántonia. Where other people say "sublime," a word I frequently see attached to the book, I say "picturesque." The Lost Lady (1923) worked as a companion novel, and I thought it was at least as good, but it is not nearly as famous. No idea why.

    Winesburg, Ohio met my expectations exactly - I had read a couple of the stories before. It is a second-rate book. But wow, to read it against its worldwide influence.

    That Wharton novel has two dud chapters, outbreaks of bestserllerism (in one, the Problems of the Day are discussed), both of which wander away from the heroine.

    The great mystery of the year was the reputation of Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending. It is good. Much higher claims been made for it. Neither I nor anyone who read ti with me understood why.

    I gotta million complaints.