Personal canons (2)

This wasn’t an easy post to write. When the idea of a personal canon was first suggested to me I thought it would be straightforward to work out what mine was. I was wrong. More than that though the task raised questions for me about what I read and the choices I make.

What first struck me is how much my idea of canon has changed over the years. That’s why I decided to have two posts: one of my canon as was and one of it as is.

That first post proved quite fun. I’d forgotten that even as a teenager I’d mixed genre fiction with literary (though the proportions then and now are very different). There was an undeniable nostalgia in remembering writers most of whom I wouldn’t read today but who I do still have a place in my heart for.

This post though? This post raised questions. I expected to put it up about a week after the first. In fact it’s over a month. I’ll talk about why that was shortly, but first…

The list

Here’s my current personal and utterly subjective canon:

J.G. Ballard
Raymond Chandler
Gustave Flaubert
Patrick Hamilton
Stanislaw Lem
H.P. Lovecraft
Vladimir Nabokov
Marcel Proust
Thomas Pynchon
Ann Quin
Jean Rhys
Joseph Roth
Damon Runyon
Arthur Schnitzler
Edith Wharton

The survivors

The three survivors from my previous list, to save the need to check back, are Chandler, Lovecraft and Runyon. Chandler because he remains the king of hardboiled and shows that genre writing needn’t be bad writing; Lovecraft because I still get a thrill from his best tales even though I’ve read them many, many times; and Runyon because he is just a tremendously good writer with a style so accessible it makes it easy to miss how much skill it takes.

Lem should really have been on the last list. He just got missed. He’s a Polish SF writer of remarkable skill most famous for writing the book Solaris (which became a film by Tarkovsky and was later remade by Soderbergh).

Lem wrote SF unlike any other I’d read then (or indeed since). In one story a spaceship at the edge of the solar system sees an ancient alien ship, humanity’s first proof of life beyond the Earth. The crew however are drunk and costcutting means that the ship’s recording equipment is out of order. In another story a signal is picked up from space, but nobody can agree whether it is alien or natural in origin. His work is full of complex considerations of faith, of the knowability of the universe, human fallibility and a great deal of black humour.

In case it’s unclear Lem is one of those few SF writers that I regard as also being a literary writer. Interestingly he had little regard for for SF as a genre, viewing it as generally poorly written and unambitious in terms of language and form. He rated Philip K Dick but sadly it wasn’t reciprocated and Dick denounced him to the FBI claiming that Lem was in fact a Soviet collective masquerading as a single writer with a view to bringing down American SF.

The new canon

I’ve been lucky with Ballard. He has a tendency to write the same books over and over. I’ve skipped enough of his output that each book of his I’ve read was fresh and interesting, and not as others have complained a tired retread of the immediately preceding novel.

Ballard is an author whose success is at the level of the overall work. He’s not a naturalistic writer – few of his dystopic visions are particularly likely in terms of their own facts. He is however a writer who captures a profound sense of quotidian brutality and of the savagery lurking beneath the surface of urban civilisation.

Over at The Asylum John Self has mentioned that he’s found Ballard’s work slightly boring (as damaging a criticism as any I can imagine). I can see that, but it’s never been my experience. I don’t read Ballard for the prose. I read Ballard for the imaginative impact and I think his recognition is well deserved.

Sticking to comments by John Self, he once wrote that Hamilton was not a major writer but that he was an excellent minor one. I don’t quite think in terms of major and minor, but I know what he means.

For me Hamilton is a master at drawing out a world of now largely lost Englishness. His is an England of seedy pubs, down-at-heels boarding houses with overinquisitive landladies, the drone of fascist sympathisers holding forth to a captive audience over a G-and-T. It’s territory Julian Maclaren-Ross knew well too of course.

Hamilton has had something of a revival in recent years and for me it’s very well deserved. Through him I was introduced to Jean Rhys whom I adore and to other lost English writers like Gerald Kersh. That’s one of the tests for who gets on my list – did they broaden my reading? Did they push me forward? Hamilton did.

Sticking with the Brits for a moment I’ll turn to Ann Quin. I was introduced to Quin by Lee Rourke (author of The Canal). I’ve only read one novel by her, Berg, and I’m not quite sure if it entirely merits being included in this post. It’s good, there’s no question for me about that, but I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece. I’m not sure it’s not though either which I find interesting.

Regardless of the status of Berg itself (a mesmerising mix of modernism, English seaside humour and Ortonesque black farce) what’s undeniable is that like Hamilton Quin pushed my reading forward. After Berg I found myself wanting to explore different kinds of books. I wanted more challenge and less reliance on straighforward narrative tools. Quin made me think about what fiction can do, and that on its own justifies her place on this list.

Jean Rhys is an easy inclusion. The image I have when I think of a Jean Rhys novel is of a woman sitting alone in a bar nursing a drink while the other patrons glance over, disapprovingly.

Rhys’s work captures isolation, longing, the marginalisation of women (often by other women) and a host of other profoundly difficult emotions. In terms of language and structure I think she’s exceptional, but hard to pin down. With some writers I can say why they’re good. With Rhys it’s more that I just see that she is.

Moving on, Wharton makes her way onto the list because of the sheer precision and quality of her prose and structure. I’ve read just one Wharton, which is troubling because The Age of Innocence is a masterpiece and it begs the question why I’ve not read more. I’ll come back to that question.

Nabokov, Flaubert and Proust need no explanation.

I’m a recent convert to Pynchon. For me he’s a quintessentially American author. His work (such as I’ve read of it) bubbles with a seemingly undisciplined mass of ideas, characters, riffs and diversions. It’s intoxicating, and for many alienating, stuff. Pynchon isn’t an easy read by any means but he’s pushing form and ideas in the way I think Lem would have liked science fiction to do (I wonder if Lem would have liked David Mitchell? Possibly…).

Pynchon makes me work. When I read him I wallow in uncertainty and am lost. It’s only with hindsight I can make some sense of the territory, and that shifting and ambiguous. On top of that the mix of high philosophy and low culture is one that with my joint loves of literature and pulp I can’t really help but respond to.

That just leaves Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler. I’ve read over the last couple of years a lot of early 20th Century Central European fiction. Zweig, Weiss, Musil, Kosztolanyi and of course Roth and Schnitzler. For me that body of work is among the best literature has produced.

These writers were adept both at the level of the sentence and the novel. They were concerned with acute psychological insight. Freud, whom I have little regard for ironically, is a major influence as is the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They wrote at a time when the world was in flux and the human psyche seemed finally to be revealing its secrets.

What they also have in common of course is that most of them, one way or another, were killed by the Nazis. Thankfully their work survived and thanks to publishers like Pushkin Press it’s now available again.

Joseph Roth is a superb writer. Had he written in the English language I have no doubt he’d be widely recognised as one of the world’s greats. Sadly many literary readers aren’t open to reading literature in translation. Schnitzler has a more psychological focus than Roth and at his best shows a remarkably subtle insight. I like Zweig, but for me Schnitzler covers the same territory and does so ultimately with greater skill.

The conclusion

I mentioned earlier that writing this post raised questions for me. That’s because what became apparent as I was thinking about what might make up my present day canon was that in many cases the writers I rate highest I haven’t actually read that much of. I’ve read one Wharton. I was so impressed by it that she remains notionally among my favourite writers. A favourite writer though that I’ve read nothing else by.

The works that most excite me tend to be either modernist/experimentalist ones or pre-war Central European fiction. Why then haven’t I read more of them? Why haven’t I read The Unfortunates yet? Why is there so much Roth left for me to read? Why haven’t I tried Marai?

Those are tough questions. Partly of course the answer is that like most of us I have a range of interests and limited time. It’s hardly surprising that there are gaps in my reading. Partly though it’s because I hadn’t been through this exercise.

What strikes me about my list is that I like small books that push boundaries. I like complexity and challenge (like most book bloggers I imagine). I also like Robert E. Howard but nobody’s wholly consistent.

Thinking about this post caused me to reevaluate my reading habits. I’m interested to hear what writers like Amis, McEwan, Franzen and so on are up to but none of them are on my list nor are any writers much like them. That’s not my territory. It’s not what best speaks to me.

Where that leaves me is with a fresh desire to engage with modernism and its descendants. The novel is more than omniscient narrators telling chronologically bound stories. That’s not knocking that form (Madame Bovary is just such a novel and is as good as fiction gets) but there’s a lot more out there.

Equally, I want to read more of those authors I truly rate. If I haven’t read enough Joseph Roth, enough Wharton, enough Flaubert then the fault is mine. Nobody is preventing me.

As a final note, there were for me some odd omissions. I suspect if I get properly engaged with it classic Russian literature will contribute a great many names (Lermontov springs to mind for a start – but if I read more Russian fiction what do I pass up on?).

Given how much of it I’ve read I was also a little surprised that there wasn’t any Japanese literature (still, ask me on another day and perhaps there would have been). That may change when I get to the Makioka Sisters as Tanizaki only got left off at the last moment.

Equally, Berger and Salter should probably both be on the list. I only realised they weren’t on finishing this post. Their absence shows how partial any list of this kind must be.

On the whole though the list made sense to me. What didn’t was how many of them I hadn’t read that much by.

In the end the utility of this exercise for me is that it’s caused me to think. I like to pick books almost at whim – I finish one and read something similar or something in complete contrast. That’s worked well for me, but I have to wonder whether it’s also leading to my preferring range to depth and whether I might not be better served by a little more depth.

For anyone who’s made it this far through what is ultimately a deeply self-indulgent post, are there any writers you’d suggest I read? Since finishing the list I’ve bought some Beckett, McCarthy’s Men in Space, some Josopovici, Burn’s Pocket Money, Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. If you’ve read through all the above, are there other books or authors that I should be paying more attention to than perhaps I am?


Filed under Personal canon, Personal posts

35 responses to “Personal canons (2)

  1. Hello,
    This is a nice, honest and clever personal post. I’ve been reading your blog for almost a year now and I’ve noticed the change in your reading tastes through the choices you made and the books you praised.
    Unlike you, I’m not interested in modernist/experimentalist writers, except in theatre maybe. I prefer classic narration forms. However, you’ll find some French ones on my blog, on the reading list page, if you download the list coming from “A Novel Bookstore” by Laurence Cossé.

  2. Great list – I must’ve missed that earlier. I’ve just bought ‘Dying’ by Schnitzler on your recommendation and look forward to squuezing that in.

    I’ve got a handful of books that I’d imagine you might like, based both on that list and on previous comments etc. If you want me to qualify any suggestions I’m more than happy to, but I’m pretty convinced you’d dig these. (Unless, of course, you’ve already read them etc.)

    Savages Don Winslow
    Incandescence Craig Nova
    Mr Peanut Adam Ross
    The Royal Family William T Vollmann
    The Wife Meg Wolitzer
    Anything by Lydia Davis

    Plenty more suggestions but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  3. My attempts at introducing ‘squuezing’ into the lexicon are doomed to failure, but you’ve got to admit it sounds good.

  4. For anyone interested Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life made me regret not being a Fire Investigator.

    I can imagine sitting down to write a post like this and really wrestling with it. As you note, it would be different 20 years ago.
    Did you find yourself surprised by anything as you drew up your list?

  5. I think taste constantly change for me it was american writer in twenties ,now its a tapas menu of taste from the world small chunks from every where ,a great list I ve always like ballard ,I thought he approach the same kernal of an idea in different ways thus his books can be similar .all the best stu

  6. marco

    Why is the post dated 9 March?

    I’ve tried coming up with my personal canon, but I decided it was hopeless when I realized I couldn’t keep it under fifty names.

    I don’t read Ballard for the prose.
    You should. It’s rather good. But I see what you mean aboout reapeating motifs.

    Lem wrote SF unlike any other I’d read then (or indeed since)

    David R. Bunch’s Moderan and Stepan Chapman’s The Troika are two other examples of unlike-anything-you’ll-ever-read-SF.

    The other Literary Sf-writer who rated Philip K. Dick and was denounced by him to the FBI, and like Lem skewered much of what passed for SF at the time was the criminally underappreciated Thomas M. Disch – 334, On Wings of Song, Getting into Death and Other Stories are firmly in my canon.
    As are the works of M. John Harrison, John Crowley, Russell Hoban and various others which seem to me to suffer a double exclusion – unloved by genre audiences outside of a cult following and usually well reviewed but generally invisible in the broader literary context.

    Neither Roth nor Schnitzler would make my personal Canon of German Literature.
    Names that come to mind before them include Ingeborg Bachmann, Arno Schmidt , Robert Musil , Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti , Franz Kafka , Thomas Bernhard , Christa Wolf ,Georg Büchner , Theodor Fontane, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jean Paul Richter, Heinrich von Kleist … you can see how things get quickly out hand.

    Other names in my canon more or less in a modernist vein that could be to your liking: Flann O’ Brien, Djuna Barnes, Sheila Watson, Michael Ondaatje, David Malouf, Patrick White, Janet Frame, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Michel Tournier , Bruno Schulz, and I’ll better stop now 🙂

  7. GB Steve

    It certainly makes you think, reading a list like this. My canon is probably dominated by genre still but I’ve spread my vision a bit wider recently, especially with short stories.

    It’s interesting what you say about Ballard. I’ve got his collected short stories, two big fat books. I started one and got about half way through before I just couldn’t read any more. I do love his voice but occasionally I’d like him to shift a gear. It’s like being slowly pushed into the ground by a heavy weight. I listened to SuperCannes on the radio recently and even from his first short story there’s not great evolution or refinement in the style. I think you could probably read alternate paragraphs of SC and the Drowned World and it would still make sense. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t written some lovely stuff but his oeuvre is oppresive, suffocating.

    I’m with you on Chandler and Lovecraft. I can read a Chandler and just start again at the beginning. It’s a joy. Lovecraft has wonderful passages, brilliant ideas and was in need of a good editor.

  8. Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren is SF unlike any I’ve read, just to add to that list.

  9. Bookaround, thanks. It’s in a sense a sampling, inevitably so. That’s part of the problem in fact. It’s not like I’m unhappy with my recent reading choices or that I plan to stop reading crime (for example). How though do I prioritise?

    Lee, actually I don’t think I’ve read any of those (though the Winslow rings a bell). I’ll take a look.

    Guy, the big surprise was how little I’d read by some of the writers I rate really highly. The lack of Japanese fiction was also a bit of a surprise, given I have read quite a lot of it.

  10. stu, I think that’s a pretty fair comment on Ballard.

    marco, I don’t find Ballard a consumate stylist at the level of the individual sentence. I do think the overall effect though is distinct and powerful. I included him on the list so I’m certainly not knocking him.

    I’ve not read Bunch or Chapman, so thanks for those. I have read Disch and agree about his talent. Harrison’s Viriconium is for me the best example of fiction that is both fantasy fiction and literary fiction and I rate it extremely highly. I’ve not read Crowley, I never had the impression that he was that amazing. I take it I was wrong in that?

    Hoban, apart from Riddley Walker what sf has he done? I always thought of him as squarely on the literary side, though I admit these things get fluid at the edges.

    You’ve plainly read more German literature than I have. Mann is a god, but it’s so long since I’ve read him I couldn’t put him on a personal canon list – I don’t remember him well enough. Musil I’ve read some short works by but nothing material. I can easily see him being there in future though.

    I don’t know Ingeborg Bachmann, Arno Schmidt Christa Wolf ,Georg Büchner, Theodor Fontane, Jean Paul Richter or Heinrich von Kleist (or if I do, which is always possible if I saw specific titles, I don’t remember them). That stops them getting on the list, but I’ll pay more attention. I only started reading German fiction a year or two ago so I’m way behind on it.

    Musil, Mann and Kafka all deserve places but as mentioned above I’ve not read enough Musil and I’ve not read Mann (or Kafka) for ages.

    Hoffmann, really? I enjoyed Hoffmann but I wasn’t blown away.

    On the modernists: Flann O’ Brien I absolutely have to read, I’m sure I’ll love his stuff. I don’t know the work of Djuna Barnes, Sheila Watson, Janet Frame or Patrick White so I’ll look into them. For some reason Ondaatje has never appealed, I take it you’d suggest I reconsider? Gadda and Tournier are on the list, I’m just not there yet, and the same’s true for Schulz.

    Lee, agreed on Delaney, an underappreciated writer.

  11. Steve,

    Nice analogy on Ballard. I love him, but it can get oppressive. It’s inherent to the subject matter in part. His writing has certain very core themes and that makes for a degree of inevitable repetition.

    Regarding Lovecraft, at his best he’s excellent. Admittedly there’s also terrible stuff like Herbert West: Reanimator which I think is shockingly bad but Call of Cthulhu, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space? Brilliant.

    In some ways I actually rate Ashton Smith higher, but Lovecraft was my portal to all those guys and to weird fiction generally so he gets on the list.

    Chandler is a writer I’d praise at the sentence by sentence level.

  12. GB Steve

    Hoban is probably on my list, although he’s got a bit soppy and samey recently. The only SF he’s written is Fremder which was during his Lovecraft period. The references are fun and it’s a great story too. Lem, Harrison (MJ) are there too. Lem’s Ijon Tichy stories ask similar questions to Dick but he (Lem) seems more knowing and in control. Harrison is possibly my favourite of all time. His short stories, like the Incalling, Egnaro, The New Rays, Running Down the World. For me he’s a downbeat, ironic, sneering even, English Borges. Borges floats above the world, Harrison is in it. And so, of course, Borges. It seems like I’m writing my list now.

  13. marco

    I’ve not read Crowley, I never had the impression that he was that amazing. I take it I was wrong in that?

    Yes. Little, Big is a wonderful novel, Engine Summer a sentimental favourite, The Aegypt sequence impressive, nearly everything he writes is very good.

    Hoban, apart from Riddley Walker what sf has he done? I always thought of him as squarely on the literary side, though I admit these things get fluid at the edges.

    Not necessarily Sf, but all but a couple of his novels have strong fantastical elements.
    I don’t get the impression he’s much talked about – he’s like a solitary pool cut away from the “main stream” literary scene.

    You’ve plainly read more German literature than I have.

    I have graduated in both German and English literature (my native language is Italian, and I read books in 5-6 different languages)

    Hoffmann, really? I enjoyed Hoffmann but I wasn’t blown away.

    If I remember correctly, you did only read Das Fräulein von Scuderi.
    He has written pretty disturbing short stories , lovely fables and wicked satires, and, with The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, a novel that puts most Twentieth Century post-modern and “experimental” literature to shame.

    For some reason Ondaatje has never appealed, I take it you’d suggest I reconsider?

    He writes beautifully. I’m especially fond of In The Skin of A Lion and Coming Through Slaughter (and in general like his earlier works more than his recent ones)

    Yes. Things That Never Happen is probably my favourite short story collection ever.

  14. Max: FYI I read Goethe’s Scuderi book but much preferred A Man of Fifty.

  15. It is an impressive list derived from an almost impossible task. Intriguing and by no means indulgent. Grateful for the reminder about Ann Quin (and this time I will write it down straight away) and I would like to try Lem and Schnitzler too. But I wonder, if you thought about it cold, in a month or so, if you would reproduce the same list?

    But that isn’t the point. As an exercise in examining reading practices it is fascinating. I liked your point about reading for range, and I have recently begun returning to authors I have been impressed by in the past, having noticed that my various lists rarely featured multiple instances of the same writer.

  16. Lists are weirdly addictive aren’t they? A few writers who would make my personal cannon and who I’d recommend based on yours:
    Saul Bellow (esp Seize the Day, Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March)
    JM Coetzee (Disgrace, Age of Iron, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K)
    RobbeGrillet (Jealousy and The Voyeur)
    Thomas Bernhard (I’ve only read The Loser and Old Masters but was blown away by both)
    Robert Bolano (2666 and The Savage Detectives, but my personal favourite is a novella called By Night in Chile)
    Robert Musil (The Man Without Qualities)
    Knut Hamsun (Hunger)
    Which Beckett did you buy? His novels are incredible – tough going but rewarding. I’d recommend starting with Murphy and the tackling the Trilogy. The first two (Molloy and Malone Dies) you can genuinely enjoy, the third (The Unnameable/Unreadable) you can’t really, but you need to experience it anyway. It’s like watching the novel commit suicide in three stages – and, if you’re anything like me, it will change the way you look at fiction for ever. And there aren’t many books you can say that about!

  17. Hoban had a Lovecraft period?

    I should read more Harrison, his Viriconium is simply brilliant. A mood painting of a book (or group of books more accurately). And the most tragic alien invasion in literature.

    marco, with that degree it’s no surprise your knowledge of German literature exceeds mine. The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr? A pretty clear Laurence Sterne reference there. I did read the Scuderi and wasn’t blown away but I note your comments on the other work.

    I’ll take a fresh look at Oondatje.

    I recall that Guy. It was the first time I was tempted to read Goethe since school. I never took to him.

    Sarah, in another month probably not. After all when I first wrote this up I forgot Berger and Salter, each of whom I consider a remarkable writer. Another month it might be heavier on the recent greats – Richard Yates, Colm Toibin, again both writers for whom I have huge regard. In a way it’s a snapshot though I did try to give some thought to who seemed to have consistent appeal for me.

    It’s also a very short list. A real personal canon would probably have over 100 names, but it would be boring as hell to read on a blog (and to write for that matter) – and still incomplete and changeable.

    Blogging seems to encourage range. That’s good and bad at times. All too many blogs, and I don’t exempt mine, have a large range of writers but only one book by each. Sometimes though it’s nice to follow a writer a bit and see how they develop or whether certain concerns are pursued in other titles.

    Danny, very. I’ve got some unread Bellow (I’ve never read him but he looks extraordinary in terms of prose) and Robbe-Grillet. Bolano never tempts for some reason, I’m not quite sure why.

    I’ve read some Musil feuilletons recently and they’re superbly written. How unfinished is the unfinished Man without Qualities? I find the fact it’s not done as it were quite offputting but I’m probably wrong in that.

    Hunger is on my radar, I just haven’t read it yet. Clearly a must though.

    I bought Murphy. What I had when I said I already had some was a Penguin short story collection (First Love and Other Stories) but everyone was saying to try Murphy first so I ordered it at the weekend. Do you know that story collection?

    If it changes the way I look at fiction then it’ll be straight on Personal Canons (3) if I ever write it (which I probably won’t, but you never know).

  18. leroyhunter

    Very interesting post Max, especially the way it lead you to question your own choices, preferences and assumptions. The wider canon (in the Harold Bloom sense) can be polarising, being seen as a monolith to be bowed down to or rejected, but excluding the individual act of reading choice that you focus on.

    It’s hard to decide what makes up a canon. Should you include someone because of one overpowering work? Or does it require you to have read enough of them to make a wider judgement? You can call it either way. Is the person a gateway, who pushes your horizons? Or do they represent some kind of pinnacle or epitome for you? Guy has mentioned elsewhere the inbuilt tendency of readers towards their own reading “heritage”, and from that perspective someone’s choices can look skewed or uninformed. Some of that (I think) feeds into Marco’s comments: we all have gaps, when judged from a particular perspective, but you have to have reference points from which you journey into the unknown.

    Trying to keep to the absolute minimum, I’d list: Melville, Flaubert, Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Flann O’Brien, Waugh, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Borges, Primo Levi, Georges Perec, Richard Yates, John McGahern, Sebald, Kapuscinski.
    And now the arguments with myself begin….

  19. I actually rather dislike the idea of a common canon, set in stone. I don’t think it’s that helpful.

    That said, there can be uses to tailored common canons. A modernist canon, a golden age sf canon, provided it’s clear it’s more a list of suggestions for stuff to check out than some form of holy writ.

    I think if it’s aimed at others you need to have read a reasonable amount, but the truth is none of us have read more than a fraction of what’s out there. There’s just too much when put against the human lifespan. Look at these comments, I’m a well read guy and it’s still a solid list of well respected writers that I’ve mostly not read. For me though it’s about being a gateway, not a pinnacle (well, this blog entry is just personal rumination, but lists of all kinds – prizes, canons, whatever – are about gates rather than monuments for me).

    I see a list of this sort as guideposts in a blizzard of words. We can follow them or depart from them. All we know is that if we do follow them they’ll lead us in one sort of direction. But there are other signposts, and other directions.

    Nice list by the way. Flann O’Brien again. I clearly owe myself that. Perec? He always seemed a bit form driven, but then one can be form driven and good. What makes you include him?

  20. marco

    How unfinished is the unfinished Man without Qualities?

    It’s still about 1,7 BP (Big Pynchons) long 🙂
    The third book is unfinished. The first two were published independently and are complete.

  21. Yeah, and to be honest it’s not the sort of book that particularly needs concluding, in my opinion. Some novels would be infuriating if unfinished, but I think of The Man Without Qualitries as unfinished in the way that Kafka’s The Castle is unfinished – it’s the sort of book that is so acutely aware of the arbitrariness of things like beginnings and endings that it’s almost appropriate. I wouldn’t let it put you off too much. As marco says, there’s plenty of what is there to get through before you get anywhere near worrying about what isn’t!

  22. Fair enough. Thanks both. I’ll take a look at it once I finish the Musil essays (and some other stuff I’ve got stacked up presently).

  23. leroyhunter

    I can’t think of a book that’s more form-driven then Ulysses, but I wouldn’t hold that against it.

    I think there’s so much going on with Perec – the games, the structures, the arbitrary rules – yet underneath it all is such incredible warmth and intelligence. All his tricks (if you want to think of them that way) have a purpose beyond clever display; plus it helps he’s often very funny. His books are just a wonderful catalogue of change and a challenge to how we read, remember and even how we live. He’s ALWAYS enjoyable to read, depsite the “formal innovator” tag that could seem off-putting. Never more so then in Life: A User’s Manual which I reckon is one of the best of the last century, no question.

    And the best thing is that more of his work is gradually becoming available in English, so there’s always more to look forward to and discover.

  24. Leroy, I wonder what it is between Anglophones and Perec. I’ve heard more of him in one year of Anglophone blog reading than in the rest of my literary life.

  25. leroyhunter

    That’s interesting bookaround. What is Perec’s reputation in France? He certainly seems to have been linked in to some other solid reputations – Queneau etc.

  26. Perec’s reputation? Half-forgotten ? A name readers know but don’t read? A difficult writer? I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who has read Perec. (I mean met in flesh and blood)
    I just checked : in my local library, they only have W.
    I’m so intrigued by all the praise I’ve read about him on different blogs that’s I’ve bought Les choses. We’ll see.
    However, I studied Exercices de style by Queneau and read Zazie dans le métro.

  27. leroyhunter

    Pity: I think he’s a wonderful writer but I can see he’s not to everyone’s taste. Maybe we can start a crusade to rehab him in his native land…!

  28. marco

    Rather than call him form driven, I’d say he uses experiments with forms and constraints as organizing principles. Life: A User’s Manual may at first seem…ahem…puzzling (sorry, couldn’t resist) but is indeed very enjoyable (and easy to read).
    I suppose given its structure you could have problems keeping in mind characters and stories, which are presented in nonlinear ways, but it’s more or less the same with Pynchon, isn’t it? Perec is also remarkably good with descriptions, reminiscent of Balzac.
    I feel the French Experimental/Oulipian writers and Post-structuralist philosophers have a stronger influence and receive more consideration in the English-speaking world than in most of Continental Europe nowadays.

  29. leroyhunter

    That backs up bookaround’s point, marco. Why do you think it is?

  30. marco

    They probably had a greater impact, inspiring many more authors to follow in their steps (while in the UK and US they remained a niche penomenon), and after a sense of exhaustion of possibilities there was a movement back to more traditional modes of narration, or a search for ways to innovate less directly concerned with questions of form and structure. There may have been an element of backlash too – there was a time in Italy when Eduardo Sanguineti, a major avant-garde writer and critic, compared the works of Giorgio Bassani – a very fine traditional novelist – to the novels of Liala (think Barbara Cartland).

  31. leroyhunter

    Marco, I’ve read 2 by Bassani and “very fine traditional novelist” is the perfect description. Making a comparison like that says more about the speaker, doesn’t it? It’s just attention-seeking.

    I take your points about why it may have happened, but I’m still surprised about the relative difference in Perec’s reputation in the anglophone world vis a vis in France. I wonder if there are any reverse examples of the phenomenon?

  32. You have prompted me to work on my own canon. I wonder how much such a list is a statement of who we are? Each one would certainly be unique to that person with perhaps a surprisingly small overlap between each list. A year ago I would have included Proust, but recent my thinking would question whether he is sufficiently accessible (to use the term in its modern sense). Remembrance of Things Past is of course a towering achievement but even an avid reader like me has only managed to read three volumes of it. The rest remain on my shelf with an ever dwindling number of years to read them (I bought the set 15 years ago).

  33. Tom,

    It’s an interesting question isn’t it? I think it must say in some ways more about the person making the list than it does about the books on it.

    Accessibility is a virtue, but it’s not the only virtue. I have a lot of time for books that tell a good story simply and well. That’s rarely what I’m seeking in a novel (though it is on the genre side sometimes) but it’s a talent which is often underrated.

    I tend myself to value prose above plot and challenge above comfort, but there are books I’ll sink into with a sigh of relief which are all about the plot and the comfort when that mood strikes me. I have a Donald Westlake at home which is yet to be read but which fits squarely in that category. Perhaps arguably the Powell’s are too though I think they’re more ambitious than that.

    As for Proust, you have years ahead of you Tom. Volume four awaits!

  34. Really interesting post, Max. I thought you had written a piece about your personal canon. Not sure if I saw it when this post went up (probably not as it might have been before I started following you here) but something rang a bell with me. I’m thinking of doing something similar to this in Q4 – it’ll be a list of writers I want to read (or revisit) in depth over the next few years. I’m not sure what to call it – writers to explore in depth, a personal canon or a ‘completists’ list. Anyway, whatever it’s called it would consist of writers like Jean Rhys, Richard Yates, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald and Ross Macdonald – the ones I want to ‘work through’ book by book (not necessarily in order of publication) over the next 5 years or so. It’s less about the past, more about the future direction of my reading, although Chandler would be there too as I started re-reading him back in 2013. Interesting to see the names on your list – Hamilton and Wharton could be contenders for mine too.

    I’ve been wondering about a ‘breadth’ list as well (writers to try for the first time), but that might be never ending. I guess it’s a question of priorities as none of us will ever have enough time to read every book that sounds appealing.

  35. It was interesting to do, particularly as a two parter looking at who I used to really like as a teenager. My list today would probably be changed again, in part due to authors learned through blogging.

    I’d fear a breadth list could turn into a graveyard of hopes…

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