Jul 07 2004

49 Great Ones and a Stinker

Not too long ago, I noted that the Sueddeutsche Zeitung was publishing a set of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. I got into the game a little bit late, but since then I have been more-or-less keeping up with their pace of one a week, largely by the not terribly edifying expedient of sticking to the shorter ones. It’s been a delight.

Despite their no doubt monumental efforts, the Sueddeutsche editors let a stinker through. Lucky number 13 on the list, Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty). The novel purports to show a man’s disintegration, before and after he commits a senseless crime. Trouble is, the crime really is senseless, making it beyond the author’s capability of approaching with his art. The book turns on the sentence, “Suddenly he strangled her.” Snoopy could write as well.

As the jacket copy says, the narrator wanders aimlessly through Vienna and everything irritates him. Most everything about the book irritates the reader as the story wanders aimlessly through the pages. Most irritating were the typographic tricks toward the end that were supposed to simulate the narrator’s almost completed disintegration. Maybe this sort of thing was daring or something similar when the book was published in 1970, but now it just looks silly.

There are 49 other books in the series, no need to bother with this one.

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Jun 24 2004

A Little Greatness, Every Week

The editors at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung cobbled together a list of 50 great novels of the 20th century. With postwar German modesty, they don’t claim that it’s exhaustive, definitive or representative. Just 50. And great.

The newspaper’s publishing house has been bringing one out every week since mid-March, and they’ll finish the run next February. (By the way, if anyone among our readers can tell me how they make the economics work at EUR 4.90 for each hardback book, I’m keen to hear more.) They’ve used some wit in the schedule – their Joyce choice published the week of Bloomsday, the last selection, for deepest February, will be If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller…

I see the edition’s distinctive design all over town. With only fourteen issued so far, it’s still possible to tell almost at a glance which book someone is reading. The Hotel New Hampshire? The Name of the Rose? The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

And they’re conversation starters, too. I was reading Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti, and my doctor’s receptionist remarked that she had just gotten as far as the camels. I had it out at lunch a few days later, and another person at the cafe said it was quite a good book, wasn’t it. Unfortunately, he was leaving, so that was as far as we got, but I imagine many more, fuller, discussions taking place across town, and beyond.

I hadn’t read Canetti before, but had bumped into him in Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch. Reading German is enough of an effort that I prefer short books, and Voices of Marrakesh is helpful here. It’s also apparently simple, a series of sketches of the city from Canetti’s stay while vaguely attached to a film company. The sketches start short, and outside the city’s gates. Each grows a little longer and moves to the heart of the city. One of the longest passages concerns a visit to the Jewish cemetery where none of the gravestones remained standing.

But in this desert cemetery for Jews there was nothing. It is the unvarnished truth, a moonscape of death. The beholder does not care in the least who lies where. He does not stoop to look, and he does not try to solve the riddle. They are all there like rubble, and one wants to scurry away like a jackal. It is a desert of the dead, where nothing ever grows, the last, the ultimate desert.

Camus came to mind, but a Camus in which the plague does not recede. Gradually, Canetti works his way back out, the sketches shortening again, echoing the first pieces in subject but refracted by his experiences in the heart of the labyrinth.

A great novel, and one I would not have read without the Sueddeutsche‘s list. I’ve been similarly pleased with Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, which became a movie you’ve heard of, and Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

The list is full of books like these, not the heavyweights you would expect from the 50 greatest novels of the 20th century, but the delights you can find when you’re just looking for 50 great novels. Thus the Joyce choice is not Ulysses but Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Steinbeck is not here with Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, but with Tortilla Flat; Gunther Grass with Cat and Mouse instead of The Tin Drum.

This approach doesn’t always pay off. Kafka’s Amerika is not just unfinished, it’s also not nearly as good as either The Castle or The Trial. I don’t know enough about Faulkner to say for sure, but Sanctuary is just as likely to be an off choice as a quirky one.

The list as a whole is both objectively interesting, and interestingly objectionable. I don’t think such an exercise would be any fun at all if it didn’t produce objections, and mine are more about omissions than anything else.

First, though, the things I like: It leans heavily on writers whose mother tongue is German. That is as it should be; Le Monde‘s list would be different, so would the Asahi Shimbun‘s. Eclecticism beat out snobbery – among English writeres, Patricia Highsmith and John Irving rub shoulders with E.M. Forster and James Joyce. There’s a slight bias to shorter works.

Some things I missed: Asia. Africa. Anything even remotely science fiction or fantasy – surely Stanislaw Lem has enough literary credibility, even if the editors haven’t heard of John Crowley. (And except for its length, Little, Big would have been perfect for the list: surprising, beautifully written, great.) Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Here’s the whole list, for comment and edification. (Not all of the titles may match exactly, as in some cases I’m translating into English the German title of a work originally written in a third language…) This is alphabetical order, not order of publication.

Paul Auster – City of Glass
Jurek Becker – Bronstein’s Children
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter Night a Traveller…
Elias Canetti – Voices of Marrakesh
Bruce Chatwin – The Dreamlines Songlines
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
Julio Cortazar – The Persecutor Pursuer
Marguerite Duras – The Lover
Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Executioner
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
William Faulkner – Sanctuary
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
E.M. Forster – Howard’s End
Max Frisch – My Name Was Gantenbein
Gunter Grass – Cat and Mouse
Julien Green – Leviathan
Graham Greene – The Third Man
Peter Handke – The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty Shot
Herman Hesse – Under the Wheel
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr Ripley
Peter Hoeg – Smilla’s Sense of Snow
John Irving – The Hotel New Hampshire
Uwe Johnson – Speculations about Jacob
James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Franz Kafka – Amerika
Eduard von Keyserling – Waves
Wolfgang Koeppen – The Greenhouse
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Siegfried Lenz – German Hour
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Somerset Maugham – The Magician
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Ian McEwan – The Cement Garden
Harry Mulisch – The Assassination Assault
Cees Nooteboom – All Souls All Souls Day
Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient
Juan Carlos Onetti – The Short Life
Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
Rainer Maria Rilke – The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Arthur Schnitzler – Dream Story
Jorge Semprun – What a Beautiful Sunday!
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Clade Simon – The Acacia
John Steinbeck – Tortilla Flat
Botho Strauss – Couples, Passers
Andrzej Szczypiorski – The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann
Martin Walser – Marriages in Philippsburg
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Marguerite Yourcenar – Coup de Grace

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/06/24/a-little-greatness-every-week/

Mar 27 2004

V S Naipaul

Last year, reading around a bit to try to come to grips with Islamic terrorism, and the mindset that drives it, I read Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Published in 1998, it’s a bit of a seqel to Among the Believers, which was written in the wake of Iran’s revolution of 1979 and published in 1981. My copy of Beyond Belief is dog-eared and underlined, marked up by the kind of active reading I did in grad school, but haven’t done much of since then. A lot of what Naipaul had to say made sense to me. His psychological explanations seemed to open a window into a subject that had been closed to me: not just terrorists and killers, but the people who support them, who venerate them.

Then I read around a bit more and found that Naipaul was regarded as cranky, a dilettante, and that most academic of putdowns – a travel writer. So mentally, I moved his insights into a different column. Anecdotal, interesting, not comprehensive or systematic. That’s part of the reason I haven’t blogged about him before.

A couple of weeks back, I picked up a different Naipaul book, A Turn in the South. The South, as in the southern United States, Dixie, the old Confederacy, and not incidentally my native region. Territory as treacherous and contentious as any in Islam. Layers of history, violence, war, slavery, occupation, poverty, and migration. And deep religiosity. Naipaul wanted to explain – or at least illuminate – the history of the South, both black and white. A tall order.

He starts in Atlanta, a city I knew well, and where I lived for three years in the period immediately after the time that Naipaul did his interviews there. Throughout the book, he talks to people I have either known at one remove, or might well have known. In the first chapter, he stays at the Ritz downtown, which I thought a funny place to get to know the real South, which to me is rural, agricultural at heart, and can only be understood by building on that base. Turns out he was making a metaphoric point about new money in Atlanta, how the city had grown and changed from its origins. Compare that with the only other lodging he mentions, the Ramada Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, a personality-free chain hotel on a highway. Says something about Jackson, too.

Naipaul gets an enormous amount right. I think he does better on the white than on the black, but coming as close as he does is a substantial achievement. He’s up front about his limitations, too.

“Music and community, and tears and faith: I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”

I don’t know why he never imagined a whole distinctive culture existing in the US, but I’m glad that he could overcome that prejudice, and make that admission. The book also has occasional show-stopping revelations that could only come from Naipaul’s Indian, Caribbean, English melange of experiences.

“The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.”

Naipaul is, in short, a very reliable guide for an outsider in very charged and difficult terrain. I not only recognized my native land in his description, I learned about it as well. I hope to write more here of his take on Islam – for Europe faces few challenges greater than understanding and coming to terms with contempoary Islam – and I think Naipaul’s two books are not a bad place to start.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2004/03/27/v-s-naipaul/