Monday, July 6, 2009

Memorable Books


Gaw and others have recently been answering the challenge to list books that have “influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing”. (I suspect this game was originally meant for people writing professionally and whose opinions actually matter.... but that didn’t stop me, oh no....)

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ok, sorry, an appallingly pretentious first choice. A third of the way in I thought Joyce the most arrogant and annoying of writers, but for some reason I persevered and became enthralled. It’s the occasional speeches, vignettes and descriptions which most stay in the mind, and it’d be a shame to analyse why.

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Another work with a Homeric theme: Helen as the symbol of beauty that men must fight over, but transferred it to the island of St. Lucia. An epic poem which superbly combines wordcraft and pungent depiction of West Indian life. Two years later Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A book which taught me a little (I dare to hope) about growing into manhood. Others had Robert Louis Stevenson or Hemmingway, perhaps, but this story about single-mindedness, pursuit and the overcoming of fear – and the consuming madness of it all – helped fill a gap in my education.

The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

A Jesuit priest who wrote in secret and in a very intense, innovative style compared to his Victorian contemporaries. In addition to religious themes his depictions of nature are exquisite. He resurrected a more “vigorous” Anglo-Saxon prosody and wasn’t afraid to chop English syntax down to convey maximum effect.

The Poems of John Donne

I love metaphysics, me! Even though I still don’t really understand what the word means. I enjoy the almost transgressive way Donne treats concepts and emotions as palpable entities, which he can then manipulate as he wishes. Oh, and there’s quite a bit of smut in there as well.

The Poems of Robert Lowell

A manic depressive, drunken, disaster of a man, perhaps, but for me maybe the best post-WW2 English-language poet. He could do free verse, but whilst others were splurging out whatever entered their heads he also realised the power of formalisms, mastered them, and made them fresh and exciting.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

A novel about being in love, even when that love rides roughshod over morality and common-sense. To make her point Smart weaves in bits of other literature, like the sexier bits from The Song Of Songs. It’s also a book that turned me onto the tricky genre of prose poetry…..

Our Lady of The Flowers by Jean Genet

Written about the same time (1943) as Grand Central and another work using poetic language. But it’s about transvestites. Genet, having been frequently in prison and doing his best writing there, also showed disregard for boundaries: Jean-Paul Sartre called it "the epic of masturbation". Tasteful!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The books of Carson McCullers affected me a lot when I was young. They’re set in the Southern States of the U.S.A. and involve outsiders: deaf-mutes, dwarves, transgendered people, and those who simply feel they don’t fit in. All done with great empathy. The Ballad of The Sad Café is another good 'un.

The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hašek

Great satire. Schweik is a little man who deals in stolen dogs, but as a Austro-Hungarian citizen in 1914 he’s drafted into World War I. He appears to have good intentions but is hilariously incompetent and the frustration of all who have to deal with him - I rather identified with him.


Gaw said...

What a fascinating selection. You love yer poems, innit? I too love Donne, my favourite being 'The Sun Rising'. It was revelation to read it at about seventeen and realise that people not only had sex in the old days, they were a lot wittier about it than us.

Walcott's Omeros virtually puts you on a beach in the Caribbean - though for a bit of an unsettling time.

I'll have to dig up some of the others: Gerard Manley Hopkins, I don't know at all and it sounds as if I'd enjoy him.

The other one of your selections I love is Sveik. Most famously funny books from the old days aren't at all. This is a brilliant exception and I wish I were brave enough to be as sheerly incompetent as him. A very subversive book!

Ana said...

Gadjo -- No offense to your significant other, but will you run away with me?! You know about my Moby Dick obsession, my love of the metaphysical poets (I haven't settled on the definition of that term myself) but how could you have known Ulysses is my #2 and that The Good Soldier Schweik hovers somewhere around #6?! I'm adding the Genet and the McCullers to my summer reading list. Why do I have a feeling I'm going to like them?
(Sorry, by the way, I haven't been commenting. I'll be back in the swing soon!)

Gorilla Bananas said...

The Good Soldier sounds very interesting, and looks even more interesting with his erect nose. I wonder where he stuck that thing...

The Jules said...

You can't beat a spot of transgressive metaphysical smut every now and then can you?

I really enjoyed Moby Dick, particuarly the first chunk, the bit set on land ironically.

Lulu LaBonne said...

Right that's you and Ana sorted then.

I'm feeling very low brow - my big impact books were the ones I read as a child, Lewis Caroll and AA Milne.

For me this was a big time for virtual escape (my mother died then). Once I got to 16, the age everyone else was getting earnest about literature and thinking about going to university, I did a bit of actual running off and didn't pick up another book for 10 years.

I have Ulysses but couldn't make it very far. I have read and loved The Good Soldier though so I will have a go at some of the rest on the list.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I've often argued that Švejk should be essential reading for local government workers.

Mary Ellen said...

Great list - many things I SHOULD have read, and some I actually have. I need more poetry in my life.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, yeah, I luv 'em - I'm a poet an' I don't know it! You're right, it is something of a revelation to read that people were also trying to get off with each other 400 years ago! As much as I love him, I've been trying for several decades to shed my Sveik-like personality ;-)

Dear, lovely Ana - great minds, eh? I'd love to run away with you, but I'm afraid it'd have to be in a future life - my significant other knows how to work the DVD and the washing machine and I really couldn't do without her :-)

It is a good book, Bananas, and that picture does convey his personality rather well.

The Jules, absolutely, transgressive metaphysical smut should be part of the National Curriculum. You're right, I'd forgotten how good the first (land-based) bit of MD is: the diverse crew meeting up, the rumours about Ahab, and the wild sermon.

Lulu, I didn't say I read them as a child - I can't have read any of them (except perhaps Carson McCullers) before I passed English 'O' Level! It sounds like you've had an interesting life, as if we didn't suspect that already :-) You must tell us sometime, if you want to.

Kevin, wouldn't the Genet be better? Compulsary work-place transvestism for all senior managers!

Welcome, Mary Ellen (you're not the Mary Ellen of Stamford Hill, London, are you?) We all need a little poetry in our lives: I'd urge anybody to read Steven Fry's The Ode Less Travelled for a starter.

Madame DeFarge said...

Mmm, I now feel intellectually underpowered by comparison. Oh well, here goes.

John Donne - superlative, so yup on that. Intelligent, moving and passionate. Most unlike me.

Philip Larkin - his poetry is so moving and has influenced me throughout my life. 'No Road' makes me cry because of the unerring honesty about a relationship that must end but can't.

Jiri Weill - Mendelssohn is on the Roof - book about Nazi occupation of Prague through series of short stories/vignettes. Makes me cry whenever I read it.

Elizabeth Gaskell - everything. I find her an intelligent and sympathetic writer on a period of great social change.

Robertson Davis - The Salterton Trilogy - because he writes clearly and intelligently, with understated humour.

Stephen Leacock - anything he wrote. Humorist, again intelligent and makes me wish that I could write like he did. My blog is a sad reflection of the fact I don't.

There you go and there you have it.

No Good Boyo said...

All these books are gay, literally in some cases, except for Schweik - the novel Tolstoi would have written instead of War and Peace if he hadn't been an off ox.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Madame, thanks for sharing your top tips: I value Larkin, though my father ruined actual enjoyment of his work by taking him as his personal guru. I haven't read the others and I probably should, starting with Mrs Gazza.

Boyo, hmmm, yeah - the only "gay" gay book is the Genet, and he was a harder bastard than any of us here. On the other hand, Tolstoi et al. were effete, bourgouis-liberal metrosexuals. I rest my case :-)

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I saw Lindsay Kemp's production of Our Lady of the Flowers in Paris many hundred years ago. Oh my word! It makes Torchwood look positively butch!

Gadjo Dilo said...

Daphers, I also saw Lindsay Kemp's Our Lady of the Flowers; in fact, he and I shared the same dance teacher and I also did workshops with him; (maybe I should be embarrassed about this but I'm not.) Yes, he's as camp as they come but can be quite brilliant in his own way.