Novels That Will Be Considered the Most Important Literary Works of the Twentieth Century in the Year 2100 (According to Dalkey Archive)
Novels That Will Be Considered the Most Important Literary Works of the Twentieth Century in the Year 2100
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
Molloy, Samuel Beckett
The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
The Lime Works, Thomas Bernhard
Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
JR, William Gaddis
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
Ulysses, James Joyce
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien
The Inquisitory, Robert Pinget
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
Speculative list from the Dalkey Archive (from an issue of their journal Context; compiled from responses of “advisors at universities and bookstores”). I’m sure the fact that they publish several of these titles has nothing to do with these books’ inclusion. I’ve read all of seven of these, some of five of these, and none of three of these.
And an invented person makes the greatest impression, naturally, on the seemingly not-invented, real person who, upon finding his reflection in a book, feels replaced and redoubled. This person cannot forgive his feeling of double insult: here I, a real, not-invented person, shall go to my grave and nothingness in ten or twenty years, whereas this fabricated, not-real “almost I” shall go on living and living as though it were the most natural thing in the world; more unforgivable still is the awareness that someone, some author, made you up like an arithmetic problem, what’s more he figured you out, arrived at an answer over which you struggled your entire life in vain, he divined your existence without ever having met you, he penned his way into your innermost thoughts, which you tried so hard to hide from yourself. One must refute the author and vindicate oneself. At once!
From Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “Someone Else’s Theme,” collected in NYRB’s Memories of the Future.
I read as I write, write as I read. If it used to take me five minutes to read the whole newspaper, now, my mind wanders, and then five minutes later I wonder, Gee, did I read that? I used to take notes, and I have notebooks full of drawings and notes that were partly quotations, and I’ve done a lot of marginalia, writing in books. I’m usually reading a number of books at a time, and whether I get through an individual one is probably unlikely. I’ve lost interest in narrative. (sigh) At least in the sense of seeing how a story comes out at the end. There’s a type of reading where you get lost in the narrative and you become part of the story and you’re compelled to finish. I don’t really have any interest in that. For me, reading has become more microscopic, more about dissecting the work. It may start on the level of the novel, then go down to theme or style, then to a paragraph, and finally a sentence. Or the sentence itself becomes about structure, or the words in it. Probably the most obvious example of that kind of reading is James Joyce. It becomes a kind of disease. Every text becomes related to another one, even in a different language, down to each individual word, which then becomes a clue into the etymology of the word, and then that etymological tree. A different context, a different language…you’re just making these associations from one thing to another. I used to start out with a simple drawing that would begin as an idea, and then my writing would make some associations with something else. And then, you know, a day later, or a year later, or whenever, the whole page would be covered with small, finely written text. And it would become a lot of things that were meant to be just in one drawing, expanded into this while still part of my notes. Voluminous notes. You do actually get lost in that morass of associations.
In William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape (2002), our embittered narrator excoriates the Pulitzer Prize:
. . . write what they want you’ll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the Medal of honor the George Cross even the Nobel but once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies at whatever because they’re not advertising the winner no. No, like this whole plague of prizes wherever you look, it’s the prize givers promoting themselves, trying to rescue their thoroughly discredited profession of journalism. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes,” Flaubert writes to George Sand “because it relieves them from thinking.” The prize winners? They’re just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories for journalists because if you started your bondage there you’re halfway home with that whole gang of sponsors, trustees, juries, God knows what who’ve survived that Slough of Despond and floated to the top. Just look at the next day’s New York Times, page after page bulging with self-congratulation with seven more categories to leech on, music, what they call drama and of course books where the Grey Lady finally got it both ways with their journalist who reviews books, like the misty-eyed ingenue but also destroys women writers and just for fairness crosses the gender line for an occasional assassination, give that lady a Pulitzer with oak leaf clusters! The books that are candidates are read by a jury whose decisions are passed up to the Olympian trustees with an eye to the multitude. We are thousands and they are millions, write the fiction they want or don’t write at all, ruling out Pound’s cry for the new, the challenging or what’s labeled difficult, so when Gravity’s Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation is overturned by the trustees for a double-talk spoof of academic vagaries by a bogus “Professor,” to everyone’s relief, and the author at peril escapes unblemished by the, no, no, no you can’t depend on it.
“Walt Whitman” by Willa Cather
Speaking of monuments reminds one that there is more talk about a monument to Walt Whitman, “the good, gray poet.” Just why the adjective good is always applied to Whitman it is difficult to discover, probably because people who could not understand him at all took it for granted that he meant well. If ever there was a poet who had no literary ethics at all beyond those of nature, it was he. He was neither good nor bad, any more than are the animals he continually admired and envied. He was a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy. He was the poet of the dung hill as well as of the mountains, which is admirable in theory but excruciating in verse. In the same paragraph he informs you that, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” and that “The malformed limbs are tied to the table, what is removed drop horribly into a pail.” No branch of surgery is poetic, and that hopelessly prosaic word “pail” would kill a whole volume of sonnets. Whitman’s poems are reckless rhapsodies over creation in general, some times sublime, some times ridiculous. He declares that the ocean with its “imperious waves, commanding” is beautiful, and that the fly-specks on the walls are also beautiful. Such catholic taste may go in science, but in poetry their results are sad. The poet’s task is usually to select the poetic. Whitman never bothers to do that, he takes everything in the universe from fly-specks to the fixed stars. His “Leaves of Grass” is a sort of dictionary of the English language, and in it is the name of everything in creation set down with great reverence but without any particular connection.
But however ridiculous Whitman may be there is a primitive elemental force about him. He is so full of hardiness and of the joy of life. He looks at all nature in the delighted, admiring way in which the old Greeks and the primitive poets did. He exults so in the red blood in his body and the strength in his arms. He has such a passion for the warmth and dignity of all that is natural. He has no code but to be natural, a code that this complex world has so long outgrown. He is sensual, not after the manner of Swinbourne and Gautier, who are always seeking for perverted and bizarre effects on the senses, but in the frank fashion of the old barbarians who ate and slept and married and smacked their lips over the mead horn. He is rigidly limited to the physical, things that quicken his pulses, please his eyes or delight his nostrils. There is an element of poetry in all this, but it is by no means the highest. If a joyous elephant should break forth into song, his lay would probably be very much like Whitman’s famous “song of myself.” It would have just about as much delicacy and deftness and discriminations. He says:
“I think I could turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied nor not one is demented with the mania of many things. Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy, over the whole earth.” And that is not irony on nature, he means just that, life meant no more to him. He accepted the world just as it is and glorified it, the seemly and unseemly, the good and the bad. He had no conception of a difference in people or in things. All men had bodies and were alike to him, one about as good as another. To live was to fulfil all natural laws and impulses. To be comfortable was to be happy. To be happy was the ultimatum. He did not realize the existence of a conscience or a responsibility. He had no more thought of good or evil than the folks in Kipling’s Jungle book.
And yet there is an undeniable charm about this optimistic vagabond who is made so happy by the warm sunshine and the smell of spring fields. A sort of good fellowship and whole-heartedness in every line he wrote. His veneration for things physical and material, for all that is in water or air or land, is so real that as you read him you think for the moment that you would rather like to live so if you could. For the time you half believe that a sound body and a strong arm are the greatest things in the world. Perhaps no book shows so much as “Leaves of Grass” that keen senses do not make a poet. When you read it you realize how spirited a thing poetry really is and how great a part spiritual perceptions play in apparently sensuous verse, if only to select the beautiful from the gross.
Nebraska State Journal, January 19, 1896
Purged the books pictured in the lower right-hand corner and picked up a few: Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, which has intrigued me for awhile now, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro—in the Vintage Contemporaries edition no less!—and Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story, which I somehow haven’t read yet. Hypothesis: Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson may be America’s greatest living novelists (?).
“The Cloak” by Nikolai Gogol
In the department of—but it is better not to mention the department. There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service. Each individual attached to them nowadays thinks all society insulted in his person. Quite recently a complaint was received from a justice of the peace, in which he plainly demonstrated that all the imperial institutions were going to the dogs, and that the Czar’s sacred name was being taken in vain; and in proof he appended to the complaint a romance in which the justice of the peace is made to appear about once every ten lines, and sometimes in a drunken condition. Therefore, in order to avoid all unpleasantness, it will be better to describe the department in question only as a certain department.
So, in a certain department there was a certain official—not a very high one, it must be allowed—short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and short-sighted, with a bald forehead, wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind known as sanguine. The St. Petersburg climate was responsible for this. As for his official status, he was what is called a perpetual titular councillor, over which, as is well known, some writers make merry, and crack their jokes, obeying the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back.
His family name was Bashmatchkin. This name is evidently derived from “bashmak” (shoe); but when, at what time, and in what manner, is not known. His father and grandfather, and all the Bashmatchkins, always wore boots, which only had new heels two or three times a year. His name was Akakiy Akakievitch. It may strike the reader as rather singular and far-fetched, but he may rest assured that it was by no means far-fetched, and that the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to give him any other.
This is how it came about.
Akakiy Akakievitch was born, if my memory fails me not, in the evening of the 23rd of March. His mother, the wife of a Government official and a very fine woman, made all due arrangements for having the child baptised. She was lying on the bed opposite the door; on her right stood the godfather, Ivan Ivanovitch Eroshkin, a most estimable man, who served as presiding officer of the senate, while the godmother, Anna Semenovna Byelobrushkova, the wife of an officer of the quarter, and a woman of rare virtues. They offered the mother her choice of three names, Mokiya, Sossiya, or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. “No,” said the good woman, “all those names are poor.” In order to please her they opened the calendar to another place; three more names appeared, Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy. “This is a judgment,” said the old woman. “What names! I truly never heard the like. Varada or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!” They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy. “Now I see,” said the old woman, “that it is plainly fate. And since such is the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakiy, so let his son’s be Akakiy too.” In this manner he became Akakiy Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.
Got rid of some books today—traded some in at the used bookshop I frequent, others I put in a box to take to the office to give away to colleagues. Anyway, I read these, reviewed many of them on the site, and in some cases enjoyed them—but I can’t see myself ever rereading them or returning to them for anything. And, uh, I hated some of them too.
“The Pleasure of Writing” by A. A.Milne
Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say. On one such occasion I left it to Fate, which decided, by means of a dictionary opened at random, that I should deliver myself of a few thoughts about goldfish. (You will find this article later on in the book.) But to-day I do not need to bother about a subject. To-day I am without a care. Nothing less has happened than that I have a new nib in my pen.
In the ordinary way, when Shakespeare writes a tragedy, or Mr. Blank gives you one of his charming little essays, a certain amount of thought goes on before pen is put to paper. One cannot write “Scene I. An Open Place. Thunder and Lightning. Enter Three Witches,” or “As I look up from my window, the nodding daffodils beckon to me to take the morning,” one cannot give of one’s best in this way on the spur of the moment. At least, others cannot. But when I have a new nib in my pen, then I can go straight from my breakfast to the blotting-paper, and a new sheet of foolscap fills itself magically with a stream of blue-black words. When poets and idiots talk of the pleasure of writing, they mean the pleasure of giving a piece of their minds to the public; with an old nib a tedious business. They do not mean (as I do) the pleasure of the artist in seeing beautifully shaped “k’s” and sinuous “s’s” grow beneath his steel. Anybody else writing this article might wonder “Will my readers like it?” I only tell myself “How the compositors will love it!”
But perhaps they will not love it. Maybe I am a little above their heads. I remember on one First of January receiving an anonymous postcard wishing me a happy New Year, and suggesting that I should give the compositors a happy New Year also by writing more generously. In those days I got a thousand words upon one sheet 8 in. by 5 in. I adopted the suggestion, but it was a wrench; as it would be for a painter of miniatures forced to spend the rest of his life painting the Town Council of Boffington in the manner of Herkomer. My canvases are bigger now, but they are still impressionistic. “Pretty, but what is it?” remains the obvious comment; one steps back a pace and saws the air with the hand; “You see it better from here, my love,” one says to one’s wife. But if there be one compositor not carried away by the mad rush of life, who in a leisurely hour (the luncheon one, for instance) looks at the beautiful words with the eye of an artist, not of a wage-earner, he, I think, will be satisfied; he will be as glad as I am of my new nib. Does it matter, then, what you who see only the printed word think of it?
A woman, who had studied what she called the science of calligraphy, once offered to tell my character from my handwriting. I prepared a special sample for her; it was full of sentences like “To be good is to be happy,” “Faith is the lode- star of life,” “We should always be kind to animals,” and so on. I wanted her to do her best. She gave the morning to it, and told me at lunch that I was “synthetic.” Probably you think that the compositor has failed me here and printed “synthetic” when I wrote “sympathetic.” In just this way I misunderstood my calligraphist at first, and I looked as sympathetic as I could. However, she repeated “synthetic,” so that there could be no mistake. I begged her to tell me more, for I had thought that every letter would reveal a secret, but all she would add was “and not analytic.” I went about for the rest of the day saying proudly to myself “I am synthetic! I am synthetic! I am synthetic!” and then I would add regretfully, “Alas, I am not analytic!” I had no idea what it meant.
And how do you think she had deduced my syntheticness? Simply from the fact that, to save time, I join some of my words together. That isn’t being synthetic, it is being in a hurry. What she should have said was, “You are a busy man; your life is one constant whirl; and probably you are of excellent moral character and kind to animals.” Then one would feel that one did not write in vain.
My pen is getting tired; it has lost its first fair youth. However, I can still go on. I was at school with a boy whose uncle made nibs. If you detect traces of erudition in this article, of which any decent man might be expected to be innocent, I owe it to that boy. He once told me how many nibs his uncle made in a year; luckily I have forgotten. Thousands, probably. Every term that boy came back with a hundred of them; one expected him to be very busy. After all, if you haven’t the brains or the inclination to work, it is something to have the nibs. These nibs, however, were put to better uses. There is a game you can play with them; you flick your nib against the other boy’s nib, and if a lucky shot puts the head of yours under his, then a sharp tap capsizes him, and you have a hundred and one in your collection. There is a good deal of strategy in the game (whose finer points I have now forgotten), and I have no doubt that they play it at the Admiralty in the off season. Another game was to put a clean nib in your pen, place it lightly against the cheek of a boy whose head was turned away from you, and then call him suddenly. As Kipling says, we are the only really humorous race. This boy’s uncle died a year or two later and left about œ80,000, but none of it to his nephew. Of course, he had had the nibs every term. One mustn’t forget that.
The nib I write this with is called the “Canadian Quill”; made, I suppose, from some steel goose which flourishes across the seas, and which Canadian housewives have to explain to their husbands every Michaelmas. Well, it has seen me to the end of what I wanted to say—if indeed I wanted to say anything. For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand, I could have copied out a directory. That is the real pleasure of writing.