William T. Vollmann’s Favorite “Contemporary” Books

In a 1990 interview between William T. Vollmann and one of his editors Larry McCaffery. An excerpt from the interview appears as a list in the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite books (seriously, let’s have another volume—this is clearly the optimum Vollmann delivery system). I’ve kept Expelled from Eden’s  list format because, hey, let’s face it, we like lists—

LM: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?

WV: By “contemporary” I assume you mean “from the last two hundred years.”

1./2./3. Right now it seems like I’ve learned a lot from Mishima, Kawabata, and Tolstoy;

4. Hawthorne may be the best;

5. Then Faulkner;

6. Hemingway is usually a wonderful read, especially Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls—that is to say, the grandly suicidal narratives;

7. Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Dreambook for Our Time is beautiful;

8. I also love everything I’ve read by Mir Lagerkvist;

9. Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter;

10. Multatuli’s Max Havalaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company;

11. Kundera’s Laughable Loves;

12. Andrea Freud Lowenstein’s This Place (which deserves more recognition than it has received);

13. Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (which I had the wonderful experience of finding and reading a few months after completing my own book about Greenlanders, The Ice-Shirt).

14. Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men;

15. Farley Mowat’s The People of the Deer;

16. The first three books of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy (how could I have forgotten that?);

17. Random bits of Proust, Zola’sL’Assommoir;

18. Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai;

19.The first two books of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy;

20. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land;

21. Poe’s stories about love;

22. Everything by Malraux (especially his Anti-Memoirs);

23. Nabokov’s Glory and Transparent Things and Ada;

24. Melville’s Pierre;

25. Thomas Bernhard’s Correction;

26. David Lindsay’s Voyage to Acturus;

27. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly;

28. A few of Boll’s short novels (Wo warst du, Adam? and The Train Was on Time);

29. Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel;

30. Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things;

31.  Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz;

32. James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy (which is just plane fun);

33. The first three volumes of Lawrence Durrell’sAlexandria Quartet, and I don’t know what all.

There’s lots more. I am sorry not to be able to put down less contemporary things such as Tale of Genji, which is one of my all-time favorites.

5 thoughts on “William T. Vollmann’s Favorite “Contemporary” Books”

  1. Maybe I need Expelled from Eden because I do want to read Vollmann. I have Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means but haven’t got beyond sampling, and can’t imagine reading the thing. The post-modern label is a block, not sure I’m a po-mo man. I agree with your comment that I suspect I like the persona more than the output, exactly the same with DFW.


    1. Anthony, I think Expelled is the way to read Vollmann. I’m sure (somewhere) out there, there are rabid Vollmannites lamenting my (our?) inability/lack of time to read multi-volume 1000 page tomes . . . but Expelled is a great cross-section of works.

      As far as the post-modernism thing . . . I don’t know if he’s a “post-modern” author as much as it is that his works might be described as “post-modern.” This is part of a much longer argument I have though (although don’t have quite together) — but Vollmann is quite different from the ironic, self-reflexive works of Barth, Barthelme, or even Pynchon (who he’s often compared to, like Wallace). I think of what he’s doing as closer to Steinbeck, or perhaps even Norman Mailer.


  2. I’ve struggled through “The Atlas” and didn’t see much point. But then I struggled through “Imperial”, and though I don’t know if I would recommend it to anyone having to work (it took me five months and a few diversionary books to finish it), it is a monumental achievement and an ode to obsession. Beautifully written, even, although I do not know if you’d like to read 150 pages on SoCal water rights. At least, I didn’t. On DFW, permit me to disagree. His two novels are exemplary, towering books.


  3. There are problems with this format of the Vollmann interview where he is asked his favorite contemporary writers. As an interview it must have been recorded and some intern transcribed it. I can’t believe that McCaffrey (a friend of Vollmann’s and an academic, but never one of his book editors) let it get into Expelled from Eden like this. Number 17 lists two different authors and their works as one entry. And number 8 should be Pär Lagerkvist, but maybe in interview it sounds like Mir to a transcriber. I am a big Vollmann fan and I like this list (not a big fan of Expelled from Eden though), I just wish they cleaned it up a little when they reprinted it.


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