The other day a reader & commenter on AUFS who is participating in our email discussion group on William Gass’ The Tunnel emailed to ask me about my favorite novels. It took me a while to respond, but this wasn’t for lack of reflection. It’s a common enough question (not just for me, but when you’re amongst well-read people in general), but one I continue to take seriously. I find it difficult to answer not because I’m worried what others might think of my choices. I can’t remember the last time I cared, quite honestly. The problem, such as it is, is that I’m always certain that any such list will simply emerge out of whatever state of mind or fickle disposition I find myself at any given moment or season. Ask me again in a month and the list could be completely different. That’s just my hunch, anyway — it’s not as though the question is so common that I’ve had the opportunity to experiment. My hope, of course, is that there would be some consistency. So, in response to my correspondent and reading partner, I opted for a list that is perhaps less my favorite novels, and more what I hope are my favorite novels.
1) Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy — I incorporated a reading of this novel (along with Dave Eggers’ memoir, though it certainly doesn’t compare) into my PhD thesis for no other reason than to see if I could. I doubt it helped the cause, but nobody important objected. Nothing makes me laugh as much as this book. Sterne’s sermons, btw, are well worth looking at too.
2) W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (possibly Rings of Saturn) — Nobody else writes like Sebald. Some have tried from time to time, but none come close. Some of this has to do with his very arcane German — my German friends express doubts that even the most Teutonically arcane ever wrote like Sebald. In Austerlitz there is a long passage that I still return to, as though it was Scripture, about moths.
3) James Joyce, Ulysses — Okay, yes, maybe a very cliched or highfalutin choice. But I cannot nor would I wish to deny that Joyce’s use of language just overwhelms me. Some people occasionally take exception to the Joyce industry in academia. Indeed, even I once suggested, year ago, that there be a ten-year moratorium placed on Joyce citations. (That would be a fun blog survey, btw. Who would you suggest for a similar-minded moratorium, and for how long?) But the Joyce scholars, the worst of them anyway, many are quite delightful, cannot diminish my joy whenever I read this work. I loved Ulysses so much I’ve been afraid ever to begin reading Finnegan’s Wake. I feel unworthy.
4) Samuel Beckett — Nearly anything he ever wrote. His shopping lists may well send me into reverie. If I ever get re-ordained, I will one day conduct a Samuel Beckett liturgy. (Kotsko suggested this would make a brilliant AAR wildcard session. I may finally have my SF proposal ready to go.)
5) Wallace Stevens, Harmonium — Not a novel. But, a little confession here, I don’t really read novels for their plot & resolution. Oh, sometimes you have to, but I greatly prefer looking at their language and the movements therein. Now, I’m an awful poet, and I often grow impatient with even the best lyrical poetry. Oh, but the poetry in the best prose, that’s a delight. Stevens remains one of the few poets I return to regularly.
6) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man — Another trendy choice, maybe. Does it paint me as a do-good liberal, knowing that it was also one of Clinton’s favorite novels! Be that as it may, the anger and the joy and the beauty in here are breathtaking. (“Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”)
7) Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans – A big, difficult novel about family and America, and everything in between and just beyond. Surely this one makes J. Franzen cringe at night.
8) William Gaddis, The Recognitions and JR. I can’t think of one without the other. They are a package deal with me. Gaddis never again reached the heights of his second novel, and there’s nothing at all wrong w/ that. (“–A flea circus, they don’t really dress them up in little clothes and train them to pull carts and things? Why would, who would do that? / — Just somebody who . . . maybe just somebody afraid of failing at something worth doing.”)
9) Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Another book to which I regularly return, like Scripture. Well, maybe just the Book of Judges. Seriously thinking we should perhaps do a reading of this novel here in commemoration of its 25th anniversary this year.
10) Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet. I read this soon after completing my PhD, and right as I realized the degree meant nothing at all. This book confirmed it . . .
and one more for good measure….
11) Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father.
Postscript: I probably should’ve included Melville somewhere in here, considering the time and attention I’ve invested in him. He deserves better. As I reflected on things, it just didn’t feel like he fit the list. Citing him, for me anyway, would be like saying Shakespeare is my favorite writer.