12 Books everyone should read before the world explodes in a mass of flames
Monday, November 19, 2012 7:21:31 PM
The following (in italics) is something I wrote some time nearer the beginning of this year:
I've just been kind of reading this article, which, rightly or wrongly, makes me want to puke blood through my eyeballs. I couldn't bear to read the whole thing, so I clicked on one of the related links, which was one of those really stupid 100 books everyone should read before they die kind of things. Actually, this list was not so bad. How many of them have I read? Let me count. Twenty-four. How many of the remainder do I think I would like to read? About fourteen or so. As I said, not bad.
Anyway, I thought I would make my own list, but keep it short - twelve titles. Why twelve? So that people can actually read the whole list, maybe even in a year, and feel like they've accomplished something. I'm not going to set any rules for this, as I don't have much time, only that these won't necessarily be my all time favourites, but the books that, in a perfect world, if everyone had to read twelve books, I would choose, exercising the best of my judgement as I have so far developed it. Etc.
Since writing that, I've decided to set the rule that all the twelve books must be fiction, otherwise I'll get confused about whether to include poetry and philosophy or not. I think I'll also actually urge people to try reading, in 2013, if that year comes, one of these books a month, and I'll give an alternative list - later - to fill in gaps for those who have already read some or all of the first list. Also, I'll try and write a little bit about each of the books when I have time. Here they are:
(Addendum: I'm so used to thinking of the handful of people I know occasionally read this blog, that I tend to assume some things are already known. For the sake of those who have landed here randomly from a google search, etc., may I offer what is referred to these days as 'full disclosure': I work with Chômu Press, who released three of the listed books. Publication by Chômu counts as a recommendation from me, anyway, so it shouldn't be surprising that some Chômu books end up on this list.)
Not in order of preference:
1. The Sea of Fertility, by Mishima Yukio
I haven't thought about these books having particular improving messages for the world, or anything like that. The Sea of Fertility is a series of four linked novels, the action of which spans most of the twentieth century in Japan, taking in a little of Thailand and India along the way. I believe that Mishima has been referred to as Japan's post-war conscience. I don't have a citation for that - I can be the source of the reference myself, if necessary. In what way was he Japan's conscience? I'm well aware that many people believe he was insane, politically dubious and so on (especially regarding his attempted military coup and ritual suicide in 1970). However, I came across this quote recently, from J.G. Ballard: "In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!" Mishima's conscience was one that rang alarm bells, through his literature, about the encroaching 'sanity' that is really death. This, anyway, is what I take away from Mishima's work. As one character in the film version of one of the novels in this tetralogy says: "Don't fear the death of the body, only of the spirit." Mishima is one of two people on this list who articulated with clarity and power the idea that the twentieth century has been poison to the soul - that the soul is not necessarily invulnerable, and may be imperilled.
2. No Longer Human, by Dazai Osamu
To me, the following two lines from the Zen text Mumonkan are exceedingly poignant and humane: "When two thieves meet they need no introduction:/They recognise each other without question." This sounds like the old English-language adage, "It takes a thief to catch a thief", or, more simply, "It takes one to know one", but I sense something else here, since this is a couplet about Zen masters recognising and understanding each other - as humans. I am deeply suspicious of the idea of perfecting humans. A human who is too perfect becomes a smiling tyrant. (Alan Watts, incidentally, expresses a similar suspicion and values what he calls 'the element of rascality'.)
No Longer Human, it seems to me, is a text in which some of the most precious aspects of humanity may be detected in the soul of a liar and thief - especially when the reader recognises that he or she is looking into a mirror. S/he, then, will 'need no introduction', and the text will become as close to him/her as his/her own soul. (The English language really wasn't designed with gender equality in mind, it seems.)
3. The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Like The Sea of Fertility, this is a tetralogy. I read this a long time ago - twice, I think. For that reason, it's quite possible that, if I read it again today, I would have a different opinion of it. Nonetheless, in the memory-landscape of my reading history, the four books of this tetralogy form together an outstanding massif of pathos and imagination. They are set in the 'ancient future' - i.e. they belong to that mode of science fiction where the far future resembles in some ways the past, and in other ways an entirely fantastical other world - and they follow the adventures of Severian, an apprentice in the guild of torturers who is exiled for allowing one of his prisoners (with whom he has fallen in love) a merciful death.
I think my love of literature really began with fantasy, so it is appropriate that I include at least one fantasy epic here. What is literature if it does not sometimes take us far away? The Book of the New Sun is also notable for the minor key in which what would otherwise be 'high fantasy' is played; representative of this is the fact that Severian is, as can be deduced from his beginnings as a torturer, something of an anti-hero.
4. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, by Justin Isis
I may be wrong, but my impression is that we are living in an age where the bonds of conformity are increasing (the Internet actually perhaps being one link in this chain), and where the life-blood of the Borg-like body of conformity (if one can describe anything so dulling and toxic in such vital terms) is pumped each day by a stronger, fiercer, more regular heartbeat. The apperance of a book such as I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like in an age such as ours is for me a sign of considerable hope.
Let me make a comparison that may seem arbitrary, between Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now and Justin Isis's I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like. Tolle has explicitly stated that his books are not meant to be interesting - he disdains the idea of "intellectual content" meant to be attractive to the mind. This is because his texts, apparently, are intended as urgently transformational rather than as a way of passing the time. Parallels may be seen in the Buddhist parable of the poison arrow, in which the Buddha compares life to a poison arrow that must be extracted immediately before we bother to ask who made the arrow, who shot it, etc. However, to treat life and the world forever as a poison arrow means forever to concentrate on extracting it. After a while, you may have forgotten what you are extracting and why. Lack of curiosity, it seems to me, is not as admirable as this parable would imply. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is a book that has the urgency the parable implies, but also much more interest - it is like extracting the arrow and then licking the blood off it.
At this moment in time, I feel in myself a swelling tide of suspicion towards the likes of Tolle and the tradition from which he has emerged. One of my favourite songs is 'Saviour Machine', by David Bowie, the lyrics being the tale of a rational machine that brings peace and order to Earth. But when this supposedly perfect state is acheived, the machine itself rebels against the humans who have created it, telling them: "Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me/Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/or maybe a war, or I may kill you all." The Power of Now would be the equivalent of the peaceful sanity that supposedly saves us all. I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like would be the equivalent of the moment that the saviour machine "cried in its boredom" and went mad. It is a book for those who remember the Zen admonishment to kill the Buddha rather than those all too ready to fawn at the feet of the next self-proclaimed master.
Is I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like anti-life? Perhaps only insofar as it is anti-boredom, and life in an age of conformity can certainly be boring.
5. The Western Lands, by William S. Burroughs
I'm not sure what I can say to do the work of Burroughs justice. Actually, I don't think I've read enough of his work. I've read Naked Lunch, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands, My Education (A Book of Dreams) and assorted essays and letters (I had a volume of selected letters that must now be in storage somewhere). Even so, I would consider Burroughs a major influence on my life and my own writing. Naked Lunch, of course, is his most famous work. I found The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands to be much more cohesive in the presentation of a very powerful, very fascinating 'lens' through which to see the world. (Oh, perhaps I should say before I forget, Burroughs is the other person on this list, apart from Mishima, who articulates the concept of an imperilled soul. In Burroughs's universe, immortality is possible, but not guaranteed. There are two deaths: that of the body, and that of the soul. Planet Earth he describes as a penal colony. Essentially, humans are living on a spiritual death row, in line for the death of the soul.)
In some ways, Burroughs's worldview may seem chaotic or over-the-top (though he is perhaps one of the few writers who never had any need to over-dramatise the raw material of his own life to produce compelling fiction), but every now and then something happens in my life (small or large) that makes me see one of the many concepts with which his writing teems in a new way, or as making sense again after I had discarded it. The Magical Universe (MU) of many gods (as opposed to OGU, or One God Universe) is a case in point. Recently, this made sense to me again. I won't go into details, though. I would say, in the final analysis, and perhaps strangely, considering we're talking about a man who drunkely shot his own wife, I find there to be something eminently trustable about Burroughs's writing. I don't mean that I agree with all his opinions. I suppose I'm referring to the sense that what Burroughs is most interested in is human freedom, and that his fundamental belief is in the dignity of human freedom. This is something I trust. I don't find his fiction manipulative. I do believe his interest in freedom was sincere. I find it reassuring when I encounter a sincere interest in freedom.
6. Là-Bas, by J.-K. Huysmans
I fear that a few extemporised words will fail also to do Huysmans justice. Robert Baldick, in his biography of Huysmans, gives at the end an impressive obituary, which I can neither reproduce nor equal, that provides a brief outline of Huysmans' considerable but much overlooked achievements. Huysmans was there at the beginnings of French naturalism, but veered away into a literary career of many turnings. His À Rebours was called by Arthur Symons "the breviary of decadence". Barbey d'Aurevilly, in his review of the novel, wrote, "After Les Fleurs du mal I told Baudelaire it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross. But will the author of À Rebours make the same choice?" This proved an insightful comment, Huysmans eventually choosing the Cross over the pistol.
À Rebours was the first of Huysmans' novels that I read. I was young, and disappointed, perhaps expecting something more sensationalist and less introspective, having been excited by Wilde's description of it ("It seemed to him [Dorian Gray, who reads a 'yellow book' that history gives us to understand is À Rebours] that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him"). It may well be time I revisited the novel. Be that as it may, my choice from the oeuvre of Huysmans is Là-Bas. This was the second work by Huysmans that I read, and seems to me the best sustained. It was also the first that spoke to me without me having to strain to understand it. It concerns one Durtal, who is to appear again in Huysmans' series of novels exploring his conversion to Catholicism. Durtal is researching the historical figure Gilles de Rais, the notorious 15th Century child-murderer. As part of his research for this, he becomes involved in the newly flourishing Satanist circles of Paris, as well as cultivating a friendship with a somewhat more conservative but nonetheless eccentric and outspoken bell-ringer. Apart from being solidly constructed and rich in prose and imagination, this book seems to offer a little of almost everything from Huysmans' life and career: It begins with his rebellion against literary naturalism, lingers on art criticism, contains still plenty of world-weariness and the longing for an artificial paradise also found in À Rebours, is unique in its exploration of Satanism, descends into passages of awesome surrealism and horror as Durtal attempts to reconstruct the life of Gilles de Rais in his imagination, and contains more than a hint of the Catholic direction on which Huysmans will embark with greater commitment before long.
To focus on a little of what is unique to this volume, the juxtaposition of the real atrocities of Gilles de Rais with the charlatanry and sensationalism of the modern Parisian Satanists has the effect of making the latter seem dilettante poseurs indeed, and it is no wonder that, by the end of the novel, Durtal has had enough of them.
7. Human Pages, by John Elliott
John Elliott was first published in 1970 by Calder and Boyars. He was published again in 2011 by Chômu Press. Human Pages was written before the 2011 publication (Dying to Read), but was published just this year (2012) by Chômu Press. If anything can carry the weight of a forty-year gap in publication between first and second (remembering that Human Pages was written second), then Human Pages can.
At one point, the main character, Roberto Ayza, asks himself the question, "Why are there things in the world?" I am not sure that I have read any book that captures so well the essence of "things in the world". What is this essence? Some have tried to describe it. A 'naked lunch moment', for instance, is the phrase for "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". In Burroughs's book, Naked Lunch, this is interpreted as the true horror of capital punishment, the sacrifice behind the veneer of civilisation. Human Pages is not quite like that, although those who like the Beats may well like Human Pages. In an interview with me, John mentions that "the thing in itself" is something he has learnt from the surrealists. What is a lobster, for instance? Human Pages is a labyrinth and a panorama of 'things in the world'; exploring the surface of particularity, it uncannily produces an atmosphere of mixed familiarity and strangeness, which is something like the irreducible experience of being alive. In the James Bond theme song, we're told, "You only live twice.../One life for you and one for your dreams." By showing only the one life, Human Pages manages to evoke with unerring poignancy the other life.
Human Pages reminds me of a few things, which I'll give some brief account of here. The rawness with which the surface of human experience is described reminds me of an interview I once read, many years back, in which David Bowie was talking of his album Station to Station. He said that he had been determined not to have any default commercial touches to the album, but, near the end of recording he caved in on one thing: he had reverb added to some of the sound tracks. The prose of Human Pages, in its thingness, is like prose without reverb. This seems an appropriate association, as Station to Station was the album intended (though not used) as a soundtrack to Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie starred. There's a scene in which Thomas Newton (Bowie) is watching a whole bank of TV screens at once. Afterwards, he says something like, "It's a funny thing about television; it shows you everything about life on Earth, but it doesn't tell you anything." Again, this approaches the thingness of Human Pages. The story of entrepreneurial aspiration and corruption in the film also has its parallels in Human Pages. I would go as far as to say that Nic Roeg would be a perfect director for a film version of the book. His approach is similar to that of the book: information inserted in a splintered, almost subliminal way throughout, without telegraphing as to its importance.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, of course, is the film with secret messages that Philip K. Dick depicts under a different title in Valis. I'd like to draw a parallel with Philip K. Dick, too. I feel there is one, and know that John Elliott is an admirer of Dick's work. Perhaps it is to do with, amongst all the thingness, the precariousness of identity. What? Who?8. The Hill of Dreams, by Arthur Machen
9. The Last Man, by Mary Shelley
10. The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit
11. Cold Hand in Mine, by Robert Aickman
12. Celebrant, by Michael Cisco