Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ten Books of Coincidence, History and Transformation for Henry

Henry Layte, the owner of Norwich's The Book Hive asked me to be one of the local writers to recommend ten books in some thematic group. He then ordered the books in and displayed them with the notes below. As it is very late I thought I'd put the list up here.

Ten Books of Coincidence, History and Transformation

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
Magic and satire under Stalin, a cult book in Russia, hair-raising and funny. The Devil himself appears. The Master writes a novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ. Margarita is the Master's lover who becomes a witch. We enter the world of the novel and Pontius Pilate, horrified, purged and laughing.

Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles
The imagination transforms everything into obsession, dream, nightmare in these short stories set in Galicia, yet everything remains intimate and all the more disturbing for that. It is as if you discovered your very socks had nightmares.

David Grossman: See Under: Love
Picks up the figure of Schulz. An extraordinarily ambitious hallucinatorily clear and occasionally dense book. There's this Israeli child, Momik, of the 1950s, who becomes obsessed by Schulz as an adult. and writes a wonderful fantasy based on Schulz's life. His Scheherzade-like grandfather is unkillable and tells stories, and, and...

W G Sebald: Austerlitz
The last and greatest book by the German East Anglian author of The Rings of Saturn. Two essential characters, the figure 'I' and the eponymous Jacques Austerlitz. The two keep meeting each other and history opens under their feet everywhere they step. Part suspense story, part elegy, part magical encyclopaedia of coincidence and loss.

Martin Gardner: The Annotated Alice
Like the Sebald, partly an encyclopedia but this time fixing itself firmly to the body of Lewis Carroll's two Alice books. Think of memory as a set of annotations on life, how this thing leads to that thing. The contemporary references are not just scholarship but tunnels in time. How does thinking actually work?.

Lord Byron: Don Juan (the Anne Barton edition)
Byron was the greatest comic poet in the English language, and much more than that. In his unfinished Don Juan (pronounced Don Jew-one so as to rhyme with 'new one') he perfects his airy digressive matter while telling extraordinary funny and terrible stories of Juan's travel and return. His rhyming is virtuosic, his sense of timing magnificent.

Graham Oakley: Magical Changes
For children-cum-adults. A picture split-page book without words in which the top and bottom of every page fit with every other to create a funny, dreamlike, faintly disturbing set of coincidences that seem full of endless (actually 512) possibilities. Children love it because everything fits together. Adults love it because the fit is strange.

André Kertész (Phaidon 55s)
A cheap introduction to one of the great photographers of the 20C. You could have his book 'On Reading' but that is more specialised. Kertész was Hungarian by birth but an internationalist by fate. His long career goes back to the First World War and beyond and extends into the seventies and early eighties. His range is enormous from early realism, through post war idylls, urban scenes, surrealism, isolation in New York and even includes polaroids.

T S Eliot and Valerie Eliot: The Waste Land Facsimile
The poem and all the poems it might have been with Pound's notes and editings, Vivienne's scribblings, and all in aid of what? The key poetic vision of the Twentieth Century that remains insistently valid in our own times. It shows a global world imploding and transforming, bearing down on the personal, splitting identity. Fragments shored against ruin.

Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters (Library of America)
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the greatest poets of the last century. Her work in both poetry and prose is miniature yet enormous. She is a precise and humane observer, fascinated by maps, but also by encounters with the transformed world, whether those be Manmoths, Fishes or The Moose met by a long-distance bus at night. In her the hallucinatory and the familiar find that calm sphere of being in which the imagination lies down with reason begetting wisdom.


Andrew Shields said...

Keep an eye out for Benjamin Stein's "The Canvas," which is due out next year. A wonderful discussion of Bulgakov in it, and also some things that are quite Sebaldesque.

But the most Sebaldesque stuff I've read recently is something else: the prose works of Ciaran Carson!

panther said...

Thank you, George, for sending me in the direction of Schulz, a new name for me. I had to giggle at the (good) review on Amazon in which his stories are likened to Kafka's, something like "They are similar in many ways but, on reflection, I would describe Schulz as more optimistic." You don't say!

George S said...

Thanks, Andrew - I will look out for that. I haven't read Carson's prose work but he is a top poet. And a good musician too!

Schulz is remarkable, panther. He is less claustrophobic than Kafka, warmer and more domestic. It's wilds of the intimate space, full of magic.