New Feature: Recommended reading based largely on what I have been listening to.
- The Enderby novels: by Anthony Burgess. Hilarious yet poignant account, over four books, of a minor English poet, who drinks too much, despises his publishers, loathes foreigners and their cities, marries into money, yet decides he prefers solitude in poverty…It goes on, the flawless skill, fine Joycean observations of character, and often sheer beauty of the language, making this a perfect introduction to one of the most prolific, daring, and masterful giants of 20th century literature.
- A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: essays by David Foster Wallace. Where Harper’s magazine invariably sent me to report on apocalyptic warzones, its editors, in their infinite wisdom, seem to have sent Foster Wallace – whom I regret never meeting – off to cover events for which they were certain he would be unsuited. Like the Indiana State Fair, or a luxury Caribbean cruise, to name but two. The results, however, are far from predictable. Wallace becomes obsessively intrigued with prize hogs, for example, or willingly joins in the highly-structured on-deck activities in shark-infested waters, although he refuses to go ashore at the various island ports-of-call, citing agoraphobia. Few accounts ever penned are funnier than his describing a defeat at chess by a nine-year-old girl. The collection makes a useful introduction to his novel, Infinite Jest, which I am coming to regard as the 21st century’s first American masterpiece, as staggeringly original, outrageously funny, and painfully human as the Joyce of Ulysses, or the Burroughs of Wild Boys. I will return to it in detail later, since no audio version exists and I have to rely on Kara for the reading. It is not short. David Foster Wallace took his own life a few years back, a loss his novel makes all the more hard to contemplate. Had Harper’s, or indeed anyone, suspected the actual severity of his psychological problems – the addictions, the electro-shock therapy, the bottomless depressions – I doubt if he would have been placed in such untenable positions.
- The Financier by Theodore Dreiser. The classic American business novel, curiously contemporary with its account of overweening greed, corrupt politicians, and the cartels that in reality run our world for their own benefit. Over a 100 years old, the novel is a startling reminder that if elections changed anything they’d be made illegal.
- Selected Stories by Mavis Gallant. She died, aged 90-odd, earlier this year, in Paris, where she was widely revered as one of greatest exponents of the short story in its history, every bit the equal of Chekov, Kipling, Joyce, and Turgenev. Her childhood and youth, however, were spent in Montreal, which, of course, means she is virtually unknown in Canada. Faultless, exquisite sentences, finely etched characters, quotidian situations, but often highly unexpected twists of narrative are her hallmark. No one who enjoys writing at its most precise and revelatory level can fail to fall deeply in love with Gallant.
- Myths to Live By, edited talks by Joseph Campbell. This is a great introduction to the work of a man who, in any other society, would be hailed as a Socrates, or Nietzsche, a teacher of genuine and self-realized wisdom. His subject is the coherent interrelationship of all world mythology, and its vital, ongoing relevance in our own lives. His insistence on seeing every religion as essentially mythical, a product of the collective unconscious, has, predictably, made him reviled by those who still cling to their own scriptures as factual truths, indeed the only real truth; yet his learned, compassionate comparisons of global mythologies, if followed with unbiased attention, make it impossible to reject the argument that every race regards itself as ‘chosen’, has a messianic figure, born of a virgin, and sacrificed for the good of humanity, whether to save it from sin, usher in the Golden Age, or simply assure fertility and abundant harvests. Cruel death, followed by resurrection, are ubiquitous concepts across the Middle Eastern religions, from Osiris and Tammuz, through the Hebrew Messiach, to Jesus and the Sufi martyrs, like al-Halaj, who was also crucified for claiming, “I and my Father are one.” Campbell has little time for the exclusivist monotheisms, however, preferring the rich subtleties of Hinduism and the Eastern systems, which have always known that their stories of gods and demons are merely metaphors for inner states, eternal verities, rather than irrelevant pseudo-historical yarns. Jesus has no more historical reality than the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt, or the conquest of Jerusalem by Mohammed. Even the texts themselves are provably unreliable, conflicting, existing in many versions, thus very far from being ‘the word of God’. To fundamentalists, Campbell is anathema, since he knows the actual scholarship, the original languages, the variant manuscripts, and thus can point out that there is no word in Hebrew capable of being translated as ‘God’; that the Decalogue brought down from Sinai by Moses are not ‘commandments’ but simply ‘utterances’; that, to American Indians, the earth is not ‘dust’, as the Book of Genesis scornfully terms it, but rather a nurturing mother, the source of all life; that serpents are generally revered as wise and sacred by most mythologies; and that the divine is viewed by all mystical systems as within every living being, not remote from them, not a wrathful puppet-master, cruel and unpredictable, but a life-enhancing point of love and light to be sought in solitude and contemplation. “Follow your bliss,” was Campbell’s exhortation to his students, urging them all to take the hero’s journey, and conquer life’s monsters and obstacles along the way, in order to return to their place of origin, knowing it and themselves for the first time. Anyone searching for a spiritual element in their lives, yet unable to accept the stilted orthodoxies, with their deadening dogma and preposterous theologies, could do worse than adopt Joseph Campbell as a guide and guru, who will, at the very least, lead the seeker to still-richer troves of soul-treasure.
- Talks with Ramana Maharshi. If I could only take one book with me to the desert island, this would be the one. Spiritual insight and wisdom distilled to its quintessence. I can say no more, since words do not reach these realms.