Pathetic, I know, to begin by merely stating an intention for the future… but I intend to review some books here. I would like to review ten truly sublime books.
Books can be wonderful in many different ways. They can be funny; they can be exciting; they can be joyous, or tearful, or beautiful; they can arose any emotion one can have in the world. Some can simply grip and compel without being funny or exciting or emotive, but purely through some strange addictive magic of their own. Lots of books do these things; I will probably talk about some here at some point.
Some books, however, achieve something beyond quotidian emotions, and bring us into contact with the sublime. I should make clear that I do not believe in the sublime in any metaphysical sense in which it may have been meant at times, but more simply as a certain aesthetic reaction that we have to things immense, uncontrollable, impersonal, terrifying, yet at the same time pleasurable. Things where we feel awe and wonder*.
Some books have the power to make the reader feel, particularly when he turns the last page over, as though his brain and his liver are simultaneously being beaten into a pulp, viciously, with golf clubs, and he is standing observing the assault on himself impartially, quietly thinking both ‘that’s not very good for me’ and ‘this is quite refreshing’. To make the reader feel as though when he stands up the world moves and not him, and every pinprick and ache feel as though they are happening to another person who happens to share the same skin. These books, the books that can show us the sublime, are the books that make us feel crushed to our knees even when hours after we are standing up and walking around and trying to care about life; that throw us down into a deep drowning pool of insulation from everything, so that we can burst up into the air feeling more alive than ever before.
These books are not necessarily the best books, although I think that they must be among the best to have such an effect – but laughter and joy and tears and adrenaline also take skill to produce. They are, however, probably the most memorable. Yet they are often not our favourites. I can think of a handful of contenders for this off-hand – and thinking about it I realise that every one of these books I have only ever read once. Like a harrowing film or a soul-searching composition, such books, for me at least, surround themselves in a halo of effulgence that at the same time as it inspires devotion inspires also repulsion, a holy fear, like the magnetic attraction and terror of a cliff-edge – another source of the sublime.
My intention, then, is to re-read these books, and then write something about them. I’ve said ten books – but unfortunately I do not know ten such books. Suggestions are welcome.
Looking back at my memories, I think there are three books where I indubitably felt the sublime the first time I read them: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Blindness, and The God of Small Things. How much was the books and how much the time and place I read them? I will read them again in an attempt to find out.
In addition, there are a number of other books that caused me to feel something that may have been sublime, but my recollection is not confident enough to say for sure. Those that spring to my memory include The Sirens of Titan, The Book of the New Sun, The Story of San Michele, Shardik (I was very young at the time), and, strange to say, Ash: A Secret History (I suspect this was actually a combination of disorientation when leaving the rollercoaster of a plot and a touch of falling in love with the main character). Others will probably occur to me as time goes on.
This won’t be an instantaneous little journey, but rather a long-term project. And frankly I’m having second thoughts about it now, looking at that list of awe-inspiring, rather frightening, books. I think I’ll probably begin with Blindness, as I remember having things to say about it last time. And it’s probably the shortest, other than Sirens, which I don’t think I have to hand.
(Some might note the dearth of classics. I’m open to suggestions, but I tend not to like them that much, however much I adore the prose of the day. So I haven’t read many. And even those I do like don’t have this sort of effect. Closest is probably Conrad’s Nostromo)
(((Should anyone care to make suggestions, I should be clear that I am referring he purely to novels, not to non-fiction works, however astounding they may be)))
* Spelling edited due to complaints. Apparently some people don’t believe that ‘wondour’ is spelt with an o. And a u. Fie upon them.