An intention…

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.

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5 thoughts on “An intention…

  1. Delalyra says:

    I did not at all read the post, but hi! You have a blog! And it’s pretty! *bookmarks* I will now go read the post.

    (also, happy solstice!)

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Ahh, so you do lurk on the board! (Or are in contact with someone who does).

    A merry yuletide to you as well. Day after the Solstice, though, by my clock. Besides, I prefer to think of it as Divalia, the day to give offerings to Angerona (the gagged goddess of deliverence from tonsillitis) at the temple of Voluptia, goddess of pleasure. The Romans never failed to have interesting festivals. The 11th, for instance, is Septimonium, the day set aside for not operating horse-drawn carriages.

  3. Doctor Slack says:

    Whoops, I came a little late to this particular party, but if you’re still looking for suggested titles of the sublime-and-worth-revisiting kind:

    Blindness is a great example, but other Saramago titles are arguably even more striking, especially A History of the Siege of Lisbon and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

    Midnight’s Children was Salman Rushdie at the top of his game and will probably stand as one of the best books to be written in the English language, period. Another classic of South Asian literature in English is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.

    From West Asia, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is a classic in its own right.

    From out in the Canadian West, Fred Stenson’s The Trade is the rarest of beasts in Canadian fiction: a ballsy, brutal and ambitious epic.

    Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco is an underrecognized and quite brilliant novel surveying a couple of generations in the life of a Martinican shantytown built around an oil drum.

    Two novels by Australian authors that got the “now a major motion picture” treatment but were perfectly sublime in their original form: Keneally’s Schindler’s List and Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

    I do have a soft spot for the classics, but there are some classics that endure the transition to contemporary reading tastes better than others, and would be, I think, the kind of literature you have in mind. In particular: Moby Dick by Melville, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I’m cheating a bit, I myself have read this far more than once).

  4. Doctor Slack says:

    Oh, I almost forgot: Another Country by James Baldwin.

    Also, No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again; A Symphonic Novel by Eduardo Vega Yunque.

  5. vacuouswastrel says:

    Don’t worry about the time delay – I know this page isn’t exactly going to be first on everyone’s check-daily list.

    I’ll look into some of your recommendations, only one of which I’ve read.

    I was at one point (having just read Blindness) going to go out and read all the other Saramago works. Unfortunately, the one I picked first was All the Names – which I thought was pleasant, intriguing, amusing, full of powerful images, well-written… and rather dull and uninspiring. It seemed a little formulaic, and I wasn’t greatly involved in any of the characters – so I haven’t got round to getting any of his other books.

    I own several Rushdie novels, but not Midnight’s Children. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. On the other hand I once tried reading one of his other novels (Fury, I think), and found that the prose was nice but the dialogue was so soul-screechingly chalkboardly painful that I literally couldn’t get past the first few pages. I know it’s not meant to be his best novel, but it fills me with some trepidation about trying his others…
    (and as I’m good at finding excuses to avoid reading good books, however much I love them when I’m reading them, or afterwards, I don’t need much help in this regard).

    I do own Schindler’s Ark/Schindler’s List, and read the beginning when I was a teenager and liked it but stopped. I’ll try it again, if I can find it.

    Only Hemmingway I’ve read is Over the River and Into the Trees – he was clearly talented, but there’s only a limited number of chapters I’ll read of good writing about nothing. Particularly when all the characters are either obnoxious or cardboard (and when the most obnoxious character smells suspiciously of the author). That said, I see that it’s often said to be his worst novel, so I’ll try one of his others at some point.

    I’ve read Heart of Darkness – I thought it good (good enought that I went on to read Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo; also, I have acquired a habit, now that I live in London, of staring quietly at the river in the evening and thinking/saying “this too was once one of the dark places of the earth…”, which I find annoying but hard to stop) but it didn’t really hit me – perhaps because it’s so short. It’s been a while, though, and I do have it somewhere, so I’ll give it another go, I think.

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