Rushdie (and I) on books

September 20, 2015 • 9:45 am

Today’s New York Times book section contains an absorbing interview with Salman Rusdie, “By the book,” about the many books he’s read, which ones he liked and disliked, and evaluations of their authors. I’ve put below a few of the questions and his answers (indented), and added my own take (flush left). Readers are invited to give their own answers in the comments.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

“Of all time” is a long time. There are days when it’s Kafka, in whose world we all live; others when it’s Dickens, for the sheer fecundity of his imagination and the beauty of his prose. But it’s probably Joyce on more days than anyone else.

For me it’s a tie: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. That’s because Tolstoy wrote what I consider the greatest full-length novel of all time, Anna Karenina. But in terms of the quality of a writer’s overall oeuvre, Dostoyevsky noses him out. But of all novels, including the short ones (“novelettes”), I’d put The Dead by James Joyce at the top of the list. I’ve recommended that work many times on this site, and Joyce is certainly up there, as Ezra Pound put it, with “The Rooshians.” (Pound never read the Rooshians, and, as recounted in A Moveable Feast, recommended to Ernest Hemingway that he “stick to the French,” as he had “plenty to learn there.”)

What’s the last book that made you laugh?

P. G. Wodehouse’s “Code of the Woosters,” which also contains the speech which Christopher Hitchens (and I) believed to be the greatest anti-Nazi diatribe in English literature:

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting, ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’ ”

I should add that more or less everything by Christopher Hitchens makes me laugh. The laughter is what I miss most about the Hitch.

I have to admit that I’ve never read anything by Wodehouse, though many readers, especially from the UK, have urged me to, and I expect I’ll get to it. The diatribe given above requires knowing both British lingo and something about the black shirts, knowledge I simply don’t have. But I agree that Hitch’s humor is one of his unappreciated virtues, and his combination of eloquence, passion about the human condition, and humor is something I find in no other modern writer (Dickens is a predecessor). Orwell comes close but lacks the pervasive humor. One example of Hitch’s that I like because it’s funny and true—and also because I’m an oenophile—is his piece in Slate, “Wine drinkers of the world, unite.” The lesson: if you’re hosting a restaurant dinner, or order a good bottle, never allow the waiter or sommelier to pour the wine for you. They simply can’t do it properly, and keep overpouring to inflate the bill.

What are your favorite books about India, or by Indian or Anglo-Indian writers?

“A Passage to India,” by E. M. Forster; “Clear Light of Day,” by Anita Desai; “Maximum City,” by Suketu Mehta.

I agree with the Forster, haven’t read the other two, but would surely add The Raj Quartet  (four long novels) by Paul Scott, which I consider one of the greatest pieces of post-war (WWII) fiction. It’s also the most unappreciated great book of modern times. The writing is superb and the story deeply absorbing. To that I’d append its sequel, Staying On, an ineffably sad novel that won the Booker Prize. Scott’s work, like Forster’s, is really more about the British in India than about Indians themselves. I should add that Hitchens agreed with my ranking of The Raj Quartert, seeing it as superior to A Passage to India.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“The One Thousand and One Nights.”

Books that actually change one’s life are rare. In fact I can think of only one that helped mold my character, and that’s Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, which I read during my formative years in college. It’s a particularly good book for atheists, as its lesson, imparted by the larger-than-life Zorba, is to appreciate life to the max, squeezing out as much pleasure and experience as you can. For Zorba, that experience was largely his involvement with women, but to me its message is about life as a whole. Two images: when the narrator, a Greek entrepeneur whose life is changed by meeting Zorba, travels to Crete with him on a boat to start a lignite mine, he comes topside one morning. There on the deck sits Zorba, sniffing a lemon with immense pleasure. That scene has stayed with me my whole life. And, at the end of his life, Zorba tells the narrator (known simply as “Boss”) how he wants to die:

“If some priest or other comes to take my confession and give me sacrament, tell him to clear out, quick, and leave me his curse instead! I´ve done heaps and heaps of things in my life, but I still did not do enough. Men like me ought to live a thousand years.”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“The One Thousand and One Nights.”

I haven’t read that book and can’t comment, nor do I have any interest in picking a book for the President.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Living: Auster, DeLillo, McEwan. Dead: Joyce, Proust, Kafka.

Living: Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and Rusdhie himself (of course if Hitchens were alive, he’d be invited, though he wasn’t a novelist). Dead: Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, and Charles Dickens. I doubt Proust would be a scintillating talker, and I imagine McCarthy to be laconic.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Supposed to like and didn’t: I always get in trouble for saying this, but . . . “Middlemarch.”

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I’m too old to be embarrassed by the many lacunae in my reading. I really should try to improve my relationship with “Middlemarch,” I guess.

Books that I am supposed to like but couldn’t get through: In Search of Lost Time by Proust. I found bits of it beautiful, but it was too ponderous, and I couldn’t finish it.

But I loved Middlemarch and recommend it highly. And it’s a good thing, too, as the first copy I read was sent to me by a friend (a teacher of literature) with the inscription. “If you don’t like this book, you can’t be my friend.” Fortunately, I did and I am.

219 thoughts on “Rushdie (and I) on books

    1. What the frick is “sub”. Yes, I’ve tried Googling it. I keep seeing it here and it’s starting to bug me. Bug me in a I-imagine-someone-is-vainly-trying-to-get-kudos-by-association way (with added no-I’m-not-this-is-courtesy, but really they’re doing a get-kudos-by-association-and-innoculate-against-criticism-by-claiming-courtesy thing). Please enlighten me.

      1. Those wishing to subscribe to receiving comments by email but have nothing substantive to say (at that point) post a comment with “sub” or some nonce value, since WordPress does allow subscription without commenting.


  1. “The diatribe given above requires knowing both British lingo…”

    Though I hope no-one believes anyone in Britain actually speaks like that! I guess it was only ever a very thin slice of British society that ever did talk in that way. Notwithstanding, it is certainly a very effective put down of the Black Shirts and expressed in a more modern vernacular would hold just as true for their latter-day emulators.

  2. Ian McEwan is one of my favorite living working novelists (I say “working” because Philip Roth, retired, is still with us). Runner up might be John Banville.

    As for favorite novels from recent decades, here you go: Millhauser’s “Edwin Mullhouse,” Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” Berger’s “The Feud” (one of my all-time favorite comic novels), and Hrabal’s “I Served the King of England.”

    As for Wodehouse, I haven’t gotten around to him. Maybe some readers here will mention their favorite Wodehouse books. I know the man wrote many, but I’ve always wanted to know what the Top Three favorites are for most people. Okay, make that a Top Five, if anyone wants to list that many!

    1. Just saw a really good docudrama on Wodehouse with Tim Piggot-Smith and Zoë Wanamaker. I had never known that Wodehouse had been interned by the Nazis (he had been living and writing in France)and then was manipulated into reading some of his humorous concentration camp sketches on radio broadcasts to the U.S. The Nazis hoped that the Yanks would think everything was hunky-dory in Germany and not enter the war. P.G. just naively thought he should make the best of things (stiff upper lip, and all that). British Intelligence accused him of treason (the intelligence officer was Malcolm Muggeridge!) but he was cleared (but not in the papers, because there was a double or triple agent which MI-5 or 6 was trying to protect). Wodehouse moved to the U.S. after that, not being able to salvage his reputation in Britain. Don’t think there was really any evidence of collaboration: just naivete. I do think his writing is hilarious and love the Jeeves and Wooster series with Fry and Laurie.

        1. Perhaps because I lost my sense of humour, and humour, at birth, I’ve never got on with Wodehouse. Perhaps it’s the dreadful ‘Englishness’ of it, an ‘Englishness’ that is shared by, for example, Waugh, though Waugh can, I suppose, be quite funny – in ‘Vile Bodies’, for example. But it is the attitude that seems to be shared by rather too many writers of that (English) generation which irritates me: the attitude that the whole of life is a sort of preparation for, and then a prolongation – until death through cirrhosis of the liver or some other illness caused by excess – of schoolboy life, with its schoolboy slang, at some ‘great’ English public (i.e. private and expensive) school. I really don’t think much of that anti-Nazi diatribe, with the very English complacency (what is supposed to be good English ‘common sense’ tarted up in a public schoolboy’s vocabulary) that informs it. Of that generation of male English writers, Henry Green (particularly his ‘Loving’)strikes me as the most interesting.

          But for savage comedy, give me Flann O’Brien, whose ‘The Third Policeman’ is one of the greatest lesser-known novels of the last century, and Samuel Beckett (‘Malone Dies’ is a favourite of mine), or – an Indian novel by an Indian – the wonderfully funny ‘All About H. Hatterr’ by G.V. Desani, or Thomas Bernhardt’s ‘Correction’, Witold Gombrowicz’s ‘Ferdydurke’ or Mikhail Bulgakov’s great ‘The Master and Margarita’.

          Warmly agree that Anna Karenin is one of the very greatest novels ever written. I, too, enjoyed ‘Middlemarch’. And since someone complains elsewhere about all the digressions about whales and whaling in ‘Moby Dick’, I shall say that I love those digressions with a passion (as I love Burton’s digressions in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’, and those in ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘Ulysses’) and am hugely thankful that no creative writing teacher or editor with a mind filled with publishing-world nonsense about what a novel should be like got his small and philistine red pen at work on Melville’s prose.

          Since Jerry has mentioned Joyce’s great ‘The Dead’ (a short story), one of the greatest short story writers in English is surely Rudyard Kipling. ‘Mary Postgate’ is, I think, the most horrifying short story I know.

          1. I adore the writings of Wodehouse, but they’re set in an imaginary England, with some public-school and country-house foundations. He had a perfect ear and, despite recurring plots (misconceived engagements, demanding aunts, stolen prize pigs), always provided something fresh. For beginners, I’d recommend Code of the Woosters or Right Ho!, Jeeves, and Blandings Castle, featuring dotty Lord Emsworth and cast.

            Also agree with others re the ever-rereadable Dickens, McEwan, McCarthy, Roth and the pinnacle Joyce. I’ve read Ulysses three times, Dubliners more often, and read The Dead every Christmas. It’s a magnificent story, and the final paragraph, as beautiful a piece of prose as exists, always gives me horripilations.

            But I’m also a devotee of the brilliant Jane Gardam, now in her mid-eighties. Her trilogy beginning with Old Filth is wonderful: observant, acerbic, funny, forgiving.

            1. Well, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off Wodehouse. No, he did have a good ear. But for country houses, tea parties, giant stoats who kill demanding aunts, naked boys who turn into wolves, and one of the great cats of literature, Tobermory, I recommend Saki!

            2. Thanks for reminding me of Jane Gardam. old Filth is wonderful! ( Failed In London tried Hong Kong). Rose Tremaine is also not to be scoffed at. Restoration is very good.

            1. Yes, that is splendidly funny (there was that dreadful – and good and funny, because dreadful – remark about somebody’s proposition in a drunken argument being invalid because based on licensed premises). And it is wonderfully inventive in its language and organisation – somebody said that O’Brien, being a Gaelic speaker (and a writer in Gaelic), used English at some sort of odd remove, which I think is right:it gave him a strange freedom with the language. But ‘The Third Policeman’ is, I think, the greater book because of the way comedy and terror are combined but I love both. ‘The Third Policeman’, as I recall, was turned out down by the sort of publisher who would have taken a red pen to ‘Moby Dick’ and remained unpublished until after O’Brien’s or Brian O’Nolan’s or Myles na Gopaleen’s death.

              1. I have The Third Policeman on my shelves somewhere ( under the Os) as yet unread. Will try to get to it this decade.

    2. Maugham, Zola, and Dickens!! I am glad that Rushdie mentioned dickens. Everyone should read Nicholas nickelby, especially teachers and parents. My favorite novel is probably of human bondage, by Maugham. No one beats maugham’s prose. But zola’s rougon-mcquart series is phenomenal: dram shop, earth, the kill are haunting to say the least.

    3. As an intro to Wodehouse, I’d suggest the “Jeeves & Wooster” PBS TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (available on DVD from Netflix).

    4. My favorite Wodehouse novel, which you can also find for free at Project Gutenberg and LibriVox (a free, public domain audiobook site) is Right Ho, Jeeves. The one not-to-be-missed section is chapter 17, where Gussie Fink-Nottle delivers prizes to the pupils of Market Snodsbury Grammar School in a state of advanced intoxication.

      The Code of the Woosters, mentioned in the interview, is my second favorite, and Thank You, Jeeves and The Mating Season are tied for third. I don’t know enough about Wodehouse’s writing to prove the link, but The Mating Season has strong affinities to the plot of Pierre Marivaux’s greatest comic play, A Game of Love and Chance.

      You might also want to check out the short stories. My Man Jeeves is the first Jeeves book (and is thus also available at Project Gutenberg and LibriVox). Though Jeeves is in the title, he and his employer Bertie Wooster only feature in the first three stories and the last. The middle four are a Bertie-and-Jeeves-esque pair called Reggie Pepper and his man Voules. Reggie, like Bertie, is an amiable idiot, but Voules is much more openly contemptuous of him than Jeeves is. It creates a slightly different and more spiky relationship from the Jeeves and Wooster one, and I don’t think a Voules and Pepper series would have been nearly as popular. So you may prefer Carry On, Jeeves, which collects all the Jeeves stories in the earlier anthology and rewrites some of the Voules and Pepper stories to place them in the Jeeves canon. Unfortunately, this edition just misses being in the public domain (it was first published in 1925). Other short story collections include The Inimitable Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves, and these are also brilliant. Finally, the three titles above (with the exception of My Man Jeeves, which was superfluous) have been collected into the omnibus edition titled The World of Jeeves. That would be the cheapest route to go if you have the idea that you might like the Jeeves stories (and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t).

  3. “I on books”. It’d be interested to know why this sounds wrong. Is the verb implicit, therefore leaving the pronoun as the object not the subject? e.g. “This (subject) is (verb) a piece about Rushdie and me (the pair as the subject) on books.” Or something like that.

      1. I don’t think “Rushdie and Me on Books”, with or without parentheses, sounds worse. I suspect “I” in such cases is a hypercorrection that has become common and therefore less jarring to some ears. It’d be good to hear your genius buddy Pinker’s take.

        But I’m distracting from the interesting piece.

        1. I think you’re right. And I think Pinker would agree – I’ve seen him discuss the phenomenon of people hyper-correcting “me” to “I” in places that “me” is more correct. I also think Pinker would say, “Everyone knows what he means, so it doesn’t really matter.”

          1. In this case, I have no problem with ‘I’. I give the writer the benefit of the doubt that he means something along the lines of “Rushdie and I have a discussion on books”.

      2. When stuck between “I” and “me” the fainthearted and foolish usually opt for “myself.” Glad to see you didn’t.

  4. Another rarely acknowledged quality of Hitchens — his deep familiarity with books, writings and ideas of people he didn’t like or didn’t agree with. Unlike his critics, who often didn’t bother to read beyond the title.

    1. Every time I listen to Hitchens I end up buying a few more books to understand his references, and this website has the same quality. They are the reason why my ‘to read’ pile of books now has its own bookcase.

  5. Just out of interest the subject of Rushdie came up on the New York Times Book Review podcast this week (he has a new book out – a version of the 1001 Nights as it happens) and the host, Pamela Paul said he was by far the most literate person she has met.
    For favourite novelist I agree with Rushdie, Dickens is endless, always better than I remember and Joyce, especially Ulysses is phenomenal. However for sheer use of the English language and technical brilliance I believe William Gaddis is unbeatable.
    Having said all that Wodehouse is who I turn to for comfort and pleasure: he has only 3 plots and a limited palette of characters but still works effortless magic. But the last book that made me laugh was Pickwick Papers (slightly embarrassing as I was listening to it as an audiobook, usually sitting on a train).
    I agree about Paul Scott’s too, but I would definitely add Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy which owes much to Dickens

    1. Also Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Love Dickens, too. We try to listen to him on our cross-country road trips. The Aussie, Richard Flanagan (his The Narrow Road to the True North latest Booker winner – Death of a River Guide and Wanting also highly recommended), the American Richard Ford,
      so many good ones, but NOT including the latest Pulitzer fiction winner, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which was abysmally smarmy imho…I do want to reread Middlemarch before reading My Life in Middlemarch. Eliot is great, as is Hardy. Joyce, of course, and Fyodor and Leo the Rooskies. Oh, and how could I forget Faullkner!!?? Brilliant writer. Just finished his Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion – very cheap on Kindle). Agree that Roth can be great, especially American Pastoral. (I would hate for my Freshman English prof to see this post – very convoluted, but I’m in a rush – preparing for a trip not quite as far-flung as Jerry’s…)

  6. The questions are almost impossible to answer with a single choice and I suppose most of us would come up with different answers if asked at different times in different moods (and perhaps at different ages). I certainly would put Garcia Marquez in there as one of my choices.
    I agree that Scott’s Raj Quartet is underrated.
    I think of myself as being reasonably well read but am painfully aware of just how much great literature I have not read.

  7. Whatever defines great literature, is part of the definition that it is (considered by someone to be) sufficiently worthy to be “taught” in college courses?

    1. Great literature can be defined by paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of “pornography” in Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I [read] it….”

      What is taught in college courses is necessarily only a small sliver of the available literature and there are a variety of things that can conspire to keep good books out of the classroom, or limited to only certain classrooms. For example, few people read Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth or Frank Norris’ The Octopus in classrooms these days both because the works are very long and also because the concerns are generally seen as not being relatable. The tribulations of American farmers are not on the radar as much now that only about 3% of Americans farm and most farms are owned by major agribusinesses.

      Other authors simply never made it into the canon. Among the Russian writers, since there’s been discussion of them, there’s an entirely forgotten generation that came after Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, and few people outside of Russia read them. Names like Dmitri Merezhkovsky (whose trilogy of historical novels, The Death of the Gods (about Julian the Apostate and sometimes titled by his name), The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, and Peter and Alexis: A Romance of Peter the Great are absolutely, mind-blowingly brilliant), Fyodor Sologub, Aleksandr Kuprin (who wrote the unforgettable novel, The Duel), Vsevolod Garshin, etc. are virtually unknown outside the Slavic world. It’s as if, having admitted a few token Slavs into the literary canon, they quickly slammed the door shut before any more could get through.

      Literary fashions also affect what is taught to a larger degree than I think most professors would readily admit, and it has some strange effects sometimes. For example, I like medieval literature, but even when I took classes that covered the period, there was a decided lack of many of the classic stories of great heroes. Works like The Poem of the Cid, Egil’s Saga, The Song of Roland, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Martorell and Joan de Galba’s Tirant lo Blanch, etc. weren’t prominently featured in the classes. Beowulf snuck through in my British literature class, but as the earliest surviving British work you can’t very well exclude it. I think that professors of literature are evaluating these past works according to our modern fashion for deeply flawed, even antiheroic protagonists and can’t work up any enthusiasm for these larger-than-life heroes.

      So to sum up a perhaps too long comment: literature may be taught in literature classes, but literature classes don’t define what is literary. 🙂

      1. Nice answer.

        I’ve sometimes thought there might be an element of just pure chance as well. Some book happens to be handed to some person/people at just the right time to start a conversation…others possibly equally “great” never make the right connections.

        When one watches how modern-day books are touted (or not) there seem to be so many extraneous factors at play.

  8. My favourite humorous Hitchens anecdote is from Hitch-22 where he describes some of the games that the guests at his dinner parties(people like Rushdie, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, Martin Amis, etc.) would invent, one of which was the following: take a book or a film with the word ‘man’/’men’ in the title and replace it with the word ‘cunt’/’cunts’.

    I think he mentions the films/books The Man In The Iron Mask, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Batman as examples that work well and that were thought up by his fellow dinner party guests, but the brilliance of it is that you immediately start thinking of your own examples – the Coen brothers’ film titles are often good in that respect.

    I get that whether you find this as childishly amusing as I do depends a great deal on what you feel about using the word cunt in the first place. I remember as a 20-year-old casually using it whilst talking to a female friend of the family and feeling really embarrassed when she calmly and politely warned me that if I said it again she would hang up the phone – I still cringe when I think about it. But that Hitch anecdote still made me laugh a great deal. Humour’s a funny old thing.

      1. I get the feeling that addressing men as cunts is a British ( and maybe Aussie?) thing and not at all common in North America. There’s a very funny Brit TV political satire series with Peter Capaldi called In the Thick of It in which that word is used in every other sentence, alternating with the f word. There’s a movie based on the series called In the Loop. Hilariously rude.

        1. Peter Capaldi, yes — Doctor Fucking Who!

          It strikes me as odd that you write “cunt” rather than “c word”, but “f word” rather than “fuck”; I’d say that “cunt” is far more strongly deprecated than “fuck” in the UK.

          And btw, my U.S. line manager’s favourite movie quote is, “Fuck you you fucking fuck.” He says we should have team bowling or polo shirts with “FYYFF” embroidered on them – but needs to devise a polite expansion of the abbreviation to get it past higher levels of management.


          1. Yeah, not sure why I wrote f word instead of fuck. I think that cunt is very rude when addressed to a woman, but maybe funny when to a man. Peter Capaldi rants at everyone and in one episode said to two of his male aides something like “you two cunts go rub your dicks together and come up with a plan.”

            I’m sorry. but I’m not a Dr. Who fan – oh, the horror!!

            1. I’m not sure how it affects the general view, but I find “cunt” rude in principle; that insulting someone by comparing them to a part of a woman’s anatomy (for some degrees of “woman”! 😁) denigrates all women. (And it’s also odd that it’s used as an insult at all when that part is an object of desire for many men. But then “balls”/“bollocks” can mean rubbish or courage, so … )


              1. None of it really makes sense. Probably only 1% of the word fuck’s usage refers to the actual act. Funny that women are rarely called dicks…

                In terms of offense, it all dependa on the context.

              2. I’m not sure why in principle it is worse to use a female body part as a term of insult than a male body part. That said, in British English there does seem to be a hierarchy of abuse which disfavours the feminine anatomy: to call someone a ‘cunt’ is regarded as more offensive than calling them a ‘dick’ or a ‘prick’ and would generally be taken to mean that the target of the insult is thoroughly unpleasant whereas a ‘dick’ or a ‘knob’ might be just a bit stupid and a ‘prick’ only quite unpleasant. The genderless ‘arsehole’ probably conveys a similar level of disapprobation as ‘cunt’ but its use is still somehow less shocking. Given its actual biological function it is easy to understand how the anus has come to be used as an insult but why the female or male genitalia should be used as terms of insult is rather mystifying .

              3. I think the frequent use of ‘c**t’ is in fact fairly recent. I spent about six years of my mis-spent youth labouring on farms and elsewhere, and do not recall hearing the word much – not, at all. I have never used it, because I dislike it. But generally, I think, we are more foul-mouthed than we used to be. I very much agree with Ant & Diane.

              4. I hardly “approve” of its use and would never use it myself, but in a satirical sketch it can be really humorous.

          2. FYYFF is indeed not the easiest set of letters to explain away.

            Free associating–I can remember that my friends & I at one time used Forever United Christian Knights to get around some censor or another…

            1. I believe that the Cambridge University New Testament Society had to find a different name when they discovered what other people read into their initials!

              1. That that has the whiff of urban legend about it.

                However, in my college at Durham University thirty-odd years ago, when the JCR was given the opportunity to vote on making use of a void in the footings of the college building, one group of wags put forward the proposal of fallout shelter under the aegis of “Collingwood Under Nuclear Threat”. It became a darkroom.


              2. Ha, two more good stories!

                In the best-ever web satire of religion (which is hard to find now), one of its pages presented merchandise you could buy to support their prestigious college, Fellowship University. Now if this weren’t the acronym thread, I suspect that many of you, like I did, could read the whole sales pitch and not “get it” until you clicked through the to picture of a sweatshirt with a big, block-lettered “FU” on it.

                (IIRC, there actually is a school with the initials FU–I believe it’s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in fact.)

      2. It just isn’t as funny to use ‘dick'(or ‘dickhead’ or ‘cock’) instead. It’s almost impossible to break down exactly why it isn’t as funny – the old analogy between analysing humour and dissecting a frog springs to mind – but part of it is the sheer offensiveness of the word ‘cunt’ being used in place of such a mundane noun. For the game to work it needs to be a word with a kind of gormless, neanderthal punch, the inclusion of which reduces these carefully constructed film and book(and song too I suppose) titles to something a guy down the pub would say. ‘Dick’ just doesn’t work as well. ‘Fuckwit’ is perhaps better but still doesn’t work as well either.

        This is why political correctness tends to harm humour. Even essentially liberal, left-wing, right-on comedians like Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle pull-off this enormous meta-ironic, self-referential switcheroo, where they fill their sets with material about the disabled, women’s vaginas being ‘ruined’ by aggressive male lovers and teenage cancer sufferers, and when questioned about it say that they’re making a joke about comedians who genuinely think these subjects are perfectly fine to joke about. But in the end the only difference between the two kinds of comedy, between, say, Jim Davidson and Frankie Boyle, is that one side is politically-correct when they’re off stage and the other side isn’t. It allows for the kind of compartmentalisation that goes on in religious scientists’ minds – you can be right-on the rest of the time(painfully so in Gervais’s case – there’s a YouTube video of him debating with a black man on the Opie And Anthony radio show(?) which is the most perfect example of white liberal guilt I have ever seen. It’s cringeworthy.) but play at being a bigot and a misogynist when you’re on stage. There is a genuine danger in this, as can be seen when Frankie Boyle, The Pub Landlord(a racist, nationalistic, sexist, anti-P.C. character played by the English comedian Al Murray as a parody of a certain pretty common type of gormless working-class reactionary) and others start attracting exactly the kind of fans who like making jokes about ‘benders’, rape and immigrants in a determinedly non-ironic way. The Pub Landlord has quite a few fans from the BNP and UKIP, and Frankie Boyle is frequently waylaid by strangers complimenting him on standing up to ‘the P.C. lot’ – strangers who proceed to moan about how ‘you’re not allowed to call anyone a poof anymore’. I don’t think attracting fans with views like this can be dismissed by saying ‘they just don’t get it’, or ‘they’re missing the point’. They may well be, but the line between racist, sexist comedians on the one hand and liberal comedians pretending to be/subverting the views of racist, sexist comedians on the other clearly isn’t quite as well-defined as a lot of these guys would like to think.

        I don’t know what to make of it, but as much as I like Ricky Gervais there is a certain level of hypocrisy there that can’t be explained away just by referring vaguely to ‘intent’ and ‘irony’. Frankie Boyle is an interesting case. This is someone who has been really funny(at least in his early years) but whose jokes about rape and sexual violence onstage are married to a fantastically sanctimonious, typically Chomsky-lite, left-wing political stance offstage. The dissonance is enormous and obvious but he really doesn’t get pushed on his hypocrisy as much as he should – his response to criticism veers between the usual ‘it’s-all-ironic/free-speech/I’m-pushing-the-boundaries’ rationalisations and just telling his critics to fuck off. He can be very funny(his programme on BBC iplayer about the Scottish independence referendum was brilliant) but it’s the unthinking hypocrisy of it all that grates a little. He is a guy who went on Russia Today to complain about being censored(by the BBC) after all.

        I’m a bit muddled about the whole issue frankly – which is why I’ve probably gone a bit off-topic. Apologies Ant.

    1. Hitchens also related the contest they had for giving great literary works Robert Ludlum-style titles. Rushdie won by retitling Hamlet “The Elsinore Vacillation.”

  9. Interesting they asked him the last book he gave up on. I read very little fiction, but for me it was Satanic Verses. Not that I don’t enjoy watching Rusdie in interviews, but I struggled to make it to pg 100. That was the goal I set for myself around pg 50, if it didn’t get any better, and except for a few lucid pgs around 90, it didn’t. At least not to my way of thinking.

    1. The last book I never finished (and I tried, twice, from the beginning) was Michael Connelly’s _The Scarecrow_. When one chapter is in first person and another chapter is in third person, the unity of the entire piece is destroyed for me.

      The other book I recall never finishing was _Stranger in a Strange Land_. Made it about halfway through and just lost interest.

      1. Haha, I had almost posted my own message about giving up on Stranger in a Strange Land, even after getting more than three-quarters of the way through it. I thought it was abysmally uninteresting.

        The two Salman Rushdie novels I have read were both exhausting and interminable, but I am glad I read them, nonetheless (The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children). I think he may be the greatest living writer.

        1. I went out and bought The Satanic Verses as an act of solidarity after the fatwa was declared. I read the controversial passages to see what all the hubbub was about. I then set about to read it straight through but didn’t finish it … yet, anyway. (I saw it in the bookcase the other day with the bookmark I left in it all those years ago, and thought how I should give it another try.)

          I didn’t find Midnight’s Child nearly as trying to complete.

  10. PS- Loved Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, and love hearing him interviewed (he was on The NewsHour a couple of nights ago), but his novels are not my cup of tea – too much (wooish)magical realism. I’ve read two or three of them, but probably won’t read any more.

  11. Tough questions!

    All-time greats? Conrad, Melville, Joyce. And a couple of authors who are only known in Finland (and Sweden). And Jane Austen! And Joseph Heller!

    Living favorites: Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan & Cormac McCarthy.

  12. “The Sot-weed Factor” by John Barth. Read when I was 28 or so. A beautifully written book that turned my head. I still have my copy.
    I had dinner with C.S Forester several times as a very callow boy and young man and would like a repeat now.

    1. Barth is wonderful!! Sotweed and also The Chimaera (featuring a semi-goddamned- demigod, among others;-) Got to get back to him.

    2. I found the Sot-weed Factor in a youth hostel in Greece when I was about 18 years old and absolutely loved it. Years later I could remember the book but neither its title nor author and was delighted when the internet came along and allowed me to re-discover them.

  13. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? Interesting choices, but I’m also surprised. I haven’t read them, because I’ve always thought that their religisioty would make them wrong choices for me. Perhaps I should reconsider?

    1. You want a hardcore case for non-belief, try “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

      But if you’ve only got time for one thing by a Rooskie, make it Crime and Punishment. It’s got it all. Tolstoy was the more elegant prose stylist (at least in English translation), but Dostoyevsky was the more interesting thinker.

    1. The writing, maybe? I haven’t read Middlemarch yet, but I find that when the writing is really good, I don’t care what the plot or the setting is. One of my favorite books is Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I haven’t read it in many years. If you ask me what it’s about, I’d be at a loss. “Something about people and relationships,” I’d say. But I remember that while reading it, on almost every other page, there’s be a sentence or passage so well written, so wonderfully lyrical and perfect, that I’d have to put down the book, look up at the ceiling, and shake my head in disbelief that a human being could have written something so beautiful.

      Rushie gets there occasionally, too. The part in Midnight’s Children when it becomes clear who the black and green witch is gave me the chills and made my hair stand on end. It’s a rare book that does that.

      1. that I can understand, writing on its own can be good. I guess I’m greedy and have to also to see a point to the story, and the mundane misunderstandings and problems of average humans holds little interest. .

        1. But isn’t that a lot of what life’s all about: problems and misunderstandings among people? It’s the way it’s written that makes all the difference: joyce and Faulkner and Dickens and Ford and Roth vs. Danielle Steele ( I once read one paragraph of hers at an airport and nearly needed to request a barf bag…)

          1. Lots of people like Danielle Steele. 🙂 and don’t like the supposed “great novels”. What one person thinks is good writing is not what another person thinks. And there seems to be no objective determination.

            1. Danielle Steel would never be taught in a literature course at a reputable university. There ARE some objective criteria for good literature, which does not mean that it’s wrong for people to enjoy non-literary fiction.

              1. Care to tell me what they are? I’m genuinely curious what does make “good literature”. I’ve been in a few lit course and my husband’s a English lit student, and even he has questions on what makes a 19th coming of age story anything different from say Harry Potter?

              2. The elegance of the language, the intelligent use of figurative language (metaphors, similes, alliteration, symbolism etc.)mark the difference between Joyce and Faulkner vs. Steele and Grisham. Oh, and Michael Ondaatje I failed to mention earlier! Beautifully poetic language and great story-telling.

              3. I really don’t think it is so difficult or ‘subjective’ to distinguish between writing that is banal and writing that is not, any more than it is difficult or ‘subjective’ to distinguish between a bad violinist and, let us say, George Enescu, or between a not very talented piano student and Grigory Sokolov, or between great acting and the sort of acting by rote you see in television dramas.

          1. Michener is great. I am recalling Cheasapeake, whilst eating a bowl of chowder right now. Subject is what does it for me. I’d much rather read a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel than some “great” book that bores me to tears on whether pretty miss so-and-so gets her man.

    2. I don’t understand in what sense the writing of George Elliot could be compared to a reality show. In the sense that she writes about the lives and loves of ordinary people, I suppose you could liken her writing to soap opera but the same would be true for a great deal of great literature. I would suggest that what lifts it above soap opera would be the subtlety of the writing, the perceptiveness of human emotion, the depth and richness and the overall quality of the writing.

      1. In the sense of manufactured tension that all novels and reality shows must have or people lose interest. if “happily ever after” comes too soon, then there is no novel and no show.

        I agree, most of what are called “great novels” would fit a soap opera. What one considers “sublety” and “richness” another considers pointlessly lengthy, mundane (as I said before) and overwrought.

  14. I read many of the “Jeeves” books when I was a young adult; I found them amusing, but they’re not something I’d particularly recommend to anyone.

    I really liked Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brother’s Karamazov”.

    I don’t think, though, that any single fiction book has changed me or my worldview very much. Many non-fiction books have done so, however.

    1. Both are fun–thanks!

      Now I think they should introduce subsequent presidential debates with the Gilligan’s Island theme.

  15. I went on a Wodehouse kick in high school. I am not sure how much he would appeal now. If you (any of you) decide to try him, though, read the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Some critic (no idea who anymore) once said that the scene from Right Ho, Jeeves (Chapter 17) of the prize-giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School was one of the funniest in English literature, and it still makes me laugh thirty-five years later. A snippet:

    “Well, G.G. Simmons.”

    “Sir, yes, sir.”

    “What do you mean—sir, yes, sir? Dashed silly thing to say. So you’ve won the Scripture-knowledge prize, have you?”

    “Sir, yes, sir.”

    “Yes,” said Gussie, “you look just the sort of little tick who would. And yet,” he said, pausing and eyeing the child keenly, “how are we to know that this has all been open and above board? Let me test you, G.G. Simmons. What was What’s-His-Name—the chap who begat Thingummy? Can you answer me that, Simmons?”

    “Sir, no, sir.”

    Gussie turned to the bearded bloke.

    “Fishy,” he said. “Very fishy. This boy appears to be totally lacking in Scripture knowledge.”

    1. I’m sure we all remember the many occasions Bertie reminds anyone who will listen that he once won a prize for Scriptural Knowledge

  16. Other than A Passage to India, my favourite book about India is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I’ll have to read The Raj Quartet!

    I’m fond of all the authors mentioned as well as Steinbeck, but can’t narrrow things down to ‘most favourite’ (partly because I can’t remember!). I loved the novel Shogun by James Clavell.

    1. I loved Shogun too, and it lead me to read several others by Clavell, most of which I enjoyed immensely. King Rat, Tai Pan, and Noble House were also excellent.

      The books that made me laugh the most were the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and also his two Dirk Gently detective agency books. I wish Douglas Adams had written more, but it was apparently pretty difficult to get him to do it at all.

      I’ve never got around to PG Wodehouse, but I should because I’m sure they’d make me laugh too.

      At school I got put off reading any novels by anyone who’d won literary prizes, as everything we were assigned was completely boring.

      I like to follow good characters through good writing in a series of books, being part of their development for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of pages.

      1. I’ve read all of those Clavell books you mentioned. I’d recommend Whirlwind too, the fifth in the Asian saga.

        I’m a Douglas Adams fan too. I haven’t read much Wodehouse but have watched a ton of stuff on Youtube that were based on his writings.

        I’m in backlog right now, but I plan to read some more Oliver Sacks.

      2. I recently listened to the audio version of King Rat while taking a car trip. Another novel concerning a P.O.W. of the Japanese during War 2 that I like is James Dickey’s To the White Sea. I understand the Coen brothers having been trying for years to make a movie based on Dickey’s novel.

        1. Forgot about King Rat, but I think that’s probably the rest of the lot. The only one I wasn’t so keen on was Whirlwind. Some was good, but some was really boring.

    2. Rohinton Mistry is very good. I’ve read his Such a Long Journey and Family Matters and have A Fine Balance somewhere to get to soonish…Beautiful writing!

  17. Most everyone cited here is well deserving. But what of Herman Melville? People often speak of the Great American Novel and who’s going to write it.

    Melville already did it. “Moby Dick” — the last word on human madness and cosmic indifference.

    1. _Moby Dick_ couldn’t be published today in its current form. For one thing, the chapters on cetology would have to go. They’re nothing more than the author proving that he did his research, and that he thought the research was too valuable not to stick into the novel. It also means he was likely paid by the word.

      After a good editing, _Moby Dick_ would probably be pretty good.

      1. The chapters on cetology are one of the things I like most about the book. Its then unprecedented combination of fact, fiction, and philosophy makes it a precursor of books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, and also hearkens back to books like Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (which, unsurprisingly, was a favorite work of Melville’s). I think you have to like experimental fiction at least a bit to like Moby Dick—and, conversely, if you like Moby Dick then it pays to look into experimental fiction.

        1. I agree that there was a bit too much cetology in Moby Dick. Still a good book.
          Which reminds me somehow of the inimitable Catch-22…was it the guy all wrapped in the bandage, where they kept switching his In and OUT tubes, who was moaning about the cetology in MD?

    2. In Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, the narrator (“Smitty”) goes deep-sea fishing off Cuba with a fictional Ernest Hemingway and a literature major from Vassar. When the Vassar girl tells Papa that Moby Dick is the great American Novel, he offers this capsule critique: two-hundred pages of great writing, two-hundred pages of whale blubber, and a hundred pages about how good darkies are with harpoons.

  18. ‘A Passage to India’ is, in my view, the most overrated, albeit well-intentioned, of all the books that have been written by any Englishman on India during or after the Raj. Forster never seems to have any real understanding of Indians so that almost all the Indian characters in the novel are mere caricatures. Nirad C Chaudhuri, one of the great writers on India who was also born during the Raj, rightly observed that Forster’s novel

    “…shows a great imperial system at its worst, not as diabolically evil but as drab and asinine; the rulers and the ruled alike are depicted at their smallest, the snobbery and pettiness of the one matching the imbecility and rancour of the other. Our suffering under British rule,…, is deprived of all dignity. Our mental life as depicted in the book is painfully childish and querulous.”

    Forster could not escape the guilt that many of his fellow countrymen were afflicted with when it came to the inequities of the Raj. This blinkered his diagnosis. As Chaudhuri has scathingly observed,

    “At the root of all this lies the book’s tacit but confident assumption that Indo-British relations presented a problem of personal behaviour and could be tackled on the personal plane. They did not and could not. The great Indians who brought about the Westernization of their country and created its modern culture had none of the characteristic Indian foibles for which Mr Forster invokes British compassion…..Yet some of them were assaulted, some insulted, and others slighted by the local British. None of them had any intimate relations with any member of the British ruling community. There were also thousands of Indians who had adopted Western ideals and were following them to the best of their ability, who were not only not cultivated but shunned with blatant ostentation by the British in India. This was due, not to any personal snobbery, but to that massive national snobbery which refused to share British and Western civilization with Indians.”

  19. Q. If there was one question you wish people would stop asking you, what would it be?
    A. The one about the dinner party.

    I saw Randall Munroe speak in Seattle during his What If? book tour. At the end of the talk there was a Q&A session. The very last question was from a scatterbrained woman who spent a couple of minutes rambling about various questions she didn’t plan to ask before finally settling on one she did want to ask. And of course it was “If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?”

    Munroe’s eyeroll was visible from the back of the house. “Living,” he said, and walked offstage.

  20. English is not my mother tongue, I’m obviously not British but Wodehouse is my therapy author. No one else come close to him to soothe me in my difficult moments. He was a superb language stylist, and when youv read him you know all will end well. Childish maybe, I do not know, but love him nonetheless. These days I can barely go on 2 or 3 weeks without reading a Wodehouse. Yes, it’s a difficult moment in my life. If you do not know where to start, pick at random between the Jeeves and the Blandings cycles, and then choose among the earliest novels of the chosen one (there are some little plot developments over time).
    That said, if I had to pick my top of the list for the universal literature I would put there Dante’s Comedy (I know, I know) and everything by J.L. Borges. Both, if possible, in their original version: translations are always problematic.

    1. I meant to mention Blandings; Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth is such a lovable old duffer. Don’t on any account watch the BBC series supposedly based on the Blandings novels, it’s a farago and won’t make you feel better at all. Pip pip! Hope things improve (but keep reading Wodehouse).

  21. Notes:

    Since Wodehouse has come up, I chime in with the factoid that although most of the songs in “Showboat” have lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, the bittersweet comic/sad lyrics to “Bill” are actually by P.G.Wodehouse. It’s more or less tied with “Ol’ Man River” as the best-known song of the show.

    My Favorite novelist would be Dickens or Tolkien.
    While I’m profoundly impressed with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I’ve read only one novel by the first (War and Peace), and 3 by the second (Bro K, C&P, and the shorter Notes from the Underground), and I feel dishonest naming as “favorite” anyone I haven’t read extensively in. I’ve read about 2/3rds of Dickens so I think I can honestly name him as a fave.

    I read “Zorba the Greek” in 8th grade and greatly enjoyed it. (And only two years ago I saw a local production of the 1960s Broadway musical based on the same). I was stymied to find it to by the same author as “Last Temptation of Christ” which I read in 10th grade. I liked the latter in some ways, but was put off in others. Nikos K went through a LOT of changes and identity switches in his literary career, more than his fellow Greek, Cat Stevens (who is only half Greek actually.) (And As religious novels by Nikos K go, “Christ Recrucified” is actually much better than “Last Temptation”!)

    I think my personality was a LOT more affected by movies I saw than books I read. I was JUST old enough to understand how the movie “Planet of the Apes” was a devastating indirect satire on religious fundamentalism and racism (and it was my last year living in Texas).
    The scene where the head of the ape religion says “There is no conflict between science and religion, TRUE science that is” I would nominate as the official movie clip for this website.
    I offer this (different) scene.

    Back to Wodehouse. Our host says he has never read Wodehouse, but I hope he is familiar with PGW’s lyrics to the song “Bill”, which I reproduce here.

    I used to dream that I would discover
    The perfect lover someday.
    I knew I’d recognize him if ever
    He came ’round my way.
    I always used to fancy then
    He’d be one of the God-like kind of men
    With a giant brain and a noble head
    Like the heroes bold
    In the books I’ve read.
    But along came Bill
    Who’s not the type at all,
    You’d meet him on the street
    And never notice him.
    His form and face,
    His manly grace
    Are not the kind that you
    Would find in a statue,
    And I can’t explain,
    It’s surely not his brain
    That makes me thrill –
    I love him because he’s wonderful,
    Because he’s just my Bill.

    He can’t play golf or tennis or polo,
    Or sing a solo, or row.
    He isn’t half as handsome
    As dozens of men that I know.
    He isn’t tall or straight or slim
    And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
    And I can’t explain why he should be
    Just the one, one man in the world for me.
    He’s just my Bill an ordinary boy,
    He hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.
    And yet to be
    Upon his knee
    So comfy and roomy
    Seems natural to me.
    Oh, I can’t explain,
    It’s surely not his brain
    That makes me thrill –
    I love him because he’s – I don’t know…
    Because he’s just my Bill.

  22. For the literary dinner party, deceased author version, I’d go with Joyce, Dickens, and Conrad. Lord Jim, along with several of Dickens’ novels, had a profound influence on me during my teenage/young adult years. So did several of Ed Abbey’s books, but somehow I suspect he might not have been a pleasant dinner guest (ditto Kerouac). For living authors, I’d invite Pynchon, Murakami, and Byatt.

    1. When we go to Moab, Utah ( where we’re heading on Tuesday), we rent a house on Seldom Seen Lane, after Ed Abbey’s Seldom Seen Sam. One of Abbey’s widows lives nearby on, wait for it, Abbey Lane:-)
      Loved Desert Solitaire.

        1. Thanks! Love it there, too. Last year we went in July and the hiking was tooooo blooooody hot, even though dry. Fall is gorgeous there. Come visit!

  23. 1. Favourite novelist: Joyce.
    2. Last book to make me laugh: I have recently been re-reading all my Kingsley Amis books, so I think it will have to be Lucky Jim.
    3. Favourite Indian novel(s): the Raj Quartet. Glad so many others like them!
    4. Book that made me etc: George Orwell’s collected essays and journalism.
    5. Book for the Pres: not for me to say; but it would be a bonus if any contemporary politician read any serious book at all.
    6. Dinner party: (a) dead: Samuel Johnson, Anthony Burgess, John Updike; (b) living: Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Robert Macfarlane.
    7. Wot I woz supposed 2 like but didn’t: Proust, Woolf, Moby Dick and (I’m afraid) a lot of Rushdie.
    8. Embarrassed not to have read yet: any of the Brontes.

  24. My book club chose Middlemarch as the book for our summer meeting. I found it a bit hard to get into at first, but it ended up being a page-turner.

    I’ve read A Passage to India a couple of times, but I’d recommend Amitav Ghosh’s A Sea of Poppies for a recent take on India under the British (the sequel River of Smoke, set in pre-British Canton, is also worth reading, and I’m waiting for the third book in the trilogy to make it to paperback). A Sea of Poppies is also linguistically quite inventive.

    1. And I could barely finish those two Ghosh books. I think people either love him or hate him. I found the language corny. A chacun son goût.

              1. My favorite Kipling story is The Maltese Cat, which is not about a felid, I’m afraid – it’s about polo, told from the perspective of the polo ponies (all of whom have great names and personalities).

              2. Just to whet your reading appetite:

                “Now a polo-pony is like a poet. If he is born with a love for the game he can be made. The Maltese Cat knew that bamboos grew solely in order that polo-balls might be turned from their roots, that grain was given to ponies to keep them in hard condition, and that ponies were shod to prevent them slipping on a turn. But, besides all these things, he knew every trick and device of the finest game of the world, and for two seasons he had been teaching the others all he knew or guessed.

                ‘Remember,’ he said for the hundredth time as the riders came up, ‘we must play together, and you must play with your heads. Whatever happens, follow the ball. Who goes out first?’”

                ~ R. Kipling

              3. That is whet-some indeed! Amazing how quickly one buys into the premise, how much information he can pack into one attention-gripping paragraph.


  25. I read mostly non-fiction. The only novels I read over and over are the Aubreyad of Patrick O’Brian. There are 20 of them, essentially one long (historical) novel, set in the Napoleonic wars.
    I do like the Matthew Shardlake novels of C J Sanson. Matthew is a hunchback attorney in the time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer.

  26. Let me venture an opinion on American novelists still among the quick: Roth, DeLillo, and Pynchon are the father, the son, and the holy ghost. (The third of those two threesomes make a particularly apt match, given the phantomlike Pynchon’s aversion to disclosure of personal detail.) From those three, there’s a drop-off to Cormac McCarthy, then another drop-off from McCarthy to everyone else.

    1. Agree with that, and I have read almost all of their books. And outside the trinity add Gaddis (sadly no longer with us) as godfather and Franzen as young pretender.

      1. Gaddis and Franzen — from The Recognitions to The Corrections, huh? Agree on both. (I always thought Franzen’s buddy David Foster Wallace was the best writer of that generation. But since DFW offed himself, Franzen’s the leading contender to ascend to the pantheon.)

        1. I liked The Corrections a lot, but was a bit disappointed with his 2nd book, whose title escapes me at the moment. I have his newest, Purity, on my Kindle and it sounds interesting.

          1. You’re probably thinking of Freedom. Franzen actually had a couple of early novels before The Corrections, but they didn’t sell particularly well (and I haven’t read them either).

            1. It sounds odd but I read ‘Freedom’ by accident. I have it on my e-reader and was actually reading Maureen McHugh’s Mothers and Other Monsters, a collection of short stories; through some glitch I switched mid-book to Freedom, apart from thinking it was remarkably long for a short story it took a while to realise . . . I should really read it properly now.
              Maureen McHugh is one of those authors who get stuck in a ‘genre’ reputation and really don’t get the attention they deserve (Connie Willis is another) – China Mountain Zhang is terrific read.

    2. I have a respectful appreciation of Pynchon’s aversion to disclosure of personal detail. Many of my students could learn something from his example, tbh. 😛

      1. I agree. I sometimes wonder if Hemingway had been more like Pynchon — if he had shunned publicity and had left all discussion of his “code” and his “iceberg method” to the critics — if he wouldn’t then have remained that much more fascinating instead of descending into self-caricature.

        1. I hate the way authors and actors have to spend so much time these days promoting their books or movies! I want to approach the works without any pre-formed opinions based on personal appearances or interviews.

          (I usually don’t mind reading reviews, however, unless they’re full of spoilers.)

  27. 2015 Translation of Wodehouse for those who have trouble with ancient forms of English.

    “Your problem Spode, is that just because you have managed to persuade a bunch of morons to pollute the London landscape by wandering around in black shorts, you think you’re the man. You hear them shouting ‘Heil Spode’ and you imagine it’s the Voice of the People. That is where you goof. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that complete wanker Spode strutting his stuff in football shorts. Have you ever seen such a total douche-bag?’”

  28. In view of today’s news about the role of pigs in British politics I have to once more recommend Mr Wodehouse’s Blandings novels featuring the sublime Empress of Blandings.

  29. I’m not a great reader of ‘literature’ (I know, I know) but I can recommend an alternative world book ‘The Curse of Chalion’ by Lois McMaster Bujold, which incorporates a detailed framework of 5 Gods (Father, Son, Mother, Daughter, the Bastard), ghosts and demons etc.

    Yes, gods are not real, but this fictional setting is excellent at exploring the interactions of beliefs and societies – and well worth reading as a means of increasing an atheists understanding of the god struck.

  30. A novel that should be of interest to readers of this website is Jose Saramago’s wonderful ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’.

    I was also pleased to see Kazantzakis mentioned – I went on a Kazantzakis jag in my youth, and loved in particular ‘Zorba the Greek’ & ‘Christ Recrucified’ (which I still possess).

    Living writers I’d like to meet: Cees Nooteboom, J.M. Coetzee, Mario Vargas Llosa.

    Dead writers: Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz & Georg Buchner (whose ‘Lenz’ is one of the most extraordinary pieces of prose I have ever read).

    1. Vargas Llosa would be great to meet. Loved his Year of the Goat. Love Coetzee’s writing, but suspect he would not be easy to talk to.

      1. I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ quite late (in my late thirties, I think) and hugely enjoyed it because it was written as it were on a knife-edge – if it tipped one way, it would descend into the risibly incredible, if the other into mere overdone sentimentality. And this travelling on a knife-edge, it seemed to me, was sustained through a sort of savage, and Lewis-Carrollian, humour – as when the old Nurse staggers up the hill to Wuthering Heights and sees – oh, which boy it is, I can’t remember, probably Hindley or Hareton, and cries out in an excess of motherly excitement something like, ‘(Whoever), It’s your old Nanny come to see you!’. The next sentence, I recall, is ‘He bent down and picked up a stone.’ And then there is the near surrealism of Mrs Heathcliff rushing out of the house after Earnshaw’s attempt on Heathcliff’s life and after Heathcliff has beaten down Earnshaw and flung a knife at her: as she rushes out, she knocks over Hareton ‘who was hanging a litter of puppies from a chair back in the doorway’ (have just found the passage). I find this – understated detail – detail both appalling and comical. ‘Withering Heights’ is full of this kind of savage comedy, and that is what makes it, for me, such a splendid novel. It is really not the Gothic horror story of intense love that so many people seem to think it is.

          1. I didn’t ‘try’ to read it as a comedy – it simply came across to me in the way I have described: that extraordinary breakneck, dizzying writing with its abrupt, savage events. 

            1. This is certainly an interesting twist! I read it in High School, way too early to appreciate it, I think now. (Nevertheless I enjoyed it then.) Pretty sure there’s a paperback of WH downstairs somewhere–now I’ll have to track it down.

              1. I think I read it when I was 11 or 12. Way too young. Do have a lovely boxed set with Jane Eyre from all those eons ago.

              1. Thanks!

                I knew it was some sort of conjugation, but both endings sounded second-person to me.

                So –thou comest, ye goeth.

                And plurals are the same?

              2. Was it the English comedian Max Wall who had something like the following in one of his routines?

                ‘What and wherefore is man? Whence doth he wend, and whither doth he wither?’

              3. It’s a feature of Germanic languages (though German plurals also differ to an extent).

                ich komme
                du kommST
                er/sie/es kommT
                wir kommen
                ihr kommt
                sie/Sie kommen

              4. And thanks again! I’ve only taken Spanish & Russian*, and only remember how to conjugate the first! (*Well, and Arabic, but I can barely remember the alphabet in that.)

            1. Exactly, as in Ruth 1:16 — “whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

      1. Right! I posted before reading any comment, nice to see some Saramago appreciation outside of Portuguese-speaking audiences. I have always wondered how well his work translates into English… Gotta get myself an English copy of The Gospel and Blindness sometime.

  31. Speaking of India in literature, in the broadest sense, has anyone here read Ian McDonald’s River of Gods yet? Any comments? I have it, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  32. Late to the party as always, but for me (inspiration-wise):
    Heart of Darkness – Conrad, Fear ad Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson, anything by Orwell, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, Robert Anton Wilson, Pratchett or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

  33. Great comments thread here. As for comic writers, entirely concur with Flann O’Brien, but has anyone mentioned Peter De Vries, or the far too little known W.M. Spackman, whose Armful of Warm Girl is a masterpiece of mannered comedy of manners? David Lodge is a another very funny writer, especially his novels of academe. And I might mention my countryman Paul Hiebert, whose Sarah Binks, a novel about the appallingly bad poet of that name, is hilarious. Apparently, some early US critics, believing this 1947 novel to have been a biography, pounced on Binks for her excruciating translations of Heine.

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