Sunday 6 December 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have never read a novel by Philip Roth. I recently opened the first page of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again. It can wait. Especially when the introduction runs almost as long as Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. I have yet to read Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' despite many people's claim that it contains one of the best baseball scenes ever written, and I am a fan of that sport. In my early twenties I opened and closed in succession, without reading, the following 'masterpieces': 'La Casa de los Espíritus', 'Steppenwolf', 'Death in Venice' and 'Cien Años de Soledad' (since then opened, read and closed but not liked).

In the meantime, though, I have devoured almost all of Milan Kundera's novels, become acquainted with and enamoured of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, delighted in Salman Rushdie's fiction and become a fan of Zadie Smith's novels and essays.

So, when my Literary Judgement Day arrives what will I declare? What will my excuse be for not liking 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'?

I'm only asking because it seems to me that ever since papyrus was first used during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, there has been a need to have a 'must-read' canon to which we, avid bookworms, must kowtow if we want to be accepted in the lap of literature's gods. This attitude, which I shall call 'the dictatorship of the classics' does not take into account human life span, basic needs or cultures. No, the classics' tyrant's only concern is what he/she calls good literature and our incessant pursuit of it.

And what is good literature? By no means I am attempting to replicate Zadie Smith's magnificent fifteen-part essay which I have been uploading on this blog weekly since September and whose latest instalment focused on the 'corrective critic'. But the question of what good literature is has been roaming my mind since many years ago an acquaintance of mine said to me with a frown on his face and a scold in his voice: 'I can't believe you have not read (insert famous novel title here) yet! But you like reading so much, I always see you with a book. You are so eloquent and passionate about literature. I would have thought you already had (novel title again) under your belt.'

Well, for starters I don't wear a belt most of the time. But what most intrigued me and, I confess, annoyed me from my acquaintance's tirade was the surprise on his face that I had not read this 'classic'.

I don't know about your reading habits, my fellow bloggers and readers, but mine are as follows. I have always had a list of books I wish to read out of pure enjoyment, regardless of their literary merits or lack of them thereof. But sometimes, even if I like the author and I am familiar with his/her work, I hesitate before delving into the narrative they offer me. This uncertainty is mainly based on circumstances rather than volition. The will is there, but the spark is missing. The opening sentence is not enough bait for me to swallow the hook. There are exceptions, though. I started twice and put down the same number of times two Toni Morrison's novels: 'Beloved' and 'Jazz'. The third time around I stuck with them - on separate occasions, mind - and I was rewarded with two magnificent literary behemoths, which I am planning to re-read very soon. But my habits, on the whole, remain the same. I am attracted to a book, be it a novel, essay or poetry collection, for its (potential) literary merit rather than its cultural impact. That the two of them coincide oftentimes these days is more down to the fact that I have fine-tuned my search for good books in the last fifteen years and become choosier.

And economics plays an essential role in that decision. I referred to three elements that 'classics tyrants' overlook when it comes to evaluating a work of art: the length of human life, basic needs and culture. Let's examine each of those aspects separately.

From an early age you will be exposed to a lot of reading material. And bar the small fact that your parents or carers will choose the books they'll read to you when you're little, you will be free most of your teenage, young adult and mature life to pick out which novel or poetry collection you want to read. Assuming that you're not a book reviewer - minority -, your main incentive for reading will be to enjoy the work in front of you. And that's without taking into account the literature you will have to read through your student's years or as part of your job. That means that a novel like 'War and Peace' might not be as appealing as, say, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The seven volumes that make up 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' will look like a waste of time and money when you realise that it will not take you as long to read Nadime Gordimer's entire catalogue and still have time to enjoy 'Telling Tales', an excellent compilation of short works by some of the foremost authors nowadays edited by the South African writer; I strongly recommend it. But the classics' dictator will have none of it. To him/her (although it's more 'him' than 'her' if truth be told, so I will start using the masculine from now on), to this person, Proust is the apogee of good literary taste. His is the most beautiful type of literature there is and the fact that not many people can 'get' him is evidence of the critic's own infallible ability to judge what's good and what isn't. Some people call this attitude snobbery. I have a stronger word for it which I won't use because I don't like gratuitous swearing on my blog. My conclusion is, though, life's too short, read what you want without feeling you 'must' digest this or that novel because it's a classic.

Basic needs are better expressed through the current economic downturn, a fine euphemism for a financial crisis if ever I saw one. With unemployment and inflation rising, the time and resources for meandering through aisles of old tomes that call out for our attention are diminishing. The dilemma worrying many people at the moment is how to survive in the midst of this credit crunch and that's why the market is awash with escapist novels and what I call crap lit. This is the type of book that Borders (alas, in receivership now) and Waterstones advertise in their 3 for 2 deals. It's probably why the Katie Prices of this world have supplanted the J. M. Coetzees. And although I also stick my snobbish nose up at the former, this phenomenon has a logical genesis. You think of putting food on the table first and then indulge in your favourite pastime afterwards. But to the classics' inquisitor this shift of loyalties is akin to the original sin, without the snake, mind. My verdict on this aspect is that as much as I love books, I need to look after my family first and foremost, and you can burn me at the stake if you want, Mr Despot.

And so we come to the cultural element which I have left for the end because it's always been a bugbear of mine. So, if you notice an axe being swung it's because I have one to grind.

It's logical that in an English-speaking country most literature will be read in that language. The same goes for Spanish or Chinese. It's not surprising that when people are asked to list their favourite novels or poems, the majority will be works in their own lexicon. It is also reasonable to suppose that we tend to think of many of the books we hold dear as the centre of the universe, what my acquaintance referred to as the 'I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of literature. After all, some of us are miniature dictators ourselves.

But when the classics' autocrat gets up on his High Chair to list the 100 Best Novels of all time, or nominate the greatest poem of the 20th century, my ears always prick up and my eyes open wide. I'm usually interested in who makes the cut and who is left out. That's also the moment when my cynicism sets deeper in. Because no matter how broad the scope is, the majority of the works enumerated will be usually European and more specifically in English. And that cuts across the board. Whether you're talking about visual arts, theatre or cinema, the bulk of any 'Best...' list will have at the very least an Anglophone undertone. This is not to detract from the very good art that has been produced in North America and Europe, especially Britain, for many centuries. But it is rather disheartening for anyone who, like me, has been exposed to equally brilliant art from an early age in his/her country of origin, regardless of economic outlook.

My first reaction to Stephen Moss's article on TS Elliot (link above) was to write to The Guardian to let him know the names of five poets from Iberoamerica from whose body of work I could select any poem that could very easily compete with TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' to win the title of 'greatest poem of the 20th century'. They were: Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos and Mario Benedetti. If you know your Hispanic poetry you will be aware that I did not include any Cuban poets in that list; I did not want to be accused of jingoism. But on second thoughts I decided against writing the letter because it would have been futile. The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic. He doesn't read Alfonsina Storni's 'Voy a Dormir', not because he doesn't like her but because he doesn't know who she was. This authoritarian ignoramus lives in a secluded intellectual island beyond whose shores he will rarely venture. The thought of learning another language in order to delve into a different culture terrifies him. But this deficiency will not stop him from deciding which writers have the qualities that define good literature.

When non-English speaking writers do make it to the aforementioned lists, it is because they are read in translation, with the usual suspects - at least from my neck of the woods - being showered with all kind of compliments: Gabo, Isabel and Borges. This hurts because the plethora of good writers in the Spanish-speaking world who gets left out is mindblowing. Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' is a Latin American classic, paving, as it did, the way for other similarly innovative writers such as the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante whose 'Tres Tristes Tigres' I devoured earlier this year and it's shaping up to be my Book of the Year. Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez) drew heavily from another compatriot of mine, late writer Alejo Carpentier, to become the doyen of the so-called 'magical realism' genre, however it was the islander who first coined the phrase 'lo real maravilloso (the wonderful reality)' in the prologue of his trail-blazing novel 'El Reino de Este Mundo'.

And it wouldn't matter really, whether these non-English speaking writers were acknowledged or not by an Anglo-Saxon public, because they have already earned their kudos in Iberoamerica. But since it is the Germanic lexicon in which the worldwide literary market chiefly operates, non-recognition equals to small or zero sales, so it does matter in the end. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra pointed out recently in The Guardian Saturday Review, if you want to be published abroad you have to conform to the stereotypical views many readers have of a particular writer's nation. For Cuban authors, it is 'steamy sex or salsa' or nada at the till. This situation results in a Catch-22 for the writer who has to resort to formulas in order to sustain a living through writing. Which in effect is convenient cannon fodder for the classics' tyrant in order to back up his claim of what he believes to be good literature.

I apologise if I have stepped on some toes today. After all most of the people who visit and comment on this blog are English-speakers. So for the record, this is not a diatribe against the Anglo world or European culture at all - good Lord, probably Nigerian or Jamaican writers are in a similar situation - but against that prejudiced classics' dictator who would like nothing better than lock us up, rebel readers who dare to read for pleasure, in a type of Konzentrationslager, where our hours would be devoted to analysing the symbolism of TS Elliot's second chapter in 'The Waste Land': 'A Game of Chess'. Me? I'm off to read some Girondo.

Neither the second part of this post, nor the video that follows it are in any way related but I can understand it if people see a kind of segue in my decision to upload a Queen track after writing about Aids. After all, that was the disease that killed the British band's frontman, Freddie Mercury, eighteen years ago. However, it would be a fair comment to make that Mr Farrokh Bulsara was never in the same situation as thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in countries such as Swaziland where the percentage of people affected by Aids/HIV is currently 26.1% for adults and 50% for adults in their 20s. Moreover, at their peak, the cost of one of Queen's (in)famous parties probably dwarfed Swaziland's annual per capita spending. That's why it's so inspiring for me to count amongst my cyber-acquaintances, Dr Maithri, an Australia-based doctor who has travelled to, stayed in and helped out in that African nation. Dr Maithri's blog, The Soaring Impulse, is a truly magical space where you can catch up with the latest news about Swaziland, read good poetry and even enjoy Maithri himself jamming with another fellow doctor (just go to his profile and click on the video link; I've already mentioned to him that should medicine ever fall by the wayside, he can always look forward to a lucrative singing career). It is to Dr Maithri and his colleagues to whom this second part of my reflections today is dedicated. Many thanks. And I hope you enjoy the Queen clip.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 8th December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I always ignore the 'best of...' lists that seem to be so fashionable. Likewise the lists of 100 books you must read / films you must see / places you must go before you die. They may be useful for inspiration, but until I run out of inspiration on my own, I'm not too worried...

  2. Ah, you give me bragging rights: I have read Ulysses two and a half times - the half came first. That's it, that's as far as they go. I think perhaps Steppenwolf next...?

  3. Gerald Murnane, Australian writer par excellence, has written a wonderful essay, called 'Some books are to be dropped in wells, others into fishponds' (in 'Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs') in which he writes about the fact that although there are certain books like Don Quixote which he has read and loved more than once there is still not a single line that he can remember from the book.

    For Murnane this is evidence that something needs to give. Murnane then proceeds to go through his library and check each book by its title as written on the spine against his memory of reading it.

    If nothing comes back to him, he offers the book to the local opportunity shop, as I recall. Like Murnane I cannot remember all the details.

    I think we can all be too precious about books and it's time we accepted that they are like the seasons: they come and go. Some disappear and some stay with us forever.

  4. I love Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie and QUEEN!

    I am re-reading Don Quijote de la Mancha at the moment and I must say I am enjoying it quite a bit! I used to think it was the most boring book on earth when they forced me to read it in school... now I have re-discovered it with a new sense of pleasure. I guess age does these things...

  5. Cuban, first I was smiling as I read, then sometimes chuckling as I thought, Right on, Cuban, you’re telling it like it is! Then I became more sober as you discussed in such a masterful way the impact of culture on literary choices. This is one of the best posts you have ever published, in a sort of ironic way deserving to be considered a classic. I know I will read it more than once. Thank you for expressing so well what needed to get expressed.

  6. I don't believe in having a list of books that everyone MUST read. I believe that everyone should read because it's good for them and will help them but they should read what they want to read. Yes, there are books that I would urge people to read because they're so good it would be shame to miss them. However, everyone is different and not everyone is going to think that the same literature is the best literature.

    What you say about different languages and cultures having they're own bodies of literature and classics is perfectly true. I'm British, American, and Indian and each one of these cultures has they're own sense of what is literature.

    So I ignore all those lists. I read what I want to read when I want to read it. If something attracts me to it then I read it. If something doesn't attract me to it then I don't care who says it's brilliant. I'm not going to waste my time. Life is too short and precious to spend reading books I don't want to read. I'd rather read the ones I do want to read.

    And don't even get my started on James Joyce. I can't stand the man or his pretentious books. But everyone has their own opinion and if you liked Ulysses then you liked it. What can I say?


  7. Yes, your Tuesday installment of Zadie's essay made me think about what/why I read too. I must say I covered a lot of the classics you mention - Roth, Underworld and Plath - but mostly because my first degree is in English Lit. And although I do like so-called classics, I do my best not to be snobbish about books and whenever I say to someone "have you read x" it's purely because I thought that "x" was brilliant and everyone should see that.

    Literature is definitely very firmly rooted in culture (well, it's part of it) and our literary tastes are shaped by where we're from. That's probably why I like South American literature, it reminds me of the way Polish authors write, but I don't get Indian literature and I don't think I'll ever be able to appreciate it.

    I think you're right in that life's too short to waste time reading stuff that we don't like/don't get. I've never managed to read Proust (tried and failed) but I've learnt to live with that :-) On the other hand, I have attempted to read a Dan Brown (Digital Fortress) which is considered not-too-ambitious but I got very bored after 100 pages and gave up. I don't think I'll be reading anything by Kate Price too.

    But I've never tried anything by Margaret Atwood. I should really give it a go. Do you think it's a I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of book?

    Great post!

  8. well, Cuban,
    another great post!


    we almost fell on the floor with the
    >>>I recently opened the first page
    of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again.<<<

    we know the feeling. wurd!

    we WILL however, get to read it someday,
    we MUST.

    we are so in awe of people who can
    express themselves as you do.
    everything is so clear, . . .
    and yet, no insult intended,
    with such an underlying humanity,
    and, dare we say it? - street savvy.

    it is hard to read some of the classics,
    and more so when we feel under the
    gun of peer-pressure to do so.

    otoh, there's so much fun to be had
    by simply reading whatever catches our fancy
    at the moment. and this WILL include a lot of
    {are we allowed to use the word crap on your blog?}

    now here's the rub for boat-rockers,
    there IS a middle ground. medicine may
    taste bad but it IS good for you.

    the "classics" are so because they are.
    so, snobbery or not, we should at least
    give them a fair shot. {we, the royal me, not you.}


    Cuban, what about comicbooks?
    okay, sorry, Graphic Novels,
    er, uh, uhm . . . .Serial Narratives? . . .eh . . .
    Sequential Art? you know, comicbooks.

    do you have anything to share about these?

    we'd love to know what you think,
    if anything, about this particular form of pop culture.

    is Alan Moore's THE WATCHMEN literature,
    in your view?

    how about his THE KILLING JOKE?
    {this last one is highly recommended,
    short, to the point, pretty Boland illus, and
    aspirations to high snobbery:
    Kantian ethics, dontcha know?}

    or, how's about the OTHER Brit,
    Neil Gaiman and his Sandman work?

    back to classics:
    we DID like DON QUIXOTE,
    maybe 'cause we were forced to
    plow through it in High School,
    {quite an accomplishment} and
    spent an entire semester dissecting it
    to the tune of Sor Asuncion and her yardstick.

    and, we were pleased to see Julia de Burgos
    on your great writer's list {mainly because
    we do not recognize many of the others,
    and she was another high school watermark.}

    nothing wrong with Borges that a doobie can't
    handle. {luvimm!}

    we WILL be tracking down some of your
    suggestions, though. and NOT because
    you've SAID so,
    but because YOU said so.

    ye've piqued our curiousity
    in these works.

    thanks for your post,
    as always, its a real joy.

    also, thanks for the QUEEN thingy,
    a good choice for a sunday morning.


    be well, blood.


  9. will write more on my reading habits - but just a quick reply to the first part of your post - it reminded me of a wonderful game played by the University English Professors in one of David Lodge's satirical campus novels - in this game you got the highest points for naming a book you hadn't read and all your colleagues had. One Professor received a dismissal notice after playing the game the night before and admitting he hadn't read Hamlet - it has stuck in mind as a great satirical comment on the snobbery of reading and the classics...more to follow...Greetings from Mexico...

  10. Cuban, I think you know my thoughts on reading the "classics" and on what's defined as a classic. I've gotten to the age where I finally realize that nothing in life should be a guilt-trip; life is too short and too much fun. So, reading books we just don't want to read out of convention or social pressure is a no no for me. I've read many of the so-called "classics", really, I have. And some stuck with me in my younger years to where I wanted to revisit them, while others I don't care for at all. As far as I'm concerned, if I, as a reader, am not fully engaged both mentally and emotionally in what I'm reading, I might as well stop because I'm not really internalizing anything, nor am I getting any pleasure out of the experience. It's just that simple. I'll give any book a try, but 50 pages into it, if I'm not "into it" then I'm out, quite simply!

    Your post was very well-written, Cuban, and very interesting, informational, and educational. But then this is what I've come to expect from my visits here. Have a great week, Cuban!


  11. Interesting post. Thanks. I'm not big on classics, though I have a lot of them I haven't read more than the first few pages in my collection. One day. In the meantime, I stick to stuff I enjoy - Zadie Smith, for certain - books that transfer me to other cultures and give me a glimpse of the way other people live. But I guess it's whatever you find most interesting. (Have to say Rushdie doesn't do it for me either, but that could have been the overkill from the Rushdie class I took at university...)

  12. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  13. " The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic."

    Oh my God, truer words have never been spoken. My friend, you make me proud.

    Listen, I am but a novice reader compared to you but I have learned so much from this blog. Thank you for putting into words what has always bothered me regarding literary elitists.

    PS: The Zadie series has been a delight and an education.

  14. Hello London,
    This was an excellent post that has given me new resolve to make space on my bookshelf by pulling 'Ulysses' off and giving to the local thrift shop. Countless times over 30 years I have reached for it, hesitated, withdrawn my hand and chastised myself for not having the discipline to continue. 'You really should...' I tell myself.

    As I read your thoughts about the Euro/Anglocentric bias in literature, I wanted to protest (mildly) that it is a given for an English publication, literary review or organization like the BBC to recommend books written in 'their' language. Surely the French, Germans and Italians do the same!

    To read well in another language, particularly if the level of language is beyond basic, takes years of study. Translations aren't always faithful to the original use of language, but at least they allow a glimpse into other cultures, experiences and perspectives.

    But considering all that you said to say, I agree that the global dominance of English has bulldozed over the delights and treasures to be found in other languages. Some will surface for reasons of marketing or sheer brilliance, others will forever be lost to those of us unable to navigate through a different tongue.

    Polyglottism should be written into the law.

  15. How many people speak Spanish or Portuguese?
    330 million and 210 million, respectively.
    I would be interested to know which books are best sellers in Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries.

    I have read Proust, in Englisch, I have read Alejo Carpentier, Explosion in a Cathedreal, The Pilrim at Home and The Chase. In English too (mir third language). I read what I like, politically correct or not.

  16. You are an inspiration my brother, I love the passion with which you write about all things, literary, cultural, social... Its an honour to call you my friend.

    In warmest appreciation and friendship,


  17. I think Ulysses is waiting on my 'Books to be read' shelf for more than 10 years. Its the oldest inhabitant there. I should have to retire it soon..

  18. Has it been 18 years since Freddie passed? It just doesn't seem that long ago. I casually peruse "Must Read Books" lists but typically don't give them much importance. Everything is always influenced by the cultural bias of the list makers. I read classics that interest me and classics that represent Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. I am in the middle of Julia Alvarez' "In The Time of the Butterflies" specifically because it is a Latin American must read but I have to admit, it drags terribly but I'm determined to finish.

  19. really who is NOT enamoured by Margaret Atwood? Ifnot, they should be.

  20. Very nice post about literature, I can not comment about everything, but I am just going to tell you that I read philip roth when I was 11 because they forbid me to do it, so of course I took portnoir s lament and read it in two days, it ended up being the book that impressed me the most (sexually speaking) in all my life, then I rediscovered him when I was older and I think he is a wonderful writer. And I can not help saying Poe is the best of all

  21. Thank you thank you and thank you again for this post. I am such an anarchist that I don't think there's ANYTHING that EVERYONE must do.

    I'll give any book 50 pages, but if it hasn't gotten me by then I will happily put it down.

    Right now I'm reading, for the first time, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. What a fun read! Very cool mystery. It's a page turner. Can't say that for Ulysses, that's for sure!

  22. What an awesome post -- thoughtful, insightful, decisive, opinionated. Just the way I like them! When I turned forty, I told myself that there were certain writers that I guessed I would never get to. One of those was Don Delillo. It seemed like wherever I looked there was some sort of list that had him as one of the top ten writers of the century, of all time, etc. etc. I always felt a frisson of panic when I'd read these judgments, but it wasn't until my fortieth birthday that I just gave it up. And then I picked up Falling Man and was so sucked in that I became a Don Delillo fan. And I have read Proust (in FRENCH, in college!) and I have always, always despised him and all those books. I could go on and on -- there's nothing like sharing books with like-minded folks, so thank you!

  23. Thanks a lot for your lovely comments.

    Greetings from London.

  24. And when the English assemble lists of "great" writers they not only stick to those who write in English, but they quietly "adopt" writers who aren't. This is a common complaint of Irish writers. It is often said that many of the best "English" writers are Irish, Scottish and American.

  25. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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