Δευτέρα, 6 Μαρτίου 2017

Gabriel García Márquez’s Formative Reading List: 24 Books That Shaped One of Humanity’s Greatest Writers


Here are the books that most influenced García Márquez — beginning with his teenage years at boarding school, of which he recalls: “The best thing at the liceo were the books read aloud before we went to sleep.” — along with some of the endearing anecdotes he tells about them.  

  1. The Magic Mountain (public library) by Thomas Mann
  2. The thundering success of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain… required the intervention of the rector to keep us from spending the whole night awake, waiting for Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat to kiss. Or the rare tension of all of us sitting up on our beds in order not to miss a word of the disordered philosophical duels between Naptha and his friend Settembrini. The reading that night lasted for more than an hour and was celebrated in the dormitory with a round of applause.
  3. The Man in the Iron Mask (free ebook | public library) by Alexandre Dumas
  4. Ulysses (free ebook | public library) by James Joyce
  5. One day Jorge Álvaro Espinosa, a law student who had taught me to navigate the Bible and made me learn by heart the complete names of Job’s companions, placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared with his bishop’s authority:
    “This is the other Bible.”
    It was, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I read in bits and pieces and fits and starts until I lost all patience. It was premature brashness. Years later, as a docile adult, I set myself the task of reading it again in a serious way, and it not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structures in my books.
  6. The Sound and the Fury (public library) by William Faulkner
  7. I became aware that my adventure in reading Ulysses at the age of twenty, and later The Sound and the Fury, were premature audacities without a future, and I decided to reread them with a less biased eye. In effect, much of what had seemed pedantic or hermetic in Joyce and Faulkner was revealed to me then with a terrifying beauty and simplicity.
  8. As I Lay Dying (public library) by William Faulkner
  9. The Wild Palms (public library) by William Faulkner
  10. Oedipus Rex (free ebook | public library) by Sophocles
  11. [The writer] Gustavo [Ibarra Merlano] brought me the systematic rigor that my improvised and scattered ideas, and the frivolity of my heart, were in real need of. And all that with great tenderness and an iron character.
    His readings were long and varied but sustained by a thorough knowledge of the Catholic intellectuals of the day, whom I had never heard of. He knew everything that one should know about poetry, in particular the Greek and Latin classics, which he read in their original versions… I found it remarkable that in addition to having so many intellectual and civic virtues, he swam like an Olympic champion and had a body trained to be one. What concerned him most about me was my dangerous contempt for the Greek and Latin classics, which seemed boring and useless to me, except for the Odyssey, which I had read and reread in bits and pieces several times at the liceo. And so before we said goodbye, he chose a leather-bound book from the library and handed it to me with a certain solemnity. “You may become a good writer,” he said, “but you’ll never become very good if you don’t have a good knowledge of the Greek classics.” The book was the complete works of Sophocles. From that moment on Gustavo was one of the decisive beings in my life, for Oedipus Rex revealed itself to me on first reading as the perfect work.
  12. The House of the Seven Gables (free ebook | public library) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  13. [Gustavo Ibarra] lent me Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, which marked me for life. Together we attempted a theory of the fatality of nostalgia in the wanderings of Ulysses Odysseus, where we became lost and never found our way out. Half a century later I discovered it resolved in a masterful text by Milan Kundera.
  14. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (free ebook | public library) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  15. Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) by Herman Melville
  16. Sons and Lovers (free ebook | public library) by D.H. Lawrence
  17. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (free ebook | public library)
  18. I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations. By the same token, it seemed impossible that anyone from our time would ever believe again that you could fly over cities and mountains on a carpet, or that a slave from Cartagena de Indias would live for two hundred years in a bottle as a punishment, unless the author of the story could make his readers believe it.
  19. The Metamorphosis (public library) by Franz Kafka
  20. I never again slept with my former serenity. [The book] determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” [I realized that] it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost. When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise.
  21. The Aleph and Other Stories (public library) by Jorge Luis Borges
  22. The Collected Stories (public library) by Ernest Hemingway
  23. Point Counter Point (public library) by Aldous Huxley
  24. Of Mice and Men (public library) by John Steinbeck
  25. The Grapes of Wrath (public library) by John Steinbeck
  26. Tobacco Road (public library) by Erskine Caldwell
  27. Stories (public library) by Katherine Mansfield
  28. Manhattan Transfer (public library) by John Dos Passos
  29. Portrait of Jennie (public library) by Robert Nathan
  30. Orlando (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  31. Mrs. Dalloway (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  32. It was the first time I heard the name of Virginia Woolf, whom he [Gustavo Ibarra] called Old Lady Woolf, like Old Man Faulkner. My amazement inspired him to the point of delirium. He seized the pile of books he had shown me as his favorites and placed them in my hands.
    “Don’t be an asshole,” he said, “take them all, and when you finish reading them we’ll come get them no matter where you are.”
    For me they were an inconceivable treasure that I did not dare put at risk when I did not have even a miserable hole where I could keep them. At last he resigned himself to giving me the Spanish version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with the unappealable prediction that I would learn it by heart.
    I went [home] with the air of someone who had discovered the world.
Living to Tell the Tale is a glorious read in its entirety — the humbling and infinitely heartening life-story of one of the greatest writers humanity ever produced. Couple it with Old Lady Woolf on how one should read a book.

Τρίτη, 14 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages

By  posted at 6:00 am on February 7, 2017 at the Millions

Within a month and a half, both Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri published essays on their efforts at learning a new language. Their reasons and methods couldn’t have been more different, yet underneath their distinct approaches runs a commonality that unites them in a common act. It’s the same commonality that links together every reader of literature, present and past.
Lydia Davis’s essay, “On Learning Norwegian,” was included in the first volume of John Freeman’s biannual anthology. Davis had a rather bizarre compulsion to read Dag Solstad’s “Telemark novel.” There is almost no chance that it will ever be translated into English. It will be a miracle if more than five Norwegians even read it. To call the book a novel is to bend that word to the limit. There are fierce debates in Norway over Solstad’s use of this term to describe to his newest project.
The “Telemark novel” is long — 426 pages not counting the appendix. It is devoid of any action or drama. There is no unifying plot. It is a recitation of Solstad’s ancestors who lived in the town of Telemark from 1691 to 1896. Accounts of their births, deaths, marriages, and property transactions. And little else. Why Davis was moved to read this book, I’m not sure and neither is she. It has less to do with the novel itself and more with Davis’s desire for experiment.
Davis did not know Norwegian. And she knew that it’s almost inconceivable that the novel would ever be translated into a language she could access. So why not just learn Norwegian? Reading Solstad would be a rewarding challenge in itself. The act would not accomplish anything, per se. There is no joy to be had in following a great storyline or new knowledge to learn about the universe. The only delight Davis would receive from reading Solstad is being the only non-Norwegian to have done it. But how? That’s the part Davis wants to experiment with.
Davis thought it would be even more challenging to read the “Telemark novel” without using a dictionary and without formal language training. This isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. Davis already knew German and French so right off the bat she was able to discern certain things — verb conjugation patterns, cognates, the alphabet and its sounds, and some prepositions. And there are advantages to not using a dictionary.
Dictionaries can be detrimental crutches for those learning a new language. They are psychological hindrances to fully grasping vocabulary. If you know that a dictionary is only a keystroke away, you’ll likely not spend as much effort driving new words into your head as you would if you had no safety net. Furthermore, discovering words in context gives a deeper understanding than scanning an abstract definition.
Davis created her own treatments of the Norwegian language. She worked from the inside out. Whenever Davis would divine a term’s import she would add it to a running list. Each time she’d crack open a syntactical feature she’d include it in her nascent grammar. She did cheat a few times. She had a handful of sessions with a language teacher and she read through a children’s book and a graphic novel to acquire a basic vocabulary. But other than she taught herself Norwegian by reading one of the most opaque “novels” to ever be published in any language.
She is open about the fact there was much in the book she didn’t understand. But going through it slowly, reading it word by word, opened to her new ways of thinking. She learned almost as much about the English language as she did the Norwegian. Most of these discoveries were etymological but often they would lead to more philosophical observations. Davis learned that “neighbor” means to live near someone. She mused that this could be good or bad, depending upon the persons involved. She also noticed characteristics about Solstad’s writing that she might not have understood if she were reading fast. Solstad shifts his narrative mode to explain the same event in a different way and his writing changes pace to reflect the nature of the narrative. These insights are fairly minor but they were products of hard-fought work so to Davis they were grand accomplishments.
Davis did not become fluent in Norwegian. She is not able to speak it nor can she readily compose Norwegian prose. She was able to understand a good bit of a tremendously challenging tome without recourse to learning aids. A herculean task if there ever was one.
Jhumpa Lahiri did precisely the opposite of Lydia Davis. In “Teach Yourself Italian” published in The New Yorker, Lahiri describes how she availed herself of every tool imaginable to learn her language of choice. She bought textbooks, met with tutors for years on end, and finally moved her family to Rome. It took her years and years of frustrating toil but she finally reached the point where she was satisfied with her efforts. Most impressive to me was the fact that her essay was translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Lahiri wrote it in Italian.
Lahiri explores more deeply than Davis her reasons for learning a new language. For here it wasn’t a merely a fun challenge. Lahiri’s mother was born in India and she raised Jhumpa speaking Bengali. But Lahiri admits that her command of Bengali is far from perfect. She can’t write in it. Nor can she speak it without an accent. She feels alienated from her mother tongue. But English, her default language, is actually her second language. She feels like a linguistic exile, an author without a home.
Lahiri wanted to get away from English, to find rest and transformation in a language new and different. She reconstructed herself from the grammatical ground up. Lahiri wanted to connect with another way of viewing the world and fuse it with her own. Davis and Lahiri are similar in this. Why else would Davis spend an entire year reading a single book? She wanted to grow, to change, to metamorphose through the challenge. She also desired a connection with this very alien way of telling a story, to see the world through Solstad’s eyes.
Davis and Lahiri’s narratives remind me of the first author that we know of in human history—a Mesopotamian princess who went by the name Enheduanna. We don’t know exactly how Enheduanna learned the language she wrote, but we can surmise that she probably did it through a hybrid of Davis’ and Lahiri’s approaches.
Roughly 4,500 years ago, Enheduanna’s father united two cultural groups of Mesopotamia into a single empire. These two areas spoke different languages and thought of themselves as different peoples. Enheduanna grew up speaking Akkadian, but after her father conquered the southern lands and joined them to his kingdom, he sent his daughter to become the high priestess at one of this region’s most significant temples. While she was there, Enheduanna learned their dominant language, Sumerian.
Likely, Enheduanna had teachers and, like Lahiri, she also made use of textbooks. Also like Lahiri, Enheduanna moved to the Rome of her day — she traveled to a foreign place where people lived and spoke differently, a place with a reputation as a cultural and religious capital. But like Davis she probably relied on word lists to acquire vocabulary. Enheduanna did not use a dictionary as we understand them. Also like Davis she learned grammar inductively, through reading instead of by memorizing rules of syntax.
Enheduanna also had a similar goal in learning this new language. She produced the first collection of poetry that is known to exist. She rounded up 42 temple hymns that celebrated various shrines across her father’s empire. She included religious sites from both the north and the south. These regions had an open and longstanding hostility toward one another. Enheduanna wanted the residents of the two parts of the new country to understand the commonalities they shared. They had different customs and they spoke different languages but by reading each other’s poems they could bridge these divides, they could meet a new people and come to know themselves in a fresh way.
Lydia Davis came to a realization after she finished Solstad’s book: “It also occurred to me, as I bent over my thin pencil scratches on the handsome pages of the book, that we read selfishly — and we read in whatever way we choose.” I think this is true for the way that most every human reads and has read. We like different types of books; some stories resonate with us while others do not. Davis’s observation is even true for the way we learn languages. People learn in different ways. But the why of reading? I think that, in large part, is something we all share. We’ve been searching texts for a connection to another person or community for more than 4,000 years. This is what Davis and Lahiri wanted. It’s what Enheduanna tried to create. It is likely the reason why you are reading this right now. And in this desire for connection, every reader, across time and place, is intimately linked.