Thursday, January 31, 2008

`Imaginary Gains'

Recommended reading lists are always suspect and tend to carry, like Swiss chard, an implied good-for-you-but-taste-bad warning. My seven-year-old is blithely cavalier about the lists of AR (Advanced Reader) books issued by the school district. Among the movie and television adaptations and tracts devoted to politically correct social-engineering (Heather Has Two Mommies) are a few compellingly readable titles. In Michael’s case, these include books about geology and Greek mythology, as well as the Collected Works of J.K. Rowling. Despite the best efforts of educators, some kids manage to love to read.

Like many of the recently dead, Wright Morris (1910-1998) has been sadly forgotten but his novels – especially The Huge Season, The Field of Vision and Ceremony in Lone Tree – stand among the glories of postwar American fiction. He was also a masterful photographer and a pioneer in creating “photo-texts” – The Inhabitants, The Home Place, God’s Country and My People. I’ve just read a volume new to me, About Fiction, published by Morris in 1975. He was not a systematic literary thinker, and much of his criticism is rooted in his own practice of fiction writing. It’s impressionistic, funny, a little sentimental and without reverence for literary shibboleths. Included is “A Reader’s Sampler,” an eclectic assortment of 21 works (all but one are fiction) from the 20th century. He never claims these are the best or most important books:

“There should be something old, and something new, for readers of various tastes and persuasions. The titles have in common the stamp of good writing they will share with knowledgeable readers. Here and there, meeting at random, a book and its reader make connection, and for the life of that bond there is more life to be lived, more life to be cherished, as well as to be lost. The losses are real, but great fiction assures us imaginary gains.”

Here’s Morris’ list:

Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
Three Lives, Gertrude Stein
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
“The Dead,” James Joyce
Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence
The Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo
In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway
Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel
“Red Leaves,” William Faulkner
Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line
The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee/Walker Evans
The Wife of Martin Guerre, Janet Lewis
Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
The Fall, Albert Camus
I’m Not Stiller, Max Frisch
A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone

An odd mix of the predictable (Fitzgerald), awful (Lawrence, Camus, Stone), unknown (Lewis), and wonderfully inspired (Rilke, Svevo, Babel, Bowen). I would never warn a young reader away from this list. If we read only books carrying someone else’s nihil obstat, we hobble our own critical evolution and fail to grant ourselves the right to evolve, through experimentation, our own tastes and critical sense. I can't argue against the presence of The Great Gatsby on the list but it’s a book I have tried hard for years, without success, to enjoy. On Morris’ list you’ll find no Henry James, Willa Cather, Proust, Kafka, Nabokov, Beckett, Henry Green or Bellow, as you would on mine, but his brief assessments make even Dreiser sound sympathetic to an inexperienced reader:

“In the modern craft sweepstakes Dreiser is a bungler, a writer sometimes so bad his rhetoric seems campy, but his heavy hand does not long conceal his knowledge of people and what it is that corrupts them. He knows about life, and that is what the fiction writer should know the most about.”

I can see steam rising from the sophisticates’ camp but Morris, as both fiction writer and critic, possesses a true craftsman’s balance of technique and feeling. Here he is on Joyce:

“Young men are drawn to write of older men, as they are lured by a life they have not yet experienced, and `The Dead’ is Joyce’s anticipation of the losses an older Joyce must suffer. In this tale there is so little of the formidable technician, the detached, satirical, clinical observer, that readers familiar with Joyce’s reputation may wonder if this is the same author.”

Not all readings lists are created equal.

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