Friday, February 10, 2012

`A Purely Personal Inventory'

Across more than forty years, my fiction-to-nonfiction reading ratio has radically reversed. When young I always had several novels going because I had a lot of catching up to do, my critical tastes were still amorphous and my timing was superb. Bellow and Nabokov, among others, were generous with their gifts in the sixties and seventies. Those were exciting, bountiful years to be young and discovering literature. 

Why the change? I don’t know. Some of the satisfactions I once found in fiction – human drama, moral complexity, memorable language – I now find more reliably elsewhere, in poetry, history and biography. One of good fiction’s chief virtues, the way it encourages self-forgetting as we inhabit the lives of others, is often better accomplished in other forms.    

Terry Teachout has assembled a list of “the ten American novels I most wish I'd written.” By that criterion, you can’t argue with the list, which would be like arguing about one’s choice off the breakfast menu. It’s a form of autobiography, a Rorschach test for sensibility. Terry writes:

“This is a purely personal inventory, reflective only of admiration, love, and--if a reader who has no gift whatsoever for the writing of prose fiction can use the word--identification.”

It’s Terry’s final quality that interests me here. Some of the books on my list are tours de force of technique and verbal pyrotechnics, but in each I find a character, or several characters, or situations that supply an empathetically contrasting template for my life. Here are my “ten American novels I most wish I’d written”:    

Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)

Willa Cather, My √Āntonia (1918)

Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903)

Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940)

John Williams, Stoner (1965)

I limit myself to one title per writer, so some choices are iceberg tips, meant to represent a novelist’s body of work, the embarrassment of riches they’ve left us. Do I really mean to snub The Portrait of a Lady, Lolita and Herzog? The only title common to my list and Terry’s is Maxwell’s, and I almost chose Time Will Darken It. Some will quibble that Stead, though she lived in the United States for about a decade, was in fact an Australian-born cosmopolitan. True enough, but her greatest novel is set in Washington, D.C., and all of its major characters are Americans. She knew us, so I grandfather her into my list.

Here is perhaps the most telling reason for choosing these novels: Four of the ten I have reread in the last twelve months, and all I have reread uncounted times.

[David Myers weighs in. Terry returns to the subject.]


WAS said...

Ooh, what a nifty parlor game. Here's my list:

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

Phillip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1924)

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans (1953)

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Nathaneal West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)

Terry Teachout said...

If my list had run to fifteen titles, the overlap would have been more extensive.

George said...

Jacques Barzun mentions the increasing preference for nonfiction with age in a review of Eric Partridge's Origins. I suppose the book with that essay is around the house yet, but I haven't seen it in a while.

I can't think of any novels I wish I had written, but I can think of quite a few I had encountered younger, to be able to reread more often.

Levi Stahl said...

I'm not much of a list-maker, but you two may have inspired me. And forcing me to limit it to American writers would eliminate a lot of my first thoughts, which could make for an interesting list.

I expect our lists would overlap on Maxwell, at least.