Tag Archives: don quixote

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

Advertisements

Why We Travel

9 Feb

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.