My Name is Brad, & I Love Modernist Literature

The other day a reader & commenter on AUFS who is participating in our email discussion group on William Gass’ The Tunnel emailed to ask me about my favorite novels. It took me a while to respond, but this wasn’t for lack of reflection. It’s a common enough question (not just for me, but when you’re amongst well-read people in general), but one I continue to take seriously. I find it difficult to answer not because I’m worried what others might think of my choices. I can’t remember the last time I cared, quite honestly. The problem, such as it is, is that I’m always certain that any such list will simply emerge out of whatever state of mind or fickle disposition I find myself at any given moment or season. Ask me again in a month and the list could be completely different. That’s just my hunch, anyway — it’s not as though the question is so common that I’ve had the opportunity to experiment. My hope, of course, is that there would be some consistency. So, in response to my correspondent and reading partner, I  opted for a list that is perhaps less my favorite novels, and more what I hope are my favorite novels. 

1) Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy — I incorporated a reading of this novel (along with Dave Eggers’ memoir, though it certainly doesn’t compare) into my PhD thesis for no other reason than to see if I could. I doubt it helped the cause, but nobody important objected. Nothing makes me laugh as much as this book. Sterne’s sermons, btw, are well worth looking at too.

2) W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (possibly Rings of Saturn) — Nobody else writes like Sebald. Some have tried from time to time, but none come close. Some of this has to do with his very arcane German — my German friends express doubts that even the most Teutonically arcane ever wrote like Sebald. In Austerlitz there is a long passage that I still return to, as though it was Scripture, about moths.

3) James Joyce, Ulysses — Okay, yes, maybe a very cliched or highfalutin choice. But I cannot nor would I wish to deny that Joyce’s use of language just overwhelms me. Some people occasionally take exception to the Joyce industry in academia. Indeed, even I once suggested, year ago, that there be a ten-year moratorium placed on Joyce citations. (That would be a fun blog survey, btw. Who would you suggest for a similar-minded moratorium, and for how long?) But the Joyce scholars, the worst of them anyway, many are quite delightful, cannot diminish my joy whenever I read this work. I loved Ulysses so much I’ve been afraid ever to begin reading Finnegan’s Wake. I feel unworthy.

4) Samuel Beckett — Nearly anything he ever wrote. His shopping lists may well send me into reverie. If I ever get re-ordained, I will one day conduct a Samuel Beckett liturgy. (Kotsko suggested this would make a brilliant AAR wildcard session. I may finally have my SF proposal ready to go.)

5) Wallace Stevens, Harmonium — Not a novel. But, a little confession here, I don’t really read novels for their plot & resolution. Oh, sometimes you have to, but I greatly prefer looking at their language and the movements therein.  Now, I’m an awful poet, and I often grow impatient with even the best lyrical poetry. Oh, but the poetry in the best prose, that’s a delight. Stevens remains one of the few poets I return to regularly.

6) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man – Another trendy choice, maybe. Does it paint me as a do-good liberal, knowing that it was also one of Clinton’s favorite novels! Be that as it may, the anger and the joy and the beauty in here are breathtaking. (“Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”)

7) Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans – A big, difficult novel about family and America, and everything in between and just beyond. Surely this one makes J. Franzen cringe at night.

8) William Gaddis, The Recognitions and JR. I can’t think of one without the other. They are a package deal with me. Gaddis never again reached the heights of his second novel, and there’s nothing at all wrong w/ that.  (“–A flea circus, they don’t really dress them up in little clothes and train them to pull carts and things? Why would, who would do that? / — Just somebody who . . . maybe just somebody afraid of failing at something worth doing.”)

9) Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Another book to which I regularly return, like Scripture. Well, maybe just the Book of Judges. Seriously thinking we should perhaps do a reading of this novel here in commemoration of its 25th anniversary this year.

10) Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet. I read this soon after completing my PhD, and right as I realized the degree meant nothing at all. This book confirmed it . . .

and one more for good measure….

11) Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father.

Postscript: I probably should’ve included Melville somewhere in here, considering the time and attention I’ve invested in him. He deserves better. As I reflected on things, it just didn’t feel like he fit the list. Citing him, for me anyway, would be like saying Shakespeare is my favorite writer.

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18 Responses to “My Name is Brad, & I Love Modernist Literature”

  1. bob mcmanus Says:

    In addition

    Mann, Gide, Proust, Mann, Musil, Dos Passos, Mann, Wolff, Pynchon, Mann, Yeats

    The next question is what your authors have in common, besides genius, that makes you like them. Nostalgia for structure? Romantic Pessimism? Aesthetic Optimism?

    We are all unworthy of our weak, which is how it is pronounced.

  2. Nathan Says:

    I can’t make an honest claim to Gertrude Stein’s book, or either Gaddis book, but I couldn’t agree more with the other choices (and would substitute empty spaces appropriately). In a fire, and indeed I’ve made such plans, I’d save at least three of these.

    Also, since I’ve been in the mood to read Gass again, and actually converse with people about it this time, I’d be open to being a part of the The Tunnel reading group. Excuse the possible inappropriateness of commenting here regarding that very thing.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Nathan, no inappropriateness at all. I’ll add your name to the list. It’s a very informal list, as you will see.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    If I were to identify one thing that unites all of the listed authors/works is that there is a depth to their humor. There’s always a certain depth to humor, even the most banal or vulgar. But theirs is all a knowing humor — even when that knowing is that they don’t know at all.

  5. Jolynne Says:

    I named my youngest daughter Ellisson Mae after Ralph Ellison. I have no idea how trendy that one is…maybe I’m in the wrong social circles…but there is nothing funnier and angrier than when the main character enjoys chitlins in the city and imagines the shame that he is bringing down on himself and his people.

  6. The Charismanglican Says:

    oops…that last comment was meant to be from me…I was logged in as my wife.

  7. The Charismanglican Says:

    and now it has mysteriously disappeared. Fuck it. Your loss, blogosphere!

  8. Brad Johnson Says:

    The comment just needed approval. Poof, there it is.

  9. Guido Nius Says:

    … Pirandello, Faulkner, Kafka and Wilde …

    Anyway, I think they share not making a point and giving us an entirely different way of looking at things – I think that it is there that the humor gets its depth, because it gets seen in a different light without losing compassion.

    (PS: is it very worrying for me if I was more impressed with Dubliners than with Ulysses?)

  10. Paul Ennis Says:

    ‘PS: is it very worrying for me if I was more impressed with Dubliners than with Ulysses?’

    I think Dubliners, despite the title, is the more universal (and therefore more successful) of the two. Incidentally I do find it fascinating how the book must feel without coming at it with all the linguistic baggage that comes with being a ‘native’ in terms of the slang and whatnot. I’ve seen some of the editions with notes and it is not pretty.

    Incidentally if, for whatever weird reason, you want to understand the male Irish psyche then ‘Portrait’ is where it’s at. Every young dude who goes to my Uni (Joyce’s Uni too!) comes fitted with ‘Young Joyce Syndrome.’

  11. Guido Nius Says:

    Paul, I guess you underestimate how universal the ‘Portrait’ is. And yes, I did have to read ‘Ulysses’ alongside the notes in a companion book. Funny I never considered how much I was at a disadvantage in reading it as non-native speaker! But at least to some extent it is all about not being able to fully grasp the particularities of the story and its characters.

    (I also didn’t know Dubliners was most successful!)

  12. Eric Says:

    Ellison’s Invisible Man is work of geniu

    I would list Heller’s Something Happened and Dezso Kosztolanyi’s Skylark.

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    Richard, thanks for the link. That was a phenomenal post. I’ve been read a lot about that book, and was v. close to buying it yesterday (but relented). Seems more like a library-read.

  14. Richard Says:

    Glad you liked it.

    I think it’s an excellent book. Also, it’s very short and very quick. I also highly recommend his books On Trust and The Book of God, among others.

  15. Jim H. Says:

    Have read and loved all but the Stein (know nothing about it) and Sebald (it’s on my to-be-read table, tho’). And concur. [Hey, don't shortchange Carpenter's Gothic either, which I critiqued in 4 posts in the 'Book Club' at my place.]

    Here’s one for you: The Diary of a Rapist by Evan S. Connell. Or Deus Lo Volt. Or Son of the Morning Star (coeval in all respects with Blood Meridian). Or even Mrs. Bridge. And Mr. Bridge. (despite Newman/Woodward) If you don’t know his work, I envy you the journey of discovery upon which you are about to embark. Let me know what you think.

    Have put down The Tunnel more times than I’ve read the beautiful Omensetter, which is a LOT! Usually, it’s a matter of time and extraneous pressures.

    Nice to have discovered your Blog (via BDR).

    Best,
    Jim H.

  16. Dan Says:

    In the blogosphere, this comment is centuries late, but:

    Brad, re: Sebald – I’ve always been really struck by an oblique comment you made about a year ago:

    “A work of art, whose attention is art, or the stuff that goes into the creation of art [memory, consciousness, etc.], need not be mere navel-gazing (though at its worst, some of this kind of stuff is just this), but in fact open its viewer/reader to a new way of apprehending the world as a whole. And in the process of opening the world, eschews the art from which this opening is made possible — whereupon you, the viewer/reader, almost forget you’re engaging with a work of art. The best works of Sebald are an example of this.”

    And I have long been hoping for a post on this…

  17. Brad Johnson Says:

    Wow, that is oblique. The (at least) two levels of art I simply assume to be at play perhaps muddles the meaning here. I do think I know what I was on about, though. Let me review some of my Sebald, pull out some examples, and I’ll see if I might tap out a post on this. Thanks.


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