The Greatest Literary Works

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Loading the canon

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, June 25, 2008

When it comes to great books, lists are useful but should also be open to challenge and the element of surprise.

IF someone had told me in my 20s that Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a story that debates the nature of God, I would have reached for it on the library shelf. I would have reached even faster if I had known the debate opens with a conversation between two brothers, one a sceptic, the other a monk, in the corner of a tavern over tea, preserves and soup. My interest would have been keener still if I had been told that this theodicy is wrapped in a murder mystery.

As it was, I came to the book late, when I was about 45, reading the first English translation, by Constance Garnett, republished in a fine 1961 edition of the Heritage Press, illustrated with lithographs. It has generous font size, something sadly that could not be said about any of the new translations.

When I told someone I was writing a book of recommended reading, published this week as My Reading Life (Penguin, 432pp, $35), his reply was: "What an old-fashioned idea." The opposite is true. In my 20s and 30s, I was restless about my reading choices -- too heavy on current affairs, political biography and contemporary fiction. I needed lists, recommendations, guidance. The barrier to reading the classics, certainly for me, was a fear of being bored. Guides such as Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why (2000) or David Denby's Great Books (1996) are relatively recent.

Not that every reader needs prodding. Friends told me of their 14-year-old daughter, who sailed through War and Peace, identifying with Natasha Rostov. As a result, Tolstoy's novel settled into the girl's bloodstream from an early age. Another mother told me of a teenage girl who read and loved what I have found to be Dostoyevsky's most bewildering novel, The Idiot.

We arrive in our own ways.

Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, returned to Columbia University 30 years after he had first studied there to enrol in the two great books courses he had completed as a youngster. Sitting with 19-year-olds, he read again the literary masterpieces. In the story of this experience, Great Books, he celebrates Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Austen, Kant and Virginia Woolf.

But with Goethe's Faust he "could make no more than a spurious connection with a great work that I did not genuinely enjoy". And Don Quixote left the reader "unhappy, even a little bored". Yet a banker recently told me Cervantes' novel had made him laugh out loud.

That's the litmus test for comic fiction and one I use for recommendations in Chapter Two of My Reading Life: Anthony Powell figures largely in my choice of comic writing, as do Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer and -- this might surprise -- Patrick White. Contemporary readers are only likely to warm to White in books that show his corrosive satirical wit, such as The Eye of the Storm or The Twyborn Affair, rather than in his 1950s modernist experiments. The banker who liked Don Quixote had never touched my Russian friends, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov. By contrast, I view them as a whole lot less scary than Cervantes.

I heard an interview with Federico Fellini in which he said he had never read Marcel Proust or James Joyce but he had still absorbed them nonetheless: "It is not necessary to have read books or to have seen paintings: life by now is conditioned by these works; they are the spirit of the time. So it is enough to live."

This is rubbish, and lazy rubbish. The joy is to know these works first hand, make them friends, not know them by hearsay or Fellini-like osmosis. I found serious reading was the best respite from the gritty demands of being NSW Opposition leader and then premier. In those years I read not always for the absorption in easy pleasure you get from an Alan Furst spy novel set in occupied France or a James Ellroy thriller set in art deco Los Angeles (I include them in my recommendations) but for the longer-term pleasure of self-education or stretching one's consciousness. And, then, of revisiting Homer and Tolstoy or Joyce for a second or third time when a once-formidable clunky classic has been rendered translucent, even playful.

Susan Sontag said she was a different person because she had read Dostoyevsky. Different, yes, not necessarily better. We know from Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004) that the mass murderer was awesomely well read from a personal library of heavily annotated literature. Abraham Lincoln, who spared the lives of deserters and emancipated the slaves, was narrowly read, although deeply.

Thinking through my reading choices drove me to Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature (1980). What a university teacher he was! I liked his observation that as infants we read to identify with characters, as adolescents we read to learn about life. But as adults we read books "for the sake of their form, their visions, their art".

Especially in rereadings. I found myself back in Joyce's Dubliners, savouring his art, lingering over a story such as The Boarding House. On a summer Sunday in Dublin, the lace curtains "ballooned gently towards the street beneath the raised sashes" and the breakfast plates bear the "yellow streaks of eggs with morsels of bacon fat". There are crusts of bread that will make Tuesday's bread pudding.

Here is Mrs Mooney's boarding house, 15 shillings a week for board and lodgings. There is gentle Joycean precision in the language but not just in the language, in etching the little world in which Mrs Mooney and her daughter trap a male resident into a dubious marriage.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce was to write about the "sordid tide of life", one of my favourite phrases from books; in Dubliners I admire the deft delineation of dingy, urban existences -- to invoke Nabokov, the form, the vision, the art.

As for the notion of great books, I've concluded I'm mostly on the side of lists but inclined to think we must challenge and not congeal a canon. To start with, I'm puzzled there aren't great books courses at Australian universities. They would draw students from the arid disciplines of law and maths. They would appeal to mature-age students who feel, as Denby or I feel, that our reading has slackened off. A list -- a canon -- of books disciplines our choices and provokes us. My university education was mediocre. The best thing about it was those reading lists in English: four novels by William Faulkner, six Shakespeare plays, a brace of D.H. Lawrence and so on.

But you can question and chop up a canon. I begin the first chapter of My Reading Life with Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, an account of Auschwitz survival and in my view the most searing testimony out of the horrors of the previous century. I match it with Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel, Silence, the title of which refers to the silence of God in the face of the suffering of missionaries tortured in medieval Japan. And I link it with a third book, The Brothers Karamazov. Each book handles the teasing question of a deity who allows suffering.

Yes, I favour challenging the canon. In my recommendations on politics I hold up books from which a reader can learn more about politics than from Aristotle or Machiavelli.

Take a charming book published in 1961, The Earl of Louisiana, by A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker. It's a study of Earl Long, governor of Louisiana and brother of Democratic Party populist Huey Long. Liebling writes:

Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavour with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas -- stale and unprofitable.

So much like Joh for Canberra.

To a hardliner who wanted to stop Washington forcing racial desegregation on the south, Earl Long said: "What are you going to do now, Leander? The feds have got the atom bomb." No truer words have been spoken or written about the centripetal tendencies of modern federalism. And you won't learn that in Aristotle's Politics.


this article was written by Bob Carr, published at

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Quote on Art and Literature

    "There is only one school of literature - that of talent."
~ Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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