Twice in recent days I have been queried as to what books I would consider my favorite novels. That’s a toughie. You have seen the t-shirts and bumper stickers that proclaim – “So many books, so little time.” That could be my motto. Or mantra.
Both times I let the name just pop out of my mouth without “intellectual reflection” about how it might label or box me into giving away my personal proclivities. Salman Rushdie. There, I’ve said it.
Finding and reading “Shalimar the Clown” or “Midnight’s Children” was like stumbling upon the ultimate dessert – something smothered in bitter, dark chocolate with crystalline chunks of caramel, sour-sweet cherries, a touch of mango chutney. Accompanied with a fine wine. Oh no, make that Mead!
I haven’t yet read “The Satanic Verses” which got him into unspeakable trouble a few years ago, but I put a hold at our library on his latest – “Joseph Anton, a Memoir.” The New Yorker Magazine recently published the first section and it took me a few paragraphs to realize that the title character was actually Rushdie’s name during the twelve or so years he hid out after a fatwa was declared by the Ayatollah of Iran. The name is made up from two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, which plays upon themes of this, his personal time period, and it was fascinating to see how he wrote the memoir in the third person, as if he was telling the story of another.
Favorite authors most likely shift in prominence as we age. Some remain constant, others drift away to merge with memories of our teens or periodic passions. I loved C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, P.L. Travers, Lewis Carroll. Still do. Robert Heinlein took me to Mars and taught me how to grok. I went through my Anais Nin period and wanted to “be” and write like her and my old journals on re-reading sound too, too pretentious. She is therefore, stashed away somewhere in my dreamy, bohemian youth. Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut – all framers of my youthful spirit and harbingers of a brave new world. Oh – not to forget Aldous Huxley. Bryce Courtenay in “The Power of One” expanded my thinking. What has happened to him? John Crowley stunned me with his tales of alchemy, his vision of the alternate history of the world. Gregory Maguire blew apart old myths and brought cleverness to a new level.
In talking to T. M., my husband, we started riffing on names – Tolstoy (his personal favorite), Camus, Kafka (all his first choices) – Elmore Leonard, Bud Schulberg, Truman Capote, Annie Prioux, Jonathan Letham, and Kent Haruf (check him out, what a treat.)
Who am I forgetting. These are just a sampling.
I’m forgetting Jane Austen who embued most of our feminine population, down many generations in fact, with the Gold Standard of Beau and Eventual Husband. In Pride and Prejudice she managed to create the romantic dream come true, and do it in such a way that she cleverly mocked society as she wrote with divine style and substance. Truly great literature lasts down the ages.
It was befitting this week, then, that the Letters to the Editor page of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune featured two entries related to the current political race and drama by citing Jane Austen. I was tickled by this analysis and comparison and so I am reprinting them here for you to decide and cast your votes.
Wednesday, October 23
“Undecided voters are like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth thought she knew who people were. She thought she knew whom she liked and disliked. But now she’s starting to reevaluate. Obama, like Wickham, talked a good talk. He charmed us. He looked dashing. We were attracted. But Romney is like Mr. Darcy. On first impression, just a proud, rich man – distant and unlikeable. Besides, Wickham tells us Darcy is bad. But now we’re starting to see Mr. Darcy/Romney more. We’ve gotten to know him better. It’s dawning on us. He is a good man. Yes, rather formal. But we see the evidence, we hear the accounts. He is not who Wickham said he was. We’re thinking fresh thoughts about who is worthy of our trust.”– Linda Hammer, Minneapoli
Thursday, October 24
“Although the Oct 23 Letter of the Day was well-written, the author has her characterizations exactly backward. In “Pride and Prejudice,” Wickham dishonestly said what he thought would get him what he wanted, changing his explanations as he was confronted with new information. Similarly, Mitt Romney’s positions continue to change radically, depending on his audience. By contrast, Darcy was seen as being aloof until it became clear that he was motivated by protecting and caring for others (notably, but not only, his sister Georgiana after her “near miss” with Wickham) and believed in saying what he thought. Obama’s seriousness of purpose and his focus in debates and interviews has been mischaracterized by some as aloof and academic, while it is clear that one of his highest priorities is the well-being of all citizens, but especially those with the least, and that he tells us what we need, not necessarily what we want to hear. Ultimately, the proof is in the substance, consistency and veracity, not the style, of each man. That’s where the fictional Darcy and the real Obama clearly rise to the top.” – Cyndy Crist, St. Paul
Wouldn’t Jane have a chuckle over this exchange. It proves beyond a doubt just how much literature informs society and forms our life.
Now you cast your vote –