Ten Questions and Some Answers

Dick started this, and Anne continued it, so I thought I’d join in as well.

  1. The Bible or Shakespeare: Both Anne and Dick mention the King James Version, but I’ve just started investigating Tyndale’s slightly earlier translation (his New Testament in particular), and it’s fascinating. Many people who know a lot more about these things than I do (which is to say pretty much anyone who’s even considered the matter seriously) suggest that Tyndale’s translation is the basis not only of the later King James Version but also of the English that we speak. And he was martyred for his translation, so that automatically makes it cooler

    But having said all of that, I’d have to go with Shakespeare. His plays, profound as they inarguably are, were written as entertainment, and they succeed as such first and foremost. Reading the Bible isn’t nearly as much fun.

  2. A word you like: Thanatotic, because of how it sounds and what it means, and because you can’t find it in most dictionaries.

  3. Most romantic moment in fiction: The few moments of genuine intimacy that the narrator achieves with Albertine in Proust’s The Prisoner, wherein the narrator’s name is mentioned for the first and last time in the whole of In Search of Lost Time:

    Now she began to speak; her first words were ‘darling’ or ‘my darling’, followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would produce ‘darling Marcel’ or ‘my darling Marcel’. From that moment I stopped allowing my relations, at home, to call me ‘darling’, so as not to destroy the unique charm of the words Albertine used in speaking to me. As she said them, she formed her lips into the shape of a kiss, which she soon turned into a real one. She had fallen asleep in an instant; now she woke up just as quickly…

    Before Albertine, obeying my wishes, had taken off her shoes, I would open her nightdress. The two high little breasts were so round that they seemed not so much integral parts of her body as two fruits that had ripened there; and her belly (hiding the place which, in men, is made ugly by something like the metal pin left sticking out of a statue when it is removed from its mould) was closed, at the meeting of the thighs, by two curves as gentle, as restful, as cloistered as the horizon when the sun has disappeared. She took off her shoes and lay down beside me.

    That these passages come after hundreds and hundreds of pages of the narrator’s various unrequited desires makes them quite powerful. That they’re written by a gay man makes them quite ironic.

  4. Overrated writer: I don’t know… By whom? I suppose James Frey would be the topical answer. The writers in whom I’ve personally been most disappointed, given their reputations, are probably Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac.

  5. Favorite translation: Either Sophie Wilkins’s translation of The Man Without Qualities for this sentence (my favorite in all of literature) alone: “Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares.” Or William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which is both an excellent translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and a lengthy, insightful essay on, as the title suggests, the problems of translation. Or Joyce Crick’s translation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which frees our version of it from the pseudo-scientific lingo with which James Strachey had saddled it, setting an example that has since been taken up by Adam Phillips and Penguin to render Freud in English as the great writer he is purported to have been.

  6. Best meal in English literature: I don’t know that English literature is particularly well populated with good meals. A meal that, reading about it, I wish I was there for is Dedalus’s and Mulligan’s breakfast in Ulysses, but that’s Irish literature, as is the dinner in “The Dead.”

  7. Underrated writer: Again, by whom? I don’t think that Pat Barker or A. R. Ammons get anything like the attention they warrant. I’m tempted to add writers like Elmore Leonard and P. G. Wodehouse because they’re looked down upon in some circles, but probably not in the circles that matter (whatever those might be).

  8. Favorite children’s book: Not that I knew it when it was being read to me as a child, but That Noodle-Head Epaminondas by Eve Merriam (who probably didn’t know this either) is a perfect little Buddhist parable illustrating the relative nature of our conventional experience and the boundless compassion that’s always the appropriate response to that experience. I just knew that it was very comforting, and it has the word “noodle-head” in its title. What’s better than that?

  9. Books by your bedside now: The “small” stack on my night table includes, from top to bottom, The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Frondsal; In the Buddha’s Words, edited by Bhikku Bodhi; Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin; Taming the Mind and Walking the Bodhisattva Path by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche; Finnegans Wake; In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek; Flow Chart by John Ashbery; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust; Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by Taitetsu Unno; Either/Or I by Kierkegaard; Iliad, translated by Stanley Lombardo; River of Fire, River of Water by Taitetsu Unno; Buddhist Practice on Western Ground by Harvey Aronson; Dylan’s Vision of Sin by Christopher Ricks; Plato Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper; and Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. Then there’s the larger a stack on the floor a little further away, but this isn’t so much an indication of my ambition as it is of a storage problem.

  10. Sexiest book: There are passages from In Search of Lost Time and Gravity’s Rainbow that are erotically outrageous, along with parts of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, Lolita, Zola’s The Kill, and Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, but what makes them all sexy is that the reader is made an intimate, almost matter-of-fact party to that outrageousness. That’s sexy.

5 Replies to “Ten Questions and Some Answers”

  1. I love that pic of the books on your nightstand. Geesh, I thought my random stacks were bad! Bakhtin was one of those writers I always meant to read in grad school. I admire your tenacity – and your wide range of interests.

    Oh, and Lolita was my runner-up.

  2. My tenacity would be more admirable if fewer of those books were unread. Until then, I’m only a couple of steps short of those elderly people found to have been living for years in homes filled with stacks of unread newspapers.

  3. This is a very classy list indeed, Morgan. With that stack of heavyweight nighttime volumes by your bedside I’m surprised that you every find time to read literature containing meals or sexy bits!

    Shocked to the core about the problems with Kerouac & Camus. I’m coming over on the next flight with a suitcase containing their entire oeuvre with a view to straightening you out…

  4. Classy? Perhaps. Pretentious? Probably. But I’ve finally just given up on trying to seem unpretentious.

    Maybe I’m just being grumpy (for the last several years at least), but Kerouac’s writing just annoys me, and in a weird way, he strikes me as a sort of precursor to James Frey. Not because the veracity of his thinly veiled memoir (On the Road) is questionable (after all, unlike Frey, he did sell it as a novel), nor because the questions of veracity center around just how dire his circumstances were, but because he was one of the first writers to imply a continuum along which suffering correlates with authenticity or, worse, cool. That’s just asinine. And because in the more mundane realm of making sentences and paragraphs, he’s not very skilled.

    But save your airfare. A disproportionate amount of the limited space of our 700-square-foot apartment is given over to the writings of the Beats. My dislike for Kerouac’s oeuvre isn’t due to a lack of familiarity.

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