Let me share with you, my friends, a quandary that has been occupying my thoughts in the last two months, since the purchase of my Kindle. Though I was once very fond of European and western literature, I’ve not kept up with what was happening in that area of artistic endeavor… for many years. And so, with the newly acquired ability to order books in English and have them delivered in a matter of minutes, I started my search for contemporary literature in the west.
To understand what I was looking for, you should have an idea of my taste in reading material. I won’t speak of the subjects that I have been following in my own language, sometimes in translation. For I have an interest in history, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as the physical sciences. But what I haven’t been reading for years, is contemporary fiction and poetry. And that is what I wished to explore and update. In fact, even describing this subject was a bit hard for me, because I kept thinking of ‘modern literature’, forgetting that ‘modern’ is a designation for a cultural period that has already been swept into the past.
In my younger days, I devoured the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and quite a few of the modern European writers and Thinkers. I was especially enthusiastic about the American and English writers. I will mention just a few of my very favorite volumes and writers. Albert Camus was an all time favorite. But I especially appreciated the Stranger and The Plague. I read many of the works of Saul Bellow, but the book that stood out more than all the rest, was ‘Henderson the Rain King’, and I recommended that book to many of my friends. I would recommend it to all of my readers, if you haven’t read it. It is a truly exceptional literary adventure. I read all of John Steinbeck, and loved ‘East of Eden’ the most. Admired Earnest Hemmingway very much, and though many have read his ‘Old Man and the Sea’, and that is truly one of the great peaks of modern literature, there are some others, like ‘Moveable Feast’ that are well worth reading. One of the books I came upon almost by accident, was ‘Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes written as a short story in 1958, and later expanded into a novel. It left me with a life long impression, and is one of the reasons that even now I continuously look for new works of Science Fiction. But I regret to say, that I haven’t found much recently that has captured my attention in that field.
Another modern science fiction book that really made an impression on me was ‘Cat’s Cradle’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. But the more I read of him, the more treasures I found, and I believe that ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is one of the great works of 20th century fiction. I especially loved the conversation between man and god. William Faulkner was a great inspiration for me. Reading his prose was like reading poetry, and it was while I read him in the original English, that I first ventured to think that I might like writing in that language. I would suggest ‘The Sound and the Fury’ to those who have not read him. And of course, the mention of this inspiration brings to mind Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English though his own language was Polish, and is surely an inspiration for all those who have learned to love English as a second language.
Discovering Jack Kerouac lead me to the Beat Generation and a treasure trove of fine writing after WWII. I could write at length about what I found there, but this post has a different purpose. Yet, in that connection (and again, I can’t tell the whole story here), I would like to mention still another great book, which came out late for me, but which I managed to read, and I treasure it to this day; ‘Straight Life’, the autobiography by Art Pepper, that great saxophone player and composer, whose music I love and listen to, often. And I can’t forget the important contribution of Norman Mailer to the public discussion of values and the meaning of life, even if he was not always at his best, and embarrassed himself by his actions on more than one occasion. Still I consider ‘Advertisements for Myself’ a beautiful example of the aspirations of some of the finest intellectuals in the west after WWII.
Though I have a special love for thinkers, and writers who are influenced by philosophy, I do like adventure and amusement, and spent many enjoyable hours reading Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Their writing offered a penetrating view of the society around them, even while entertaining the reader and offering an escape from some of the more dismal realities of their times. Such writers were a balance to such as Aldous Huxley and Arthur Koestler, two of my favorites… who continuously grappled with the possibilities of further expanding the awareness of man, and coming to terms with meaning in life. And here I might mention that Koestler too adopted English as a second language.
So this gives you an idea of what I look for and what I have found valuable in reading western authors. It is just a partial list, but it represents my taste. And I was sure that if I went looking for contemporary authors, I would discover like minds among the present generation. In the last few months, I have found three very interesting authors, and I am presently reading their works. I have read four volumes by Margaret Atwood, two books by T.C. Boyle, and am presently reading ‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford. I realize that this post is getting long as it is, without a discussion of these writers as compared to my expectations. Perhaps I will have to write a ‘part 2’ to this post, for further discussion. But let me just say, that I hope to find inspiration in my reading. I believe in human choices, and believe that even when criticizing the wrongs of society, and our own failures as human beings, it’s equally important to be constantly on the look out for what can nurture our own potential, and that of our fellow man.