This selection comes amidst the usual caveats about exclusion and reductiveness: what I’ve included are books that crossed my path at the particular instant I needed them, or was open to them, and as such made a significant impact.
This is not a list of ‘best writers/books’, or even a list of ‘favourites’. It’s overly weighted towards the US, and there’s a sorry lack of Australians; but it’s a big world of books out there, and we all find them at different times and places, so…
Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I haves a great notion
To jump into the river an’ drown
These lines, from the folk song ‘Goodnight, Irene’, serve as the opening salvo to this stonkingly powerful, dark and gorgeous American classic. I was in my early twenties when I discovered Ken Kesey, the great counter culture hero, at first via Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe recounts Kesey’s adventures with his group of merry pranksters as they tour the USA in a psychedelically painted bus, dissolving the consciousness of everyone who crossed their paths with vats of LSD spiked Cool-Aid. It’s a joyously anarchic read, and throughout its pages the figure of Kesey looms larger than life.
The day after I finished Wolfe’s book I found a copy of Sometimes a Great Notion in a Calgary 2nd hand bookshop, soaking it in while hitchhiking across Canada, and I have a vivid memory of reading its final pages — by torchlight, in a tent on the prairies of Saskatchewan, the temperature outside hovering near zero. When I put it down I had the feeling that, should I be able to achieve just a fraction of what Kesey had in this book, I could roll over and die happy. I’m in no hurry to do the latter, but it really is that kind of book.
Kesey’s second novel, following after his celebrated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, revolves around trials of a stubborn logging family in a brutally hard community in Oregon. The character studies are marvellous, and the writing is innovative and passionate: if Ken Kesey were a dog, he would be howling at the moon.
From memory, I left that original torn, faded paperback in a hostel in Quebec, but some part of it has stayed with me ever since.
Albert Camus: The Outsider (L’Étranger)
The protagonist of Camus’s novel is Meursault, an Algerian like Camus himself, who commits an apparently random act of murder when he shoots ‘an Arab’ on a beach. In Court, he refuses to defend himself for the crime, despite the fact that doing so would likely see him freed, and when asked why he did it, states only that it was ‘because of the sun.’ Meursault is exceptional, Camus says, because he refuses to lie, and although there is an undeniable bleakness to The Outsider, to its antihero’s emotional removal, there is also an austere beauty.
In Camus’s thought, the fundamental unknowability of the life’s meaning is in continual conflict with the human need to seek and find such meaning, and it is this fact that makes life absurd. For Camus, it’s not, then, that life lacks meaning, as it’s often thought, but rather that as human beings, such a meaning will always be beyond our capacities to know, and that this fact is a defining human characteristic.
I don’t find this book depressing, however — for Camus there is a freedom in recognising and facing up to our existential situation. More than this, though, it’s the bright, sharp writing that ensures this novel never wallows. Camus writes like an angel, albeit a fallen one, and The Outsider has a sparse, obdurate music to it: ‘like Kafka written by Hemmingway’ as a critic put it at the time. The use of fiction to explore philosophical ideas is a distinctive feature of mid Twentieth Century French philosophy, but to my mind at least, none of it matches Camus. This immaculately crafted book showcases what the philosophical novel can be.
Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Writing, for me, is a search for God.
So said Carson McCullers in an interview with Terence de Vere White for the Irish Times, published the year of her death, and on entering the world of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her first novel, this search and longing are evident. I picked up this book after a long hiatus from reading fiction, having disappeared into the philosophical hoo-ha for a few years of study, and if affected me profoundly. McCullers wrote it in her early 20s, already in poor health – she had a terrible life, suffering from rheumatic fever, multiple strokes, alcoholism, at least one suicide attempt, and a husband who killed himself (after trying to convince her to join him in death). By the age of 31 she was half-paralysed from the strokes.
The writing is lyrical and bitter-sweet: McCullers is a wonderful stylist, and there are sentences in this book that are startlingly beautiful. Like the rest of her works, the story is brimming with empathy, with the need to understand the world and its manifest sufferings, and the isolated, spiritually hungry characters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will remain with you long after you have put it down.
Robert Hass: Sun Under Wood
There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness
that sing and do not sing.
I have read and re-read this collection more times than I can count, enjoying it at first with my professors, and later with my students. Hass’s anecdotes and insights blend with his love of the natural world in a mesmerizing way. Everywhere is the sense of a shivering metaphysical beyond and a language on the edge of bringing it to presence. The poems explore themes ranging from his mother’s alcoholism, to nosepicking, and on to divorce, and although there is great depth of emotional engagement, they never become sodden with an excess of sentiment.
This is a book that manages at once to make us more alive to the world around us, and make us feel okay about the peculiarities of being human.
Hass describes poetry as “a way of living….a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball”, and there is an everydayness to this work that we are invited to share in. His influences are diverse: from Czeslaw Milosz to Basho, and he has devoted much of his career to translating both of them, amongst others. Sun Under Wood is playful and formally innovative, frequently in subtle ways, and yet it never feels constrained. Beyond all else, it’s the way Hass invites us to share his world, the great honesty and compassion of his offer, which has me returning to these poems again and again.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Visible and the Invisible
The world, the flesh not as fact or sum of facts, but as the locus of an inscription of truth: the false crossed out, not nullified.
I spent 10 months in a Paris apartment digging my way into Merleau-Ponty’s work, and I remember the autumn and spring for the smell of fresh baked bread on the streets, and the winter as about 4 months of leaden low skies and long hours at the desk, which began and ended with the streetlight slanting pale through the window. This book was Merleau-Ponty’s last, and judging from the notes he left at the time of his sudden death, at the age of fifty two, what there is of it is only about one third of what he imagined it to be.
What’s there, however, is astonishing.
This French philosopher, a contemporary of Sartre and his Left Bank existentialist coterie, sought to understand the way in which we are embedded in the world, and the embodied, perceptual nature of this embeddedness. He expressed this interconnection in his notion of ‘the flesh’: our flesh and that of the world joined in ways that necessitate an ‘indirect ontology’. At a stylistic level, this indirection makes of his work a kind of poetry, filled with metaphors that link us with the natural world, building his ideas from them like so much dirt piled on a rampart.
Merleau-Ponty has a kind of spiritual, poetic relationship to philosophy, and he searches in great beauty for the glorious and impossible name of the interconnectedness and root of all things. This is a radiant, alluring book, not to be missed for anyone interested in thinking through the meaning and shape of our connection to the world.
BOOKTOPIA NOTE: Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Berndt’s brilliant new novel….
Beyond the Frame’s Edge
by Berndt Sellheim
Although Adyn is favoured by his uncle’s estate, Fletcher’s passing yields a legacy of betrayal and ruptured kinship. In Koorawatha, his inherited Blue Mountains home, Adyn will discover how hard it is to escape the demons of the past, and how profoundly a family can be corrupted by greed. Yet living in the house are two people who will redeem him, helping him to mend a part of himself that has long been broken.
A compelling story of the darkness of the human soul, the twists of fate that can transform our lives and the dazzling beauty of our world, Beyond the Frame’s Edge is a powerful novel from an exciting new literary talent.