On a French Train

On a different continent and among different people, Theodore Dalrymple writes about a commingling of cultures much like the one I described in an earlier blog about Honolulu. Dalrymple is in France on a train heading for the airport on his way out of Paris.

“There was nothing distinctly French about the passengers, not ethnically, culturally, or linguistically. There was a Babel of tongues, but not much French among it. There were Indians, Chinese, East Europeans, black Africans and North Africans; I did, with effort, spot a couple of French speakers at the other end of the car.”

And like the way I sometimes feel among the multi-ethnic people of Honolulu, he felt a bit uneasy. Not so much because he wasn’t sure where he was, although “If anyone had been placed on such a train without a previous clue as to where it was, he would not have the faintest idea what continent, let alone what country, he was in.”

Rather his unease stemmed from the guilt he felt over feeling uneasy in the first place. But why? He knows that he is also a foreigner…that “I was also myself the son and grandson of refugees. Should I not have rejoiced at this sign of the increasing openness of the world, of crumbling barriers, instead of finding it deeply unattractive…?”

Rejoice? I am not yet there. It is hard enough to make sense of where I am and whom I am amongst. I know there are places in this city where I feel more comfortable, more “among my own.” And when I realize that, I find myself just as unsettled. Why in that part of town and not where I am? For me understanding has to come before rejoicing

Dalrymple concludes: “Of course, time and common experience would eventually meld them into some semblance of people with a shared mentality. If not they, then their children would have enough in common to become French; and by then the French, perhaps, would have become just a little like all of them.”

So I will probably have to leave it to my children, and to theirs, to rejoice. I know they already have and little by little they are showing me the way.


Health System

The January 26th issue of The New Yorker published a provocative essay on the US health care system by Atul Gawande. He begins by noting: “In every industrialized nation, the movement to reform health care has begun with stories about cruelty.” Those currently abound in our own country.

He argues that it is essential to respond to the US health care crisis by building on the current system and attempts to support this view with examples (selectively) from other countries that have a universal health care system.

For example he reports that in Great Britain: “The N.H.S. was a pragmatic outgrowth of circumstances peculiar to Britain immediately after the Second World War….As a matter of wartime necessity, the government began a national Emergency Medical Service to supplement the local services. By 1945, when the National Health Service was proposed, it had become evident that a national system of health coverage was not only necessary but also largely already in place—with nationally run hospitals, salaried doctors, and free care for everyone.”

And in France: “With an almost impossible range of crises on its hands—food shortages, destroyed power plants, a quarter of the population living as refugees—the de Gaulle government had neither the time nor the capacity create an entirely new health-care system. So it built on what it had, expanding the existing payroll-tax-funded, private insurance system to cover all wage earners, their families, and retirees. The self-employed were added in the nineteen sixties. And the remainder of uninsured residents were finally included in 2000.”

Gawande claims that in each case the response to the crisis that existed in these countries gave rise to a health care system based upon the existing one, a process he calls “path dependence” following social scientists who have used that term to describe similarly designed system-wide social changes. The new system was not created de novo or based on a totally new design that replaced the existing system, but rather each countries “own history, however, imperfect, unusual, and untidy.”

In the United States it is estimated that the cost of health care is twice as much as other “developed” nations that have a universal health care system. The US also ranks well below these countries on various measures that assess the overall health of its citizens. More than 40 million American are said to have no health insurance, including a sizable number who are denied insurance by for-profit private insurance providers.

These conditions are crises enough to mandate change. But unlike Great Britain, we do not face a wartime emergency or like France, a post-war breakdown of society. While we face major economic problems, we do have adequate time to consider a fundamental change in the US health care system, one that would take the best of our current system and combine it with features that make it universal and more cost effective. We do not have to ignore what is currently in place, but we do not have to retain all of it either.

On my view that would involve a universal health care system based on Medicare, our current hospital and physician services, research facilities and pharmacies. It would also eliminate for-profit insurance providers that are no longer necessary under this type of universal health care program. In short, such a program would build upon our current system while, at the same time, centralizing its administration, expanding its coverage, and reducing its costs.

While this is far from the major topic of Marks in the Margin, it is one that interests me enormously. I can’t help but think it is one that most everyone is confronted with today and the fact that it is the subject of a thoughtful analysis in The New Yorker led me to write a few words about it. Some additional passages from Gawande’s essay are posted below.

Today, Securite Sociale provides payroll-tax financed insurance to all French residents, primarily through a hundred and forty-four independent, not-for-profit, local insurance funds. The French health-care system has among the highest public-satisfaction levels of any major Western country, and compared with Americans, the French have a higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more physicians and lower costs.

…at some alchemical point, they [the stories] combine with opportunity and leadership to produce change.

On the left, then, single-payer enthusiasts argue that the only coherent solution is to end private health insurance and replace it with a national insurance program. And on the right, the free marketers argue that the only coherent solution is to end public insurance and employer-controlled health benefits so that we can all buy our own coverage and put market forces to work.

The country has this one chance, the idealist maintains, to sweep away our inhumane, wasteful patchwork system and replace it with something new and more rational. So we should prepare for a bold overhaul, just as every other Western democracy has. True reform requires transformation at a stroke. But is this really the way it has occurred in other countries? The answer is no.

…other countries came to universalize health care under entirely different circumstances.

Every industrialized nation in the world except the United States has a national system that guarantees affordable health care for all its citizens.

Employers who wanted to compete for workers [during World War II] could, however, offer commercial health insurance. That spurred our distinctive reliance on private insurance obtained through one’s place of employment…that we’ve struggled with for six decades.

Some people regard the path-dependence of our policies as evidence of weak leadership; we have, they charge allowed our choices to be constrained by history and by vested interests.

So accepting the path-dependence of our health-care system—recognizing that we had better build on what we’ve got—doesn’t mean that we have to curtail our ambitions.

It should leave no one uncovered…It should no longer be an economic catastrophe for employers. And it should hold doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug and device companies, and insurers collectively responsible for make care better, safer, and less costly.


John Updike

I have read most of the short stores that John Updike has published in The New Yorker. And they are by and large wonderful. For years, I have been trying to track down one of them in order to read again. It must have been published in The New Yorker, as I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his stories in another periodical or in one of his several collections.

In this story, as I recall it, a young man sees a beautiful woman on a bus. Or is it on a subway? I think he is also on the bus or subway with the woman standing or maybe sitting some distance away. Or does he see her from the street or platform as the bus/subway is passing by? I can’t be sure now. Understand that it was a long time ago that I read the story. Or think I read it.

The young man goes in search of the woman after she leaves the bus/subway. Of course, he cannot find her. But still she lingers in his mind and we begin to learn more about her as Updike in his special way describes what it will or, more exactly, it would have been like, once they met.

Did I actually read such a story? Maybe I dreamed it or elaborated it from a similar one by Updike. And was it even by Updike? That has always been my unconfirmed belief. It could not have been Roth. Or Salinger. I have never been able to locate the story again. One night I spent a couple of hours at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon trying to find it in the many volumes of Updike short stores that this remarkable bookstore has in its Updike collection.

I scanned through the titles and contents of each of the stories I thought might be the one. But I could not find it. Perhaps I went through the volumes too quickly. Or perhaps it wasn’t Updike or anyone else who wrote this story. Rather, it is simply one I had concocted.

For I have often had that experience--one where I see a lovely woman off in the distance and I have imagined the good times we would have together. Usually I see her on a bus, stopped at an intersection while I am standing on the street. Usually, it is in Paris. Soon the bus moves on. Never once has she gotten off the bus. So I’ve never been presented with the chance to follow after her, not that I ever would. I am sure that is most fortunate.

Is this a common experience? Have you ever seen a person off in the distance who you would like to befriend? Or have you had such a dream? And if you have read this Updike story, by all means let me know.

In commenting on the closing of The Twenty Third Avenue Books in Portland, I made note of the following comment by Richard Powers:

“There’s a scene in Plowing where one of the people in Seattle goes into an enormous used bookstore, looking for a book that had moved him as a child and that he had been looking for since the age of nine. It’s a story about a boy whose drawings somehow come alive, and he’s never been able to find this book again. What the writer knows is that the profession that he’s entered into, and the life that he’s taken on, is exactly the desire to recreate this story that he’s never been able to find again.”

So I should get with it and write the story that I am unable to find. It won’t be anywhere near as elegant as Updike’s. That is impossible. But at least my search will be over.


An Education

I live in Honolulu now, having finally come to this distant island after living in Portland, Oregon for most of my adult life. There seems to be very little literary life here, as few authors make the trip across the ocean on their book tour or to give a talk at a lecture series. Barnes & Noble and Borders have a few stores in the area but as far as I can tell only one independent bookstore has managed to survive. I have been told there are a few local writers, but they are not well known to me, which is truly of no importance.

However, I recently learned that of three writers whose work I have read in The New Yorker magazine and on its blog, The Book Bench, spent their youth in Hawaii—Allegra Goodman, Ligaya Mishan, and Tara Bray Smith. We must also add Barack Obama who may very well be the most widely read author in the US and perhaps the world right now.

When I first came here, I worried that literature would disappear from my life, that I would run out of books to read or ideas to investigate. No, that has not happened in spite of all the warm sunny days and sandy beaches. To the contrary, I am learning what a remarkable place Hawaii is and ever so slowly coming to understand what it means to live in such a racially diverse community, one that is so widely different from anything I have known before.

In writing about how Obama’s Hawaiian experience might shape his presidency, as well as her own experiences growing up here, Allegra Goodman notes that she was also a student in the same school, Punahou, that Obama attended. She also says that her fifth grade teacher, Mrs Hefty, was the one Obama named as his favorite teacher “for her ability to make every single child feel special,” which to Goodman means “singular.”

She writes: “Mrs. Hefty’s students were Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean, Tongan, white, and more often that that, hapa, a combination of many races and traditions. On the surface, our classroom looked like a melting pot. A girl with honey blond hair, café-au-lait skin, and green eyes might say proudly, “I’m part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, part Chinese, and part Irish.”

And then echoing a feeling I often experience here she writes: “What did it mean to live in Hawaii—especially for those of us who had no native Hawaiian ancestry? Were we immigrants? Invaders? Americans?” At times I do feel a bit out of place here until I realize, no one is really out of place here even though we all have to struggle to find just what that place is.

Later Goodman comments “To envision a world where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and where segregation is a thing of the past is not to envision a post-racial world. Obama knows this, as anyone who has lived in Hawaii must.”

At the same time, she appreciates the considerable benefits that living in a community as complex and diverse as Honolulu can be to a leader in the contemporary world. As we have come to know him, it is clear that everything Obama has done and said reflects the experiences he had here.

Similarly, in interviewing Tara Bray Smith, Ligaya Misha asks how Obama’s Hawaiian experiences might influence the country during the course of his presidency. Smith replies:

“Obama embodies America at its best: a country where the concepts of native and foreigner, “pure” and “mixed,” black and white, hapa and hundred per cent are so complex that the claim of belonging because of blood quantum or family tree must be set against the argument that what defines an American is not the place of the circumstances of his birth but his allegiance to his country’s laws and ideas. Hawaii, by virtue of its exceptionally diverse population, is a place where these questions are explicit.”

What a refreshing change this will be if these questions are widely asked throughout this country. They are questions that I, for one, had not imagined giving much thought to once I moved here. Now they are unavoidable.


The Last Lecture

Imagine you were a college or university teacher. What would talk about in your last lecture, especially one that you were going to give because you had been diagnosed with an incurable disease and had but a few months to live? Would you try to summarize the research you have done or the future of your discipline or perhaps what you have learned by studying it for most of your life?

This opportunity, sad to say, was recently given to Randy Pausch, a professor of computer sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Pausch had been informed he had a terminal pancreatic cancer that subsequent treatments failed to arrest. With three to six months of life left, Pausch delivered his widely known last lecture that can be viewed on the Web or read in a slightly expanded version in The Last Lecture.

What I remember most about this book is the dreams that Pausch says he had as a child. As he enumerated them, I tried to recall the dreams I had as a young person. I could not recall a single one, that is, a childhood dream to attain a lifelong goal once I became an adult. All my dreams then were focused on the immediate tasks before me—get the assignment done, do the reading, write the paper.

Paush had many dreams and enthusiastically encouraged his listeners never to give up on their own. As a youth, he had dreamed of being in zero gravity, playing in the National Football League, writing a World Book Encyclopedia article, meeting and being Captain Kirk—a character in the Star Trek series, being "one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park", and becoming a Disney Imagineer, in particular, to work on their cyberspace/new media projects.

In the first part of his lecture Pausch described how he was able to achieve in most respects each of those dreams—while he never played in the National Football League, Pausch participated in a practice session with the Pittsburgh Steelers after they had learned it was one of his childhood goals. In the second half of the lecture he explained with a set of lessons how his viewers or readers could set about reaching their childhood dreams, as well.

Given all the hype that I had heard about Pausch’s lecture, I had high expectations for it. I confess, however, that while I was impressed with Pausch’s gusto, his lecture didn’t meet the hopes I had for it. Perhaps that was because I scarcely had any dreams as a child and the relatively simplicity of his “enabling” lessons.

Regardless, I did make note of a few passages and they are noted below. The passages that I did make note of in his volume are listed below.

What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance?

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

…if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less arrogant and more acceptable.

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.

I sometimes think I got more from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, then I did from many of the ones I did accomplish.

You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

…stay positive.

A friend of ours suggested that Jai [his wife] keep a daily journal, and Jai says it helps. She writes in there the things that get on her nerves about me. “Randy didn’t put his plate in the dishwasher tonight,” she wrote one night. “He just left it there on the table, and went to his computer.” She knew I was preoccupied, heading to the Internet to research possible medical treatments. Still, the dish on the table bothered her. I can’t blame her. So she wrote about it, felt better, and again we didn’t have to get into an argument.

Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.

Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity.



In thinking about Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, I was brought back again to some reflections on solitude that I had written some time ago. There I described my own encounters with solitude that, even as a relatively young man, were fairly frequent.

In contrast, William Dersiewicz writes that today solitude is virtually unknown among the youth of this country. He says “we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration and it is also taking away our ability to be alone.”

He describes the case of one “teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes…So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.”

He asks his students about the role of solitude in their life and is rather taken aback by their answer. “One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?”

Dersiewicz attributes the “terror” of being alone to the Internet. He says [The Internet] has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another…But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing.”

First it was the telephone and then the television and now e-mailing and texting and the constant stream of whatever it is that people are staring at on their cell phones. Rarely do I see a young person walking about without their eyes focused on their cell phone or talking to someone with the thing. What is it that they are talking about? How can they have so much to say to one another?

At dinner one night at an outdoor café in Italy, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. Each one was peering at their cell phone. I never once saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time I was there talking to someone on their mobile. And when they were finished speaking, they continued to fiddle with it, no doubt searching for the latest text message or poking around the Web. I thought they were surely a couple on the verge of a meltdown.

In Exit Ghost Philip Roth writes:

“Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking to a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect.”

What is lost when people no longer experience that “separation” and our desire, even ability, to be alone for any length of time? Deresiewicz responds that “First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self…Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading.” And else where he says they have also lost the ability to be still and to appreciate the experience of idleness.

Solitude as Deresiewicz admits isn’t easy and clearly isn’t for everyone. Yes, “the silent apartment” is ever present. But that rarely seems to bother me. I feel much like the librarian in Martha Cooley’s The Archivist who confesses: “But once again I’d tasted solitude as an alternative to the life I was leading, and the possibility of its permanence scared and attracted me.”

Below are additional comments on solitude that I collected from Deresiewicz’s essay:

The great contemporary terror is anonymity.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration and it is also taking away our ability to be alone.

Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience...You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you.

Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self discovery…

…our great fear is not submersion by the mass, but isolation from the herd.

Now it is impossible to be alone.

My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And, of course, they have no time at all for solitude…have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having

…our use of technology—seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others.

The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less we are able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.

Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence.

…solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self, as well as to explore it.

We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.

But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral can arise without solitude.

The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite.

Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.


Out Stealing Horses

Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old Norwegian, is the central figure in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. We know he has recently lost his wife and sister who both died within one month. “After they were gone,” he says, “I lost interest in talking to anyone.” In response, he moves to a remote spot in the Norwegian forest where he lives in an old run-down cabin isolated from any neighbors.

We know nothing about his professional life but in the course of the novel we come to learn a great deal about his youth, also spent in a rural setting, as memories of the past sweep over him with loss and regret.

For years Trond had wanted to live in solitude. He says “All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this.” And later, once he has settled into to his cabin, he comments: “…When everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realized how much I had missed it. Soon I thought of nothing else….”

Never does he seem lonely. For many who have lived in solitude for any length of time, there is a clear distinction between loneliness and solitude. Penolope Lively wrote “Solitude is enjoyed only by those who are not alone; the lonely feel differently about it.” And by way of explaining the difference, May Sarton suggests: "Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

And then, Trond has his dog and his radio (but no TV or telephone) that plays the BBC all day which he says “make living alone much easier.” And then he remarks “Those last words sound a bit self-pitying, and disloyal to my life here. I do not need to defend it or explain it to anyone.”

What would it be like to live out your life in solitude? This is an experience that is becoming increasing common, as living an independent life becomes a matter of choice and the aging population grows in number. According to recent statistics, at least one in every nine adults in the US lives alone. And for persons 75 years old and over, the proportion living alone is 52 percent for women and 21 percent for men

Trond admits: “…that in the middle of a train of thought we start talking out loud, that the difference between talking and no talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselves merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line.”

For the aged, it is likely that they also begin to ruminate about death. Trond wonders: “If you were dead, you were dead, but in the fraction of a second just before; whether you realized then it was the end, and what that felt like.” And later “I could die at any minute, that’s the way it is, but this is something I have known the last three years, and not given a damn and still do not.”

But much of the novel describes the way his youth presses in upon him. At times, it annoys and disturbs him. At other times he is taken by a delight in recalling the people, especially his father, with whom he spent so much of his youth.

In the end, Trond comes to terms with the unsettling memories of his youth and concludes “When someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not anymore.”

Below are additional passages that I collected from this very satisfying novel:

I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

…I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.

I believe we shape our lives ourselves, at any rate I have shaped mine, for what it’s worth, and I take complete responsibility.

My plan for this place is quite simple. It is to be my final home.

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings.

I’m surprised at how unfilled my shopping baskets have become, how few things I need now I am alone. I suffer a sudden onset of meaningless melancholy and feel the eyes of the check-out lady on my forehead as I search for the money to pay, the widower is what she sees, they do not understand anything, and it is just as well.

…I am no longer surprised when I realize that mature men are well below my own age.

…a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time, when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. To me he will never be older.

I can see he misses his father, quite simply and straightforwardly, and I would wish it was as easy as that, that you could just miss your father, and that was all there was to it.

…I do not know whether I really want to know about them. They take up too much room. It has become hard to concentrate…

…I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time with clear thinking.

I have seen so many things and been part of so much in my life although I will not go into details now, for I have been lucky too.

Tell me. How are you really? She says, as if there were two versions of my life.


Praise Song for the Day

I have been reading some of the critics who have been up in arms about the poem Elizabeth Alexander read at the inauguration. One critic referred to it as “Histories worst inaugural poem.” Another characterized it as “awful” and earlier had fled the TV before having “to hear the prose banalities of Elizabeth Alexander.”

My first reaction on reading such remarks was one of surprise for I had applauded the poem following its presentation. And then, in my naive way, I had wondered what makes a good poem and more exactly what distinguishes a fine poem from an inferior one? Is there an objective way to answer that question, one that is widely, if not universally accepted by students of poetry?

Nowhere could I find quite why the critics had found Praise Song for the Day so lamentable. Nowhere could I find what exactly about the poem the critics found so objectionable. They simply didn’t like it and worse.

So much of the poetry that is published today is simply incomprehensible to me. I try to make sense of it, read it over several times, and, still, the majority of newly published poems are beyond my understanding. But I did understand Alexander’s poem and it did move me.

Have the critics forgotten about the reader? Does a poem exist independently of the reaction of the reader? Does not a reader’s enjoyment and appreciation of a work of poetry count for something?

And so today I read with some amusement a report on the Guardian website that the poem has been an extraordinarily popular publication. According to the Guardian’s report, the poem:

"…has not been received with universal acclaim, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “less than praiseworthy” and The New Republic describing it as “bureaucratic.” But
Alexander’s publisher Graywolf Press is rushing out an $8 paperback of the poem on 6 February nonetheless, with a 100,000 first print run. With over two weeks to go before publication, the book is already the bestselling poetry book on Amazon.com; Alexander’s new-found celebrity has also sent another of her titles, the 2005 Pulitzer prize finalist American Sublime, into the third spot."

Three cheers for readers. Even if the poem is not among the world’s finest, isn’t it of some consequence that a great many readers are taking pleasure in it and indeed that they are actually reading a work of poetry?

I am of the same mind as Ann Patchett who recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

“I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read back books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.”

If Alexander’s poetry encourages individuals (many of whom might rarely if ever read any poetry), to read more poetry and turns their interest to a broader range of poetry works perhaps we should think twice about criticizing so severely Praise Song for the Day.


Personal Identity

On my understanding, a philosophical novel is quite simply a work of fiction that treats the kinds of questions normally posed by philosophers, e.g. moral, existential, metaphysical, etc. It is a novel of ideas and questions that generate ideas worthy of consideration. Such a novel is the heart of the reading experience for me.

Is it any wonder then why I liked Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon so much? Ideas and problems abound within this tale, one with a very limited narrative and a great many questions, most of them unanswered. One of the central issues of Night Train to Lisbon concerns how one comes to know another person, including oneself. Within philosophy this is sometimes known as the problem of personal identity and in psychology as the nature of self-perception or self-knowledge.

Consider these questions that are either raised by the Portuguese physician Amadeau Prado or the Swiss linguist, Raimund Gregorious, who goes in search of the individuals who are the central players in Prado’s fictional, masterpiece A Goldsmith of Words:

How can you tell whether to take a feeling seriously or treat it as a carefree mood?

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth?

In such stories, is there really a difference between true and false?

What do we know of somebody if we know nothing of the images passed to him by his imagination?

To understand yourself: Is that a discovery or a creation?

What difficult questions. Who has not wondered about them at one time or another? How complicated and unknowable we are. How then can we ever expect to know another person? Mercier writes: We are in the dark about so many of our wishes and thoughts, and others sometimes know more about them than we do. And, as if to take issue with current empirical research on person perception, he proclaims: Inside a person it is much more complicated than our schematic, ridiculous explanations wanted to have us believe.

In a similar vein, Mercier by way of Prado wonders a great deal about the problem of identity. Who are we anyway? Are we the same person today that we were 40 years ago? If so, what is it that constitutes our core or does that concept mean anything at all? Prado inquires:

When was somebody himself? When he was as always? As he saw himself? Or as he was when the white hot lava of thoughts and feelings buried all lies, masks, and self-deceptions?

Is there a mystery under the surfaces of human action? Or are human beings utterly what their obvious acts indicate?

Does it make any sense to say that a person has a central self, a distinctive identity that lies hidden behind most of the actions that constitute daily life? I sometimes find myself in the presence of another person who for entirely unknown reasons calls forth expressions that somehow seem far more myself than is usually the case. How does that happen? Who is the me that appears in such situations and how does it differ from my other self or selves? Nothing that I have been able to detect in the other person seems responsible. But what I am on those rare occasions is instantaneous and continuous and thoroughly exhilarating. It seems entirely natural and I have no idea what to make of it.

Consider the following passages recorded from Mercier’s novel which also touch on these two questions:

Is there a mystery under the surfaces of human action? Or are human beings utterly what their obvious acts indicate?

We humans: what do we know of one another?

…our outside form doesn’t appear to others as to our own eyes.

Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?

How can you tell whether to take a feeling seriously or treat it as a carefree mood?

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth?

…that the body is less corrupt than the mind. The mind is a charming area of self-deception, woven of beautiful, soothing words that give us the illusion that we have an unerring familiarity with ourselves.

Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine we are living.

But when [do] we set out to understand somebody’s inside? Is that a trip that ever ends?

Inside a person it was much more complicated than our schematic, ridiculous explanations wanted to have us believe.

When was somebody himself? When he was as always? As he saw himself? Or as he was when the white hot lava of thoughts and feelings buried all lies, masks, and self-deceptions?


Bookstore Closing

Yesterday I learned that one of my favorite bookstores has closed. On the website where I learned of the closing, the author wrote:

“For me, to lose just one such institution is like grieving the pending loss of our future. What will become of us in a world without the tactile experiences of a book? Without the kinship of the neighborhood bookstore?”

Naturally, I am aware that independent bookstores throughout the country are closing. But this one hit home. The bookstore, Twenty-Third Avenue Books, was located in Portland, Oregon, my former hometown, the place where I had lived for most of my adult life. Even though I no longer live there, I keenly share the sadness of the writer who informed me that, even if I did, I would no longer have the “the kinship of that neighborhood bookstore.”

I had been going there for years as I lived just a couple of blocks away and while its inventory was never very large, they always had a truly exceptional contemporary fiction collection. They also had my favorite bookmark and fortunately I still have a goodly number--like the one at the top of the post.

When I read the news, I found it hard to believe, although I guess I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised given the state of the bookstore world these days and how empty it felt during my last visits. Other bookstores in towns where I have lived have also gone out of business recently—Cody’s in Berkeley, Stacy’s in San Francisco, Duttons in Los Angeles. Following its recent closure, Kepler’s in Palo Alto, where I practically lived as an undergraduate has been given a reprieve by community donors in Silicon Valley and may be able to weather the bookstore-closing-storm.

In response to a Paris Review (#164 Winter 2002-2003) question about his favorite bookstore, Richard Powers said:

“You go into that bookstore hungering for a world and a coloration and a register in sounds and senses, and you run your finger along the shelf and wonder, Is this it? Is this it? And you find something that’s close, or something that surprises you in its divergence from what you needed. But finally you can’t find the book that you want to read, and that’s when you start writing.”

And then later:

“There’s a scene in Plowing where one of the people in Seattle goes into an enormous used bookstore, looking for a book that had moved him as a child and that he had been looking for since the age of nine. It’s a story about a boy whose drawings somehow come alive, and he’s never been able to find this book again. What the writer knows is that the profession that he’s entered into, and the life that he’s taken on, is exactly the desire to recreate this story that he’s never been able to find again.”

There is--but now only used to be--a poem by Jane Smiley on the wall at the of Twenty Third Avenue Books that sums up precisely what is so special about a bookstore and why the closing of this one is distressing.

The Worth of a Bookstore

“Leaving any bookstore is hard, especially on a day in
August, when the street outside burns and glares, and
the books inside are cool and crisp to the touch;
especially on a day in January, when the wind is blowing,
the ice is treacherous, and the books inside seem to
gather together in colorful warmth. It’s hard to leave
a bookstore any day of the year, though, because a
bookstore is one of the few places where all the
cantankerous, conflicting, alluring voices of the world
co-exist in peace and order, and the avid reader is
as free as a person can possibly be, because she is
free to choose among them.”

And the heroine of Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind describes a dream that is one I also harbor from time to time.

“All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books.”

What booklover has not had such a daydream?


Inaugural Poem

What better way to celebrate this day and the power of words than to read the poem Elizabeth Alexander wrote and recited at the Inauguration of Barack Obama.

Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.



New York Times
Yahoo News reports that several rescue measures are underway to meet head-on the financial crisis that the New York Times is currently facing. This includes an investment of several million dollars that the “billionaire Carlos Slim Helu” is said to be considering. In addition, the Times is said to be planning to raise a good deal of additional capital by selling its newly constructed 52 story Manhattan headquarters.

Finally, the great and legendary Red Sox Nation may be pleased to learn that the Times is also selling its stake in the Boston Red Sox. Now there is an investment that is worthy of consideration.

Taken together, the proceeds from these actions should be more than enough to guarantee the continuation of the Times as we have known it for years, including the treasured, by this reader, print edition.

On Reading
Ann Patchett in the January 16th Wall Street Journal writes that she is not surprised by the recent NEA report that reading appears to be on the rise. In Nashville, where she lives and serves on the Library Board, the director of the libraries reports that their survey confirms the NEA findings and indicates that their patrons “say the main reason they’re coming to the library is for books! We have to get the word out. It isn’t over. People still want to read!”

Patchett writes: “I have long refused to participate in the last rites of what is both my passion and my profession. I meet too many people who stay up half the night racing towards a final chapter. We are a hardy bunch, we readers. The rumor is we’ll play around with a Kindle or an I-Book for awhile but eventually give up on the whole endeavor…I am more of the Charlton Heston school: you’ll get my paperback of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” away from me when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.”

Patchett is also a firm believer in “the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read. Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.”

I know of no more eloquent statement of the value of reading literature, nor of the variety of positive effects it can have. She concludes: “Why are more people reading? Because they are either discovering or remembering just how good it can be.”


The Influence of Place

I write about place again. Are we shaped by the places where we have lived? Can the cities and countries where we have spent some time influence the sort of person we become? These questions loom large in my thinking about the role of place in our life.

In the Opinion section of The New York Times this morning six writers ask how Barack Obama has been influenced by the places in which he has lived—Indonesia, Honolulu, Chicago and Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Universities.

The editors write: “We are shaped by the places we have lived. And Barack Obama has lived in a lot of different places. His memoir “Dreams from My Father” recounts formative years spent in Indonesia, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago. How might these places have helped to mold the man who will be the next president of the United States? What might he have taken away from, say, Jakarta in 1967? Or Columbia University? Six writers who lived where Mr. Obama lived—when he lived there—reflect on those questions.”

Endy Bayuni writes that “Anyone going to a public school in Jakarta would have had early exposure to a vast array of cultures.” By “growing up respecting cultural and religious differences probably helped pare him for his return to the United States, a society still divided by race.”

Lois-Ann Yamanaka writes that he was similarly affected by the years in spent in Honolulu where the cultures are both diverse and stratified. Margot Miffin suggests that the years he spent at Occidental College taught him the key values the college promoted—critical thought and social justice.

At Columbia where he completed his undergraduate degree, Kevin Baker suggests Obama read everything he could get his hands on and that being in New York “taught Barack Obama how indomitable people can be, even in a city that has been written off…It was a poorer town then, a harder one, but still a place of vaulting ambition, of indelible beauty. We thought we could do anything. We felt such pride to be there.”

John Matteson writes that the major lessons Obama learned at Harvard Law were “the finitude of one’s own powers; the twin, paradoxical necessities of self-reliance and interdependence; and the humanity that comes when one finds oneself a long way from perfection, and then finds new ways of striving….He appears to have learned that he, to a degree quite rare, possessed the confidence, the serenity and the supreme resilience to accomplish goals to which he may have feared he was not equal.”

Finally, Aleksandar Hemon his days in Chicago surely taught Obama the “gruff solidarity of survival [that] is an essential part of living in Chicago….What Mr. Obama should have learned living in Chicago is that it takes far more than gut feeling and bulling, far more than fuzzy-warm nationalism and fantasies of greatness, to run a country as vast and complicated as Chicago is a city.”

Indeed, each of these authors conclude more generally that place exerts its influence in terms of what a person learns from the most salient features where he or she has lived. Perhaps what makes Barack Obama’s experiences so distinctive is that he has lived in an extremely wide variety of places, places where he has been exposed to situations that have given him the opportunity to learn a rare combination of extraordinarily valuable lessons. He has clearly learned them well.


The New York Times

In the latest issue of the Atlantic Michael Hirschorn predicts that The New York Times will soon stop publishing the print edition of the newspaper, retaining instead the far more popular digital edition. He suggests this could occur as early as sometime this year.

According to Hirschorn the Times is deeply in debt and while it has several assets it could sell, such as the Boston Globe, this is not exactly the best of times to put a newspaper or much of anything of value up for sale. Given its bleak financial condition, gradually diminishing print circulation, and escalating use of its website, Hirschorn says “at some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition and with it the Times as we know it, will no longer exist.”

As a long time reader of the Times, I find this inconceivable. It will mean the end of one of the main events of my day, every day, in fact, even when I’m traveling and often spend a good deal of time searching for a copy of the latest edition.

As Hirschorn puts it, the end of the print edition of the Times “will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives.”

It will also mean the end of the only way I really know how to read the newspaper. I don’t know about you, but I find it virtually impossible to read with any kind of care the Times website or the newly arrived digital version of the paper. That is true for almost any lengthy digital article, book, or periodical.

I am remote from the generation of the screen, far from knowing how to peer at the screen for anything but a headline or few short paragraphs. If I find something of any length on the Web, I end up printing a copy to read. That would be impossible to do each day with the Times as the number of articles I read from start to finish isn’t getting any less.

In my experience reading is a matter of marking up the text, make notes in the margin, underlining, shifting around from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes returning to an article several pages back and from time to time cutting something out of the paper. It is a matter of holding the text in my hands, staring at the photos, occasionally peering at the ads, and taking notes on my yellow pad of paper. It is also a matter of taking a break from the computer.

Reading this way on the screen is simply not possible. Yes, I can scan the headlines, read short pieces, and get the basics. But the Times is a quite a bit more than the basics. And while I know my Times is not everyone’s Times and while I am aware of the particular style and slant of the paper, it is nevertheless one that is quite congenial to me.

I along with a great many others from my generation will miss the daily arrival of the Times. So I remain ever hopeful that Hirschorn’s prediction is in the management’s view simply not an option.


On Reading: A Footnote

Publisher’s Weekly recently reported that bookstore sales dropped thirteen percent last November, the latest month surveyed. At the same time, not a week goes by when we don’t hear about another bookstore closing often a very fine one that you’d never expect to close or want to learn they had to.

How are we to reconcile these two facts with the apparent rise of literary reading discussed in yesterday’s posting?

The widely reported “surge” in library circulation, one that has been observed at libraries throughout this country, is one very plausible explanation. According to the Seattle Times, the Seattle area’s two library systems each loaned more that a million more items in 2008 than in the previous year.

The article cites the director of the King County Library System in Seattle who commented: “It’s an adage in the library world that the level of use or circulation at public libraries is inversely proportionate to the state of the economy. When the economy’s down, when things are tough, people come to libraries.”

Similarly, a headline in the Wall Street Journal yesterday read: “Folks Are Flocking to the Library.” The article then describes several libraries throughout the country that have experienced a sharp increase in library attendance and circulation

These leaves open the question of what individuals are doing at the library. Are they checking job listings on the computer or doing their e-mailing? Are they watching videos on You Tube or downloading their favorite music album? Or could it be that they are actually going to the library to read a book or to check one out?

Perhaps then the NEA report of an increase in literary reading is occurring in spite of all those bookstore closings and the declining sales at those that have managed to remain in business. People may be a going to the library to check out the books they would like to read or that they can no longer afford to purchase. As the president of the American Library Associated observed the other day “people are discovering that you don’t have to spend anything to read a book if you have a library card.”


Is Reading on the Rise?

I find it difficult to get too excited over the recent National Endowment of the Arts
(NEA) report that literary reading has increased in this country. The report cites evidence from the US Census Bureau Survey that literary reading rates among adults 18 and older increased from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008.

This contrasts with the sharp decline in literary reading reported in 2002 compared with the data recorded ten years earlier. However, the percent of adults reading literature is still not as high as it was in 1982 or 1992.

What is it that the survey actually measures? The key question upon which these data are based reads as follows:

During the past 12 months, did you read any a) novels or short stores; b) poetry; or c) plays?

A person was considered a “literary reader” if they responded positively to a, b or c! I find this a very loose definition of what constitutes a reader of literature. All you had to read during the twelve-month period the survey measured was a single poem. Does that make sense? Does it make any sense to group together a reader of a single poem with a reader of Anna Karenina or Moby Dick or both of them and then some? And does it make any sense to fail to distinguish a reader who read twelve novels, fifteen short stories and twenty poems with a person who read but a single piece of literature?

Moreover, as was true of the previous NEA Report, the definition of literary work is unnecessarily narrow, as a person who has read a memoir, collection of essays, or historical biography is not counted as a literary reader. Similarly, a person who has read the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in a Russian literature course is also excluded from this group.

The latest study also differs from the previous ones in one key feature. Instead of surveying every adult in the household, as in previous years, the latest survey “sought proxy responses for spouses or partners from the initial adult interviewed in each household.” Do you know if your partner read any poems, novels or plays last year? All such estimates are subject to a good deal of error. Perhaps a proportion of the increase in literary reading in the latest survey can be attributed to such errors.

The same objection might be made for the self-reports of any adult in the sample. Who likes to report that they didn’t read a single poem, novel, or play last year? Not even one? To avoid the embarrassment of saying that, surely a person wouldn’t feel much compunction against saying they had read at least one.

Still, it is good to know that whatever the survey measures, at least, there has been no significant decline in what on other measures (bookstore closings, library circulation, newspaper reading, etc) suggests a very general decline in various forms of reading throughout this country.


On Journals

In one of the essays included in his recent collection, In a Cardboard Belt, Joseph Epstein reflects on the nature of journal keeping. He begins:

I have been keeping a journal for more than thirty years, and if you were to ask me why I continue to do so, the best answer I can offer is that I cannot stop now. I consider scribbling a paragraph or two each morning in the notebooks that constitute my journal part of my intellectual hygiene…As for the contents of my journal entries, they generally have to do with events, incidents, thoughts (more like notions) of the day before, though I am not above writing something genuinely vicious about something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, or some piece of gossip I’ve heard.

Long ago I stopped keeping a journal. When, from time to time, I went back to read a few pages, I was overcome with embarrassment. Such adolescent stuff I thought. I could not bear the thought that someone might read it one day. So with a sigh of relief, I tore the whole thing up and deposited it in the trash. These were the days before recycling, you see. I have no regrets now about doing that, unlike the great regrets I have for stupidly throwing away all the letters I wrote to my parents in the days when writing letters was about the only way of communicating with someone who did not live nearby.

It is sometimes said that keeping a journal composed largely of therapeutic ruminations is therapeutic. In light of recent research, I find only limited support for this claim. I also agree with Epstein that:

Some benefits may accrue from setting out, in the plainest, least self-dramatizing prose, one’s troubles, if only to gain greater clarity about them. But it makes for dreary reading.

If you keep a journal, you may find it helps you get through the day or the night as the case may be. But whether or not such recording keeping benefits you in the long term remains an open question in my mind.

As usual, Epstein ranges over a variety of topics in this essay. Those that have some relationship with journal keeping are listed below.

My advice on journal keeping is…keep it light.

I take a subject and attempt to illuminate it in some rough way through the light of my own particular experience.

…my current state of mind—fatigued but tiring fast.

…writing at much greater length…allows so much more time for confusion, self-hatred, and deep doubt.

The thirty-three notebooks that constitute my full journal must by now run to nearly a million words. To the question who is ever likely to publish them, the short—and I suspect definitive—answer is: no one.

When Alan Bennett began keeping his diary in 1974, he decided straightaway not to record his emotions and thoughts, because “they make you cringe when you read them again.”

“The reason I write is because there is no one to talk to and I might as well build up a completely private life.” Dawn Powell.

One can say to it [journal] things one wouldn’t dare to say to anyone else.

“One stops being a child,” Cesare Pavese wrote in his diary, when one realizes that telling one’s troubles does not make it better.


On Writing

The June 2008 issue of The Believer has reprinted a lecture on writing that Zadie Smith gave to students in the Columbia University Writing Program earlier in the year. At the outset she distinguishes between writing a story and writing about the process or “craft” involved in writing the story itself.

When someone asks me to write a story I feel they’re giving me a comprehensible block of stone and my job is to carve out whatever shape I thinks within it.

But a lecture on craft…at once something fraudulent creeps into the enterprise…I don’t believe in craft in the abstract.

When writers talk about writing, my ears perk up. Not so much because they will teach me how to write. No one can do that. But rather because I often pick up on very general tactics on what to do after the writing is finished or in a draft form. If there is one rule that is easy to learn and often mentioned, yet so very difficult to apply, it is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Smith concurs: I reworked those first twenty five pages [of Beauty] for almost two years.

She also encourages the writer to listen to find a rhythm that seems to fit the mood of the piece that is being written. One way to do this is to listen to the rhythms of other writers who for one reason or another have written in the desired “tempo.”

My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.

I did not make note of the ten short sections of her essay that describe the various stages of novel writing, at least her novels, but I did record the following additional passages in her witty and very amusing essay.

The only time I feel I’m writing honestly about craft…is when I have a specific piece of fiction in my sights….

Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas.

Reading about craft is like listening to yourself breathe. Wring about craft prompts a self-consciousness so acute one forgets how to exhale altogether.

[There are] two breeds of novelist: The Macro Planner and The Micro Manager….A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page.

Personally, I’m a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last…I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending will be until I get to it…

…writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.

…reading great literature creates a sense of oppression. For how can you pipe out your little mouse song when Kafka’s Josephine the mouse singer pipes so much more loudly and beautifully than you ever could?

The term “role model” is so odious, but the truth is it’s a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. So I think of Keats.

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage.

The secret to editing work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.

I find it very hard to read my books after they’re published. I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea.


Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman is a master of longing. He can long for the place where he is currently located. And he can long for the place he just left the moment he arrives in the place he had been longing to go to in the first place. And then the reverse, once he returns to the place he had originally left. Is this a journey familiar to you? At times, it has been to me.

I now reside in the town where I had dreamed of living for years. At the same time, I yearn for the town I left, one where I had lived for most of my adult life. Yet, I only long for certain elements of it, not its dominant feature, well known to anyone who has lived through its very long and cold, and very wet winters.

Aciman is also the master of ambivalence. His mind is a constant journey of shuttling back and forth between one idea and the next. In Pensione Eolo he writes:

"By missing Manhattan, I learn to long for it, to love it, though I am now conscious that I’m losing Manhattan because I’m about to revisit a place I’ve always suspected I loved more than Manhattan but will not really allow myself to think I’ll be able to revisit unless it, too, like Manhattan, becomes a site of nostalgia, something I can lose, might lose, have lost. Place, in this very peculiar context, means something only if it is tied to its own displacement. I posit one point, but then I posit a second, which sends me back to the first, which then sends me back again to the second, and so on."

In a way, Aciman is the Ingmar Bergman of the page. He seems to have a special pass to inner workings of the mind, at least to his mind and the way it swirls around from one pole to another.

He is also a student and admirer of Proust whose influence is unmistakable. That should be evident from the following passages I recorded from his Letter from Illiers-Combray: In Search of Proust:

"…the Proust who perfected the studied unveiling of spontaneous feelings. Proust invented a language, a style, a rhythm, and a vision that gave memory and introspection an aesthetic scope and magnitude no author had conferred on either before."

"It reminded me of the way Proust’s sentences roam and stray through a labyrinth of words and clauses, only to turn around—just when you are about to give up—and show you something you had always suspected but had never put into words."

"Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born."

And then there is the ever-present nostalgia that underlies so many of Aciman’s recollections. Longing, Ambivalence, Nostalgia, the three features that characterize so much of his writing, including his tale Pensione Eolo from which I made note of the following passages:

"…I continued to purchase French and Italian magazines so as not to let go of Europe knowing all along, however, that I’d unavoidably lose touch and that despite my promises to hold on to the old, the new invariably had ways of demoting old things."

"In this state of anticipated nostalgia, which is how those who fear homesickness try to immunize themselves against it—by experiencing it in small persistent doses beforehand…"

"…the confused, back-and-forth, up-and-around, congested nature of ambivalence, of love, and of nostalgia."

"…nostalgia is his (Ulysses) home, the way that, in exile, only paradox makes sense. He finds his home in the purely intellectual realization that he has no home. The site of nostalgia is nostalgia itself. The site of nostalgia is writing and speculating and thinking about nostalgia."

"Ultimately, the real site of nostalgia is not the place that was lost or the place that was never quite had in the first place; it is the text that must record that lost."

"I never went to Italy that year. Pensione Eolo remained a whirlpool of fictions and fantasies and of the memory of an imagined winter spent with a defrocked nun, a marine biologist, and a Hungarian musicologist. I remember as though it were yesterday the day I pictured myself running to the ferryboat one evening to get my mail, only to find that none had arrived that day. The woman in New York whose letter I would have craved to read in Italy was in the next room sulking, while I, in her living room, would look outside over to Riverside Park like a prisoner imagining his imminent liberation, envying those lucky enough to be alone in the park that weekday evening. I hadn’t even told her I had applied for a job abroad. I simply wanted to get away, and kept looking for the slightest pretext to tell her that we couldn’t live together, that she should look for someone else, that I couldn’t wait to be back where I thought I’d be among my own."

"That winter, when it was all over, I would walk or ride a bus past her building. Sometimes I’d think how lucky I’d been to have spent a year with her there and how gladly I would give everything now that I had been back with the same woman, staring out those windows whenever she went sulking into the other room, imagining and envying those strolling outside, never once suspecting that one day soon I might be a stroller, too, looking in, envying the man I’d been there once, knowing all along, though, that if I had to do it over again, I’d still end where I was, yearning for those days when I was living with a woman I had never loved and would never love but in whose home I had managed to fall in love with an ex-would-be-nun whose presence was indissolubly fused to an apartment on the Upper West Side that became dearer to me and made me love New York because from these rooms I had looked out windows facing the Hudson and invented a woman who, like me was neither here not there."



The nature of literary truth along with the effects of reading literature are the issues that loom largest in my thinking about literary fiction. 
While I am far from a well-informed student of literature, my sense is that both are rarely written about or systematically discussed in literary forums. Nor are they exactly hot topics on the Web.

The topic interests me because I come from a tradition that regards the “truth” as the exclusive domain of science. It is only recently that I have come to see how wrong I was and how limited that tradition is.

Indeed, I now realize that most of the passages from the literary fiction that I have collected in my Commonplace Book convey an important truth about myself or the world around me. These truths are, in my view, indistinguishable in principle from any empirical truth.

The truths that I find in these passages, like most of those in my commonplace book, may be uniquely true for me. That is the wonderful thing about literature: it makes no claims of universality, it does not intend to be true or false in the way an empirical proposition is.

Rather we read ourselves into literature without concern, as we are in science, for whether or not the passage is true for others, and if so, for how many and to what degree. Instead, the truth of any given passage is immediately true for the reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. Or I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”

In addition to those cited earlier the passages below are among those that I have collected on the subject of literary truth.

…we never get closer to the truth than in a novel. Louis Begley

Currently I am writing volume one of my autobiography, and thinking about some of the people and events that went into The Golden Notebook, I have to conclude that fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record. Why this should be so is a very large subject and one I don’t begin to understand. Doris Lessing

“The reason why we like a book is because we say, Yes, because life is like that, and the reason why we stop reading certain kinds of childish books is because we say, Good story but life’s not like that. The whole question of recognition is terribly important and that’s why as you get older your reading experience inevitably gets richer because you have more of your own experience to bring to it.” Tim Parks cited by Patrick Kurp in Anecdotal Evidence July 24, 2007

The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through
 literature, as being more real than our factual origins.

 Shirley Hazzard Ancient Shore
We look to fiction for images of reality—real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply. John Updike New Yorker 1/26/04

Its [literature] cultural importance derives...from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter." Salman Rushdie

"He liked novels because they dealt with the incommensurable in life, with the things that couldn't be expressed another way." Richard Ford in Quality Time New Yorker January 31, 2000.

What am I looking for here? Nothing much and yet everything: amusement, an expanded knowledge of how other people live--and lived--and, chiefly, those truths of the heart that, for complicated reasons, are otherwise hidden from us and unavailable anywhere else but in literature. Joseph Epstein Surfing the Novel Commentary January 2002

…there is a certain audience that wants to hear the truth again. There are truths told in this play [“Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”], as in any great classic, that have to be heard over and over and over again. Brian Dennehy

I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Tobias Wolff. Paris Review Interview #183

I think a great book--leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style and so on--is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths--about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both--such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. Julian Barnes Paris Review #157


Thinking and Doing

I read The Reader by Bernard Schlink over ten years ago in 1998, the year it was published in this country. The recent movie version of the novel brought the tale back to me and clarified a number of uncertainties I had when I first read the book.

While I found the story both moving and disturbing, when I checked the inside back cover of the book, I was surprised to find I made note of only three passages. I must have been more frugal in the early days of collecting passages for my Commonplace Book than I seem to be now.

Two of the three--one long, one short—confront a problem that was among the central concerns of my work in psychology. And I recall how pleased I was at the time I came across them to find the issue so clearly articulated in a work of fiction. This was long before I came to appreciate the truths that are so often found in literature.

The passages address the relationship between saying and doing, between thought and action. Schlink writes:

“There’s no need to talk, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.”

“I don’t know why I did it. But today I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together—I think I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something—whatever that may be—goes into action; “it” goes to the woman I don’t want to see anymore, “it” makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, “it” keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a smoker and always will be. I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”

A lifetime of thinking about this discrepancy has convinced me that all too often we overestimate the influence of our thoughts on our behavior. What we think is only one of the many factors that influence behavior, especially in situations where there are strong external pressures to act in a contrary fashion. In these situations, individuals may find it very difficult to translate what they believe into what they actually do.

The task before us is to learn how to overcome this effect, to learn how to make what we know and what we believe more salient in those situations where we wish to act consistently. Sometimes this occurs naturally, when, for example, newly acquired information is still readily available to us or a when a resolution is newly made. However, these beliefs and intentions usually become less and less decisive with the passage of time. Individuals then need something more to make what they believe to be an imperative for action. Until we develop more effective ways to accomplish this, we should be careful not to overestimate the extent to beliefs, even strongly held ones, are closely related to behavior.


Harold Bloom How To Read and Why

The first chapter of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is an eloquent manifesto about the importance and joy of the reading experience. Why read at all? Bloom’s answer turns on its pleasures, the knowledge it imparts, “not just of the self and others, but of the way things are” and its various other effects on the individual.

On the matter of the effects of reading literature, I find Bloom less persuasive and at times inconsistent. He claims, for example that “imaginative literature…alleviates loneliness.” I think there is very little research to support that. He claims that reading is “healing.” I assume here he means in a therapeutic sense. Yet, I know of no systematic body of knowledge that demonstrates this.

Against this background, Bloom then goes on to say: You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

As I understand this statement, Bloom is saying that reading cannot directly change a person’s behavior nor does it have any effect on the “public good.” How odd to juxtapose these claims next to his earlier remarks about the way reading can alleviate loneliness and is the “most healing of pleasures.”

Still this chapter in Bloom’s book is a powerful reminder of the significance of the literary reading experience. In the remaining chapters Bloom amplifies this theme by discussing specific works of literature including short stories, poems, plays, and novels. The volume is an excellent introduction to literature.

In addition to the foregoing remarks by Bloom, other selections from the first chapter follow:

Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures.

Literary criticism, as I have learned to understand it, ought to be experiential and pragmatic, rather than theoretical.

It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions that they continue to read for themselves.

…eventually you will read against the clock.

…formula of how to read: find what comes near you than can be put to the use of weighing and considering.

Ultimately we read…to strengthen the self and to learn its authentic interests.

The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social.

…if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others.

We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.

…recovery of the ironic might be our fifth principle for the restoration of reading. Think of the endless irony of Hamlet, who when he says one thing almost invariably means another, frequently indeed the opposite of what he says.

And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what had been civilized in our natures.

We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life.

We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the ways things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading ….is the search for a difficult pleasure.


Paris Review Interviews

The remaining passages I recorded from the third volume of Paris Review Interviews are posted below. The writers interviewed were Isak Dinesen, Harold Pinter, John Cheever, Jean Rhys, Joyce Carol Oats and Ralph Ellison. The responses of Jean Rhys were unusually personal.

She comments: What came first with most of them [her books] was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.

It is widely believed that writing about emotional trauma and long standing conflicts is an effective way to eliminate them. James Pennybaker, one of the most prominent investigators of this purported effect writes: The degree to which writing or talking about basic thoughts and feelings can produce such profound physical and psychological changes is nothing short of amazing.

On the basis of his research he reports, for example, that it leads to fewer illnesses and physician visits, improvements in immune function, and decreasing stress as measured by autonomic function. Students show an improvement in their grade point average. Employees report a decline in work absenteeism and an increased likelihood of reemployment following job loss. And the majority of research participants he has studied indicate they experience less stress, negative affect and symptoms of depression.

Can it be this simple? Were that it was so. There is much to be skeptical about in the many studies of writing therapy. Readers who wish to know more about this issue might read the third essay at www.the-essayist.com/on-writing. The remaining passages from the Rhys interview are cited below and those of the other writers follow, in turn.

Jean Rhys
They had told me when I left Dominica that I would not feel the cold for the first year—that my blood would still be warm from the tropic sun. Quite wrong!

I’ve never written when I was happy.

Some books can really take you away. It’s marvelous.

…I don’t quite know why I should go on writing so much about myself…I guess I write about myself because that’s all I really know.

Isak Dinesen
We absorb so much without being aware.

I discovered Shakespeare very early in life and now I feel that life would be nothing without him.

Harold Pinter
I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are.

Good writing excites me, and makes life worth living.

John Cheever
As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction.

The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

In no way does it [academic papers on fiction] help those who write fiction or those who love to read fiction.

If you cannot write a story that is equal to a factual account of battle in the streets or demonstrations, then you can’t write a story. You might as well give up.

…what he [Fitzgerald] could do best…which was to try to give a sense of what a very particular world was like.

Joyce Carol Oates
I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

I am strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is, or certainly should be, an art in itself.

Anyone who teaches knows that you don’t really experience a text until you’ve taught it, in loving detail, with an intelligent and responsive class.

I would have liked, I think, to have established an easygoing relationship with some other writers, but somehow that never came about.

There are some stories (I won’t say which ones) that evolved almost entirely out of their settings, usually rural.

I have no idea why he’s so angry with me. But does a disturbed person really need a reason…?

Ralph Ellison
I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms.

The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success.

What is important is not the scene but his failure to question their decision.

Action is the thing. We are what we do and do not do.


Raymond Carver

The interviews with writers in the Paris Review are almost always entertaining and informative. While the questions range widely across literature and the writer’s work, most of them also pass along a few tips on how they write and what strategies they use to overcome some of its difficulties. It is interesting to speculate about what effects they might have on other writers who read these interviews.

Like the first two volumes of the Paris Review Interviews, the third in the series collects those of some very fine writers. I read seven of the sixteen--Raymond Carver, Isak Dinesen, Harold Pinter, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Jean Rhys and Ralph Ellison. What an impressive bunch!

The questions put to Raymond Carver and his extensive answers interested me most. In response to the question, Do you write better on the West Coast—out in Washington—or here in the East? I guess I’m asking how important a sense of place is to your work.

Carver responded: Once it was important to seem myself as a writer from a particular place. It was important to me to be a writer from the West. But that’s not true any longer, for better or worse. I think I’ve moved around too much, lived in too many places, felt dislocated and displaced, to now to have any firmly rooted sense of “place.”….There are plenty of good writers with this sense of place that you’re talking about…But the majority of my stories are not set in any specific locale…In any case most of my stories are set indoors.

Originally I thought the interviewer was asking about the role of where you are when you write, rather than what you write about. I thought, example, Carver might answer in terms of how well he wrote in the Northwest, rather than when he was in other places in this country. But Carver interpreted place in terms of his subject matter that, as he points out could be anywhere but in his case is clearly indoors.

I know there are places, physical places, where I seem to be working at my best. They tend to be in warm places where Italian is spoken and art treasures abound. And when I am moving around as Carter puts it, it is hopeless for me to try to get anything done.

A few questions later, Carter is asked a question that is central in my thinking about literature: How do you hope your stories will affect people? Do you think your writing will change anybody? Carter responded:

I really don’t know. I doubt it. Not change in any profound sense. Maybe not any change at all. After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? I’m not saying there isn’t spiritual nourishment involved too…

I remembered in my twenties reading plays by Strindberg, a novel by Max Frisch, Rilke’s poetry, listening all night to music by Bartok, watching a special on the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo and feeling in each case that my life had to change after these experiences, it couldn’t help but be affected by these experiences and changed….

But then I found out soon enough my life was not going to change after all. Not in any way that I could see, perceptible or otherwise….Art was a luxury and it wasn’t going to change me or my life. I guess I came to the hard realization that art doesn’t make anything happen…

Maybe writing fiction about particular kinds of people living particular kinds of lives will allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were understood before. But I’m afraid that’s it, at least as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps it’s different in poetry. Tess has had letters from people who have read her poems and say the poems saved them from jumping off a cliff or drowning themselves, etcetera.

Clearly Carter vacillated from one extreme to the other in considering this question. From “I don’t know” to “not a profound change” to specific instances (Strindberg, Frisch, Rilke, etc) where says he was “affected…and changed” and back again no change at all. In that uncertainty Carter reflects the wide disagreements that characterizes present day discussions of this issue. For readers who would like find out more about the effects of reading literature see my own review in the last essay at www.the-essayist.com/literary

The remaining passages I made note of in the Carter interview follow:

I think most of my characters would like their action to count for something. But at the same time they’ve reached the point—as so many people do—that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer. The things you once thought important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see are breaking down.

I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story.

That life is simply gone now, and I can’t regret its passing. I have to live in the present. The life back then is gone just as surely—it’s as remote to me as if it had happened to somebody I read about in a nineteenth-century novel.

The past really is a foreign country, and they do do things differently there. Things happen. I really do feel I’ve had two different lives.

…he [John Gardner] believes good fiction is moral fiction. It’s a book to argue with, if you like to argue.

Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.

But changing things through fiction, changing somebody’s political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no.


Top 100

I tend to read books that in some measure make contact with my life and the issues that are central to my thinking now. For the most part, they inevitably tend to be contemporary works of literary fiction.

Since this is the time of the year for resolutions and since I rarely make any, I am going for the first time in a long while to make one—to read more of the classics. And since I have newly arrived in the world of literature, it is clear that I have a lot of catching up to do. At this point in my life, it has become a race against the clock.

Where to begin? Several years ago the Guardian published a list of the top 100 books of all time. The list was based on the selections of 100 “noted writers” from fifty-four countries. Here is the unranked list arranged alphabetically by author. How many have you read?

Chinua Achebe, Nigeria, (b. 1930), Things Fall Apart
Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark, (1805-1875), Fairy Tales and Stories
Jane Austen, England, (1775-1817), Pride and Prejudice
Honore de Balzac, France, (1799-1850), Old Goriot
Samuel Beckett, Ireland, (1906-1989), Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
Giovanni Boccaccio, Italy, (1313-1375), Decameron
Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina, (1899-1986), Collected Fictions
Emily Bronte, England, (1818-1848), Wuthering Heights
Albert Camus, France, (1913-1960), The Stranger
Paul Celan, Romania/France, (1920-1970), Poems.
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, France, (1894-1961), Journey to the End of the Night
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain, (1547-1616), Don Quixote
Geoffrey Chaucer, England, (1340-1400), Canterbury Tales
Anton P Chekhov, Russia, (1860-1904), Selected Stories
Joseph Conrad, England,(1857-1924), Nostromo
Dante Alighieri, Italy, (1265-1321), The Divine Comedy
Charles Dickens, England, (1812-1870), Great Expectations
Denis Diderot, France, (1713-1784), Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Alfred Doblin, Germany, (1878-1957), Berlin Alexanderplatz
Fyodor M Dostoyevsky, Russia, (1821-1881), Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Possessed; The Brothers Karamazov
George Eliot, England, (1819-1880), Middlemarch
Ralph Ellison, United States, (1914-1994), Invisible Man
Euripides, Greece, (c 480-406 BC), Medea
William Faulkner, United States, (1897-1962), Absalom, Absalom; The Sound and the Fury
Gustave Flaubert, France, (1821-1880), Madame Bovary; A Sentimental Education
Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain, (1898-1936), Gypsy Ballads
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia, (b. 1928), One Hundred Years of Solitude; Love in the Time of Cholera
Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia (c 1800 BC).
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany, (1749-1832), Faust
Nikolai Gogol, Russia, (1809-1852), Dead Souls
Gunter Grass, Germany, (b.1927), The Tin Drum
Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Brazil, (1880-1967), The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
Knut Hamsun, Norway, (1859-1952), Hunger.
Ernest Hemingway, United States, (1899-1961), The Old Man and the Sea
Homer, Greece, (c 700 BC), The Iliad and The Odyssey
Henrik Ibsen, Norway (1828-1906), A Doll's House
The Book of Job, Israel. (600-400 BC).
James Joyce, Ireland, (1882-1941), Ulysses
Franz Kafka, Bohemia, (1883-1924), The Complete Stories; The Trial; The Castle Bohemia
Kalidasa, India, (c. 400), The Recognition of Sakuntala
Yasunari Kawabata, Japan, (1899-1972), The Sound of the Mountain
Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece, (1883-1957), Zorba the Greek
DH Lawrence, England, (1885-1930), Sons and Lovers
Halldor K Laxness, Iceland, (1902-1998), Independent People
Giacomo Leopardi, Italy, (1798-1837), Complete Poems
Doris Lessing, England, (b.1919), The Golden Notebook
Astrid Lindgren, Sweden, (1907-2002), Pippi Longstocking
Lu Xun, China, (1881-1936), Diary of a Madman and Other Stories
Mahabharata, India, (c 500 BC).
Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt, (b. 1911), Children of Gebelawi
Thomas Mann, Germany, (1875-1955), Buddenbrook; The Magic Mountain
Herman Melville, United States, (1819-1891), Moby Dick
Michel de Montaigne, France, (1533-1592), Essays.
Elsa Morante, Italy, (1918-1985), History
Toni Morrison, United States, (b. 1931), Beloved
Shikibu Murasaki, Japan, (N/A), The Tale of Genji Genji
Robert Musil, Austria, (1880-1942), The Man Without Qualities
Vladimir Nabokov, Russia/United States, (1899-1977), Lolita
Njaals Saga, Iceland, (c 1300).
George Orwell, England, (1903-1950), 1984
Ovid, Italy, (c 43 BC), Metamorphoses
Fernando Pessoa, Portugal, (1888-1935), The Book of Disquiet
Edgar Allan Poe, United States, (1809-1849), The Complete Tales
Marcel Proust, France, (1871-1922), Remembrance of Things Past
Francois Rabelais, France, (1495-1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel
Juan Rulfo, Mexico, (1918-1986), Pedro Paramo
Jalal ad-din Rumi, Afghanistan, (1207-1273), Mathnawi
Salman Rushdie, India/Britain, (b. 1947), Midnight's Children
Sheikh Musharrif ud-din Sadi, Iran, (c 1200-1292), The Orchard
Tayeb Salih, Sudan, (b. 1929), Season of Migration to the North
Jose Saramago, Portugal, (b. 1922), Blindness
William Shakespeare, England, (1564-1616), Hamlet; King Lear; Othello
Sophocles, Greece, (496-406 BC), Oedipus the King
Stendhal, France, (1783-1842), The Red and the Black
Laurence Sterne, Ireland, (1713-1768), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Italo Svevo, Italy, (1861-1928), Confessions of Zeno
Jonathan Swift, Ireland, (1667-1745), Gulliver's Travels
Leo Tolstoy, Russia, (1828-1910), War and Peace; Anna Karenina; The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Thousand and One Nights, India/Iran/Iraq/Egypt, (700-1500).
Mark Twain, United States, (1835-1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Valmiki, India, (c 300 BC), Ramayana
Virgil, Italy, (70-19 BC), The Aeneid
Walt Whitman, United States, (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass
Virginia Woolf, England, (1882-1941), Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse
Marguerite Yourcenar, France, (1903-1987), Memoirs of Hadrian

In response to these selections, the Guardian published another set the year after, this time a ranked list at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction. Two other lists are at http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100bestnovels.html and I am sure there are a good many more.