Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

domingo, febrero 19, 2006

A Great Book

In the mid-1970's I was living in New York City and had a 45 minute subway ride to work, and another one home. I could spend the time looking at my fellow passengers, which was enjoyable unless it turned menacing ("What are you looking at?") or daydreaming (fine until I was distracted and started looking at the other passengers) or I could read. At about this time I happened upon a list by Susan Sontag of 100 greatest books. Time is now playing its usual trick on me: I cannot remember what united the books. Were they 20th century novels? Perhaps. I cannot find the list on the web. I think it was originally in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, but searching their archives turns up nothing.

At any rate, I decided to read the entire list. After all, if Susan Sontag recommended all of the books, who was I not to read each of them? And so it was in the moving, subterranean reading room that I read Elsa Morante's 1974 novel, History A Novel.

Elsa Morante (1912-1985)
After the book was published, Morante became a recluse.

The reviews of this book are simply astonishing. A brief collection:

"A storyteller who spellbinds." Stephen Spender in The New York Review of Books

"A of the few novels in any language that renders the full horror of Hitler's war, the war that never gets into the books..." Alfred Kazin in Esquire.

"A marvel of a novel . . . all the pleasures that fiction can offer." Doris Grumbach in Saturday Review.
After I read this wonderful book, I recommended the novel to my co-workers. They all read and loved it. But then, over time, I somehow forgot this book. Maybe it was because we had children, moved, started a rural life, started a new office, got involved in so many other things. Maybe it's just because I turned to other writers in other genres. Maybe it's because I just forgot. To my surprise, I even forgot this book so completely that I failed to mention it earlier this winter when I was asked what novels I thought were the best and should be included in a list. I don't think I mentioned this book. I should have.

What brings it to mind now? I was thinking about how stories are carried inside readers. And I was thinking that the best stories are so involving that a reader returns to ponder them over and over again. In fact, sometimes when a reader knows another who is also carrying the story around and wondering about it, the readers talk to each other about the characters. A book has to be really good for this to happen. It has to be so vivid that the characters and their situation have some longevity, and the readers have to have a real concern about them. History A Novel is such a book.

After reading this book, a colleague of mine asked such a question. "Well," she asked out of the blue while we were working on something else, "Do you think he was ever healed? Do you think they found a cure?" I knew instantly who she was talking about. I didn't know the answer. I responded, "I'd like to think so." She nodded in agreement. We both then paused for a moment to feel whether this response may have settled the question.

And so to make amends for my forgetting, and my remembering perhaps too late for the list, you have this post. This is a great book, and I commend it to you.