September 19, 2005

 

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BOOKS THAT MADE ME

When I was 11, I read all of Jules Verne at night in bed under the blankets with a little flashlight. I wanted to be Michel Strogoff. I would tell myself, me too someday I will live some great adventures, and I will writes novels like those of Jules Verne. When I was 13, hidden in a barn, I read all the Fantomas . I wanted to become like him. I wanted to wear a mask. I would tell myself, someday I will invent a mysterious night killer like Fantomas and put him in a novel. At 15, it was Le bossu ou le petit parisien. I wanted to be a musketeer and invent la botte de Moinous. I wanted to go back in time and be a contemporary of Cyrano de Bergerac. The real one. I would tell myself, when the time comes I will write like Pau Féval and movies will be made with my books. At 16, I tried le Marquis de Sade. I wanted to know what real jouissance was. I was fed up of giving myself pleasure all alone. I would tell myself, one day it will be said that I too write porno books like Sade, and I will be thrown in jail. When I turn 17, I was reading at the same time, J'irai cracher sur vos tombes of Vernon Sullivan, and La Nausée of Jean-Paul Sartre. I thought of myself as a white Negro rather than an Existentialist. I would tell myself, one day I'll go to America, and over there I'll write novels like those of Vernon Sullivan, and not like those of Sartre. Sartre thinks too much, I told myself. He bores me. At 19, I read my first novel in English. Dangling Man by Saul Bellow. I didn't want to be like that poor guy in that novel who could never make a decision. Me I wanted to jump joyfully into the mess head first. I would tell myself, one day I'll write a novel in which they will be guys who jump joyfully into the mess head first, and not a depressing novel. At 20, I read mostly French poetry. Villon Ronsard du Bellay Malherbe La Fontaine Racine Lamartine Vigny Chenier Musset Hugo alas! Nerval Gautier Baudelaire Verlaine Rimbaud ah Rimbaud! Mallarmé Lautréamont Corbiére Appolinaire Reverdy Peguy and some others and Valéry. I stopped with Valéry because he was the last poet in the anthology of French poetry I took out of the public library in Detroit where I was working in factory at the time. I noticed how easy it was to write poetry. All you had to do was line up sentences on the paper one after the other but making sure that you capitalize the first letter of the first word of each line. Except if you write like Rimbaud. I would tell myself, if one day I decide to become a poet, I will write my Testament like Villon, or my Season in Hell like Rimbaud. The same I took out that anthology from the library I also discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman, and I would tell myself, if I become a poet in the English language, then I'll write Walt Whitman. At 22, I only read war novels. Especially novels about World War Two. I was sorry that I had been too young to fight in that war, and not to have known a glorious death like Mathieu in La mort dans l'âme, at the top of a church steeple. I would tell myself, one day I too will write a war novel, and in it there will paratroopers. At 23, it was Kafka. All of Kafka. I did not identify with Gregor Samsa, but I would have liked to have seen the face of Gregor's father when he saw his son transformed into a giant bug. I would tell myself, how gutsy Kafka was. I wondered if he was laughing aloud while writing his stories. And I would tell myself, me too someday I will write a comic novel. At 23 ½ , the great discovery. Stendhal's La chartreuse de Parme. Among all the novels I had read so far, Les liaisons dangereuses of Laclos was in first place. Stendhal immediately moved into first place. I would tell myself, me too someday I will write a great love story in which the lovers will perhaps never meet. At 24, all of Dostoevsky. This time, The Brothers Karamasov moved La Chartreuse de Parme into second place. Except that for my birthday that year my girl friend gave me Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale. It was not difficult for me to put L'éducation in second place on my list. But of course I had not yet read Proust. I would tell myself, before I die I want to have written one book as cold and passionate as L'éducation. At 25, I digested all of Rabelais. I immediately understood that Gargantua and Pantgruel were Ubermensch, and I had not even read Nietzsche yet. I would tell myself, one day I too will write a scatological novel in which the characters will be bigger than reality. At 26, I finally dared to read Montaigne. His essays intimidated me. I read all of them. Every time I need to refresh my mind, it's Montaigne that I visit. I would tell myself, if it ever becomes necessary for me to do a little plagiarism, it'll be from Montaigne's Essays. At 27, I read Shakespeare for the first time. I immediately identified with Hamlet. But it's like King Lear that I wanted to die, if dying I must, while whispering never never never never. I would tell myself, it's impossible to write better than that. Impossible to go any further. And so I doubted that I would ever become a writer. At 27 ½ , I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus got on my nerves. I found it to be too constipated. But still I wanted to write like Joyce. And I did feel a little something for Molly Bloom. Especially when Joyce let us hear what she says to herself inside her head. I would tell myself, if one day I tell the story of the farm where I suffered so much during the war, I will call it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Knee-Deep in Shit, and there will be a lot of manure and fornication in it. At 28, I stumbled on The Divine Comedy. I read it in translation. It didn't matter. This great science-fiction novel in verse displaced La chartreuse de Parme and L'éducation sentimentale on my list of the greatest novels. But the places are not fixed. I would tell myself, when the time comes I will also write a science-fiction novel. Maybe about people being deported to the space colonies. At 29, it was Céline. All of Céline. For a while I thought I was Bardamu. After all, he too had crossed the Atlantic, he too had taken a crap in the public toilets of New York, he too had worked in a Detroit factory, he too had traveled to the end of night. I would tell myself, that bastard hated Jews – yes I had also read the filthy pamphlets he wrote against the Jews – but dammit does he write well. I have to learn to write like that. At 30, I had read almost all the French literature for my doctorate. From the Middle-Ages to the present. And I had decided to write my dissertation on Diderot. It seemed to me that I thought, spoke, and acted like Jacques le fataliste. But one day Godot entered into my life. Beckett replaced Diderot in my dissertation. The evening when Godot entered into my vocabulary, I told myself, one day I'll write a book about Thomas Beckett. Yes, that's what I wrote in my little black notebook after I saw Waiting for Godot. It was in New York. I told Beckett about what I had written, and he said to me, Raymond you cannot imagine how many times I've been called Thomas. At 31, I finally read Proust. All of La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Took me six months to read it. I wanted to be Swann. And I fell in love with Madame Swann. I would tell myself, how does one learn to write sentences like those of Proust. Sentences so well constructed. I was in despair of ever being able to finish a sentence. And I have often been told that my sentences are never finished. Nor are my books. Okay, I could not make a long list of all the novelists and poets I have read, all the great that one must read is one is presumptuous enough to want to become a novelist or a poet. No need for that list. You have read them. Without them you could not write what you are writing today. Before I started writing, I mean writing my first book, the first book that counted, all along my reading I would tell myself, it's like this writer that I would like to write. Then I would read another one, and I would tell myself, no it's like this one that I would like to write. I could not decide how I wanted to write my books. One day I started writing a novel, the first novel that counted, and it's that novel that told me how I had to write it. I had to forget all the books I had read in order to write that novel. I had to write myself, me, and not the others.

Comments:
When I'd just turned 26, I read Double or Nothing [for the first time] and I knew that there was no going back; no escape from the Federmania virus!

As a keen Federman-reader, I remain forever grateful that moinous wrote himself/selves and not the others.....

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