This selection comes amidst the usual caveats about exclusion and reductiveness: what I’ve included are books that crossed my path at the particular instant I needed them, or was open to them, and as such made a significant impact. This is not a list of ‘best writers/books’, or even a list of ‘favourites’. It’s overly weighted towards the US, and there’s a sorry lack of Australians; but it’s a big world of books out there, and we all find them at different times and places, so…
Ken Kesey Sometimes a Great Notion
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I haves a great notion
To jump into the river an’ drown
These lines, from the folk song ‘Goodnight, Irene’, serve as the opening salvo to this stonkingly powerful, dark and gorgeous American classic. I was in my early twenties when I discovered Ken Kesey, the great counter culture hero, at first via Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe recounts Kesey’s adventures with his group of merry pranksters as they tour the USA in a psychedelically painted bus, dissolving the consciousness of everyone who crossed their paths with vats of LSD spiked Cool-Aid. It’s a joyously anarchic read, and throughout its pages the figure of Kesey looms larger than life.
The day after I finished Wolfe’s book I found a copy of Sometimes a Great Notion in a Calgary 2nd hand bookshop, soaking it in while hitchhiking across Canada, and I have a vivid memory of reading its final pages by torchlight, in a tent on the prairies of Saskatchewan, the temperature outside hovering near zero. When I put it down I wrapped it in a fleece to use as a pillow, and I lay awake most of the night, staring up at the nylon and thinking about it. Some quality of its final image, a hand dangling above a swollen river, dropped as it is into a soup of intersecting point-of-views, has sat inside me for years. Kesey’s second novel, following after his celebrated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it revolves around trials of a stubborn logging family in a brutally hard community in Oregon. The character studies are marvellous, and the writing is innovative and passionate. Angry, beautiful and sad, if Ken Kesey were a dog, he would be howling at the moon.
From memory, I left that original paperback in a Quebec hostel. The cover was, by then, gone, but some part of it has stayed with me ever since.
Albert Camus The Outsider (L’Étranger)
The protagonist of Camus’ novel is Meursault, an Algerian, like the author, who commits an apparently random act of murder. He shoots ‘an Arab’ on a beach. In Court he refuses to defend himself, despite the fact that doing so would likely see him freed, and when asked why he did it, states only that it was because of the sun.
We, the reader, have followed him through the days. We wake at the opening and mother is dead. We do not cry at the funeral. The world passes by so close to us that it might almost catch on our shirt, and yet we do not know what to think of it. We are thrown, jettisoned, into an uncertain world. Meursault is exceptional, Camus says, because he refuses to lie, and although there is an undeniable bleakness to The Outsider, to its antihero’s wild connect/disconnect, the novel brings us in with such great intensity, we enter the question at the heart of it. What is there? What meaning does it have? For Camus, it’s the fundamental unknowability of life which conflicts with the human need to seek and find meaning, and it’s this that makes life absurd. It’s not, then, that everything is devoid of meaning, a common objection to existentialism, but rather, that, as human beings, such meaning will always escape our knowledge.
So, life is absurd. The creature that is defined by knowledge is forbidden a foundation to knowledge. This idea rings through so much thinking from the last century, but Camus defines his own ground, and he also offers a kind of emotional salvation. Existence, for all its confusions, is enough. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ There is a freedom in recognising and facing up to our situation, in living what lies in front of us as fully, and truly, as we might.
The bright, sharp writing ensures this novel never wallows. Camus writes like an angel, whatever that means in the world ‘after God’, and The Outsider has a sparse, obdurate music to it: “like Kafka written by Hemmingway”, as a critic put it at the time. The twentieth century is where the philosophical novel finds its feet, and what we find here, specifically, is also a vision of the novel after the birth of cinema and the news reel. A quality of Camus’ use of image writes a distinct stamp on this book.
The use of fiction as a medium of philosophy is a distinctive feature of mid Twentieth Century French philosophy. The names of Sartre and de Beauvoir loom large from this moment, but Camus hits it so sharp and so clear. Perhaps because his engagement with philosophy is not, or at least shies away from, dialectic modes. He stands aghust before the world, wide-eyed, and for a novelist that’s a good position to occupy. An immaculately crafted book, haunting, spare and deep.
Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Writing, for me, is a search for God.
So said Carson McCullers in an interview with Terence de Vere White for the Irish Times, published the year of her death, and on entering the world of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her first novel, this search and longing are evident. I picked up this book after a long hiatus from reading fiction, having disappeared into the philosophical hoo-ha for a few years of study, and if affected me profoundly. McCullers wrote it in her early 20s, already in poor health – she had a terrible life, suffering from rheumatic fever, multiple strokes, alcoholism, at least one suicide attempt, and a husband who killed himself (after trying to convince her to join him in death). By the age of 31 she was half-paralysed from the strokes.
The writing is lyrical and bitter-sweet: McCullers is a wonderful stylist, and there are sentences in this book that are startlingly beautiful. Like the rest of her works, the story is brimming with empathy, with the need to understand the world and its manifest sufferings, and the isolated, spiritually hungry characters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will remain with you long after you have put it down.
Robert Hass Sun Under Wood
There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness
that sing and do not sing.
I have read and re-read this collection of poems more times than I can count, enjoying it at first with my professors, and later with my students. Hass’s anecdotes and insights blend with his love of the natural world in a mesmerizing way. Everywhere is the sense of a shivering metaphysical beyond and a language on the edge of bringing it to presence. The poems explore themes ranging from his mother’s alcoholism, to nosepicking, and on to divorce, and although there is great depth of emotional engagement, they never become sodden with an excess of sentiment. This is a book that manages at once to make us more alive to the world around us, and make us feel okay about the peculiarities of being human.
Hass describes poetry as “a way of living….a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball”, and there is an everydayness to this work that we are invited to share in. His influences are diverse: from Czeslaw Milosz to Basho, and he has devoted much of his career to translating both of them, amongst others. Sun Under Wood is playful and formally innovative, frequently in subtle ways, and yet it never feels constrained. Beyond all else, it’s the way Hass invites us to share his world, the great honesty and compassion of his offer, which has me returning to these poems again and again.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty The visible and the Invisible
[T]he world, the flesh not as fact or sum of facts, but as the locus of an inscription of truth:
the false crossed out, not nullified.
I spent 10 months in a Paris apartment digging my way into Merleau-Ponty’s work, and I remember the autumn and spring for the smell of fresh baked bread on the streets, and the winter as about 4 months of leaden low cloud and long hours at the desk. It seemed always to be dark, the whole winter, and the enduring image in my head from those months is the streetlight slanting pale through the window, and an uncertain colour to the sky, not quite day, not quite night. This book was Merleau-Ponty’s last, and judging from the notes he left at the time of his sudden death, at the age of fifty two, what there is of it is only about one third of what he imagined it to be.
This French philosopher, a contemporary of Sartre and his Left Bank existentialist coterie, seeks to understand the way in which our joining with the world should be the root of all notions of expression and meaningfulness, the embodied elements of conceptual space. In his late philosophy, Merleau-Ponty expresses this interconnection in his notion of ‘the flesh’. A unifying metaphor: our flesh and that of the world join in ways that necessitate an ‘indirect ontology’. At a stylistic level, this indirection makes of his work a kind of poetry, filled with an image rich landscape that links us back again and again to the natural world. And it says, also, that whatever abstraction of ontological space we attempt to delimit, we remain creatures. We breathe. We eat. We fuck. We are embarrassed, happy, sad, sometimes at the same time, and even when it does not touch the mouth, it is all a kind of speaking.
Merleau-Ponty has a kind of spiritual, poetic relationship to philosophy, and he searches in great beauty for the glorious and impossible name of the interconnectedness and root of all things. This is a radiant, alluring book, not to be missed for anyone interested in thinking through the meaning and shape of our connection to the world.
This blog post was originally published here at Booktopia.