Dirda on Books
The Washington Post
Hosted by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19th, 2000
Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST, Dirda takes your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.
Michael Dirda's name appears weekly in The Post's Book World section. If he's not
reviewing a fat literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be writing a lighthearted essay about the joys and burdens of living in a house filled with way too many books. Although he holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda is still smart enough to be an unabashed fan of "The Simpsons," noting that "the show's genius derives from its details." He also loves P.G. Wodehouse, intellectual history, children's books and locked-room mysteries – just the sort of range you'd expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished criticism.
These days, Dirda says he spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth and daydreaming ("my only real pastime"). Otherwise he just reads books and writes about them, with occasional visits to secondhand bookstores in search of treasures. He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer working on his reviews and Readings columns.
"Do not imagine that I regard my taste for literary artifacts as anything but shameless and vulgar," Dirda says, "I have sunk so low as to covet Edward Gorey coffee mugs. I yearn for a bust of Dante to place on a bookcase."
Hello Mr. Dirda,
What is your opinion on writers who use the illnesses or deaths of their partners as continual fodder for their art? I am thinking particularly of Tess Gallagher, who has been mining her misery over Raymond Carver's death for years and many books of poetry, John Bayley, who has gotten two books out of Iris Murdoch's Alzheimer's disease and subsequent death, and especially Donald Hall for shamelessly milking the death of Jane Kenyon relentlessly and self-servingly -and Kenyon was a much finer poet than Hall ever was, is, or will be-. At what point does the commercialization of personal grief become not only sanctimonious but vulgar and reprehensible? Also, last week a reader or you mentioned an author that you said the Murdoch and Davies much admired - do you remember the name of that author and could you suggest a book that would be a good introduction to that author? Thanks
Michael Dirda: Sorry, over the delay in getting started. On to the questions.
First the easy part: the author was John Cowper Powys and his masterpieces--all long--are generally thought to be Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance. Davies has an essay on Powys in, I think, his collection called The Enthusiasms of RD.
I tend to agree with you about the unseemliness of milking the death of a spouse or partner. In some ways, I suspect the response is simply human: When someone important to us dies, we want to memorialize him or her, purge ourselves of our sorrows, etc. IN general, though, I think we should resist this impulse. When my father died of cancer, quite horribly, I wanted to write about him, but held off for a couple of years. Then I could see him again more clearly and write about him, I think, more movingly as a result.
I find the Harry Potter books to be rather addictive - I've read the three published here now - and I find it difficult to put them down -stayed up past midnight to finish a couple of 'em-. That said, I really wonder if they are first rank. Good, fetching, but not incredible? Yeah, I'll buy the rest anyway, but then I'm a mystery addict, too, and hardly the most literary.
Michael Dirda: I'm very fond of the Potter books myself, but I don't think they're more than expertly craftsmanlike. Till the next Potter, you might try Daniel Pinkwater's books: The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror--these, along with Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars--possess a similar, if slightly grittier, kind of magic.
What bildungsromans come to mind as must reads? I'm considering The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham, any comments?
Michael Dirda: Bildungsroman is the term often used for "a novel of education" or a novel about the development of the hero. The classic is Wilhelm Meister, by Goethe (I'm perhaps the only person in the English-speaking world who actually enjoyed the book); but for must-reads I guess I'd pick James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or Flaubert's somewhat static, but ultimately very moving, The Sentimental Education.
I received the Modern Library translation of Charterhouse of Parma as a Christmas present. I haven't yet gotten around to starting it, but I've noticed that you have mentioned it in the chat the last several weeks. What should I expect when I finally get enough time to dig into it?
Michael Dirda: A wonderful opening--an evocation of the energy associated with the French invasion of Italy. A famous section on the battle of Waterloo, seen from an innocent observer's viewpoint. One of the sexist women in literature, the Countess Gina Sanseverina. Her lover, the shrewd politician, Comte Mosco. A superb evocation of politics at a small court. A touching love story.
hello and thanks for the service you provide. I was wondering what you think of the marquis de Sade's work? I have a fancy translation of 120 days of Sodom staring me down and I was wondering if it is even worth bothering to read it. is it pure sensationalism or is there genuine literary merit? thanks again!
Michael Dirda: Sad isn't much of a stylist--he's an obsessive visionary, a kind of perverse philosopher, whose tales of sexual transgression are defended as probings of the human psyche, the nature of the state, etc. I find him boring, but his influence is pervasive. There's a brilliant chapter on his effect on the 19th century in Mario Praz's book, The Romantic Agony: "The Shadow of the Divine Marquis."
Sci-Fi Girl, Va:
Michael -- aren't you glad you came back from Florida? I just finished "Miss Wyoming" by Douglas Coupland -one of my favorite authors- and was really happy with it. I find Coupland interesting because he is willing to explore different kinds of topics in his books, as well has veer between serious books -Life After God, Girlfriend in a Coma- and very funny books -Microserfs and the new one above.-. I feel many people don't pay attention to him because they feel that he speaks only to young -well, now people in their late 20's and early 30's-, and overlook the great stories hiding underneath his pop-culture prose. Just had to get a word in, 'cause he's one of the best!
Michael Dirda: Thanks, SF girl. Will give Coupland a try. Now that I am a man of a certain age, I need to do what I can to stay young.
I just raced through the Harry Potter books -a bit too fast, really, as I miss them now and wish I still had many, many pages yet to read- and I was hoping you could recommend some other books that have a similar feel to them: fun, funny, smart, creative, fantastical.
Michael Dirda: I just did: Daniel PInkwater's books for older kids. Also, Alan Garner's The Wierdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath and one or two others; Philip Pullman; and you can always go back to E. Nesbit's fantasies--Five Children and It, etc. or the Edward Eager novels, starting with Half-Magic.
Two questions: First, SF: What titles by Phil Dick would you recommend? I have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Man in the High Castle. Second, what fiction can you recommend on the trials and tribulations of the academic world? I have already read and loved David Lodge, Kingsley Amis and, more recently, Publish and Perish by James Hynes. Thanks.
Michael Dirda: Well, you have a good start. For Dick I'd go on to Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or pick up a book of his short stories: There is a paperback called The Best of PKD and another called The Golden Man, both of print but findable. Academic comedies--Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution; Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels; Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. There's also Moo, by Jane Smiley, but I haven't read it, and a recent, much admired novel by Richard Russo, the title of which escapes me.
Is writing a diary an extensive habit of most writers? If so, why the correlation? How it becomes an aid to their craft?
Michael Dirda: I think some writers keep notebooks to work out ideas or because they need to scribble about their lives. But other writers say that they don't like to waste their time an d energy on non-publishable work. Personally, I think you should simply write more stories rather than get yourself diverted into a diary. Most people keep diaries when young, and often stop when they marry and find they can pour their hearts out to their spouses.
Athens, GA :
I am a full-fledged adult and I just finished the third book in the Harry Potter series. What a treat! Are there any other so-called "children's books" that also treat adults to a good read. I have become increasingly interesting in beautifully written children's literature and would like some suggestions.
Michael Dirda: Whew, see the two previous messages about alternatives to Harry Potter. The most beautifully composed children's book of our time is Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. Oh and I forgot to mention last time: Joan Aiken's marvelous series about Dido Twite, Black Hearts in Battersea, etc. A terrific series written in an alternate Victorian Britain.
I still can't believe Book World is turning its back on its subscription readers. Even from a business standpoint, I would think there would be someone out there who would subcontract for the work and raise the price -a little- to provide some profit margin. I suppose the business folks want to drive people to the WP website, and I'm sure it will do that for some of us. But I for one will likely only look for your column, and just won't have the time to sit in front of a computer to browse the rest of Bookworld -or the WP- the way I can in hard copy. Please fire the business people and put a book person in charge of the place. Thanks
Michael Dirda: I'm with you, as are so many others, but seemingly to no avail. None of this makes much sense to me. FYI: I'm working on a book of my columns to be published by Indiana University Press. Probably include 40 of them.
From the period of time you mentioned in your column on Sunday where autobiographies comprised your reading material, do you have any recommendations about little known autobiographies you enjoyed?
Michael Dirda: Well, I'd start with the major figures: Augustine's Confessions, Rousseau's Confessions, The Education of Henry Adams, but I also enjoyed Cardano's The Book of My Life (which I mentioned), Goethe's Poetry and Truth; Wordsworth's The Prelude; etc. Among modern autobiographies one of the most entertaining is Anthony Burgess's Little Wilson and Big God; followed by You've Had Your Time. Certain memoirs--a more restricted genre--are exceptionally beautiful: Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; Welty's One Writer's Beginning.
My favorite moment in autobiography is from Rousseau, when the young philosopher is in, I think, Venice where he has managed to arrange a night with that city's most celebrated courtesan. As the couple undress, Rousseau notices a mole or some small deformity on the breast of the Italian beauty, which deflects his desire. The courtesan turns to him with disdain and says:"Give up women and study mathematics."
Have you read much of Lafcadio Hearn? From my limited exposure to his writings he truly seems to merit the judgment of many as one of America's finest prose stylists ever. Your opinion please.
Michael Dirda: I read him a lot when I was young, a little since then, and have always picked up his books when I could find them cheap. There is a good one volume omnibus with an intro by Malcom Cowley. What I particularly admire is the man's range: New Orleans to Japan, ghost stories to lectures on English literature.
I'm looking to try a new author, and was hoping you'd give me some from-the-gut advice, e.g. whatever comes to mind first. Whom would you recommend to someone whose past favorites include Garcia Marquez, Vonnegut, the aforementioned Coupland, Toni Morrison
Michael Dirda: Robertson Davies. John Crowley. Jonathan Carroll. Annie Proulx. Terry Pratchett.
I'll get the first edition of your book -why wait til the tenth of this soon-to-be classic- and, after relishing it, will add it to my file of torn out pages containing your best over the last few years. It will be interesting to see if my thoughts of your best match your own. And I encourage you to go way back to your early pieces before I knew you were out there.
Michael Dirda: Thanks. I'm afraid the book will only contain about a third of my pieces, and may veer more toward the bookish than the autobiographical. Like most journalists (and many writers), I find myself both eager to have such a book out there and yet indifferent to it as well--I'm mostly interested in what I'm about to write, in this case a report on my visit to the Baker Street Irregulars banquet and a review of a new biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin.
A couple of unrelated notes:
First, prior to Christmas you made a few sci-fi recommendations for my husband -Snow Crash and Stars My Destination-. Both were big hits, so thank you for your help!
Second - for the Harry Potter fans. Steven Spielberg has said he's adapting them for the screen.
Third - if you are looking for other well-written books for kids that adults can enjoy, try the Susan Cooper series "The Dark is Rising" - 5 books - all amazing, I still read them now 20 years after my first run-through.
Michael Dirda: For years I've meant to read the Cooper novels and still haven't. Sigh. There really are too many good books in the world. I'm sorry that Spielberg is making a movie of the Potter novels--they're eminently filmable, but I hate the notion that movies are a book's ultimate validation (not that you were suggesting that).
For the Harry Potter fans, I highly recommend the author John Bellairs. His first book for children was THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. Lots of humor for kids and adults alike. He died a few years ago and another author is continuing his series. I've been suggesting these books to total strangers at the library, and then seen them another day checking out the sequels....
Michael Dirda: Oh, yes: BEllairs is good. I've read a lot of them, and listened to just as many on tape with my children on long car rides to Ohio. I particularly like the motto of the small-town library: Believe Half of What You Read. Some of these books, it should be said, are scarier than Potter. BEllairs also wrote one fine adult fantasy, The Face in the Frost, featuring a pair of magicians. A bit like The Sword in the Stone--another good title for Potter fans.
SciFi girl, Va:
Glad you're going to give Coupland a try! For the person looking for academic novels, Penelope Fitzgerald has a very quirky one set at the beginning of the 1900's call "Gate of Angels" which is great intro to her work. Also, David Lodge wrote a university novel that was quite funny. -Sorry can't remember the title-
Michael Dirda: Yes, Gate of Angels is good, if somewhat elusive and low-key: I like it a lot. Possession, by A.S> Byatt, is also in part an academic novel. The Lodge novels are Changing Places and Small World.
You reviewed Frederick Reuss' first novel Horace Afoot several years ago. Do you have any plans to review Henry of Atlantic City?
Michael Dirda: Not personally, but I believe it was assigned, perhaps reviewed, while I was away in Florida. I pretty much ignored Book World while I was teaching this fall. Part of my plan for r and r.
In a previous chat, you recommended "The Story of the Other Wise Man" by Henry van Dyke as one of your favorite Christmas stories. A "sentimental tour de force," I believe you characterized it in that chat.
I just finished the story and heartily agree. Although prose, the words had a distinctly poetic sound in my mind's ear, and the story didn't just tug, it pulled hard, at my heart strings. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Now for some background information on the author, courtesy of a famous online bookstore: Henry Van Dyke was a preacher, university professor, diplomat, poet, translator, and author of many inspirational writings. His most famous work is The Story of the Other Wise Man, one of the best loved and most inspiring of all Christmas classics, celebrating its triumphant centennial in 1996.
Read it folks!
Michael Dirda: Glad you enjoyed it.
Dear Mr. Dirda:
Thanks so much for passing along Randall Jarrell's advice to "reat at whim" in last week's session. One ignores this principle at the peril of missing the great "hyperlinks" of literature -say, from Borges to Arabic History to T.E. Lawrence-. Many times have I found myself plodding through the latter sections of a long novel, out of a sense of duty -to whom?- to just get through with it already - when the best course would have been to put it down, pick up something else and return to it later. I believe though, that the fault is often not mine - that the most prevalent defect of novels is their endings. My desire to "just finish it already" often simply mirrors that of the author and accounts for my want of patience.
Also, did you read Jonathan Lethem's recent "Motherless Brooklyn"?
Michael Dirda: Good point. Alas, I haven't read the new Lethem--should I?
Can you give the title of the new biography on Bruce Chatwin -you mentioned it in a previous response-?
Michael Dirda: Bruce Chatwin, by Nicholas Shakespeare. Should be out in mid February.
Some time ago, in a previous chat, you provided information on the location of F. Scott Fitzgerald's gravesite in Rockville, MD. I just found an interesting Web site that provides pictures of famous gravesites, Fitzgerald's included among them: http:--www.findagrave.com
This Internet is becoming more amazing all the time!
Michael Dirda: Neat. I really must use the internet more. If only I were more adept. Are you? I'd like to forward the picture of Fitzgerald's grave to a friend. I'm at email@example.com
I've been on a long kick of erudite novelists-- Eco, Pynchon, De Lillo, etc-- writers with extremely catholic -small "c"- sensibilities. Having read down Eco's and Pynchon's complete works, and not caring much for De Lillo beyond "Underworld," what authors could you suggest if I were to continue in this vein? I am told that Rushdie would be a good place to start-- suggestions? Also, I'd like to get your thumbnail opinion of "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson. Is he jiving us with a Pynchon-lite schtick, or has he really come into his own as a world-class writer?
Michael Dirda: Don't know the answer on Stephenson, not having read Cryptonomicon, but most people believe him the real thing. I'd go on to Iris Murdoch, perhaps The Black Prince, A Word Child, The Sea, the Sea; Rushdie--Midnight's Children or The Moor's Last Sigh; A.S.Byatt's Possession and Babel Tower; Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew; Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy; perhaps David Foster Wallace, John Barth's early books, even Giles Goatboy.
I suppose it's understandable that someone who achieved such a wealth of recognition in one literary form should receive less in his other endeavors, bit it seems to me that Samuel Beckett has never been properly recognized as a novelist. When the great -post-modern novelists are cataloged his name never seems to appear among the Gaddises, Pynchons, Coovers and Barths. Beckett was of a slightly earlier generation, but his fiction seems in many ways to be both influential to and more sophisticated than these great novelists.
When Beckett's name appears, it is usually appears in the triptych alongside Joyce and Kafka, but this comparison seems to embrace his drama more than his fiction. The fiction seems less preoccupied with cumbersome French philosophy than it is with aesthetics.
And who can forget Molloy? Watt?
Michael Dirda: Good points. How does Watt begin? The sun shone down, having no choice, on the nothing new. Or is that Murphy? Both are wonderfully quirky and funny books. Beckett is a great novelist, of a particular sort; I once taught How It Is to a class of 17 year olds, with great success. Everything he wrote possessed that strange inimitable music. Je serais bientot tout a fait mort enfin.
Are there any good companion books-guides to assist readers of Proust's In Search of Lost Time?
Michael Dirda: Roger Shattuck's Modern Master volume on Proust, 200 pages, is the place to start.
New York, NY:
Do you find it at all disappointing that the unique forum which technology here supplies us has been used to field a stream -broken up somewhat today by numerous meretricious questions about your forthcoming anthology- of redundant inquiries about the Harry Potter books?
Michael Dirda: Well, I don't know. One of the aspects of the new technology is its lack of filtering--one is deluged with information, good, bad and indifferent.
And now for some more advertisements: On Monday, January 31 I'll lead a Washington Post Book Club discussion online of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Also, on March 7 author Percival Everett will be a Book Club speaker at a lunch. Tickets are $10 for members; $15 for nonmembers and should be addressed to Heather Rivenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th ST. NW, Washington DC 20071.
That concludes our paid political announcement, and--alas--this week's live online. Talk to you next week at 2 on Wednesday. Sorry if I didn't get to your question. Till then, keep reading.
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