Ever since my entry about Pushkin, who showed us all how it is done, I’ve been thinking about books that not only provided enjoyable reading, but also changed and enlarged my ideas about what a book can be and do.
The first book that comes to mind is A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. The novel begins when a young Indian physician, in the time of the Raj, that is, British rule, talks with some of his friends about whether it is possible to be friends with the English.
Dr. Aziz meets an Eat, Pray Love kind of Englishwoman, Mrs. Moore, and they become friends, and he arranges, at great expense to himself, an expedition to the Malabar Caves.
I’ll leave it right there, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say this, Dr. Aziz is mightily sorry for his attempt at friendship because Mrs. Moore has a(n) hysterical prospective daughter-in-law who accuses him of sexual assault.
Mrs. Moore is a key witness in the case, and the Brits ship her out of the country, causing huge crowds of Indians gathered around the courthouse to chant “Esmiss Esmoore, Esmiss Esmoore.”
What a book! I think it says a lot more about the English than about India. I wonder what my Indian friends think of it.
Another author who really opened my eyes to what a story can be is Carson McCullers, an extraordinarily brilliant writer who drank herself to death in the 40s and 50s. Her story “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” is among the greatest in American literature, and it totally “blew my mind,” that is to say, changed everything I think about everything.
Her stories are like medieval puppet shows, with fairy-tale archetypes swirling around in a universe governed by the logic of dreams. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter all these characters have to tell all their problems to a deaf guy who cares nothing for them, but is in love with this gluttonous Greek guy living in a school for the retarded, lately renamed the developmentally disabled.
The gluttonous Greek guy likes living there because he likes the food, and, of course, he cares nothing for the deaf guy.
Carson McCullers was so spot on in everything she wrote that she just couldn’t miss.
Another book which must be on this list is A Hero of Our Time by Michael Lermontov. This book is brilliant in so many ways, notably in the way the camera zooms in on the main character, even though it was written in 1840 before cameras were invented.
First we hear about Pechorin second hand. Then we have a description from a guy who thinks he’s a close friend (no such luck, as he finds out). Then the narrator comes into possession of Pechorin’s journals. Pechorin doesn’t care about those, either, but they allow us to literally get inside his head. Yet even at the end we don’t even know his first name.
The backdrop is the Russian occupation of Chechnya, so we get many insights into that as well.
This is a book that makes us wish Lemontov had not been killed in a duel at an early age, like his friend, Alexander Pushkin. Both these guys had a lifetime of creativity ahead of them. And their brilliance was snuffed out over stupid affairs of what was then called honor.