If one tried to construct the Temple of Literature from only the fifty “pillars” below, it would collapse spectacularly. Nevertheless, here is a contingent group of titles that, to paraphrase Christopher Higgs, if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself. How much that is worth, I’m not sure.
1) Djuna Barnes—Nightwood
2) Charles H. Kahn—The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (an edition of the fragments with commentary)
3) William Shakespeare—Sonnets, Tragedies, most of the Comedies . . .
4) Eileen Myles—Inferno, The Importance of Being Iceland.
5) Charlotte Brontë—Jane Eyre, Villette
6) Jane Austen—Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion
7) Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom, Julliette
8) Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (from Writing and Madness)
9) Herman Melville—Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, The Confidence Man, and the shorter works
10) Sir Thomas Browne—Urn Burial, Religio Medici, correspondence
11) Walter Pater—The Renaissance, Imaginary Portraits, “A Child in the House,” Marius the Epicurean
12) Richard Hughes—A High Wind in Jamaica, In Hazard
13) George Eliot—Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda
14) Michel Foucault—The History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things
15) Joanna Russ—The Female Man, We Who Are About to . . ., On Strike Against God, “Souls,” The Two of Them
16) Guy Davenport—Tatlin! The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, Da Vinci’s Bicycle, The Death of Picasso, Twelve Stories, A Table of Green Fields, Eclogues, The Geography of the Imagination, The Hunter Gracchus, Every Force Evolves a Form, A Balance of Quinces, The Balthus Notebook
17) Jacques Derrida—Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Dissemination, Glas
18) Roger Zelazny—His short fiction in four volumes.
19) F. Scott Fitzgerald—The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, the short stories
20) Nathanael West—Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Day of the Locust, The Dream Life of Balso Snell,
21) Henry Roth—Call it Sleep
22) Virginia Woolf—To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Flush, The Years, A Room of One’s Own
23) Vladimir Nabokov—Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire
24) Mark Twain—Huckleberry Finn, The Diary of Adam and Eve
25) Christina Stead—The Man Who Loved Children
26) Baruch de Spinoza—Ethics, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
27) William Faulkner—The YoknapatawphaCounty sequence of stories and novels
28) W. H. Auden—The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety, The Selected Poems
29) Ron Silliman—The Alphabet
30) Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell—From Hell
31) Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill—The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (series one & two)
32) Marilyn Hacker—First Cities, Selected Poems 1965—1990, Squares and Courtyards, Winter Numbers, Desesparanto, Names
33) Junot Diaz—Drown, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her
34) Willa Cather—My Ántonia, Song of the Lark, A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy, Not Under Forty, Collected Stories (Library of America)
35) Jean Genet—Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, A Thief’s Journal, Funeral Rites, Querelle de Brest, The Maids, Deathwatch, The Balcony, The Blacks, The Screens
36) James Joyce—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses
37) Gertrude Stein—Lectures in America, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, How to Write, Three Lives, Wars I Have Seen, Ida, Lucy Church Amiably, The Making of Americans, Tender Buttons
38) John Livingston Lowe—The Road to Xanadu: A Study In The Ways Of the Imagination
39) Erich Auerbach—Mimesis
40) John Keene—Annotations
41) Honoré de Balzac—Lost Illusions
42) Gustave Flaubert—Sentimental Education
43) William Gaddis—The Recognitions, Carpenter’s Gothic
44) Brian Evenson—The Wavering Knife (contains “Barcode Jesus,” one of the finest American short stories of the last sixty years)
45) Theodore Sturgeon—collected short stories in 13 volumes (1938—1987, indispensible reading)
46) Thomas M. Disch—Camp Concentration, On Wings of Song, Getting into Death (stories), The Man Who Had No Idea (stories), Fundamental Disch (stories, librettos, and essays)
47) Samuel Beckett—Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, More Pricks Than Kicks, all the plays
48) Malcolm Lowry—Under the Volcano
49) Walter Benjamin—The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, Brecht, The Arcades Project
50) William H. Gass—Omensetter’s Luck, The Heart of the Heart of the Country, On Being Blue, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, The Tunnel, all the nonfiction.
Some Corinthian Capitals for the 50 Columns Above:
1) Susan Sontag—I, etcetera
The flatness of Sontag fictive prose is seriously off-putting to many readers—and many serious readers at that. She wanted to make her points through architecture, rather than music or ekphrasis. And in this collection of short works, she did. Along with “The Way We Live Now,” they are exemplary. I read and reread them and I always learn from them.
2) Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk
This is another miracle of narrative architecture. One corner is left un-built—the one that would have fixated around the homosexual fascination the young chauffeur exerts over the entire party. (The fact that there is so clearly room for it is what suggests that it is there, under the rest of the text.) Right now, you have to fill it in for yourself, but the rest is right there, as pristine as you’d expect to find it in Jane Austen.
3) Michael Cunningham—The Hours
This is one of the most important novels in the development of the American novel because it answers a challenge first articulated by Leslie Fiedler in his 1960 work, Love and Death in the American Novel. Claimed Fiedler, the novel as a genre must strive to encompass a rich set of deep and resonant relations between a man and a woman. And until the historical situation much improves in terms of equality, the cross-gender friendship at the center of this book is about the best we can hope for that is not just lies and/or simple fantasies.
4) Longus—Daphnis and Chloe
One of the oldest novels and one of the most effective. This is romance stripped to its bones; it’s quite wonderful and filled with narrative magic.
5) Hugo Von Hofmannsthal—The Lord Chados Letter
Whenever I feel myself straying near writers’ block, I read this witty farewell to literature by a young medieval much too full of his own accomplishments, and I go dancing away and back to the writing desk and get happily to work again.
6) Leonid Tsypkin—Summer in Baden Baden.
This astonishing chronicle of pathological gambling addiction is breathless and frightening, and is made more so when we realize that it is the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky who was so afflicted. With our return to the present, the ending is heartbreaking as we meet the scholars who are, themselves, addicted to their pursuit of the minutiae of Dostoevsky’s life, and what they have put at stake to pursue their obsessions and make this story recountable. This great short novel is by a Russian doctor and scholar who wrote only one.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.