My slow, steady progress through Donald Sassoon’s monumental but unfailingly fascinating The Culture of the Europeans continues to throw up extraordinary snippets of information.
Today, for instance, I learned that at the beginning of the 20th century Tolstoy was published by a Socialist press in Italy, and so was generally regarded as a socialist by Italians. In France, on the other hand, his work had primarily been taken up by conservative Catholic commentators, and so he was generally regarded as conservative and, if not Catholic, at least Christian.
It makes you wonder how much of our view of particular books and authors is guided by things that are extraneous to the text. To take a banal but perhaps instructive example: the program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.
How much are our own views shaped by things that are nothing to do with the work we’re supposedly thinking about?
Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.
I finished reading Michael Hulse’s new translation of Rilke’s anguished novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge this past Valentine’s Day. (This is the fourth translation I’ve read of the novel.) Written in seventy-one luminous fragments, the novel coheres into a brilliantly lacquered mosaic. As expected from this meditant of meaning, of memory, the novel is full of menacing imagery, anxiety-wracked explorations of the self, of knowledge, and, most of all, seeing:
I am learning to see. Why, I cannot say, but all things enter more deeply into me; nor do the impressions remain at the level where they used to cease. There is a place within me of which I knew nothing. Now all things tend that way. I do not know what happens there.