I spent a while thinking about what the theme of this month’s books newsletter ought to be. Should it be state censorship, like the kind experienced by both Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, and Mikhail Sholokhov, the Soviet Nobel Laureate? Or, should it be (apropos of nothing, of course) all the scammers that popped up this month in our books coverage, like … well, also like Diderot (defrauder of priests) and Sholokhov (plagiarist)? (For an account of Diderot’s youthful pastime of scamming priests, I’ll have to refer you to the book itself — sadly, our excerpt doesn’t cover that side of him.) Then I realized the theme couldn’t be more obvious if it was lying face down on my coffee table, propped open like that (and ruining the spine) in order to save my page — books! The books this month are all about books!
For instance, starting with our two bad boys Diderot and Sholokhov: As Andrew Curran tells it in his new biography The Art of Thinking Freely, Diderot, along with his Enlightenment pals, wrote/edited the massive multi-volume Encyclopédie as, basically, a prank on the theocratic regime they lived under; the encyclopedia format, especially the radical potential of — I kid you not — cross-references, allowed the authors to subtlety undermine notions of absolute and divine authority. Meanwhile, as you can read in Brian J. Boeck’s biography Stalin’s Scribe, Sholokhov wrote/plagiarized a massive multi-volume novel, And Quietly Flows the Don — a genuine masterpiece — that he couldn’t finish for years. The main problem, other than a lack of additional material to plagiarize, was that if he had finished the book during the Terror, and all the characters hadn’t convincingly turned into Communists by the end, then Stalin would certainly have killed him. So, better to wait it out.
A little closer to our own time, in a conversation with interviewer Adam Morgan about Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment in his own massive multi-volume endeavor, Marlon James points to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series as a book that “continues to rule his life.” Gormenghast, says James, taught him “how the fantastical grows up,” and paved a path forward for his latest project, a literary fantasy epic based in African mythologies and histories. David Treuer, in the prologue to his new history of Native America since the Wounded Knee Massacre, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, points to a book that “ruled his life” in a very different way: Treuer explains that his own book was conceived of as a “counternarrative” to Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. When he read Brown’s book in college, Treuer says he had felt deep “dismay” at the fact that “Brown’s narrative relied on — and revived — the same old sad story of the ‘dead Indian’” (as in, spiritually and culturally dead, as well as having suffered through many massacres and tragedies) and invoked the squalor of the reservations. Treuer felt compelled to present an alternate narrative, “to communicate what it was that [he] loved” about his home and his history, to change what had so alienated him as a young Native reader of Brown’s book.
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On the other hand, when beginning work on her latest novel, Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli tells interviewer Lily Meyer that she didn’t have a book in mind with which hers could be set in conversation, or which had laid a path that hers could follow. So, being a self-described “documenter” — as opposed to a fabulist, who could sit down in a “vacuum” and invent — she needed to hunt for one:
I read tangentially, obliquely, not reading about the child refugee crisis or even the crisis in migration from Syria. I read Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade. I read about orphan trains, ships during slavery, lots of historical documents, and just archive, archive, archive. Then I read a book called The Gates of Paradise, written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and translated by Sergio Pitol, and I thought, This is exactly it. This is the way in.
Luiselli describes the ephemeral euphoria of finding The Gates of Paradise, which was a kind of moment every reader knows well, the kind we’re always aching to hit on again — that realization that you’ve finally found the book you want to be reading:
It’s so hard to find a book that you absolutely want to read in that moment. I begin a lot of books and then realize, This is really not what I want to be reading. Not the atmosphere, not the tone, not the voice. I don’t want to be in this world. When you find one that is exactly what you want to be reading, it’s like a miracle of some sort.
Devi S. Laskar wrote her new novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, in dialogue with yet another type of book — neither one that has been haunting her since young adulthood, nor one recently discovered after a long search, but one that is irrevocably lost. Years ago, her finished novel disappeared when her home was raided by law enforcement and her laptop seized as evidence. Her new novel is born of Laskar’s efforts to come to terms with the grief of that bereavement, and move past it, finding new ways to carry the work forward:
I started writing this story back in 2004, and then I was relying heavily on my previous experiences as a reporter, trying to be factually accurate. By the time I returned to this story about a decade later, I had hard choices to make because of what had happened, how I’d lost most of my work [in the raid]. First I had to come to terms that I’d probably never see my laptop again. Once I got through that… I jettisoned a lot of the facts that I’d previously held dear. I took a lot of similar “beats” or inflection points in the story and I made them composite, basing them on several people’s experiences, not just my own. I am not the narrator.
The loss of the first draft changed the structure and perspective of the final work. It’s as if reality inside the books shifts with all our troubles and griefs here on the outside. It reminds me of Edward Gorey, and his protestations to a long-ago interviewer. As Bridey Heing writes in her review of Mark Dery’s new biography of Gorey, Born To Be Posthumous:
When questioned on whether or not his books are a reflection of reality or fantasy, Gorey responded, “No one ever lets me explain what I mean about the reality of my books! Everyone always thinks, ‘Isn’t that amusing that this is his idea of reality!’”