First off, the ritual disclaimer: five books is enough for a week away, or even a rainy weekend, but never a life. And as a writer I am hopelessly fickle, endlessly exploitive: I use whatever books I can steal from, anybody with a better idea than my own. Lately I’ve been trying to write about the Spanish and the American Southwest,
navigating between the continents of Mark Twain to the left and Miguel de Cervantes to the right. Every week, every project has its own new set of ancestors and pole stars.
But here, anyway, are a few of the more persistent reference points, the ones my students roll their eyes at when they hear me say their names again.
Kafka, especially Metamorphosis: as shapely a little piece of work as anybody is likely to come up with. Three of everything! Plus the most unpleasant happy ending in the history of literature. The thing I love about Franz -- so easy to miss, at least in English translation -- is the humor, the essential gaiety of the writing itself, a wit and speed and observation that is unmatched. Also his “Meditation,” a collection of brief sketchy “stories” that seem to do (along with Robert Walser & Bruno Schulz) everything worth doing in postmodern writing.
Twain, his opposite, apparently funny, apparently shapeless.
Flannery O’Connor, Twain’s bitch / bastard great-grand-daughter. Somebody asked her once why she wrote and she told them, “Because I’m good at it,” which is everything you need to know. Again (is there a pattern here?) a writer who combines a clear-eyed willingness to look into the dark difficult sides of human life and bring the news forward
with wit, clarity and humor. It’s possible to read O’Connor just for the jokes, but it isn’t good for you. Saul Bellow (who ought to be on this list but isn’t) says somewhere that he turned away from the tragic mode and toward the comic because the comic seemed braver and more authentic. This seems an accurate way to describe O’Connor’s work.
Speaking of offspring: Joy Williams is alive and writing short stories, which is cause for celebration. She has O’Connor’s X-ray vision, an ability to see into her characters far beyond what they can know about themselves. And she has Twain’s apparent ramshackle humor, and Kafka’s willingness to put the fantastic on the page in a way that
mirrors the obscure moments, the currents of feeling that run down deep, out of sight. The best short-story writer currently working in English, says I, and if you want to prove me wrong you’ll have to name a better one. And I bet you can’t do it.
Finally, obviously, hyper-obviously, Lolita. Nabokov -- like the rest of the above -- is also a great short-story writer, and his other novels and memoirs would make a reputation on their own. But Lolita is incandescent, deeply strange, strangely memorable, memorably funny (picnic, lightning). Sometimes even a genius gets lucky, and “Lolita” feels like one of these: a book so far above its contemporaries that it looms over the whole landscape, a distant volcano, smoking, smiling, daring you to be better.