Sweat drips, Sweat through thick black eyebrows salinely blearing smears a blacker world, as fingers fumble down the shafts of arrows, tautly bend the end of life, and aim it at the girl. The archer stands firm legs apart, stillness in his lungs, the quiver slung across his back tranquil as the child beneath her dress— Arrowhead pierces the amniotic sac. A barren queen collapses to the dirt, An assassin fades to shade and disappears, The king, she holds: a torn and bloodied shirt, whose kingdom: “Gone,” sold by an auctioneer.
Macondo is a fictional town created by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez and the setting of his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as several of his short stories. Although it was inspired by Aracataca, the municipality where Marquez grew up, like all fictional places Macondo’s true location is beyond reality, in the pages of the atlas of our collective imaginations.
Marquez died on Thursday. It is therefore tempting to say that Macondo died with him. What is written is written, and there will be no more. The town is abandoned. Thankfully, that’s not true. Macondo is no more abandoned than any place is abandoned when its founder dies. We mourn, we read on, and in each of our minds Macondo survives because its truest inhabitants are not its characters but we, its international readers.
Some literature is opaque because its words and sentences are enigmatic or ambiguous. Other literature has plain, transparent sentences and mysteries that lie deeper. Imagine two cities. In one, all the buildings are made of mirrors. In the other, everything is glass. The mirror city offers the illusion of space but gives confusion. Walk—and you’ll walk into a wall, reflecting the space behind you, which is merely a reflection of the space in front. When a writer writes, “I set down the Swedish saucercup in a multitudinous array of historical fallacies,” you’ll never find your way out because you’ve never been let in. You’re trapped in a box of poetry. In contrast, the spaces of the city of glass are sharp, real and endless, but also overwhelming. You feel overloaded. You understand that “Akira gave the entrance stone to the sheep man, causing the world to crumble like a cookie,” but you have other questions: How? Why? However, these are questions of causation and logic, not language. You’re already inside the city. By asking such questions you’re exploring rather than begging to be let in. I find mirror cities frustrating because I feel they’re codes that cannot be broken, ultimately hiding little of interest. Cities of glass, on the other hand, fascinate me. They are puzzles and labyrinths. Even lost in them, I feel exhilarated. When I knock into their walls, I press my face against the glass and see what’s on the other side. Logic is easier to live without than clarity, especially in fictional worlds.
Here’s a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, at Vanderbilt University in April, 1959—almost exactly fifty-five years ago.
There’s another recording of her reading the same story here.
You can read it for yourself here.
This is the paragraph in the story that delivered its first shock to me on my first reading:
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
And here’s O’Connor in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” observing how we non-Southerners (and non-Americans) often perceive fiction from the American South:
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.
Writers from the Other Europe is a book series edited by Philip Roth and published by Penguin between 1974 and 1989 that aimed to introduce western readers to lesser-known writers from eastern Europe.
Here’s a list of titles:
Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Ashes and Diamonds Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Csath, Geza. Opium and Other Stories Gombrowicz, Witold. Ferdydurke Hrabal, Bohumil. Closely Watched Trains Kis, Danilo. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich Konrad, Gyorgy. The Case Worker Konrad, Gyorgy. The City Builder Konwicki, Tadeusz. A Dreambook for Our Time Konwicki, Tadeusz. The Polish Complex Kundera, Milan. Laughable Loves Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera, Milan. The Farewell Party Kundera, Milan. The Joke Schulz, Bruno. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass Schulz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles Vaculik, Ludvik. The Guinea Pigs
Here’s an alphabetical list of all the books in Northwestern University Press’ European Classics series. The website lacks a simple overview, so I made a text file. The series is heavy on Heinrich Boll and Russians, and some of the authors are relatively unknown.
Ageyev, M. Novel with Nocaine Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Ashes and Diamonds Balzac, Honore De. The Bureaucrats Bely, Andrei. Kotik Letaev Boll, Heinrich. Absent Without Leave Boll, Heinrich. And Never Said a Word Boll, Heinrich. And Where Were You, Adam Boll, Heinrich. A Soldier's Legacy Boll, Heinrich. End of a Mission Boll, Heinrich. Irish Journal Boll, Heinrich. Missing Persons and Other Essays Boll, Heinrich. The Bread of Those Early Years Boll, Heinrich. The Safety Net Boll, Heinrich. The Stories of Heinrich Boll Boll, Heinrich. The Train Was on Time Boll, Heinrich. Tomorrow and Yesterday Boll, Heinrich. What's to Become of the Boy? Or, Something to Do with Books Boll, Heintich. Women in a River Landscape Bunin, Ivan. Night of Denial Capek, Karel. Nine Fairy Tales, and One More Thrown in for Good Measure Capek, Karel. War with the Newts Chukovskaya, Lydia. Sofia Petrovna Deledda, Grazia. After the Divorce Deledda, Grazia. Elias Portolu Dobychin, Leonid. Encounters with Lise and Other Stories Dobychin, Leonid. The Town of N Druzhinin, Aleksandr. Polinka Saks and The Story of Aleksei Erofeev, Venedikt. Moscow to the End of the Line Fedin, Konstantin. Cities and Years Garborg, Arne. Weary Men Gazdanov, Gaito. Night Roads: A Novel Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. The Sylph Gladkov, Fyodor. Cement Grekova, I. The Ship of Widows Heym, Stefan. The Architects Heym, Stefan. The King David Report Heym, Stefan. The Wandering Jew Hlasko, Marek. The Eighth Day of the Week Hrabal, Bohumil. Closely Watched Trains Ivanov, Vsevolod. Fertility and Other Stories Kataev, Valentin. Time, Forward! Kharms, Daniil & Alexander Vvedensky. The Man with the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd Kis, Danilo. Encyclopedia of the Dead Kis, Danilo. Hourglass Krasicki, Ignacy. The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom Krieza, Miroslav. The Return of Philip Latinowicz Mandelstam, Osip. The Noise of Time Michaelis, Karin. The Dangerous Age Neera. Teresa Odoevsky, Vladimir Fedorovich. Russian Nights Petrov, Ilf. The Twelve Chairs Platonov, Andrey. The Foundation Pit Prus, Boleslaw. The Sins of Childhood and Other Stories Rasputin, Valentin. Farewell to Matyora Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Snapshots Schnitzler, Arthur. The Road to the Open Serao, Matilde. Unmarried Women: Stories Skram, Amalie. Constance Ring Tolstoy, Leo. Divine and Human and Other Stories Trifonov, Yuri. Another Life and The House on the Embankment Trifonov, Yuri. The Disappearance Trifonov, Yuri. The Exchange and Other Stories Trifonov, Yuri. The Old Man Tur, Evgeniya. Antonina Vaculik, Ludvik. The Axe Voinovich, Vladimir. Pretender to the Throne: Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin Voinovich, Vladimir. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin Zeromski, Stefan. The Faithful River Zinovieva-Annibal, Lydia. The Tragic Menagerie Zweig, Stefan. Beware of Pity
I had to take the school bus to school. Every weekday I’d get up, eat, get dressed and go out to the bus stop, which was just a fancy name for a particular street corner. The area around the corner was a small hill and there was no side walk, so in the winter we’d often struggle to stay on the slick, snow covered slope because when you’re little and your parent tells you never to play on the road, you never play on the road, even if the road is safer than the icy patch of grass above it. The older kids didn’t have that problem. They stood on the level. They were a bad influence. But that’s beside the point. The point comes when I was an older kid myself, had started reading for fun and would spend my forty minutes on the bus by cracking open a library book and entering another world. This is the point: absorbing books are often labelled escapist fiction even when they’re not.
Any book can be an escape as long as it’s better than your present reality. Escape means fleeing. If my childhood was horrible I would have chosen to flee to almost any other world rather than face reality. That happens. However, it also tends to negate the draw—the suction—of amazing literary worlds. Sitting on my school bus, I wasn’t escaping my life. My life was good. I wanted to read, and then to keep reading even when the bus arrived at school, not because I wanted to get away from what was awaiting me but because the world within the words was too good to leave. Whether it was Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (still my favourite Conrad novel) or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (borrowed from a friend, devoured and dutifully returned), reading was a positive experience rather than the avoidance of a negative one. The books were vacuums cleaners for my mind. Turn on by opening, turn page and hold on. When the bus stops, turn off by closing covers and go to class. At school, I was neither bored nor bullied. On the bus on the way home, I leaned against the bus wall and opened the book again.
Maybe there’s a general suspicion of introverts, a category into which readers are often lumped wholesale, because there’s a general suspicion of spending time alone, imagination and privacy. All that goes on behind closed doors must be nefarious. That’s the extreme view. A less fanatical one is that people who read fiction are impractical but harmless. They spend their time in make-believe. Sprouting from that is the belief that becoming absorbed in a fiction is a symptom of a sick reality from which one wishes to escape. Denying such a situation is difficult because, after all, you may be fleeing a reality so bad you don’t even know it’s bad. Only others, being educated in these things, know better for you. I admit I’m being dramatic, because nothing like that has ever happened to me, but forgive me for I’m defending good books! Having your nose stuck in one doesn’t mean real life is pushing the back of your head into it. Sometimes the book is just so good that it’s pulling you inside by the nostrils.
It’s similar to immigration. When you’re living in a war torn country led by a dictator, you want to escape. Anywhere better than your present country will do. You become a refugee. When you’re living in Germany and decide to move to the Netherlands, your goal isn’t to escape. You don’t say, “I’m fleeing from Berlin to Rotterdam.” You say, “I’m moving.” You’re an immigrant, not a refugee. You still may be searching for a better place, but you’re motivated by the hope that you’ll smell more tulips (positive) rather than by a fear of death (negative). And, as the refugee example suggests, escapism isn’t about a destination anyway. Immigration is about destinations. It therefore makes little sense to label one book escapist and another not. All books can be escaped into. It’s the person who escapes into them who is the escapist, which is a word that’s much more useful as a noun than an adjective.
Now, if you’ll excuse, I’ve a made-up world to immigrate to.