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August 22, 2013


Confine your answers to one side of the paper.



I'm guessing/hoping you were kidding, but Tom Sawyer is more of a kid's book, Huck Finn has just a bit more going on there.

To the degree that a Great XXXX Novel is a work, or body of work, that captures the sensibility and experience of a nation, I don't see it happening in the US, because there is no singular sensibility and experience of being American.

We are plural. E pluribus unum, if we're very very lucky, but the pluribus abides.

I have to think that TGAN is an artifact of the situation that American history occurs within the time where the novel has (had?) been basically the supreme form, especially among the literary elite. I presume that if you totaled up the reviews in the major review outlets, the number of poems and short story collections would be dwarfed by the number of novels (plays are never reviewed as publications, only as performances).

On the other hand, this Guardian piece has a lot of other speculation and the point that TGAN relates more to Americans trying to find a distinctive voice and the insecurity that relates to that rather than to a universal need of a nations to find its exemplar literature.

Googling turns up this, which talks about the lists. I like this observation:

So what is the Great American Novel? Firstly, it must, of course, be a good literary novel. But any good literary novel cannot qualify. It must also be quintessentially American which means it must cover at least one of the three things that make America American, namely killing, money and sexual hypocrisy. It would help if it were an epic, though that is not necessary. It would also help if it were a tragedy, though that is also not necessary. It should probably deal with more than one ethnic group, at least if it is post 1850. It should probably be aware of American history. And, as Lionel Shiver so rightly points out, it will almost certainly be written by a man.

I agree: there can't be just one. There are too many ways to experience being an American for just one TGAN, even if you postulate one per historical period.

That said, I'm going for



even thought it isn't particularly literary. The story does sum up pretty well several of the main themes of American culture and is just as valid now as it was when written.

Sorry, my above comment was in the wrong thread.

But since I'm here, I'm an admirer of Richard Powers, but haven't read the book you mention, dr ngo. Will have to try it.

I don't need a "great American novel" although I've read a few that qualify as being pretty great. Philip Roth's American Pastoral is one. That said, I happen to love Moby Dick, so maybe that's a clue that my taste isn't everyone's.

Hey, a point of agreement with sap !

Moby Dick is not boring.

I also object to the claim that Moby Dick is boring (or too long). It only gives the boring when handed to children in its pure form. I grew up with a slightly shortened German youth edition (that cut a bit but by no means all of the philosophical musings) and was fascinated. Reading the full work in the original as a grown up just enriched the experience.
I personally challenge the usual claim that Goethe rules supreme in German literature. That is just a decree and has little to do with reality. I would claim that Schiller is both more popular and better known. Goethe? A few short poems, Faust and maybe Götz von Berlichingen (usually reduced to two quotes only one of which most people connect with the play). But even people with very little interest in the classics use Schiller quotes often without knowing it.
As far as novels go, Der Untertan (Heinrich Mann) is likely the quintessential one. There was a famous quarrel between Heinrich and Thomas Mann btw, who of them was THE classic. Thoms claimed the title because everyone had his works on the bookshelves. Heinrich objected "People buy your books to put them on the shelves, they buy mine to read them". The "serious" people in German literary criticism see Heinrich's (justified) claim as a disqualifier and apply the same to Schiller/Goethe. The mere fact that an author is popular devalues his work. A 'true' classic is seen on every shelf but rarely read, especially not by the hoi polloi. Btw, German critics never took Kipling* seriously (not just because the German editions were catastrophic with the most ridiculous errors of translation imaginable en masse) for the same reason: popular, witty, suspenseful => worthless.
Stanislaw Lem is an interesting case. He was at times extremly popular in German speaking countries (and most foreign editions are tanslations of the superb and authorized German editions) but literay criticism in Poland tried to downplay his merits while trying to push other authors that no one seems to remember these days. It seems not to have been politically motivated.

*disclosure: Stalky&Co is my most favorite book not just of RK but in general. Interestingly the establishment simply hated it. From their point of view it undermined and ridiculed anything they held dear.

So what is the Great American Novel? Firstly, it must, of course, be a good literary novel. But any good literary novel cannot qualify. It must also be quintessentially American which means it must cover at least one of the three things that make America American, namely killing, money and sexual hypocrisy. It would help if it were an epic, though that is not necessary. It would also help if it were a tragedy, though that is also not necessary. It should probably deal with more than one ethnic group, at least if it is post 1850. It should probably be aware of American history. And, as Lionel Shiver so rightly points out, it will almost certainly be written by a man.

Robert Caro's biography of LBJ (and in particular, Master of the Senate), pretty well qualifies on all counts - and I would re-read it in preference to most of the other contenders.

Lady Murasaki is not seen in Japan as defining the essence of Japanese culture, nor are writers today striving to supplant her in writing TGJN.

Harem Anime

Seriously. Very very seriously, so much so as to wonder what happened to the form for centuries. Also, light novels, manga. How much the best of this stuff is misogynist or about female agency and woman's subjectivity or not, well, how about that Genji.

Likewise, the following are not necessarily direct but definitional

Miyamoto Mushashi, originals and Eiji Yoshikawa. = Shounen fighters, DBZ Neon Genesis, etc
Chikamatsu, until the 60s or 70s
Soseki:Not as sure about Botchan, but I know Kokoro was/is read in HS. Not certain if I Am a Cat is as respected.
Soseki's spawn/peers:Kawabata, Osamu Dazai, lighter Mishima
Hayashi Fumiko
My impression is that the Japanese, in various forms, still read a lot and know more about their literary history than some other countries

the three things that make America American, namely killing, money and sexual hypocrisy.

What, no hot dogs?

Shonen Jump is for kids.

Genji, and the suffering or tragic woman(s) protected or ignored or betrayed by men, I would say was very near the core of the peacetime Japanese male Imaginary.

Whatever you think of it, at least, unlike Huck Finn or Moby Dick, at least she is there.
She is in Scarlet Letter, but that is at least as much about Dimsdale's ideals and hypocrisy as about Prynne.
Balzac needs to be mentioned for France, Trollope for England? It is hard for me to bridge the literary classics and the actual popular imaginary. Zane Grey and Heinlein more important than Melville? Poe = CSI?

I thought Moby Dick was impenetrably boring as a youth, and hilarious and fascinating as an adult. Things change, as do perceptions.

I like Marquez a great deal, even though Love In The Time Of Cholera left me unhappy and wondering what the hell the takeaway was supposed to be. It still affected me quite profoundly. I doubt I'd read it again, but I am glad that I read it once. It doubtless has a completely different flavor in Spanish.

For Ireland: Joyce? I would offer Beckett, but I don't think his novels are as widely read.

The Irish could try to claim Swift (born in Dublin. To English parents though).

Thanks for the responses. I should make it clear (if it is not clear already) that I am not a scholar, or even a serious reader, of literature. Lovely relevant quote from "Maria," over at Crooked Timber, in a post actually about exercise:

as an old lecturer told me when I requested a reading list for a class I couldn’t take – having already graduated – reading lists you don’t have to and therefore won’t actually read are truly the best kind. You get a lovely dopamine wash of newness and potential, and a glimpse of the person you would be if you were to read all the books, but you don’t have to open a single one.

So what I'm really writing about is not the intrinsic literary merit of books - though I'm happy if the post provokes others to do so - but under what circumstances, and why, certain societies (it seems) feel a need to identify a particular literary work that embodies/encapsulates the essence of their culture, or to attempt to create such a work if they feel it doesn't exist. In that respect, although I'm sure Dreiser and Trollope are worthy writers, I doubt that they provoke the general response of: "Yes, he is Our Great Novelist - whoever wants to know the Greatness that is Us must read him!"

A couple of other comments:

@bobbyp: ;} (typical leftist!)

@Priest: I realize that Huckleberry Finn is more than just a child's book, but I was introduced to it as a child (IIRC, my father read it aloud to my sister and myself when we were 7 and 6, respectively!) and despite its wonderfully adult themes, have never wholly shaken that initial categorization from my mind.

@Russell: Of course there is "pluribus," but that has never prevented people from trying to identify TGAN, or to write it if it doesn't already exist. It is the "why?" of this that prompted this post.

@hartmut and bob mcmanus: thanks for your notes on German & Japanese culture, both of which are virtually terra incognita to me, especially in the broad vague terms of "What's it all about, really?" that I've invoked here.

(@hartmut also - I too am an ENORMOUS fan of Stalky & Co. - happy to agree with you on this! Maybe we can start a club.)

@various: Maybe you think Moby Dick is not boring, but millions disagree, e.g., Stephen Colbert - catch the last interchange in this segment.

Finally, in spite of having lived in (and enjoyed) Oz for four years, I forgot to mention Australia's seminal and central literary text:

Waltzing Matilda

I'm reading Moby Dick as we speak.

It's dense, no doubt about it, but definitely not boring, though I mistook its density for yawn-inducing boredom when just a guppy.

It's like sipping a very rich liquor -- best done a couple of times a day and in 10-page amounts.

Colbert's statement about the story of Moby Dick being a metaphor for the struggle of reading Moby Dick is very funny, but what Colbert and others obviously require is a bookish Captain Ahab of tempetuous moods clomping around their reading armchair to harangue and drive them on to the goal of finishing the book and certain death, if it comes to that.

"Call me Ishmael", this individual whose name is obviously not Ishmael demands upon our first meeting.

Tell me more, starting with your real name and why you've taken Ishmael for the purposes of this narration.

And by the way, call me Sting. No, call me Cher. How about Cantinflas? Wocka-Flocka?

I've decided that many of the great novels that millions find boring share this trait: They introduce a fresh, unfamiliar cadence to us in their narrative which may take at least one reading to fall in step with and we grow annoyed and bored before we take the time to master it, if we ever do.

It's like learning the Tango ... very sexy and captivating as an observer, but maddening to learn and internalize.

Thus Moby Dick, Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past ... I would add Blood Meridian to that list.

If I were to nominate a Great American Novel since World War II, it would be Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. The cadence of this book is pure American -- Chicago, Jewish immigrant; big fat juicy, thwacking, muscular prose -- and, as with lj's cite way upthread, it has money and sexual hypocrisy galore and violence lurks at the margins, even to the extent of Trotsky's demise icepick-wise.

Maybe Catch-22 would be in the top five since World war II because it brought to the fore an entirely new attitude and voice about the costs of the American enterprise in war and its existential viability.

Speaking of Moby Dick, isn't it time for Hollywood to have another go at this work? would think a judicious use of today's special effects combined with an interesting Director (NOT one of the blockbuster Directors around today) would finally deep-six the Gregory Peck version.

Johnny Depp could play the whale. Colbert as Ishmael --- "Call me Ishmael and the 't' is silent". What could the Cohn Brothers do with it? A Cormac McCarthy script.

Rename it "No Ocean for Old, One-Legged, Half-Eaten Men".

Move the setting to the present and introduce Greenpeace speedboats harassing the Pequod, but in the end the Great White Whale takes them out, too, to fend off cries of bias by the trawling industry.

No to all that.

In the New Yorker a few months back, a cartoon depicted Ahab and probably Starbuck at the rail, spyglass raised, and in the distance a Great Red Whale is breaching.

Caption, if I recall" Captain Ahab Confronts Disappointment Once Again"


lj, if you happen along to Spam and see a comment from me to this thread, I'd appreciate its being raised from the dead.

But maybe I deleted it myself.

For me, Huckleberry Finn will do until something better comes along. I'm not holding my breath.

Given the current state of the culture, I am going with Gorilla Beach, by Snooki

On the subject of Huck Finn, I believe Russell Baker will correct you:


The Great Belgian Novel is "The Sorrow of Belgium" by Hugo Claus:


I wonder if the idea of TGAN doesn't also fulfil a lot of particular American needs. First of all, the idea of competition itself seems to be basic to US culture. And isn't TGAN implicitly a claim to have written the best book in the whole world (just like the World Series doesn't need to include more than two countries)? American complaints when the Nobel prize for literature doesn't go to an American seem to be particularly loud.

And the novel could once be imagined as a more "democratic" genre of writing than others. It doesn't require the cultural infrastructure that writing plays does, so it was suitable to the new American republic. Nor did it need the literary education that being a poet traditionally required: anyone, in theory could write a novel and a high style wasn't necessary. Novel-writing offered a way for Americans to show that they too had a culture, even if it wasn't in the traditional European style.

In contrast, I think poetry may now be the most "democratic" genre, with writers often focusing on brief, intensely personal moments and getting an audience via public readings, but such poetry rarely gets wide circulation. In terms of cultural impact, isn't there something to be said for the real competition now being for The Great American TV Series?

I retrieved the Count's comment about Moby Dick and it is above.

Thank you so much.

Thanks from me too, lj, for shepherding this thread. And thanks to you, Count. Moby Dick, I will return to you.

Has Moby Dick been turned into an anime yet?

we have a classic.
And a nonsequitur
And a rather strange
Moby Dick art project.

Magistra: The competition for The Great American TV Series is over. The Wire won. No further entries are being accepted.

(Also: I wasn't aware that Americans in particular whinged when non-Americans won the Nobel Prize. There is always a susurrus of discontent when the winner wrote/writes in something like Icelandic, but this tends to be phrased in linguistic rather than nationalistic terms: "Has anyone actually read this guy? How do we know he's really any good?" And IIRC - though it was before I was paying attention - it was US literary critics who were most dumbstruck when American John Steinbeck, never a favorite of the literati, won the NP.)

Somehow the < a href=xxxx >xxxx< /a > does not work properly for me anymore. Were there any changes?

I'm usually the techklutziest person around, but I've been getting this to work with quotation marks before and after the URL - thus < a href="xxxx">Title< /a>. But *without* a space between the first angle bracket < and the subsequent character: a or /

I figure if I can do it, anyone can do it.

If I were to nominate a Great American Novel since World War II, it would be Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.

I am an American, Chicago-born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

That just slays me every time. It's the American "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" if ever there was one.

We all have our favorites, "Augie" is way, way, way at the top of my short list.

I tend to look at my efforts to make it through the first chapter of Ulysses as a metaphor for Ahab's search for the whale.

I may someday finish it, but it will likely finish me just to get even. In the meantime, there is anger, and teeth-gnashing.

It doesn't need to be said, but it is O.K., of course, to not like a work of art.

I love "Ulysses", but when it comes time to read Joyce again, I'll re-read "A Portrait of the Artist As An Annoying Young Man".

I've been reading Martin Amis lately, the novels and the essays, and that guy can write.

Making a concerted effort to read poetry lately -- Robert Frost for starters front to back and Shakespeare's Sonnets.

It's slow going but the pleasures are immense.

I'm too antsy for some reason for poetry, but I'm trying to sit still and do it.

Read two poems, do some desultory dusting of a corner I haven't looked at in months, eat a peach, maybe some pushups and then stare at the book from across the room like it means to defeat me.

Speaking of which, I miss rilkefan.

Then there's the Great Icelandic Novel, apparently universally recognized among Icelanders as such: Haldor Laxness's Independent People.

Joyce's only problem is that he doesn't know how to handle the English language. Portrait of the Artist is badly written. Ulysses is simply unreadable.

Those who think that engineers (BS,MS in Mechanical Engineering) are not entitled to have, let alone express, opinions about literature, feel free to ignore the BA and MA in social sciences(BA, MA in Anthropology).

At the last university at which I taught, the Faculty of Social Sciences was distinct from the Faculty of Arts, having seceded years earlier.

In the latter, to which I belonged, it was always impossible to finish any faculty meeting on time - in fact, it was often impossible to reach any agreement on any agenda item - because we all loved language, i.e., we loved to hear ourselves talk. At length. On any topic.

Social Sciences, on the other hand, met and resolved issues and adjourned so abruptly (efficiently?) that we realized that social scientists - the name itself is a giveaway - were really just engineers in disguise. Not real humanists, such as we were.

So "wj"s opinions remain suspect, I fear. :}

Then there's the Great Icelandic Novel, apparently universally recognized among Icelanders as such: Haldor Laxness's Independent People.

Icelanders are a strange people. ;-)* A better translation of the title is 'his own master' and is quite ironic in the context. Another work of Laxness is 'Gerpla' (aka The Happy Warriors), a deconstruction of the whole heroic mythology of Iceland and the North in general. Probably much closer to the historic events than the official chronicles and sagas it is based on.
Unfortunately, no one seems yet to have translated H.P.Lovecraft into Icelandic.

*just look at Icelandic movies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j0bcjapVAs
And then there is Lazytown. This is from the original stage version the TV series is derived from

Joyce's only problem is that he doesn't know how to handle the English language. Portrait of the Artist is badly written. Ulysses is simply unreadable.

Ah, but 'Dubliners'!

Bellow had an undergraduate degree and may have completed a master's in Anthropology.

Wallace Stevens a life insurance executive.

Borges, famously, a librarian.

Chekhov a physician and Walker Percy was training to be one when tuberculosis rerouted his interests toward diagnosing diseases of the Soul.

Joyce was one of the finest Irish tenors of his time.

He didn't study engineering but he might have been an auto-didact in city planning, if you follow the peregrinations of Poldy Bloom through Dublin's nighttown.

"The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."

And for Russell, from The Dead: "A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Thinking an engineer is not entitled to express opinions about literature would be foolish, especially for a writer stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's getting to the other side that is the hard part.

In Finnigan's Wake, unlike most books and bridges, you start in the middle and end at the beginning.

Haven't read it, despite my lack of an engineering degree, but there it sits next to Joseph Campbell's and Henry Morton Robinson's "A Skeleton Key To Finnigan's Wake."

I've dusted both many times, like a custodian in a library.

Ulysses is difficult, not so much unreadable as requiring many attempts at readableness. One thing I tried years ago that was helpful was attending a pub-reading on June 16 --- Bloomsday -- commemorated all over the country.

You get to hear it read nose to tail in real Irish brogue, fake Irish brogue (sometimes unlistenable) while imbibing consecutive pints of somebody's finest, which you might as well, because that's what Joyce probably did while writing it.

Joyce's only problem is that he doesn't know how to handle the English language.

That's obviously nonsense, you might not like what he did with it, but he was a master of the English language.

Regarding German literature, I would say that Mann's "Buddenbrooks", Grass' "The Tin Drum," Musil's "Man without Qualities" and Frisch's "Stiller" are strong contenders.

And in Farsi it's Hedayat's "The Blind Owl" or Pezeshkzad's "My Uncle Napoleon".

We're not talking about poetry (except the Count - thank you, Count), but since we're quoting some of our favorite tidbits of writing, I'll offer a poem by James Merrill:


Think what the demotic droplet felt,
Translated by a polar wand to keen
Six-pointed Mandarin—
All singularity, its Welt—
Anschauung of a hitherto untold
Flakiness, gemlike, nevermore to melt!
But melt it would, and—look—become
Now birdglance, now the gingko leaf's fanlight,
To that same tune whereby immensely old
Slabs of dogma and opprobrium,
Exchanging ions under pressure, bred
A spar of burnt-black anchorite,
Or in three lucky strokes of word golf LEAD
Once again turns (LOAD, GOAD) to GOLD.

Didn't we used to have poetry slams around here?

MANSION by A.R. Ammons

So it came time
for me to cede myself
and I chose
the wind
to be delivered to

The wind was glad
and said it needed all
the body
it could get
to show its motions with

and wanted to know
willingly as I hoped it would
if it could do
something in return
to show its gratitude

When the tree of my bones
rises from the skin I said
come and whirlwinding
stroll my dust
around the plain

so I can see
how the ocotillo does
and how saguaro-wren is
and when you fall
with evening

fall with me here
where we can watch
the closing up of day
and think how morning breaks

And this ... if you've been undone .... The Going by Thomas Hardy

(to smk)

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow's dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time's renewal? We might have said,
"In this bright spring weather
We'll visit together
Those places that once we visited."

Well, well! All's past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing--
Not even I--would undo me so!

A. R. Ammons? Yes (actually, if I have a favorite poet, it's him). Thomas Hardy? We have our share. Thank you, Count.


I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it

and vowed,
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
"ring of bone" where
ring is what a

bell does

Lew Welch

You guys risk that I dust off my own poetry again.

Poète maudit

Shall I now sing of sex or violence
Of rabid rapist, pious pedophile
Or psychopaths that mangled corpses pile?
I know in each case some will take offence

I love to sing of whores not abstinence
Of ev'rything that's putrid, foul and vile
And if the moralists through that I rile
It will my satisfaction just enhance

The bard of boredom I don't wish to be
So spare me laurels, you keep them for those
That fill your ears with 'wholesome' poetry

Her thorns are what for me define a rose
Of poison ivy weave the wreath for me
My song shall praise whatever you oppose

Thanks sapient and Hartmut

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!


This is one of my all time favorite quotes. In fact it is my philosophy of life, as much as I have one.

BTW for some reason I can no longer log in by Facebook, but I have discovered that I have a Typepad account from many years ago under my cat's name. So I'm back to a moniker from five or six years ago.

(For Deirdre)

I've just about reached breaking point
He snapped.

Roger McGough

The Great Norwegian Novel may be Kristin Lavransdatter

Do not overlook Richard Powers Gain, which I think works best of his work to date (although, as a computer engineer and someone who loves Bach and libraries and librarians, Goldbug Variations has a strong claim on me -- and Prisoner's Dilemma touched me deeply)

Catch 22 would certinly be on my short list for GAM

Let me echo others:
Tom Sawyer is a kids' book. Only someone who has not read Huckleberry Finn as an adult could mistake it as another kids' book. With the exception of the last few tacked-on-to-please-the-public chapters, there is hardly a more adult book extant. Twain's portrait of the rural Americans of his day is bitterly unsparing, though couched in the familiar form of an episodic comedy. And he deals directly (and harshly) with the first and second things that historically makes Americans American, (unaccountably omitted from the list above): race and religion.

In poetry, my opinion of Frost grows larger every year. I didn't understand "After Apple Picking" until I was in late middle age; and the literary snark in the last lines of "A Considerable Speck" is sharp enough to put someone's eye out. And "The Death of the Hired Man" contains a novel's worth of sympathy, pathos, and character development.

I have concluded that Moby Dick is often lost on those who cannot sail a boat, or who are not fascinated like Doc Ricketts by the living things of the sea. I have both, and find most of it engrossing, though the Victorian moralism sometimes seems as ponderous as the whale -- it occurs to me that that's probably not an accident.

I truly love Hemingway's Nick Adams cycle, collected as The Nick Adams Stories, which to me epitomize much that was best about him, while omitting most of the worst. At sixty years of age, I'm living "Big Two-Hearted River"

No votes for My Antonia?

Stegner's Angle of Repose is very fine.

IMHO, To Kill A Mockingbird belongs on the same shelf with Huck and Catch 22

I loved Kristin Lavransdatter, and Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 was the one of his that I've loved most of what I've read. I haven't read all of his books - couldn't get interested in Goldbug Variations for some reason - maybe it wasn't a good time.

Anyway, it's lovely to read mention of books that I love (including To Kill a Mockingbird). The world's not hurting for lack of great literature.

lately, he said, I'm digging Michael Chabon.

I didn't really dig 'wonder boys', but every other thing I've read of his has knocked me out.

Next up is 'Telegraph Avenue', a friend of mine is going to lend it to me.

I also really dig Elmore Leonard. Deliberately not Great American Novels, he summed up his writing technique thusly:

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it".

Great Swedish Novel, I nominate Selma Lagerlöfs "Jerusalem".

Italy also has Primo Levi.

Re Chabon, I have a nostalgic attachment to "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh", it's been so long that I cannot really remember if it was any good, but I loved it back in my formative years. Also, "Bright Lights, Big City" and "American Psycho".

As for TGAN: what about Updike? I think he is the most humanistic writer in contemporary US literature.

On a continuum of TGANs, which is really the only way to assign these big things, certainly the body of Updike's work deserves its time in the sun, with the Rabbit series of novels anchoring the judgement, though I'm more fond of the short stories.

I love Updike, but for some reason, given his mountainous output, it seems like (I don't know why, it just does) we are now in a time since his death (for me, as shocking as Lennon's, Mantle's or Monroe's) of reappraisal and a winnowing of his contribution to the canon, and who knows where it will end up.

I happened to have just finished a book of essays by Martin Amis, among which is an interview with Updike (1987) and a meditation on his work. Amis has this to say (sorry for the length):

"For some reason (won't anyone tell us why?), modern fiction tends towards the autobiographical, and American fiction more than most, and John Updike more than any. The tendency is still regarded as a "flaw", in Updike and in general; but one might as usefully accuse Shakespeare of having, in his tragedies, a "weakness" for kings and noblemen and warriors. The dominance of the self is not a flaw, it is an evolutionary characteristic; it is just how things are now.

Yet the case of John Updike is unquestionably extreme. The textural contrasts between your first and second wife's pubic hair, for instance, is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without. The novelists of yesteryear would gallantly take leave of their creations at the bedroom door. Updike tags along, not only into the bedroom but into the bathroom. Indeed, he sends a little Japanese camera crew in there after them. And so it is with all the other intimacies of thought and feeling. "It's all in Couples," he will concede. Or: "The novels are a fair record of what I felt." Or: "It's all in the books."

I would add that what Melville did for Cetacea, Updike did for the species of post-war (Korea) married dwellers of that vast inland sea called American suburbia.

I'd love to see a "Godzilla versus King King Kong" type of film pitting an Updike protagonist against a Cheever protagonist, each passing the other on a sweet summer night on their way to their various and numerous assignations.

I could see Richard Maples emerging from the shrubbery and tackling the Swimmer on the manicured suburban lawn as he emerges from the former's pool on his way to a vodka tonic with Mrs. Maples.

Well, now I have to re-read both.

I've been reading Moby Dick in the privy, and only in the privy, and usually only on weekends (since I handle some personal business at work on weekdays), and only in the one privy where the book resides, not ever in one of the other two (or one and a half, at least, in the parlance of our times), over the course of about 4 years now. I'm about 7/8 of the way through it. Not even 10-page doses, Count. We're talking 3 or 4 pages per week.

I don't even bite the elephant. I just lick it.

For Finnish, it would probably be Alexis Kivi's 7 Brothers.

Czech's might have been The Good Soldier Svejk until the Prague Spring. With heavy hitters like Kundera and Skvorecky around since, I don't know.

As for TGAN, I favor the whale over the fin.

As for Russian, I like to think it's a tossup between War and Peace and Roadside Picnic.

"I've been reading Moby Dick in the privy, ..."

I always have to go to the bathroom in public libraries, for some reason, and like the Seinfeld show wherein George Constanza ducks into the can at a bookstore to catch up on some free reading, this is frowned upon, unlike at home.

Oddly enough at home in the can, I contain my perusals to the baseball box scores, maybe the New Yorker, "The Essential Groucho" and the small print on whatever brand of antacid I'm imbibing at the moment.

I read Investor's Business Daily for the stock charts and the laughs in there as well, plus the editorial page comes in handy, despite the absence of rotting fish.

Sometimes this big volume on every iota of Beatles studio history, including diagrams of where they and their equipment were placed for each session, with photographs of every guitar, maraca, and pedal, including late and rough in the going, Yoko's bed.

My legs fall asleep.

I recall recently Dr. Ngo, one of the great handles in internet history, recounting where all of the books he's in the middle of were stowed ... I counted 13 books and eight bathrooms, so he's obviously hiding his position on the socioeconomic step ladder from us.

Shashi Tharoor wrote a novel called The Great Indian Novel. This is partially a joke on the idea of the Great American Novel, and partly a joke on the fact that Mahabharata means "Great India". The novel is a mash-up of the Mahabharata with the story of India's independence movement.

If anyone is still interested in how seriously-literate people deal with this kind of question, there's an entertaining and insightful rant by Belle Waring (and extensive comments) up on Crooked Timber now.

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