July/August 2012

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: François Mauriac (1952, France)
  • BOOK READ: Vipers’ Tangle, trans. Warre B. Wells

Some years ago I boarded an airplane and was greeted by the gentleman sitting next to me. It was the dawn of the iPod, and the fact that we were both listening to this new device was apparently reason enough to chat. He asked me if I agreed it was a terrific little machine and I said I did. He asked me if the shuffle function wasn’t really cool and I said it certainly was. Then his eyes lit up and he said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we both happened to be listening to the same thing right now?” and we both looked down at my little screen to see what was playing.

It was The Spellbinding Piano of Burma.

Part of my life will always be lonely. I have terrific family and friends and a professional life about which there can be no complaint, but much of my time is spent traipsing around literature in one way or another, and my traipses tend to be generally unaccompanied. I’m usually not reading what other people are reading. I get accused of playing cooler-than-thou—Me? Oh, I’m reading that Henry Parland book Eliot Weinberger likes—but the truth of the matter is that I just like this stuff. I like the Scandinavian modernism. I like the self-published queer rants. I like the secondary gothic novelists and the autobiographical verse novels of decades gone by. I like the forgotten essayist the NYRB has put back into print, and the uncool novelist New Directions keeps in print, and the wild experiments Ugly Duckling Presse prints itself. The only thing I don’t like about it is that nobody else is reading it. I don’t like that nobody else is reading it, because it seems bad for the world, which would be much improved if everyone knew who Barbara Comyns is. I don’t like that nobody else is reading it, because then it’s hard to find. And I don’t like that nobody else is reading it, because I don’t have anyone to talk to when I’ve read it myself. It’s tough, at a party, to say, “I just finished this novel, Four Frightened People” with the utter certainty that the other person will just say, after a lengthy sip, “Huh.”

It’s a little sad that the Nobel Prize in Literature is full of books that fall into the nobody-reads-it category. When I decided on this somewhat-harebrained scheme of reading one book by each winner, I decided I’d try to buy as many of the books as possible in the bookstores in my hometown of San Francisco. Armed with my long list, I started with the stores that sell new books and I found maybe one-tenth. I moved on to my favorites, the used-book stores, full of dusty obscurities and startling treats, and raised the fraction to about half. The other fifty or so books—books by authors awarded the highest literary prize in the world—were too obscure even for stores selling books nobody reads. Most of this missing half were from the earlier winners—the prize was first awarded in 1901—but even some of the more recent Nobels are on nobody’s bookshelves. (Read any Dario Fo lately?) This is sad because of the usual things that we book-types like to be sad about, but it’s also sad for me, personally, right now, because it’s lonely to read these books and feel that, like The Spellbinding Piano of Burma, they’re echoing in my head and my head alone.

(And I’ll pause here and say to the scattered souls who are furiously replying, “But I read Dario Fo all the time!”—don’t you feel, you know, lonely?)

I know I could try to cure my own loneliness the usual way—by forcing my own peculiarities on others standing nearby. And indeed I often suggest, to personal friends and general readers, that they join me in my traipse through the Nobel prizewinners. My journey so far has turned up many a book that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly, books that have challenged my every assumption about what literature is and does and tastes like, and books that have suggested new ways of literature I’d never have dreamed up with my nose in a best seller. But they’re not books I’d really recommend the way you just recommend a book to somebody. It’s like saying The Spellbinding Piano of Burma is a great album. It is. But if somebody says, “I need something new to listen to,” I’m going to say something more like The Five Ghosts, which is an album you can just throw on and love. The writings of Wole Soyinka, not so much.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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