The Books of My Numberless Dreams

It’s official

Posted on: July 11, 2007

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is one of those books one must read before you die. (“Attempt” falls under my definition of “read” (a sincere attempt) because one must give leeway in such matters.) It is both because of the writing and not. I’m almost ashamed to admit that it might be because of the message (ewwwww! I know, I know, I want to shower after typing that) or rather the tremendous emotion, the rage, the ferocity that can be clearly seen behind every word. It’s both hard for me to imagine how anyone could pick up this book and not be overtaken, persuaded and yet very easy because Hall’s prose is…sometimes it’s clumsy, belaboured and improbable. She can be melodramatic and twee. It’s her “voice”, her spirit which allows me to forgive that in a way I never could forgive a polished, elegant prose that was sterile and lacked verve.

It’s offensive and so immensely stupid and abominable that high school students can be assigned books that cover all kinds of “sins” but this one will not make it for some time (if ever) because of the sexual orientation of the protagonist.

*ahem* Anyway so, I was saying? Yes, you really should try it! Other books on my Read Before You Die (RBYD) list are

  • Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake
  • The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  • Ahead of All Parting by Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Oscar Wilde’s plays (I can’t decide which one yet)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
  • Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (Lydia Davis translation, please)
  • The Iliad by Homer (Richmond Lattimore translation)
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23 Responses to "It’s official"

Hmm … I like this list. I’ve done the Proust, the Wilde, the Blake.

You know, I never got around to completing Jane Eyre. I loved Villette, but just things just got in the way of my reading of Jane Eyre.

Will have to rectify this little oversight.

Never know where to begin with Borges.

Will see if I could ever get around to Well of Loneliness.

Other than Jane Eyre and some of Wilde’s plays, I’ve never read anything on this list, although some of them are on my TBR list.

Oh, and I love The Iliad, although so far the Fagles translation is my favourite. And by a lucky coincidence, it’s also printed in my favourite edition.

Dark O I haven’t tried Villette but your comment makes me want to pick it up now. You should try finishing Jane Eyre I don’t think you’d regret it.

I started with Atlas actually, I’m not sure why. I was sitting in the library one day and decided to try one of his books and this one had pictures so. 😀 It’s probably as good as intro as any because the transporting quality of his writings is there in a more literal form and you get a concrete sense of his allusive style. Hard to get book though. People usually give Ficciones as a starting point, no? I have his Collected Fictions that I meander my way through. His Book of Imaginary Beings is a nice side dish. (First read about it in Hardboiled Wonderland.)

Poodlerat aaahh, I’m not a Fagles fan but I see his appeal. Nice to “meet” another Iliad fan…so many seem to prefer The Odyssey.

I like both—the Odyssey is a great adventure story, and I like it a lot, but I think the Iliad is much more subtle and interesting in the way it treats Greek myth and in what it has to tell us about Greek culture.

It probably helps that I’m a Classical Civ major, so I’ve studied the Iliad more than once. It’s one book that you actually have to take a course in, or at least read something scholarly about, if you’re going to get its full impact. There’s too much culturally-specific stuff in it that you just won’t understand otherwise.

As for Fagles, his translations of both poems were the first ones I read, so his version feels like the “real” one to me. I can’t tell how much that’s affected my reading of other translations.

The first time I read them, I prefered “The Odyssey” to “The Iliad” but the second time through I found that my opinion had reversed itself. Since it was only two or three years ago that I read them for the first time, I don’t think it was me that changed. The reason for my change of heart is probably due to what Poodlerat mentions. “The Odyssey” has more interesting little stories, but “The Iliad” has a depth that needs more thought and study to appreciate.

I like the Fagles editions a lot, but then again those are the ones I’ve read. I have the Lattimore translation though. Maybe the next time I reread Homer, I’ll read his translation.

Margaret Laurence is pretty big in Canada, is she not? The only other person who has ever recommended her to me was Canadian as well. She’s almost unknown here in the States, at least to the general reader. I work in a bookstore here and we only carry one of her novels (“The Diviners”, I think). It rarely sells.

Margaret Laurence is really well-known in Canada, but I don’t know how well she sells. The Diviners is studied a lot in CanLit courses here, though.

Poodlerat I like both of them too but yes, I found the mythical elements in The Iliad more…fulfilling, though I’m sure that makes no sense. I haven’t read anything scholarly about it so I can’t cite that as a reason…I just thought it was better!

Fagles’ translations are too modern for my tastes. For me Lattimore’s take on the language better encompasses the epic feel of the poems, whereas Fagles read like adaptations. Of course this is all just impressions — I don’t know a blessed thing about the original language.

Beepy if you do try the Lattimore tell me what you think. I’ve only read both works once, although I do sample each of them occasionally.

As for Margaret Laurence yes, she’s only big in Canada it seems, and it’s entirely due (I think) to the academy rather than any obvious public appeal. I haven’t read The Diviners yet, but I did read The Stone Angel and A Jest of God. For me Stone Angel is a force of nature, as close to a living, breathing novel as one can get, with a very compelling, complex female protagonist.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in the Iliad (at least, interesting to me!) that I would never have known, or never have thought about. Like all the ways that Homer, despite covering only a few weeks of the war, manages to portray most of the major incidents of the war. He puts scenes in which clearly belong early in the war, like the duel between Paris and Menelaus. He has the characters accurately predict future events, as when Hector tells Andromache that if the Trojans lose, their son will be thrown from the walls and she will be taken as a slave—which is exactly what does happen. He uses things which do happen as models for things that don’t—like using Themis’ mourning for Patroclus to depict her future mourning for Achilles, or Hector’s funeral to depict Achilles’. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, if you’re into that kind of thing.

(And am I the only Canadian who consistently confuses Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Diaries, Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers and Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries? Maybe if I read them, I’d be able to keep them straight in my head.)

Hi imani.
I’m seriously contemplating suicide yesterday until today, but I just read your “Books to be Read before you die,” and I must say that I must not die now. I should read your list first. 🙂
Anyway, Jane Eyre is on my shelf right now but I can’t read it yet (I’m stuck with “Sense and sensibility”) plus I don’t think I can read any Homer. Gad, I can’t even touch a Shakespeare!

Poodlerat Ahh, I had picked up on the prediction stuff but not the rest. I am interested in that sort of thing. You’ve made it tempting to check the course listing at the local universities/colleges to see if I could sign up for a class. (The thought of simply buying some academic texts and poring through them is not in the least appealing.)

Oh so coincidentally one of the books I’m reading now — Goldberg: Variations by Josipovici — has a passage on Homer which more or less states why I prefer Iliad. Because of the violence, the tragedy, the passionately felt ideals of honour…it just rocks.

geekcritic oh, you’re welcome, all in a day’s work of saving the world from itself. I’ll give you a pass on the Homer if you try the Bronte. What do you think of Sense and Sensibility so far? It’s not one of my favourites from Austen at all, though I’m in the minority on that.

Because of the violence, the tragedy, the passionately felt ideals of honour…it just rocks.

One of the things Troy gets sort of right is the relationship between the humans and the gods in the Iliad. One of the brilliant things Homer does is to have the Greek gods, being their normal silly, lustful, petty selves, and to contrast that with the Greeks and Trojans, living far more intensely than the gods can because they’re mortal…so many things to love about this book.

If you have the opportunity to take a course in it, you should—if you have a decent prof, it’ll be an awesome experience. My epic course and my Greek theatre course are probably the best ones I’ve taken so far. The Greeks may not have done prose fiction, but their plays and poetry are second to none.

I have some training in Ancient Greek and from what I know, Fagles sticks more to the literal translation. Of course, as one of my Plato instructors told me, you cannot really ever capture the “original” language in translation, and it is especially hard for dead languages because nobody speaks Ancient Greek.

I have the Lattimore translation of the Iliad, but have not read it yet. I love the Iliad much more than The Odyssey for similar reasons stated above.

I’ll have to give Well a try and put it on my growing list of books to read before I die.

Love your site and I’ve linked from mine.

Please pick The Importance of Being Ernest!

Poodlerat oh Troy. I remember watching that travesty one day when I was sick in bed. The only thing I took from it was that Pitt and Bana looked great in skirts.

I’ll consider doing a class. Thanks for the suggestion.

Topher oh that’s odd because I know in one review of his translation of Aeneid (different thing I know) the reviewer noted that classicists wouldn’t recognise it and I took that to represent his general approach to translation. Well, if he is more “accurate” I’ll just have to chalk it up to his bland style.

Happy to meet another Iliad and thanks so much for the compliments on my site. Do try the Hall if you get the chance.

Dewey yes, but what about A Woman of No Importance or An Ideal Husband or Lady Windermere’s fan? Even that crazy Vera. I can’t choose. :/

I just saw a few months ago that Fagles translated The Aeneid. I think it could be chalked up to the differences between Latin and Greek.

Wonderful! I’ve added some of your choices to my own list. Thank you.

Well how interesting. I’ve often heard about that book and for some reason put her in the same category as the equally enigmatic H.D. But I won’t be rushing out to read it. Do like the list, but like even more the new picture on the header of your blog. Just so attractive!

Nova you’re welcome!

litlove H.D. — who is that? I can’t quite figure it out. (Is she another lesbian writer?) I’m not surprised that you won’t rush out — I have a feeling the prose would make you giggle more than anything else. But thanks for the compliments on the banner — it’s nice to know that readers appreciate the selections.

Hi imani.
I did say I was stuck, right? 😦
I’m having a hard time finishing this book; I can’t understand old English…

I love, love, love, LOVE The Well of Loneliness!

geek oh no! I wonder how you’ll get along with Jane Eyre since both are from the same period? It’s too bad that you’re having such difficult with the Austen. Are you doing it for a class?

Amanda I know! I think you were the blogger who convinced me to read it, but I’m not sure.

No imani. It’s not for class. I’ll try finishing it though. I have this knack of not being able to read another book unless I finished the one before it. 🙂

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