Adventures in Reading

Challenge: J.-M.G. Le Clézio
October 19, 2008, 11:28 am
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When it was announced that Doris Lessing had won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, I quickly delved into two of her shorter pieces: The Fifth Child and the sequel Ben, In the World. Always with the intention on reading more by Lessing, the year slipped away and here we are with a new Nobel Prize winner – J.-M.G. Le Clézio (“the Steve McQueen of French literature”). Being announced amidst some interesting Nobel hubbub after recent comments by Engdahl regarding American literature, I can’t say I was terribly surprised that I had never heard of Le Clézio before.

Over the next year I’m endeavoring to read as much Le Clézio as I can fit in and stand. My first two books of his are The Giants and The Flood.


Weekly Geeks #21: First Lines
October 15, 2008, 2:04 pm
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This round of Weekly Geeks has us looking at (more or less) famous first lines of novels to see what we can identify. I was pretty well pleased with what I was able to guess at.

1. “Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick

2. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride & Prejudice

5. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Lolita

6. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina

7. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” – Finnegan’s Wake

9. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities

16. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – Cather in the Rye

18. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” – The Good Soldier

19. “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me…” – Tristram Shandy

21. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – Ulysses

27. “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” – Don Quixote

28. “Mother died today.” – The Stranger

37. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Mrs. Dalloway

48. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – The Old Man and the Sea

50. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Middlesex

66. ““To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”” – The Satanic Verses

Fiction: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

“You be lookin’ pretty junky with a Night of Joy broom stickin out your ass,” Jones said very slowly. “Night of Joy broom old, they good and splintery.”

The Pulitzer Prize-Winning A Confederacy of Dunces existed in my peripheral vision for some years. At some point I must have read the introduction and learned that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and some years later his mother plagued a professor at a local college to take a look at her son’s manuscript. If we celebrate Mother’s Day for no other reason than to celebrate Mrs. Toole’s efforts it is a worthwhile holiday. Before I proceed, I confess that nothing I can say will do this book nearly enough justice.

A co-worker persuaded me into picking up the novel and I downed it over a few days full of snorts, guffaws, and raucous laughter as I shared inappropriate quotes with anyone in hearing distance. A Confederacy of Dunces follows an amusing entourage of New Orleans inhabitants and perhaps most remarkably Ignatius Reilly. Ignatius is a delightful result of the world of academy and has returned to the common people of New Orleans. A Confederacy of Dunces pursues Reilly through the echelons of the city as he seeks employment ranging from file clerk to hotdog vendor. Along the way he attempts various radical liberation movements to unsettle his New York City girlfriend Myrna Minkoff.

Toole’s title was taken from a Jonathan Swift quote: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

While reading A Confederacy of Dunces it continually put me in mind of classics such as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and of course Joyce’s Ulysses. All great adventure novels with the central idea of a man pursuing life and various philosophical ideas. Toole’s New Orleans is as meaningful as Joyce’s Dublin. Toole’s novel covers such a breath of material but still remains a hilarious and energetic read. I seldom say this, but truly, A Confederacy of Dunces is a book everyone ought to read.

Conclusion: A definite keeper.