It's hard to select a list of your favourite anything because it's invariably a case of exclusion. Even when you remove the superlative and think of ten enjoyed books, not the initial definitive-undisputed-golden hit list, you still naturally strive to choose the cream. Unpleasant short lists are involved. But then thats the comparatively easy bit. The real trouble is actually remembering anything about a novel beyond the certainty that it was good. So… from dazzling top ten, to remembered three.
I probably encounter the memory problem most frequently with I Served the King of England because for the last 5 years, when asked, I have developed the nasty habit of citing it as a favourite book. Written in the early '70s by arguably the most celebrated Czech author of the 20th century, Bohumil Hrabal, it's ostensibly a rags-to-riches-to-rags number. A picaresque tale of Jan Ditie, whose grandiose ambition takes him from busboy at the Golden Hotel of Prague to millionaire Hotel owner to Taoist hilltop recluse. For the the vast majority of the book we cannot sympathize with the protagonist whose determined amorality sees him climb the ladder of affluence by any means possible; no qualms with collaborating with first the Nazis and then the Soviets during their successive occupations of his country if it means he can advance his career. It is all the more touching, then, when he seems to come to life in the years before his death. After such moral corruption, the sudden humility, generosity and human solidarity he exhibits really is tear jerking. Like many other books that deal to a certain extent with a people's subjugated and oppressed state, Hrabal follows a Czech tradition of writing with humour and self-deprecation on the matter. The overall strength of the book lies in the recounting of farcical and surreal episodes, outrageous characters and the grotesque descriptions therein. It has an easy to read, flowing first person prose, which is unhampered by the self-awareness or reflection that another narrator may exhibit, and describes with unique indifference the historical horror in which the story is set. Man contains enough phosphorous to make ten boxes of matches, enough iron to make a nail to hang himself on, and enough water to make ten litres of tripe soup.
The end of Hrabal's book may testify to the adage 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin' (we must cultivate our garden) from Voltaire's Candide: or The Optimist, the second book I remember something about. Schooled by Dr. Pangloss, professor of “métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie,” Candide is indoctrinated with the philosophy that we live in the best possible of all worlds and everything is for the best before a succession of unfortunate events befall him. Banished harshly from his guardian's castle, drafted, forced to participate in a war, caught in Earthquakes, sentenced to death in Europe then in South America, enslaved repeatedly, thieved of his love and his sheep, his money… etc. with arduous journies in between we anticipate calamity at every turn. As other characters seem to be subjected to similarly miserable fates, Candide is not surprisingly disillusioned with the philosophy of Optimism. After consultation with different philosophers, Candide and his ravaged retinue finally settle on a farm where they dedicate their life to work, free of three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty. It ends with the famous jardin line, making the tiresome build-up all worthwhile. Written in 1759, Voltaire's satirizing of everything from organized religion, government, army, fatuous war, philosophy/philosophers was dangerously mocking and enlightened and therefor widely banned. Reason enough to read it.
I often find with novels, to some extent all novels because they are indelible stories, that they force you to think about the fragility of your own unmapped story and how an infinitude of possibilities lie before useach second. With Candide (and Ditie), his series of mishaps and his enlightened second beginning this provocation is quite strong. Im thinking about how i came to my enlightened second life, as a struggling musician. And where might i be if i took a link out of the chain of apparently trivial events that have brought me here?
As sci-fi writers (and graphic novelists) may tell you, their genre suffers from an unfair stigma. The proportion of bad literature in sci-fi is the same as that in literature as a whole. Perhaps, but Phillip K Dick is one of the few sci-fi writers who has enjoyed widespread success out with its readership. It is a posthumous success and helped by hollywood adaptations of his novels, but Dick's prose, story telling, humour, interpretation of America and and where the world maybe heading deservedly qualifies him. An important writer and futurologist. Dick's story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is set sometime in the 21st century when the human race has colonized every habitable planet and moon in the solar system and Terra is reserved for a more fortunate, elite group of society. Because the colonist's life is undesirable, individuals are drafted (usually to Mars) by the UN. UN Sanctioned hallucinogens are taken by the colonists to temporarily escape their monotonous lives. But to unsettle the dystopia, an enigmatic space pirate, Palmer Eldritch introduces a more powerful, unregulated drug to the market. Like A Scanner Darkly and Ubik, Dick raises ontological questions of reality and our perception of it. If an ultimate reality really exists, can we ever know it? As he explains in a speech given in 1977 in Metz, most of his work had been preoccupied with a “manifold of partially actualized realities lying tangent to what evidently is the most actualized one, the one which the majority of us, by consensus gentium, agree on.” As he explores these tangents in Eldritch the narrative becomes characteristically unreliable and the demarcation between the real and the trip is blurred then completely erased. By the end there is considerable ambiguity and considerable unease and, for anyone who has delved into similar types of recreational activity, familiarity! Dick also asks questions of religion's place in the outter space future. With earth based religion being incompatible with Martain life and hallucinogenic escapism being the doctrine, he turns Marx's maxim on its head. (Can D) is the religion of the people. As a neo-Christian recently drafted to Mars says, “I'm not going to convert anyone to Neo-American Christianity; instead they'll convert me to Can-D and Chew-Z and whatever other vice is current, here, whatever escape presents itself.” There is also some great word play, (retro) technological predictions, simulacra and humans who have undergone sped up evolution and have big foreheads.
Books I'd like to add, making it to ten, are:
Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
From Hell, Alan Moore
The Joke, Milan Kundera
Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabakov
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Ebony Tower, John Fowles
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
Rudi Zygadlo's sophomore album, Tragicomedies, is available now on Planet Mu. You can stream the lead single, “Russian Dolls”, below.