Sunday, July 26,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 4

4 books I can't renounce

Coming Clean

Modern Library's list of the best 100 novels of this century brings me back to the books of my callow youth

MODERN LIBRARY, an American outfit which has been publishing classic English literature at affordable prices since the beginning of the century, formed an editorial board comprising scholars and writers to pick the top 100 English-language novels of the last 100 years.

Life! carried its top 100 list last Monday.

Modern Library's equivalent in Britain, Penguin, decided to repackage 30 "Essential Penguins" -- 20 of them based on literary merits and 10 on how well they have sold worldwide -- for a new generation of readers.

Life! carried the list of titles yesterday.

Like a typical Singaporean, the first thing I did was to check each list to see how I scored.

Happily, I have read more than half of the Essential Penguins, 16 to be exact, although five of them are from among the top 10 bestselling titles. Sadly, on the Modern Library list, I could tick off only 40 of the 100 novels.

I have yet to attempt James Joyce's Ulysses, the No. 1 novel on the Modern Library's list, and I don't believe I ever would. There is only so much stream-of-consciousness writing that one can bear. It is enough though to have read A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, which is No. 3 on the list. The book, which I read when I was in my 20s, left an indelible impression.

The language is exquisite, intoxicating even, but what remains most vivid for me is the chapter in which the young artist turns down the opportunity to become a priest.

Even as he is elated to have been singled out by his priest for that privilege, Stephen Dedalus realises that he has to live outside of any order, social or religious.

He goes to the beach and sees a girl whose image passes "into his soul", convincing him that he has "to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life".

She is a wild angel, "the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life", who has appeared, "to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all ways of error and glory".

Here is Joyce's description of the girl: "Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's... Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared to her hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down...

"Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plummaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face."

This from someone who was almost half blind when he was a young man. By the time he was writing Ulysses, Joyce was plagued by pains in his eyes and glaucoma rendered him almost totally blind.

The girl in the book is obviously based on Nora, his wife and muse and the only woman in his life, give or take a few whores. Contrary to popular misconception, Joyce was not only monogamous, he was also uxorious.

I am glad Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is No. 4 on the list. It is another novel of rapture, a poetic work by someone who seems to have reinvented the English language. And to think that English was not the Russian writer's mother tongue.

How can one ever forget the book's opening lines: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

In London earlier in the year, the one movie I made sure I caught was Adrian Lyne's Lolita, starring Jeremy Irons. It is a work faithful to the book, with not a single sex scene -- I hope the censors are reading this -- and I prefer it to Stanley Kubrick's 1961 version.

There is lying somewhere a version written by Nabokov himself, a screenplay that has not been translated to film. Yet, the best thing to do is still to read the book. The pleasure tingles the spine.

Nabokov, in one of his lectures, had said that one should read an artist's work not with one's heart or brain alone, but with one's spine as well. If it tingles, then the work is authentic art.

SOME time last year, I had consigned the books by Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac to my top shelf, out of reach without a stool or a ladder. They were the authors of my callow youth, and I suppose I had wanted to bury them.

But their books had shaped me in not an insignificant way. I cannot abandon them just because I have grown comfortable and wish to be seen as more "responsible".

I must disclose here that small part of me that remains bohemian, thanks to the two American writers.

Miller's Tropic Of Cancer, No. 50 on the Modern Library's list, may still be banned in Singapore. But its passages on sex are more comic than pornographic.

The book is a joyous celebration of life, even if -- or maybe because -- it is one lived at the gutter level on the margins of responsible society.

"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.

"This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character... No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art..."

And so begins Tropic Of Cancer.

In these hard times, Miller is a good author to read. If Cancer is unavailable, I recommend Black Spring and Tropic Of Capricorn, the two other major books of Miller's Paris years, and his massive trilogy, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus.

Kerouac's On The Road, No. 55 on the list and also an Essential Penguin, is a book you may want to read if you are still under 30 years old, and as they say, "in between jobs".

It's the American cowboy let loose on the roads in urban '50s America, and its celebration of life is wild-eyed manic, the kind that burns and consumes one.

The burden of the excesses of the '60s has been put on the shoulders of this sad, shy writer, among others. The popular press caricatured him as the Hippie Homer. And after all, was it not his book that sent thousands of teenage baby boomers hitching rides across America, to gather in San Francisco, which he and his friends, the "dharma bums", had made into a "happening" city?

Popular legend has it that Kerouac bashed out On The Road on a 120-foot roll of teletype paper, in a three-week burst fuelled by Benzedrine.

But if it were only that easy. Writing a novel is very different from dashing off a three-minute pop ditty.

Few of his hippie fans knew that it took Kerouac six years, from 1951 to 1957, to get the book published. It is true he finished the first draft in that three-week rush. But he was to revise it many times, and to suffer many rejections by publishers, before he actually saw it bound between covers.

In that time, down but not quite out, he wrote six other books.

The one lasting image I have of Kerouac is not anything from On The Road, but a scene from Joyce Johnson's book, Minor Characters, which describes how she, then a girlfriend of his, went with the author at midnight to a newsstand at 66th Street and Broadway to get a copy of The New York Times to read its review of the book, under a streetlamp and afterwards in a bar.

The Times' regular reviewer was away on vacation, and a young stand-in, Gilbert Millstein, got to review the book.

He hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat', and whose principal avatar he is.

"Just as, more than any other novel of the '20s, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On The Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation."

After poring over the review, as Johnson reports in her book, "Jack kept shaking his head. He didn't look happy, exactly, but strangely puzzled, as if he couldn't figure out why he wasn't happier than he was.

"We returned to the apartment to go back to sleep. Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous."

As it turned out, fame drove him to his early death. He was made fun of in radio and television shows. His fans never left him alone. Eventually, he retreated to his mother's home in Lowell and drank himself to death at 47 years old.

To set the record straight, Kerouac hated the hippies, and like Aldous Huxley and Anais Nin, had discouraged Timothy Leary from popularising the hallucinogenic drug LSD.

Much of American fiction in the second half of the 20th century bears the influence of Henry Miller, from Norman Mailer to Philip Roth to Raymond Carver to today's hot writers such as Jay McInerney.

Kerouac's legacy, on the other hand, is in American journalism, in the writings of Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and P. J. O'Rourke, among others. You can still hear his echoes in so much of the writing in Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, and even Wired and the hip e-zine Salon.

What is inspiring though about Miller and Kerouac is not their bohemian ways, but their conviction that they were writers and nothing else, and the courage of their conviction.

Miller lived as a pauper for more than 30 years, before he received some kind of recognition. Kerouac, as I said earlier, wrote six books during the six years when he was revising and peddling On The Road.

Joyce too was convinced from an early age that writing was his vocation. Before he became big, he and Nora lived on the patronage of others.

In Nabokov's case, there were only two most intense pleasures known to men, he said: writing and catching butterflies.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia