Taking literature literally v2

The transforming quality of literature has been amply documented. Indeed, the modern Western canon begins with the cautionary tale of Don Quixote, a perfectly ordinary man turned into an idealistic clown by the augmented reality of Romance novels. Through the gauze of his library, milkmaids became grand ladies and windmills became giants. A couple of centuries later, Emma Bovary desperately sought to escape her provincial life to the realm of romantic intrigue depicted in the romances she read.

Perhaps these examples could be read as an appeal to quality, the exalted form of the novel decrying the superficial, aspirational, corruption of popular literature. There is certainly no such judgment in Turgenyev’s Faust. Forbidden by her mother from reading poetry and fiction, Vera Nikolayevna maintained this interdiction into her twenties, after she herself had become a wife and mother. A chance acquaintance introduces her to Goethe’s Faust and the fire of the imagination burns down all the comfortable shelter that had held her narrow identity together. 1

There are more direct ways that books can have an impact on your life. A friend of mine used to have a sort of fire-eating party trick in which he spat out a mouthful of vodka and ignited the jet with a cigarette lighter. Once, at a reunion with some old friends, he wanted to demonstrate his acquired repertoire and asked the woman behind the bar for a vodka, “something nasty”. She told him it’s funny he’d said that because they had a bottle of small Polish vodka called, of all things, Nasti. My friend put a couple of shots into his mouth, spat them out and ignited the, Something went wrong, of course—maybe the vodka was a higher proof and therefore more flammable than he was used to or maybe he’d already swallowed more vodka than he was used to. The vodka ignited all right but the fireball hung over his face, and set his long hair alight. Second-degree burns are more painful than third-degree burns, he was told at the state-of-the-art burns unit that was conveniently in the neighbourhood, because the nerve-endings are left operational enough to transmit the pain. His reconstructed face was a small but significant improvement on his previous one; rejuvenated skin with no trace of alcohol or narcotics, it clung more snugly to his cheekbones, his nose had a finer point, his chin was more chiselled. The short hair suited him too.

When the good-natured staff at the hospital had asked him how this had happened, he told them about his party trick. He’d read about it, he said truthfully, in a book. 2

Another time 3 a collegue of ours 4

Cervantes,’  Flaubert’s and Turgenyev’s depictions of literature as a destructive, even if desirable and necessary, intervention into the subject’s life is a touch more attractive than the saccharine paeans to the great benefits of reading customary in our post-print age. Turgenyev’s cuts deepest of the three because Vera Nikolayevna comes undone by literature at its finest 5 It is not merely that books can transform you, painfully perhaps, into a better person as the school-teachery and defensive clickbait would have you believe. Vera Nikolayevna’s blissful philistinism could sincerely be said to be preferable to her neurotic breakdown. At their best, books can ruin your life.

The vain thing to do here would be to catalogue the ways that books have turned me into the tragic hero that now stands before you. A cultured man’s curriculum vitae should, after all, be as full of incident and epiphany as a bildungsroman.

I must admit that I only thought of reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels after they came out as Penguin Classics. Though I had liked both Plein Soleil and Anthony Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley, 6 I had never been much of a reader of thrillers: film is a better medium for plot-driven stories. Also, it is something of a truism that many great films are based on mediocre books. That truism is normally derived from the obvious assertion that  good novels are good when they manage to show the protagonist’s interior life—which film cannot show. The character of Ripley is, perhaps, far too impenetrable and the books themselves are—if not exactly plot-driven—behaviour driven. Ripley’s actions are haphazard and seemingly improvised, as is Highsmith’s own style. She never seems to bother with the rules of detective fiction. She explains things as they become convenient for the story, improbabilities pile on top of each other. Ripley murders and buries people with no seeming malice; the most he can muster is an occasional resentment. The novels are mostly taken up by the logistics of murder, the quick murders and laboursome disposal of the body. I read all three Penguin-approved books of the five-book Ripliad within a couple of weeks.

My first dream had almost no content to speak of. I dreamt of living with the memory of having killed somebody; I dreamt of carrying the guilt around. Not in any dramatic way, but simply the horror of being able to live on, seemingly normally, and of having been able to hide the fact from myself. This dream came again over the following weeks. Hardly a dream, more a sensation that I woke up with. Then, once or twice, if I let my mind wander during the day I would once again be overcome by the possibility that I had done this, that I had whitewashed over it all.

Some weeks later I managed to mash up Ripley with Hitchcock’s Rope and dreamt that I had killed my childhood friend and kept the body in blue Ikea boxes while I entertained guests to dinner. For two hours after I had woken up, I searched for references to my childhood friend. He had become a somewhat distinguished amateur ornithologist.


  1. 1She was, as it were, Bovarised from without. “Sometimes, people have to be forced to be Bovary.”
  2. 2BP had lent him this book. What was it?
  3. 3This segue is clumsy.
  4. 4GM] had his brand new bike stolen from the bike rack outside the office. Someone had noticed a young man looking it over earlier and then entering the day-care centre that was on the ground floor of the building. A group of us went to look for him but he was not there, so they took it in turns, through overlapping cigarette breaks, to stake out the day-care centre and wait for the young man to return. When they saw him return to the building, they went in and found him in the kitchen. He was a young Spanish student, working in the kitchen. He returned the bike was unharmed and he begged them not to report the theft to the police. His defence? His explanation, which he seemed to offer as a defence, was that he had gotten the idea from a book. [But what book? Unfortunately, no-one had the presence of mind to ask him.
  5. 5In Turgenyev’s eyes.
  6. 6And later, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game.