Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – I can hardly count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the past few years, and even during the short day and a half that it was off my shelf and in my hand I had several people tell me how much they enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I fail to see what is so compelling about the novel. Its story is heavy-handedly allegorical and moralistic, endlessly talking over the most simplistic kinds of spiritual truisms. Its central argument would run something like, “If you truly desire your destiny, the whole universe will conspire to fulfill it,” and this is about as profound as it ever gets. It has almost no literary value and only the most superficial intellectual value. Its sole quality, to my mind, is that it took me very little time to read.
Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé – This is a remarkable book, and I hardly know what further I can say about it that would not immediately entail writing a thesis length treatise. Let it suffice for me to quote a small section: “Novels are so many wedges which the novelist, an actor with his pen, inserts into the personality of the reader. The better he calculates the size of the wedge and the strength of the resistance, so much the more completely does he crack open the personality of his victim.” In light of this idea, I can assure you that Canetti calculates very well indeed, and that his novel certainly cracked this victim’s personality widely open. Either this will recommend the book to you as another willing victim, or it will not.
Russell Hoban’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz – In some ways this book reads like The Alchemist: parable-esque, ambiguously spiritual, and always trying just a little bit too hard. It is somewhat better written, however, and its moral is somewhat less ridiculous, something like, “The only place is time, and that time is now,” but I was not much impressed on the whole. I would take it over The Alchemist, but not over much else.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – There are many writers who try to emulate Hemingway’s famously terse and unornamented prose, but they generally fail because they mistake a lack of literary imagery for a lack of imagery generally, and they are unable to make the details of a scene or a character stand as images in themselves. The result is a spare and impoverished prose, where Hemingway’s writing feels full and complex and complete even in its stylistic simplicity. The difference is that Hemingway is continually choosing the facts and the details that produce an imagistic effect without the need for formalized and contrived images. He does not need to draw parallels between bull fighting and the social interactions of his characters through metaphor or allusion. He merely describes the bullfighting and the social interactions of his characters closely and in proximity. His readers are left to draw the parallels. It is not that he does without imagery, therefore. Quite the opposite. He raises everything, even the smallest detail, to play the role of the image, to make every fact as pregnant as a metaphor.
Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth – This is the novel that was supposed to have followed Invisible Man but was burned in a house fire and then rewritten for the next fifty odd years until it comprised thousands of type-written pages and countless more handwritten notes but still remained unpublished at Ellison’s death. This is not the novel that Ellison would have published, however, if indeed he would ever have published a second novel it all. It is what the editors of Ellison’s estate gathered together to publish on his behalf, a practice that often produces only garbage but in this case has provided for the world some truly remarkable writing. That the form of the novel may be different from Ellison’s intent is almost irrelevant, because the characters, Reverend Hickman and Bliss/Senator Sunraider, are so wonderfully rendered and their relationship so powerfully explored that they would make a unique and valuable addition to English Literature whatever form their story took. The prose too is beautiful, moving with a sureness and a polish born from fifty years of editing, finding at times the register of poetry, and drawing evocatively on the tradition of African-American preaching in the American south. A truly beautiful work of literature.