Last summer at our mfa residency our guest Lance Olsen (self descriptor: "teacher of experimental narrative theory and practice." Much practice!) described that moment of recognition between lovers of the same lesser known literary work as a kind of “secret handshake.” Our own secret handshake was based on a mutual appreciation for the works of David Markson. But in that talk he was referring to books like Mark Danielewki’s House of Leaves. It’s quite a . . . literary artifact for those of you who don’t know it. The text begins on the title page and a few pages in is what appears to be an epigraph: “This is not for you.” The reader has been warned.
At the Banff Film and Book Festival in the fall of 2017 David Roberts in conversation with the Canadian climber and writer Geoff Powter (Strange and Dangerous Dreams), spoke of a similar moment of recognition shared by him and his one-time student, long-time friend Jon Krakauer: “Does person x pass the Wilfrid Noyce test?” I mention this pridefully because I “pass,” knowing even that he was a Wilfrid with an i, not a Wilfred with an e.
Roberts’ first book, the now classic Mountain of My Fear, has the rare distinction of having been blurbed (still hate that verb) by W.H. Auden. This is not too surprising if you know that Auden’s brother was a Himalayan explorer (geologist, more precisely) much discussed by Eric Shipton in A Blank on the Map. And, it was that brother who supplied the inspiration for Auden’s collaboration with Christopher Isherwood on the drama The Ascent of F6. Auden, too had his benchmark for measuring readers: “Do you love the names of the ships in the Illiad?” (Note: it’s an interminable list. I wouldn’t have made it into Auden’s club. I think you have to be poet.)
At another moment in the conversation Roberts recited the last paragraph of Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless (I prefer the original French title:
Les Conquérants de l'inutile) as follows:
My own scope must now go back down the scale. My strength and my courage will not cease to diminish. It will not be long before the Alps once again become the terrible mountains of my youth, and if truly, no stone, no tower of ice, no crevasse lies somewhere in wait for me, the day will come when, old and tired, I find peace among the animals and flowers. The wheel will have turned full circle: I will be at last the simple peasant that once, as a child, I dreamed of becoming.
Someone else in the audience knew the paragraph by heart as well, and joined him in the recitation. I was very envious of that exclusive little club and have vowed to join.
Terray, alas, perished four short years after writing those words in a climbing accident never having returned to his longed for simple peasant existence.
I finally have read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It was published at the end of the last century and I knew from everything I read about it that I would love it, and I did. But I waited to read it until my own novel, Forty Crows, was out of my hands and a thing in the world. This because, like The Savage Detectives, my novel is set mostly in Mexico City. I knew I would give up if I had read Bolano first. His, as I suspected is an intimate Mexico City. I like to think my Mexico City is a place the reader can believe in, but that’s not for me to say. In any case, my version of the city is an imagined place based on forty year old impressions and pre-Google research. I took my marching orders from John Irving, who in A Son of a Circus created an India that was “unknown and unknowable” to its main character. A fictional India.
In any case, one of the beauties of The Savage Detectives is not only its portrayal of Mexico City but its litany of its street names. Thus, going forward, for me it’s not the names of the warships in The Illiad but the names of the streets in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives:
Calle Republica de Venezuela
Calle Leonardo Da Vinci
Calle Independencia and Luis Moya
Camino Desierto de los Leones
Rue des Petites Écuries (Paris!)
And on and on. There are hundreds. Do you love them?
We readers, wandering through labyrinths of words of our own choosing. The purpose of our reading is not to read what everyone else does, but works that reflect somehow our own peculiarities of thinking. Why do I own four editions of René Daumal’s Mount Analogue? (pictured here in the 1968 City Lights edition, the one I originally read and love best, its cover hinting [mostly falsely!] of enlightenment. Even finding a copy of this back in the early 70s was along journey in and of itself). Also, why one in French, which I will never read?
Why do I own four editions of Under the Volcano? (Again, Mexico City!)
Why the two different translations of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow? Why do I need both it and the F. David translation: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow? I can’t explain it.
“By their deeds they shall be known” the New Testament wisely tells us. The corollary is: by the books they love they shall be known, or if not known, formed. We are what we read.
Someday I hope to exchange secret handshakes with the literary traveler who has been lost in this labyrinth, also known as Dreamlives of Debris:
I have already exchanged a secret handshake with its author.