My Personal Canon

Anthony (on Twitter as @timesflow) asked people on Twitter to talk about their personal canon – and since I am emotionally unwell today and can’t get anything done I decided to give this a stab. It’s hard, I love making lists as much as anyone and I admire a great many writers and novels, but I’m going to list the writers and books that 1) I would take with me if I had to move and get rid of 99% of my personal library or that I would immediately rebuy if my apartment burns to the ground and 2) had the biggest impact on me as a writer and reader. As a result this list skews more German and more towards older books, despite so many excellent books coming out recently. I’m also limiting myself to 20 fiction books, 20 nonfiction books and 20 poets because, I mean, you know. I’m also writing this in one sitting. I mean the list would probably look different tomorrow. Who knows. Finally, only one book per writer.

Writers

I have one exception: the following 15 writers I cannot possibly pick one book and skip all others. Their whole oeuvre is important to me, in different genres  and across many volumes (paradigmatic here is probably Thomas Bernhard who is one of my favorite poets, playwrights and novelists and whose books in all three genres I’ve been reading since I was a teenager). Not on this particular list, but on lists lower, writers where I do place importance on their complete work, but whose complete work basically fits into one book (i.e. Emily Dickinson, Hertha Kräftner).

  • Ingeborg Bachmann (Malina is the single novel by anyone. living or dead, that is most important to me)
  • Herman Melville
  • Uwe Johnson
  • Paul Celan
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Sarah Kane
  • Sam Beckett
  • Thomas Bernhard
  • Alfred Döblin
  • Christa Wolf
  • Heinrich v. Kleist
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Jean Rhys
  • Heiner Müller
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Gerald Murnane

Poetry

  • John Berryman
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Boris Pasternak
  • Hilde Domin
  • James Merrill
  • Cavafy
  • Delmore Schwartz
  • Hart Crane
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Peter Huchel
  • Rose Ausländer
  • Ted Hughes
  • Elizabeth Bishop
  • Philip Larkin
  • Ezra Pound
  • Christine Lavant
  • Thomas Brasch
  • John Ashbery
  • James Wright
  • Hans-Magnus Enzensberger

Fiction

  • Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
  • William Gaddis, Recognitions
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (narrowly didn’t make the list of 15 writers, because I dislike The Idiot)
  • Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
  • Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (really, would be on 15 writers list above, if not for my dislike of early prose and Lot 49)
  • Don DeLillo, Libra
  • Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
  • Proust, the whole Récherche, but particularly Le côté de Guermantes
  • Irmtraud Morgner, Trobadora Beatriz
  • Samuel R. Delany, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (should probably be on the 15 writers list above)
  • Hans Henny Jahnn, Fluß ohne Ufer
  • A.L. Kennedy, Everything You Need
  • Henry James, Wings of the Dove
  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
  • Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros
  • Josef Winkler, Das wilde Kärnten
  • Harold Brodkey, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
  • Patrick White, The Vivisector
  • Robert Walser, Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet
  • Hemingway, The Sun Als0 Rises
  • Yukio Mishima, The Sea of Fertility

Non-Fiction

  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
  • Wilhelm Reich, Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus 
  • Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen
  • Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
  • Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa
  • Thomas Browne, The Major Works
  • Adorno/Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung
  • Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
  • Louis Althusser et al., Lire Le Capital
  • James Clifford, Routes
  • Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man
  • Wilhelm Dilthey, Der Aufbau der Geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
  • Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et Infini
  • Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
  • Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis
  • Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode
  • Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse
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7 thoughts on “My Personal Canon

  1. Have you read Frisch’s Montauk? I believe it is his perspective on the story Bachmann relates in Malina. I’ll be reading Bachmann this month.

    Fascinating list. Reminds me to make time for Buddenbrooks too, but there are always so many gaps in a reading life.

    • Yes I read that. I really like Montauk. Mostly, I prefer Frisch’s short prose and drama above his novels, but Montauk is an exception. I don’t like reading Bachmann’s fiction against autobiographical hints, nor Frisch’s. It diminishes its extraordinary power as fiction. Well, there’s a new edition of Bachmann’s work, including a ton of unpublished stuff. Slated for 2020 is a volume of the Frisch/Bachmann letters. I am not entirely comfortable with that but will, of course pre-order.

    • There isn’t much of Bachmann translated, so I hope that changes with this new material that is due to be published.

  2. Love, love your canon. I agree with many of your ‘cannot choose one work over others by those writers’. I never get bored of Paul Celan, Jean Rhys, Ingeborg Bachmann, Cavafy, Elizabeth Bishop, although I would add T.S. Eliot to the poetry list. And I remember reading Eric Wolf for my degree, as well as Amartya Sen’s books on inequality and poverty.

    • The downward spiral with no indication of a return. The book was certainly interesting enough to keep turning the pages, but after a number of characters die or disappear, it is painful to follow the shallowness and mediocrity. Tony is certainly lovely at first, but she never becomes much more than a child, apart from all of her life experience. I held out a hope that the boy she liked from the beginning would appear again, but alas… There is just a lot of ugliness in the book. I appreciate some of the scenes with Hanno, but most of them are painful.

      That was just my first impression though! I would be very interested in know what you like in it. I always enjoy seeing more than I could see on my own.

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