In the spring of 1968, my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Staats, gave me the book that changed my life: Laurence Sterne’s comic masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I put aside The Lord of the Rings, which I was then reading for the fifth or sixth time, and fell into an entirely new world: not only the lively landscape of eighteenth-century England, with its snuff-boxes and horse-drawn carriages, its fops, rakes, and glances half-hidden behind lacy fans, but also a fictional realm that I’d never imagined. Sterne reveled in the possibilities of the modern novel, a form so new that its very name announced its novelty. He loved to interrupt his narrative with black or marbled pages, and he inserted a dedication, eight chapters in, offered for sale to the highest bidder. Sterne poured the entire world into his tale of the Shandy family’s misadventures, in a heady mix of social satire and philosophical speculation, enlivened by verbal highjinks and sly sexual innuendo. I was entranced. Where had such writing been all my life – all fifteen years of it? Where could I find more books like it?
Tristram himself served as my guide. Among the many opinions that crowd his life narrative, he speaks at one point of “my dear Rabelais and my dearer Cervantes.” I didn’t know anything about either of these gentlemen, but if they were good enough for Tristram Shandy, they’d be good enough for me. In the bookstore next to my school bus stop I found the thick black Penguin paperbacks of Gargantua and Pantagruel and Don Quixote, in the solid translations by J. M. Cohen. Both authors more than lived up to their billing, and by midsummer I was hungry for more. But where to go next? Anticipating Amazon’s algorithms today, at the back of their books Penguin offered a selection of titles likely to appeal to readers of the book they’d just finished. I was eager to find another rollicking, Rabelesian satire, so I settled on a likely title: The Divine Comedy.
I soon discovered that Dante’s visionary epic wasn’t exactly the knee-slapper I’d been hoping for, but his cosmic vision and his melancholy eloquence drew me in. As summer waned and the new responsibilities of tenth grade approached, I felt ready for another deeply serious and otherworldly work. Bidding farewell to the pulsating celestial rose at the heart of Dante’s surprisingly sensuous paradise, I came upon the perfect title in the back of my Penguin Paradiso, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls – only to discover that this was the sparkling satire I’d expected from Dante. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, as Wordsworth would say, but to be a young reader was very heaven.
Since then, I’ve devoted myself to exploring the literatures of England, Europe, and the wider world, and during these years the study of world literature has greatly expanded its range. Long focused largely on a handful of European literatures, world literature now encompasses a host of classic works, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Tale of Genji and the Mayan Popol Vuh, that were never found on syllabi outside specialized area studies programs, while the Nobel and Booker Prizes are now given to contemporary writers as varied as China’s Mo Yan, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, and Oman’s Jokha Alharthi. I’ve written during the past twenty years about these changes, but apart from a trade book on Gilgamesh, I’ve addressed myself to students and to scholars. A few years ago, however, prompted by an inquiry from Penguin, I began to think about how I might introduce a broader readership to the expansive landscape of literature today, both in Europe and beyond. What kind of story to tell, and how to give it shape?
Literary works are the product of two very different worlds – the immediate world of the writer’s experience, and the world of books. These offer the resources that writers use, and transform, in order to process their often chaotic and painful experience into lasting and pleasurable form. The present project is no exception; it draws on my experiences in giving talks in some fifty countries around the world, and it takes shape from a variety of literary explorations and fictional adventures. The first movie I ever saw, at age four in Portland, Maine, may have been the American film version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, starring David Niven as the obsessively punctual Phileas Fogg and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as his servant Passepartout.
I also had in mind Harold Bloom’s eloquent, idiosyncratic paean to great books, The Western Canon, though to survey today’s global landscape, I wanted a larger cast of characters than his select set of twenty-six writers. Verne’s tally of eighty seemed about right, a capacious enough but still manageable number of works to discuss. Drawing on my experiences abroad, I decided to loosely mimic Phileas Fogg’s route from London eastward through Asia, across the Pacific to America, and finally back to London. I would recall, and often actually revisit, a group of particularly memorable locations and the books I associate with them, both to see how literature enters the world and to think about how the world bleeds into literature.
At the start of 2020, I was plotting my itinerary, building it around upcoming talks and conferences. Then came Covid-19. I managed to get in a trip to Muscat that February, but in rapid succession events got cancelled in Chicago, Tokyo, Belgrade, Copenhagen, Heidelberg. So much for going around the world anytime soon. But then again, what was I thinking? It was Phileas Fogg, not his creator, who travelled the world, by train, hot air balloon, steamship, elephant, and stagecoach. Throughout his long life Verne never ventured beyond Europe, and he didn’t set foot outside Paris during the months in 1872 when he wrote his novel. He didn’t need to, as he could encounter the world in his cosmopolitan world capital; the idea for the book came to him in a Paris café, where he read a newspaper account of new railway lines and steamship routes that could make it possible for someone to go around the world in eighty days.
Even sitting in cafés wasn’t going to be in the cards for me under lockdown, but then another literary model came to mind: Xavier de Maistre’s little masterpiece Voyage autour de ma chambre – “Voyage Around My Room.” De Maistre was a young French aristocrat serving in the Piedmontese army in 1790 when he was punished for fighting a duel; the judge sentenced him to house arrest in his rented room for forty-two days.
Unable to spend his customary evenings drinking with friends, gambling at cards, and flirting with Italian enchantresses, de Maistre decided to treat his room as a miniature world. Parodying the “Grand Tour” that wealthy young men of his era would undertake around Europe – the eighteenth-century equivalent of a gap year – he wrote a series of vivid vignettes and stories based on everything around him in his room, from books to paintings to furniture.
I could do the same, and I had an advantage over de Maistre and Verne. They could access the world to some extent through newspapers such as Le Monde, but my readers and I could travel together on the world-wide web. Jules Verne serialized his novel in a Paris paper, and his avid readers traced each stage of Phileas Fogg’s journey on maps, placing bets on where he’d go next and whether he’d return on time to his club in London, where he had rashly wagered his entire fortune that he could return within eighty days. Fogg’s success results from his extreme precision. His clocks must all chime the hour at the same instant, and his servant Passepartout must bring his master tea and toast every morning at 8:23; he’d be sacked if he heated Fogg’s shaving water two degrees below its “statutory” level. Above all, the pair must girdle the globe within eighty days, not a day more, a task that Fogg triumphantly accomplishes to the minute. So too, this website could track our journey together through eighty books over the course of four months, bringing us back to London and my manuscript to completion. In honor of Fogg's triumphant return to his club, I posted my final entry on August 31, on The Lord of the Rings, at precisely 8:45pm Lndon time, the same minute that he returned to the Reform Club, with just five minutes to spare.
After a month and a half of virus-induced sequestration, with days and weeks blurring into each other, it seemed good to set the schedule at one book per day each Monday through Friday. This plan offered at least the illusion of having a day job with set deadlines during the “work week,” with a couple of “days off” on the “weekend,” giving some meaning to these increasingly vague concepts in a period when time seems at once to be standing still and endlessly running out, in a city whose unnatural silence is still punctuated not by Fogg’s chiming clocks but by sirens.
The project’s website became a version of those calendars that give us a “Thought for the Day,” enhanced with images and commentary. At the same time, it served as a logbook for the evolving manuscript that I've now completed, exploring books that themselves have responded to times of crisis and deep memories of trauma. Not that the works in question are all doom and gloom. Though The Decameron’s young men and women have fled the plague in Florence to shelter in place outside the city, the hundred tales they tell are mostly comic and satiric in nature. We too need literature as a refuge in troubled times, and when our external activities are curtailed, reading fiction and poetry offers a special opportunity for deep reflection on our lives and the social and political struggles that surround us, as we navigate the turbulent waters of our world with the aid of literature’s maps of imaginary times and places.
In this respect, our journey has as much in common with Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits as with Jules Verne’s and Xavier de Maistre’s works. Every great book is a potential wormhole leading us far from home, and like the bold Time Bandits, armed with the flawed blueprint they’ve pilfered from the Supreme Being, we are free to pick up whatever we can, wherever we land. Our writers have long been doing the same thing, plundering the tradition they’ve inherited, and often looking abroad for riches not available at home. In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s antihero Shem the Penman produces “the last word in stollentelling,” drawing on dozens of languages and literary traditions in the process. A millennium and a half before him, Saint Augustine justified the reading of pagan classics as “stealing the gold from Egypt,” an image that he himself lifted from the Book of Exodus. Every storyteller is in this sense a second-story man or woman.
The 80 writers I discuss have drawn both on their home culture and on traditions beyond their own. Virginia Woolf was in rivalrous dialog with Joseph Conrad and with Arnold Bennett, and with her English predecessors from Dickens and Jane Austen back to Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne. Yet she also read Chekhov (in Russian), Proust (in French and in English), and Sophocles (in Greek), and in her diary she described “going to bed with Arthur Waley” – meaning not the man himself but his pioneering translation of The Tale of Genji. Many of the writers treasured at the heart of our national traditions have drawn extensively on foreign sources to create their work. Even when a work is written in a purely local context, if it travels beyond its borders it enters into a new set of literary relations, and we will often be looking at ways in which a classic text has been revisited and reworked in very different circumstances by later writers.
Like Phileas Fogg’s journey, this project is based on a very personal itinerary, only partially overlapping with what another literary traveler would create. I myself could readily have constructed a very different set of books, and locales, from Reykjavik to Moscow to Bangkok and points beyond. The itinerary I settled on gives one version of world literature, not the uniform order of some globalized “one-world” literature. These eighty works aren’t intended as a permanent listing of “the books and school of the ages,” to recall the subtitle of Bloom’s The Western Canon. What I’ve chosen are particularly worldly works, written by authors who are reflecting on the world around them and the wider world beyond their borders, either as their characters venture abroad or as the outside world impinges upon them.
Through unexpected encounters en route and sometimes surprising twists, turns, and juxtapositions, I hope that you will find fresh ways to look at long-familiar works, together with some exciting new discoveries. Though the book won't be out until early November, I've left a sampling of postings up on the blog for your perusal now. As Apuleius of Madaura said at the start of his masterpiece The Golden Ass, nearly two thousand years ago, Lector, intende: laetaberis: Attend, reader, and you will find delight.