The other day on Twitter, Matthew Jakubowski mentioned a chapter from one of my very favorite books—Tove Jannson’s The Summer Book. I replied back that this book sits comfortably on my list of “perfect” books and just thinking about it makes me want to reread it immediately. Matt kindly asked me which other books were on the list – and I’ve been thinking about this question ever since.
I do not throw the “perfect” word around lightly. I hate rating systems (one of the reasons I quit Goodreads) because they involve a notion of a perfect score and I often cannot bring myself to do this. No book is perfect because books are meaningful and wonderful in so many different ways. But I had an odd reading year and I have been avoiding writing up a list of my favorite books read in 2013, so instead I think it might be interesting to finish 2013 with an attempt to explain what I mean by that ridiculous word “perfect” and why I consider certain books deserve it.
The Summer Book and To the Lighthouse are the books I most often call “perfect” and without any hesitation. But after some thought, here is my list in alphabetical order:
- John Berger – To the Wedding
- Coetzee – Disgrace
- John Fuller – Flying to Nowhere
- Laurent Gaudé – Ouragan (Hurricane)
- Tove Jansson – The Summer Book
- Michèle Lesbre – Le Canapé Rouge (The Red Sofa)
- Alice McDermott – That Night
- Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
- Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
- Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse
These are the books I find myself thinking about long after I’ve finished, and books I have reread multiple times. Until Matt asked me to make a list, I hadn’t considered what it was about these books that make them so perfect to me. But I’ll attempt to do that now. And it should go without saying that this is a wholly subjective list, and the criteria have to do with my own reading tastes and personality. It would be silly to claim that these are “perfect” books in any other sense.
Before I go into the list, you’ll note that I deliberately did not include any classic literature. I worry the list will be too long, and somehow the criteria very different. A perfect classic book is so much different than a perfect contemporary book. (But for what it’s worth, I love Vanity Fair as well as Northanger Abbey, I usually prefer George Eliot to Dickens, and I worship Balzac and adore Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. Also, Michel Montaigne is my main 16th century squeeze).
Back to the list. First off, these are all novels. I can think of several short story collections that get me very excited—Michelle Latiolais’s Widow, Mariko Nagai’s Georgic & Mary Costello’s The China Factory to name the first that immediately come to mind—but story collections must always be broken up into their separate parts and are experienced, at least for me, with pause and distance between each piece. I’m an intense reader and I love the intensity that comes with a sustained read of a longer piece. We could obviously have another conversation about the “perfect” short story.
Despite my preference for novels, these are all relatively short books. I do have a certain kind of admiration for long, complicated, saga-type books and there are several I consider absolutely wonderful examples of this genre—although under the influence of several glasses of wine, I might be willing to admit that so far not many contemporary doorstoppers have yet to come anywhere near my “perfect” books list—Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai comes close). Yet I have found that time and again a book with more than 300 pages is difficult to engage with in exactly the kind of intense and uninterrupted reading that I prefer.
Thinking about it, the single most important element for me that gets most of these books onto my list is that there is something about the structure or the narrative perspective that is actively engaged with the way the story is presented to the reader. I suppose most good novel’s have the right kind of invisible structure that just simply and elegantly supports the story – and this is great. But I actually love it when the structure sticks its neck out a bit and subtly influences or comments on the story itself. In Gaudé’s Ouragan, for example, there are five voices telling the story of Hurricane Katrina. Some 3rd person, some 1st person – and all very distinctive. They are messy, they overlap, they re-tell parts of each other’s story and they effectively resonate as a parallel human storm alongside the natural storm. In Michèle Lesbre’s Le Canapé Rouge there are two stories being told and the trick that gets me with this book is how the story that appears to be working in service to the main story suddenly rises up and becomes the more important story in the end.
In terms of narrative perspective, what I’m talking about usually falls just a bit short of outright/obvious metafiction but again there is a particular way the perspective influences the reader’s understanding of the story. The 3rd person narrator in Disgrace, for example, who is so close to David Lurie that it feels like a 1st person. And yet this absolutely side-blind narrator manages to depict the emotional/political unsteadiness of an entire population. Or the nearly effaced 1st person narrator in Alice McDermott’s That Night who is telling someone else’s story but manages to make it extremely meaningful to her own by the time she is done. It’s beautifully done. Or John Berger’s To the Wedding, whose entire narrative perspective is a trick of re-writing and storytelling magic. And of course Morrison’s The Bluest Eye with its sorrowful yet angry 1st person narrator and her exploration of another person’s life.
Finally, I very much admire books that involve some kind of dark whimsy. John Fuller’s Flying to Nowhere is the best example of this—pure poetry, a bit outlandish or fantastic, extremely sensual but intellectual at the same time. (I found the same aesthetic in Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion and in all that I’ve read of Barbara Comyns, and I nearly put those books on this list as well). Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book does this without ever touching the fantastic—but the whimsy and the darkness is there, as it is in the most excellent The True Deceiver.
And To the Lighthouse seems to fit all of these criteria. The epitome of a perfect book (to me).
I just know that I am overlooking several books I should like to have included, but these will have to do for now. I’m surprised that I have not put any Nadine Gordimer on this list—I adore her work, and the books of hers I’d most like to include are The Pick-Up and The Conservationist (for her peculiar dual narration) but I will trust my initial hesitation and leave them off. And for the curious, here are a few other books I hesitated about including: Pia Juul – The Murder of Halland, Marilynne Robinson – Gilead, Christine Schutt – Florida, Carson McCuller’s – The Ballad of the Sad Café, Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses, David Malouf – The Conversations at Curlew Creek, Gerbrand Bakker – The Detour, Agota Kristof – Trilogy, Kirsty Gunn – Featherstone, Clarice Lispector – Agua Viva. All excellent.
Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts – and your own lists if you care to share them. In this way you’ll give me some book suggestions for 2014. And I’ll just finish up here with a tiny New Year’s resolution to write more often on this blog – I miss the longer bookish conversations that can be had through blogging. Am hoping to find some of that again in the coming year.