Friday, 14 September 2012

The Masterworks of Literature: a quizz

   I needed, for certain matters that concern me, to get acquainted with what the professors of collèges call the “masterworks of literature.” I gave a renowned librarian, who I was assured was a perfect connoisseur of them, orders to organize for me a list of works, as restricted as possible, and find the best editions for me. As soon as I was in possession of them, I allowed no one in, and I didn’t get up from bed.
   The first ones struck me as bad and it seemed incredible that such humbugs were really first rate products of the human spirit. What I didn’t understand seemed useless; what I did understand, didn’t please me or it irritated me. Absurd genre, bothersome; maybe insignificant and nauseous. Narratives that, on being true, seemed unlikely to me, and, if invented, insipid. I wrote to a notorious professor of the University of W. asking if that list had been made correctly. He replied affirmatively and gave me some pointers. I had the courage to read all those books, minus three or four, which, starting in the first pages, I couldn’t bear.
   Hosts of men, called heroes, gutting each other for over ten years, under the walls of a small city, because of a seduced old hag; the journey of a living man to the pit of the dead, with the sole end of talking ill of the living and the dead; a hectic madman and a fat madman going about the World in search of beatings; a warrior who loses his reason over a woman and amuses himself pulling out oak trees in jungles; a creep whose father has been murdered and who, in order to avenge him, causes the death of a girl who loved him and other diverse characters; a lame devil who lifts the rooftops of every house in order to exhibit their misery; the adventures of a man of medium height who passes himself off as a giant amongst pygmies and a dwarf amongst giants, always in an inopportune and ridiculous manner; the odyssey of an idiot who, through ridiculous misadventures, contends that this World is the best of all possible worlds; the adventures of a demoniac professor served by a professional demon; the dull story of a provincial adulteress who gets bored and, at last, poisons herself; the loquacious and incomprehensible sayings of a prophet accompanied by an eagle and a serpent; a poor and feverish boy who murders an old lady and then – imbecile – doesn’t even know how to make use of an alibi and ends up falling in the hands of the police.
   I seemed to understand, with my virgin brain, that such praised literature is still in the stone age – which disappointed me to despair. I wrote to an expert on poetry, who tried to humiliate me, telling me those works were worth it for their style, form, language, images and thoughts, and that an educated spirit could experience immense satisfactions with them. I answered him that, for my part, forced to read almost all of those books in translations, form mattered little to me and the content seemed to be, as it really was, old-fashioned, unwise, stupid and extravagant. I spent, without any results, one hundred dollars on this research.
   Fortunately I later met some young writers who confirmed my judgement of those old works, and who gave me their books to read, where I found, amongst many obscure things, more adequate nourishment to my tastes. Nevertheless, I remained with the doubt that literature is perhaps incapable of decisive improvements. It’s very likely that no one, a century from now, will devote himself to such a backwards and poorly profitable trade.

Here we have the complete first chapter of Gog, a 20th century masterwork of searing satire written by Italian writer Giovanni Papini (1881-1956). The novel, written in 1931, is about a rich man nicknamed Gog, real name Goggins, born in Hawaii, son of an indigenous woman and father unknown. Boarding a steamer at the age of sixteen, he arrived in San Francisco and with unusual business acumen, set about getting rich. He made his fortune during World War I and by 1920 he retired, millionaire. Gog chronicles his attempts at cultivating his spirit and immersing himself in culture, literature, music, science. It’s a great novel, a satire of the self-made man, but also a novel about the growing gap between an America that was becoming an economic world power and a dying Old World clutching to its past achievements in culture and the arts.

Characters in the novel? Oh you know: Henry Ford, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, V.I. Lenin, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, et cetera. The novel plumbs deep into every modern topic (in 1931, that is) and what emerges from this weird and satirical novel is a tongue-in-cheek hate letter to modernity, civilization and culture. As you can see from above, its first target is nothing less than the entire history of Western literature.

It’s been years since I first read it, and one day I have to re-read it. But it resides in a special place in my heart. The first time I read the novel, many references went over my head. One day, after I’ve read a few Knut Hamsun novels, I must go back to the chapter where Gog has a chat with this famous Norwegian writer. But prompted by Raul Brandão’s Húmus, I decided to re-read bits of this other apocalypse of culture, and I’m proud to say I can finally identify all the references in the first chapter. Only the lame devil continued to elude me for a while, but I now know what book he comes from.

What about you? Can you identify all the references? If you can, you win nothing save the opportunity of vaunting your erudition, which is of course the sole purpose of this blogging business, right?


  1. I wish I could remember where I had heard of this. It sounds fantastic.

    I'm stumped by two of the riddles, the lame devil (I think from something I have not read), and the prophet with the eagle and serpent (which will probably make me feel bad when I learn the answer).

    1. Yes, I think the lame devil is the one that leaves most people scratching their heads. But the prophet is an easy one; you'll feel easy for not guessing it :)

      Papini was another favourite of Borges. His fantastic short-stories are absurd, strange and ironic. One day I'll read Gog's sequel, but Amazon Italy is not making things easier for me - it seems he's another one of those great old writers who's out of print even in his own country...

  2. I was stuck on the same ones. The prophet one is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Wasn't Papini a Nietzsche fan?). Not sure about the lame devil. (c17th-ish, going by the general chronology).

    I read some non-fiction of Papini once, which I wasn't that impressed by. This sounds a good deal more fun.

    1. OK, I worked out the lame devil - but only with the help of the internet. I've never bloody heard of it.

    2. Obooki: don't feel bad, I also had to look it up on the net :)

      Zarathustra was obvious: how many prophets of note does Western literature have anyway?

      What non-fiction did you read?

    3. I read this:

  3. When I have more time I will try to puzzle out all the riddles. They are really fun!

    "a creep whose father has been murdered and who, in order to avenge him, causes the death of a girl who loved him and other diverse characters"

    The "Creep" reference is priceless!

  4. Obooki: from what I've glanced, that book seems interesting. But I can't read too long on the internet; I'd rather have the book in my hands :)

    Brian: yes, I love the snarky way he describes these great classics, so dismissive of them. That's the whole book, by the way, mocking everything good and beautiful.

    1. When you really think about Hamlet's actions however. ..".Creep" may not be inaccurate.

  5. He, He, He. I get to play spoiler, since that lame devil book is one of my favorite picaresque novels together with Lazarillo de Tormes and El Buscon. Now how do you say Diablo Cojuelo in English? Maybe Mr. Velez de Guevara can help me out? Come on people, it's not that hard... as a matter of fact it comes bundled usually with the Lazarillo de Tormes in one book!

    1. Curious, you have just made the matter more difficult. Now which book is Gog referring to?

      Luis Vélez de Guevara's El Diablo cojuelo or Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux?

  6. I think I can only identify one of the titles in the list you were given, and that would be Madame Bovary. It often baffles me, too, as to what constitutes outstanding literature. Perhaps it's as simple as speaking to one's heart? Or, at least having a lasting message for humankind (such as Blindness did? I'm not sure, but I would love to see a list of the titles you were given. And, I wouldn't trust the University of Wisconsin for a great reliablity in terms of what's worthy.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on several of my posts at Dolce Bellezza. It is nice getting to know you, and after reading some of your posts, I can see that you do indeed have an ambitious spirit when it comes to blogging: to educate others about excellent literature. To that end, I commend you.

  7. Hello, Bellezza; thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

    The books are, I think:

    The Iliad.
    Aeneid or The Divine Commedy: a living man going to the pit of the dead applies to both; but I think it's Aeneid.
    Don Quixote.
    Orlando Furioso.
    El Diablo Cojuelo or Le Diable Boiteux.
    Gulliver's Travels.
    Madame Bovary.
    Thus Spake Zarathustra.
    Crime and Punishment.

  8. What great fun. So after dismissing the classics, what are those works by young writers that provided "more adequate nourishment to [his] tastes"? Fifty Shades of Grey?

    1. It's a mystery. Who knows? Modernist fiction? Joyce, Musil, Rilke, Svevo? His list stops before the 20th century. However from Gog's words, he may just be unable to see any worth in literature in general.