Che la ragion sommettono al talento
“To Sapience, hitherto obscur’d, infam’d,”
John Milton, Paradise Lost, IX 797
“In reading one should notice and fondle details.”
Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
The Classics Club’s November Meme is “What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why?” I am not often intimidated by the usual things that intimidate readers: length and complexity. I am an avid reader of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s Recherché, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and The Mahabharata. Often, it seems like the longer it the book the better it is. A great writer can certainly do more with a larger canvas. Complexity is not an issue either. Lately I have been reading Jacques Lacan and Giles Deleuze. They are certainly challenging, but for me the rewards and insight are worth the effort. Still, there are books that I find intimidating.
Four of them come to mind: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Nabakov’s Lolita and Calvino’s Invisible Cities. There does not seem to be much that these books have in common, but they all intimidate me for the same reason. Their dates of composition span centuries. Two are in English and two are in Italian but their grammar and vocabulary differ a great deal and I wonder if Dante could understand Calvino or Milton might make sense of Nabakov. Two are in prose and two written in verse yet they all share a very evocative and poetic use of language and this perhaps is where the intimidation begins.
It is not that I am afraid of them. I love all four of these books and have read each of at least once. I have probably read Inferno more than any other book. I am seduced by their details, their use of language, their rich allusions and associations, even the sound of the words. But I find that the details seduce me from doing the difficult mental work that I feel I should be doing.
“We all have different temperaments, and I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one.”
Nabakov, Lectures on Literature
Nabakov sets a high standard for reading. His Lectures on Literature are masterpieces of careful reading. Nabakov tells us that to enjoy great literature we need to approach it from the artistic—the passionate, subjective, and sensual—and from the scientific—patient, detached, aloof and intellectual—perspectives. Intense passion combines with coolness of judgement to create a more full understanding of what we are reading. But in reading Dante, Milton, Calvino and Nabakov I get swept away in the particulars and feel I am missing the point of the whole. I love the details so much that I miss the big idea.
I feel each of these works has something important or interesting to say that I am missing. The richness of Milton’s allusions feels like a secret code that I cannot penetrate. The map of Calvino’s cities points in a direction that I cannot make out. Dante creates parallels across the three books to help point me toward Paradise yet my sympathies always lie with the lovers in hell.
And therein lies the intimidation. No matter how much I read and enjoy these books a part of them always seems to be just beyond my reach.
“Oh creature sciocche, quanta ignoranza è quella che v’offende!”
Dante, Inferno VII: 70-71
- On Reading-Part I: Why I don’t read the books I want to read (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- Three Lectures By Jorge Luis Borges (Lecture 4: Borges And Calvino) (jacajacjac.wordpress.com)