Sunday, May 4, 2008

PEN World Voices: Books That Changed My Life

This was my last session for this year’s PEN festival, and it was a pleasant change of pace from the panels on wars and genocide that I’d attended earlier. Spurred and challenged and interrupted by the multilingual and irrepressible Paul Holdengräber, five authors spoke of the books that had been most important to them. The choices were more unusual than I’d expected. Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M., went with a safe pick: The Lily of the Valley by Balzac, which she’d heard on the radio as a child. Antonio Muñoz Molina spoke of E.O. Wilson’s Journey to the Ants, which made him realize that books about oneself, or people like oneself, are not always the most important – that close observation of nature can open up new worlds. Yousef Al-Mohaimeed recalled his first exposure to The Arabian Nights, which his sister read to him as a child, and Zorba the Greek, which broke through his narrow-mindedness. Annie Proulx spoke of reading Jack London’s rollicking prehistoric melodrama Before Adam when she was seven years old and bored to death by Dick and Jane and Spot. I was most pleased, though, by the choice of Olivier Rolin, a last-minute substitute on the panel whose name did not appear in the program. The book that changed his life (though he argued with the idea that any book can make that grand a claim) was one of my own favorites: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Why? Because Under the Volcano deals with “the loss of Eden, the fall, the guilt, the impossible salvation, the forces inside man which compel him to defy himself, to terrorize himself” (or did his French accent cause me to mishear that?). And yet it was “full of humor, not boring, not solemn, not Dostoyevsky.” Which led to a charming digression by Holdengräber about whether Dostoyevsky had a sense of humor, and how the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky allegedly met: each reading a copy of The Idiot, with Volokhonsky (reading in Russian) laughing to herself while Pevear (reading in English) saw nothing to laugh about. So maybe the translations have been the problem all this time.

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