A Small Country’s Great Book

Halldor Laxness
Halldor Laxness; drawing by David Levine


There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you’re quite lucky, you may at some point chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. For the sensation I’m describing has its roots in a poignant, tantalizing feeling that this marvelous new addition to your existence, this indelible Presence, has arrived by serendipity. Anyone who cares seriously about fiction eventually will get around to The Brothers Karamazov or Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice or Moby-Dick or Don Quixote, and if you’re somebody whose closest literary attachment is to a book of this staple sort, the satisfaction you take from it will not be graced by the particular haunted feeling of good fortune I’m talking about; you will have, instead, the assurance of knowing that your keenest literary pleasures were preordained. One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm’s life, one might never have stumbled upon.

The feeling I’m describing may account for Henry Miller’s pronouncement about Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, which he declared “is closer to me than any other book I have read…. Reading this book, I always feel as though I am reading another version of my own life.” Or John Fowles’s reverence toward Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes: “I am, in short, a besotted fan, and still feel closer to Fournier than to any other novelist, living or dead.” Or Randall Jarrell’s obsession with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which eventually precipitated the longest essay he ever wrote. (It concluded: “The Man Who Loved Children makes you a part of one family’s immediate existence as no other book quite does. When you have read it you have been, for a few hours, a Pollit; it will take you many years to get the sound of the Pollits out of your ears, the sight of the Pollits out of your eyes, the smell of the Pollits out of your nostrils.”) Or what Rilke felt about Jacobsen (“Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable … the Bible, and the books of the great Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen”), particularly his Niels Lyhne: “The more often one reads it, the more everything seems to be contained within it, from life’s most imperceptible fragrances to the full, enormous taste of its heaviest fruits.”

No doubt Miller and Fowles and Jarrell and Rilke recognized that greater novels were to be found than the objects of their devotion. But what does this matter once you’ve met the book that seems made for you? For what we are talking about is a sort of imperishable romance, in…

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