“There are 150 books which contain everything that literature has to offer”

In the film Before Night Falls, about the life of poet Reinaldo Arenas, his poor background and persecution at the hands of security police in Cuba, there is a scene where he visits the library of a wealthy Cuban writer, José Lezama Lima.

Arenas has just come second in a national competition; according to the film he should have won. Limas says to him:

‘People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty, and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counter-revolutionary and so you are counter-revolutionary, Reinaldo Arenas, and do you know why? Because there is a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So, here we are: 400 years of Cuban culture about to become extinct, and everybody applauds.’

‘There are 150 books that contain everything that literature has to offer. Read them and you don’t have to read anything else.’

‘So what will be the first?’

‘The Bible. You have to read the Bible. Just read it like a novel. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you five books. Correction, I’m going to lend you five books. You return them and I’ll give you five more.’

The five books chosen by Lima are Sentimental Education, Flaubert; Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, I have read the Bible, not much, but some and I liked it. But I am not able to judge it either way and am happy to take the word of those who have read it and decided that it is great literature.

Sentimental Education is said to be best novel of the nineteenth century. I’ve read it twice, find it acceptable, but without its reputation I don’t think I would bother with it. There is too much that lacks interest; everybody is too concerned with financial dealings; I couldn’t (even after two readings) keep track of everybody; a revolution was going on while the second half of the main story played out, but I remained as unaffected by it as the author. I know Flaubert was obsessed with finding the mot juste – the perfect word; that he was one of the first authors to ‘show don’t tell’. He once said

‘Around man all is shadow, all is emptiness. The moment I don’t have a book on hand or dream of writing one I could howl with frustration. Life is tolerable to me only if one can conjure it away.’

I didn’t care about Frédéric, about Madame Arnoux or Sénécal; his novel had no effect on me.

Remembrance of Things Past, I’m trying to like, people keep saying you must read this but I don’t like it. I don’t want to go too deeply into why I don’t like these books; perhaps it’s because I see them as anti-life – especially Kafka – just to say here that I do not like them. I have tried three times to get into Proust (I will probably re-try the other authors, but Kafka has probably defeated me). I was just thoroughly bored.

Metamorphosis is difficult. I find all of Kafka unreadable (apart from his letters to his girlfriend). I can barely read one sentence of him. I’ve attempted to read other stuff. I’ve tried The Trial; I appreciate the sentiment, one man caught up in a swirl of bureaucracy, but I can’t read it. I’ve even tried the graphic novel. Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t like Kafka.

I read Moby Dick when I was still at school, then recently tried again. I enjoyed parts of it but they were few and far between. As Clive James said,

‘Melville’s ocean clung like tar. It’s one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading.’

But the filmmakers chose those five. After seeing the film (which is great), I tried to read Lima’s Paradiso. It was the only novel he wrote (he was a poet) and I can see why. Arenas too, was a poet, but he wrote some fiction too, all of which I find unreadable. This is not to say that I am right and the writers or their critics are wrong. It is a matter of opinion.

Treasure Island I’ve only read once (and fairly recently). I liked it, maybe because it was meant to be a children’s story or a tale to be taken at face value, perhaps because it’s a

‘tale [that] sprang, effortlessly, from his pen at the rate of a chapter every morning.’

Perhaps I liked Jim’s sneaky heroics, Long John Silver’s survival instincts or Dr Livesey’s steady, cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t matter why I liked it or why I disliked the others.

They could have chosen five different books for the film, for example, The Wings of the Dove, Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Great Gatsby, to name just five; there are many more I could have chosen. I won’t name them here because I’m sure you have your own choices. I’d like to hear what they are. And Lima chose 150 books; he chose five at random. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that three of the five are my least favourite books, a fourth very close and only the fifth rescued the scene (in my eyes).

There is something life-denying about four of the books, excepting Treasure Island (and the Bible of course). Perhaps it’s an attitude to life; an attitude that life isn’t worth living. I would like to add other authors to the list. My list is very conservative; I wanted to make sure that my writers were literary greats: I think James, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy and Fitzgerald are greats in anyone’s language.

Perhaps story should be king, as it is (I think) with the five writers I have mentioned. Perhaps I am too stupid to ‘getKafka, Melville, Proust and Flaubert. I don’t know. But the scene in the film stayed with me; it’s now seven years since I saw it and I return to it every two years or so.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on ““There are 150 books which contain everything that literature has to offer”

  1. Wow, I’ve read zero out of the five listed. (I’ve read parts of the Bible, though). I’ll admit, of those listed, I’m not particularly excited to dive in. I’d list Fitzgerald, Dickens, Harper Lee…
    Great post- I’ll share this on my weekly blog review!

  2. Pingback: 18: What Caught My Senses This Week

  3. Glad you came by and followed. Metamorposis is the book I relate to the most out of your five. I found The Trial tedious to read, though. We all react differently, thank goodness. Take care.

  4. I struggled with Moby Dick, and then put it down. I keep thinking I’m going to return to it, but haven’t. Treasure Island is a childhood, teen, and adult favorite of mine. It’s a book to read silently or aloud for enjoyment. The Bible is definitely life-giving, and I’ve read it four times through with a couple of extra NT readings, and I keep going back. Metamorphosis by Kafka – I think I’ve read a few times (high school and college), but I remember it being very short, and it is depressing.
    Like you, I enjoy classics that are life-giving, and not those that seem to suck life out of the reader. I’m not sure if that’s a lack of maturity, and even if it is, I think I’m ok with that. 🙂 I like the alternatives you suggested.

    • You are right. In reading Moby Dick and arriving at Chapter 34, I say I have had enough!. With several tries, I have not been able to get past Chapter 34; however, I highly recommend having someone read it to you (John Lee?) as a book on tape. That’s when you discover the genius of Moby Dick in its entirety.

  5. I think Limas’ list was pretty conventional. The Bible may have some interesting fiction, but as for a guide to literature, I’m not convinced. Northrop Frye called it “the great code,” and many writers look to stories within it as frames or models to follow. However, in our multicultural, globally connected culture, I think it’s time to start looking beyond Judeo-Christianity for models and inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we all need to start opening our minds more.

    Treasure Island is a work that succeeds on many levels because, I think, the author was conscious of his audience’s needs, and wrote it to be accessible – not a concern to Kafka or Proust.

    Dickens definitely belongs in the list because, from what I can see, he did care about his audience.

    So, for my list, I’ll put down authors, except for the first: Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (even though it’s a judeo-christian message); Fitzgerald; Dickens; Tolstoy; Philip K. Dick for his post-apocalyptic stories about ordiniary people. This isn’t all you need to know about literature, but it’s a taste of the range of possibilities.

  6. I like Treasure Island but can’t get into the Bible or Proust. And I have tried. I like Dickens. He didn’t have any solutions but he did care. Fitzgerald and Tolstoy’s novels, especially Anna Karenina I like. Found bits of War and Peace hard going. I hate Kafka. I find him simplistic and depressing. Haven’t read any Philip K Dick. I’ll try some. Maybe I’m a simpleton but I prefer writers that seem to have a zest for life: early Hemingway (the short stories), Steinbeck, Tolstoy. I really like Norman Mailer but think he should have stuck to essays – he never managed a complete satisfying novel. Too many wives and children (and an enormous ego). I really enjoyed ‘Son’ by Philipp Meyer recently.

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