Books That Make My Ears Burn

There’s quite a lot I want to say about Max Frisch but I’m writing something for the Spring issue of The Scofield and don’t want to foreshadow that piece too much here. There is this curious quality though to I’m Not Stiller that I haven’t quite understood. It is often difficult to pick the book up, as though beneath it lay a dead rat that I’ll have to deal with. But when I start reading again I’m fully absorbed.

It is brilliant how Frisch dissects the nature of identity within marriage, or any long-term relationship. From where do we get this fallacious notion of fixed identity? How do we negotiate identity within the context of society, marriage, family and self? Frisch wallows in these questions in I’m Not Stiller. I don’t know whether I like the book but I’ve started to reread it without the encumbrance of plot and the suspense of not knowing where Frisch is taking the story. I feel a need to remove the screws and dismantle the clock, to question how he creates this resistant yet mesmerising quality.

I recently wrote about what modernism means to me in context of the writers I return to often. It is obviously an idiosyncratic view, very personal to me. I’m always thrilled when people discover writers through this blog but I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to read. It’s why I don’t really write reviews here. I am without any significance to anyone but those who are linked to me through friendship of some sort. I’m certainly no expert in literature or anything else.

Instead of dragging Kafka’s axe out of the shed I’ll quote the Stranglers, “Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? / He got an ice pick / That made his ears burn.” I want to read books that hit me like an ice pick, that make my ears burn. When I reread Quignard’s The Roving Shadows this year, or discovered Brigid Brophy and Tomas Espedal last year, my ears burnt. When I get that sensation it’s like falling in love. I want to read every word those writers have written, even the dodgy bits they’d rather forget. I want to read first editions to share a bit of the thrill those writers must have felt when setting eyes on their long-baked work for the first time.

The books that make my ears burn more often than not are those I described. But I’m also quite happy to pick up a chapter of two of my daughter’s latest Stephen King. It isn’t snobbery that drives my reading but mortality. If I live five years longer than my father, I’ve got time for something like 2800 books. It isn’t enough. I want every one of those 2800 books to be ice picks.

13 thoughts on “Books That Make My Ears Burn

  1. As usual, your reflections provide much food for thought. I look forward to your contribution to The Scofield. I will have a small piece in there myself, just crossing my fingers that the book I need gets to me in time!

  2. Pingback: Winston weekend Bye Umberto and how many books have I left ? | Winstonsdad's Blog

  3. i must be a maverick. i don’t have many years to go now, but since i can’t predict the future, it’s like it isn’t there… trying to make the present instant pleasant is about all i can handle, so while i try occasionally to read “hard” books, i’m much more apt to lose myself in a golden age mystery or a volume of dated sci fi… to belie my statement, i just finished “the total library”: essays of borges. it was pretty good, a decent overview of his writing interests.

  4. it’s been such a long time since i read all this and stiller is a good one, one of is more interesting ones, maybe the best….his montauk and gantenbein have bachmann in it, obliquely…
    it is like this, reading, beyond all questions of genre, this hunt for the nice stuff in the face of mortality…. books music people…. hope you find many earburning things in the future…

    • Thanks, flowerville, of course you are right, the hunt and finding the nice stuff matters more than anything.
      I’ll read Montauk and Gantenbein one day but after Stiller I’ll take a rest from Frisch.

  5. Beautifully articulated, Anthony, and how refreshing to have the bit about taking up some Stephen King despite the desire to read only books that make your ears burn – and in the face of mortality. I’m increasingly impatient with books that don’t hit home, that don’t thrill me in some way, but since when I’m dead I won’t get to read anything, anything with writing on it – even a cereal box – can attract my attention and feel worthwhile.

  6. A nice piece Anthony (The Scofield? I don’t know it). I take the view that since I don’t have time for even a tiny fraction of the true greatness that’s out there then I needn’t worry too much. If I read a light novel and so miss out on an ice pick (nice analogy) so what? I miss out on a thousand icepicks, ten thousand, I could live another century and still miss legions of them.

    I think sometimes of all the plays I missed because I wasn’t born or was too young or in the wrong country; the great art events I wasn’t there for; the books that won’t even be written for a century yet. Really, the amount of art I can intersect with is vanishingly small. Sometimes I think of the lawyers and writers and artists of Mesopotamia. What do we know of them now, save Hammurabi?

    So like Mudpuddle I generally try to make the present moment pleasant, though for me that’s as likely to mean Proust or Quin as some SF or crime and I genuinely enjoy modernist fiction. Despite that awful Booker committee’s claims there’s no conflict between books being ambitious and their being readable, nor is readability the only criterion of enjoyment of course.

    • Good points, Max. I’m not worried about missing out on ice picks, just don’t want to spend a lot of my limited time here with books that aren’t ice picks.

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