Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

The men in the Sales Department like me (or pretend to). They don’t like Green. He knows this. They complain about him to me and make uncomplimentary remarks, and he knows this too. He pretends he doesn’t. He feigns indifference, since he doesn’t really like the men in the Sales Department. I don’t really like them, either (but I pretend I do).

It’s de rigueur, almost a cliché, to express astonishment about the dearth of fiction set in offices. The bewilderment peaked when Joshua Ferris’s impressive Then We Came to the End was published. There is little need however to mine this sub-genre beyond Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Heller brings to light the relentless absurdity, boredom and puerile machismo of office life with the meticulousness of an old-school lepidopterist with a killing-bottle and a setting-board.

I read Something Happened over twenty years ago, and my recollection was of dark comedy. This impression was undoubtedly distorted by Heller’s Rabelaisian novel Catch-22. Fear is the overriding theme of Something Happened, tragic rather than comic. Narrated entirely as the interior monologue of protagonist, Bob Slocum, 569 pages of fear and angst could be exacting, and it can be, but it is also magnificent. I share John Self’s opinion that Something Happened deserves to be remembered as “his principal claim to literary survival”, rather than the more widely read Catch-22.

Though Heller’s portrayal of office politics is bang on and darkly amusing, it is when he moves to domestic politics that Bob Slocum’s angst becomes more chilling. It is Slocum’s “weird mixture of injured rage and cruel loathing” that left me lacerated by the end of the book. It is overwhelming to spend almost six hundred pages in the mind of an often repellent character, but impossible not to sympathise and occasionally identity with that innate human fear that someone might see us as we truly are. Gombrowicz wrote, ‘Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection in the soul of another human being, even the soul of an idiot.’ And sometimes we are the idiot.

I wonder what kind of person would come out if I ever did erase all my inhibitions at once, what kind of being is bottled up inside me now. Would I like him? I think not. There’s more than one of me, probably. There’s more than just an id. I know that I could live with my id if I ever looked upon it whole, sort of snuggle up and get cozy with it. [..] Deep down inside, I might be really great. Deep down inside, I think not.

Still Reading ‘Something Happened’

It feels like I’ve been reading Joseph Heller’s Something Happened for an inordinately long time. When I check my reading notes, it is only three weeks since I began; slow reading to be half way through a six-hundred page book, but I have moved house (and library) within that period.

There is more behind my slow reading though. Rereading after an interval of twenty years, my reading of the book is so very different to my memory of its emotional resonance. My recollection was of dark comedy, but this book is barely comedic. It is painfully tragic, lacerating in impact. How did I fail to recall Bob Slocum’s painfully neurotic stream of consciousness? I read thirty pages and am shredded.

The Lives of Imaginary Others

Re-reading a once favourite book is potentially a perilous encounter. Revisiting those texts that once transfixed us requires a certain audacity. A different response is guaranteed, more pronounced by the passage of time and breadth of life. Reading is transformative, and we re-read through the filter of every other book we have part-remembered; all we can hope for, when we read, is a partial memory. In her book on re-reading Patricia Meyer Spacks writes:

Reading something for the first time may also evoke past selves, inasmuch as we recall bygone experience, of books and of life outside books, when vicariously experiencing the lives of imaginary others. Rereading brings us more sharply in contact with how we-like the books we reread-have both changed and remained the same. Books help constitute our identity.They also, as we reread them, measure identity’s changes with the passage of time.

Those ‘lives of imaginary others’ may be incorporeal, but, if the writer is a good one, can be more substantial than those we come into contact with in real life. Though I forgot her name, Virginia Markowitz (“Virgin for short, but not for long, ha, ha.”), from the automobile casualty insurance company that gave Bob Slocum his first job, is an old acquaintance, first met over twenty years ago when I first read Joseph Heller’s Something Happened.

Joe Heller is a great writer. I agree with John that Something Happened is a significantly better book than the extraordinary Catch-22. In Something Happened, Heller restricts himself to streaming the narrative through Bob Slocum. Heller says:

There is very little in Something Happened. Bob Slocum tends to consider people in terms of one dimension; his tendency is to think of people, even those very close to him—his wife, daughter, and son and those he works for—as having a single aspect, a single use. When they present more than that dimension, he has difficulty in coping with them. Slocum is not interested in how people look, or how rooms are decorated, or what flowers are around.

Even presented in one dimension, Virginia, ‘that pert and witty older girl of twenty-one’ is as potent a force as when I first read Something Happened, though, on this reading, she is more tragic than erotic. Though Virginia’s life is imaginary, my memory of her is strong, equally for the ‘limited persona’ of Bob Slocum and his dysfunctional family.

I’m only 143 pages into this 569 page edition and enjoying it mightily. Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful remark: “Rereading them, certain sentences are what greet me as familiars” is so true of Something Happened. One small sample:

In my department, there are six people who are afraid of me, one small secretary who is afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who is not afraid of anyone, not even me, and I would fire him quickly, but I’m afraid of him.

There are several novels that come to mind that capture the dissonant chords of marriage and family life, far fewer that encapsulate the banality and quiet awfulness of office life. Heller nails both with precision.

Recalling Old Favourites

At Nonsuch Book, Frances reminds me of an old favourite author, John Fowles. At one time I read all his novels, fine writing and a unique voice. The book that stands out prominently in my recollection is Daniel Martin. There are new editions around but I am tempted by first editions from Fowles’ own library.

Fowles is the second old favourite that I must reread one day, the other being Joseph Heller. Heller’s Something Happened is the novel I recall fondly, a perceptive and genuinely funny book.