Le Comte de Lautréamont
The Songs of Maldoror, 1869
A text with its own violent heartbeat, this long anthem of misanthropy and revolt was, for me, the best companion during adolescence. The mysterious Isidore Ducasse (who adopted Comte de Lautréamont as a pseudonym), a Uruguay-born Frenchman from Montevideo, would pace up and down the banks of the Seine or pound his piano in the early hours of the morning, whipping himself into the feverish state needed to compose six magnificent cantos of peerless iconoclasm – with an unforgettable bestiary, for the most part howling, snarling and profane. Dead at 24, Ducasse was resurrected five decades later by the Surrealists, who considered him their prophet and progenitor.
Diary of a Madman & Other Stories, 1835–42
Some of the finest tales ever written. Vladimir Nabokov said that Gogol’s prose was ‘four-dimensional, at least’ and compared him to a contemporary mathematician who blasted Euclid. ‘If parallel lines do not meet it is not because they cannot, but because they have other things to do.’ Rational mathematics does not have a place in his art.
Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, 1952
Rational mathematics has no place here, either: a hymn to negation and the pursuit of the impossible. Geometry becomes metaphysics, and alpinism an allegory of the quest for self-knowledge as a cast of eccentrics led by Father Sogol (Logos backwards) embarks on a search for the elusive Mount Analogue, a mountain ‘which exists entirely as if it did not exist’. Daumal died before completing the book, leaving his travellers stranded on their voyage.
Gérard de Nerval
In this richly oneiric account of a breakdown, the poet is his own mental cartographer, wandering through enigmatic landscapes with winged beings and dark stairwells, encoding and decoding what he sees. Everything is a potential cipher, a symptom or trigger. Rays, arteries, veins, streams of molten metal: it’s also a reflection on the chaotic, alchemical process of writing, and Nerval is caught between magician-like impulses of spontaneity and attempts at a more structured narrative. From the mental disorder and editorial disarray emerges a wondrous text, scraps of which were found in his pockets when he hanged himself from a Paris street lamp in 1855.
The Poetics of Reverie, 1960; The Poetics of Space, 1958
Ever since I read them in my late teens, these two books have, more or less, become my credo. The Poetics of Reverie is the most profoundly stated case for daydream (not that it needs one), and childhood reverie’s lifelong hold on the imagination. All roads lead back to those ‘original solitudes’. The Poetics of Space, meanwhile, taught me the vast importance of constructing my own private cosmos, one to forever renovate, revise and expand, and also that every space – from the bumblebee’s blade of grass to the fugitive light on the horizon – can in some way be inhabited. Whenever I return to either of these works, everything seems possible.
Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Clement Hurd
Goodnight Moon, 1947
Essentially, where it all begins: Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenology put to practice in one of the greatest children’s books ever. From his bed, an alert bunny bids goodnight to the objects in his room – turning his gaze on them, one by one, as they are named: the red balloon, the kittens and mittens, the clocks and socks, the comb and brush. The room, rather than be extinguished, fills with night’s mysterious potential. In the final picture everything lies in darkness except for the dollhouse, whose windows glow like an activated dream-generator …
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
A Conjuror’s Confessions, 1859
Rarely has a book made me take such a sharp turn. Robert-Houdin – widely considered to be the first modern magician – took full advantage of the early cross-hatching between science and fantasy in his soirées fantastiques. Animal magnetism, ether, electricity: he played on audiences’ uncertainty regarding relatively new developments – and his beguiling automata (among them a flowering orange tree and a little trapeze artist) were like materializations of Nerval’s fantasies of nature-artifice hybrids, raising the uneasy question of machines that too closely mimic the natural order. Robert-Houdin’s memoirs themselves are a sustained sleight of hand, and it’s all there in the text: misdirection, hidden meaning, defamiliarization. It’s what writers do, naturally, and Robert-Houdin revels in prolonging these moments of epistemological hesitation as much on the page as on stage. There’s a fair amount of self-styling and invention, entire characters and scenes dreamt up to service the myth, yet his favourite adage, ‘The fewer the props, the greater the magic,’ travels far.
Miguel de Cervantes
The Dialogue of the Dogs, 1613
A novella in the form of a philosophical dialogue between two dogs, Cipión and Berganza, guardians at a hospital in Valladolid. Once the animals overcome their initial wonderment at their powers of speech and human reason, they launch into a brilliant meditation, with all manner of satirical incisions and digressive self-reflection, on the art of narrative. Berganza recounts his extraordinary picaresque adventures while Cipión constantly interrupts with enlightened commentary. Like Don Quixote (1605), the text has its own nimble critic and reader pontificating from within. (As for Don Quixote, there’s little to say about this inimitable novel that hasn’t been said already, but again: reverie as the animating force and death by disenchantment.)
The Tempest, 1611
Possibly the greatest work about disenchantment, and also one of the most affecting explorations of the complexity of father–daughter relationships. Prospero relinquishes his powers, the poetry of his isle slowly dims, spells lose their hold and … his daughter is freed. I prefer to read and envision, and re-envision, all that’s in this play rather than ever see it performed.
Wittgenstein’s Nephew, 1982
In Bernhard, the forward (and backward) thrust of voice is solitary (immured), obsessive, relentless. I began with Wittgenstein’s Nephew and then went on to read the rest. The novels are like illness narratives but disease isn’t limited to Bernhard’s weak-lunged narrators, who are, for the most part, individuals trapped in endless works-in-progress which both torment and sustain them. The greater ailment is that which afflicts most matters Austrian, above all the country’s bourgeois complacency and atrophied institutions (the griev-ances could be universal). Bernhard’s characters suffer from a self-imposed incarceration and the prose, in faithful symmetry, constantly loops back on itself with trance-like modulations while advancing, reluctantly, towards some kind of inner deliverance.
First published in Issue 156