Foundational Books

I’m making a list of books that have touched me at the very depths of my soul, and they fall into two groups, books about reading and the superiority of culture over barbarity and books that speak to one of the aspects of my self.

These are not simply books that I enjoyed. There are hundreds of those. Rather, these are books that shook me to the core and have become part of who I am.

The books about reading and the beauty of the literary culture that have shaken me are (in the chronological order of my encounter with them):

1. John Fowles’s The Collector. I read it in my late teens, and it transformed me completely. I wrote about how this book extracted me from the post-Soviet vulgarity and materialism before, so I won’t repeat myself.

2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov that I read when I was 21. I was young but already had the capacity to recognize that it’s not a pornographic novel but a book about books.

3. Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game that I read at 23 and that persuaded me to become an academic.

4. Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia that I will keep reading and rereading my whole life.

5. Martutene by the Basque writer Ramon Saizarbitoria. I read it in 2015, I think, and I’ll never get over the intense enjoyment of that great novel.

6. Diaries by Rafael Chirbes that I can only read in small portions because the joy is too intense to process all at once.

Now, for the books that aren’t about reading. These are the ones that hit right in the middle of some aspect of my personality.

1. Marina Tsvetaeva’s Poem of the Mountain. I first read it when I was 14 and I found in it a perfect expression of my female sensibility. The way Tsvetaeva expresses womanhood is 100% mine. I call it a book because it’s a very long poem in many parts. I knew most of it by heart back then.

2. Vladimir Dudintsev’s White Robes and Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle I also read in my mid-teens. They are about the costs of totalitarianism, and I don’t have to explain why that speaks to me.

3. Volodymyr Vinnychenko’s The Sun Machine is the greatest Ukrainian novel of all time. It’s set in Germany but Vinnychenko’s Germans are very Ukrainian in every way. This is the novel of my Ukrainian identity.

4. Benito Pérez Galdós Miau is a novel by the great Spanish realist that I read when I was in my early twenties. I love everything about Galdós but Miau is not only very Spanish, it’s also about hunger. And that’s a subject no Ukrainian can pass untouched.

5. Clarín’s La Regenta is a 19th-century novel about sex and ambition. There is an English translation, and if you don’t read it, you’ll truly do yourself no favors.

6. Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian speaks to my identity of an ideological immigrant. I also read it in my early twenties and will never get over it.

7. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a book I read in my early thirties. It’s one of the greatest Christian novels of all times, and it clicks with my Christian sensibilities.

8. Rafael Chirbes’s En la orilla (I think it was translated as On the Edge). I read it in 2015, and I have no explanation yet for why it hit me over the head as much as it did. It’s the same with Castellanos Moya’s Moronga, read in 2018. I guess it’s harder to figure out the impact of the more recent readings.

The list is heavily Hispanic for obvious reasons. It’s also very male. I love many female authors but, aside from Tsvetaeva, they haven’t hit me over the head and changed me at the core. It’s a mystery to me right now why Chirbes’s unemployed older carpenter in En la orilla feels like part of myself in a way that no female character has ever come close.

Multilingual Butterfly

I’m in class all morning but then I got an urgent request for a translation from Ukraine. And you know how it is these days. I have to deliver the translation while there’s still electricity on the other end. Even the best translation will fail if the client is incapable of receiving it because the power was cut off.

Thankfully, the students were writing a test in one of the classes, so I could flit from the classroom to my office and back like a crazy multilingual butterfly. The translation is from English to Ukrainian, while the classes are in Spanish.

My earlier diagnosis of “fuck Russia” feels more relevant than ever.