How the Bible Divided, and United, Allan Gurganus and His Father
“My late father considered the Bible the inerrant Word of God ghostwritten by a single privileged eyewitness from creation to revelation,” says the author of “The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus” and five other books. “I explained, no, it was actually a lost and found scrapbook riddled with time gaps, savage violence and contradictory accounts. And yet…”
What books are on your night stand?
“If I Had Two Wings,” by Randall Kenan. “Murder and the Movies,” by David Thomson. “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War,” by Michael Gorra. “Hieroglyphics,” by Jill McCorkle. “Your Duck Is My Duck,” by Deborah Eisenberg. “You Want More: Selected Stories,” by George Singleton. “The Way We Live Now,” by Anthony Trollope.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Voice at the Backdoor,” Elizabeth Spencer’s 1956 masterwork, is set in combustible Mississippi during the civil rights era. A racist crime galvanizes every level of society, prophesying today’s overdue ethnic reckoning. Spencer understood her state’s politics and sexual secrets as Balzac knew First Empire France.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Reading Theodore Dreiser’s work has been likened to finding a very powerful Russian novel in a really bad translation. Tone-deaf works of fiction rarely achieve lift-off. Nabokov, last century’s master finisher, perfected his every sentence on its separate note card. Exquisite sentences make for wonderful books. In my view, bad sentences can only make bad ones.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I am seated on my screened side-porch rereading a novel. The ice in my glass of bourbon has not yet melted and Carolina wrens are cheeping both a challenge and a welcome. There are 30 pages left and — though friends are coming for dinner — I have just enough time to finish this book. I am so sunk in the work’s psychology, I feel almost an alien, some renewing life form. Though the author died in 1920, she is not just my admired companion here now, she has become my family, my nationality, my new religion. Literature represents my greatest hope for our species at its very best.
What’s your favorite book no one has ever heard of?
Molly Keane’s “Good Behavior” presents a character whose own strict Christian code wreaks havoc on all those around her. Though she herself tells the tale, we somehow see her morality’s disastrous consequences. Hilarious and sinister.
Do you have any comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
Oh yes. For no-weight-gain inspiration, I reread aloud the first chapters of certain favorite novels: “Great Expectations,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Middlemarch,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose Novels.”
The last book you read that made you cry?
James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.”
The last book that made you furious?
“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My late father considered the Bible the inerrant Word of God ghostwritten by a single privileged eyewitness from creation to revelation. I explained, no, it was actually a lost and found scrapbook riddled with time gaps, savage violence and contradictory accounts. And yet, having this one book come between us so often, somehow brought us closer together. Do you understand?
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
During a train mishap, John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Lincoln’s oldest son.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
(1) The primal acts of teaching and learning. (2) Successful sex among those over 60.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I love those moments when a writer describes some spiritual state or physical sensation I recognize at once but have never read before.
How do you organize your books?
I sometimes think they “organize” me. For instance, my “night stand” you just mentioned? It IS books. How soon a stack of them becomes a column then a pyramid subject to minor avalanches. But the surprise element can work for a novelist. More and more, my old house is filled with tomes I don’t recall buying. Yes, I alphabetize, but selectively.
It’s well-known that Herman Melville fell in love with the handsome Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville’s painful, craving, human letters finally caused Hawthorne to drop him altogether. But my matchmaking library, it compensates. I press Hawthorne’s complete work, “Scarlet Letter” and all, against the “Moby-Dick” poor Melville dedicated to his gun-shy fellow traveler.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Nine editions of the Boy Scout Manual. Six 20th-century Sears and Roebuck’s catalogs (excellent for period research). Autobiographies of serial murderers, especially Pee Wee Gaskins Jr., who escaped detection for decades though he drove a hearse recreationally.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My first writing teacher, Grace Paley, gave me her very own dog-eared copy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” And, just before my mother died, she bought my three brothers and me complete sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to see us through.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Fallen hero: Sir John Falstaff. Genius of Villainy: Satan in “Paradise Lost.”
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read more nonfiction now, especially about the history of medicine. And I keep going back to childhood favorites like the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped.” I see why Henry James and Joseph Conrad admired him so.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Dr. Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare and Grace Paley. I expect to say less than I usually do.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
D. H. Lawrence’s fiction is as overrated as his poetry is under-ranked. Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems, by contrast, show equal genius. And “The Last of the Mohicans”did absolutely nothing for me.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I intend to return to those final 626 pages of “Finnegans Wake.”
What do you plan to read next?
“Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise,” by Scott Eyman.
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