I think it happens most often with music, if you ever bought (or still buy) albums. There’s the album you fall in love with. You want to live in it, you walk around in it, you have it on repeat. Presumably because you love this album so much, you’ll love the artist’s whole catalogue. But you hesitate to buy any other albums, or if you do pick up another one, you don’t give it a fair chance, because it’s not the album you fell in love with, and never can be. Or maybe you get into an artist’s later work, but nothing will ever be like that one you fell for. It’s the one you can’t get over.
This has happened to me with a few texts. This isn’t a list of best or favorite reads, but rather Ones I Can’t Get Over. (Over time, I think “best” and “favorite” become very fluid categories, anyway.) It’s not clear to me why these texts, in particular, but I thought I’d write about them and maybe figure it out. I’d love to hear about anyone else’s texts (stories, poems, novels) you can’t get over.
In chronological order of the encounter:
“El Aleph,” by Jorge Luis Borges
I read this short story when I was 16 and it was transformational. I don’t mean this in terms of emotional impact, but rather realizing what’s possible in a short story. I love the formal-paranoid tone of the narrator, his complaints about the pedantic, maybe unstable poet he visits, the dark atmosphere of mourning. But most of all, I love the list that bursts forth when the narrator sees the Aleph. The Aleph is a concept from Jewish mysticism (Kabbala) that describes a point that contains every place in the universe, “seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” The list begins:
I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree;
…and it goes on for a page. It is just dazzling. The pacing (alternating the length of the descriptions, the mini-lists within the list); the masterful mix of landscape, objects, and humans; how each item evokes a different emotional or intellectual reaction; how the list still reflects the narrator’s personality; the punctuation, even (“it was London” in parentheses is wonderful). I think I’ve been trying to write something like this list ever since I was knocked out by it. I’ve read lots of other Borges stories , and so many are marvelous (and he’s also a great poet!), but I’m always searching for “The Aleph” again, and realize I just need to re-read it. (You can read the whole story in English here.)
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
I first read this slender novel in college and have read it maybe three more times since. I’ve bought two other novels by Duras, but I always end up picking up The Lover instead. I know I need to read her other work, and I’m excited that it’s there waiting.* For a short novel, it’s endlessly re-readable, because there are so many ways to read it. On the surface, it’s a kind of love story between a teenage white French girl from a family fallen into poverty and an older, wealthy Chinese man in Vietnam (when it was French Indochina), and the various power imbalances that shape their relationship. But the real love story, the real heartbreak, when I read it, is between the girl and her lonely, inconsolable, unstable mother. It can also be a story about both adolescence and aging, about the death throes of French colonialism, about generational trauma, about female sexuality. Each time I read it, I notice a strange digression, and it’s like another piece of the puzzle - a rhapsody about the body of one of the girl’s boarding school mates, a passage about the empty gaze of a Nazi collaborator, the older brother as a deadly predator. The fragmentation works because the writing is so honed, certain, powerful.
This book has been made into a movie, but is one that just could never be replicated in movie form because of all of the places the writing takes it, including through shifting point of view (sometimes the narrator describes herself in first person, sometimes in an objectifying third person). You could tell the essential story, but not the language-based intensity it creates.
* I recently witnessed people snarking on Twitter about how this is Duras’ worst book, including a quote by her about how she wrote it when she was drunk, which is maybe the equivalent of talking about how much better the B-sides of a record are. But this is also one of the reasons I’ve stopped looking at Twitter for a while, so I don’t have random snark about things I love knocking around my head.
“Distance” by Grace Paley
This short story is in the collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute which we read in my beloved Brooklyn book club in my 20s. It’s in the voice of a sharp-tongued widow who likes her wine and lives alone in a New York tenement building. The language just blew me away, so I wasn’t concerned at first with the story, which is told in a tangled way, and has become clearer on subsequent readings. She’s looking back, on her interference in her son’s love life, her relationship with her husband, who cheated on her, and her own wild youth. It’s a monologue about how sex was the undercurrent driving them all, in ways they didn’t always know.
It has a great first line: “You would certainly be glad to meet me.” And I remember when I first read this paragraph (speaking of her son and his high school sweetheart): “But don’t think I’m the only one that seen Ginny and John when they were the pearls of this pitchy pigsty block. Oh, there were many, and they are still around holding the picture in the muck under their skulls, like crabs. And I am never surprised when they speak of it, when they try to make something of it, that nice-looking time, as though I was in charge of its passing.” It’s a story that fits that seemingly unattainable cliché, of every word being essential. I’ve since bought the Collected Stories of Paley, but haven’t made it through the whole thing. I have to be willing to accept that her writing changed over time and welcome other types of stories and styles of writing. I do prefer the intense, voice-driven ones though.
“Black Rook in Rainy Weather” by Sylvia Plath
I don’t remember how I came across this poem. It was maybe 7 years ago. I’d only read Plath’s work from Ariel (her best-known book that includes “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Fever 103,” etc.) “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” is from the book written before Ariel, called Crossing the Water. I don’t get tired of this poem. It’s a little journey every time. I think I’ve done so much walking alone and lonely walking in my life, for me the poem grabs that moment when something in the landscape brings you back, reignites that fundamental connection with the capacity to wonder at the world you thought was ordinary, whether it’s at a black bird, “a certain minor light” leaping out of kitchen table or chair. (Or at least that’s the way I read it.) It seems like a good one to keep in your back pocket. I bought a very nice edition of the book, but I can only seem to keep reading this poem! Full text is here.
“The White Album,” the essay, by Joan Didion, in the collection by the same name. This is like saying “Light My Fire” is your favorite Doors song (and actually mine is “20th Century Fox” or maybe “Love Her Madly”), but there’s a reason why greatest hits are greatest hits. There’s been so much written about Didion, I don’t know think I need to explain why this essay is a stand-out. But it is one of The Ones I Can’t Get Over, in that, I do read other Didion, but sometimes I just want to read “The White Album” again.
Bring back the lost positives!
Bonus if you’ve read this far: Check out these disappeared words unearthed by lexicographer Susie Dent:
Tell me about the ones you can’t get over!