Sunday, May 24, 2009

The second tier

A couple of months ago I read the splendid "The Master and Margarita", by Mikhail Bulgakov. For those who haven't read the book yet, go read it now. It's got that perfect mix of genius and hilarity. I was so impressed with the book, I decided to purchase another Bulgakov book, one that I was warned (by the product description) would be nothing like "The Master and Margarita". And so I read "The White Guard", a book utterly different from "The Master and Margarita" but special in its own right. Still, I found myself pondering certain points regarding the books.

Getting to know an author from his/her most famous work first seems to be the common way to go these days. At least, for me. I recently picked up a random Primo Levi book (my first), only to come home and discover that this is possibly the most famous of Levi's books. It explains how I possibly managed to find it, though. Similarly, after reading the excellent "Germinal", I learned that it was part of the whole Rougon-Macquart series, if one of the better known additions.

And indeed, searching for dead or established authors these days will lead the reader not to the author's first works, but rather the later, greater books. Tolstoy's masterful "War and Peace" came before the first-published "Childhood Boyhood Youth" and while many readers would find the latter a letdown, it's a charming little debut. It provides a lot of autobiographical insight on Tolstoy's life and makes for an interesting quick read, even if it lacks the power-punch of "War and Peace". It's not meant to be a similar book. It was, obviously, written first. But, of course, it's not well known at all beyond that Tolstoy wrote it. And many dismiss it because it isn't on the same "tier" as "War and Peace". Pity.

That's not to say I'm not guilty too. In fact, almost all the books I read are the "famous" ones, the ones that history has let continue. It makes sense. But with many authors, there's that feeling that by judging his/her books in the wrong order, I'm making some sort of horrible mistake. Say, for instance, with Bulgakov. "The White Guard" was written prior to "The Master and Margarita". These are two entirely different novels and while I do think "The Master and Margarita" is better, "The White Guard" is special in its own fiction field. If I'd read "The White Guard" first, I think I might have appreciated "The Master and Margarita" a bit more, simply because there's still a Bulgakov feel to both books.

Émile Zola is another example of this. I recently finished reading "Nana", which after the brilliance of "Germinal" and the unique touch to "L'Assommoir", felt like a simply good book. Not outstanding. Yet "Nana" predates "Germinal" by 5 years. Had I read the series in order (as I shall try to do from now on), perhaps I'd have found "Nana"'s bizarreness to be another sign of brilliance and not a tiresome tedium (though it's still a great book). Going back now to the source of the cycle, I'll probably be less shocked and surprised by many of the situations, having already tasted of the "greater" novels in the series.

There are opposite examples to this too but they are far and few between. I have almost always started with the more famous work by the author, with very few exceptions. Does this explain why many readers led backwards like myself find themselves often disappointed by excellent books? What does this say about our tendencies to compare very different books? People won't stop reading the great classics and it makes perfect sense. Some authors wrote horrible first books and only later hit their stride as writers. Others developed in such a way that their early works are overshadowed by the later; the books are good, display the writer's talents and are important, but by comparison they are not the well known books. Then, by coming back to read the perhaps only slightly less good book, I get the sensation of disappointment. "How dare the young, growing author not be as amazing as his more mature works?"

I can't and won't be expected to adhere to this new policy of early works first. It simply isn't possible. It's just interesting to think about. Some writers have horrible first works that may dissuade me from reading their later, better books. And sometimes those early, developmental books have fallen into obscurity. I know I'll face disappointment going back to read the early works and even lose some of the magic of watching an author develop. Comparing authors is often tricky. Comparing an author to his/her own works? Apparently trickier.


  1. I have a funny thing about this - I'll avoid reading the better-known works because they're "obvious" or I know they'll always be readily available. Only now that I'm in my 30s am I making an attempt to fill in the holes in my reading of the classics.

  2. Try also The Heart of the Dog, which is very satirical as well.

  3. I sometimes feel that reading an author's best-known work is a bit like following the "must-see" list in a tourist's guide book. I usually get more pleasure from discovering unusual spots when I travel, and my tastes in reading are similar. That said, some guidance can be helpful. When Le Clezio won the Nobel for literature, I bought one of his books at random. The Interrogation. I soon dropped it because it seemed too dense and experimental. I'll have to find another of his works to try.

  4. Just up my street I think. I shall look it out


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