Reading at the Edge: A Personal Canon

by Celia Bell

As writers and readers, it’s sometimes too easy to become jaded about the potential of literature.  There have been some weeks when I pause while reading new poetry and ask myself, “How many poems have I read recently about deer?  Five?  Six? What distinguishes them?”  And there have been, equally, moments when I’ve looked at my own writing and asked the same question. Where have I allowed myself to take risks, to push into territory that feels unsafe? What can this work do that pushes the boundaries of what we imagine literature to be?

Sometimes, we get an answer to this question through reading.  When I find myself wondering about deer poems, feeling too preoccupied with the subject matter, I think back to Jenny Johnson’s “In Full Velvet,” and how, when I first heard it read aloud, the poem seemed to become its own world, the ‘just kind of’ and ‘you know’ of a taxidermist’s reported speech woven together with the intimate and strange view of a stag’s antlers so that they both become strange.

This is a post of reading recommendations, but it is also about works that take risks, that expand your idea of what literature can be and do, or make the familiar strange.  I suspect that most writers (and most readers) have, or should have, a similar list, whether it’s composed of old greats or new and daring works. These books force you to learn to read in a new way, and leave you with the feeling that the possibilities of literature have opened up, like a building whose walls have been pushed outward, changing the space of its interior.

One of these books, for me, is László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, which is the sort of unruly, deliberately obscure book that it’s often difficult to convince others to read—one friend to whom I lent my copy sent me an email, a week later, saying, “I am on the second chapter, and it begins with a crossword in Italian.  Did you lend me this book by mistake?”

It was not, in fact, a mistake (and my friend was eventually won over), but Seiobo There Below is a novel that is ruthlessly hard to read, whose language is both abstract and visceral. A series of vignettes about the transformative and destructive power of art, the book rejects anything resembling a traditional plot, driving forward with long, unruly sentences that feel like being submerged in water, holding your breath as you try to find your way—or, as one character describes it, like riding a bike downhill without breaks, so that the air transforms into ‘a labyrinth of speed.’  It’s a book about art, and one committed to the idea that art, at its core, is dangerous.  And, true to its subject, it demands attention and engagement on the part of the reader, insisting that reading should carry you away and take you elsewhere.

Another book in my personal constellation of startling and groundbreaking works is Lygia Fagundes Telles’s The Girl in the Photograph.  Set in Brazil during the late 1960s, during a repressive and dictatorial political regime, the novel is deeply politically engaged, while also being daring and delightful in its form.  The narration, weaving together the stories of three female friends, slips freely from first to third person, refusing to anchor itself in any single point of view.  I remember, the first time I read it, being shocked by the fluency and adeptness with which Telles passes between characters, treating even their shallow preoccupations with humor and compassion.  Now, it’s a book that I turn back to when I’m considering how to handle voice in my own work.

The last work on this list (at least for now) is Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch.  A collection of many books in one, Hopscotch’s numbered chapters can be read in order or out of it, and the book passes from the streets of intellectual Paris to a strange and carnivalesque asylum in Buenos Aires.  It’s tragic and funny by turns, and sometimes at the same time, and it invites its readers to drop in and out of the text, skip, skim, and return to the chapters that they liked best.  And, perhaps most compellingly, it’s a book that reminds readers of the work that they are also doing in creating a story as it’s read, that the reader’s attentiveness and openness is itself part of the creative process.

It’s a lesson that’s worth remembering, both when I’m feeling a little bit surfeited with what I’m reading, and when I’m trying to look at my own work with new eyes. Sometimes, as a writer, you have to take risks and trust that your readers will follow.  And sometimes, as a reader, you need to give the benefit of the doubt to that Italian crossword puzzle.

Celia Bell was born in Baltimore and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the New Writers Project in Austin.  Her stories have appeared in Bomb Magazine and Five Points.