Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Presence of Ghosts

Dead Authors

"The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books
 are by dead writers.  Even if they are not yet dead, to sense 
 their presence is to sense a ghost."
- Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, p 4

For more than two decades I have adhered, in part, to the view of Orhan Pamuk in my choice of which books to read.  I have found that many of the best books are by dead authors.  When I first started to read books by dead authors I was not surprised by the quality, but I was surprised by the not infrequent discovery of 'new' dead writers - at least new to my experience.  Some of the great books that I have enjoyed while traveling with the ghosts of these new dead writers include The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.  This reading has also led me to great historical fiction like The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell,  and crime fiction like The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. 

I have long been enamored of the great writers of the past who have been my reading companions from an early age.  My favorites among these include the Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Maugham.  There is little need to look for great living writers (except for Nobel prize winners like Coetzee, Pamuk, and Modiano) when you can savour the work dead writers like Naguib Mafouz or Albert Camus, also a Nobel prize authors.  Literature that has passed on beyond the life of the author begins to attain the patina of transcendence and with this the imprimatur of greatness.  These books are worth putting on the top of your reading list - setting aside the latest best-sellers for the day, whether tomorrow or next year, when their author may join the ghosts of other dead authors.


Brian Joseph said...

There is definite truth to this James.

Not only have dead authors stood the test of time, but since most authors are dead, it stands to reason that most most great authors would no longer be living.

I should go back on my blog and tally up the ratio between fiction books written by the living verses the dead.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Orhan Pamuk's remark reminded me of both the new and the older dead authors that I have enjoyed. It is not surprising that many authors like Pamuk have read and studied these authors as well.