Culture 24/07/2021

Ten books we always leave for the summer

Whether because of their complexity or their length, there are books that require a long and spare reading time. We have chosen ten, including James Joyce's 'Ulysses', Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea saga

7 min
James Joyce, Karl Ove Knausgard, Jaume Cabré, Patricia Highsmith and Víctor Català.

BarcelonaIn the history of literature there are works that require the reader to dedicate a generous amount of time to them, either because they add up to many pages, because the proposal is remarkably demanding or because length and complexity go hand in hand. There are examples from all periods and nationalities and for all tastes. Summer is the ideal season of the year to dare to make risky readings that can become transforming experiences.

'Ulysses', by James Joyce
James Joyce l'any 1915

James Joyce's novel -published in 1922- can be frightening not only because of its 250,000 words and a vocabulary that exceeds 30,000 words, but also because it has the reputation of being "unaffordable". Joaquim Mallafrè, translator of the version published by Leteradura in 1981 -and later, in revised editions, by Edhasa and Proa- recalls: "If one reads it trying to follow the plot alone, it can be disappointing, but this is because Ulysses embraces many more aspects". Mallafrè devoted seven years to it. He bought it in the back room of a Barcelona bookshop at the end of the 1950s, in a South American edition - "it was forbidden by the regime", he recalls - and, although he didn't manage to finish it that time, he tried again with a French translation and, finally, he took on the English original. "Ulysses is an exciting and stimulating adventure. Among other things, it helped me reconnect with a language that was incredibly familiar to me", he says. "That world is full of idioms, jokes and scatology that are curiously universal".

'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky
Dostoievski, en un quadre de Vasily Perov

The first reading of Crime and Punishment by the poet and literary critic Xenia Dyakonova was collective. "My father read the whole book aloud to me for a few months before going to bed. I was 12 or 13", she says. Dostoyevsky's book, published in Russian in 1866 - and which Miquel Cabal has translated back into Catalan for La Casa dels Clàssics - made Dyakonova uncomfortable: "I knew that killing was a sin, but I had a certain sympathy for the character of Raskolnikov, who decides to kill an old woman who is a disgusting human being".

"From Crime and Punishment onwards, the neighbourhood where the old woman lives seemed to me a sinister place, where terrible things could happen," she says. Later, the poet and literary critic reread the book: "Raskolnikov's headaches seemed more adolescent to me. They would understand me, but I read the novel as if I had become the character's older sister".

'Solitude' ('Solitud'), by Víctor Català
L'escriptora Víctor Català

The two great gateways to the literature of Víctor Català are her short stories -recovered by Club Editor in four volumes- and the novel Solitude (1905). It is a story about the desire of its protagonist, Mila, a woman who is very much conditioned by elements over which she has no power to change", explains the writer Najat El Hachmi, who has written one of the texts that will accompany the new edition of the book in Catalan, which will be published this autumn by Ediciones 62. "I don't think it's a novel that has to be linked to a specific literary movement, that of Modernism. It can be read from many angles and other points of view". El Hachmi came to it in the mid-1990s, when she was in high school. She has reread it several times. "Solitude is a great inner journey, Mila's character is very well created psychologically", he says. "She manages to place you in a world apart, in a kind of dream that ends up being part of your imagination. It's ideal to read it in summer because it takes time to immerse yourself in this other reality".

'My Struggle', by Karl Ove Knausgård
Karl Ove Knausgård: l’estimes o l’odies

One of the most extensive narrative cycles of the 21st century has been My Struggle, the six autobiographical books, totalling 3,500 pages, published by Karl Ove Knausgård between 2009 and 2011 (available in Catalan from L'Altra). "One of the things that impressed me most at first was that it combined an exhaustive account of episodes of his life that required a reading experience of reconstruction", says the poet, translator and cultural journalist Míriam Cano. "The first volume began with the death of his father, the second explained his life with his partner and children, the third sent you back to his childhood and the fourth made you jump back to the years when he was a school teacher". Cano immediately thought of "In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: the two projects start from the same impulse, but Knausgård does it with a contemporary sensibility. He shares a level of intimacy that you don't have with Proust, and he deals openly with feelings such as guilt, resentment and indifference".

The Tom Ripley Quintet by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith, el 1962

Whether as a forger, a murderer or a seemingly respectable husband, Tom Ripley is one of the most well-rounded creations of Patricia Highsmith, whose birth centenary will be commemorated this 2021. The character starred in five novels, which total almost 1,500 pages in the latest edition of Anagrama. Published in English between 1955 and 1991, they are one of the summits of the psychological thriller of the second half of the 20th century. "Reading Highsmith is a bit like swimming in a murky lake: you feel good, in the water, but at the same time you feel that nothing around you can be trusted", says literary critic and writer Pere Antoni Pons. "I think the most fascinating thing about Ripley's character is that his is an evil that is both brutal and perversely refined. He is a very sophisticated amoral in the forms - he likes money and the good life, he knows about art - but with a very elemental and savage background".

'Confessions' ('Jo confesso'), by Jaume Cabré
Jaume Cabré

CThis September it will be ten years since the publication of This September it will be ten years since the publication of Confessions, Jaume Cabré's longest, most celebrated and most translated novel. One of the first literary critics to read it - and four times - was Joan Josep Isern. "I spent the whole of that August glued to the novel", he recalls. It has a notoriously complex plot. It is the place where Cabré consolidates his style, known for the changes of narrative persona in the same paragraph, a technique he put into practice in L'ombra de l'eunuc (The Eunuch's Shadow) [1996]". Isern relates the kaleidoscope of stories that interfere with Adrià Ardèvol's and the importance of music to the stories in Viatge d'hivern (Winter Journey) (2000). Confessions is a very meditated and ambitious work, a great reflection on the history of Europe and an analysis of evil", he sums up. "That's why, when I finished reading it for the fourth time, I didn't hesitate to put it on the classics shelf, and it hasn't moved since". Cabré's book keeps company with Montaigne's Essays, Proust's Search, Petrarch's Song Book and Lampedusa's Gattopardo, among others.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin, la revolució humanista i feminista que va canviar la ciència-ficció

The American writer Ursula K. Le Guin spent more than three decades in and out of the world of Earthsea, the protagonist of one of her most celebrated series of novels, in process of being translated into Catalan by Raig Verd. "They are very suitable for all types of readers, of all ages and whether they are little or very familiar with science fiction", says the books' translator, Blanca Busquets. "We have classics such as J.R.R. Tolkien or more current authors very much in mind, but it is worth mentioning Le Guin's work, which is in the middle and is very rich in readings". The first piece in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, arrived in 1968, and the last, The Other Wind, in 2001. It features wizards, priestesses, dragons and princes. "One of the cross-cutting ideas is that there is always a bit of darkness in the light", says Busquets. "The problems begin when, instead of embracing it, we try to deny it".

'2666' by Roberto Bolaño
L’escriptor Roberto Bolaño retratat a París per Daniel Mordzinski. Les seves dues grans novel·les són Los detectives salvajes i 2666.

There are novels that, in addition to having become their author's peak, have had the good fortune to appear in the midst of the process of internationalization and canonization of his work. This was the case with 2666, which Anagrama put into circulation in 2004, a year after Roberto Bolaño's death. Despite his premature death, the Chilean author left behind twenty titles. "Any book is a good place to start reading an author whose main virtue was to transmit the enthusiasm for being alive -and being young- in a hallucinating world of confusion and pain", assures writer Gonzalo Torné. "2666 is his masterpiece". Although he recognises that Bolaño has more accessible doors, he recommends starting "with the best of his novels". "My experience, like so many others, is that after reading it I started to write with more enthusiasm, it made me feel proud to belong to the madness of art", he admits. 2666 is divided into five books totaling 1,126 pages that combine life and death in the fictional city of Santa Teresa with the investigation of the German writer Benno von Archimboldi.

'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace

"Reading Infinite Jest is a challenge, because it demands work from you as a reader: it makes discursive nooks and crannies, you have to be very aware of its fractal structure -whether it replicates the author or reverberates-... and whether or not you connect with David Foster Wallace's sense of humour", explains the writer and teacher Borja Bagunyà. He has spent a whole year teaching a course at the Bloom School on the novel, published in English in 1996. "There have been 25 sessions, taught half with Míriam Cano, in which we read the book in groups", he says. Every two weeks we would advance about 50 pages, interpreting and contextualising them. This led us to other titles by Foster Wallace, but also to authors such as Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare and to disciplines such as political philosophy, psychology and psychoanalysis". They were so pleased with the result that in September they will tackle another literary masterpiece, in this case from the 18th century, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling

Published between 1997 and 2007, the seven novels starring J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter have been the gateway to reading for millions of young people around the world. "I got into it when I was seven years old. I remember that the moment of reading the novels, just before going to sleep, was the moment I looked forward to the most during the day", recalls the poet and storyteller Anna Gas Serra. She finished the seventh book during a school trip in 2008, when she was 11: "It was the first time I was aware that something was over forever and ever. That world that had completely absorbed me had just closed". The author has returned to Potter's adventures periodically: "I've read the whole saga five times. These books are like coming home for me. I've always identified with Harry. He is someone who has never felt comfortable anywhere, until at Hogwarts he discovers a place where he is cared for, has friends and can be happy".