B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne
Lady Gregorys retellings of the ancient Irish epic tales, many of which are evoked in Yeatss plays and poems.
Fascinating medieval Welsh tales, somewhat similar to the Irish ones but perhaps even more mysterious, magical and dreamlike.
The best edition is that translated by Jeffrey Gantz. If you like it, you might also enjoy Evangeline Waltons four-volume series of retellings. But read the original first.
This delightful folk epic was put together in the early nineteenth century by the country doctor Elias Lönnrot, based on the ancient folksongs that he had collected in the remotest regions of Finland and Lapland. The three shamanistic heroes Väinämöinen the ageless sage and singer, Ilmarinen the blacksmith and craftsman, and Lemminkäinen the brash and boastful adventurer wander through landscapes that shift and metamorphose as in a dream; yet the whole environment, people, animals, plants, are described in vivid and loving detail. Even inanimate objects come alive a little tree, addressed with the right spell, will answer a question; a harp, misplayed, will insist on being returned to its master.
Avoid the old translations by Kirby and Crawford, which have a monotonous, Hiawatha-style rhythm. There are two excellent verse translations by Keith Bosley and by Eino Friberg, but I prefer the literal scholarly edition by Francis Magoun, which lets you see exactly what the original says, without any distortion. Compare the three versions of the sample passage here and see which you prefer.
[Rexroth essay on The Kalevala]
Njals Saga [ca. 1280]
This medieval Icelandic story is one the most intense novels ever written. It is not at all primitive in the way that The Kalevala or the ancient Irish tales are. Though the harsh environment produces a rather simplified social structure (somewhat like pioneer America), the characters and motivations are delineated with the greatest sophistication and profundity. The plot a feud that builds up to a tragic climax involves the unsuccessful effort of a magnanimous individual to overcome the spites and pettinesses of some of the other characters much the same theme that recurs in so many other great works from The Iliad to Parades End.
Dante, The Divine Comedy 
Repugnant though Dantes religious perspective may be, there are many qualities in The Divine Comedy that make it worth reading. The authors imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise touches on every aspect of life aesthetic, psychological, ethical, political, philosophical, spiritual. Though he is as egotistic and vindictive as his Biblical God, Dante is far from being conventionally pious. He puts a considerable number of Popes in some of the hottest sectors of Hell, for example.
His poetry is brilliant and subtle enough that it is very hard to translate, especially if one tries to preserve the original rhyme scheme. Its probably best to get one of the literal prose translations (Charles Singletons or John Sinclairs). And read the notes otherwise you wont understand who the characters are or why they have ended up where Dante puts them.
[Rexroth translation of a Dante poem]
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron [ca. 1350]
Classic collection of one hundred medieval tales, many of them risqué, all of them quite entertaining.
I recommend the translation by G.H. McWilliam (Penguin).
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote 
This is one of the most wonderful books in the world. A middle-aged country gentleman, brain addled by reading too many chivalric adventure stories, adopts the trappings of a medieval knight and sets out to rescue damsels in distress and otherwise right any wrongs he may come across. He convinces a naïve but commonsensical peasant, Sancho Panza, to accompany him as his squire. Their conversations as they travel along are even more entertaining than their predictably amusing adventures. The novel may have started out as a mere satire of the already largely outmoded genre of chivalric romance, but Don Quixote and Sancho soon took on a life of their own and became two of the best-loved characters in world literature. The significance of their adventures and of their relation to each other has lent itself to endlessly different interpretations, like life itself.
More than twenty different translations have been made into English. None is entirely satisfactory. The older ones are in dated language and many are also rather free. The newer ones are more accurate, but none of them have the vigor of the original (as far as I can tell, knowing very little Spanish). For comparison, I have posted thirteen versions of the famous Windmill episode all eight modern ones plus five of the most significant earlier ones. Samuel Putnams translation, the first of the modern ones (1949), has been reprinted in numerous editions and has been the closest to an acknowledged standard version during the last 65 years. It is still probably the best written, but it is now challenged by some of the more recent ones. John Rutherfords translation is the most idiomatic, which is particularly important in rendering Sanchos folksy sayings and opinions. Burton Raffel’s is among the most rigorous in tracking the original Spanish, and his edition also contains the most extensive supplementary materials (Don Quijote: A Norton Critical Edition, 1999). But all the modern translations have their merits and their fans, and the differences between them are mostly rather subtle. Look through them and see which ones appeal to you.
I dont usually recommend abridgments, but in some cases they may be better than nothing. If youre intimidated by the length of Don Quixote, you might try The Portable Cervantes, which includes an abridged version of the Putnam translation with summaries of the omitted material.
[Rexroth essay on Don Quixote]
Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life 
Casanovas memoirs are not just about his innumerable love affairs, though he does indeed recount plenty of them. (Incidentally, the reason so many women loved him so well was because he generally treated them with the greatest sympathy and consideration. He was quite the opposite of the Don Juan collector-of-conquests type.) He was an all-round adventurer writer, translator, musician, soldier, actor, dancer, gambler, occultist, theatrical producer, con man, secret agent. While Restif de la Bretonne gives us a view of French society from the bottom up, Casanova was a cultivated cosmopolitan who moved with ease in every circle of European society. Among other accomplishments he translated Homer into Italian and Ariosto into French, wrote a small part of the libretto of Mozarts Don Giovanni, authored a utopian novel and several histories, organized a national lottery for the king of France, and was the only person to ever escape from the notorious Piombi prison in Venice. His autobiography is as thrilling as an adventure novel (when it was first published in the 1820s some people thought it was a fictional work by Stendhal), yet subsequent research has verified virtually everything he recounted.
Get the superb illustrated and annotated edition translated by Willard Trask (6 vols.). The earlier translation by Arthur Machen was based on a less authentic text.
[Rexroth essay on Casanova]
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 
Set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, this is one of the worlds greatest novels. The scope is vast, yet the characters are not lost in it; each is delineated with particularity and sympathy. They are real people, not larger than life, yet somehow Tolstoy manages to portray them with a thrilling, almost superhuman glow.
Anna Karenina is Tolstoys other masterpiece. I also recommend his powerful final novel, Resurrection, which was written after his conversion to a pacifist-anarchist form of Christianity. If you believe in the prison system before you start it, I dont think you will by the end.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov 
Dostoyevsky was one of my earliest literary enthusiasms. Then Rexroth convinced me that hes not so profound as he seems, or rather that theres something pretentious and silly about the way his characters are constantly discussing supposedly profound topics and wearing their existential anguish on their sleeves. Still, hes undeniably a penetrating psychologist and a vivid depicter of the absurd aspects of the human condition. The Brothers Karamazov is his greatest work, but The Possessed (a.k.a. Devils or Demons), The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment are also very good.
Anton Chekhov, Plays and Stories [1860-1904]
Conversely, Rexroth taught me to appreciate Chekhov for his quiet, understated insights. Read his four major plays and some of his short stories. They may not bowl you over at first Chekhov has had such a pervasive influence on subsequent writers that his innovations no longer seem particularly striking but I think youll find that as the years go by you will return to his low-keyed narratives with a satisfaction that few other authors can provide.
[Rexroth essay on Chekhov]
Henrik Ibsen, Selected Plays [1828-1906]
Ibsen almost single-handedly created the modern drama, introducing a new psychological realism in the presentation of characters and at the same time turning the theater into a forum for the debate of controversial social issues. The themes of The Dolls House (about a woman who leaves her husband in reaction to being treated as a domestic object) and An Enemy of the People (about a communitys attempt to silence a whistleblower who threatens their economic interests) are obviously still relevant, but many of his less social plays are just as good in their own way.
If you get into Ibsen, you may enjoy Lou Salomés Ibsens Heroines, which attempts to deduce the earlier and later lives of his female characters. However speculative such attempts may be, they are a good way to deepen ones understanding of the characters personalities and motivations. (Lou Andreas-Salomé, friend of Nietzsche, lover of Rilke and colleague of Freud, was herself a fascinating character.)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems [1875-1926]
To my taste, Rilkes quest for ecstatic interior visions sometimes seems rather narrow and cloying the sort of evasion of concrete personal relations and responsibilities that Martin Buber turned against. But over and over you come across truly wonderful lines, lines that open you up to whole new ways of looking at things.
There are numerous translations. Explore and compare.
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha; Steppenwolf; The Glass Bead Game [1922, 1927, 1943]
Hesse was one of the authors who most excited us during the sixties he seemed to present such illuminating glimpses into the new psychedelic worlds of the imagination that we were seeking and to some extent already experiencing. My enthusiasm has diminished a bit since that time, but I still like these three novels, each remarkable in its own way. Siddhartha is a tale of a young mans spiritual journey in the time of Buddha. Steppenwolf is a more wild and conflicted modern psychological journey. The Glass Bead Game depicts an imaginary future society dedicated to subtle aesthetic-psychological-spiritual games.
Note that The Glass Bead Game is a better translation (by Richard and Clara Winston) of the novel previously translated as Magister Ludi.
Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera; Stories of Mr. Keuner [1928, 1920s-1956]
Breaking with the traditional practice of leftist propaganda, striving instead to provoke spectators into thinking for themselves by undermining the usual audience identification with hero and plot, Brecht is the founder of modern radical drama. In certain respects he anticipates the yet more radical attack on the spectacle-spectator relationship launched by the situationists.
The Threepenny Opera (with music by Kurt Weill) is a bitter-sweet delight. Listen to the German-language recording (Die Dreigroschenoper) produced by Lotte Lenya and see the original film directed by G.W. Pabst (Brecht thought it distorted his work, but its still one of the all-time great films). There is also an interesting Threepenny Novel, which has some of the same characters as the Opera but a completely different plot and setting. The other great Brecht-Weill collaboration is The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
Of Brechts other plays, try Mother Courage, and perhaps also The Good Woman of Szechwan and The Life of Galileo.
And dont miss his superb little radical parables, Stories of Mr. Keuner. A few of them are online here.
Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author 
This is another ground-breaking challenge to the traditional spectacle-spectator relation. Reading it or seeing it is a disorienting experience, you become utterly confused about what is real and what is the play.
Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk 
This hilarious novel, about a World War I soldier who gets by by being (or appearing to be one is never quite sure which it is) a totally clueless klutz, is not only the best satire of war ever written, its a truly great picaresque and humanistic work, worthy of being set alongside Don Quixote or Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Note: Get one of the Svejk translations: the earlier one with the name spelled Schweik is abridged and somewhat bowdlerized.
Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities 
This immense unfinished work, a satirical novel of ideas set in Vienna in the years just before World War I, is distinctly more interesting than that other much-vaunted opus of the same period, The Magic Mountain. Musils book tackles more modern issues, and it tackles them in more modern ways. The narration goes off on all sorts of social, psychological and philosophical tangents. Sometimes its illuminating, sometimes its amusing, sometimes it seems cold and tedious. But I found it interesting enough that I recently reread the whole thing, and would have kept going if there had been more.
If you decide to tackle it, get the new two-volume edition translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, which includes all the posthumous material (Musils notes and drafts for later chapters, some presenting studies of the characters, some mulling over alternative directions that the plot might have taken).
Constantine Cavafy, Poems [1863-1932]
Cavafy is a modern Greek-Alexandrian poet who seems to carry on the urbane, world-weary sensuality of classical Hellenism. Like many readers of my generation, I discovered him through Durrells Alexandria Quartet.
I slightly prefer the Theoharis translation (entitled Before Time Could Change Them), but the other two, by Rae Dalven and by Keeley and Sherrard, are also fine.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Novels and Stories [1904-1991]
This Polish Yiddish writer who moved to America is one of the few modern fiction writers Ive thoroughly enjoyed. I think hes as great a storyteller as any of the classic masters of the past. He alternates between traditional life in the Jewish quarters of Poland (a tight-knit communal society dominated by religious and sometimes even magical themes) and contemporary Jewish life in New York City, where the characters are more secular, isolated and alienated.
Try one of his story collections and see if you like him. The Collected Stories contains the cream of the crop.
[Rexroth essay on Isaac Singer]
Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution, by Ken Knabb (2004).
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