Harold Bloom: The 3 Books You'd Want on a Desert Island

Roundup: Talking About History

Harold Bloom, in the WSJ (2-23-05):

The Desert Island Question ("If just one book, which?") has no universal answer, but most readers with authentic judgment would choose among the Authorized English Bible, Shakespeare complete, and "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes. Is it an oddity that the three competitors were almost simultaneous?

The King James Bible appeared in 1611, six years after the publication of the first part of "Don Quixote" (whose 400th anniversary was just upon us). In 1605, Shakespeare matched the greatness of Cervantes's masterwork with "King Lear," and then went on rapidly to "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." James Joyce, when asked the Desert Island Question, gloriously answered: "I should like to say Dante but I would have to take the Englishman because he is richer." A certain Irish resentment of Shakespeare can be felt there, and also a personal envy of Shakespeare's audience at the Globe, which is expressed in the still unread (except by scholars and a few other enthusiasts) "Finnegans Wake." The Bible is read, Shakespeare is performed and read, but Cervantes seems less prevalent in English-language countries than once he was. There have been many good translations into English since Thomas Shelton's in 1612, which Shakespeare evidently knew, but the extraordinary version by Edith Grossman, published in 2003, deserves to be read by those among us who cannot easily absorb Cervantes's Spanish.

Cervantes died in the same year, 1616, as Shakespeare, and doubtless never heard of him. Shakespeare had so colorless a life that no biography of him can be at all persuasive. The significant facts can be stated in a few paragraphs. Cervantes however experienced a difficult and violent existence, though no account of his life, worthy of the subject, exists as yet in English. Even an outline sounds like a Hollywood script. Scholars do not agree whether Cervantes was "Old Christian" or of a "New Christian" family, Jewish conversos who became Catholic in 1492 in order to avoid expulsion. To join the Imperial Spanish army you had to swear you were of "untainted" blood, and he and his brother did so, but one wonders why a hero who was permanently maimed in his right hand at the great sea-fight against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, never received even a shred of preferment from Philip II, fiercely Catholic King of Spain. Until his old age, made somewhat comfortable by a nobleman's belated patronage, Cervantes's personal story is a cavalcade of hardships....

Why did the invention of the novel have to wait for Cervantes? Now in the 21st century, the novel seems to be experiencing a long day's dying. Our contemporary masters -- Pynchon, Roth, Saramago and others -- seem forced to retreat back to picaresque and the romance form, pre-Cervantine. Shakespeare and Cervantes created much of human personality as we know it, or at least the ways in which personality could be represented: Joyce's Poldy, his Irish-Jewish Ulysses, is both Quixotic and Shakespearean, but Joyce died in 1941, before Hitler's Holocaust could be fully known. In our Age of Information and of ongoing Terror, the Cervantine novel may be as obsolete as the Shakespearean drama. I speak of the genres, and not of their supreme masters, who never will become outmoded.

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John H. Lederer - 2/27/2005

a good book on boatbuilding with primitive tools.

There are times when the crafts are much more important than scholastics.