Sunday, November 04, 2007

All About H.Hatterr and Other Endangered Books

My life has been enlivened and sustained by books, many of them peculiar and idiosyncratic, printed in small editions by a band of believers living, more likely than not, on instant noodles.

I cannot imagine my life without the books I adore. I am wildly and permanently grateful to them, as I am to the people who hauled me in off the street when I was lost and grief-stricken. Where else could I have learned that I could have my own vision of the world, of language, and not just accept someone else’s hand-me-down?

Thus it is an act of loyalty for me to speak up for the books I love. Many of them seem on the verge of disappearing, bobbing in and out of print.

Thus it was with great delight that I discovered that NYRB classics will re-issue
G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr. This book is near the top of my list of books that must not be allowed to disappear. I am very grateful that other, more powerful, people are concerned about it as well.

The pyrotechnics and word-juggling of Mr. Rushdie come hugely from this book—by Rushdie’s own admission. For me this book encapsulates the crazed gorgeous inventiveness of Indian English. It is an extraordinary book and for years you couldn’t find a copy on-line for less than 100 bucks.

I remember when I found my copy, buried in the back of a bookshop in Varanasi. For years I’d looked for it and suddenly there it was, looking like it had had a wide range of traumatic experiences which it did not wish to discuss but nonetheless intact.

I am known, of course, as a singularly sedate person, a veritable sea of equanimity, but I no doubt would slug anyone who so much as touched my copy of All About H. Hatterr. Thankfully violence is no longer necessary. You can get your own copy.

NYRB classics has performed a number of acts of literary heroism, including publishing Robert Walser, Nirad Chaudhuri, and Tatyana Tolstaya. What would I have done without these books? If you haven’t read Robert Walser, I just don’t understand how you are getting by.

The rescue of this book has made me think of other endangered books. Here are a few:

1) The stories of Lucia Berlin. The work of this American master is on the verge of disappearing. Every time I think of it I want to run into the street screaming.

2) One thousand and one-second stories by Inagaki Taruho, translated by Tricia Vita. One thousand and one seconds is longer than this book was in print. I know half a dozen people who want it and none of us can get it. (If you have a copy, don’t tell me. I will come to your house and steal it.)

3) Halldor Laxness’s books go in and out of print. It’s maddening. Someone needs to come out with a multi-volume Every-Last-Fucking-Scrap Collected Edition. Please.

4) Mahasweta Devi. Does anyone in America read her books? Sheesh!

5) James Broughton’s Ecstasies.

6) Henri Troyat’s biographies. Of course we need Chekhov: A Life so we can learn how to be a magnificent human being, but we also need Gogol so we can know that it is still possible to make something brilliant and beautiful even if you’re screwing up pretty much non-stop.

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