Astonishing splashes of literature
18th February 2013 - Gary Perry
Some writers are so inventive, so original that their books startle us with their imagination. Most of us are fortunate to discover this in childhood, leading us onto a lifetime of wide-eyed wonder. For Gary Perry, from our Charing Cross Road flagship store, a journey that began with Roald Dahl has recently led him to German writer, Paul Scheerbart, most of whose books are only now being made available to English-language readers for the first time.
I like a book that astonishes. A book that jumps and squirms and surprises. The first books to have this effect on me were Dahl's stories. From George's Marvellous Medicine to The BFG, each one excited me. With a jolt, they spliced my reality with an imagined universe - a world conjured by a singular imagination. The world was not just that which I saw around me - it was not merely buses, and shops, and petrol stations - but witches, giants and talking insects. Dahl altered my mind in the most wondrous way - as all great authors do. The word 'marvellous' remains one of my favourite words in the English language and it's a quality that I look for in every book. Language and narrative should be the enemies of apathy and complacency, and the advocates of astonishment. I want to be unsettled.
The most recent writer to give my imagination a jolt is Paul Scheerbart, a German writer, whose works are only just being translated into English by the vivacious Wakefield Press, a publishing house with an eye for the unusual, the overlooked and the startling. Scheerbart's world is as vivid and peculiar as that of Dahl's. His novel, Lesabéndio, presents a raucous carnival of extra-terrestrial life. On Pallas, a barrel-shaped asteroid, the suction-padded inhabitants whizz around on conveyor belts and cable cars, smoke 'bubble-weed' and contemplate the 'cobweb-cloud' hovering mysteriously over their planet. The revolutionary thinker-architect, Lesabéndio, seeks to erect a tower, demystifying the cloud and becoming one with the universe. It really is as mad as it sounds. Imagine Lewis Carroll meeting Nietzsche and Siddhārtha Gautama on Tatooine and you're almost there.
Yet the world of the early twentieth century can be recognised. In the fields of Kaddimon steel, we see the great mines of Yorkshire and the Ruhr; in the building and transport projects, we can trace the outlines of Berlin, Paris and New York. Scheerbart takes reality and does the unexpected with it. Few novels have so brilliantly - and so weirdly - presented the astonishing upheavals of a rapidly changing world. Modernity is breathlessness and Scheerbart knows it.
He, like all great writers, opens up new vistas on a familiar landscape. We are simultaneously at home and somewhere strange. Lesabéndio argues that 'one must subordinate one's best thoughts over and over again to new, greater, not yet fully comprehensible thoughts. If one does not, then one becomes tired, sleepy and dropping'. The novel form, at its very best, startles our minds into a new liveliness. For Scheerbart, the imagination should never be allowed to atrophy. A good writer makes our thoughts dance; he throws them into the air and makes dervishes of them.
When I cast my eye over the works that have most shaped my reading life, from Woolf's Orlando to Borges' Labyrinths, all of them share this liveliness, this taste for imaginative play. When we read, we agree to play the author's game and collaborate in their reimagining of the world. The pleasure to be garnered from this never ceases. Language continues to entrance and astonish us.
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