Thursday, June 29, 2017

Two Books That Changed The World

2017 is an anniversary year for two novels that changed the world in recent times.  It's intriguing to consider them together.

Although it would not be until the early 1970s that One Hundred Years of Solitude created a sensation in English speaking countries, the novel in Spanish by Gabriel Garcia Marquez published as Cien Anos De Soledad fifty years ago in 1967 began its conquest of the world in his native South America.

 In his recent Vanity Fair article, Paul Elie writes:
"The novel came off the press in Buenos Aires on May 30, 1967, two days before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and the response among Spanish-language readers was akin to Beatlemania: crowds, cameras, exclamation points, a sense of a new era beginning."

"Eight thousand copies sold in the first week in Argentina alone, unprecedented for a literary novel in South America. Laborers read it. So did housekeepers and professors—and prostitutes: the novelist Francisco Goldman recalls seeing the novel on the bedside table in a coastal bordello. García Márquez traveled to Argentina, to Peru, to Venezuela, on its behalf."

But that was just the beginning. Eventually One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated into 37 languages, and had the same effect almost everywhere.  "It’s the book that redefined not just Latin-American literature but literature, period,” insists Ilan Stavans, the pre-eminent scholar of Latino culture in the U.S., who says he has read the book 30 times.

Its broad appeal to that first South American readership--from the literati to laborers, was echoed everywhere.  I remember discussing it with Ted Solotaroff, then editor of the New American Review and a renowned champion of new writers.  His face lit up, and neither of us could keep from smiling.  For the next several years, when young women, from artists to waitresses asked me to recommend a book (partly because I was the book review editor for the Boston Phoenix and taught a course on new books) I always named this one.  I gave copies as gifts.  It never missed.  Never.

This is a book that created rapture.

"Unofficially, it’s everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time," Elie asserts.  His article quotes several writers on their response.

Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and wrote many other distinguished books.  His voice remains unmistakable throughout.  But One Hundred Years of Solitude remains unique, with the same power to amaze and enchant new readers fifty years later.

Twenty years ago a novel for children was published in England called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by a new author, now known as J.K. Rowling. While almost immediately successful, the book itself assumed a special significance as the beginning of a series that became an unparalleled global phenomenon.

It also reached a breadth of readers, most notably in terms of age.  First and foremost the Harry Potter books were enormously popular with children, who grew along with Harry and the series.  But soon--perhaps with the second or third book--adults became readers almost as fanatical.  Margaret and I were introduced to the series by adult friends, and like them, we made a ritual of reading them aloud to each other.  Eventually we awaited each new volume with our version of the same enthusiasm as young readers.

These were books that created rapture.

One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Harry Potter series share some fascinating aspects.  Both stories came to their authors all at once, on moving vehicles (Marquez in a car, Rowling on a train.)  Both combine the ordinary with the magical, the recognizable with the mythic.  Both have memorable characters, memorable incidents and scenes, and strong stories.  They contain the major milestones of life--birth, marriage, children, death--and the major relationships--parents or parent figures and children, lovers and friends.

 Though one is a kind of cosmic tragedy and the other a comedy (ending in marriages, as Shakespeare's comedies do) in which good triumphs over evil at a cost, they both create capacious, credible worlds that include the incredible.  Their worlds in general conception are strikingly imaginative and unique, bringing the new back to the novel. Moreover within these worlds the narrative reveals one surprising invention after another, in details, characters and story, that have captured the imaginations of readers for as long as they've been books.

 Both deal with big themes and with the larger world, including the political world, its issues and consequences.  But even in their worlds apart, they do so through characters who are not in positions of power.

Both are literary works, with debts to many earlier writers (Marquez idolized Faulkner and thought of himself as a journalist, Rowling reminded me first of the British children's writer E. Nesbit and in later books, as her characters got older and the world more sophisticated, I thought of Jane Austen and others.)

A teenager visiting Arcata from England became
the Harry Potter stand-in for the midnight release party
at Northtown Books for the last Potter book.
And yes, I was there. 
But above all they each have an unmistakable and individual voice--the rhythm of words and sentences and paragraphs, the narrative tone--that carried the writer and then the reader forward as a confidant.

Like all major successes, timing and luck and the right people helping them played a part.  But above many others, these two books argue for the undeniability of work so transcendent that its success seems only natural if not inevitable.  In a world with more than enough horror, these are welcome wonders. I'm grateful to have them, and to have been there to see them happen over their lifetimes so far.

No comments: