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Unread Books; Changing Character Names

November 4, 2011 | by

I’ve never read Moby-Dick or War and Peace, but people think I have, because I told them so. What is the great book you have never—but should have—read?

Just this morning—at five o’clock, to be exact—I was staring at the ceiling, thinking about Krapp’s Last Tape and how shocked my favorite college professor would be if he knew I still haven’t seen or read it. At least I hope he’d be shocked. I have never got through any of Beckett’s novels (and have seen almost none of his plays, or anybody else’s). I have never got through Henry Green’s Living or Concluding, though neither one is a long book, and I have sometimes heard myself call Green my “favorite” postwar English novelist, as if I had read enough to have one. I have never got through Jane Eyre or Giovannis Room or Journey to the End of the Night or Zenos Conscience or Pierre—I have never got through chapter one of Pierre. I have never read The Life of Henry Brulard and am not sure its even a novel. I have never read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (but have said I have). I will never reread Dostoevsky as an adult, which in my case is more or less the same as not having read him. I couldn’t finish The Recognitions: I stopped 150 pages from the end, when the words just stopped tracking, and have never managed five pages of JR. I can’t remember which Barbara Pym novels I read, it was so long ago, and there are so many I haven’t. I have never made it to the cash register with a novel by Ronald Firbank. Thomas Hardy defeats me. So does D. H. Lawrence: you can love a writer and never actually feel like reading any more of his novels. I have never read Lady Chatterleys Lover. I never got to the end of Invisible Man. I have never read Stoner or Gormenghast or Blood Meridian or Wide Sargasso Sea (see Jane Eyre, above). Or any Faulkner novel all the way through besides The Sound and the Fury. I have never enjoyed a novel by Eudora Welty enough to keep going. I think I got to the end of V., which may be even worse than having put it down, and know for a certainty I never got far in Gravitys Rainbow. I have never read U.S.A. or Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy or Pamela or any novels by Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Mavis Gallant, or Dashiell Hammet. Or Raymond Chandler. I have never read Tender Is the Night, but just the other night someone used it as an example of something, and I nodded.

I was recently talking with someone about the book All the King’s Men when I said something about the novels central character, Willie Stark. The person looked at me with confusion and asked if I meant some other name. Apparently we were talking about the same charismatic demagogue, but he is called different things in different editions. Do you know the story?

In early drafts, Robert Penn Warren called his hero Willie Talos. His editors at Harcourt, Brace thought this sounded too German, or said they did. (Sometimes it’s easier to make up a reason when the truth is you just don’t like a name.) Willie Talos became Willie Stark in the galleys of the first edition (1946), and he was still Willie Stark when Warren wrote a new introduction to the novel in 1963. Ten years ago, Houghton Mifflin brought out a “restored” edition, with the name Willie Talos reinstated, along with a bunch of small cuts made by Warren’s editors, all of which Warren approved at the time.

All of my friends are trying to get me to participate in NaNoWriMo. Have you heard of it? Apparently November is National Novel Writing Month, and theres a service that allows you to publicly pledge a high page number, logs your word count every day, and sends you inspirational writing tips. Like many people, I do feel I have a novel in me. Is now as good a time as any to try to write it? Something about the idea of writing with the help of a social media Web site is off-putting. Maybe Im just jealous that so many of us feel we have novels in us. Do we?

No. No, we don’t. Resist!

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