Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor, what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us:

The work of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (1950-2003), currently being translated into English, has hypnotized me. His magnum opus, The Savage Detectives, is a masterpiece that, with a single stroke, is reconfiguring the canon of 20th-century Latin American letters. I’m equally in awe of Bolaño’s novellas, particularly By Night in Chile, Distant Star and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and his stories in Last Evenings on Earth.

Recently, I’ve read David Rieff ’74’s memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, about the last year of life of his mother, Susan Sontag. It’s a pity Rieff is such an unemotional writer, as was Sontag herself as a writer, no doubt a superb intellect but a fetishist who idolized reason at the expense of what the medieval mystic Bahya ibn Paquda called “the duties of the heart.”

I’ve also been educated by Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness, an illustrated volume in which the Italian semiotician analyzes the development of our understanding of ugliness in art, literature and the movies.|

After publishing a volume of conversations (with Verónica Albin) called Love and Language that left me inspired, I am teaching a course called, simply, “Love.” My objective is to reflect on how the concept of love has changed in history, from the biblical narrative to Plato’s Symposium, Dante’s Hell, Petrarch’s sonnets and the chivalry novels (especially Don Quixote), onward to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Spinoza’s Ethics, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as pornography, classified newspaper ads and the Internet. To get myself in the right mood, I’ve been rereading—for enormous pleasure—Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Nabokov’s Lolita and more contemporary classics, such as I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, which, in my view, is one of the best thrillers of the last few decades.

Finally, the experimental theater troupe Double Edge, famous for its stage adaptations of the Arthurian Saga, Cervantes, Alexander Dumas and Bruno Schulz, is making a play out of my story “The Disappearance.” Every other night, I drive to their base (a large farm in Ashfield, Mass.), where improvisations around my text take place. It’s astonishing to see what a battalion of
actors, musicians, stage designers and puppeteers is able to make out of my tale of a larger-than-life Belgian Jewish actor who loses his mind.

To contextualize my explorations, I’m delving into essays by Jerzy Grotowski, interviews with Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, Harold Bloom’s enlightened but poorly written Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play Garbage, the City and Death. Due out in September 2008, the Double Edge adaptation (in which I too will be an actor) is prompting me to rethink the labyrinthine partnership between literature and theater.