By Parul Sehgal, NPR, July 16, 2013
I don’t remember when I first realized that books could go away, that they could — and did — pass into obscurity or out of print. Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani, Speedboat by Renata Adler, the sublime An Armful of Warm Girl by W.M. Spackman. Each of them, snuffed out. It seemed a scandal. But I vividly recall becoming aware that particular books were prone. To take chances with language or form was to court extinction.
But every now and then, if the moment is right, if the culture is finally ready or a champion found, these books return. (Most of the novels mentioned above have been brought back into print, though Myra has not. Vidal’s heroine so intent on “the destruction” of the American male still waits for her moment.) This summer I’m reading and recommending books that have been restored to us, that have been reissued, reimagined or — in one instance — presumed lost and discovered for the first time.
My Last Breath: The Autobiography by Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel, Paperback, 256 pages
I’ve long loved this strange, slanted little book for its offhand genius and excellent gossip. But I used it to prop up a wobbly table in Calcutta in 2003 and haven’t seen it since. It’s been reissued, and I’m happy to find it as remarkable as I recall. Like any surrealist masterpiece, it’s playful, subversive and (frequently) baffling.
Devoted to protecting the “essential mystery in all things,” Buñuel doesn’t excavate the past or take us behind the scenes of Belle de Jour (a pity). It’s not information he cares for, or veracity, but wisdom and beauty; not memories but the act of remembering. Scenes come to us highly aestheticized. In one early memory, Bunuel walks with his father in an olive grove. They come across a strong, very sweet odor, and then the bloated body of a dead donkey. Around the carcass, vultures staggered, too full to fly. He’s a confident, discursive writer eager to riff on what he loves (“vast damp forests wreathed in fog,” “little tools like pliers,” firearms) and loathes (crowds, Borges, newspapers). He recounts meeting Hitchcock, collaborating with Dali, mourning Federico Garcia Lorca, attempting an orgy with Charlie Chaplin. He settles scores and spills his friends’ secrets shamelessly. On the topic of Dali’s sexual proclivities he tells us that the painter was fond of seducing American heiresses, but being almost entirely asexual, “those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the women’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.”