26 November 2011

If you could save only five books ...

EPG: If you could save only five books from a fire that would consume all other books in the world, which ones would you pick?

JC: That’s the kind of question you cannot answer while the tape recorder is on.

EPG: Should we turn it off?

JC: No, because then the answer will be too pat, too well thought out. You say books, I don’t know; I think, for example, that one of the five works that I would like to save is a poem, a poem by Keats. Do you understand?

EPG: Yes.

JC: One of them.

EPG: Which one?

JC: Any one of the ones I love, the great odes: "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale" or "To Autumn," the great moments of Keats’s maturity. And while we’re talking about poetry, I’d like to save the Duino Elegies by Rilke. But five is an absurd number.

EPG: I know it’s an absurd number and it’s very difficult, but I’d like to know now, right now.

JC: OK. There’s a book of prose that I’d save, Ulysses. I think Ulysses is somehow the sum of universal literature. That would be one of the five books. I really should have punished you for this kind of question. Do you know how Oscar Wilde answered? They were more generous with him. They asked which ten books he would save. And Oscar Wilde answered, "Look, up till now I have only written six."

EPG: You’re very humble to have not included any of your books.

JC: I don’t have to, I always carry them within me.

EPG: And what about Marx?

JC: I was thinking of literature. Of course, when you said books, I should have thought, from the historic point of view, of course, Marx and Plato’s dialogues.

- from an interview with Julio Cortázar, from the online archives of Dalkey Archive Press (which contain interviews with Carlos Fuentes, Fernando del Paso, Juan Goytisolo, Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace, etc.)


  1. Great excerpt made all the more timely since I just bought Cortázar's Los premios today before coming home and reading this! Love all these tidbits you're digging up for the blog, Rise. :D

  2. What an impossible question, answered with some grace. I agree on Ulysses.
    What else? - the late great poetry of Yeats; The Recognitions

    There's not enough space in two to even try the others.

    If I was forced - Riddley Walker...

    Can't possibly choose a final one...

    Anyone else want to try? Rise?

  3. Richard: A real pleasure to come upon and share these links. The Winners! I heard was a real winner.

    Séamus: The Pentateuch question was a definite head-scratcher, tape recorder or no tape recorder. But I'll hazard the inclusion of the childhood memoirs of Thomas Bernhard, collected in 'Gathering Evidence'. An unpolished gem, that one. Also: 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', 'To the Lighthouse', Vallejos's 'Poemas Humanos'. Those came to mind.