Boyd Tonkin

From Mrs Dalloway’s West End to Tolkien’s Middle-earth

David Damrosch discusses 80 books that have ‘responded to times of crisis and deep memories of trauma’

J.R.R. Tokien in 1955. [Getty Images]

Professor David Damrosch, the director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, fell in love with ‘a fictional realm that I’d never imagined’ in 1968. His English teacher, Miss Staats, gave him Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. This horizon-stretching Manhattan educator turns up again in another light towards the end of this book. A long-term girlfriend of Saul Bellow, Maggie Staats prudently said no when the novelist proposed to her. At this point, Damrosch has just told us that the hero of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King remembers having ‘dreamed at the clouds from both sides’, so planting an idea in the young Joni Mitchell’s mind. You get the drift. Despite its Pelican livery, Damrosch’s lockdown project is no sobersided textbook. That accounts for its charm, and its flaws.

The pandemic deprived Damrosch of his jet-setting lifestyle as world-leading specialist in comparative literature — and a character from a David Lodge campus satire (‘events got cancelled in Chicago, Tokyo, the Netherlands, Heidelberg, Belgrade’). So, for 16 weeks in the summer of 2020, he posted a blog that toured the planet through 80 books. With some off-piste excursions, his itinerary roughly follows Phileas Fogg’s circumferential journey from and to the Reform Club in London, in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel.

‘We’re down to the last one. We’ll have to share it.’

Grouping his four-score works in 16 cities or regions, from London, Paris or New York to ‘Tehran-Shiraz’, ‘Brazil-Colombia’ or ‘The Antilles and Beyond’, Damrosch aims to pick works that ‘have responded to times of crisis and deep memories of trauma’. He finds timely tales of pestilence almost everywhere, from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Orhan Pamuk’s still untranslated latest, Nights of Plague. Yet this earnest professorial agenda crumbles at every compass point into personal anecdote, family history, scraps of arcane knowledge and lurching, knight’s-move leaps.

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