The Best Fiction Books

The best books on Fantastical Tales

recommended by Andrei Codrescu

The Romanian-born poet tells us about his love for fantastic and magical tales – particularly bloody ones with cannibalism, necrophilia and alienated heroes.

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What got you interested in fantastical tales?

I grew up in the Gothic town of Sibiu, Transylvania, after World War II. Most of the people had died in the war. There were ghosts everywhere. Children were highly prized and left to their own devices. I made up fantastic stories as I vagabonded without supervision in the old town. When it rained or snowed (and it rained and snowed for many gloomy winters), I stayed home and read fairy tales, myths and Jules Verne. When I became interested in girls, I started hanging out in the medieval cemetery writing poetry.

Your first choice is Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology, which includes myths and tales from all over the world.

As a boy, I spent some summers in the Carpathian mountains, where I heard stories from shepherds. When I read a children’s version of Bulfinch’s, I recognised some of the stories, and realised that there existed an underground world where supernatural beings and humans did strange things with adventurous consequences. The human body I dragged to school every day in a drab uniform was only the flesh tip of a universe parallel to ours, where gods, animals and superhumans played inexhaustible games. I suspected that this secret underground – which I could go to whenever I felt like it – actually held together the drab world of school and our boring society, as a kind of mask in order to hide itself from the police. Bulfinch’s was dangerous because it told everybody about this world. Luckily, everyone condescended to it as being “unreal”, just “fantasy”. I knew better.

“TS Eliot was a banker, and wrote like one.”

When I read the original in English, at 25, I was amazed by the beauty of the language, and the storyteller’s unrelenting fascination with the stories he has collected. I can still open it anywhere, start reading, and not stop for hours.

It sounds like Bulfinch led a fantastical double life. He had a boring day job as a clerk in a merchant’s bank in Boston, and did this writing in his spare time.

He was just like me in Romania. But thanks to his other life, I didn’t have to go work in a bank when I grew up.

So he inspired you to be a writer and a poet?

Oh, no, the black-listed poets did. When I was 16, the best poets of pre-war Romania – Lucian Blaga and Tristan Tzara, to name two – were forbidden reading. Writing poetry was a dangerous profession, like being a burglar. I felt doomed, alien and angry, and poetry seemed like the perfect way to go out in flames. While my two girlfriends – Aurelia, who didn’t, and Marinella, who did – watched in speechless admiration. Then I found out that I was good at poetry, because the cultural police questioned me. I felt like Arthur Rimbaud, Queen of the Damned. Then even Aurelia started doing it.

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Things like Bulfinch were extra-curricular reading. When I was a teenage poet, the only prose I deigned to look at was fairy tales – especially bloody ones, with cannibalism involved if possible. Happily, there are a lot of fairy tales with cannibalism, necrophilia and alienated heroes. I do think that some writers who lead double lives are inspiring, though. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for one, wrote normal stories for family magazines and weird ones for his friends. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company in the day, and wrote poetry at night. And then there are writers whose double lives are both boring. TS Eliot was a banker, and wrote like one. Philosophically, I mean. If he’d written memos like his poems he’d have been let go. I never wanted to be anything but a writer, so I was willing to stay poor – which I did, forever.

Next up is Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. What made you pick this version?

Sir Richard Burton was a man of mystery. He was a linguist who spoke dozens of languages, a fighter, a master of disguise, a convert to Sufism and a sexual pioneer. I first read the entire Burton translation in the 1934 Heritage Press edition, its first integral publication. Originally it was published by subscription, and seen only by its patrons. Burton’s extraordinary footnotes are a book on their own, and his translation, hard-going at first, takes English to amazing heights. It falls flat more than once, but always with panache. Burton – the first white man to visit Mecca, disguised as an Arab – wrote Travels to Mecca and Medina, and translated the Kama Sutra from Hindi. Unfortunately, Isabel Burton, his widow, saw fit to burn most of his unpublished work after his death, for reasons of Victorian propriety.

That’s a shame. You have recently written a book based on The Arabian Nights – what unexpected things did you discover when you were writing it?

I discovered that Sheherezade, the storyteller of the Nights [and legendary Persian queen], saved not only her life and that of the young women of Baghdad through her stories, but is keeping humanity going through her refined sexuality of suspense. She is one of the five heroes – along with Prometheus, Ariadne, Lilith and Spider Woman – who keep this world from vanishing. All of them are thieves and night-beings, who steal from the divine and the diurnal to fracture the predictable. They are all masters of Narrative Interruptus. As for Isabel Burton, she partied plenty with Richard, but didn’t like him writing about it.

Which is your favourite tale?

The story of the enchanted prince who became the monkey-scribe, and was disenchanted by the princess who died so her father could have a new scribe. Unfortunately, reading was no consolation to her father, who banished the scribe – now human but with an eye missing – from his sight. This is the main story that Sheherezade tells King Shahryar in his bed, and in my book.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is one of my favourite books. I love its dream-like quality.

This is Woolf’s mysterious and magical insight into the cyclical, sexual nature of time. Her hero/heroine appears and reappears in new bodies in new ages. It’s her most beautiful writing too, in my opinion.

It is meant to be semi-autobiographical, about her lover Vita Sackville-West.

Yes, which is why it’s such a great book. It was Virginia’s only completely light-hearted, love-inspired, spontaneous story. She wrote it in one weekend, or so it’s said, while a guest at Vita’s west country place. Books inspired by love and written at once are rare for novelists. Orlando may even be unique. Poets, of course, write a lot of occasional poems, but they are short. Orlando is mysterious, tender and profound all at once, because the love she celebrated was doomed by both her and Vita’s circumstances. But in the process of trying to preserve that feeling, she invented (or discovered) a form of time travel. Orlando is an angel. In my novel Messiah, there is an angel modelled on Orlando. There are also some others. I’m big on angels.

Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem is set in the old Prague ghetto.

The rabbi of Prague made the Golem alchemically, by writing the unspeakable word of “G*d” on his forehead. The Golem was a giant who defended the Jews from anti-semites. He fell in love with the rabbi’s daughter, Esther, and went on a destructive rampage when he was denied. The rabbi erased the word from his forehead and the Golem broke into pieces, some of which are still kept under lock and key in the attic of the synagogue in the Prague ghetto – which the Nazis intended to make into the museum of a vanished race when they killed all the Jews. Meyrink foresaw the coming catastrophe and the renewed usefulness of the Golem. He wrote other prophetic books, one of which is about an apocalypse brought about by burning fires in the oil and gas pipelines under the Gulf of Mexico.

That is amazing. But The Golem sounds completely far-fetched. How could the Golem be useful to the Jews?

For one, he’s big and brutal – just like the dumb angry mobs that used to attack the Jews. He doesn’t shy away from knocking heads together and tramping on them. The Jews needed something supernatural, but popular, to give them hope in those dark witch-burning ages of the 16th century. The Golem is also mostly robot, created by a cabbalist rabbi who got his secret knowledge by occult means – which meant that wisdom and book-reading were the ghetto-dwellers’ best chance out of the shithole that was Europe. The common people, who toiled for a living, wanted something practical from their scholars. Of course, the Golem is a sweet robot that didn’t help much. He also had human feelings, a flaw his maker didn’t foresee. Jews continued to be persecuted for a few more centuries after the Golem was destroyed, and they are not out of the woods yet.

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The Golem also inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and all robots with feelings since, like the ones in Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t check, but there are probably Jews in Battlestar Galactica. The producers probably are, because Hollywood, since the beginning, was the work of Jews who fled Europe and were very familiar with the Golem story. Meyrink’s novel is just one version of it, there are dozens. But I like it best because Meyrink was a mystic. He really gives you the feeling that he gets his info through super-secret channels.

These book are all very different examples of fantastical and magical tales.  What do you think makes a good tale?

The chill of suspense, and the suspicion that the world of the tale is more real than the one you’re in when you’re reading it. The best stories have this effect of making the world seem strange when you’re done reading or watching.

Your final choice is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Why do you think this is still a classic?

Vampirism is a growth industry. Dracula is bigger than Jesus now. Halloween has overtaken Christmas. All this came from the imagination of an Irishman, Bram Stoker, who never went to Transylvania, but pored over maps and stories in the British Museum library at desk 07 – right next to 06, where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and 05, where Lenin wrote What is to Be Done? Stoker’s Dracula is an immortal who suffers from the mortal disease of love. He fed on the blood of a long history to emerge fully alive into our techno-vampirical world. He’s become so chic that his minions have a hard time keeping out the mobs, who are begging to have their blood sucked so that they might live all night forever.

August 8, 2012

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Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter. He has taught literature and poetry at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore and Louisiana State University, and is a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. Codrescu founded and edits the online literary journal Exquisite Corpse. His first poetry book, License to Carry a Gun, won the Big Table Poetry award. His most recent book, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, is a fictional revisiting of the Arabian Nights tales

Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter. He has taught literature and poetry at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore and Louisiana State University, and is a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. Codrescu founded and edits the online literary journal Exquisite Corpse. His first poetry book, License to Carry a Gun, won the Big Table Poetry award. His most recent book, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, is a fictional revisiting of the Arabian Nights tales