Greg Irving emails me:
Hello Prof. Cowen,
I wonder if you might be tempted to create a blog post, at your convenience, of Spanish language works, ideally read in the original, that have most impacted either a) your appreciation for some till then unknown nuance or beauty in the language or b) your knowledge of/appreciation for some aspect of life in general. Might you?
Quizás obviamente, soy alguien que va aprendiendo el idioma poco a poco sólo de interés y no de necesidad. Si usted se digna a crear una respuesta por este correo electrónico, o en su blog, me alegraría mucho. Gracias por todo el conocimiento que nos da en sus escritos y por leer mi nota.
My Spanish-language reading is slow, but these are the works I found it profitable to devote a great deal of time to. They have influenced me significantly, and mostly I found the English-language version a poor substitute. Here goes:
1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones. This was super-slow going, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, philosophical and conceptual and in Spanish deeply hilarious. OK in English, but this book alone is almost reason enough to study Spanish.
2. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo. Imagine redoing parts of Dante, with more narrative, in rural Mexico and with lots of comedy. The English-language version does not come close.
3. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela [Hopscotch]. One of my very favorite 20th century novels, again unsatisfying to me in English, I would not recommend that you try at all. Also try his short stories, most of all Bestiario and Historias de cronopios y de famas.
4. Jose Donoso, El obsceno pájaro de la noche [The Obscene Bird of Night]. A masterpiece, quite neglected in the U.S., I found this one so hard I often had to juxtapose it with the English-language text to read it at all.
5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Noticia de un Secuestro [Notice of a Kidnapping], and Vivir para contarla [Living in Order to Tell It]. Oddly, I think his greatest works are the non-fiction. But these are at least pretty good in English too, unlike what is listed above.
6. Pablo Neruda. Non-Spanish readers certainly have heard of him, or maybe like him, but don’t really have a sense of how he is one of the very greatest poets of all time. It is Canto General, a book-length narrative poem retelling of the story of the New World, that influenced me most, but I love all the classic Neruda poems.
I don’t find it so profitable to read 17th century Cervantes in Spanish, though the defect is likely mine. The Savage Detectives and One Hundred Years of Solitude I find as good in English as in Spanish; Marquez himself suggested that was true for this work. Vargas Llosa is “good enough” in English, except perhaps for the inscrutable Conversation in the Cathedral, which I cannot follow in either language. Javier Marías I find “good enough” in English. The Goytisolo brothers are often too hard for me, not fun in English but I can’t quite manage the Spanish, perhaps in my dotage. Fuentes has never clicked for me, period. Hombres de maíz, by Asturias, is especially good in Spanish and pretty much neglected in the English-speaking world.