Posted by: Yorgos | October 5, 2008

Text 29 – Gasp

There are many books that I love, even more that I like, but there are few books that have made me hold my breath, or breathe heavily. These latter books, I consider to be the masterpieces of my small literary canon.

Of course, when I say “hold my breath”, I don’t mean I am reading a page-turner and I can’t wait to see what goes on next. I’ve read and loved books of such kind, but it is rarely the reason for holding my breath. What does make me gasp, usually, is a beautiful phrase or a concept, so hard to grasp, yet so real to the reader during the actual act of reading. Still, this is hardly an explanation and, to be honest, there are a million beautiful things that can happen in a book, in a page, a line even, that can make want to read the same part over and over again, just to take it in.

If I were to name some texts that have done this to me, the first thing that would come to mind are Kafka’s parables. This is one very short parable that had this effect on me:

Give it Up

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give it up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

I don’t want to comment on it; that would be an analysis and that can’t fit in what I want to say here. Maybe this story won’t have the same effect to other people.

More examples of the moment that makes literature one of the best experiences our intellect can have:

  1. “The Library of Babel” by Borges; the part where he talks about the circular, never-ending book that is God.
  2. The beginning of David Copperfield and of Great Expectations.
  3. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon; Mason’s reaction to Dixon’s death.
  4. Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann; the last 10 or so pages
  5. The beginning of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  6. Hamlet’s line: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself King of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreams” (I am quoting it from memory, so I might have said something wrong).
  7. The final 100 or so pages of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the final 100 or so pages of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. These two novels are what turned me to literature in the beginning. The whole passages; one long breath.
  8. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, by Tolstoy, especially the beginning and the end.
  9. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”; the part where the young protagonist realizes that he has sent his friend’s mother to her death.
  10. The joke: “He should have three votes” in the beginning of Heller’s Catch 22.
  11. The whole of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

The list could go on and on. It can’t go on forever though, because that would trivialize the greatest moments of literature. The anticipation of a gasp and the reward of it coming is why I keep reading. If anyone decides to comment on this post, I would like to hear about other moments like these.


  1. Good post. I like the beginning of the Calvino and the end of the Mann as well.

    A couple of my favourite (but by no means my only favourites) literary moments that quickly jumped to mind:

    T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “And that is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”

    W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”

    Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: The scene where they lose their mother’s coffin in the river and have to fish it out against the current.

    Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury: The whole book really, but especially when Caddy watches her mother’s wake through the window from up in the tree outside.

    The last paragraph of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

    Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion: When Henri finds Villanelle’s heart behind a tapestry of her.

    Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room: The last section, after Jacob is dead and they are in his room trying to sort out his stuff, and his friend says something to the effect of “it’s like he thought he would come home”…

    The Quiet American: when you realize that the American isn’t at all devious but really believes he is doing all those horrible things for the greater good.

    In the first volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs, there’s a scene where the protagonist sits down to the piano and plays the first page of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. That might be my favourite scene in a novel ever. It’s all in how she describes it of course.

  2. Derek Walcott, most of Selected Poems (2007).

    The Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon of the Mount (Ch. 5-7).

    Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir, the day of the execution.

    L’Infinito di Giacomo Leopardi.

    War and Peace, the Christmas holidays. Nikolay and Sonja driving in costume to the neighbours.

    A Guest of Honour by Nadine Gordimer, the love encounters between Colonel Bray and Rebecca.

    The Devils by Dostoevsky, Stavrogin’s suicide.

    The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, young Von Trotta listening to the notes of the March from the window of his father’s house.

    Paolo e Francesca nel Canto V dell’Inferno nella Commedia di Dante.

    Decameron by Boccaccio, the arrival of the plague in Florence.

    Ille mi par deo esse videtur (Carmen LI) by Catullus.

  3. Thank you, both, for doing exactly what I had in mind while I was writing this post: contributing with your own moments of magic in literature. Thank you, E., for breaking your silence, at last!

    For some reason, I didn’t put any poems in my list. I will complement that list now:

    Kubla Khan, by Coleridge, especially the two lyrics:
    It was a miracle of rare device
    This sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.

    The first 5 lyrics of Endymion, A Poetic Romance, by Keats.

    Brise Marine, by Mallarme, especially the first lyric:
    La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.

    The opening of the Odyssey and the Iliad.

    The Tiger, by William Blake.

    There are more I would like to say, especially since I have excluded modern Greek literature from the list, but let’s leave it at that. If anyone else wants to contribute, please do so, even if you don’t know who I am.

  4. […] his best. I am not sure I even know why; what I know, though, is that the passage above is another gasp moment. In its tragedy, it has lightness and simplicity, just like how Italo Calvino would have […]

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