Monday, May 29, 2006

Unlike the usual Guardian Top 10 lists, Matthew Pearl's regarding Edgar Allan Poe announces a most intriguing point, and one I've never heard:

Edgar Allan Poe is a writer who claimed to have taken little influence from writers who came before him, but whose own influence on literature and culture has been endless. He is traditionally credited with almost single-handedly inventing the genres of fantasy, science fiction and mystery. Yet Poe's work has seeped into our consciousness in more subtle ways. Indeed, some writers - TS Eliot and EL Doctorow included - would say that Poe has had an impact on our world out of proportion to his actual talent as a writer.

We know Poe is largely credited with inventing the detective story, which is achievement enough, but what about such characters as Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy?

One of Poe's most lasting legacies is that of the narrator who is frantic, frenetic, a little deranged, who nevertheless somehow grows on us. We trust his world vision even when we don't believe a word he's saying. Roth's Portnoy is a great example of a latter-day evolution of that species of Poe's narrators. He is delusional but somehow in touch with a cultural and emotional reality that is evocative and unforgettable. There is also a sexual self-torture that cannot fail to remind us of Poe's characters and his persona. (Similarly, think of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, who explicitly tips his hat to Poe.)

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