The Misanthrope and Winnie-the-Pooh

Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

There’s a new toy on the internet for book lovers. It’s called the Literature Map, and it’s both awesome and awesomely confusing.

Here’s the idea. You enter the name of a favourite author and hit “continue.” The next thing you know the names of various authors, including the one you selected, are swirling around on the screen until they eventually settle into a pattern.

Typically there are some names you recognize and some you don’t and they appear to be distributed haphazardly around your screen. What does it all mean?

Well, it’s intended to function as an “if you like this then you’ll like that” engine that will allow you to discover new authors you might enjoy. The relationship it purports to show is one based on what other people read, so if you type in “Kurt Vonnegut,” then the results should show you other authors that are much read by people who read Kurt Vonnegut. Their affinities should, in theory, correspond at least a little to your affinities.

Literature Map: Kurt Vonnegut

Literature Map: Kurt Vonnegut

At the centreof the jumble of names you should see the author you selected — let’s stick with the Kurt Vonnegut example. The authors whose names appears nearest to Vonnegut’s — at least this is the idea — are the ones most read by people who read Vonnegut. If you recognize them, then in theory you should already enjoy their work. If you don’t recognize them — or at least haven’t read them yet — then in theory they ought to be worth trying.

I suspect it works best with authors that are widely read and that therefore provide the largest statistical database upon which to draw comparisons. Vonnegut, for instance, is a very popular author, and the names that hover most closely around him seem to make sense: Ernest Hemingway, Tom Robbins, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac.

If you input the name of an author who’s quite obscure (at least in relation to whatever database the Literature Map is working from), you just get a message that the Map doesn’t know the author you’ve referenced. Try Filippo Marinetti, an Italian futurist who may be little read these days, but whose influence is certainly great. Kind of like those bands who influenced so many successful bands, but who largely remained below the public’s radar in their own right.

Where it gets interesting is when the Map recognizes your author, but produces bizarre, unexpected results. I suspect this happens because — in the inverse of the Vonnegut situation — it has so few data points on that particular author that it can’t draw real statistical inferences upon which to base its results. If only three people have read your favourite obscure German poet and two of them — just by chance — happen to read the same paranormal romance author, the connection will be made even if a larger sample size would eliminate it in favour of something more predictable.

So it is with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, one of my favourite novelists despite his despicable politics — he was an anti-semite and a collaborator with the Vichy regime in France during the German occupation. His ugly politics were at least a little mitigated by the fact that, when not writing under his mother’s grandmother’s name he was a doctor under his father’s, le Docteur Destouches, working largely in the slums of Paris, often taking a chicken in payment, or sometimes nothing at all.

He was also a poor collaborator as collaborators go, vilifying the Vichy regime almost as much as he did its enemies and referring to Hitler’s racial mythology as “Arian balony.” None of which excuses the fact that he was a racist, but it bears remembering that he, like Walt Whitman and every other human being on Earth, contained multitudes.

And Certainly his writing was important enough for Allen Ginsberg — not notably a Gentile — to admire him and to make a point of interviewing him in a very friendly and sympathetic way. You can get a flavour of Céline’s bombastic, yet somehow ingratiating and comedic style in his Paris Review interview, here.

His dyspeptic black humour made for two great novels (Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan) and several that, if they weren’t quite “great,” are far from minor.

(Note: if you decide to try reading Céline, read only translations by Ralph Mannheim. There are many bad translations of Celine — give them a wide berth. Mannheim is a god of a translator, who not only manages to creditably render Céline’s idiosyncratic French — a combination of ordinary speech, neologisms, and gutter slang — into readable English that retains the author’s voice, he does the same for several German authors as well. Just some of the easier ones, like Günter Grass, Bertolt Brecht, and Martin Heidegger.)

It’s a popular theory (and got a lot of credence from Céline himself) that he would have received the Nobel Prize for literature except for the little matter of his politics (not to mention his ability to personally alienate just about anyone except his devoted third wife, a dancer named Lucette Almanzor, and his beloved cat Bébert ).

These same factors often keep him from being widely read today, which is why I speculate that the sample size of his readers, used by the Literary Map, might be small compared to that of other important writers.

So who does Céline attract in on the Literature Map? Well, the author closest to him is A.A. Milne, who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Now I happen to love Winnie-the-Pooh and I read Céline, but I suspect I’m just one more of the statistically irrelevant outliers rather than a further example of a trend.

Literature Map: Céline

Literature Map: Louis-Ferdinand Céline

After that we get D.H. Lawrence and John Fante, who are presumably included for the unflinching view of human weaknesses that they share with Céline, and J.G. Ballard, another novel-writing doctor with a bleak outlook on humanity (and another writer I love). But I can’t get over the fact that Milne is closer to Céline than any of them.

They have nothing stylistic in common.

They have no content in common.

They authors have, as far as I know, nothing personally in common.

Is it just that the map operates, in this case, from a statistically irrelevant sample size, or is there some secret connection between the misanthrope and the teddy bear?

Maybe readers of Céline, despite admiring his books, need a palate cleanser after his bile and turn to the innocence of Winnie-the-Pooh to refresh themselves. I think next time I finish Voyage au Bout de la Nuit I might try just that.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet wander away at the end of our story

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet wander away at the end of our story

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