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Books Column: Try this impossible literary quiz, with questions inspired by my personal library


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

If these questions featured in a pub quiz, you’d definitely want Ben Williams at your table that night. Find upside-down answers at the bottom of the quiz!

In the high mountain retreat that is Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live, we’ve had 48 hours of heavy spring snow, so I’ve just unpacked another box of books from my past.

This time, I discovered a mix of works that made up my prescribed reading as an undergraduate decades ago – plus a copy of an extremely rare number of one of Chicago’s most important literary magazines.

Grabbing an armful of titles, along with the magazine, I’ve concocted the following impossible literary quiz from my personal library. 

How many can you get right without Googling? And with Googling? 

Good luck!

  1. Which Italian novel, set amid Partisan resistance in Liguria, is told from the point of view of a 10-year-old orphan whose sister is a prostitute?

This book influenced my own writing: about 10 years after first encountering it, I merged its storyline with one from my family’s World War 2 origin myths to create a long passage set in the Italian Alps, which I included in my first novel.

  1. Which author, who wrote what is probably America’s most successful debut novel, described his third work to an editor of The New Yorker as “pretty skimpy-looking”?

I’ve always preferred this book to the more famous one.

  1. Which 1960s American fantasy novel, which introduces a world that many lovers of the genre class alongside Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lewis’s Narnia, shares an illustrator with a non-fiction work by the author’s mother?

This author occasionally goes viral for remarks she gave on art and capitalism, observing, of publishers, that they often sell writers “like deodorant”. It’s a classic soundbite – look it up.

  1. This Chicago author’s Selected Poems contains a short poem that occupies a place in American culture similar to the one that Chris van Wyk’s In Detention occupies in South African culture. The poem has inspired many homages, most recently from US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who published her take, An American Sunrise, in 2019. The original poem was banned in a few US states for its use of the word “jazz”. Who is she?

I was fortunate to hear the author read her poem in a cramped seminar room at the student centre where I was an undergraduate. I remember being somewhat confused and uncomfortable, so casually allowed to share such an intimate space with her. Why was this giant of American letters giving a reading to a handful of students in the middle of the day, instead of to a packed auditorium during a gala evening? I only realised later how little account the university’s poetry professors took of her. A formal event wouldn’t even have come up. Their nose-holding still rankles me!

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  1. Which utterly ungovernable Chicago literary magazine featured an excerpt from How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman in its sixth issue – a very rare issue indeed, as back copies of it and the other numbers from one to 13 now count as “things we lost in a fire”, thanks to a 2001 blaze on the city’s South Side?

This magazine’s editors and contributors taught me how to “read” culture and politics like no other source of cultural criticism. My life changed when I handled my first issue, which happened to be the one in question here.

  1. This book of short stories has the most riotously underwhelming blurb of any I’ve encountered, which was offered up by Harper’s Magazine: “It is hard to explain that reading these stories is not a lugubrious experience.” Good on the publisher for picking out that gem. Elsewhere in my edition, the work is described as “the lusty, defiant bestseller” by “one of the best English writers of our day”. If I give a further clue that the English writer set his stories in Nottinghamshire, does that help at all?

Having achieved some success in the sport mentioned in the title story, I’ve always felt an especial secret affinity with this book.

  1. Back to poetry. This English-American author’s collected verses from the 1960s opens with a “To the Reader” poem whose first, rather arresting image is of a polar bear urinating in the snow.

My favourite poem from the collection, though, describes the three postcards she keeps above her desk.

  1. This experimental French novel gets its title from a type of window whose mechanism for shielding against lookers-in is comparable to Venetian blinds. Who is the author?

Any clues less cryptic would make it too easy for you. Okay, okay, the book also famously features a centipede. The work had approximately the same effect on my mind as the Cambrian Explosion had for life on Earth.

  1. Which 18th-century “modern” novel features pages that are entirely blacked out?

Rather like page 225 of Vol. 5 of The Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has the subheading, “Finding on Former State President FW de Klerk”.

  1. This South African-American’s debut work of short stories includes one titled Carillon. His father was an editor of the Golden City Post. Who is he?

This author, who is a good friend, had a major influence on my decision to head to South Africa straight after graduating with my BA. I put his book into a box, along with the others listed here, and left for what was to become my new home. 

How dizzy it makes one, to hold again certain books from one’s former life, now come full circle. ML


Upside-down answers (the best part of any quiz):

˙ʎɹoɯǝW ɟo ǝɔuǝʇsᴉsɹǝԀ ǝɥꓕ lǝʌou ǝɥʇ ǝʇoɹʍ oslɐ ǝH ˙ɹǝuɹnoɾoS ʎɹɐɹodɯǝ sᴉ sǝᴉɹoʇs ʇɹoɥs ɟo ʞooq ǝɥʇ puɐ ‘ǝlᴉɹdƎ ʎuoꓕ ˙0Ɩ

˙ǝuɹǝʇS ǝɔuǝɹnɐ˥ ʎq ʎpuɐɥS ɯɐɹʇsᴉɹꓕ ˙6

˙(ɥɔuǝɹℲ uᴉ ǝᴉsnolɐſ ɐ˥) ʎsnolɐǝſ :sᴉ lǝʌou ǝɥʇ puɐ ‘ʇǝllᴉɹפ-ǝqqoɹ uᴉɐl∀ ˙8

˙ㄥ96Ɩ-096Ɩ sɯǝoԀ :sᴉ ʞooq ǝɥʇ puɐ ‘ʌoʇɹǝʌǝ˥ ǝsᴉuǝp ˙ㄥ

˙ǝoʇᴉllᴉS uɐl∀ ʎq ɹǝuunɹ ǝɔuɐʇsᴉp ƃuo˥ ǝɥʇ ɟo ssǝuᴉlǝuo˥ ǝɥꓕ ˙9

˙ʞuɐɹℲ sɐɯoɥꓕ ʎq pǝpunoɟ ‘ɹǝlɟɟɐq ǝɥꓕ ˙ϛ

˙looƆ lɐǝɹ ǝM sᴉ uoᴉʇsǝnb uᴉ ɯǝod ǝɥꓕ ˙sʞooɹq uʎlopuǝʍפ ˙ㄣ

˙uᴉnפ ǝ˥ ʞ ɐlnsɹ∩ ʎq ɐǝsɥʇɹɐƎ ɟo pɹɐzᴉM ∀ ˙Ɛ

.ʎǝooZ puɐ ʎuuɐɹᖵ :sᴉ ʞooq ǝɥʇ puɐ ʻɹǝƃuᴉʅɐS ᗡᒋ . ᄅ

ouᴉʌʅɐϽ oʅɐʇI ʎq sɹǝpᴉdS ⅎo ʇsǝN ǝɥʇ oʇ ɥʇɐԀ ǝɥꓕ .⇂


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Giles Griffin says:

    Wow, that put me in my literarily ignorant place… maybe two half points for JD Salinger and Italo Calvino; but didn’t know the novel titles… the rest I’d never heard of bar Sillitoe, le Guin and Sterne. Clearly my distant degree in Eng Lit was way useful (not).

  • David Bristow says:

    Jirra boet, but this could be sub-titled: a most obscure literary test. I have actually read some of these and still scored 0. Tristram Shandy is one really curved ball, and a Chicago mag for SA readers – really!

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