Friday, March 10, 2017


Marcela Breton is a Colombian-born jazz and literary critic. She is the editor of Hot and Cool : Jazz Short Stories and Rhythm and Revolt : Tales of the Antilles. Her writing has appeared in African American Review, All Music Guide to Jazz, Americas, Coda, Global Rhythm, Jazz Notes, JazzTimes, and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. She participated as a Judge in the First International Online Contest for Jazz Musicians in 2016, sponsored by 7 Virtual Jazz Club. She is a voting member of the Jazz Journalists Association. She holds a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

How has heritage played a role in your reading life? How has it shaped it?

My mother made me a reader. She introduced me to the classics and discussed them with me. Her father, in turn, shaped her as a reader. I did not know my grandfather, but imagine him always with a book in hand. He was a judge in Colombia, and wrote an important textbook on public administration law. My mother was a novelist and short story writer. She often asked my opinion of her writing. As a young girl, I longed to be a good reader, a penetrating reader, in order to help my mother with her writing, and because I wanted to be a capable conversant in our discussions about books. I wanted to understand for myself why some books were classics. I am a rebel at heart, and a priori reject established opinion. It took many years, a long apprenticeship, before I became a deep reader, and before I could precisely articulate why a book moved me, or left me cold. Reading is an art, albeit a minor one.

Being bi-cultural, Colombian and American, has enriched my reading life by giving me two languages, two rivers, from which to fish for books. The downside of my dual heritage has been the feeling of being an outsider in both worlds. Reading helped me forge an identity. I pieced the puzzle of self together with the books I read, nay, experienced. The experience of literature--which, by the way, is the title of a superb anthology edited by Lionel Trilling--became a way, perhaps the chief way, of becoming myself.

My Catholic upbringing and education have been decisive in shaping my reading life. A yearlong required course at Boston College, “Perspectives in Western Civilization,” taught by Jesuit priests, became the seed for a lifelong interest in religious philosophy.  A midlife crisis renewed my commitment to my Catholic faith. This return to my Catholic roots resulted in an intensification of interest in Catholic writers. I have always been an omnivorous reader, but today I am far more selective. Many writers I once read with avidity no longer interest me.

To what sorts of books are you drawn and why?

The habit of reading develops a sixth sense; one becomes a divining rod, serendipitously finding the right books. My taste is refined and eclectic. I am drawn to writers that emanate spiritual concerns: Flannery O’Connor, the French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, the French mystic Simone Weil, Isaac Bashevis Singer.  I admire the Russian religious philosophers--Nicolas Berdyaev and Lev Shestov--and the German theologians--Romano Guardini, Karl Rahner, and Hans Kung.

I am attracted to big, difficult, multi-volume works: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Thomas Mann’s Joseph tetralogy, Ernest Jones’s Life of Freud.

Fiction that is interior, psychological, dreamy, if you will, appeals to me: Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, the metaphysical stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld. I read very little contemporary fiction--one exception is the American short story writer, Joy Williams. 

I am also attracted to novelists who reproduce the complexity of the world, the “human comedy” -- Miguel de Cervantes, Honore de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marcel Proust --who blends the interior and the worldly--will always occupy a special place in my reading recollections. I also like spare, elliptical writers. Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, and Georges Simenon’s The Cat are extraordinary in their economy. Simenon sets a scene, and brings a character to life with a few deft strokes.

I am currently reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, The Discreet Hero, in Spanish, and May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude.

Has the political crisis at hand pulled you more in any particular direction? If so, which?

 The current political crisis has intensified my interest in radical feminism. King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes had me livid one minute, laughing the next. I recently read the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, after an argument with a Trump supporter. Despite the insistence of the religious right that we are a Christian nation, there is no mention of God in these documents. Also, the 2nd amendment, which gun fanatics invoke in defense of their right to bear arms, says nothing about individual ownership of guns. It only mentions the right/need of a “militia” to possess guns, in order to defend against foreign aggressors.

I read Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), on a daily basis. His books help me cope with depression, anxiety, anger, and LFT (low frustration tolerance).

I read the Psalms --at least one --every day. Besides being beautiful poems, they console me, and allow a safe kind of revenge, with their imprecations to God to strike one’s enemies, to “contend with those who contend with me.”

I am listening to a lot of jazz. The intricate language of bebop is a good place to get lost.

What books have you re-read most? Are there books you could not live without?

Books:  Don Quijote de La Mancha, Madame Bovary, Swann in Love, The Past Recaptured, Washington Square, The Death of Ivan Illych, “The Dead,” Duino Elegies, Death in Venice, No One Writes to the Colonel.

Writers: Virginia Woolf, Simone Weil, Flannery O’Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, E.M. Cioran.

I could not live without The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I could not live without my mother’s novels--The Honorable Prison, Celebrating the Hero, and So Loud a Silence--since it is in these books that she is resurrected, and I once again hear her voice.

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