A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Cage 1 - 6 - Gerhard Richter (2006)

Besides a single chapter Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is situated on a piece of land commonly known today as the Mark Brandenburg in present-day eastern Germany and western Poland. On the land beside a lake formed ‘eighteen thousand years ago [as] the glacier’s tongues began to melt,’ several families’ lives unfurl, bridging the German Empire of the late nineteenth century to the German reunification of the late twentieth century. This strategically located piece of land is witness to all the quiet horror of twentieth century Europe.

In an epigraph Jenny Erpenbeck quotes George Büchner, ‘As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in the same place, one after the other.’ Many families live on this piece of land, from the mayor and daughters of Klotthof farm, to the summer vacationers who dwell temporarily in the thatched cottage. The sole permanent resident of this piece of land is The Gardener, the silent observer doggedly undertaking his seasonal chores oblivious to the accretion of German history.

Set in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II the most lacerating chapter of Visitation is based on letters written by Doris Kaplan, to whom the novel is dedicated, to her parents. From her hiding chamber Doris recalls summers at the vacation house by the lake and asks,”When you die at age twelve, do you also reach old age earlier?’

The prolonged acknowledgements at the end of the book are at variance with what seems a compact novel, but Erpenbeck writes succinctly and with resonance, carefully layering the story as history is arranged, layer by layer, on the lakeside piece of land. It is a work of considerable beauty.

Though I got to Visitation later than intended, I read the novel in participation with German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.

My Plans for German Literature Month

My literary explorations are serendipitous and subject to whim, so I am cautious about joining shared reading events. I was unable to resist German Literature Month, co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, partly because I am drawn to literature from the region but also because I’ve intended to read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Heinrich Böll for some time.

Those authors aside I plan to read some Kleist for the penultimate week and the following:

Week 1 – German Literature

Jenny Erpenbeck – Visitation

Week 2 – Crime Fiction

Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Hangman

Week 3 – From Austria and Switzerland

Thomas Bernhard – Old Masters