Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

My Year of Reading: 2016

I bear no guilt for reading fewer books this year than any other in recent memory – I regret only my morbid fascination with the sulphurous news, as the worst aspects of human nature become manifest. My natural refuge in literature has proved insufficient distraction to the horrifying potency of watching vultures tearing at a creature’s entrails, gripped and subdued by the grisly pantomime. I don’t wish to drown in the spectacle. I must find balance and some self-discipline, though only imagine that this year is merely grisly prelude to further gross stupidity and narcissism next year.

It is Jorge Semprún’s writing that proved most alluring this year. In writing Literature or Life, he chose to end a “long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia” to write this lightly fictionalised memoir, controlling and channeling his complex memories of the evil exerted during his incarceration in Buchenwald. I read backwards to the lyrical reticence of The Long Voyage, an almost dispassionate account of the cattle train journey to the concentration camp”. Semprún reassures that it is possible to both write poetically and read about barbarism. Literature or Life is one of those books that sit on one’s shelves for years before one is compelled to read even a sentence. The image that lingers most intensely from Literature or Life is his consideration of which books to take on a return to Buchenwald to film a documentary about the camp. In the end he opts for Mann’s The Beloved Returns and a volume of Celan, who perhaps has written the greatest poems about the Holocaust. Semprún quotes a verse from Celan, “hoping, today/ for a thinking man’s/ future word/ in my heart.”

Another book that languished unread on my shelves was a fine first edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Greatness resides in this wonderfully singular story of a mother and son obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. I was swept helplessly along by the the torrent of DeWitt’s thought who brings into her novel not only Kurosawa but Ptolemaic Alexandria, Ancient Greek and Fourier analysis. There is a curious quality to the work –stark, lonely, even sadistic– it is one of the most original novels of our time, original as regards sensibility.

I discovered Max Frisch’s work this year. Frisch’s novels offer up a world where no-one is allowed to rest easy; self is thrown back upon uneasy self. There is no escape. Not that Frisch is without hope; his novels unfold the twisted and often darkly comic search for a way out. It is Homo Faber that made the deepest impression, its melancholy cadences contrasting with the ice burn revelation of an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

This year also gave me Anna Kavan’s haunting imagery. The stories in Julie and the Bazooka and I am Lazarus read like a heightened version of Burroughs’s fantasies. Kavan can be gruesomely funny, but with a richness that lies in her proximity to the sensory and the unconscious. It is the chilling tales of narcosis wards that remain, months after reading these stories, the struggle to awaken from speechless unconsciousness. Kavan’s writing, though piercingly clear, is best taken in small doses for its horror and loneliness weighs numbly on the heart.

I’ve read Christopher Logue’s Homer in part during its long evolution but War Music collects all the parts of his adaption of the Iliad into a single edition. This is Homer channelled through Logue’s erudition and the jarring of modern technology. It is a creative ‘translation that shouldn’t work but Logue invigorates an epic that always appears modern.

As the year approaches its end, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years is casting a very strong spell over me, This first volume is the last of three to be published due to an overhanging lawsuit. Auden wrote, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste”, but there are a few brilliant, definitive biographies that count as essential. This and Stach’s companion piece Is that Kafka? restore Kafka from cliché so we might return to his writing anew.

Here is a list of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year.

The terrifying independence of the body – Anna Kavan

The narrative energy of Anna Kavan’s short stories lies in structure as much as theme, marked always by the unexpected and brilliant use of lyrical description. Reading the early I am Lazarus collection, I had settled into this idea that the stories were weaker than the later Julia and the Bazooka stories, and they are more uneven in quality but Anna had surprises left in store with the discursive elegance of Glorious Boys. For this story alone and the following unforgettable paragraph, the collection is worth any reader’s attention:

The terrifying independence of the body. Its endless opposition. The appalling underground movements of the nerves, muscles, viscera, upon which, like a hated and sadistic gauleiter, one unremittingly imposed an implacable repressive regime, threatened eternally by the equally implacable threat of insubordination. The perpetual fear of being sabotaged into some sudden shameful exposure.

If you meet me in the street, ask me to recite this paragraph as I shall etch it into my memory for lonely days in the city.

Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.

In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.

As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.

I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions.

Anna Kavan reviews Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure

Denton Welch and L. P. Hartley comment upon a hooligan-ridden world from more personal standpoints. Instead of describing situations resulting from a regime of violence, the work of these writers provides material which concerns the origin of such situations, and which is for that reason most relevant to considerations of emotional age. Both In Youth is Pleasure and The Shrimp and the Anemone are above the general level as regards execution as well as interest.
In Denton Welch’s case it is the style which is primarily striking. Mr. Welch writes with gaiety and verve and a vivid individual power of observation. His phrasing is highly imaginative; there are passages of poetic brilliance in his work; yet the charm of his writing is largely due to the fact that words like ‘polished’ and ‘sparkling’ are inapplicable to it. There is a feeling of real spontaneity throughout the book, which describes the summer holiday of a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, rather regrettably named Orvil Pym. Orvil belongs to the cultural minority. He is certainly not on the side of the destroyers, to whom he is none the less linked by the very over-sensitiveness which divides him from them. Orvil is afraid to grow up. The eternal fourteen-year-olds are, of course, unaware of their immaturity, while Orvil consciously clings to his boyhood, even to the extent of asking God to save him from the calamity of becoming adult. In an intelligent upper-class boy, naturally destined to some social responsibility, this is a dangerous attitude. Arising out of a sort of squeamishness, it is the basis of a deliberate self-blinding process that may lead him ultimately to tolerate, or even encourage, violent destructive elements to which his own repressed instincts are really opposed. In emotional development, Orvil is already ahead of the gangster boys; except for the persistence of some infantile sadism, as displayed in an incident which Mr. Welch describes terrifyingly well.

Anna Kavan, Horizon, July 1945, pp. 63-68