A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

Tomas Espedal’s Against Nature, Against Art

Tomas Espedal’s Against Art and Against Nature are exquisite, as good as anything I’ve ever read. Our modern preoccupation with, and anxiety about, intimate interpersonal relationships comes through in the precarious and peevish relationships between the narrator and his wives, girlfriends and children.

I read them both this week, oases of erudition amid a chaotic, exhausting time at work; both invaded my sleeping dreams to the point of wakefulness. Both books continue my love affair with Seagull Books.

Espedal writes perceptively of modern affluent society, where one time concerns of hunger, disease, catastrophe and religion  are replaced with an almost obsessive concern for our personal relationships. His narrator is unable to truly grasp the blind spots or emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving emotional fulfilment through his human relationships.

Art and literature, essentially solitary pursuits, offer Espedal’s narrator a way to, as David Winters writes in Infinite Fictions, “withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it.”

Sparing prose, translated by James Anderson, that drifts close to poetry in its condensed style makes me think that Espedal’s undertaking is similar to what Knausgaard attempted in his study of the impossibility of intimacy, but I only read the first edition of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel so I may have missed something. It amused me to come across this piece in Against Nature:

We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she’d put down her book and look at me: Did you read that? she’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she’d say.

Then we’d read on.

Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.

Voice of Mourning

Christ's Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) - Andrea Mantegna

Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) – Andrea Mantegna

Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters  describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.

‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.

As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.

Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Conversation About Literary History With David Winters

This exchange [between David Winters and me] began as a planned book review of Michael Levenson’s Modernism (Yale, 2011). But modernism has a way of making most plans fall apart. Our conversation was conducted by email during the viciously cold January of 2012. As Ezra Pound put it, we cannot make it cohere.

Read the rest at 3:AM Magazine.