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.’

Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft

What began almost too quietly opened up into an extraordinarily powerful story, driven by beautiful writing (translated by Amanda Prantera) and a compelling narrator. Plotless, comprising a series of memories and encounters, the simplicity belies a complex and psychologically compelling story that dissects an apparently functional family with devastating force. The narration is simple, words meticulously chosen, the story develops to show how the world appears to orient itself around the Other. Ending as simply as it began, without resolution, the novel is close as you can get to immaculate.

Haushofer, who Elfriede Jelinek cites as an influence, is better remembered for The Wall which I shall be reading next.

Literary Phantoms

Frequently after reading a book I am left with what I have come to think of as mental images, particular sentences that linger and freely associate with other thoughts. They hang around a while as vestiges of language, haunting echoes. Only, they aren’t really images. Not quite pictures, more shadowy impressions, phantoms of text that play incessantly on my mind for days, sometimes weeks.

Sentences from Elfriede Jelinke’s Her Not All Her have left a temporary (I hope) memory phantom. It is those that follow the opening line:

Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.

In this text, Jelinek’s voice is interwoven with Robert Walser’s voice. The question Who speaks? is implicit throughout. We know that Walser spent the last thirty years of his life in a mental hospital. During that time he wrote almost nothing. Though suffering from depression Walser acted normally. When pressed by a visitor about whether he was writing he responded, ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’ It is tempting to romanticise Walser and his illness, to imagine that under that melancholy, misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, lay a definitive work, more wonderful even than the masterpieces Walser left. It is what I see in the sentences above. During those thirty years what does Walser think? What thoughts failed to be recorded, turned into language, converted into another masterpiece? Or where there no thoughts, just the dullness of depression interspersed with cocktails of drugs?

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek

For reasons I can’t really explain there’s a fusing of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Walser in my mind. I’m unable to think of one without the other. I suppose they were contemporaries and both shared a passion, even obsession, with the way that language can be used to show, or obscure, the world. That aside, their paths could not be more different. Walser’s journey ended in a mental hospital, unable, or unwilling to write.

It is from this point that Her Not All Her loosely resuscitates Robert Walser. Elfriede Jelinek, in a beautiful Cahiers Series publication, uses Walser’s voice as the starting point for a prose-poem about language, memory and artistic creation. I’ve read it twice and am very taken with the beauty of Jelinek’s prose (as translated by Damon Searls). It is written to be performed on stage and not intended as a short story, a performance I’d love to see one day.

Alongside the prose are a series of reproductions of Thomas Newbolt’s ‘Head’ paintings. Newbolt’s work is new to me, but I am as stunned by his powerful paintings as by Jelinek’s prose.

This is a cryptic work that I am nowhere near the end of unpicking and contemplating. If you have read this edition, I’d love to have a conversation to see what you make of it.

Twentieth Century German Novels

Whether due to common themes and/or the willingness to experiment with form and technique, I am drawn to German-language literature (in translation) more than any other. I am excited by two new studies due this autumn, both edited by Stuart Taberner.

Emerging German-Language Novelists of the Twenty-First Century (Camden House) offers fifteen essays examining in detail the major work of contemporary German-language novelists like Daniel Kehlmann, Karen Duve and Alina Bronsky. “Between them they represent a range of literatures in German, from women’s writing to minority writing (from Turkish immigrants and Eastern Europe), to “pop literature” and perspectives on the former GDR and on Germany’s Nazi past.”

The Novel in German since 1990 (Cambridge University Press) presents close readings of a series of brilliant novels including W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums and Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. “Each novel discussed in the volume has been chosen on account of its aesthetic quality, its impact and its representativeness.”

‘Novel Nausea’ and the Essay

Via This Space to a thought provoking article from Zadie Smith, suffering from ‘novel nausea’.

Except, except. Then something remarkable comes into your hands. Not very often – no more or less often now than in the 1930s, or the 1890s or the 1750s – but every now and then, you read something wonderful. (Despite all the dull talk of the death of literature, the rate of great novels has always been and will always be roughly the same. By my reckoning, about 10 per decade. Although behind them are dozens of very good novels, for which this reader, at least, is grateful.) Every now and then a writer renews your faith. I’m looking around my desk at this moment for books that have had this effect on me in the not-too-distant past: Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Number9Dream by David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love, Dennis Cooper’s My Loose Thread, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, the collected short stories of JG Ballard.