Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Zena Assi: from the Beirut series

I’ve wallowed in Zena Assi’s Cities series, meticulously detailed paintings of Beirut. Look close enough and you can see laundry hanging between buildings.

*****

Influenced by Geoff Dyer’s review I read Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. The narrative is well constructed and compelling. Tokyo comes alive, as does each character. I read the book in two sittings, flagging only a little toward the end. Though I share Dyer’s admiration for Parry’s writing I am torn by the nature of the genre.

It is the first (and last) time I dip into the ‘true crime’ genre. The act of analysing and building narrative from the actions and emotions of the Blackman family and their friends, not characters but people in England, living not too far from where I live, feels exploitative. Is that just me being overly squeamish? How do you accurately interpret somebody’s emotions, and consequent actions, when they are living through such a horrendous experience? With the impossibility of accessing another person’s ‘inner’ feelings, any such interpretation is just what David Ellis termed ‘affable pretence’.

*****

*****

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.

How I Became a Nun by César Aira

There may be hyperbole around the fiction of César Aira, or perhaps How I Became a Nun didn’t stand a chance of meeting my high expectations. Aira is sometimes mentioned alongside writers like Dyer, Berger, Krasznahorkai, Murnane and Coetzee as writing vital, forward-looking fiction. How I Became a Nun is darkly funny and surreal, and quite evidently an accomplished work of fiction, but it didn’t knock me sideways.

The story begins, “My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in life; I had just turned six.” Aira places “how I became a nun” in quotation marks in that sentence, in direct allusion to the title of his novel. Thereafter there is no further mention of nuns. The narrator, who dies before the end of the novel, narrates her death, is named as César Aira, though for most of the novel portrayed as a six-year old girl. I say ‘most’ as on at least two instances she is referred to as a boy.

The autobiographical narrator uses the children in the class to build elaborate stories, and thus obliquely narrates her/his fictional beginning.

As I had no dolls,I had to make do with make-believe children. And as I didn’t have any already made up, I used real ones, reimagining them as I pleased. They were my classmates, the only children I knew, and they were ideal for my purposes, because I had no idea of their lives outside school. For me they were absolute schoolchildren. To make the game more fun, I gave them twisted, difficult, baroque personalities.

The ending is absurdly brilliant. Aira is a writer I shall be returning to, but I’d appreciate any suggestions of what Aira books to read. My edition advertises An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

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.