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.

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami
Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

A Year of Reading: 2012

When I posted last year’s edition of this post, I had no idea I was a few weeks away from being selected as 3:AM Magazine’s Blog of the Year 2011. A thrilling way to end the year; the charge continued into 2012 with the genuine, anxiety-inducing, kick of being asked to contribute to a 3:AM conversation about modernism with David Winters, one of this country’s brightest literary critics.

In fiction reading, the year began brilliantly with László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War. The latter has stayed in mind all year, one of the best books I’ve read in memory. I’ve never read such a successful send-up of corporate life as Helen DeWitt’s intelligent Lightning Rods. My slow journey through JM Coetzee’s oeuvre continues; In the Heart of the Country is powerful enough to take skin off.

In non-fiction, the highlight of the year was Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Much of it whooshed over my head, but with such beauty and insight that I’ve dipped in and out all year.  Kate Zambreno’s Heroines  came out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt, to awaken a passion for the modernist wives, and her idiosyncratic, personal writing style that flowed so naturally into Hélène Cixous, my current idée fixe.

My two major discoveries of the year were Clarice Lispector’s Água Vida and Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, both authors I will be reading and thinking about for a long time.

Geeky Statistics

  1. A third of the sixty-five books I read are in translation, down from forty percent.
  2. More than a third of the books I read are written by women; almost double the eighteen percent of 2011.
  3. Thirty percent of the books I read are fiction, way down on the almost sixty percent of last year.
  4. Over half of the books I read are written by European writers, a third by American writers, the rest split between African, Middle Eastern and South American.

There were no resolutions behind these statistics. As ever, serendipity led my reading. I failed so badly on the few reading resolutions I made last year that I shan’t even repeat the pretence. Reading much less fiction feels in some way connected to this year’s tussle with depression and anxiety. (Fuck, that was hard to write.) The year’s been a grind and make-believe lost some of its allure. I’m pleased that I read more women’s writing, a trend that I expect to continue naturally next year.

I read fewer books and blogged a bit less, both factors I place squarely at the door of my Twitter timeline. Twitter is a huge time-sink but often I find myself having the conversations that I wanted to have on this blog. That is also something that I’ll be considering over the coming year.

Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods

Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence.

This quotation is lifted from Beckett’s discursive essay on Proust. I could argue a profound apposition for its use (I reserve the right), but it came irresistibly to mind for the juxtaposition of Proust and a lightning-conducter. Forgive the strained allusion but Helen DeWitt’s creation of a future Supreme Court Justice investing her time wisely in reading Proust whilst offering PVC-clad, anonymous sex to high-flying sales and marketing men may be the funniest set-piece ever created. (If a Google search based on the last sentence directed you here I apologise for your anti-climax).

Proust allusion explained, lightning rod is Helen DeWitt’s epithet, in Lightning Rods to the sexual service provided anonymously to corporate high flyers. Providing instant sexual gratification to high-testosterone types obviates the (legal) hazard of sexual harassment in the workplace, at least that’s the hypothesis of DeWitt’s narrator Joe.

Using free indirect style gives DeWitt full access to the language of Joe, and corporate sales and marketing departments, whilst retaining the necessary distance for satire. The calibre of writing stops the style from becoming heavy-handed. Swiftian in brilliance, lack of sentiment and acidity of humour, Lightning Rods takes on numerous deserving targets with freshness and wit.

Though I finished the book last night, I was awake at four thirty the next morning, chuckling at DeWitt’s ideas for adjustable lavatories for dwarfs and the obese, and as lightning rods as a preserver of religious values.

You were spot on, Frances, about how much I’d enjoy Lightning Rods.

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.