The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

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.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

The Pickup is an uncomplicated love story that leaves a tangled set of impressions. Though flawed in several minor ways, it is an extraordinary book that will reverberate with me for some time.

This is my first of Gordimer’s novels and I took great pleasure in her unfussy, almost-poetic, precise use of language. It is the novel of a meticulous craftsperson. A fragment remains with me: “…for the past has no wholeness, it has been etiolated by revised explanations of it, trampled over by hindsight  – all their lives”. As Gordimer says later in her narrative, that is “like a sentence, a statement, that seems to have been written [for her] long before [she] came into existence…”

Beyond the love story there are layers that explore liberalism, alienation, poverty and consumerism. For a penetrating appraisal of The Pickup, I’ll divert you to J. M. Coetzee:

Not just an interesting book, in fact, but an astonishing one: it is hard to conceive of a more sympathetic, more intimate introduction to the lives of ordinary Muslims than we are given here, and from the hand of a Jewish writer too.

I’ll be reading more of Gordimer’s work over the next twelve months. Thanks to Michelle whose comment encouraged me to read The Pickup, which is her very favorite Gordimer novel.

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City is narrated by Julius, a part Nigerian, part German psychiatry student. Beginning with a strong Sebaldian influence as Julius aimlessly wanders around the streets and parks of New York, the story develops into a modern inquiry into the foundation of personality, memory, nationhood and dislocation.

Although written in the first person the narrator remains at a distance, a lonely, bookish character, more comfortable discussing literary or musical influences (Mahler, Coetzee, Barthes) than developing a relationship with a childhood friend or dying professor. This distance allows Cole, as James Wood explains below, to make his novel ‘as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.’

In The Western Canon, as Biblioklept mentioned recently, Harold Bloom argues ‘that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ Both terms are comfortably conferred on Teju Cole’s Open City, a staggeringly good novel of great potency.

Cole’s novel is subject of a strong review from James Wood:

But I hope the prospective reader will turn that first page, because the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.