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.

A Doll House By Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café (1898) by Edvard Munch

Ibsen’s A Doll House turns on a single sentence, Nora’s “We’re settling accounts, Torvald”. On that sentence the puerile Nora merges from her pupal cocoon and rejects her husband Torvald. Before that sentence the reader is accustomed to Torvald’s casual misogyny and pomposity. It is a sentence of deliverance, of the sort that lifts the hair on the back of your neck. Nora begins the dialogue that concludes this electrifying third act.

NORA: We’ve been married for eight years. Doesn’t it strike you that this is the first time that the two of us-you and I, man and wife-have talked seriously?
HELMER: Well-“seriously”-what does that mean?
NORA: In eight years-no, longer-right from the moment we met, we haven’t exchanged one serious word on one serious subject.

Michael Levenson, in Modernism, describes the impact that A Doll House had on Europe in the late nineteenth century. “Anecdotes abound of quarrels over dinner and demands by hostesses that guests refrain from discussing Ibsen”.

The event that thrilled and appalled Europe was Nora’s departure from her husband and sleeping children. But the shock of rupture needs to be placed within the speech conditions that prepare it. When the dialogue in the third act turns back on itself and confronts the disturbances of conversation, it lays out a challenge as radical as its final event, in some ways even more radical, Nora does not simply leave after speaking; she leaves because she speaks.

With repugnance, Ibsen was coerced to write an alternative ending for German theatre, a conciliatory conclusion that he later described as a “barbaric outrage”. In a letter to a newspaper Ibsen stated, “Those who wish to make use of the altered scene do so entirely against my wish.”