- Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present
- Laura Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul
- Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning
- Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
- Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
- Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anarchy’s Brief Summer
- Simon Critchley. Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
- Dan Gretton, I You We Them
- Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
- Simone de Beauvoir, Diary of a Philosophy Student: Volume 2, 1928-29
- Annie Ernaux, Happening
- Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
- Claudio Magris, Snapshots
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Sarah Richmond’s translation)
- Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project
- Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian
- Enrique Vila-Matas, Mac and His Problem
- Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature
- Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
These are the first two volumes of a planned “living memoir”. You feel in them the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Both autobiographical projects go beyond the reconstruction of a life, and Deborah Levy does that strikingly, but these memoirs develop into an exploration of the ethics of human interdependence.
There is a dynamism in Levy’s writing that tempts me to sample her fiction, though in de Beauvoir’s case the memoirs are the best of her work. I am curious about how the highly literary autobiography and fiction spill into each other.
Reading through old common-place books, I come across this context-setting from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life. Beauvoir’s memoirs are marvels with so much more immediacy than the novels. I repeat this piece in my latest common-place book and here on my blog as it is necessary to remind oneself often.
“[..] I still believe to this day in the theory of ‘transcendental ego’. The self has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a cleaner and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation’. Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and that the best one can hope for is self-revelation.”
This week: Middlemarch, Kathleen Ferrier’s Winterreise.
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
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
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
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
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
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
In the opening pages of Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life Stephanie Staal outlines a familiar plot: “And then I got married, had a baby, and everything changed”, and though married to a “progressive and supportive man” (though his credentials for that portrayal appear insubstantial) is disheartened when her narrative conforms to the familiar plot. Resolved not to forgo her feminist ideals Staal returns to college to take a Feminist Texts course. By the closing pages it is difficult to see what effect the ‘Fem Texts’ course had on Staal’s original distress and she concludes the memoir:
The storyteller in me wishes I could point to one watershed event, but the truth is that we had change slowly, incrementally, coming closer together through thousands of tiny moments that make up a day, a life. This didn’t have to happen. I knew from experience, both my own and others, that those moments could have just as well pulled us apart, if even one of us had chosen otherwise.
In other words, Staal participated in a relationship through the high and low points and grew. A memoir, engagingly told, not particularly profound, and one that fails to offer any substantive suggestions about how women (or men) can reconcile the broad ideals of feminism with marriage and parenthood. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
There is considerable value though in Reading Women is as a synoptic primer of feminism, at least as it pertains to the middle classes. Staal progresses chronologically through ‘Fem Texts’, with a fascinating summary of Elaine Pagel’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, an ‘intellectual history of the first two chapters of Genesis that traces traditional patterns of gender and sexuality’.
From there Staal argues convincingly for the continued relevance of first-generation feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, cleverly contrasts the fiction of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and moves on to a half-hearted defence of Beauvoir. The strongest section of the book deals with the feminist writers most familiar to Staal, those of the sixties and seventies.
The section I had been anticipating with interest was the next generation that includes writers like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Staal evidently struggled with these texts and reverts to the comfort blanket of Erica Jong, amusing enough but trite. She recovers towards the end when studying Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, the one text Staal covers that I felt compelled to order immediately.
As a memoir it was a quick, occasionally amusing but ultimately forgettable event. As a whizz through three generations of feminist writers, for those, like me, that frequently know the names but only the basic arguments, it was a useful doorway to deeper exploration.
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.
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 Somme, Working the Room, Paris, 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 City, J. 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’.
- 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
- 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
- 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
- 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.
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.