Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy

Red Rackhams's Treasure

Though it’s been longer than I care to remember since I read the Tintin books, I recall that Red Rackham’s Treasure, by a narrow margin, was my favourite of these exquisitely rendered books. Until this week I had no intentions to reread Hergé’s comic-strip albums, but I spotted and read Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature. If McCarthy is on the right track there is so much more to explore within these stories than I was able to appreciate all those years ago. McCarthy suggests a continuity of autobiographical theme through the entire oeuvre.

Eulogising Hergé’s social comedy and his creation of ‘a [rich] bestiary of human types’ McCarthy asks of Tintin one question: is it literature?

Should we, when we read the Tintin, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais and so on? When we ponder and discuss them, should we bring the same critical apparatus to bear as we would when analysing Flaubert, James and Conrad?

McCarthy succinctly addresses the question: what is literature, and proceeds to bring his considerable critical apparatus to bear on Hergé’s series, through political, autobiographical and psychological readings. The book is entertaining and thought provoking, and will return me to Tintin.

Contemporary and Deliberate

In response to my list of most-read authors Kevin of Interpolations asked a great question:

Any authors who haven’t written five books yet that you think might eventually make your list?

I thought a lot about the original list [I forgot Nicholson Baker so added him to that list], particularly those authors I consider favourites though I’ve only read three or four of their oeuvre. But I like Kevin’s question, specifically about those authors that haven’t yet written five books. The “haven’t yet written” rules out many more prolific or established contemporary authors. It also excludes authors like Jim Crace and Justin Cartwright, that have written more than I appreciated.

It’s difficult and uncertain to compile. I will take “five books” to mean five novels (short stories and poems excluded). I realise that stretches the definition but hey ho. These authors give me enjoyment and I would in all likelihood “buy-on-publication,” regardless of critical reaction:

  1. Yiyun Li
  2. Tom McCarthy
  3. Zadie Smith
  4. Anne Michaels
  5. Adam Thirlwell
  6. James Wood

It would be fascinating to see who would make your list.

Stoner By John Williams

I started Stoner at my hotel in Limassol but mostly read Stoner on a flight from Cyprus-London. Inspired by several references at Anecdotal Evidence I bought the book last year. Boarding the flight, an administrative cock-up separated me two seats behind my family. Guilty joy, the possibility of an uninterrupted five hour reading jag. Even the twenty minute circling of Heathrow, awaiting a landing slot, failed to irritate me as I reread the final few pages.

The style of John William’s 1965 novel reminds me a little of Frank Norris’s McTeague. As Patrick Kurp accurately says in his post “Published in the decade of V. and Portnoy’s Complaint, Stoner must have seemed at the time like a musty anachronism to many readers. In fact, 41 years later, it has aged beautifully.”

Stoner is the story of a man from a dirt-poor farming family who falls in love with literature and becomes a teacher of English at a Missouri university.

Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realised the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

With the possible exception of Harold Bloom, do we not all share these sentiments occasionally?

William’s depiction of Stoner’s stony-hearted wife and their dismal marriage is chilling. The evolving relationship with his daughter as she matures is heart-breaking. But although the story is sad, Williams allows a glimmers of redemption in the transforming ability of love and friendship.

It contrasted with my reading in the same holiday week of Adam Thirlwell’s Politics and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, novels that both make use of postmodern contrivances to challenge the form of the novel. John William’s Stoner is a reminder that, however exciting and glitzy such experiments are, they are no substitute for good writing. The novel is flawless and gets my complete recommendation.

 

As John McGahern comments in his introduction:

There is entertainment of a very high order to be found in Stoner, what Williams himself describes as “an escape into reality” as well as pain and joy. The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy.

. . . . . . . . .

If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms love takes and all the forces that oppose it. “It [love] was a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.

I read the New York Review Books edition and have ordered Butcher’s Crossing.


One final excerpt of this memorable book:

As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew the poem of Milton’s that he read of the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence on it.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

In Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind, Smith contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and uses both to consider two possible directions for the contemporary novel. I’ve never read Netherland, discouraged by the gushing superlatives that accompanied its release. Remainder appeared more interesting, eulogised here by Smith:

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side-road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchard, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions-yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. So it is with Remainder. The Re-enactor’s obsessive, amoral re-enactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theatre of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternative road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

How could I resist? The book accompanied me on my spring sojourn to the sun, read mostly poolside, washed down with an occasional Brandy Sour.

A traumatic, disabling accident leaves an unnamed, wealthy protagonist in need of greater authenticity. He obsessively enacts and re-enacts situations from his past, scenes within memories, all on a grand scale. It is a deeply amoral story, carefully structured with a unembellished prose that gives an almost hypnotic effect (that could have been the Brandy Sour). I read the novel, torn between admiring the technique and wondering how it would reach a conclusion. Disappointment set in in the last section, the final enactment was unsatisfactory, too trite. Almost certainly I will reread and perhaps manage to understand Smith’s conclusive sentence.

Rested and Read

Unlike my usual exploratory holidays, this last week was spent unashamedly enjoying being outdoors in the sun: tennis, swimming, archery, badminton, even some football and lots of reading. After a long English winter, to sit by a pool and read for hours on end was a luxury.

It was an heterogenous selection of paperbacks that accompanied me to Cyprus:

  1. David Foster WallaceThis is Water
  2. Adam Thirlwell – Politics
  3. Tom McCarthyRemainder
  4. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Blue Flower
  5. John Williams – Stoner

Each of the novels merits a brief blog post of its own.

The first book on the list, DFW’s This is Water subtitled Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, is the text of a  commencement address given to the 2005 graduating class of DFW’s alma mater. For motives unknown the publishers Little, Brown have presented the book one sentence per page as a series of aphorisms. The format is annoying but the text is worth reading; DFW unpacks “the old cliché about the mind ‘being an excellent servant but a terrible master.'” As he explains, “This, like many clichés, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”

And I submit that this is the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.