My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

It is difficult to put aside The Enigma of Arrival. Its lack of linearity, its repetitions and uncertainties mirror all too familiarly bone-deep memories of melancholy. To inhabit The Enigma of Arrival is to immerse oneself almost too deeply into its narrator’s solipsism and sadness.

On the front cover of this Viking first edition, the book in hand is declared The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, that subtitle a reminder that this is creation not memoir. I think there is nothing quite like this novel. It disturbs and enchants, or rather disenchants. After the conventional cover to cover reading, I reread Part 2, the narrator’s contextualising his arrival in Part 1 to a cottage in Wiltshire, then turned back to Part 1 and read it through again.

There is a famous racehorse, at one time kept in a paddock near the narrator’s cottage while awaiting death. Naipaul writes, “In a short time the horse ceased to be in the paddock. It had died. Like so many deaths here, in this small village, like so many big events, it seemed to happen off-stage.” Everything happens off-stage to this narrator, even the sister’s death that draws the novel to its conclusion. Naipaul seems more drawn to events peripheral to the major occurrences. In this way it seems not to be a novel at all; it eludes material that would be central to a novel. If not a novel, it is certainly something else.

This something else is what I’ve been reluctant to put down: “How sad it was to lose that sense of width and space.” But it feels almost indulgent, in that way one must force oneself to get out of bed on a melancholy day, for to remain is of far greater danger.

The Enigma of Arrival

The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon (1912) – Giorgio de Chirico

“. . . in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery; it speaks of the mystery of arrival.” p.91-2

V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival refers to this painting by de Chirico, in which Naipaul outlines a story he wishes to write, based on the painting.

It is a personal meditation; a concentrated story about the sadness at the heart of love. Naipaul begins with a dedication: ‘In loving memory of my brother Shiva Naipaul 25 February 1945, Port of Spain 13 August 1985, London’. It is also a reflection on mortality. This is different from the other books I’ve read by Naipaul. In this book, Naipaul creates an intensely spiritual space in which a reader can be blissfully alone.

“He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city . . . Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere, he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how . . . At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship is gone. The traveller has lived out his life.” p. 91-2