Yiyun Li: Reading Letters and Journals

“What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life? But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings that we are able to, can we still call her a stranger? I have convinced myself that reading letters and journals is a way of having a conversation with those writers, but surely it is as glib as calling perusing the music score of a symphony the same as listening to it. A conversation requires more than scribbling in the margin.
Sometimes I suspect that I am drawn to those who don’t converse with me because I have not outgrown a childish wish that they will teach me how to live. Or, a slightly more complicated version: I wish that they would teach one how to die.”
. . .

“All people lie, in their writing as much as in their lives. It frustrates me that I hold on to an unrealistic belief: there is some irrefutable truth in each mind, and the truth is told without concealment or distortion in a letter or in a journal entry. My obligation is to look for that truth; finding it will offer me the certainty I don’t have in me. With that certainty I will find a way to build a solid self. This burden I never take on while reading or writing fiction.”

To those that have read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life offers something very different, another reluctant memoir: introspective without morbidity and philosophical without pretension.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

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.’

A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.


The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

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.

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

“Seeing is not as good as staying blind,” Teacher Gu said, quoting an ancient poem.

“We’ve been blind all our lives,” said Mrs. Gu. “Why don’t you want to open your eyes and see the facts?”

Yiyun Li’s debut novel The Vagrants is potent and sobering. “The light from the streetlamps was weak, but the eastern sky had taken on a hue of bluish white like that of an upturned fish belly.” is Li at her most effusive. Otherwise the language is sparse, creating image by image this inconsequential Chinese city and it’s array of characters.

The theme, apparently based on real events, is not dissimilar to that related by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (though Li’s style shares little with Solzhenitsyn) and other casualties of totalitarian oppression. The spine-chilling fear that sets family members against each other and induces spite towards other members of the community is common.

The Vagrants is filled with a pronounced cast of memorable, often unappealing characters and strong sense of place. Though some of Li’s protagonists are inherently unsympathetic, her skill is to enable us to find compassion where initially it seems unlikely.

Any compassion is proved futile as there is little redemption in The Vagrants. The novel’s denouement is inevitable with the layering of metaphor building the tension, almost unbearably.

The man turned to Tong and hissed. “Don’t wake up my hedgehog.”

Tong recognised the young man, though he did not know his name. “Don’t worry,” Tong said. “He’s hibernating so you won’t wake him up by speaking.”

“Spring’s already here,” the man said.

“But it’s not warm enough for the hedgehog yet,” Tong said.

The powerless hedgehog shares a similar fate to the protestors.

Although the story is harrowing, there is dark humour, particularly in the dialogue between Bashi and Nini, the book’s strongest characters.

The book is a first-rate contemporary novel; as a debut novelist Yiyun Li shows considerable promise.