Alejandro Zambra: My Documents

“I abandon books easily. Before, especially when I wrote literary criticism, I had the urge to read books from cover to cover. If I was writing about them, I’d read them twice over. I didn’t enjoy that, in part due to the obligation to say something beyond the obvious. I don’t do that anymore; I became more impulsive—there are just too many books I want to read. Also, I stopped writing about literature, which is cool. I was bureaucratizing the space of reading.”

Alejandro Zambra explains that he became a chaotic reader, abandoning books with ease. Atypically I persisted with Fonseca’s book and with Zambra’s My Documents and was rewarded in both instances by a series of stories that got steadily stronger.

The final story in Zambra’s collection, Artist’s Rendition, is all the more chilling for being so calmly told. A narrator presents a short brutal story about abuse, involving a reader directly with the sort of restricted metafiction that often signals tired and facile writing, but Zambra treats his subject earnestly and succeeds in raising questions about the arbitrariness of meaning and truth.

There is a fair variety to the stories in My Documents, which develop in strength and intensity throughout this collection, echoing themes of memory retrieval, abnegation and envy. After the first two sections I felt mildly bored and wondered whether to abandon the book. I began National Institute, the first story of the third section and was immediately and magnificently absorbed. It was so satisfying that I swallowed the remainder of the stories without getting up from my chair.

My Documents (translated into English very ably by Megan McDowell) is the first book I’ve read by Alejandro Zambra. If you enjoy his work, please recommend something else of his to read.

Kate Zambreno: Book of Mutter

The first time I remember seeing my mother was in 1976, when I was eleven years old. It isn’t a firsthand memory, more of what Barthes might call a memory container. I can date the photograph due to a calendar on the wall, one of those cheap calendars a company would once issue to its customers. The calendar is displaying November 1956. Neither of the photograph’s subjects, my mother and father, know that in eight years time I will born in a country five thousand miles away. Maybe I should say my mother is a photograph. I have no memory of her beyond a dozen or so such photographs.

In Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter she quotes from Henry Darger’s biography, “The central fact of his life is that his mother died when he was young.” This statement troubles me, gets under my skin. A few weeks ago the woman who sometimes substituted as my mother died, so I’ve been looking back. I love this book about Zambreno’s mother in the same way I watched with fascination the mothers of my childhood friends.

Zambreno writes, “To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. or if not to forget, to attempt to leave behind.” How do we find a form to confess our guilt, to express our grief and anguish? Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s attempt to address that question, a desire to question her memories of her mother, to make reparation and, in an her attempt to forget, an act of creative restoration.

What is fascinating is the shades that Zambreno choses, and rejects, for her confrontation with her memories. Bristling with epigrams from Barthes, Book of Mutter is also animated by a broad range of spirit guides from Henry Darger to Louise Bourgeois to Peter Handke and Theresa Hak.

As with William Maxwell’s book, as with any book, I read Book of Mutter with all sorts of personal and idiosyncratic reflections. There are no ideal readers for a book about a mother’s life and death. Objectivity is an illusion. Whether this book has allowed Zambreno to leave behind her memories only she can answer, but her mother is recognised by being forever captured inside this graceful and haunting book.

Rubem Fonseca: The Taker and Other Stories

Rubem Fonseca’s history intrigued me. A policeman during the 1940s in a country with a high rate of violent crime, particularly murders, who rose to the highest levels of law enforcement before changing career to work as a journalist and film critic, and then devoted himself to writing fiction. Described in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Latin American and Carribean Literature as, “One of Brazil’s most eminent living writers, and arguably one of the masters of the short story on the continent”.

What interested me about the first three stories in The Taker and Other Stories was that they disgusted me, not in the sense that I disliked them, though I did, but on a visceral level, genuine revulsion. Fonseca writes, “A man or a woman? It made little difference, really, but no one with the right characteristics appeared.” And he is even-handed about the gender of the victims of these first three stories who are run over, strangled, raped, starved, shot and slashed. I am not easily disgusted and resisted an urge to stop reading to locate its source. What Fonseca achieves, and we can argue about the value of such experience, is to bring to life the exuberant eroticism of his psychopathic protagonists.

Had the series of fifteen short stories continued to mine this dubious seam I would’ve given up, but it is a well chosen collection. After the raw and sordid beginning, the stories develop in range and sophistication without quite leaving behind Fonseca’s acidic cynicism. Each short story is sufficient unto itself, a complete world that Fonseca builds layer by layer until it plays out, occasionally predictably but often unexpectedly. On the evidence of these stories, he is not a character builder and his creations remain puppets throughout but the staging and atmosphere building is accomplished.

Thinking of an invidious analogy to summarise Fonseca’s style, what comes to mind is three-parts Raymond Chandler, one-part Virginie Despentes and a garnish of Bolano. Truth is I’ve not come across anything quite like them, so any analogy is mostly unreliable.

These stories are translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers, and released by Open Letter, a publisher who is likely to feature prominently on this blog during the year.

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

“. . . it fascinated me as a snake would a bird
– a silly little bird.”
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I’m not at risk of spoiling a reading of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow by summarising this story. A man looks back on the pivotal moment of his life–the death of his mother– his father’s remarriage and the loss of his family home; intertwined into what I understand to be autobiographical fiction, Maxwell tells a parallel story, of another boy, whose father murdered his wife’s lover (also his best friend) before killing himself.

Writing of his mother’s death the narrator says,”Other children could have borne it, have borne it. My older brother did, somehow I couldn’t.” I was perhaps fortunate that I was barely eighteen month’s old when my mother died, as I hadn’t sufficient opportunity to become accustomed to her presence. As such I feel that I have borne it well, though not without my share of what are now a well-documented set of both early and late reactions. My father was less resilient. His emotional response left me with little protection, which I naturally failed to comprehend until many years later. This disastrous double-bill was intensified when we were made exiles from my beloved childhood home.

None of this is written to induce sympathy. These are events that shaped my early years, mostly, I like to think, now integrated. It is to say that I distrust myself when reading writers like Maxwell, who write forms of autobiography close enough to my life to make me, in Nabokov’s understanding, a bad reader. It is all too easy to identify.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph Conrad and William Maxwell, all writers whose mothers died during their childhood, the sense of things passing becomes an obsession that suffuses their fiction with melancholy. The narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow is also haunted throughout life by an incident, a guilty regret that is the driving impulse behind the story’s creation.

Maxwell writes extraordinarily well from a technical perspective, presenting viewpoints of multiple characters including a dog, which normally falls apart but in this case works fine. His delicate, muted story allows us to see through the eyes of a poignantly wounded child, from the viewpoint of the adult he becomes, one that has not been able to escape his childhood demons, but without ever quite veering into outright nostalgia or mawkishness.

If you should feel inclined to explore William Maxwell’s work, and I shall definitely read much more of his fiction, my introduction came from the excellent Backlisted podcast.

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!

Complete List of Books Read in 2016

It seems unlikely that I’ll get around to finishing William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow before year end. It’ll be a terrific way to start the new year.

For those not inclined to delve into the guts of this blog here’s a list of the 61 books I read in 2015.

  1. André Bernold, Beckett’s Friendship (trans. Max McGuinness)
  2. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidenstickerj)
  3. Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing (trans. Chris Turner)
  4. Amy Liptrot, The Outrun
  5. René Char, Hypnos (trans. Mark Hutchinson)
  6. Pascal Quignard, The Sexual Night (trans. Chris Turner)
  7. Pascal Quignard, On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia (trans. Bruce X)
  8. Marguerite Duras, The Man Sitting in the Corridor (trans. Barbara Bray)
  9. Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still
  10. Max Frisch, An Answer from the Silence (trans. Mike Mitchell)
  11. Max Frisch, Drafts for a Third Sketchbook (trans. Mike Mitchell)
  12. Max Frisch, Homo Faber (trans. Michael Bullock)
  13. Correspondence: Max Frisch and Freidrich Dürrenmatt (trans. Birgit Schreyer Duarte)
  14. Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller (trans. Michael Bullock)
  15. Anna Kavan, Julie and the Bazooka
  16. Jeremy Reed, A Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan
  17. Anna Kavan, I am Lazarus
  18. Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic
  19. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir
  20. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)
  21. Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
  22. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead (trans. Jessie Coulson)
  23. André Gide, Dostoevsky (trans. unnamed)
  24. Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies
  25. ^ Jane Bowles, Plain Pleasures
  26. John Fowles, Wormholes
  27. Ovid, The Metamorphoses (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)
  28. M. A. Orthofer, Arno Schmidt: a centennial colloquy
  29. ^ Arno Schmidt, Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A. (trans. John E. Woods)
  30. ^ Arno Schmidt, Leviathan or The Best of Worlds (trans. John E. Woods)
  31. Marie Redonner, Hôtel Splendid (trans. Jordan Stump)
  32. François Julien, The Silent Transformations (trans. K. Fijalkowski and M. Richardson)
  33. Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Robert Fagles)
  34. Elizabeth Sewell, Paul Valery: The Mind in the Mirror
  35. ^ Paul Valery, Fragments from “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo Da Vinci.” (trans. Thomas McGreevy)
  36. Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste
  37. Adrian Nathan West, The Aesthetics of Degradation
  38. David Herbert, Engaging Eccentrics: Recollections
  39. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  40. David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
  41. Stefan Collini, Common Reading
  42. Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel
  43. Iris Murdoch, The Italian Girl
  44. Roberto Calasso, The Art of the Publisher (trans. Richard Dixon)
  45. André Saffis-Nahely, The Palm Beach Effect
  46. Michael Hofmann, Nights in the Iron Hotel
  47. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things
  48. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai
  49. Ilija Trojanow, The Lamentations of Zeno (trans. Philip Boehm)
  50. Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life (trans. Linda Coverdale)
  51. Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (trans. Richard A. Rand)
  52. Reiner Stach, Is That Kafka? (trans. Kurt Beals)
  53. Jorge Semprún, The Long Voyage (trans. Richard Seaver)
  54. Claudio Magris, A Different Sea (trans. M. S. Spurr)
  55. Christopher Logue, War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad
  56. George Craig, Writing Beckett’s Letters
  57. Jarett Kobek, I Hate The Internet
  58. Rachel Cusk, Outline
  59. Ali Smith, Autumn
  60. Lara Pawson, This is the Place to Be
  61. Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Early Years (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Reiner Stach: Kafka Biography

A Kafka industry exists. Yet, of the two guides I spoke to in Prague this year, the first informed me that Kafka had never been published, the second that Kafka lived most of his life in Paris. Why of all writers does Kafka return to us in so many different ways? Do the contradictions and ambiguities of his extraordinary stories somehow feed a Kafka mythology that turns him into an allegorical figure living on the threshold between life and death? “Life is a state of being, not an activity,” writes Reiner Stach, “You find out only at the end whether you had a life.”

This year provided the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, chronologically the first. The order of publication was dictated by legal wrangling, availability of sources and doesn’t particularly matter. Stach’s achievement is to have written, eventually, the only definitive biography of Kafka. This is an odd assertion, and there are indeed some attempts at biography. As a Kafka completist, I’ve read all those in print in English language. Stach would possibly argue with the term ‘definitive”. He writes, “The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.”

Stach’s book is strange in wonderful ways. There are some magnificent literary biographies, of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Johnson, and Jacques Derrida. Stach does something different and in doing so raises the bar for how biographers can give readers a sense of where a writer’s sense of vision emerges from. By presenting Kafka’s life as a succession of forces–historic, literary, places, personal encounters–and setting these collisions within a context of time, environment, social milieu and class, Stach brings readers closer to understanding how these forces impacted and shaped his thoughts and writing.

Like any capable biographer, Stach uses Kafka’s extensive literary legacy of letters, diaries and primary works, but also, especially for this newly published Early Years edition reads against the grain and interrogates material found in school friends’ diaries, educational and employment records, and newspapers of the day. Often the literary biography of a favourite writer reflects our desire to continue our acquaintance with a writer after exhausting their primary work. Stach’s biography is more interesting and provides another centre of gravity to understanding Kafka’s sensibility. Although there are always the texts a biographer cannot alter, the very best literary biographies allow us to return to a writer’s work with greater sensitivity and reflectiveness. With Stach’s biography of Kafka, the more reductive linear inventory of facts that claims to constitute a biography is now exhausted as a sub-genre.

Of course, of paramount importance in bringing this colossal biography to the English-speaking world is the work of translator Shelley Frisch. Her close collaboration with Stach over almost two decades makes it possible for readers to now read a life of Kafka from the Early Years, to the end of his forty or so years of life. In his closing words, Stach thanks Frisch for her translation that he says is, “without any loss of textual precision and in a marvellously elegant linguistic form”. Michael Hofmann once described the translator as a conduit, writing “It is an urgent, interior, invisible and, if things are going well, (in detail) unnoticed activity …” Frisch’s sensitive and intelligent work demonstrates that great translation is not only invisible but indivisible: great translation is great literature.

A Key to Unfamiliar Rooms

Valerio ADAMI, Excelsior, 2009

Turning back to Stach’s Kafka, some resonances and reverberations:

“Kafka had a strong preference for deep conversations with a small group of friends, and if confronted with too many faces and voice, he tended to sink into daydreams–and look almost apathetic–or slip into the role of an intent and smiling but silent observer. Both reactions were perceived as aloofness, and Kafka’s prim and proper clothing, only heightened this impression, and so it too patience and empathy not to misread his appearance as an affectation.”

“Nevertheless, this friendship [Kafka and Felix Weltsch] never developed the intensity of Kafka’s bond with Brod–even Weltsch’s written recollections of Kafka are oddly bland–most likely because Weltsch did not look to writing for existential expression and was therefore shielded from the torments of literary productivity. Both were after the truth. For Kafka, this pursuit remained a problem of linguistic and visual expression, burdened with a great many subjective reservations and the profound skepticism about language that was quite widespread at the turn of the century, while Weltsch’s approach to philosophical problems was based on his view that education and precise thinking were the best routes to solutions.”

“Many a book,” he wrote to Oskar Pollak, “seems like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.”

“Instead, Kafka pursued these perplexing trains of thought as a reader of literature, keenly observing the waves of mutually enhancing associations that emanated from them. If they welled up with particular intensity, he concluded that he had touched on an inner, subjective truth of which he had been unaware until that moment–a process he was able to grasp only on imagery.”

Lara Pawson: This is the Place to Be

“There are things you learn in life which alter your perspective entirely.” Lara Pawson’s extremely candid memoir provides a window into a complex and brutally honest woman whose perspective is irrevocably altered by the horror and excitement of war reporting.

At the structural centre of This is the Place to Be is the problem of perception and memory. “As I write, I wonder, are you, as your read, filling in the words that your brain thinks are already here?” There is urgency in Pawson’s need to set down and define a past framed by her awareness of the unreliability and fragility of memory, knowing of course that telling the story shapes not only the memory but perception as well.

This isn’t a war memoir. It isn’t even about war reporting, though Pawson does give voice to the experience of war at its most intimate level – the individual. It is also an honest and heartfelt exploration of gender and class. Pawson writes, “Even with my mouth shut, you can see the privilege. It’s etched into me.” What emerges most of all, behind the humour, anger and uncertainty, is a memoir that is full of love and life.

Ali Smith: Autumn

Anyone that’s read this blog for any length of time (thank you) knows my disposition for literature with a modernist spirit, books that share a language of reticence, an ironic stance perhaps. I read with the conviction that through what Shklovsky terms defamiliarisation, it is possible to reveal usually veiled boundaries of our own familiar world, thus offering the possibility of a secular re-enchantment.

Over the last few months I’ve listened intently to the Backlisted podcast, a high-spirited literary conversation that focuses on old books. Before they discuss a featured writer, the podcast hosts chat about the books they’ve read. A comment by Andy Miller piqued my interest in Ali Smith’s Autumn, his argument that the novel is so very contemporary that it demands to be read immediately, almost that it has a literary use-by date.

In choosing our recent European referendum as its backdrop, there is a voguish aspect, which I worried beforehand might be excessive. I’ve not read Ali Smith before and steer away from most contemporary literature, preferring a 10-year delay in order not be to influenced by social media hyperbole and sponsorship. What I discovered in Autumn was greater subtlety than expected, a restrained political context that centred to a greater extent on periodically forgotten and revived British pop artist Pauline Boty, and the Keeler/Profumo scandal.

But there was more of interest in Smith’s book: her exploration of time and memory in particular. In common with many writers that continue to write in the spirit of modernism, Smith embraces a more fluid view of self, confronting the scientific notion of consciousness, of linear moments of time strung out like a set of rosary beads. Her characters in Autumn live with time as a distinctive substance of their selves, with memories, as Bergson wrote, as “messengers from the unconscious” reminding us of “what we are dragging behind us unawares”.

My reading intentions for next year, to what extent I ever stick to a plan (very little), is, as Andy Miller exhorts in the Backlisted podcast, to read outside my taste. I remain very interested in what Seagull Books publish, but also intend to thoroughly explore the backlists of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions, and to be less squeamish about contemporary books.

Rachel Cusk: Outline (a “shared trance”)

outlineI am the ideal audience for this book, frequently bored with the tyranny of representation, with a deep-seated impulse towards the possibilities in fiction for silence and emptiness. Any serious reader of Beckett knows of the demands made when a writer is seducing readers to follow on a path towards silence. Rachel Cusk’s Outline propels away from representation and towards silence, towards something beyond plot and narration.

Something different is happening with the idea of ‘the narrator’ in Outline. By scarcely defining her narrator–it is jarring three-quarters of the way into the story when we learn the narrator’s name–Cusk leaves a reader with only the scantiest idea of whose eyes we are observing from. Without a typical character-narrator– a propelling force–without an identity to assume, Cusk makes the form take on the steering of its own discourse. Occasionally it teeters under the weight of its own structure, but Outline is nevertheless one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in years.

Cusk opens up all sorts of ideas about how we define ourselves in telling another of our experience, of the trauma of our lives. She writes, “Yet there was something worse than forgetting, which was misrepresentation, bias, the selective presentation of events . . .” That may be true, yet how do we step outside ourselves sufficiently to rise above our partisan and polemical perspectives? This seems at the heart of what Cusk is addressing, especially as she has said elsewhere, “Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.”

The quest to gain enough distance to tell all sides of a story, to hear all sides of a story and not only what we can relate to is perhaps a logical path to follow Cusk’s Aftermath, which felt like an inevitably evasive and one-sided account of her divorce. Though Cusk’s writing suggests movement from character to author-surrogate, Outline    adopts a new form to the purely autobiographical Aftermath, which explored similar subjects, though from the obverse side of the mirror. Outline is a more radical innovation using an indefinite voice, deprived of time and purpose. It questions its own being and its way of relating to the world. It will be intriguing to see where Cusk takes this self-exploration in the sequel Transit and the reported last part of the trilogy.

A Series of Punishments

Rachel Cusk’s writing offers that unusual convergence of microscopic observation and breathtaking sentences. It is rare for a writer to be capable of both sensitivity and beauty. It was discernible in the problematic but absorbing Aftermath but especially manifest in Outline. This sentence seems almost a summation of Cusk’s grand theme, or at least what I can detect from reading just two of her books. It is one of those sentences that force me to lay the book aside, transcribe it with fountain pen and grey ink into my notebook, type it into this box, and then sit back and think of its force.

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesnt notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

Rachel Cusk, Outline

My Year of Reading: 2016

I bear no guilt for reading fewer books this year than any other in recent memory – I regret only my morbid fascination with the sulphurous news, as the worst aspects of human nature become manifest. My natural refuge in literature has proved insufficient distraction to the horrifying potency of watching vultures tearing at a creature’s entrails, gripped and subdued by the grisly pantomime. I don’t wish to drown in the spectacle. I must find balance and some self-discipline, though only imagine that this year is merely grisly prelude to further gross stupidity and narcissism next year.

It is Jorge Semprún’s writing that proved most alluring this year. In writing Literature or Life, he chose to end a “long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia” to write this lightly fictionalised memoir, controlling and channeling his complex memories of the evil exerted during his incarceration in Buchenwald. I read backwards to the lyrical reticence of The Long Voyage, an almost dispassionate account of the cattle train journey to the concentration camp”. Semprún reassures that it is possible to both write poetically and read about barbarism. Literature or Life is one of those books that sit on one’s shelves for years before one is compelled to read even a sentence. The image that lingers most intensely from Literature or Life is his consideration of which books to take on a return to Buchenwald to film a documentary about the camp. In the end he opts for Mann’s The Beloved Returns and a volume of Celan, who perhaps has written the greatest poems about the Holocaust. Semprún quotes a verse from Celan, “hoping, today/ for a thinking man’s/ future word/ in my heart.”

Another book that languished unread on my shelves was a fine first edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Greatness resides in this wonderfully singular story of a mother and son obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. I was swept helplessly along by the the torrent of DeWitt’s thought who brings into her novel not only Kurosawa but Ptolemaic Alexandria, Ancient Greek and Fourier analysis. There is a curious quality to the work –stark, lonely, even sadistic– it is one of the most original novels of our time, original as regards sensibility.

I discovered Max Frisch’s work this year. Frisch’s novels offer up a world where no-one is allowed to rest easy; self is thrown back upon uneasy self. There is no escape. Not that Frisch is without hope; his novels unfold the twisted and often darkly comic search for a way out. It is Homo Faber that made the deepest impression, its melancholy cadences contrasting with the ice burn revelation of an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

This year also gave me Anna Kavan’s haunting imagery. The stories in Julie and the Bazooka and I am Lazarus read like a heightened version of Burroughs’s fantasies. Kavan can be gruesomely funny, but with a richness that lies in her proximity to the sensory and the unconscious. It is the chilling tales of narcosis wards that remain, months after reading these stories, the struggle to awaken from speechless unconsciousness. Kavan’s writing, though piercingly clear, is best taken in small doses for its horror and loneliness weighs numbly on the heart.

I’ve read Christopher Logue’s Homer in part during its long evolution but War Music collects all the parts of his adaption of the Iliad into a single edition. This is Homer channelled through Logue’s erudition and the jarring of modern technology. It is a creative ‘translation that shouldn’t work but Logue invigorates an epic that always appears modern.

As the year approaches its end, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years is casting a very strong spell over me, This first volume is the last of three to be published due to an overhanging lawsuit. Auden wrote, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste”, but there are a few brilliant, definitive biographies that count as essential. This and Stach’s companion piece Is that Kafka? restore Kafka from cliché so we might return to his writing anew.

Here is a list of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year.

A Poem by Inga Ābele

what are you my beloved night pragmatist
darkness in rings
wine and an ancient harpsichord in the corner

snakes sleep in alcohol do you see
you said –
how profligacy sleeps
waiting for the kiss of awakening

there’s such a profession – to attract looks
and to spin away in the sparks of the furnace

Inga Ābele, Night pragmatist. Trans. Inara Cedrins