A Year of Reading: 2011

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 SommeWorking the RoomParis, 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 CityJ. 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’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 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.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

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.

Engrossed in Teju Cole’s Open City

One Shoe Off - John Brewster, 1807

This week I’ve been absorbed in Teju Cole’s Open City, a substantial, meditative book reminiscent of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, at least over the sixty or so pages I’ve read, contemplatively.

Like Submergence, Cole’s début novel sends you out of the book seeking out the references.

In a painting titled One Shoe Off, which held me transfixed the moment I came before it, the neatly tied bow of a shoe on a little girl’s right foot echoed the asterisks of the flow pattern. The other shoe was in her hand, and red pentimenti were visible around her heel and the toes of the now unshod left foot. The child, as secure within her own being as were all Brewster’s children, had an expression that dared the observer to be amused.

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

Submergence begins in a rathole where a man is confined by jihadists. The Englishman, James More, hears the Indian ocean and relives icy showers taken in his house in Nairobi. Eleven thousand miles away, an eventual ferry ride across the Mediterranean Sea, a biomathematician, Danielle Flinders travels to a sumptuous hotel on the French Atlantic coast. In his incarceration, James, descendant of Thomas More, recalls his chance encounter with ‘Danny’, whilst she prepares for a journey to the depths of the Greenland Sea, seeking the origins of life.

Like any truly accomplished work of fiction, Submergence defies genre: part love story, part adventure but much else. The author is unafraid of digression, meditating on morality and phenomena of the physical world. My notes on references to seek out, from the first twenty three pages alone, cover Stygian crypts; the Somalian city of Kismayo and the Norwegian county of Finmark; the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest building); a Nabokov quotation; how Nairobi acquired the name ‘Nairobbery’; the identity of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar (fifth Qajar king of Iran); Ibsen and Mark Twain references; the wonderful, allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman, and a Czeslaw Milosz quotation. That may sound exhausting, but the author’s skill is to demonstrate the complexity of a character, a person; not just an intelligence operative, but also an admirer of Donne’s poetry  and of Norse mythology.

Water glides through the narrative, thematically linking the settings and characters, from the dry water pipe in the Somalian rathole to the turbid waters that greet Danny’s arrival at the hotel. The story begins with water, and concludes the same way. Early in the story, Danny says:

‘We exist only as a film of water,’ she said. ‘Of course, this goes against the religion of the Garden of Eden and the canon of political documents ending with the international law of the sea which promote the primacy of man on the planet. Just take a look at it,’ she said, running the pencil over the lines and curves. ‘We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.’

Within the two-hundred page book are surprises, even a single Sebaldian picture of Hugo Simberg’s The Wounded Angel. It’s a strange, beguiling and brave book, highly recommended. I am very grateful that Nicole made me aware of the book’s existence, and will read Ledgard’s Giraffe later in the year.