Nat Leach’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Nat Leach, a longtime friend of mine and of this blog. Nat now lives and works in Peterborough, after returning home to Ontario from Cape Breton last year. He tweets @Gnatleech.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

John Henry Twachtman, Round Hill Road, ca. 1890 — 1900

Readers who may have caught my annual posts over the last couple of years know that I am trying to work through all the partially read books on my shelves and am proceeding methodically, in alphabetical order. I’ve just wrapped up my fourth year, and I must admit that I have not been entirely happy with my progress lately; I spent all last year on “G” and this year I didn’t even finish “H”. Of course, given the year that I’ve had—getting a new job, working remotely for half the year, then moving halfway across the country during a pandemic—it’s a minor miracle that I’ve read anything at all. [Ed. – The country is Canada. Halfway is like all the way across twelve ordinarily sized countries.] And indeed, when I think back to the last time I had a similarly challenging year, when my daughter was born a few months before I was made Chair of my department, I recall that at that time I really did read absolutely nothing that was not work-related, so maybe I’m not really doing too badly. [Ed. – Absolutely!]

One of the key differences between then and now is that I joined Twitter four years ago, right at the start of my project, and was able to connect with a wonderful and supportive group of readers who frequently entice me into joining in collective reading endeavours [Ed. — Please admire this correct spelling] and who tacitly encourage me to take some time—however little—out of my day to read. Even though I never keep pace with any proposed reading schedule, the idea of reading collectively keeps me going, and I do always finish eventually. So, while I may joke about Twitter distracting me from my project, feeling like part of a reading community has really helped to keep me grounded and to make sure that I take time for myself in the midst of a chaotic schedule, and for that I am very grateful.

And besides, I’m not sure that it is true that these group reads are delaying my progress; fortuitously, I was able to participate in three reads of “H” authors (Hartley, Hasek, Hrabal), and besides, as will become clear, I was also able to put a pretty large dent in my “M” shelf, which will surely save me some time later on. In total, I finished 28 books this year, 18 from the “H” shelf, in addition to sampling some 19th century poetry (Hardy, Heine, Hemans, Hogg, Hölderlin), non-fiction (Hazlitt), and drama (Ralph Hamilton, J.G. Holman), not to mention a smattering of philosophy/theory (Hegel, Heidegger, Geoffrey Hartman).

Looking ahead to next year, I still have some significant “H” books ahead of me (Homer promises to be a highlight) and hope to get through “I” and “J” as those shelves are much less populated, so if anybody has any 2022 group reads planned for that particular alphabetical neighbourhood, just let me know.

Alex Colville, Traveller, 1992

In the mean time, here is a brief summary of my 2021 reading:

A Walk through H

Hardwick, Michael – The Private Life of Dr. Watson (1983)

I was given this book as a child when I was a young Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, but it didn’t really catch my interest, as it seemed too “grown up” for me at the time. Many years later, I have come to realize that it just isn’t a very interesting book. It doesn’t flesh out Watson’s character in any meaningful way, and in fact Watson just seems a vehicle to incorporate various famous Victorian individuals (Henry Ward Beecher, Sarah Bernhardt) and contexts (gold mining in Australia, war in Afghanistan), sometimes prompted by the most minimal of hints in Conan Doyle’s stories.

Hardy, Thomas – Jude the Obscure (1894-95)

I have long cited this as my favourite Hardy novel; I read it as an undergraduate and its representation of its protagonist as an aspiring intellectual and frustrated social outsider certainly resonated with me at the time. Re-reading it in middle age, I still think it is a great book, but was slightly less satisfied with it. I couldn’t help perceiving, in the midst of Jude’s tragic fate, the web of artifice behind his sufferings. The most inconvenient things happen at the most inopportune times, and characters change their minds about things just at the moment when it will do the most damage. Such misfortunes are the nature of tragedy, of course, and Hardy writes it very effectively—it’s just that those moments where I could see him pulling the strings felt more disruptive to me this time around. Hardy gave up novel-writing after this one because he was accused of immorality after having written what he thought was a morally didactic novel, and I’m starting to think he was a little bit too right about that.

Hartley, L.P. – The Eustace and Hilda Trilogy (1944-49)

Hartley is one of the authors I’ve read the most, and when he’s good, he’s brilliant, but when he’s not, he can be infuriating. Reading this trilogy, I experienced plenty of both. Readers of The Go-Between know how good Hartley is at representing children, and the first book of the trilogy, The Shrimp and the Anemone, amply demonstrates this strength. Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister living in a seaside town in Norfolk in the early 20th century; most of the book is focalized through Eustace (who stands in for Hartley himself in this semi-autobiographical trilogy) and his anxieties and misunderstandings of the adult world are highly poignant because they ring true to the way children think (or at least to the way I thought as a child). The second two books, which deal with Eustace and Hilda as young adults, did not seem as strong to me, and I think part of the reason is that while the characters age, they do not seem to change or grow from their experience. Part of this is no doubt deliberate— Eustace receives an inheritance that shelters him from having to deal with many real-world problems— but Eustace’s thought processes no longer have the same ring of truth in a grown adult. And in the final book, Hilda’s extreme physical debilitation in reaction to a failed love affair seems so absurd (if not anti-feminist) that it strains all credulity.

Hartley, L.P. – Simonetta Perkins (1925)

In the final book of the trilogy, while vacationing in Venice, Eustace more or less accidentally writes a book (his hostess tells everyone he is a writer, so he feels obliged to write something to live up to it). [Ed. – Maybe this should be my strategy. Please help me by inviting me to Venice.] A publisher accepts the book, but warns Eustace not to expect it to sell because it’s too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. Interestingly, this description closely fits Hartley’s own first book, Simonetta Perkins, which is also set in Venice, and is about a young American woman who becomes infatuated with a gondolier. It’s a powerful, if slight, exploration of the nature of desire, which is even suggested by the title; the woman’s name is Lavinia Johnson not Simonetta Perkins— that’s the name she makes up when she seeks advice about her situation and claims to be “asking for a friend.” The title thus gives prominence to what might otherwise have been a minor scene in the book; Simonetta is the desiring alter ego upon whom Lavinia’s suppressed sexual urges are projected.

Hašek, Jaroslav – The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23) (Trans. Cecil Parrott)

I had not intended to read this, but a Twitter reading group was starting just after I finished Hartley, so it was alphabetical fate. The book is a satire about World War I, but its satire is wide-ranging and sometimes a bit ambiguous. Švejk is zealously patriotic, but, as his superiors incessantly point out, he is also an idiot who screws up every task he is assigned; so is he really a “good” soldier, or is that moniker ironic? Or is the implication that the qualities of a “good” soldier (mindless obedience and patriotic fervor) are inherently idiotic? Moreover, Švejk’s overzealous efforts for the cause very often have subversive effects, whether intended or not, so it can be hard to separate incompetence from sabotage; for this reason, Švejk is often suspected of being a traitor, though we have no indication that this is actually the case. As for the satire, sometimes, the joke is on Švejk, but he always manages to get out of the scrapes he gets himself into. More often, the joke is on the absurdity of military bureaucracy, which appears to be the primary target of the book’s satire; Švejk’s idiocy is nothing compared to the massive failures of logic and planning attributed to so-called “military intelligence.” It’s a pity Hašek died before he could finish the book, as it breaks off in the middle of the war, leaving me wanting more of Švejk.

Hays, Mary – The Victim of Prejudice (1799)

I first read this as an undergraduate, and was less than charitable towards it, but later read Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (a better book) and resolved to give this one another chance. The titular character, Mary, narrates her progression from a child of mysterious parentage, raised by a benevolent father figure, through a period of young love, to her persecution by a vicious and lustful landowner. It reads as a feminist take on the Richardsonian seduction narrative with a bleak vision of a victim-blaming culture that really hasn’t changed in 200+ years.

Haywood, Eliza – Eovaii (1736)

This was my first introduction to Haywood, and possibly not the best choice, since it does not seem to be characteristic of her work, but it was the only one I had. If Hays’s book is a feminist version of Richardson, this is a feminist version of Gulliver’s Travels:the titular princess loses her kingdom, is abducted by an evil magician and goes through a number of weird, magical adventures in order to return to her rightful place. It’s all meant as political satire, as the evil magician stands for Sir Robert Walpole, but most of the topical allusions are now quite obscure. Still an enjoyable, fantastical, narrative.

Hébert, Anne – Kamouraska (1970) (Trans. Norman Shapiro)

Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the Gothic, and the texts that interest me the most are the ones that represent the instability of human identity not just at the level of content (e.g. ghosts and monsters that disrupt our belief that the world—and our place in it—is rational) but also at the level of form. If Gothic phenomena disrupt what we think we know about our place in the world, they must also disrupt our attempts to represent that world to ourselves and to others. Hébert’s novel is exemplary in this regard. Its content is Gothic in that it represents extremes of passion and revolves centrally around a murder, but it has no supernatural trappings. Rather, it is Hébert’s narrative devices that convey the Gothic haunting that afflicts the protagonist, a woman whose first husband was murdered, and whose second husband is on his deathbed. The novel’s fluid shifts between past and present tense and between first and third person convey her struggles with her memories, which seem to come unbidden and which challenge the identity she has crafted for herself since childhood. She is haunted not by ghosts but by her past selves and the persistence of her memories. An intense and breathtaking narrative, and quite possibly my favourite book of the year.

Hession, Rónán – Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019)

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, but when I do, it’s usually because Dorian has recommended a book highly, as with this one. And, as usual, I didn’t regret it; reading this was just good for my soul. [Ed. – I love to hear it!] It’s a gentle book with simple problems, heart-warming solutions and socially awkward characters that I could relate to far more than I’d like to admit. It’s also very funny, in its low-key way.

Hillesum, Etty – An Interrupted Life/Letters from Westerbork (1941-43) (Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans)

I first read Hillesum’s diary describing her life in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands when I was a graduate student, and fear I was quite uncharitable to the book at the time. (Noticing a theme yet? Student Nat was quite a mean reader.) Her philosophical approach, which involves accepting evil, forgiving Nazis, and refusing to resist, seemed infuriatingly defeatist to me at the time, and while I certainly can’t wish that more people shared this view, with age has come a greater appreciation for the moral strength required to hold this position. I had not read the letters appended to her diary before; these were written during Hillesum’s time in the Westerbork camp before being deported to Auschwitz where she was killed. These letters deal mostly with practical matters: begging friends for food, thanking them for sending it, and apologizing for being such a burden on them (she had an extensive network that helped keep her and her family alive in terrible conditions). There are, however, some surprisingly poetic moments, as Hillesum proves able to see beauty even in a concentration camp, and some predictably brutal ones; her last long letter is a harrowing description of the preparations for the transport prior to the one on which she herself was forced to leave. She tries to help where she can, but recounts commenting to a companion, in a way that is both painfully matter-of-fact and as close to violent passion as Hillesum gets: “this is what hell is like.”

Hoess, Rudolf – Commandant of Auschwitz (1946) (Trans. Constantine FitzGibbon)

By an appalling coincidence in my alphabetical system, I went from Etty Hillesum to this, the autobiography of Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, written while awaiting his execution, a book that Primo Levi in his introduction describes as “filled with evil” and as having “no literary quality” and as being “agony” to read. [Ed. – Too fuckin right.] It is probably pointless to attempt to add to that description except to say that it was somehow even worse than I expected. Obviously, that’s a low bar for a book written by a Nazi, but having read some of Albert Speer’s diaries, I know that some degree of post-war self-reflection was possible. But Levi is right; the degree of disingenuousness and refusal to take responsibility for his actions is utterly appalling. The passive voice does a lot of heavy lifting in this book (things “were done” to prisoners, nobody did them) and ditto formulations involving the imperative (Hoess “had to” do the things he describes, he never has any agency). Despite his plea of loyalty to the Reich, he spends most of the book throwing his superiors under the bus; to read his account, Auschwitz would have been a model camp if he had just been given the resources to run it properly along with competent underlings who would not have behaved with such unsanctioned brutality towards prisoners (and this is not even to mention the casually awful throwaway bits he chooses to include, such as his extensive explanation of his theories about how to cure homosexuality.) [Ed. – ugh]

Holcroft, Thomas – Anna St. Ives (1792)

I certainly understand why Holcroft is no longer widely read; his novels are highly political responses to philosophical and social debates specific to the late eighteenth century. If that doesn’t put you off, though, there’s a great deal to admire in his work. Like his contemporary, William Godwin, Holcroft uses his narratives to explore the concrete implications of radical philosophical ideals, often teasing out resolutions much more complex than those of other political radicals of the time. Anna St. Ives is an epistolary novel that details a love triangle between the title character, and Frank Henley, a Godwinian idealist who believes in the perfectibility of the human species in its gradual development towards an ever-increasing level of truth, and Coke Clifton, a libertine and all-around cad. [Ed. – Those libertines, why they always gotta be cads?] That this novel is as engaging as it is, is in itself a challenge to Frank’s principles, as the truth is nowhere near as obvious as Frank hopes it should be. Like Hays, Holcroft rewrites the Richardsonian narrative didactically. Preachiness notwithstanding, the book culminates in a suspenseful and action-packed sequence that kept me on the edge of my seat. If I have a quibble, it’s with the way that characters, as so often in epistolary novels, just happen to have access to writing implements in the most unlikely of places, deciding to write their narratives even when there is nobody within the book likely to be able to read them.

Hornby, Nick – High Fidelity (1995)

I admit that I can be quite grumpy about film adaptations of good books, but I was grumpy about the film version of High Fidelity long before I ever read the book. It sounded like a great concept, was being made by a director I like a lot (Stephen Frears), but turned out to be a mess. Part of the problem, no doubt, was the Hollywood tendency to cast characters who are supposed to lack charm, charisma and good looks with Hollywood stars who embody those very qualities. It’s hard to find a character unlikeable when he’s played by John Cusack. [Ed. – Truth.] By contrast, I ended up liking the book a great deal, as it does a much better job of keeping its protagonist/narrator/second-rate record store owner/obsessive list-maker/terrible boyfriend teetering on the edge of unlikeability just enough to keep you rooting for him, not to simply get what he wants (whatever that is) but to become a better person. The book is just very smart about the flaws in conventional standards of masculinity, and about relationships more generally.

Hrabal, Bohumil – Too Loud a Solitude (1976) (Trans. Michael Henry Heim)

Although they are very different kinds of book, it really helped to have read Švejk before this, as Hrabal’s narrator echoes Švejk’s garrulity, and gossipy tone about Czech life. The book also inherits a satirical strain from Hašek, as both criticize the unthinking inefficiency of political authorities. The brief narrative reads very allegorically: it is narrated by a man who works crushing paper, and incidentally rescues much classic literature, but his manual process is ultimately supplanted by modern methods, which embody both the modern socialist state and the ephemeral nature of popular culture, both of which threaten the more enduring forms of literature and knowledge for which the narrator stands.

Christopher Pratt, Placentia Bay: A Boat in Winter, 1996

Best of the Rest

Barthes, Roland – A Lover’s Discourse (1977) (Trans. Richard Howard)

I was excited to participate in a theory-based Twitter group read, although I admit that I found it rather difficult to say something sensible about the book in that forum, needing a bit more time to process theoretical texts. I happened to be reading this book at the same time as I was revisiting Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales on film, and I think I’ve come to understand this book better by opposition. Rohmer’s characters are all very discursive lovers (lots of talk, little action) but in a different way to that described by Barthes. In each of the tales, a male protagonist engages in a tentative kind of relationship with an inappropriate female partner (inappropriate because of age, disposition or worldview, but most importantly for the tautological reason that they are not the appropriate partner). By working through these relationships and avoiding the potential entanglements they entail, the protagonist in most of the films becomes free to pursue, or return to, the genuine object of his passion. Rohmer’s characters calculate and overthink their relationships in a way entirely antithetical to the discourse that Barthes writes about, which is that of the desperate, passionate lover of whom Goethe’s Werther is presented as the archetype. We do see a few moments of passion in Rohmer’s tales, but for the most part, that kind of love is the absent centre around which the action takes place. Barthes writes, “most often, I am in the very darkness of my desire” and it is from this darkness that this “lover’s discourse” originates. Barthes structures the book as a series of fragments based on various discursive positions taken by the lover (e.g. jealousy, languor, ravishment et cet.), all of which are ways of expressing in some way the maddening delusions of love. But these forms of expression do not fully enlighten the “darkness of my desire”; rather, they express the position of the lover in all its irrationality. The “lover’s discourse” is thus at the limits of language, challenging the systems of language that structure the world in a rational way, even as it cannot entirely escape those systems.

Bennett, Arnold – The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)

This book was not on my radar until Dorian & Rohan suggested it for a group read; I found it intriguing and mostly enjoyable, though not exactly what I expected. Not that I’m sure just what I expected except that the book begins in a manner reminiscent of a Victorian novel that made me feel that it was establishing some kind of moral framework through which I was supposed to read it. Hence, when the narrative diverges, telling the separate stories of two sisters, one who stays home and runs the family business in the Midlands of England, while the other runs off to Paris, I was expecting some kind of moral judgment to be attached to the two stories. In the end, though, I’m not sure that ever happened. The novel speaks to the inevitability of aging and death and to the value of the experiences that take place in the course of that process, but it doesn’t seem to reflect on the relative value of those experiences. [Ed. – Well put!] Both sisters experience happiness and sadness, successes and failures, and perhaps, despite their many differences, we are meant to see how much they actually have in common. So maybe it was just more modern than I expected? (But knowing Woolf’s hate for Bennett, maybe I shouldn’t say that.)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor – Demons (1872) (Trans. Constance Garnett)

It wasn’t until I was halfway through this book that I realized what it was really about, and I’m not sure I grasped all of the intricacies of the plot even by the end. The book is a convoluted web of intrigues, which take to an extreme the typical Dostoyevskyian representation of characters who embody extreme challenges to conventional moral values. I probably shouldn’t be shocked by Dostoevsky any more, but the title really isn’t an exaggeration: the book is filled with unpleasant, violent, and diabolically evil characters. Moreover, I wasn’t prepared for the political angle, although it spurred me on to learn a lot about 19th century Russia along the way.

Lowry, Malcolm – Under the Volcano (1947)

As a student, I tended to avoid literature of the early 20th century, in part because I had little interest in the seemingly wide swath of canonical literature (especially American) that either romanticizes the lives of over-privileged alcoholics, or treats their sufferings as some kind of archetype of the human condition. This book falls squarely in the latter camp, and is certainly a superior example of the genre; it’s brilliantly written and cleverly plotted (in a way that calls for a reread to piece together all the details), but I just couldn’t muster up the sympathy — or even much of the interest—- that I thought I was supposed to feel for the protagonists.

Manning, Olivia – The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1976-80)

I had read (and loved!) Manning’s School for Love, so was eager to read more by her, although I doubt that I would have had the focus to get through these six books had I not been reading in the company of an intrepid group of Twitterers, whose companionship in this journey was greatly appreciated. And quite a journey it is too, as we follow Guy and Harriet Pringle, who are forced, during the course of World War II, from Bucharest to Athens to Cairo. They are more acted upon than acting, forced to adapt to circumstances beyond their control, but because we are made to care so much about the characters, even descriptions of their everyday activities remain absolutely gripping. [Ed. – Also well put.] These books are sheer character-based narrative pleasure; we come to know the characters intimately and become entirely immersed in their world despite the general lack of highly dramatic events (which do come occasionally, and always shockingly, out of the blue). To be completely honest, I still have about 100 pages of the Levant Trilogy left to go, and I am not rushing to finish it; judging by the responses of some of my companions, I will feel quite bereft without Harriet & Co. and I’m not quite ready for that yet.

Musil, Robert – The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) (Trans. Sophie Wilkins)

After 18 months, numerous library renewals, and ultimately photographing the last 200 pages of notes and fragments, I finally finished this book. I’m not sure how to do the experience justice, though I can say it was entirely worthwhile. No plot summary would be adequate, especially as Musil died before completing the book, and the edition I read was filled with drafts which sketch out very different directions for the characters. In any case, the plot felt entirely secondary to Musil’s powerful ability to sum up the incipient crises of the emerging modern age with devastating clarity; the book feels shockingly current.

11 thoughts on “Nat Leach’s Year in Reading, 2021

  1. Interesting comparison between Barthes and the films of Rohmer! Might I suggest Eugen Ionescu(o) for the Is? I’m tempted to reread him, it’s been a looooong while, and perhaps place him in the context of the absurdist, surrealist streak in Romanian literature.

    • Yes, I love Ionesco! I have him ready to go on the “I” shelf— I have a volume of 3 plays with “Exit the King” (which was performed wonderfully at my former university a few years ago), “The Killer” (which I read many years ago now and absolutely loved, and am keen to revisit) and “Macbett” (which I have not yet read).

      • Ionesco really feels like one of those writers who would reveal themselves so differently with context. Can’t think of a better guide there than Marina.

  2. Wow, that’s some list – I am impressed! Also with the amount of non-Hs too. As for the Barthes, I dropped out of the Twitter read but will get to it when the time is right and I can pace myself. Likewise The Man Without Qualities. So many books, so little time… 😦

  3. A great reading year here, Nat. I ploughed through Eustace and Hilda with the group and had wondered if Eustace’s Venice novel was something of an autobiographical insert so I was intrigued to see your mention of Simonetta Perkins. That’s something I would definitely like to read.
    I enjoyed your reflections comparing A Lover’s Discourse and Rohmer’s films to each other. Whereas Rohmer’s protagonists overthink everything, Barthes is the opposite–drama and emotions everywhere. They’re a curious combination but both struggle bravely in their attempts to live the examined life and not shy away from it.

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