Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Tina K. (@TheEsteemedFox). When I asked Tina what I should write about her, she wrote: “Tina K. went into an existential tailspin when Dorian asked her for a short bio. “Oh my god… who am I?” She’s a freelance editor that everyone should hire, wildlife photographer, middling athlete, rapacious reader, and a silly little fool, in Hamilton, Ontario.”
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).
A Little Fiction
I like to switch up my reading between fiction and history, and since I can’t get enough of war as a subject and all the weird and horrific things it entails I thought I’d pump the brakes this year and do something different, maybe choose only some stuff about or related to the First and Second World Wars, but it seemed like no matter what I bought or borrowed the wars showed up anyway in the best books I read in 2021. It’s tough to avoid this topic, WWI and II still pulse hardily through our arts and history, you can’t throw a stick in a library or a bookstore without nicking a war vein, and so I was caught off guard by Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household, which turned out to be not only a WWII manhunt story but THE MOST entertaining fiction I read all year. In many years, frankly. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up: you’ve got a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, you’ve got globetrotting, you’ve got the superlatively resourceful English gentleman of means and fame and disguise, you’ve got an enemy of equal cunning and fortitude, you’ve got love, loss, hiding underground like a wild animal — and bless us all, there’s a cat! — and none of it is corny, none of it cliché. The prose is clever, personal, polished, a joy to get caught up in, and for a novel with significant violence it has a way of eliding the violent act to leave you instead with its gruesome outcome. After being left for dead, the narrator says about his ordeal only, “My nails are growing back but my left eye is still pretty useless.” This is how Household treats all violence: he doesn’t walk you through it, there’s no point-aim-fire, no descriptions of knives plunging into flesh, you only see the effect of violence after the fact, which is a genius technique. There is so much technique in this novel and it THRILLS me. It boggles my mind that Geoffrey Household isn’t a… what do you call it again when a person’s name is well known by the public?
Then there’s The Transit of Venus (1980) by Shirley Hazzard. I love Shirley Hazzard so I married her earlier this year after reading her book [Ed. – But she’s…], we’re very happy, it’s not a delusion [Ed. – But she’s…], I’m totally normal, shut up [Ed. – I’ll shut up.]. As the NY Times review of this book so aptly puts it, this novel lives in “the long shadow of World War I… [which] darkens almost every page” (which, again, I wasn’t expecting) and ends in either long-anticipated reunion or tragedy, depending on how much attention you paid to one itty bitty yet pivotal detail somewhere in the last half of the novel. (I’m a big endings person, they can make a so-so book or break a great book for me.) Put plainly, Transit is men and women with a lot of pain and complicated feelings/living situations, either chasing or running away from love, but Hazzard is one of those people you read for her great sentences — like Geoffrey Household she’s a master of technique — so the novel’s most heavenly attribute is its style, which I’ve described over and over again like an evangelist lunatic obsessive as “the perfect economy of every paragraph”. Each page has something that makes you go How tf did Hazzard just do that? as you read her doing it, and this is why Transit is so damned good. Look at this: “His hand rotated on her breast, but from force of kindly habit, absently fondling a domestic pet. On the coverlet her own hand lay open, upturned, extended to a fortune-teller. She watched him with love that was like a loss of consciousness.” And this: “His tweeds were the colour and texture of fine sand. Beige and granular, he stood on an asphalted platform in a blaze of Sunday-afternoon tedium.” (Honestly Shirley, you’re just showing off now.) She was a dark horse for me this year, and I would recommend this novel even if she weren’t my wife (which she is). [Ed. – She definitely is.]
A Little History
Indulging your anger is often considered unvirtuous, which is why the “restrained fury” of Primo Levi (as Ivan Kenneally [@IvanKenneally] put it to me) is so bracing and engrossing. Survivors of the Holocaust seemed to sort themselves into two groups, those who talked about their experience and those who wouldn’t, and Levi talked about it, he raged about it, with a gripping candor that you just won’t find in anyone else who writes autobiographically about the Holocaust. This year I read The Reawakening (1965) and The Periodic Table (1975), both written in Levi’s signature vignette style, both funny yet sorrowful, and unrelenting about what he endured, witnessed, and morally wrestled with until his death. The Reawakening recounts Levi’s months-long journey back to Italy immediately after his liberation from the camp, and is an excellent companion to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII (2012) if, like me, you want to know how Europeans got by in 1945 as the continent was reduced to little more than rubble and revenge. Levi’s revenge was his refusal to stay silent, whereas so many others took their revenge by doing to Germans what the Nazis had done to everyone else (and yes, that does mean camps for Germans and killing, lots of retaliatory killing). Savage Continent will give you a near-forensic accounting of revenge, and Levi, too, accounts for it in his own way in The Reawakening when, after he’s freed, he’s warned by a Polish policeman not to speak German because:
with an eloquent gesture, passing his index and middle fingers, like a knife, between his chin and larynx… [he] add[ed] very cheerfully, Tonight all Germans kaputt… The next day we passed a long train of cattle-trucks, closed from the outside; they were going east, and from the slits one could see many human mouths gaping for air. This spectacle, strongly evocative, aroused in me a mixture of confused and contradictory feelings, which even today I have difficulty in disentangling.
The settling of scores is appalling, but not surprising. And oh, there were scores, scores I still can’t wrap my head around after reading Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2014), an insanely good history on the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the perspective of the thousands and thousands of “useless mouths” interned and killed in Ravensbrück, where prisoners were only valued as disposable industrial slaves, medical testing “rabbits”, or for hostage diplomacy in the rare case of a French, English, or Dutch prisoners. I can’t lie: I Googled several of the Nazi guards and doctors before the book told me what happened to them after the war because I wanted the pleasure of knowing that they’d met their fate at the gallows before I read on. It’s not so hard to imagine the motivation 75+ years later for quick retribution against an enemy, especially when the foundations of European law and order were in absolute ruins, and no one, if there even was anyone, who cared to stop it was looking.