Scott Lambridis’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Scott Lambridis (@slambridis). Scott’s story “Blind Sticks” is nominated for a 2021 Pushcart award. Before completing his MFA, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com, through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. Read more at scottlambridis.com.

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

Helen Frankenthaler, Radius, 1993

Each year I have a goal of reading 52 books. In 2021, I read 87. Here are the top ten! 

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

This book was on the top ten after the very first chapter. In 1666, the philosopher/mathematician Leibniz tracks down a blind astronomer who’s predicted an eclipse that will darken Europe for exactly 4 seconds. A blind astronomer? Naturally Leibniz attempts to decide whether he’s a brilliant soothsayer or just an absurd quack, and the astronomer indulges him in a long and meandering tale of how he came to his prediction while they wait for the eclipse itself to make the final determination. Along the way we hear of the astronomer’s life, arguments over the composition of art (one scene about a bunch of faces made up of fishes especially sticks in my mind), the utility of science, the way to gauge truth, all of which unveil the mysteries and absurdities of philosophical searches, while revealing the narrative’s own. The story keeps you guessing if it’s going to actually go anywhere, and then it does, beautifully and surprisingly. The true delight, though, the part that affixed it in the top ten immediately, is the tone. As my dear friend Ben put it, “It has something rare these days, and from this country: a terrific sense of play, a lightness as Italo Calvino would say [in his Memos for the New Millenium]. There’s always playfulness even in his most serious subjects.” Calvino would be proud, amused, and maybe a bit enlightened too. [Ed. – Sold!]

At Night all Blood is Black by David Diop (Translated by Anna Moschovakis)

This short novel from Senegal about a “chocolat” soldier fighting with the French in the trenches of WWI gripped me and wouldn’t let go. The narrator battles with the guilt of being unable to put his dying friend out of his misery, which transmutes into the hunt for forgiveness through atrocity: he becomes a “soul-eater” who hunts down Germans so that he can retain and collect their severed hands. Diop uses shocking violence and horror to unfold the narrator’s humanity, even as the character doubts it himself. The narration is a fever dream: at once intense, lyrical, dark, violent, tender, visceral, and poetic. That dream picks up in the second half in a hospital amidst delusions and confusions of identity. This half has less visceral presence, but the questions are still interesting, and the prose’s rhythm of repetition carries it forward to an ending both mysteriously dissonant and triumphant.

The End of the Alphabet by C. S. Richardson

This is the sweetest and saddest love story I’ve ever read, all wrapped up in under 100 pages. In his fiftieth year, a devoted husband finds out he has just a month to live, then whisks his wife off on a world tour of cities in alphabetical order, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar—but they never make it past F (I believe it’s F, but can’t be sure, since I don’t own the book anymore; you’ll see why). The prose is spare, the story sweet, the characters adorable and tragic, the ending heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s both straightforward in its telling and slippery in its tone, and I’ve been compelled to give it at least three times now to other friend-couples. How could it not make the top ten? 

Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Ringal

This year was chock full of non-fiction books about the challenges of writing non-fiction (how to accurately tell the truth, how much the writer plays a part) and this was the crowning jewel, a totally metafictional narrative. On the surface, it’s a long-form article about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas, and the socioeconomic factors of the city that contributed to and were revealed by that event. The portrait of Las Vegas is fascinating on its own, but the heart and delight is in the marginalia—the fact checker’s feedback to the editor and author about the draft article, and the author’s responses. What arises is a frustrated argument between the two over what counts as truth and where the journalist’s obligations lie in relation to capturing it. The personalities of both author and fact-checker are wonderfully revealed. You’ll never think of non-fiction as innocent again. 

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Translated by Sophia Vasalou)

Some books get to the top ten not by wowing me in the moment, but by sticking with me for months and months. [Ed. – Yep, and sometimes those are the best ones.] This short novel from Kuwait follows a feisty old lady and her faithful and equally feisty mule on a critical errand: to carry her husband’s unearthed bones back to his hometown for a proper burial. Unfortunately she arrives to find the town in a war zone (the Iran-Iraq War), governed by an outpost of soldiers who neither let her accomplish her errand nor leave. During her stay, she manages to sabotage a military operation by bombing a dam, and restoring fertility to barren lands on the fringes of the desert. It was an enjoyable read at the time, in particular the tough-but-tender old lady’s conversations with her mule, her husband’s ghost, and her captors, but the lingering effect of the old woman’s righteous persistence has persisted long enough to elevate it into the top ten. I just can’t stop thinking about it.

97,196 Words by Emannuel Carrèrre (Translated by John Lambert)

I love a good essay, no matter the subject, and this collection is as varied as they come; I loved every one. There are so many I can’t even recall them all. A lengthy, poignant study of an AIDS victim. An obscure but shocking suburban murderer of a man’s entire family (which referenced and later caused me to read Janet Malcolm’s fantastic The Journalist and the Murderer). A day on the town with the French president Macron. A visit to the secretive Davos conference. Russia’s anti-Putin youth. The enduring spell of H.P. Lovecraft. Tracking down the pseudonym of a subversive writer who popularized a chance-based way of living that became a cult lifestyle. Some obscure Russian writer. Sex columns Carrèrre was forced to write. Oh, and the homecoming of the last prisoner to be released from the Gulag, how could I forget that one? This is what happens. I start remembering one, and then they just pop back into place: Oh and that one, that was great, Oh, and that one, that was great too. Each is captivating, which probably hasn’t happened since I read Weinberger. Hence: top ten

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi (Translated by Erdag M. Göknar)

A fantastic novella from Afghanistan! After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand yet what’s happened to him. [Ed. – Uh this is exactly what Ben said… not sure who’s paying homage to whom here, but, anyway…] Much of the book is spent sitting and waiting for a ride at a gas station in the middle of the desert where a bus will supposedly arrive, a waiting characterized by drifts in and out of time and place, fantasies into the mind of his grandson, and playing out versions of how he’ll share the terrible news with his son, all punctuated by the feisty but concerned station agent waking the old man to check on him. Taut and dreamy, concise and spare, heartbreaking and yet not without humor. But it’s really the final twenty pages that dazzle, the ultimate meeting of father and son and what follows. These pages are such a rollercoaster of heartbreaking twists and turns, dashed expectations and unfathomably complex emotions—they left me breathless.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a fascinating reexamination of what makes humans tick, and how the major tides of history and society have been shaped and driven by our unique ability to organize ourselves through invented stories. Harari’s thesis is that there’s a pretty small limit (about a hundred or so if I recall) to how large a society can be based purely on cooperation within the material world; it’s the ability to create fictional entities and shared beliefs about them that allowed us to surge to great collective numbers. (And subsequently wreak the havoc we’ve wreaked, first on other human species, then on the world’s fauna, and ever since on each other). Religion, agriculture, currency, language, politics and government, social structures in general—shared agreements in invented fictions, all. Though the book is not that long, it took me nearly a full year to read because each chapter is so juicy and rich I needed a break after each. Rarely has non-narrative non-fiction left so strong an impression of the delightful flimsiness of all we take for granted in daily life. The interview with the author at the end also inspired me to start a daily practice of Vapassana meditation (he said he couldn’t have written the book without it). I’ve kept with the practice ever since (4-5 months). You never know what a book will bring to you! 

HhHH by Laurent Binet (Translated by Sam Taylor)

HhHH stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” This gem of historical fiction tells the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the most ruthless Nazi you’ve never heard of, and of the two parachuting Czechs, Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, who assassinated him in broad daylight, in arguably the bravest and singularly practical act of the war. Who was Heydrich? Himmler’s right-hand man. The one who first recognized a young Eichmann as a “man of talents.” The man Hitler called “the perfect Nazi,” the man he feared and therefore valued most for his extensive information networks. The real brains behind the nuts and bolts of the Anschluss, the forming of the Czech protectorate, the subjugation of Prague, the meticulous architect of the Holocaust. [Ed. – That last statement overstates things, overlooks Himmler, etc.] Heydrich’s rise is fascinating and terrifying, paralleled with the tension of the two Czech parachutists planning and pulling off their secret mission, then going on the run, holding out for days against a battalion of hundreds of Gestapo in a church before finally meeting their brutal demise. It’s a riveting story, but what elevates the book is the meta-narrative struggle of the author to divine truth from his tale, to determine what to put in and how to stay focused, given all the astonishing horror he could include. This struggle adds an extra personality, an intellectual struggle beyond the body of an already striking historical account. It gave the book just enough extra oomph to edge out Èric Vuillard’s Order of the Day, another terrifying account of the rise of the Third Reich.  

Ice by Anna Kavan

An unnamed narrator chases a vaguely beautiful girl across crumbling apocalyptic landscapes of crumbling ice and snow, under the menacing shadow of her entitled protector. This strange novel made the list not for the actual enjoyment of the reading but for the totally mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere it creates. Moment to moment, the writing is so rich and tense and unique, and whenever the chapter changes it zooms out a bit to an even more unsettling sense of aimlessness, a glimpse into a wider eternity that saps it of momentum, round and round and never going anywhere. Ice can be frustrating. [Ed. – Indeed.] But it sticks with you. It’s absolutely chillingly gorgeous and perplexing. There’s nothing else like it, and I immediately purchased all her short stories. ‘Nuff said. [Ed. – My dissenting, admittedly minority, take is here.]

Helen Frankenthaler, Skywriting, 1996

Some honorable mentions. Great books that didn’t quite make the cut!

  • The Order of the Day, by Éric Vuillard
  • The Weight of Temptation, by Ana María Shua
  • H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
  • Vano and Niko, by Erlom Akhvlediani
  • Ghost Soldiers, by James Tate
  • The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm 

Stephen Sparks’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks). Stephen owns Point Reyes Books in Northern California.

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

Wynn Bullock, The Pilings, 1958

I am a professional bookseller and an amateur reader. It is perhaps in reaction to my professional obligations and a pervasive (and growing) ickiness about being a cog in the publishing industry’s all-consuming marketing machine that, for several years running, I stubbornly compiled a list of books I hadn’t read in the previous year, instead of those I had. I haven’t gotten to Proust or returned to Bleak House; I had no intention of reading that splashy soon-to-be-optioned debut.

My amateur status (or ambition) hasn’t, perhaps, kept up with reality: my reading life has over the past decade been increasingly determined by obligation. Books sent by editors, writers, publicists, awards committees, and others in the industry accumulate quickly, fast outpacing my—or I would guess, anyone’s—ability to keep up. And so, I am forced to skim and scan and dip and peruse. [Ed. – Must admit, this does seem dispiriting.]

So, for the most part, I don’t care much for professional reading, not because it can often feel aimless—after all, as an amateur, I delight in chance encounters, coincidences, and unexpected threads. I don’t like it because it isn’t conducive to the depth of experience that characterizes true reading. Not to mention that a diet consisting almost exclusively of contemporary work diminishes a sense of what literature can do.

Below, then, are a handful of books I read because I wanted to, or in the case of the last two, because it was demanded of me by someone whose imperatives are impossible to ignore. [Ed. – Ooh, suspense!]

One of the best experiences I had reading in 2021 was the evening I picked up Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Listen, My Friend; This is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, published by the Song Cave. This glorious and hypnotically captivating unspooling of thought is too tightly controlled to be considered stream-of-consciousness and too sui generis to be pinned down into any other form. This book-length monologue, prayer, love letter, prose poem, confession, riveted me. It’s compelling, vulnerable, and brimming with life.

I have a list of sixteen books I jotted down while reading Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (Bellevue Literary Press), a marvelously generative study of human and cosmic consciousness. A flip, Kripal argues, is often the result of an anomalous experience that reveals to us the inextricable mutuality of matter and mind. In his theory, matter is imbued with mind and we are all but manifestations of a deeper universal consciousness. Though this may sound a little woo-woo (have I owned a bookstore in Marin County for too long?) [Ed. – Nope, it sounds a little woo-woo], the underpinning of Kripal’s arguments are nothing if not Spinozan and lead to a rousing defense of the humanities.

Though her book was published after Kripal’s and therefore not among the sixteen books on my list, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn’s God, Human, Animal, Machine (Doubleday) is concerned with the same questions: what is consciousness and what is its value? Braiding memoir and philosophical meditation on the nature of the self, intelligence, and design, O’Gieblyn doesn’t engage in polemics, but essentially lands in the same place as Kripal: there are currently few satisfying theories of consciousness. As any good novelist knows, a fundamental mystery lies at the heart of awareness.

The novel I read in 2021 that best grappled with this mystery won’t be published for another few months: Irene Solà’s When I Sing, the Mountains Dance, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Graywolf Press). The novel plumbs the deep interconnectedness of a remote village with the natural world high in the Pyrenees. In it, Solà gives voice to black chanterelles, lightning, and ghosts as well as human beings in an invigorating attempt to reinhabit a mode of being that feels as vitally urgent as it does archetypally timeless. [Ed. – Attention, readers, attention! If Nicie Panetta is in the room, please come to the front desk to collect your book.]

HOLY SHIT

Finally, since I spent many enjoyable hours reading picture books to our toddler this year, I’d like to mention a few that seem to me exemplary of the genre: Jon Klassen’s The Rock from the Sky (Candlewick), a deadpan and bleakly funny story that several reviewers aptly refer to as Beckettian; and Phoebe Wahl’s collection of seasonal tales, Little Witch Hazel (Tundra Books), much warmer than Klassen, and brimming with magic, wonder, and gentle humor. It’s led our toddler to knock on trees asking if anyone is home. [Ed. – Heart brims over!] If only more books had such consequences.

Emmett Stinson’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Emmett Stinson (@EmmettStinson). Emmett is a writer and literary critic who is taking up a position as a Lecturer in Literary Cultures at the University of Tasmania in 2022..

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

J. S. G. Boggs

I’ll be honest [Ed. – Hadn’t occurred to me you wouldn’t be–until now…]: I had to look at my Goodreads account to remember what books I read in 2022. Not because my memory is failing (I hope), but because it’s hard to separate 2021 from 2020: they feel like one long year spent mostly in my lounge, often working, often caring for children, sometimes briefly on furlough from those activities but still in the same room. My reading, as a fact, has been rarely undistracted: our small house has been full of sounds of children playing, blaring devices, zoom meetings, google meets for primary school, complaints about maths homework…probably no-one’s ideal conditions for a life of the mind, but I’d take it over a too-quiet library most of the time. [Ed. – Absolutely agree.] Finding a few quiet hours in the evening usually involves a trade-off between reading and sleep. I am not complaining—I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I think many people still think of reading as something that’s silent or solitary, and that’s often not my experience.

I enjoyed most of what I read last year, but most of the books I enjoyed most were not ‘new’ novels. My favourite was Christa Stead’s long House of All Nations(1938), which is about the goings-on in a Parisian bank that may or may not be a Ponzi scheme. It’s amazing to me that there wasn’t more interest in this book in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It’s a fascinating account of the way money manipulates markets (or tries to). It’s full of dryly satirical portraits of pretentious bankers and includes a massive cast of unusual characters. Stead is as technically accomplished a writer as the more famous modernists, but her writing is more restrained. When she does suddenly let loose with a perfect, rhetorically complex sentence, the effect is even more powerful. House of All Nations does have an often-compelling plot, but it is told in a serial way, and many of the details are highly technical (my favourite section is about the manipulation of the international wheat trade!). [Ed. – Neepery!] It’s an encyclopedic novel that should be more widely read, and the rare encyclopedic work that could probably be turned into a (inferior, obviously) modern television series.

I also loved Jen Craig’s out-of-print first novel, Since the Accident (2009). Her second novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, is a multivalent Bernhardian rant that has rightly attracted international attention, but the first book is impossible to find (it was sent to me by the author via her literary agent, Martin Shaw). It’s an exceptional work that anticipates Cusk’s Trilogy. The novel is narrated by an Australian woman just returned from Europe who visits her sister, Trude. Trude has partially recovered from a terrible car accident, but has recently decided to leave the man she was living with (Murray, who helped save her from the accident) and moves into a room in a run-down suburban Sydney pub. In order to explain this decision, Trude recounts a series of conversations between herself and other participants at an artist’s retreat she recently attended. The entire novel takes place during this conversation in the pub, which is a tense and sometimes menacing scene. Trude and her sister are estranged, and both dislike their controlling, manipulative mother, who has is responsible for the visit in the first place. It’s a layered, indirect work, technically accomplished, beautifully written, but also very human.

Two other Australian novels I really enjoyed were Michael Winkler’s Grimmish and Louis Armand’s The Combinations. I have already written about the self-published(!) Grimmish at length. It’s a hilariously funny novel that everyone should read. [Ed. – If they can get their hands on it!] Armand’s The Combinations is a bizarre baggy encyclopedic novel that is 888 pages long. Its structure is based on a chess board (an obvious nod to Perec), and the book is very much a novel about Prague, where Armand has lived since the 1990s, but it’s written in a recognizably Australian idiom. [Ed. — !]  It does have a plot involving the Voynich Manuscript and the provenance of its orphaned protagonist {Ed. — !!], but this is a maximalist book whose pleasures are to be found from page to page in its many jokes, complex sentences, and inventive textual strategies. It’s the kind of book that will cause some readers to run screaming (I mean this as a compliment?), but it’s an intense technical, conceptual, and literary achievement. As far as I can tell, it’s gone almost entirely undiscussed in Australia, which seems absolutely bonkers. More people should read and write about this novel. It’s too smart to go unread.

Most of the other books I read this year were from book twitter recommendations—and there have been very few misses in this regard. I loved Mauro Javier Cardenas’ Aphasia, which is certainly my favourite ‘new’ book I read in 2021. I read the massive recent Krasznahorkai (a lot of fun if you have enjoyed his other work), Enard’s enjoyably excessive Compass. I read Gass’s Middle C (a book that has stayed with me and which I hope to reread) and Theroux’s cult-favourite novel, Darconville’s Cat, which I found equally extraordinary and confounding. I loved the relentless accrual of that long sentence in Ducks, Newburyport up until its too-resolute ending.I particularly loved Pierre Senges’ The Major Refutation, a novel comprising a (fictional) historical treatise that refutes the existence of the new world after Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of it. It is a novel written as a joke that is carried too far and then goes for another hundred pages beyond that, and I loved every second of it. Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden is a novella about Dostoyevsky that is effectively a literary panic attack. [Ed. – Did someone say “panic attack”??] It’s brutal, painful, and funny in equal measure, but even thinking about the book makes me feel weirdly uneasy. I reread Clarice Lispector’s Collected Stories, which remains my favourite of her books. Domenico Starnone’s Truth is perhaps not quite as good as his recent Ties and Trick, but it is a fascinating account of an author who is worried about his reputation being destroyed by the revelation of a ruinous secret. Exactly the kind of book you’d probably not want to write if you were an author suspected of harboring a large and potentially career-ruining secret… [Ed. – Ha!]

I was also surprised to find myself beguiled by two better-known novels. I had just assumed that I was not the right reader for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I was wrong: it’s funny and I loved the way that Highsmith makes Ripley both repugnant and compelling. I also like how it (correctly) portrays the intergenerationally wealthy upper-classes of the USA as basically boring and dim people whose only extraordinary quality is their wealth. I also laughed all the way through Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. I know some readers have complained that it’s too close to its source material, but it’s such a strange, comic novel that is full of awkward and mildly unpleasant humour (and which jokes in various ways about its own unoriginality). Give me more unoriginal books like this one!

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Échelonnement désaxé, 1934

I am currently packing all of my books in the process of moving from regional, mainland Australia (Ballarat) to the island state of Tasmania. [Ed. – Tasmania! What the devil?! I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me…] As a result, my reading will be a bit more limited for the moment and largely digital. I am about 1/4 of the way through Marguerite Young’s sprawling, discursive Miss Macintosh, My Darling, which is being reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 2022, and I suspect this is likely to be one of my favourite novels of this year.

Ben Black’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Ben Black (@benpblack). Ben is an Assistant Fiction Editor at AGNI magazine. He teaches English and writing in the Bay Area and you can find a list of his publications at benpblack.com.

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

Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port Marly, 1876

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

There’s nothing quite as entertaining as a memoir about a large family of eccentric characters. Here the author returns to his native Sri Lanka physically while psychically returning to his own memories and the collective family memory bank of wild stories about his father, mother, uncles and aunts, and especially his unique, independent grandmother. These short chapters in semi-chronological order cover a lot of ground, basically a whole century of family lore. They offer a tantalizing glimpse of Sri Lanka in the 20th century.

As with most family stories, it’s hard to tell what’s plain fact and what’s fantastic mythologizing, but what matters more to the author is the deeper truth beneath the stories, factual or not. He’s out to understand his place in the world, and to find a deeper connection to the distant outlandish trio of his father, his grandmother, and his native island. The very short chapters are entertaining, outrageous, and somehow sweet and moving. You’ll likely never meet characters like this again.

Soul by Andrey Platonov

A strange, dreamy, allegory by a Soviet writer taking place in the deserts of Turkmenistan. The main character’s job is to rescue a small, dying nation of people by guiding them through the desert to a new home. But the people he encounters are weak, listless, destitute, and utterly disconnected from the world of the living. As he works to feed them and keep them on the move, our hero falls in love with this pathetic group of lost souls. And slowly, they seem to wake from their walking slumber and learn to stand on their own.

This is truly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, filled with unusual characters and scenes. (I swear someone lies down and falls asleep in the sand on every page). Did I mention our hero is pursued by two huge demonic birds for much of the journey? [Ed. – No, no you did not!] Soul is weird, often funny, but more often heartfelt—like the main character, you fall in love with these misfits as the narrative moves along.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

I’ve read the title story many times (and have used it in my English and Creative Writing classes), but this is my first time reading the rest of the collection. [Ed. – “Bloodchild” teaches so well, doesn’t it?]

Remarkably, these stories deal not only with interesting sci-fi concepts (a virus that destroys the human capacity for speech, a self-harming disease that creates different social castes, the classic conundrum of bridging the communication gap between humans and aliens), but do so in a way that delves into social problems and helps us understand our own time better. This is true, of course, of all great sci-fi, and this is some of the greatest.

Even if this collection contained only the title story, it would probably still make my top ten list. It’s one of my favorite stories, maybe one of the best short stories of all time. Humans are enslaved by aliens who use a sinister coercive love bombing relationship to keep the humans docile and attached so they can be used for breeding. [Ed. – And yet the story takes  seriously the  possibility that there could be reciprocity with real otherness…] It’s creepy, gross, and unsettling because it reminds us of both our history of treating other humans and of our uneasy relationships with power throughout our lives, whatever they may be.

This collection also contains some brief essays about Butler’s writing craft that I find refreshing in their simplicity and clarity.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

The recent movie (which I loved and highly recommend) made me love this book even more. They’re both great in their own ways. This is classic noir, but it elevates itself past cliché. A story about an unscrupulous man’s rise through the world of carnival sideshows, spiritualism, and other dubious cons, this is definitely one of the darkest books I’ve read. No heroes here! But a fascinating look at the underworld nonetheless.

I loved the careful detail Greshman puts into the supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed somewhat sympathetically, no matter how shady they might be. The three main female characters are particularly unforgettable (especially the depraved psychiatrist who shows up in the last third of the book). The book has a lot to say about how people relate to each other, about the gray area between truth and lies, reality and illusion, manipulation and real feeling.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This wonderfully weird novel follows the lives of the eccentric Willoweed family as a strange plague causes death, insanity, and violence among the inhabitants of an English village. The chapters devoted to the plague are gripping and horrifying, but the real narrative momentum comes from watching each of the finely drawn characters come out the other side of the catastrophe changed (as per the title). It’s a very surprising book: I never quite knew what would happen next, and from the first page (featuring ducks swimming through a living room during a flood) to the last, unusual images show up on almost every page. [Ed. – But does anyone lie down and fall asleep on the sand?] Comyns writes with a light touch, so there is humor amid the terrible events, but a lot of deep emotion too. Lastly, Grandmother Willoweed is one of the most delightful and memorable villains I’ve encountered. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead gave me hope for what’s to come after our current catastrophe recedes. (A special shout out to the other Comyns novel I read this year, The Vet’s Daughter, which is even darker and stranger. I look forward to reading more from this neglected genius)

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

This one is somewhat hard to explain. It’s a slippery little novel of stories within stories, and one of the funniest I read this year.

As a young man, the philosopher Leibniz visits a blind astronomer who promises to tell the story of how he lost his sight in the few hours before the solar eclipse he’s predicted occurs. But his telling takes many strange delightful turns as it wanders around Europe and through the courts of the Hapsburgs. The writing style sends up philosophical tracts, full of recursions and repetitions, leaving you and Liebniz wondering where the story’s headed or if it will ever arrive. The ending is totally unexpected.

At the heart of the tale is the theme Sachs explored in his earlier collection of short stories, Inherited Disorders: fathers and sons, the unknowability of another person’s heart and soul, the chaos of the cosmos (with its sometimes startling insinuations of order). All told with a light comic touch.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Andrew Martin: “a madcap blend of philosophical malpractice and byzantine palace intrigue. It’s like what might happen…if W. G. Sebald had gone insane. In other words, there’s nothing else like it.”

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

A powerful short novel from Afghanistan.

After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a long journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand what’s happened to him.

This is a story about multiple griefs all happening at once. The main character has barely any time to mourn the rest of his family; instead, he spends most of the journey agonizing over how he will tell his son this devastating news and how he will keep his grandson alive until they reach the mine. Interwoven with the grandfather’s thoughts are snippets from the boy’s perspective: newly deaf, he simply thinks everyone around him has decided to stop speaking to him. Sounds depressing, right? But the writing is so good and the characters so well-drawn; it’s an amazing, intense, immersive experience.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

No list from me is complete without an Argentine.

This collection of fantastic, gothic tales will give you shivers and leave you with food for thought on social issues.

The stories at once feel old (their subjects and style remind me of creepy/horror stories of the last century and before), and new (they deal with modern issues like homelessness, urban blight, and the recent crimes of the dictatorship in Argentina). In other words, the supernatural horrors are rooted in real issues. Above all, they are gripping and fun to read.

The women of an anxious family suffer a curse tied to a witch and a well…a woman is haunted by the rotting corpse of a baby…a neighborhood is full of expats who hate the city but can never leave…a rock star’s suicide inspires a horrific response from his fans…a woman joins an online community of weirdos obsessed with the human heartbeat…children who disappeared decades before start reappearing, but there’s something not quite right about them…

I hope you’re intrigued enough to give this amazing writer a try.

Pieter Beugel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind a.k.a. The Parable of the Blind, 1568

The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hofmann

Oh boy another weird book rec from Ben! [Ed. – Bring em on!]

This short novel tells the story of a group of blind men hired to pose for the painting by Pieter Breugel that gives the book its title. Told in the first-person plural, most of the action concerns their confusing journey to the village where Bruegel lives, culminating in their absurdly hilarious yet profoundly sad act of falling into a ditch over and over for the artist. The group narration is memorable: sweet, funny, cautious, hopeful, demanding, repetitive, and relatable. The other characters they meet are hilariously unhelpful as our heroes make their way to the end of their small but epic quest.

A brief, weird, amusing tale, but what earns it a spot on this list is what’s lurking underneath the surface, what it left me thinking about: the uneasy relationship between art and life, inspiration and execution, ugliness and beauty, the commonplace and the divine.

Benita Berthmann’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Benita Berthmann (@moodboardultra) Benita studies literature in Marburg, Germany, where she is a full time book enthusiast, part time smoker and existentialist.

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

Helene Schjerfbecek, G***y Woman, 1919

In 2021 I read more books than ever before. 175, to be exact. [Ed. – Damn girl!] I could do it because I was in a very relaxed last semester of my Bachelor’s degree with heaps of free time (which I have since finished) and also because we were and still are in a pandemic. Being advised to stay at home does have its advantages. [Ed. – Introverts of the world unite! But not too closely!]

How can I select a number of favorites from all these books? I cannot. I can only offer you a glimpse into my (reading) life, a tiny selection. Of course, there are books from 2021 that stuck with me more than others, that touched or repulsed me differently, that I catch myself returning to in my thoughts over and over again.

When I think about the most memorable books of the past year, DIE WOHLGESINNTEN (Les bienveillantes/The Kindly Ones, German translation by Hainer Kober) by JONATHAN LITTELL immediately comes to mind. Little manages to show us each and every realm, every tiny corner of the Nazi brain of his protagonist and narrator, Maximilian Aue, over almost 1400 pages. [Ed. – Shoulda read it in English, only 992.] He is able to portray a character that is not just a Nazi, not just morally ruined, but a human being, a terrible, guilty, one, but one we do not necessarily dislike. [Ed. – Hmm…] One that allows us to see that even the most intellectual, the most cultivated (however we might define that term) people are not exempt from pursuing the most evil crimes against humanity. Not exempt from committing genocide. It is difficult to find the right words for what this book did to and with me. Yet, it is clear to me that DIE WOHLGESINNTEN is a major work that will continue to make its way into the cultural memory and leave a lasting impact on all its readers.

I am not too big on audiobooks—I listen to the same ones over and over again to help me fall asleep at night because, apparently, I can only sleep when someone basically talks my ear off—but there is one that kept me company throughout the whole year: THE SECRET HISTORY by DONNA TARTT. Probably no surprise that I, a semi-pretentious lit-student, enjoyed the tale of a very pretentious, flamboyant yet secretive group of classics students who decide to kill their friend. The novel has all of my favorite tropes: Dark academia, an obsession with aesthetics, a compelling way of story telling, mystery, and a healthy amount of death and homoerotic subtext. The language is complex and clever, snobby and charming all in the same instant, proving to me that Donna Tartt is indeed the most skillful contemporary American writer. Her talents lie not only in writing, but also in reading her own novel as an audiobook, her southern accent just adds that little extra sprinkle. Also, I have a soft spot for Richard Papen. Fight me. [Ed. — Totally fair.]

A book that has been important for me for years and that I became even more fond of in 2021 was HERTA MÜLLER’S HERZTIER (English title: THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS, English translator: Michael Hofmann). HERTA MÜLLER, Nobel Prize winner of 2009, is my most revered author—her description of life under Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1970s and 80s Romania never ceases to leave me in awe of both her writing skills and her personal integrity. It is brutal, relentlessly honest and poetic. In HERZTIER, we get a close view of a group of students trying to evade political persecution, eventually having to escape the government—either by fleeing to Germany or by death.

Why is this novel so important to me? In the summer of 2021, I wrote by bachelor’s thesis on its figurations of death, an experience that taught me how to look at literature even more closely and how to present an argument on my own. I feel lucky I got to have these experiences with my favorite author. [Ed. – Heart emoji!]

It’s not always easy to read a novel by Müller, neither thematically nor stylistically, but I would argue that it is a memorable and most rewarding experience –her unusual prose, the (sometimes jarringly) accurate and detailed descriptions of seemingly minor incidents open up, at least for me, perspectives I would otherwise never have imagined exist. She is a minority writer (German-speaking Banat Swabian, having grown up in Romania), an uncompromising political activist, using her voice and her reputation as a Nobel laureate especially to help censored and blacklisted writers forced to live under dictatorial rule, and someone whom I admire for both their writing and their personal integrity. Safe to say, Herta Müller is my muse. [Ed. – Benita, you are a Herta Müller Ultra!]

A huge and somewhat daunting project of mine was to read UWE JOHNSON’S (pronounced more like Yohn-Zohn in German) JAHRESTAGE (ANNIVERSARIES, translated by Damion Searls): the German version is a whopping 1700 pages. I aimed for 50 pages a day, which roughly worked out. As the title already indicates, the narration follows every day in the life of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl, originally from Jerichow, Mecklenburg, GDR, now a citizen of New York. Anniversaries is a cleverly interwoven literary montage consisting of Gesine’s current life with her daughter in NY in 1967 and 68, her and her family’s history (fascism in 1930s Germany and such…) and, interestingly, snippets of The New York Times. I recently attended a seminar on Literary Patronage that shed light on how much Johnson was struggling to finish the final quarter of the novel. The first three parts were published in 1970, 71 and 73, but he went through a rough patch health-wise, got divorced and amassed debts at his publishing house Suhrkamp amounting to roughly 250,000 DM (around $105,000 at that time, my quick research reveals), thus, he only managed to complete his main work in 1983, a year before his untimely death from a heart attack (while he tried to open his third bottle of wine that evening). [Ed. – Let that be a lesson to me.] Rumor has it that his publisher Siegfried Unseld, trying to get his money’s worth as he was supporting the author with a monthly paycheck of 3000 DM, pushed Johnson to his breaking point by demanding that the novel be completed by March 1983 or else he would suspend the monthly support. Unfortunately, we will probably never know if this is true, but it’s an interesting backstory to the novel either way.

Thinking about all the other books I also got through, it’s impossible to name, properly review, and shed light on all of them, but there are a few honorable mentions I would like to announce at the very least:

Anything I have read by THOMAS BERNHARD, my favorite angry Austrian. This year, I got around to: FROST (translated by Michael Hofmann), WATTEN. EIN NACHLASS (published in English in THREE NOVELLAS, translated by P. Jansen and K. Northcott), MEINE PREISE (MY PRIZES, translated by Carol Brown Janeway), HOLZFÄLLEN (WOODCUTTERS, translated by David McLintock) and DIE URSACHE (part one of his autobiographical writings, I could not find an English translation for it [Ed. – It’s in Gathering Evidence] – all worth reading. I look forward to discovering even more of Bernhard’s works in 2022.

ANNIE ERNAUX: EINE FRAU (UNE FEMME/A WOMAN’S STORY (English translations all by Tanya Leslie, German translations by Sonja Finck), DIE SCHAM (LA HONTE/SHAME) and DAS EREIGNIS (L’ÉVÉNEMENT/HAPPENING) found their way into my bookshelf and my reading year 2021. The last one especially made its way into my literary heart and memory: It deals with an abortion in early 1960s France—a dangerous and shameful endeavor at that time that Ernaux dissects into fragments of memory showing pain, shame, secrecy and the essential danger of being a woman. Safe to say I am glad was born in a time and a country that makes abortions, should one be needed, at least semi-accessible. Abortion rights are not perfect in modern day Germany, but I have the feeling it’s still better than what the author describes so hauntingly and directly.

For 2022, I hope that SHIDA BAZYAR’S novel DREI KAMERADINNEN (roughly: Three (female) Comrades) will be translated into English. It challenges white majority perspectives on Germany and the country’s ongoing problems with fascism, the rising political right and xenophobia. Bonus point: It is an absolute page-turner.

Balthus, Three Sisters and a Cat, 1965

Ok, now, finally and shortly, a couple of books that were awesome as well:

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – The Discomfort of the Evening/Was man sät (T: Michele Hutchison/Helga van Beuningen)

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited

Anne Weber – Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (English translation forthcoming later in 2022)

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Günter Grass – Der Butt/The Flounder (T: Ralph Manheim (I have read both the German original and the English translation and I can confirm that Manheim did a superb job!))

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

I will probably not manage 175 books again this year (doing a master’s degree and all), but I hope I will still be able to discover new favorites. Keep on reading, folks.

And let’s hope Dorian keeps on giving us the chance to post these, so that I can put even more books on either my wish list or my tbr stack(s). [Ed. – I’ve already penciled you in for next year, Benita!]

Brooke Randel’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Brooke Randel (@brookerandel). Brooke is a writer and associate creative director in Chicago. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, she writes about memory, trauma, family, and history.

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

Käthe Kollwitz, Frontal Self-Portrait, 1922 – 23

My reading can be fairly evenly split into two categories: Holocaust-y and not. [Ed. – Same, Brooke, same.]

As both the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and a writer working on a memoir about my grandma, literacy, and the legacy of the Holocaust, I read a lot about the topic. But when I’m not reading about it, I like the wild variety of contemporary fiction, part escape-hatch, part mood-lifter. Does it work? Sometimes. Sometimes, it really does. 

Here’s a sampling of what I read, organized in a way it certainly wasn’t while reading.

NONFICTION, HOLOCAUST

I learned about Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau through Twitter, likely from Dorian, then wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. [Ed. – Could be–I do love this book. If you don’t listen to me—and why don’t you?—listen to Brooke.] It’s astounding in its clarity and starkness, its focus on women and their experiences in the camps, including prostitution and pregnancy. The prose feels brutally honest, offering no set-up before catapulting the reader into the everyday horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

Most Holocaust books fill me with a certain amount of sadness, but The Light of Days by Judy Batalion contains so much action and agency that something new came over me. A sense of pride? Badassery? Straight fury? The book tells the true story of female resistance fighters in Poland, which is to say, Jewish teenage girls turned weapons smugglers and intelligence agents. It’s gripping to read, even as it jumps around between so many people and places. I’m not surprised it’s already been optioned for a film (by Spielberg, of course). Everyone craves the feel-good war story, as rare and unlikely as they are.

We Share the Same Sky by Rachael Cerrotti is a much quieter book. Cerrotti traces her grandma Hana Dubova’s story of survival through travel, following where she fled, including a stay with the descendants of the woman who took her grandma in during the war. Dubova and Cerotti’s stories become enmeshed, voices and experiences layering on top of one another just as they do in the mess of real life. Like me, Cerotti is part of the third generation, and she smartly uses her distance from the war to draw thoughtful connections. The book leans toward the uplifting—Hana’s story is one of escape after all, a Czech swept up into the incredible rescue of the Danish Jews—without evading the hard truths of Cerrotti’s own life. A feat, if you ask me. 

Side note: If you know of more third-gen Holocaust memoirs, tell me. I want to read them. Plunder by Menachem Kaiser is next on my list. [Ed. – One of the best third gen, IMO. I have my issues with this genre, as detailed elsewhere on the blog. Mendelsohn’s The Lost is great.]

In a similar yet opposite vein, I read two third-gen memoirs from descendants of Nazis, Julie Lindahl’s The Pendulum and Nora Krug’s Belonging. Lindahl, who was born in Brazil, grew up not knowing her family’s ties to the SS. Some scenes in her memoir, so proper and precise, so steeped in denial, felt foreign to me, but many echoed the same silence and pain I’ve seen in my own family. Lindahl ponders the weight of unclaimed guilt and what it takes to unearth hard family truths. Belonging, a graphic memoir, takes on similar themes. (Whenever I fall into a reading rut, I turn to graphic novels and memoirs. Highly recommended.) Krug balances a dark family history—her father, we learn, was given the same name as his older brother, a Nazi killed in the war—with bright, evocative watercolor illustrations. Krug’s work also introduced me to the German word Heimat, meaning the place that first forms us. A place, I suspect, we do not always know so well. 

NONFICTION, OTHER THINGS

I think about the suburbs a lot. If I’m thinking about them in my past, it’s with nostalgia. If I’m thinking about them in my future, it’s with dread. The Sprawl by Jason Diamond helped me unpack that a bit. Consider their design: the conformity, the utopian ideals, the racism, the way the streets curl in on themselves rather than connect. The byproduct? Loneliness, resentment, and, possibly, American creativity. Diamond notes how many artists have roots in the burbs, but the argument doesn’t entirely convince me. While reading The Sprawl, I stumbled upon the idea of non-places in Adam Morgan’s excellent newsletter, The Frontlist. A non-place, as defined by Marc Augé in his 1995 book Non-Places, is a space unconcerned with identity. Morgan notes these are places “where people are anonymous and don’t relate to the space with any sense of intimacy.” Not all suburbs are non-places, but I think The Sprawl shows how easily they can be.

I need more time in the day and light in the week to write about all the other non-fiction books I read this year, but I do want to say I read Minor Things by Cathy Park Hong and you should too. 

CONTEMPORARY FICTION 

I adore Aimee Bender. I had the chance to hear her read the first chapter of The Butterfly Lampshade at a virtual reading and had to get the book immediately afterward to find out where the story went next. There’s such magic and rupture in her prose.

Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian—I ate this book up with a spoon. Agnes, away at college, writes letters to her mom who has disappeared. (There’s something about letters I cannot resist.) [Ed. – Same! A letter in a novel makes my heart sing. And yet an entire novel of letters, not so much…] The book is, in turns, funny, dark, thoughtful, fractured and smart. Must seek out more Iskandrian. 

Jeff Chon’s Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is the exact opposite of escapism. It’s look-directly-into-the-sun-ism. I haven’t read anything that touches upon current events, misinformation, toxic masculinity, and male violence quite like this book does. A punch to the gut but the fist is your own.

I had no idea what I was reading for the first third of The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Then I sunk into it. I swam in the prose. I’m still not sure what I read, but I enjoyed the swim.

Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James captures the strangeness of 2008 through a former overachiever let down by a lousy job market. It’s as funny as it is weird: she becomes a meme, endures a horrific interview at a dive bar, and lands a job at a call center. And it led to one of my weirdest reading moments of the year: I was at the bus stop (Chicago, early winter) when a car pulled up and a woman asked what I was reading. I showed her. As the light turned green, she yelled out the window, “Is it good?” and I yelled back, “Yeah!” Feels appropriate that moment happened with this book. [Ed. – How great is that?!]

Käthe Kollwitz, The Survivors, 1923

In total, I read 36 books, which broke out something like this: 18 books of nonfiction, 18 fiction. 4 graphic novels. 28 books by women. 14 by Jewish writers. 8 by writers of color. Far more small press books than in years past. Not bad for year two of a pandemic. What did you read while staying alive?

Nicie Panetta’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.

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

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

The Anthropocene

Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]

From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizon here.

From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.

A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is nicie.panetta@gmail.com. Thanks in advance.

The Thing Is . . .

Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful. 

Two Writers’ Memoirs

Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris. 

It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind: 

To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.

Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]

A Poet’s Playlist

Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:

Wayfarer’s Night Song

Above the mountaintops

all is still.

Among the treetops

you can feel

barely a breath—

birds in the forest, stripped of song.

Just wait: before long

you, too, shall rest.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776

The World Wars

A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.

In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.

Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,

You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.

But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,

The wholly indefatigable thing

From “Rose” 

My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”

In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]

Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” 

Salt Water by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.

Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years (ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.

What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:

Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .

Earbuds 

I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.

Campus Duds

I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]

Unclassifiable Wisdom

Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken. 

August Macke, Promenade II, 1913

2022

This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.

In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:

  • Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
  • Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
  • Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
  • Moby Dick with #APSTogether
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Teju Cole
  • More poetry! 

I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!

Olga Zilberbourg’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga). The author of Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language books, Olga co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop; and together with Yelena Furman runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet and diaspora literature.

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

El Anatsui, Fading Cloth, 2005

My reading life this past year was dominated by my role as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Literary Prize. The first task we were given was to nominate an author based on the quality of their writing. After considering (and rereading) authors from Yoko Tawada to Jenny Erpenbeck to Polina Barskova, I finally settled on the writer, whose work had propelled me into adulthood back in the early 1990s and whose books played a foundational role in forming my outlook on contemporary literature: Liudmilla Petrushevksaya.

I chose to submit There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (Penguin), selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. This book rose to bestseller lists in 2009 and it delivers on its title: the tales she tells are indeed magical and very disturbing. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve let the jury members to discover that book for themselves, and nominated an earlier volume, The Time: Night translated into English by Sally Laird (Northwestern UP). This book is both naturalistic in its portrayal of life in late Perestroika Russia, with its total breakdown of all familial and social relationships, and it amplifies its naturalism with an ironic “what-if” scenario: what if a poet akin to Anna Akhmatova had been born half a century later? How would she fare? It’s a powerful short novel (that Anna Summers also translated and Penguin published in a follow-up volume There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In) and I love that it also features on Yelena Furman’s syllabus on contemporary Russian women writers. I strongly believe that this book (alongside Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna) belongs on every syllabus dedicated to 20th Century Russian lit.

Jury members submitted nominations in March; in May we received a stack of nine books and a website to an electronic literature project by Jean-Pierre Balpe, for a total of ten works of literature, representative of their authors’ oeuvres. Having spent the summer with these books, the jury then gathered in October, via Zoom, during the Neustadt Literary Festival, to deliberate and choose the winner: Boubacar Boris Diop, who had been nominated by Jennifer Croft (@jenniferlcroft). I should add that though the process of selecting the winner was painful—the inevitable competitive nature of voting does seem inimical to the nature of literary achievement—Diop was chosen in the spirit of total admiration, not to say, awe.

Diop’s is a rich body of work. I began with Murambi: The Book of Bones, which Jenny had nominated. Translated from French by Fiona McLauchlin and published by Indiana UP, this book came with a blurb by Toni Morrison: “This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning.” Diop, a writer from Senegal, was a part of a group of writers invited to come to Rwanda in 1998 and to write about the genocide that had occurred four years prior. As an outsider, Diop has had to invent his own structure in order to approach his subject matter, which he does brilliantly. The novel contains separate, tentatively connected sections, centering both the point of view of a victim and the point of view of a perpetrator. Diop then adds to it a perspective of an observer, a man who returns home after a long absence from the country and who will have to live with the outcomes of the genocide, finding his way through social and personal trauma. Remarkably, this strategy allows Diop to capture the scope of the horrific events and their history in colonial politics, as well as to tell memorable stories of a few individuals.

In my public library, I was also able to locate a copy of Diop’s novel Kaveena, translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh, and published by Indiana UP, a gripping murder mystery that takes us on a tour of intricate relationships between the various parties involved in running a fictional francophone African state. This novel showcases some of the mechanisms in which imperial economic interests continue to hold sway in so many independent post-colonial nations.

Then, there’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, a novel that Diop wrote in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal, and available in English in translation by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State UP). My library didn’t carry it, and neither did any of the connected public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area—which I tried to rectify by requesting that they purchase it. I didn’t get a chance to read it before the jury deliberations; it’s going right onto my 2022 reading list.

The full list of works nominated for the Neustadt Prize this year is available online. The authors included Kwame Dawes, Natalie Diaz, Michális Ganás, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Reina María Rodríguez. Writers: the most generous gift-givers. I should add that I enjoyed reading not only the books of the finalists, but also the books by my fellow nominating jurors, including Jennifer Croft’s book Homesick (Unnamed Press), a novelized memoir of a close sibling relationship, and Hamid Ismailov’s Gaia, Queen of Ants (Syracuse UP), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, centering around a pair of transplants from Uzbekistan trying to make a life in Europe.

Outside of the reading I’ve done for and around the prize, I very much enjoyed participating in my first ever Twitter read-along, organized by the amazing @ReemK10. For me, this was a rereading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Harcourt). I’d read it for the first time a decade ago, and had in the interim forgotten how much of a post-Holocaust story it is. This aspect struck me deeply during the reread. Alongside, I picked up a volume of essays by and about its translator, the famed Michael Henry Heim, The Man Between (Open Letter), edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. It was fascinating to learn a little about the history of contemporary translation from Eastern European languages, and the central role Heim seemed to play in it.

And speaking of Eastern Europe, this year, I discovered the writer Vesna Maric, whose memoir of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war at the age of sixteen, The Bluebird (Granta), was as fascinating as it was strangely funny. I reviewed Maric’s first novel The President Shop for Ron Slate’s project On the Seawall, and I’m also keeping an eye on this book’s publisher, Sandorf Passage, who is bringing to English more fascinating East European titles.

Yanina Boldyreva, from Birch People, 2021

Looking over what I’ve just written I note that most of the books I talk about were published in English translation by independent or university press publishers. This was not intentional on my part, but I’m also not entirely surprised. It’s a vast, vibrant literary world out there, and translators and publishers of indie and university presses are a big part of what makes it so. Book Twitter friends are another big part—thank you all!

R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

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

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Ivan Kenneally’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Ivan Kenneally (@IvanKeneally). Ivan is a writer who lives in California. He taught philosophy for many years at several universities, and his articles have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Open Letters Monthly, and The New Atlantis.

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

Alberto Giacometti, Five Heads of Men, One Face and One Woman Face on, One Woman in Profile, 1965

The first time I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, I was a high school senior encountering a memoir of a concentration-camp survivor for the first time; I lacked the context, historical and literary, to appreciate the uncommon power of the work, its peculiar alloy of moral indictment and scientific objectivity. I had that experience so common in adolescence—I was profoundly affected, but unable to adequately articulate the sources of my response, an untidy tangle of excitement and distemper.

This year I couldn’t resist the enthusiastic endorsement issued by Tina (@theesteemedfox) of Levi’s sequel to his remembrance of Auschwitz, The Truce—Tina is an infinitely cheerful advocate of infinitely sepulcher literature. [Ed. – And thank God for that!] I saw this as an opportunity to revisit If This is a Man, and after finishing both books I was so besotted by Levi’s writing, I ordered an edition of his complete works in English, a mammoth collection, three thousand words delivered in three hefty volumes, published by Liveright in 2015. [Ed. – Appreciate you giving the correct/accurate titles: American readers might know them as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, respectively.]

Before finally pausing, I read the two memoirs in quick succession, and then The Periodic Table, The Monkey’s Wrench, Other People’s Trades, If Not Now, When?, The Drowned and the Saved, and Natural Histories. I was immersed in Levi’s work for the better part of two months, simultaneously invigorated by his indefatigable clarity and exhausted by his increasingly disheartened worldview. [Ed. – It’s true. He was so depressed, angry, and suffering at the end of his life.] Two uncharacteristic works served as reprieves of a sort—Other People’s Trades is a collection of newspaper articles that peripatetically meander from discussions of butterflies to Italian etymology: it displays both the range of Levi’s intellectual curiosity and his inclination toward an exacting pedantry. [Ed. – Interesting. And well put.] In Natural Histories one finds a series of sci-fi short stories at least partly inspired Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics—for a time, Calvino was Levi’s editor. Both books are a departure from Levi’s more familiar work not only for the subject matter, but also the tenor of the prose—absent is his signature moral urgency, the tensile cord of fury and descriptive restraint that typifies the memoirs.

The last book Levi ever wrote is a collection of essays, The Drowned and the Saved, a return to the subject of the Holocaust. It is the angriest of his works, the one in which his livid indignation comes closest to overwhelming his heroic attempts at philosophical discipline. One can see this especially in the last essay, “Letters from Germans,” a reflection on the correspondence he received from German readers after If This is a Man was translated into their language. One epistle from a doctor from Hamburg infuriated Levi—it featured a rehearsal of increasingly familiar exculpations focusing on how little the Germans understood of Hitler’s mad depravity. Levi’s response is as devastating as it is “irate,” as he called it, but one detects no sense of triumphalism in it, no smirk of victory. The doctor’s arguments were defeated, but not the general attitude Levi believed they represented, an inclination to erase a morbid history through mealy-mouthed self-acquittal.

In The Periodic Table, Levi tells another story of a German doctor incapable of countenancing his own guilt—this time one he had first encountered while at Auschwitz working in a laboratory. In 1967, Levi stumbled upon the man’s name again in the course of his work as a chemist at an industrial paint-manufacturing plant: Dr. Muller, once the manager of slave labor at Auschwitz, now returned decades later to the responsibilities of quotidian life. Levi sends him a letter and a copy of If This is a Man, and in return receives yet another manifesto of blinkered self-absolution. He writes a rejoinder, but before he can send it he discovers Dr. Muller has suddenly died. Here, Levi recounts a portion of the letter he never sent, which can be counted as a precis of his understanding of German guilt:

As to the specific judgment on his behavior, which Muller implicitly asked of me, I tactfully cited two cases known to me of his German colleagues who in their actions toward us had done something much more courageous than what he claimed to have done. I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world, the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

Levi’s one and only conventionally structured novel—If Not Now, When?—is a literary elaboration of this declaration; a band of Jewish partisans in Russia, armed and brimful of vengeance, roam the countryside in search of opportunities to sabotage German forces. Levi had no penchant for violence—he makes this clear in an essay on Jean Amery in The Drowned and the Saved. “I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or blows.” However, he didn’t aggrandize his personal distaste into a universal prohibition—he believed that after Auschwitz, physical vulnerability could no longer be suffered.

Levi killed himself shortly after writing The Drowned and the Saved, joining a grim club of writers who survived the Holocaust only to die at their own hand, a membership which includes Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Tadeusz Borowski. [Ed. – Well, it’s complicated. In Levi’s case—though the evidence suggests similar ambiguity about Borowski’s death—it’s unclear if it was suicide or accident.] Like Améry, he despaired of the possibility that as the generation of witnesses perished so would the vivid memory and meaning of their torment; Amery believed that in some nontrivial sense this would constitute the final vindication of the Nazi guards who taunted him with the reminder that the stories of the victims would never be told. Levi might be obliquely referencing this possibility in The Monkey’s Wrench when discussing the art of listening to stories:

In fact, just as there is an art of story-telling, strictly codified through a thousand trials and errors, so there is an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm.

Levi experimented with a broad spectrum of writing forms, but his life’s work was bearing witness to what he considered a historically unique catastrophe. However, one cannot bear witness without a receptive audience, and he worried that the same will to oblivion that made Auschwitz possible would make equally possible the evaporation of its memory, rending his work futile. Levi’s exasperation at this prospect crackles thoughout The Drowned and the Saved, which Cynthia Ozick considered a suicide note. “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” [Ed. – Ozick’s is a compelling formulation, though I bristle at its retrospection. Had Levi found a medication that worked for him, for example, (admittedly difficult at the time) he might have lived to write many other works.]

The Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész didn’t share this particular anxiety of Levi, a point he makes in The Holocaust as Culture, a book that collects a lecture he delivered of the same name with a lengthy interview, published by Seagull Books: “Auschwitz casts a long shadow over European civilization and is still the vital question of our culture.” Moreover, he believes a full reckoning of the Holocaust transcends the question of German guilt:

But this is not something peculiar to German history. We speak of collective guilt, the collective guilt of the German nation. But Auschwitz is the collective crime of the entire world, not just of the German nation. If we think of the Holocaust as a war between Germans and Jews then we will never understand it. [Ed. – True.]

Levi sometimes expresses hope in the rational lucidity of science, and the possibility that the scientific extension of human knowledge can redound to the moral and cultural improvement of mankind. In fact, he refuses to brook any polarity between science and the humanities. As he puts it in Other People’s Trades: “I have frequently set foot on bridges that join (or ought to join) scientific culture with literary culture, crossing a crevasse that has always struck me as absurd.” In the same book, he conveys an idealism so unbounded it inspires credulity: “I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is enough to absolve this end of the century and the millennium.”

Cartography 1976 Antoni Tapies 1923-2012 Purchased 1981 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07571

By contrast, Kertész places his own hopes in the birth of a new literary culture that can potentially shake the Western world out of a decadent slumber:

If preserved, the tragic insight into the world of the morality that survived the Holocaust may yet enrich European consciousness, now best with crisis, much as the Greek genius, faced with barbarism and fighting the Persian War, created the antique tragedies that serve as an eternal model. If the Holocaust today has created a culture, and it undeniably has and continues to do, its literature may draw inspiration from the two sources of European culture, the Bible and Greek tragedy, so that irredeemable reality may give rise to redemption: the spirit, catharsis.

I think Levi was attempting to contribute to something like this, though in his version the result would be a matrimony of literature and science, a rational elucidation of the soul. One despairs to think he lost faith in his work, which would seem to entail losing faith in the world. I couldn’t help thinking of Levi when I read the last line of Kertész’s lecture:

As I said in the beginning, we live in the context of a culture, and in this context the dead body of Jean Améry is to be found in the monument—still under construction—to the Holocaust, where he himself laid it down, like a blood-soaked flower.