Daniel Syrovy’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Daniel Syrovy, his first for the blog. Daniel is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, Austria; he tweets at @daniel_syrovy.

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

Maria Lassnig, Necessary Understanding, 1998

The last book I finished in 2021 was Milo Dor’s Tote auf Urlaub (called Dead Men on Leave in an out-of-print 1962 translation; some used copies can be found). Despite a number of reprints after 1952, it’s not a well-known novel. Set mostly in Belgrade and the surrounding countryside (and, eventually, in Vienna), it focuses on the Serbian Resistance to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945. Its ostensible protagonist, with hints of autobiography, is Mladen Raikow, but a character list included in the 500-page book lists forty characters in addition to “communists, Trotskyists, dreamers, cowards, traitors, real and false heroes, fallen angels, idiots, bootlickers, liars, drunkards, gluttons, whores, blackmailers, and torturers.”

This is not light reading, and despite a good pinch of gallows humor, the novel offers a rather bleak view of humanity. There is not much by way of a plot, but the novel is crammed with short scenes that depict small gestures of solidarity as well as acts of depravity. Dor must have been compelled to put everything into his manuscript, sparing no-one, and it is telling that even my 1992 edition quotes reviews that question whether this should properly be called a novel at all. Of course it’s a novel—but it must have been uncomfortably close to lived experience just after the war.

In fact, I first learned about it in Evelyne Polt-Heinzl’s reassessment of Austrian postwar literature, Die grauen Jahre (2018), which I re-read this past year for a work-related project. One of her central theses is that Austrians in the 1950s mostly rejected realistic texts about the war, but that such texts did exist. I had already spent a summer with a number of books unearthed by this indefatigable scholar, but it turned out there were quite a few interesting titles I had overlooked (including Dor’s collaborations with Reinhard Federmann: a series of crime novels from the 1950s; Federmann’s own novels Das Himmelreich der Lügner and Chronik einer Nacht; books by Hertha Pauli, Dorothea Zeemann, Hans Flesch-Brunningen, Hans Weigel). I’m going to stop naming names in a minute. [Ed. – I hope not!]

With me, such reading projects seem to crop up unexpectedly from time to time, and for the most part they are neither completely work-related (I am a literary scholar and I teach at university) nor exactly spare-time reading. But I do enjoy filling gaps in my knowledge of different literatures, so I follow loose reading lists, for instance on the Celtic Revival: several plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, and related material occupied me this past summer. Austrian literature often figures large, too. In 2021, I reread some Thomas Bernhard, and was surprised at the intermittent tenderness of the first half of Correction (1975). I also read Friederike Mayröcker, Helmut Zenker, Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Leo Perutz. Yet, much of this reading follows rather obvious patterns like stepping stones. In preparing these notes, I kept asking myself whether I couldn’t come up with some more interesting observations. [Ed. – Yeah, enough of this boring stuff filled with enticing, new-to-me names.]

It turns out, I loved reading some new old books (a series of newly rediscovered and partly very funny Proust manuscripts published as Les soixante-quinze feuillets in March) and some brand new ones (especially Lisa McInerney’s brilliant third volume of her Cork-based crime trilogy, The Rules of Revelation, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s autofictional Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, and Shida Bazyar’s mindblowing Drei Kameradinnen, reviewed in English here); I also enjoyed some classics – which I would mostly read in bed chapter by chapter over longer stretches of time (from Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies to Middlemarch to Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh). I took my cues from friends and Twitter-friends [Ed. – Wait, so we’re not like your real friends?], from the LRB, from other books. I was happy to break open volumes I already owned (Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear; Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi; Bely’s Petersburg) and to pick up new ones (Pola Oloixarac’s Mona; Percival Everett’s Erasure). Hopping between languages and centuries was always something of a comparatist’s credo with me [Ed. — Comparatists 4eva!]. But I hesitate to call this a noteworthy pattern.

It does not escape my attention that despite buying new books at a steady rate, I picked up stacks of books from the library as well, often going there twice a week. A reduced social life will do that sometimes. And perhaps it is true that during the pandemic I was a more restless reader than usual. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few books I did not finish. Looking at my rather disparate and unsystematic notes (I have neither a Goodreads account nor physical lists), I can’t come to any definitive conclusions. I know that I listened to an incredible amount of Grateful Dead live shows in 2021, something I had never done before. But to relate all of my reading habits to the state of the world and my own preoccupations? To quote from a recent read, Anna Wood’s book of short stories Yes Yes More More, “I kn[o]w better than to think for too long about my internal organs after taking acid.”

Helene Funke, Dreams, 1913

Maybe, one day such patterns will emerge more clearly, and I’ll be the wiser for it. In the meantime, I’d rather mention another discovery that is already turning into a reading project. I always liked concrete poetry (well-established in Austria with writers such as Ernst Jandl, seen here performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965), and between that interest and preparing an introductory lecture about poetry, I came across a recent volume by the Brooklyn-based publisher Primary Information, Women in Concrete Poetry 1959–1979. Since overlooked women writers are always a high priority, I couldn’t resist, and the volume doesn’t disappoint. It features 50 poets from all over the world (from Sonja Åkesson to Chima Sunada to Rosmarie Waldrop), with a selection that mostly follows a 1978 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Mirella Bentivoglio. Accordingly, the volume looks very much like an exhibition catalogue, with thick glossy paper. The nature of the poetry lends itself to it, as well, written as it is in many languages, partly in color, with striking visual aspects and often presented as collages with repurposed images. Standing out for me were a few pages by the American Madeline Gins, in particular a page showing layers of text thickly typed over one another with a typewriter that I tweeted about in early December. The page ends with the lines “The body is composed 98% of water. This page contains every word in the book.” So I read on. The passage comes from Gins’s book Word Rain (1969) which is reproduced in full in the 2020 Madeline Gins Reader The Saddest Thing is That I Have Had To Use Words (Siglio Press; ed. Lucy Ives), which I have only skimmed so far. Some of this is not exactly concrete poetry, but it is very appealing, so who cares. And anyway, filling some gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary Austrian writer Ann Cotten (herself a poet, novelist, and translator of Rosmarie Waldrop), especially the wonderful lecture series Was geht (2018), I was alerted to Liesl Ujvary, a Viennese poet who started out with a very funny volume in 1977, Sicher & Gut,some of which would certainly be classified as concrete poetry. These converging patterns are what keep me going. Ideally, two or three of them at once.

Anja Willner’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The fifth post is by Anja Willner (@WillnerAnja). Anja lives in Munich, where she has a running argument with herself about what she likes best: reading books, hunting after books, or talking about both.

In 2020, I read 70 books, which is quite a lot for me and certainly more than in recent years. Probably due to less work-related stress and more inspiration by Twitter folks (thank you, Book Twitter)! As I’m German, I’ve got quite a few German books or books translated into German on my list. I tried to provide the English title whenever possible, but some books unfortunately aren’t (yet?) available in English. I hope you’ll bear with me nonetheless!

•           Toni Morrison: Love

What is there to say about Toni Morrison you do not already know? Not much probably, so I’Il just say I’ve yet to pick up a Morrison novel that is not good.

•           Elizabeth Taylor: Blick auf den Hafen (translator: Bettina Ababarnell) [English original, A View of the Harbour]

Pretty much the same goes for Elizabeth Taylor: how in the world did she manage to write such impeccable novels? It is and probably will remain a mystery to me. Anyway, my plan for the years to come is to read all of her work.

           Angie Thomas: On the Come Up

Great writing here, especially the dialogues. Also, I learned a lot about hip hop and feel I appreciate this genre of music more now. Love her!

•           Marcelle Sauvageot: Fast ganz die Deine (translator: Claudia Kalscheuer; English title, Commentary)

Kudos to Asal Dardan (@asallime) for pointing me towards Marcelle Sauvageot! I’m always thankful for suggestions of female authors to rediscover. In case you are not familiar with this little gem (I hadn’t heard of it until a year ago), the backstory here is quite interesting. It’s Sauvageot’s only published literary work as she died very young. Fast ganz die Deine is a letter to a man that left her – the story goes that it circulated among friends who persuaded Sauvageot to have it published. No wonder everyone who read it was enchanted by this work, given its perfection. (Good book to start your reading year off, if you ask me. Far better than the Bely dungeon I’ve locked myself into this January. Got out recently and will brag about it for years, so there’s that.)

•           Annie Ernaux: Erinnerung eines Mädchens (translator: Sonja Finck; English title, A Girl’s Story)

Okay, no surprises here: everybody seems to read and love Ernaux and indulge in autobiographical/pseudo-autobiographical writing at the moment (the “moment” stretching back several years, I guess?), and I’m no exception.

The reason why I’ve long avoided Ernaux’s works is simply I’m so ashamed of my practically non-existent French that I haven’t read many (translated) French books recently. I remember struggling with French pronunciation and comprehension, but some part of me insists it might be the language of my heart. (Probably not true at all and sorry, Russian. We’re still dating, right?)

•           Chris Kraus: I Love Dick

Forever gender-confused here as there is a German (male, cis) filmmaker who goes by the same name. Similarly, I felt confused at times by I Love Dick, but largely liked it very much. Also, I made a lot of screenshots of the text I will probably never look at again.

•           Павел Санаев: Похороните меня за плинтусом (Pavel Sanaev: Bury me behind the baseboard)

There are some rules in my life. For example, I’ll read anything recommended by my lovely and witty Russian teacher, Rita. If you’re into Soviet culture, especially the films, this small novel will particularly interest you, for the author is the son of the actress Elena Sanaeva and the stepson of famous actor Rolan Bykov.

If you’re not into Soviet culture and the personal dramas between actors and actresses (I learned to care, it’s so interesting once you start), don’t worry: It’s sufficient to be a human being to care for this little book. Bury me behind the baseboard is as heartbreaking as it is autobiographical.

The author, Pavel Sanaev, spent most of his childhood with his grandparents–here comes the heartbreaking part—against his mother’s will. The grandparents simply refused for years to give him back to his mother, while persuading the child his mother, Elena, had abandoned and forgotten him. I really cannot describe the feelings I have about how his grandmother treated him, a then small child. I don’t have kids, but the sheer thought anybody could be like that to a kid makes me sick. (There is no physical abuse, though.)

Everything is told from the perspective of the child. Okay, we’re all familiar with this trick, I guess. And maybe we can agree that telling a story from a child’s perspective can either add strength to your story or make it extra cringy. Here, the former is the case. Have I already said how heartbreaking all this is? It is—but it’s also a very funny and sad and wise book.

•           George Eliot: Middlemarch

I know a thing or two about literature written in German and quite a lot less about 19th century Russian literature, but apart from that, my reading biography consists of gaps I sometimes find hard to forgive in myself. To catch up on classic English literature, one has to start somewhere, so I started here and did not regret it. What a rich book, and so funny! Huge thanks to author, translator, and literature lover Nicole Seifert (@nachtundtagblog) whose enthusiasm made me pick it up.

•           Marlen Haushofer: Die Wand (The Wall)

Should you really recommend a novel about near-total isolation in the wilderness to anyone in a pandemic? Not sure, but it worked for me. One of the greatest texts about nature and the question of what it means to be a human being I’ve come across so far. Also, finally a writer who really, really gets cats! But be warned, cat lovers, you will come across some gruesome scenes. 

•           Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Murder Stella)

Great novella by the same author which sadly doesn’t seem to have been translated yet. The casual seduction and destruction of a young girl is not a new motif in literature, but here it shows post-war Austria (could have taken place in Germany as well in my opinion) at its coldest. The non-communication of the family and the cool tone of the narrator were killing me.

•           Andy Miller: The Year of Reading Dangerously

I’m so thankful for book twitter and about twice as thankful for Andy Miller still/again being on Twitter, because I rely on “Backlisted Pod” recommendations so much. And well, I knew even before I picked it up that there was no way I wouldn’t love The Year of Reading Dangerously!

Personally, I’m a fan of tackling the classics no matter what. They are not being stored in some holy shrine, they are for everyone. Maybe not for everyone to enjoy, but, for me, that’s another matter: one has to learn to appreciate literature as an art. The more you read and think about what you read, the more you get out of your reading. And if you don’t understand everything, what’s the matter with that if you’re enjoying yourself? I’m all for critical debates on how a canon is established and how we can include works by women, people of Color and other marginalized groups better. At the same time, I enjoy discovering the classics and reading them (often this is a critical look back, but mostly it’s enjoyable).

Andy’s book was so much fun to read for me and inspired me to make even more lists of books I love to talk about reading someday. Great inspiration!

•           Theodor Fontane: Der Stechlin (The Stechlin; reread)

I come from Brandenburg, in Eastern Germany, the region Fontane wrote so often about; his works were always around when I was a kid (most households there own at least one book by him). I guess that makes Fontane the most admired and unread author of that part of Germany.

Fontane himself used to joke that in this novel, not much happens. It’s true, at least if you’re reading for the plot, of which there is not much. Der Stechlin really is a novel that for me is the perfect fit for the landscape of Brandenburg. Not much there to entertain the eye. Until you learn what to look out for.

           Olivia Wenzel: 1000 Serpentinen Angst (A Thousand Coils of Fear)

Really strong debut novel dealing with problems such as racism. I liked the novel’s experimental form: at first, the reader doesn’t always get who is talking und what’s going on, but it’s not an annoying l’art pour l’art thing. Just a very fresh approach. I noticed some parts (really not many!) I would have wanted edited in a slightly different way, but that is a matter of taste. Overall, I’d advise everyone interested in contemporary German literature to read this novel and follow the work of Olivia Wenzel closely. (I hope there will be a translation soon!)

           Deborah Levy: Was das Leben kostet (translator: Barbara Schaden; English title: The Cost of Living)

Another “late to the party” entry. I like Levy’s writing a lot; I’m not so sure about some of her political beliefs, but nothing I couldn’t live with. Will probably need to read a lot more by her!

•           Rachel Cusk: Lebenswerk (translator: Eva Bonné; English title: Motherhood)

Until a few years ago, I couldn’t be bothered reading new fiction. I was busy with the classics and my work schedule—at least this is my excuse for having never heard about Rachel Cusk until Asal Dardan recommended her works to me (maybe two years ago?). Since then, I have read nearly everything by Cusk. Yes, she is fashionable, but for good reasons.

I had circled around Motherhood for a while and 2020 was the year I finally got around to it. My hunger for books about having children has been irritating for me initially as I don’t have kids and don’t feel particularly drawn to them. (It’s such a difficult topic.) I just feel that these kinds of stories have been marginalized and silenced for so long I have some catching up to do.

What I loved about Motherhood was how honest it felt to me. I remember sending screenshots to my sister (mother to one of the few exceptions I make when it comes to engaging with children), who agreed with almost everything Cusk wrote, allowing us to share a few socially very-distanced chuckles. (We live more than 300 miles apart.)

•           Simone Hirth: Bananama

The author Saša Stanišić (@sasa_s) recommended this book on Twitter and I’m so happy I didn’t just make a screenshot of the book cover and then forget about it. Instead, I put the author’s name on a list of books of interest on my smartphone (I later discovered I took down her name and the novel’s title about three times), checked it out from my local library and – here it comes! – actually read it!

In the book, a small girl lives a super eco-friendly lifestyle with her parents, with the latter taking things clearly too far. I liked the topic, but what I liked even more is what is hardest to describe: what a writer Simone Hirth is! She builds a world you follow her into, even though you maybe don’t completely understand where she is heading, because understanding is just not what matters. Just stunning, sometimes funny.

•           Marlene Streeruwitz: Verführungen (Seductions)

There don’t seem to be any translations of Streeruwitz’s work into English which is a shame if true. Verführungen was her debut novel and it’s a strong one! At first, I struggled a bit with the “Streeruwitz sound”: she uses a lot of really short sentences. As an editor, I usually tell writers off for this sort of thing, but here it is art and it achieves something. Once you let the text lead you, it’s like a maelstrom and pulls and drags you with it, letting go only after you have turned the last page.

When it first came out, the novel was criticized by some as concentrating too much on “trivial” aspects of a woman’s live: caring for children, menstruation, and so on. One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand at least some of this criticism was fueled by underlying misogyny.

There is a very insightful interview with Streeruwitz (in German, sorry) on Nicole Seifert’s blog. If you read German and are interested in overlooked female authors, I would really advise you to follow Nicole on Twitter (@nachtundtagblog)! (I’m aware I mentioned her before, can’t stop, won’t stop.)

Oh, one more thing about Streeruwitz: she recently compared measures for containing Covid-19 with the “Nuremberg Laws” of the Nazis. It goes without saying I find this comparison as historically inaccurate as it is disgusting. Let’s hope she’ll recognize her mistake and apologize – it really hurts to lose a Feminist icon and brilliant writer to the Corona deniers.

•           Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

Very late to the party, I know. But yet: a well written novel offering interesting perspectives – I’d recommend it to (not only) male white friends. Yep, multiperspective narration has been in fashion for ages, but you have to be a really good writer to give it a fresh feeling. Evaristo certainly delivers here.

•           Benjamin Quaderer: Für immer die Alpen (The Alps Forever)

I think this is one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in recent years. Daring and funny, with a narrator that plays around with you. Also, you’ll learn a lot about the tiny, tiny kingdom of Liechtenstein! Minor disadvantage: there are some graphic descriptions of violence I found hard to stomach, but you can easily omit those few pages.

More books I enjoyed a lot in 2020:

  • Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow: Von Paul zu Pedro
  • Ruth Klüger: weiter leben (English title: Still Alive), unterwegs verloren, Frauen lesen anders
  • Brigitte Reimann: Franziska Linkerhand (reread)
  • Antonia White: Frost in May
  • Fran Ross: Oreo (translator: Pieke Biermann)
  • Marguerite Anderson: Ich, eine schlechte Mutter (translator: Patricia Klobusiczky; English title: A Bad Mother)
  • Candice Carty-Williams: Queenie
  • Inge Deutschkron: Ich trug den gelben Stern (English title: Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin)
  • Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall
  • Sjón: Schattenfuchs (translator: Victoria Cribb; English title: The Blue Fox)
  • Marguerite Duras: Der Liebhaber (translator: Ilma Rakusa; English title: The Lover)
  • Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
  • Mary Wesley: A Sensible Life