A Year in Reading, 2014

Late on this, I know, but here are a few thoughts on my 2014 Year in Reading.

Thanks largely to my sabbatical I read a lot last year (96 books). Included in that list were many books that I liked, some that I liked a lot. But I’m left with the impression that it was a more muted year than the previous one. The spread between the best and the worst wasn’t as big. But I didn’t read as many indelible books, especially compared to 2013. Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, the last volume of Proust. Hilary Mantel—hard to compete with those.

But I read a number of good things. And although you wouldn’t know it from this list I made an effort to read more nonfiction this year. I especially liked Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Shavit’s My Promised Land, and Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, which I wrote about here.

David Bezmozgis—The Free World & The Betrayers

These were my books of the year, and I regret not making the time to write about them.

Part of the reason I didn’t is that Adam Kirsch has already said everything that needs to be said about them. He argues that Bezmozgis is a striking outlier in the current wave of literature being produced by the children of the Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate in the 1970s and 80s. Like Bezmozgis, many of these writers were born in the USSR but came to the US—or, in Bezmozgis’s case, Canada—as young children. But unlike them he is at least as interested in what the émigrés left behind in the old world as what they found in the new. The Free World is a beautiful, funny, and smart novel about one extended family’s experience leaving Latvia for the West. The title refers, of course, to America and its promises. But it also refers to the aimless freedom of Rome and its environs, where the family, along with dozens of other Soviet Jews, await visas to their final destination. As Kirsch points out, Bezmozgis doesn’t concentrate on the experiences of a child, that is, of someone close to the age he would been when he left the USSR. (He already did that in his first book, the wonderful linked story collection Natasha.) Instead, he focuses on his parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and the conflict between them as they negotiate a strange new world. Most impressive is Bezmozgis’s sympathetic portrait of Samuil Krasnansky, a true Communist and Soviet patriot to the end. As Kirsch says, Bezmozgis reminds us of a whole category of people and way of life that many readers would prefer to forget: “the generation of Jewish Communists who ardently believed that the Soviet Union was forging a path to Jewish and human liberation.”

Samuil’s past is told so vividly that we can’t help but contrast it to the more petty and aimless story of his sons, trying to provide, in however quasi-legal or illegal fashion, for their families in this Italian interregnum. Yet Bezmozgis isn’t nostalgic: his point isn’t that the past is better but that it has a value that shouldn’t be forgotten even when it has been apparently inevitably superseded.

At one point in The Free World a character recalls an absurd detail from the Sharansky trial. What is background material in the first novel–a sign of the larger political moment Bezmozgis is interested in–takes center stage in the second. Natan Sharansky is the obvious model for Baruch Kotler in The Betrayers. Sharansky—the most famous of the refuseniks–spent more than a decade in Soviet prison camps on trumped up charges while his wife campaigned publically and continuously for his release. When this was finally granted, in 1986, he moved to Israel and became an influential politician. Kotler’s life maps on to Sharansky’s in almost every detail, except that Sharkansky’s personal life remained above reproach, unlike Kotler’s. At the beginning of The Betrayers, he has arrived in Yalta, his boyhood home, with the young woman with whom he is having a suddenly very public affair. By a coincidence so bald and overt that the novel spends a lot of time thinking about its baldness and overtness, he ends up staying in the only room available in the city in high season, in the home of the man who all those years ago denounced him to the KGB. (As you can see, pretty much everyone in the book could be described by the title.) Tankilevich, the informer, is presented as sympathetically as Kotler, and the hardship of Jewish life in Crimea (only exacerbated by the events that happened between the time the book was written and published) is movingly presented. Kotler’s principled response to an imagined Israeli pullout from the West Bank, especially in relation to his reservist son’s very different, yet equally principled take, is also fascinating. My only wish is that the book had more time for its female characters. But the novel seeks to understand everyone, which is one of the reasons it complicates its talky, schematic structure. My sense from casual online browsing is that many find this structure a liability. But for me it shows again that Bezmozgis is the smartest and most surprising young (North) American Jewish writer today.

Josephine Tey—The Franchise Affair

This was one of the first books I read last year and it stayed with me to the end. Strange and unsettling, The Franchise Affair is about an unambitious lawyer in the English countryside who finds himself defending a mother and daughter against accusations that they kidnapped and abused a fifteen-year-old girl. The suspense of whether the couple is guilty is handled superbly, but what makes the book really interesting is its grim suggestion that aggression and vindictiveness lurk inside everybody, just waiting to come out. This philosophy really messes with our reading experience: just who are we supposed to sympathize with? As in all of Tey’s books, the expected romance founders, but her dispatching of the idea here is even more determined than usual. That failure is offered as yet another example of people’s inability to read each other. See Rohan Maitzen’s intelligent review for more about this terrific book.

Caleb Crain—Necessary Errors

Necessary Errors will always have a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first book I blogged about. But I also love it because it’s so smart and rueful and moving. A much better than average novels of innocents abroad. I can’t wait to see what Crain will write next.

Roz Chast—Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Everybody says this about this book, but it’s true: reading it, you will both laugh out loud and feel very, very sad. Of course I’ve always loved Chast’s cartoons—what self-respecting neurotic person doesn’t? But this memoir of her parents’ very old age had a depth and power that surprised me. Made me think about all the conversations neither my parents nor I want to have.

Three Books by Tove Jansson

2014 was Tove Jansson’s centennial and the least I could do was read some of her books. I dispatched The Summer Book, The True Deceiver and Fair Play in the space of a week: they’re wonderful and wonderfully short. They pack a big punch, too. I want to read them again; I’ve a hunch they’ll only get better. (Surely there’s some class I can shoehorn them into?) I wanted to write about them, to force myself to articulate what makes them so great. But I never did. It didn’t help that the week I read them was the week before the semester started. Something else stopped me, too, though. I think it was my sense that they are more complicated than they seem and that delving into them would be a real project. For now, I’ll just say a few obvious things: they are marvelous books about Northern weather and the way it makes you feel—how summer up north makes you feel indomitable and reckless, coated in endless light, how winter makes you feel shriveled and curt, menacing in a different way; they are marvelous books about taking a break from ordinary life; they are marvelous books about friendship, how hard it is to attain and how much it can mean when you do; and above all they are marvelous books about artistic/intellectual work. In this regard, Fair Play is the pick of the litter, even though it was the one I liked least for most of my reading experience it. (An excursion to America seemed particularly infelicitous.) But the ending is so moving and lovely, you forgive everything and realize you’d been wrong in finding parts of it lame and clunky, on the contrary everything was just right.

Penelope Fitzgerald—The Bookshop

Another book I wanted to write more about and didn’t. Early Fitzgerald, but classic, the story simple to the point of nonexistent. A middle-aged woman decides to open a bookshop in a windy, damp Norfolk town in the late 1950s. It doesn’t work out. The Bookshop is devastating, mostly because Fitzgerald calmly underplays everything. We feel so sad at the end because the world didn’t end. Thinking about it now, I see surprising similarities to The Franchise Affair: both novels have a dark vision of English provincialism. Fitzgerald is funnier than Tey, though. Fitzgerald is always funny, in a desperate, almost daft English way. At long last, a book about books that doesn’t think books will save the world.

Sarah Kofman—Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

Last summer I wrote about re-reading this in preparation for a new course. I was surprised how my students took to the book—their energy and insights made me appreciate it even more. Professional bias, I know, but I still think teaching a book is the best test of its value.

Karl Ove Knausgaard—My Struggle (Books1 &2)

I don’t care what Stevereads says. This book, whether novel or memoir or whatever it is, is fascinating. Will it stand the test of time? Who knows? Not much does. But it stayed with me all of the past year, especially the first volume, especially those indelible scenes in which the narrator & his brother muck the filth out of their alcoholic father’s house.

Nathan Englander

This was a special part of my 2014 reading, because I got to hang out with the author for a few days this fall, and he’s totally hilarious and a total mensch. I like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges best as a collection, but think there are individual stories the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank that are stronger (“Free Fruit for Young Widows” is amazing). The Ministry of Special Cases felt like an inspired misfire, but I gather the next novel will be set in Israel and I can’t wait.

Peter Higgins—Wolfhound Century & Truth and Fear

Another winning recommendation from Jenny Davidson. These were my favourite light reading this year. Is this steampunk? I think so. It’s an alternate history of 20th century Russia, it’s crime fiction and fantasy, it’s a totally compelling and carefully imagined world that owes so much to so many wonderful books. Look, for example, at this totally cool and endearing list of “books that shuffled and groaned and whispered on the shelves while Wolfhound Century was being written.” The sequel was just as wonderful and I await the third impatiently.

Necessary Errors–Caleb Crain (2013)

I haven’t enjoyed a work of contemporary fiction this much in a long time.  It’s engrossing, funny, poignant, smart & beautiful. Crain writes for various publications, including The New Yorker, often on topics related to 19th century American literature and culture. He has an interesting blog. This is his first novel. I’m very curious what he’ll do next.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows. A young Irish woman was seated alone in the teacher’s lounge. She had made herself a cup of tea on the range in the corner, and she was opening a tangerine on a paper napkin, with hungry carelessness.

The setting is not Ireland—after all, if it were, the young woman’s nationality wouldn’t need to be named—but Prague. The time, we’ll learn, is almost a year after the Velvet Revolution. The young woman, Annie, is not our protagonist, as we might have expected. That claim goes to Jacob Putnam, introduced laconically in the next paragraph—“one of the American teachers walked in”—and interestingly unnamed for the next couple of pages. In addition to being American, Jacob has just graduated from Harvard and only recently come out, mostly to himself, as gay. Although it’s not immediately apparent in the novel’s initial interaction, Annie will become Jacob’s close friend, a member of the group of young people, mostly foreigners, whom the novel follows. Jacob is always center stage, but the group is important, and one of the book’s many nostalgic pleasures is remembering how people used to meet up and get together (or fail to do so) before we could contact everybody all the time. (Jacob rents a basement suite from a Czech family; the stratagems required to be able to use the family’s phone is a minor, amusing subplot.)

Let’s return to that opening paragraph. Referring to the school where Annie and Jacob and some of the other characters work, a bit desultorily, the novel, already in its first sentence, introduces the topics of communication and language. In so doing, it encourages us think about the book’s own language. The paragraph is representative: here and elsewhere the prose is careful, quiet, syntactically straightforward. The novel is resolutely realist in its depictions. I hope I haven’t made the style sound safe or uninteresting. Crain is not a flashy writer, but he is an elegant, thoughtful, and sometimes sneakily dazzling one.

Consider the marvelous touches apparent in the opening—the use of “batting,” for example, odd not only because it anthropomorphizes the leaves, but also because of what it has the leaves do. We usually say that light shines through leaves. But here the leaves do the work—except it’s gentle, playful work. (The best kind of work, or not work at all?) “Batting” is a funny word: it ought to be violent (most of the things you do with a bat are pretty forceful), but it actually signifies lightness and ease. Those are not qualities we would ascribe to the passage’s final phrase—Annie opens the tangerine with “hungry carelessness.” Whose description is this? The omniscient narrator’s? Mostly there is no such thing; the narration usually hews closely to Jacob’s perspective. (There are only a handful of moments when we know things he doesn’t yet.) But how could this be Jacob’s free indirect discourse when he hasn’t yet entered the room or the novel? Is the description a moment of self-criticism on Annie’s part? Wherever it comes from, the content of the phrase—suggesting abandon, need, urgency—is at odds with the controlled quality of the prose, and it gets at the sense the book’s characters have of having been given the opportunity, by virtue of their privileged Western backgrounds, to live all they can, to devour new opportunity, to enjoy their relative ease in this beautiful city in which they can think endlessly about themselves, each other, art, love, life, etc. Yet even when the characters do things that are hungry or careless or both—when their innocence is disabused, when a lover takes up with another, when they argue, usually out of their depth, about politics—they do so gently, if not always kindly.

At least a few readers seem to agree that the book isn’t like much else in American fiction today, and the decorum, for lack of a better word, of the book’s characters and events—which is real, but which I fear might give the wrong impression of the book as precious or twee—might account for that response. I’m thinking of some of the blurbs on the jacket—though when one of those writers compares this book to Musil’s Törless, a remarkable if disagreeable novel with which Crain’s has absolutely nothing in common, I have to wonder—but also, more substantially, of Norman Rush’s review in the NYRB. Rush has a lot of shrewd things to say, though I think his conviction that the novel is first and foremost about the idea of utopia says more about his own fiction than about Crain’s.

Although I don’t read very much American fiction, I’m inclined to agree the book seems unusual. For one thing, it’s not about America, or, rather, it’s about America in the way Henry James’s novels of Americans abroad are. Which is another way to say that it’s really quite a bit about America, but, more than James, even, it takes seriously the foreign surroundings in which the Americans abroad find themselves. I won’t say too much about James here, partly because I don’t actually know his work that well—enough about The Ambassadors to know that it’s in the background here, a kind of intertext Crain gestures to—but mostly because the book is ahead of me. It references the Master, but suitably ironically: Jacob knows James only through an essay about a famous James’s story that he read in college (never named, but clearly Sedgwick’s “The Beast in the Closet”).

 We can see here how delicate and slippery the novel’s presentation of its protagonist is: we are allowed to feel equal to, or possibly a little bit superior to, Jacob, in this moment and others. But we feel for him too. We aren’t asked to look down on him. The book doesn’t have a condescending bone in its body. At the end of the book, on the bus from Prague to Paris, Jacob luxuriates in the dramatic, rather selfish thought: “Now I know what it feels like to go into exile.” He doesn’t—his life has been nothing but privilege and safety. And yet the book doesn’t just make fun of him; Jacob is losing something real here, the sense of possibility afforded him by his time abroad. This is what I mean when I say that the most central thing about this book is its generosity.

Maybe that generosity comes from its sense that books are central to life. In general, it’s a book that loves books. Jacob finds out that he read the same children’s book as a unrepentant Danish Communist with whom he otherwise has nothing in common: “Love for the book lay sudden between them, an awkward intimacy.” Coming across a store filled with English-language books at British prices, Jacob “fell into a reverie of imaginary possession; he was visiting the books in his future library; they were prisoners he could not yet free.” He even meets his Czech lover, the wry, sad, and life-affirming Milo, at a bookstore. (Milo gets a lot of good lines: when Jacob’s pet hamster dies, just days after Jacob finds an exercise wheel for it, Milo suggests it be read “as a warning to Americans.”) But books, as these lines suggest, lead to desire. Desire—sometimes for sex, but more often, in the hungry way of the opening passage, for experience—finds its way into every part of the text. Here are Jacob and his friend Melinda, who experiences perhaps more than anyone else in the book, sitting in a courtyard: “The grass at their feet fluttered, like a boy’s hair being smoothed.” Their conversation is just as poised between comfort and the erotic. Later, when Jacob’s friend Carl, on a visit from the States, meets Melinda, his “silly talk” takes on more flourish than usual: “He seemed to be laying it out for Melinda’s unacknowledged admiration, and perhaps comfort, like a coat over a puddle, to be taken for granted.” I love that coat—to say nothing of that devastating “unacknowledged.”

What does it mean for a book that seems to do everything so right, so elegantly, to be named after things that go wrong? What are necessary errors? Mistakes we can’t help but make? False solutions that turn out to be solutions, such that we’re glad we made them, can’t see how we could have done otherwise? Crain’s title is like his book: a bit opaque, prompting reflection, increasingly pleasing at least for those who find pleasure in mulling things over.

As I’ve said, Jacob and some of the others work as language teachers. Some of the book’s necessary errors are linguistic, the kind that come up when one is learning another language, or when one lives between languages. Jacob is always telling his students what native English speakers typically say, which means he is put in the position, necessarily faintly ridiculous, of correcting others. One of the book’s pleasures is its depiction of the happy distortions of non-native speakers. And that goes both directions. Crain gives us Jacob’s hesitant Czech in a pleasingly formal English (which has something, I gather, to do with the Czech language, and something with Jacob’s haltingness). The inadvertent poetry of the second-language speaker sometimes seems to infect the novel’s own prose, like in the “batting” example from the beginning.

Maybe it’s not surprising I loved the book: in many ways I’m its target audience. Although I’m neither American (yet) nor Harvard-educated nor gay, I was about the same age as the book’s characters when the Wall came down, and I spent the year immediately afterward in Europe (though in Switzerland, so I didn’t experience first hand that sense of dreamy possibility and anxiety Crain depicts so well). And I too wanted to write and didn’t write much and relished the chance that living in a different place gave me to become a different person. But it does Crain’s novel a disservice to talk of a “target audience.” To be out of fashion or out of step with prevailing trends, if that’s in fact was this book is, could of course also be a kind of branding. But I think the novel will appeal to all sorts of readers, especially those who have ever plunged into a foreign country or language. That’s certainly a privileged position to be in, and maybe those not materially fortunate enough to have been able to do their growing up abroad, to say nothing of those who have been forced or chosen to live in a place not their home for a lifetime rather than an extended visit might find this novel a bit precious. But Crain’s sure narrative touch means that the book is always just a little bit more critical of its characters than they are themselves (and they’re hardly narcissists). The striking thing to me—what really separates the book in a good way from the cultural climate of the day, is that its criticism is so kind, so affectionate. Its irony is gently, not scathing, but it cuts all the more deeply for that.

 My only visit to Prague was in 1992; the economic and political situation might have solidified a bit from the one depicted in the novel, but my (rather hazy) memory of the city, where I only stayed a few days, was of a place still between things. I remember entering a little grocery. Each aisle—there were only three or four, narrow, not exactly laden with goods, but not bare either—was patrolled by an employee. I reached up to take something from a shelf and received a stern rebuke. Apparently I wasn’t to do that myself. The employee took down whatever it was and placed it in my basket. At the time, I could only think of this as at best bemusing and at worst as inefficient and hopeless. But thanks to Crain’s lovely novel I’m reminded by how little my younger self knew, how clueless he was about the consequences of the changeover for Czechs and Slovaks, how spoiled and sheltered (complaisantly, vaguely bien-pensant liberal though it may have been) his perspective on life was—and yet also how open that younger self was to new experiences, how fearful and yet how brave, how in thrall to the idea that nobody here knows who I am supposed to be, and therefore how not entirely to be condemned from the position of hindsight by the putatively older and wiser self I am today.