Anne Cohen’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.

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).

Vanessa Bell, In the Other Room (late 1930s)

Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose. 

Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification.  “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.

(You still should read it.)

Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).

The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter. 

This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.)  I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.

Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.  I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances FlavellDaisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.

Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)

Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.   

Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.

Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.

Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]

Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.

“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight. 

What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]

My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time. 

A year for letters: Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.

Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.  

But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.

The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]

Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.

Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.  

Vanessa Bell, Composition, ca. 1914

Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword. 

I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.  

Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list. 

What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]  

Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good. 

Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend. 

The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep.  Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.

Keith Bresnahan’s Year in Reading, 2021

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2021 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 contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

First up is my old friend Keith Bresnahan (@designhist, follow him, he’s funny and awesome), who’s previously contributed several terrific pieces on Zola. You can read his 2020 reflections here. Keith lives and works in Toronto.

2021, in a nutshell:

This year was strange, obviously. I was lucky, avoiding any serious effects of the pandemic: I kept my job, as did everyone in my family; no one I knew got seriously ill or passed away with Covid. But time and space felt flat. I didn’t go anywhere, and the repetitive sameness of days was best reflected in this popular image I kept seeing re-posted on Twitter. Perhaps this is why when Dorian initially nudged me to look back on my year of reading, I felt like I hadn’t read much at all: there was little to situate my reading in association with specific places or other things that were happening around me while I read them. As it happens, judging by my admittedly imperfect reconstruction (I have sworn to be better at keeping track this year!), I found I actually read 50-odd books for pleasure in 2021, not counting the 15 or so others I read for teaching and academic research. Not bad.

Here are a few of the more memorable ones.

Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles

I read this early in the year; details have faded, but my memory of reading it is of being carried along on gentle sea-waves; it’s that kind of book. A first-person travelogue of Marsden alone in a wooden boat, traversing waters up the west coast of Ireland toward the titular isles in northern Scotland, it also contains a good deal of reflection on historical lore, spiritual journeys, and local geographies. Much of the sailing-vocabulary was lost on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. Both learned and meditative, it was perhaps the most calming book I read this year. I passed it on to a good friend who owns a boat. 

Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris (Trans. Anne McLean)

I found out about Vila-Matas this year, like most of the other authors I come across these days, from people I follow on “Book Twitter” (regular Twitter, just a nice corner of it populated by book-obsessed folks). A wry memoir of Vila-Matas’s youthful days in Paris as an aspiring writer and Ernest Hemingway wannabe. I loved it. He somehow rents a garret from Marguerite Duras, encounters Georges Perec and Roland Barthes, dates a woman who suggests he fling himself off the Eiffel Tower while on an acid trip, fends off parental intervention, and generally fails to write anything of substance. In a year where I couldn’t go anywhere, the descriptions of Paris were more than welcome. Looking forward to reading more by Vila-Matas soon, starting with Dublinesque, a kind of Joycean dream, apparently. Perfect for the centenary of Ulysses this year? (I’m also planning to give that one another shot)

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove.

An 800-plus-page western. A western? Cowboys? A cattle drive? I left central Alberta for a reason, dude. But many folks who know better than me loved it, so I gave it a shot. Holy shit is this book great. An out-and-out masterpiece. At times it felt like magic realism – did the bull actually fight that bear? Was the cook actually back there banging the same bell with the same crowbar? Did Blue Duck fly? The book’s Indigenous characters are barely fleshed out (although McMurtry does show sympathy for their plight) — but then this is really the story of the others, the damaged settlers moving against a nascent American backcloth, seeking and grasping for any purchase with little to guide or protect them. At its heart is an emotionally blocked friendship between two former Texas rangers, and the women who speak truth to them (and whom they largely fail to understand). Plus an impressive cast of secondary characters, all memorable creations. Did I mention it’s more than 800 pages and somehow feels too short?

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Trans. Grace Fick)

Another masterpiece. The best fictional evocation of the classical world I’ve ever read. Dreamlike and imagistic, with lessons on life and death to spare. I’m waiting to read more Yourcenar until the memory of this one’s brilliance fades a bit.

Ivo Andrić, Bosnian Chronicle (Trans. Celia Hawkesworth in collaboration with Bogdan Rakić)

A newish edition from Apollo Classics (Head of Zeus), this is a very long book, first published in 1945, about a French consul during the Napoleonic era living in a small Bosnian town on the extreme fringes of world events. Not much happens. I adored it.

Dominique Barbéris, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray (Trans. John Cullen)

This was great — a short, stylish account of two sisters, one recounting to the other a past entanglement with a strange man. Felt to me at times like watching a French film from the 1970s. Enigmatic, and atmospheric as all get-out.

Three books in the “how-did-I-not-know-about-these?” category:

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast

A number of families cram into a seaside hotel in Cornwall for a week in the summer, their conflicts and idiosyncrasies build to a climax, then half of them are killed when a cliff falls on them. We know this part from the outset, though not who dies, so I’m not giving anything away. Apparently there’s a whole structure here about the 7 deadly sins, but I missed this while reading it, and it didn’t matter. Great fun. Made me want to read more Kennedy, and soon.

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

An older woman moves into a retirement hotel in London. The plot? Not much. But I found it utterly charming, even its descriptions of the depredations of old age, and very funny, too. Others, I’ve since learned, found it bleak. [Ed. – raises hand] Not me. Mrs. Palfrey is a plucky heroine, if a little self-deceiving (aren’t we all), and even the end, coming as it must, didn’t feel sad. I picked up a used Virago copy of this book on a whim, and then coincidentally read it the same week that it came out in a new NYRB classics edition. For once my finger was right on that pulse. More from Taylor in my near reading future.

Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon

A young English woman in Naples in the 1950s falls in with a Neapolitan woman, Giaconda, and her Roman lover, Gianni. This was both evocative and restrained, with a powerful sense of the unspoken and unshown behind the minimal plot. Reminded me a bit of Antonioni, in a good way. Also made me long to revisit Naples (some strong compensatory travel-thrills in my readings this year!). My first Hazzard, won’t be my last.

Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Akimitsu Takagi, The Informer (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Akimitsu Takagi, Honeymoon to Nowhere (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (Trans. Geraldine Harcourt)

Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (Trans. E. Dale Saunders)

I enjoyed all the books translated from Japanese that I read this year, especially The Informer and Territory of Light. But it was Abe’s Woman in the Dunes that was the real revelation. A distressing, tense, fever-dream of a book, I’d put this existentialist fable of bizarre confinement, Sisyphean futility, and struggles of the will up against Camus any day of the week. I won’t be reading it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I did. Haven’t brought myself to watch the movie, but here’s an image from it anyway.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Another existentialist hero, this time Philip Marlowe probing some family funny-business in sunny California. Noir perfection. I realized I’d previously conflated Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose hard-boiled shtick I could never really get past [Ed. – I am allowing this heresy on my blog, but I don’t like it], but this is glorious, witty stuff. The film, with Bogart and Bacall, is a deserved classic.

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

My first Spark! I loved this small tale of young women living together and negotiating wartime, nascent loves, work, and rooftop escapes. A near-perfect short read.

Sam Selvon, The Housing Lark

Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

Two takes on the West Indian experience in 1950s – 60s England. The Housing Lark, by the criminally under-appreciated Sam Selvon, is a sort of sequel to his better-known The Lonely Londoners; if anything, I liked this one better. Hall’s autobiography takes him from Jamaica to Oxford to the founding of cultural studies and the New Left in the 1960s—on the one hand, a world apart from Selvon’s hustling hardscrabble immigrants, and on the other not so different, negotiating displacements and identities among the so-called Windrush generation. Suggest watching Steve McQueen’s remarkable Small Axe series alongside.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Ryszard Kapusćiński, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (Trans. William Brand)

Sergio Pitol, The Journey (Trans. George Henson)

Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Purely by accident, I ended up reading a number of books this year highlighting historical communism and Cold War politics seen through individual lives. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a scathing indictment of Western intervention in Southeast Asia, with its shockingly amoral conclusion, was among the best books I read this year. Ryszard Kapusćiński’s Nobody Leaves, a collection of short journalistic pieces from his native Poland around 1960, is episodic, strange and beautiful, and generally short on hope. Sergio Pitol’s The Journey, has the Mexican writer traveling around literary circles in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi during two weeks in 1986, just as glasnost and perestroika were starting to peek through. It was a highly personable travelogue that makes me want to read more by him (I’ve already ordered Pitol’s The Love Parade, out in translation early this year). He writes a lot about Marina Tsvetaeva, which makes me think I should read her. In non-fiction, I was taken with Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, recently republished by Verso. Originally from 1977, it’s an oral history of American communists from the 1920s through the 1950s and their breaks with the Party following the revelations of the 1950s. Gornick’s subjects are angry and wounded, prone to self-importance, self-deception, and self-critique, and her book is wonderful at conveying how people form passionate attachments to ideological movements, and what happens when that falls apart. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a cream-puff fantasy of a hotel-bound aristocrat suffering minor inconveniences during the same decades of Soviet history, which I read at a cottage just after Gornick’s bracing book, felt too tidy and cute by half. I might have enjoyed it more at another time.

James Salter, Light Years

Probably my favourite book of 2021. A couple raises two kids in a country house not far from New York City. They have affairs, they divorce, their kids grow up, they meet artists, actors, go to parties, discuss the theatre, they remarry, get ill, die. It recalled the 1970s cinematic and literary middle-class dramas I was enthralled by as a child (this was what life was, or so I thought then). Now in my own middle age, I’m both less sanguine about this stuff than I used to be, and intuitively drawn to it. Nostalgia for that insular worldview? Dunno. Whatever it was, I found it perfectly, achingly beautiful, and sad. A book I know I’ll revisit. I also read Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I liked but not nearly as much as this one.

In the last days of 2021, I read three quietly resonant books:

Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians

I’m not sure how to classify this short book, which shifts constantly between two conversations: in the first, two figures discuss a series of three (real-life) paintings in a museum showing the sleeping guards charged with protecting Christ’s tomb; in the second, we hear the voices of the Roman guards themselves, having woken up to find one of their party missing and the stone from the tomb entrance moved. It’s clever and light, achieved with erudition and evident skill; as a professional art historian, I wish I’d written it myself.

Louise Glück, Winter Recipes from the Collective

Nobel winner of 2020. Quiet and studious poems. Felt snowy, and cold. Some folks are saying this book shows a diminution of Glück’s energies, which bodes well for her earlier work, I’d say. I’ve just bought her first four books of poems.

Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down

Another Apollo Classics reprint, first published in 1966. A woman on the cusp of middle age, living with her unmarried sisters in a declining Irish great house, has an ill-fated affair with a German scholar of no means. Just go read it already. One of my books of the year. There’s a film, too, with Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench.

One more, for Dorian:

Marian Engel, Bear. Technically a re-read, since I first read this when I was 18. But that was some time ago, and I was 18, so let’s call it a new book for 2021. Is it the great Canadian novel? Sure. [Ed. — Hmm… this is not the expression of explosive joy I’d hoped for, but I’ll take it.]

Some predictions for 2022:

– Nature-books: I’ve got a bunch of these on the shelf, and this is the year! Birds, mountains, wild swimming, I’m your man.

– More 20th-century reprints, mostly from UK writers: I’ve gathered a small heap of books from Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, Apollo Classics and others, and am eager to dive in.

– Finishing the Penguin Maigret books. I’ve got 10 left to read in this 75-volume set, and the last one has just arrived by post.

– Following a prompt from a Twitter mutual, I’ve signed on to read all the extant plays of classical Greece. Ambitious, but they’re short, right?

What I Read, December 2021

I had quite a bit of free time this month, especially when I wasn’t writing the things I should be writing. But it didn’t feel especially restful: living amid the continual, not-so-slow erosion of a functioning civil society takes a toll. Plus I had a lot of leaves to rake. Like, a lot. (Corner lot, seven pin oaks.) I did read some books, though.

William Steig, New Yorker, October 14, 1967

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

In his odd and to my mind often unsatisfactory but certainly never dull introduction to this excellent novel, Michael Hofmann suggests that Saul Bellow struck a fatal blow to its chances at winning the Booker prize because he thought it sounded like a book with a lot of ladies sipping tea. (Apparently he hadn’t even read it? Which ugh Saul not a good look.) As Hofmann notes, almost no tea is sipped in this novel, there’s nothing cute or sweet or twee about it. It’s a late novel by a writer now finally getting her due as one of the best England produced in the 20th Century and by this point in her career Taylor really knew what she was on about.

What she’s specifically on about in this novel is death, and the loneliness that leads to it. Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed and unwilling to stay with her daughter in Scotland, where she does not feel particularly welcome anyway, chances on an advertisement for the Claremont Hotel in London. “Reduced Winter Rates. Excellent cuisine.” Mrs. Palfrey is no dummy, she knows the latter is unlikely but she has the idea that London could be exciting and seizes the chance to strike out on her own. She arrives on a Sunday afternoon in January, and although the events take place over the course of the most of the rest of that year, it feels a wintry book to me.

Mrs. Palfrey finds the Claremont to be populated mostly by people as old as herself (rather than the bewildered, moneyed American tourists the manager much prefers), all of whom have nothing much to do other than to mark out their days and husband their dwindling resources. Mrs. Palfrey brags about her grandson, who works at the British Museum, implying he will soon visit; his failure to do so causes her much embarrassment. So when she takes a fall while on a walk (pacing out the time, duration, and direction of the daily walk being one of her important occupations) and is helped by a young man who lives in the basement flat opposite the accident, she is happy to pass him off as her grandson. The young man, Ludo (not quite as playful as his name suggests), is happy to oblige, as he is writing a novel and living on next to nothing (he writes at Harrod’s where he can sit in the warmth for nothing) and is always up for a free meal, even at a place where the cuisine is decidedly as non-excellent as the Claremont Hotel.

All the elements are in place for a farce—pretending Ludo is her grandson proves trickier than Mrs. Palfrey had anticipated, especially when the real one shows up—but the novel is dark rather than sparkling. Ludo is not a bad man, exactly, but he uses Mrs. Palfrey’s infatuation with him, not so much for financial gain as artistic material—he uses the milieu of the boarding hotel and its status as an antechamber to death for his novel and is generally more contemptuous of Mrs. P than he lets on. He’s not just a chancer, and does much more for the woman than her actual family, so it’s all interestingly complicated.

In one sense, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is about the definition of family. Can the community of those who are thrown together be more powerful than the connections between blood or marital ties? The answer might not be yes, but the novel doesn’t have any nostalgia for those conventional ties, either. When one of the residents, the only man, proposes to her, Mrs. Palfrey is horrified. The most indelible scene in the novel, for me, is when the man refuses to wash his hands after using the toilet but runs the water briefly so that people will think he did. This is funny but also grim—and that gets the tone of the book, for me.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel—much more interesting than the film, which I saw many years ago and remember as cloying, an interpretation that kept me from reading the book for years, alas—which punches above its short length and too-easily dismissed subject matter (old people, especially women). Shout-out to NYRB Classics for publishing this in the US. I especially approve of their cover choice. Would have been easy to go for something with more chintz. That’s what Saul would’ve done.

Garry Disher, Peace (2019)

The second Hirsch novel is even better than the first. Disher evens out the ambivalence of Hirsch’s character, making Peace the more conventional book, but maybe I just want to be comforted—this book really worked for me. I love how Hirsch is as much social worker as cop: much of his job involves visiting shut-ins or otherwise marginalized figures who live on the out of the way farms or properties that seem to almost exclusively comprise his far-flung district. Eventually the plot coalesces into a central investigation, but this is a pleasingly loose-limbed novel.

John Le Carré, Silverview (2021)

At some point I might have to conclude I’m a Le Carré philistine. He’s just not my guy. The story of a man—a former finance guy who’s left the City and opened a bookshop in a seaside town in East Anglia—who meets and becomes entangled with another—a broken former spy offers a promising narrative structure is promising, lending itself to indirection and the juxtaposition of private and public secrets. But the bookseller character feels cursory and implausible, which means that his interest in the second man is hard to figure out. It’s a book written by someone who feels betrayed by the turn his country has taken—I read it as an anti-Brexit novel; I assume the otherwise odd extended references to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn are meant symbolize an idea of Britain as inextricable from Europe—but the betrayal at the heart of the novel is confusing. Are we supposed to accept, even admire its consequences? In the end, Silverview left barely an impression on me.

Garry Disher, Consolation (2020)

Third Hirsch novel, best of the lot. Like most actual cops (I assume), Hirsch usually has a number of cases, many minor, barely worthy of the term, on the go at once. Consolation is a procedural, so inevitably a number of these strands end up coming together, but I like what Disher is doing in these books a lot. They’re generous, maybe a little regressive, but I prefer “cop doing his best” to “burnt-out obsessive with his demons.”  Can’t we all use some generosity these days? I found the ending as satisfying as the title promises. It would be fine to end the series here, but I gather a fourth’s on the way and I’ll read it for sure.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2021)

Beautiful novella set in Ireland in 1985—I was surprised when the date was first mentioned, I thought it might be the 50s, but as a friend told me the 80s in Ireland were the 50s elsewhere—about the Magdalene Laundries. That makes it sound worthy and dour, but it’s not, it’s a quiet heartbreaker in the William Trevor or Alice Munro mold.

Bill Furlong runs a coal delivery service—I loved the details of the business scattered throughout—and in the weeks leading up to Christmas he becomes aware of something terrible at the local convent. He finds a terrified young woman hiding in the convent’s coal shed, she begs him to take her with him, he doesn’t, even bringing her back to the nuns, but as soon as he does he knows he shouldn’t have, the nuns treat her kindly and with concern but he knows something is wrong and worries about what’s happened to her once he left. When he enquires into the situation he gets messages, some subtle and some not, that he shouldn’t mix himself in the nuns’ business, it’ll only end badly for him. In a moving conclusion, Furlong has the chance to right his previous wrong and Keegan leaves us poised on a knife edge—exultant that the right thing has been done but dreading what will likely be the terrible consequences of his decision. Furlong is a magnificent creation—Gabriel Conroy with self-knowledge (maybe a fanciful comparison, but the snow storm of the final pages had me thinking of snow being general over Ireland)—but one of many extraordinary things about the book is Keegan’s facility with characters. Especially fascinating, to me, was Furlong’s upbringing, being raised by a single mother, a domestic at the local Big House, whose welfare was taken in hand by the local Protestant grandee. (It tells you how much is going on in this little book that I haven’t even mentioned what Furlong learns about his paternity.) Equally brilliant is how these events are told: the prose is so careful, so infused with the rhythms of speech, so crafted without being labored or poetic. I read somewhere that Keegan revised the book forty times, and it shows—without ever being showy.

Everyone loves Small Things Like These, it was on half of the TLS contributors’ year in review lists, and I get it. It’ll be on mine too.

Paula Fox, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005)

“I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand.” That’s how Paula Fox describes her barely adult self when she sailed for Southampton in the summer of 1946. After a few weeks in bombed-out London she finagled a gig as a stringer and headed for Paris, Prague, and then, in the snows of December, to Poland. As in the novels that would make her name, the memoir is good with telling details: a woman’s clenched knuckles appearing white through the worn cloth of her apron signifies her trauma more than anything she says; a couple struggling with their wartime losses slowly press their cheeks together, the pained ritual “more intimate… than a passionate kiss would have been.” The point of the Poland trip was to observe the first post-war election, though given the Soviet-backed communist takeover, the results were a foregone conclusion. Fox is accordingly more interested in her fellow journalists, especially Helen Grassner, a Midwestern matron sent by an American Jewish organization to see what Poland was doing for its surviving Jews. Fox is fascinated by and disparaging of Grassner, a mixture mostly born of the contempt young people have for anyone they think of as old but a smidge of antisemitism is evident too. Fox reports with respectful bewilderment Grassner’s painful despair at not having lost anyone to the Holocaust (“When they have no dead, people feel it worse, somehow,” one of her colleagues notes) and records, first with dismay but eventually with respect, the woman’s affair with a younger Czech reporter.

Fox all but admits the book is slight, an addendum to her much-better known memoir Borrowed Finery, which I plan to read soon. The Coldest Winter feels like a sketch, missing the reflection that characterizes the best memoirs. Two of its most interesting moments—a memory of seeing Paul Robeson at Grand Central Station and a description of the torment she experienced as a puzzlingly fair-haired child of Spanish immigrants in a New York public school populated by Irish Catholics—are also the most retrospective, the older, experienced writer reflecting on and therefore shaping those moments. Still, an interesting glimpse into the rubble, hunger, and cold of Europe right after the war.

David A. Robertson, The Barren Grounds (2020)

Bought this book for my daughter for Hanukkah 2020, with the idea that the whole family might read it together. Which we did, for a while, but then my daughter lost interest (I think she found it a bit scary), and so it sat on the nightstand until my wife and I decided that we would finish it.

The easy summary is that this is Narnia told through Cree traditions: two indigenous kids fostered by a white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba, find a portal to another world populated by humanoid animals who are suffering from a curse that has turned their lands into the barren grounds of the title. I enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this middle-grade novel: the present-day framing material is poignant (no surprise that I, a well-meaning white liberal, was drawn to the kids’ struggles with their well-meaning white liberal foster parents), and the initial description of the alternate world is enticing. (Robertson is good on cold.) I also appreciated how the author matter-of-factly sprinkles Cree words and expressions throughout. But when the inevitable quest takes center stage (which, to be fair, is pretty interesting, as the villain is, as the kids realize, just a sad little ordinary white man, which doesn’t make his damage less powerful), the book takes on the mannerisms of an action movie, most gratingly the mechanical use of quips and sarcasm to punctuate the tension. In general, everything gets hasty, as if the book were rushed to meet a deadline. I’m not the intended audience, so whatever right, but I won’t be rushing to read volume two.

Charlotte Carter, Rhode Island Red (1997)

Breezy crime novel starring Nanette Hayes, “more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits).” Nanette plays saxophone on the streets of New York while putting her degree in French to use by translating Verlaine and dreaming of escaping to Paris. One day she takes home a fellow busker; when she wakes up he’s dead, leading her to discover that he was an undercover cop who has left 60K in her sax: predictably Nanette is caught up in some bad shit. The mystery is implausible, but the book’s worth reading for its style. Nanette on her investigation is funny—“It didn’t make sense. But on the other hand, it didn’t make no sense”—and self-aware: “This had all the elements of a film student’s low-budget homage to Godard.”

I read Rhode Island Red in a battered, smelly 90s mass market edition from the library, but I heard about it because Vintage has reissued the three Hayes novels in stylish new editions. Since the library here doesn’t have volumes two and three, I probably need to buy them, right?

K. C. Constantine, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)

Tom convinced me to give this long-running series a try—a kind of American Sjöwall & Wahlöö set in the fictional western Pennsylvanian town of Rocksburg. Chief of Police Mario Belzic, Italian-Serbian-American, is diverted from the thankless task of directing post-Friday night football traffic and desultory hooliganism to investigate the death of a man found bludgeoned to death at the local train station. (The train station! Where passenger trains regularly come and go! The victim takes the train to work at the night shift of the nearby mill! We once had a better country!) Some series take a while to hit their stride; on the basis of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, the Belzic books arrive fully formed. The lead is great but Belzic is joined by several good minor characters: his deputies; the head of the local detachment of the State Troopers; the DA; a crime reporter; and, best of all, his wife, Ruth, his two teenage daughters, and his infirm and lovable mother. I hope Belzic’s family life will continue to feature prominently. Ruth is especially great—it’s a treat to read a crime novel about a cop whose relationships are not only not terrible but even loving. Mario and Ruth been married a long time and still have the hots for each other. At one point, Ruth is embarrassed to kiss him first thing in the morning because her breath smells. Cute!

The most surprising thing about the book, though, is how skeptical Belzic is about the police. (I mean, Nixon was President when this thing was published!) He believes cops shouldn’t carry guns:

“Nobody thinks twice about sending out a meter maid without a gun or a school crossing guard—why the hell do guys doing practically the same job—giving tickets or directing traffic—why the hell does everybody think they need a gun?”

It’s not the same, retorts his colleague.

“The hell it’s not. You’re just brainwashed, that’s all. You just can’t picture a man cop without a gun, but you see meter maids without them, and you don’t even think about it.”

The mystery itself is more psychological than suspenseful, more why than who, and that stuff felt dated, but as the quote about taking guns away from cops shows the book’s real interest is sociological. And for me, anyway, life in a small-town largely Catholic rust-belt town in the 1970s is fascinating—one of the important characters, a good friend of Belzics, is a priest, who, along with most everyone else in the book, enjoys late night card games and plenty of drinking, though it’s more convivial than desperate and includes local wine (!). Belzic himself is a fan of a late-night snack of provolone and banana peppers washed down with a beer.

His creator seems himself to be a figure of mystery—Wikipedia speculates Constantine may have been a minor-league baseball player, which would account for the matter-of-fact way the sport threads its way through the dialogue—and so maybe he is as laconic and gimlet-eyed as his protagonist. Here’s Belzic lamenting breaking a personal rule:

“It’s one I made about six, seven years ago when I made lieutenant. I told myself that whenever I don’t know what to do, I’d never make the mistake of doing something.” Advice more of us should follow.

And here he is with a bleak one-liner:

“Well, Mario, how’s it feel to be right?”

“Shitty.”

I laughed when I read this exchange; if you did too, give these books a try. K. C. Constantine revival 2022, I say!

Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (2019)

Fantasy novel about New Haven as a nexus of magic, the secrets of which are lorded over by Yale’s Societies—and it fucking slaps. Haven’t enjoyed a book this much in ages, so grateful to the brilliant former student who told me about it. Strong Secret History / Prep vibes, but with more social criticism and a hell of a lot more ghosts. Even if you are a person who does not read fantasy, doesn’t want to hear the word “portal,” and could care less about the idea that some people see the remnants of those who’ve died, you should try this book. The world-building is so clever, the prose is impressive, and the commentary on the way privileged classes expand who gets accepted to them only to protect themselves is spot on. That utterly rare thing, in other words, a great campus novel.

Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories Trans. Madeline G. Levine (2021)

More on this new translation of these indispensable stories in another venue before long.

Maurice Utrillo, Winter Scene

That was December—and another year. Soon I’ll drop my Year in Review piece, but not before I present similar reflections from some other readers. If you’d like to be included, just let me know. And tell me about your December reading, please!

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

“A Long Smudge of Faces”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel

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If ever there was a writer who improved upon re-reading, it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen’s style isn’t simple or easy to follow. Her syntax is famously knotty, often baffling until you figure out which words to emphasize and everything clicks into place. Here’s a classic from her masterpiece, The Heat of the Day (1948), which describes London during the Blitz:

Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs—drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes—presented, between the railings which sill girt them, mirages of repose.

Until you realize that the subject of the sentence is the long noun phrase “parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs” rather than just parks, and that the verb is “presented” not “closed” this makes no sense at all. A reader at Jonathan Cape, Bowen’s publisher, said that her sentences were baffling until you understood the emphasis and then everything clicked into place.

At any rate, Bowen is never straightforward in her syntax. She can contort even simple sentences. Again from Heat: “He seldom was, and was not this time, put out.” Honestly, that one almost parodies itself.

But Bowen’s circumlocution, misdirection, even apparent clumsiness serves a function. I think Rohan is spot on when she says of Bowen’s prose: “that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.”

Nonetheless, especially in her first novel, The Hotel, which I’ve just been reading with Jacqui, Bowen is sometime just plain opaque. Consider for example this sentence:

Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.

A character, a young man, is here reflecting on why he’s left Germany with its economic crisis to come to be with his mother in Italy: the undistress refers to the mother’s lack of interest in the crisis. At least I think so—it’s really hard to tell! The substance of the sentence is as tricky as its context. What is “undistress” anyway? I can just about make sense of it as an adjective, but as a noun it flummoxes me. Is undistress the same as lack of distress? Is that the same as calmness? And why would it be reprehensible? So reprehensible, in fact, as to be tempting. It seems the distress we can’t help hearing in “undistress” ought to have carried the day: as if his mother should have been worried about it. We might think it would be nice to be drawn to someone who’s refusing to be worried about a political crisis, but the language here is more alarming than reassuring.

Not everything in Bowen is hard going, though. There are plenty of good bits. We find, for example, the occasional piece of social commentary, a la the Dowager Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey: here two characters are reading the English papers:

“There’s been the pit disaster.”

“Miners,” said the lady distastefully, “always seem to be getting into trouble. One is so sorry, but it is difficult to go on and on sympathizing.”

More frequent are striking apercus. Sometimes these are given to characters—“She had found that in actually dealing with children theories collapse and one must retreat on the conventions”—and sometimes to the narrator: “Sydney, who was still near enough to her own childhood to mistrust children profoundly, wondered what Cordelia could be getting at.”

And best of all are things that are just plain weird: a woman suddenly plucks a bitter orange from a tree and bites into it: “She glanced shamefacedly at her tooth-marks in the orange, then guiltily up at the windows of the Hotel, then she wiped the orange and tucked it quietly away behind her.” The tooth-marks are good, and so is the wiping and that “quietly.”

More conventional but quite beautiful are some moments of description: “She must have been made conspicuous by her abstraction or by her yellow dress; people turned to stare at her and a tram announced by a hum of overhead wires rushed past with a long smudge of faces turned her way.” I like the smudge.

If I haven’t said much about what The Hotel is about, it’s because I’m not sure. (And also because Jacqui is so good at summaries. Be sure to read hers.) I think—and this is what most makes the book worthwhile, even if it’s not always easy going—it’s about queerness.

The hotel of the title is on the Italian Riviera. The guests are British, and they’re mostly women. Most interesting to me are two pairs: Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, and Sydney Warren and Mrs. Kerr, the mother of the young man who comes to visit from Germany.

The novel begins brilliantly, with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald wandering dazedly around the hotel and the resort after having had a terrible fight. We don’t see the fight, we never learn what it was about, we don’t even know who these women are, and we have to piece together what they mean to each other. It’s pretty clear they are lovers, though, and I really wished they’d been more present in the book. Even in this episodic novel, they disappeared for long stretches of time, though they importantly close the book. On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.

In this sense they comment on the more oblique and much less resolved relationship between Sydney—a young woman who had planned to be a doctor and who has been sent to the Riviera by her family to accompany her cousin, one of those invalids who are really just women who need a break from life of the sort you find in so much fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century, and, they hope, to get married—and the much older Mrs. Kerr. It seems pretty clear that Sydney loves Mrs. Kerr. It’s not at all clear what Mrs. Kerr thinks of her. Sydney is a kind of factotum to the older (richer) woman, sometimes a kind of daughter or even a pet who Mrs. Kerr deigns to take an interest in, and sometimes something much more like a lover.

Bowen’s refusal to clarify is brilliant. But she’s clear that other characters (men especially but not only) wonder and worry about it. Consider this exchange, three-quarters of the way through the novel. A visiting clergyman, James Milton, is talking with Mrs. Kerr’s son, Ronald:

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.”

“Mustn’t that be,” said Ronald, “what people come out for?”

“Perhaps some—”

“But are there really people who would do that? asked Ronald sharply, in a tone of revulsion, as though he had brought himself up more squarely than he had anticipated to the edge of some kind of abyss. “You mean women?”

Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly. The reference to friendship is redescribed as a code for same-sex desire, a desire that Ronald, at least, is revolted by. The book is at its best when it’s at its queerest: that is, when it offers us relationships that challenge the homo-hetero binary, relationships that are hard to name.

If Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are straightforwardly gay, Sydney and Mrs. Kerr are, I don’t know, not. They’re something else. But whatever it is it’s powerful. Partly through the book—here come some spoilers now, watch out—the clergyman Milton proposes to Sydney, out of nowhere. She rejects him as gently as she can. But then just as unaccountably she later accepts. All of which leads to an amazing scene near the end of the book when the couple along with Sydney’s cousin and Mrs. Kerr rent a driver to take them on an excursion into the mountains. Coming back down they run up against a timber wagon that has almost tipped over one of the hairpin turns that Sydney has spent the ride silently wishing the party would plunge over. Something about the moment—the shock, or maybe the shock is just a cover for a decision she’s already come to, unconsciously—prompts Sydney to break off the engagement. It has to do with her feelings for Mrs. Kerr, but we don’t know how exactly. Nor do we find out. At the end of the novel, Milton leaves in embarrassed chagrin. Sydney is set to leave too. And only on one of the last pages do we sense that Mrs. Kerr will in fact be devastated by the loss, though whether out of love or out of loss of power is uncertain.

The Hotel is a chilly novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did have a hard time with it, never able to get stuck in it, always reading a few pages at a time, and often having to go back over those knotty sentences.

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However lukewarm I am about The Hotel I certainly do love Bowen in general. She’s sadly underrated and definitely poorly classified. People often compare her to Woolf—with whom she had a rivalrous but also mutually admiring relationship—for no other reason as far as I can see than that they were both women writing at around the same time. But Bowen is much better understood as part of that great British mid-twentieth century tradition of women writers who defy the longstanding and increasingly useless distinction between modernism and post-modernism. This tradition—which for me includes writers like Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Carter, and Penelope Fitzgerald: a pretty heterogeneous bunch!—is uncannily experimental, the strangeness of the works heightened by how ordinary they first seem.

In The Hotel Bowen seems to still be finding her way. When we were talking about it on Twitter, Jacqui said it’s as if Bowen were rooting through English fiction of the period for ideas. Milton seems like someone out of a Forster novel, though perhaps less interested in art. And sometimes the prose, which at its worst is sub-Jamesian, overtly imitates The Master: “The party hung fire, embarrassed by this choice of attractions, then continued to move slowly up the avenue in a close formation.” I thought only James was allowed to use the expression “hung fire”!

In other words, if you’ve never read Elizabeth Bowen before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here. It is, after all, a first novel. (Though first novels often seem to me most representative of a writer’s preoccupations, and that’s not the case here.) I’m curious about her two earlier collections of stories. Bowen’s wartime stories are justly famous—if you’ve never read “The Demon Lover,” you’re in for something special—and I wonder if she had already mastered the form. At any rate, it’s impressive how quickly Bowen improved as a novelist. Her next one, The Last September—a moving description of the Anglo-Irish war—is miles better and a terrific point of entry into her work. More conventional in structure and more compressed in scope than The Hotel, The Last September feels like a novel in a way that the earlier book doesn’t. After that I’d recommend two terrific but dark novels of the 30s, The Death of the Heart and To the North (which has one of the most ominous final scenes ever) and of course her absolute masterpiece, maybe the greatest novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day.

Has anyone read any of her late novels (Eva Trout, The Little Girls, etc)? I wonder what they’re like.

2015 Year in Reading

2015 was a good year in reading. Better than 2014, though nowhere near the annus mirabilis of 2013 (pre-blog, alas). I read 80+ books. Here are the ones that most stayed with me:

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A Little Life—Hanya Yanigahara

The reading event of the year for me. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re mostly strong opinions. I understand the main objections—it’s too long, it’s indulgent, it gets off on abusing its main character and even maybe its readers, its prose is sometimes clunky, even embarrassing—but I don’t feel them. These days I struggle to keep my attention away from my phone, social media, hockey scores, you name it. Sometimes I worry I don’t have the reading stamina I used to. In this regard, A Little Life was a gift: an intense, immersive reading experience that captivated me not just for the week of the reading but throughout the whole year. I wrote about it here.

Married Life—David Vogel

Written in Hebrew and published in Vienna in 1930, this is an extraordinary book that expands our sense of what European modernism was all about.

If I read Hebrew, I would write Vogel’s biography. Born in the Pale of Settlement, Vogel made his way via Vilnius and a brief stint as a yeshiva student to Vienna just in time to be interned as a Russian citizen during WWI. After the war he loafed, nearly penniless, in Vienna’s cafes, finding a little translation work and writing his first poems and novellas. He immigrated briefly to Palestine in the late 20s but Zionism never held much appeal for him and he returned to Europe, eventually finding his way to Paris in the early 30s. Tragically he was interned in the next war, this time as an Austrian citizen, and was deported via the infamous transit camp at Drancy to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944.

In Married Life the poor but promising writer Rudolph Gurweil meets the impoverished and rapacious aristocrat Thea von Takov and falls immediately under her spell even though he’s not sure he likes her very much. The two marry after only kowing each other for a few weeks and things go badly from the start. Thea converts to Judaism to marry Gurweil but among other things she’s a terrible anti-Semite. The novel is a drawn-out depiction of a disastrous marriage, but it’s also a glorious depiction of shabby Jewish Vienna.

I started a review and got sidetracked. I’d really like to finish it. If it got this book even one more reader it would be worth it.

Heartfelt thanks to heroic translator Dalya Bilu and to Australian-based Scribe for publishing this masterpiece, not least in such a gorgeous edition.

The Vet’s Daughter—Barbara Comyns

Wonderful, heartbreaking novel about a young woman who levitates. I wrote about it at length here and my appreciation only increased when I taught it this fall. Happily, my students loved it too; I received several excellent papers about it. I’m about to write more about Comyns myself. More on that soon, I hope.

The Heat of the Day—Elizabeth Bowen

The same students who enjoyed Comyns did magnificently with this marvelous novel of the Blitz and its aftermath. The course is on Experimental 20th-Century British Fiction, and I hadn’t taught Bowen for a while (six years, in fact), after my previous attempt at teaching her failed spectacularly. I finally worked up the courage to try Heat again, and am so glad I did. It helped, of course, that this was a particularly strong group of students. It was really fun helping them work through Bowen’s famously thorny sentences. To the North might still be my favourite Bowen, but this novel about lying to one’s self and to others is one of her best. I often grumble about how teaching gets in the way of reading. But sometimes the chance to return to the same set of books is a joy. As Roland Barthes once said, those who don’t re-read are doomed to read the same text over and over again.

Bernard Malamud

Another one from the teaching files, at least in part. I taught an introductory level course on short fiction this fall. (For a while I blogged about it regularly—the first installment is here, if you’re interested—but eventually I capitulated to the semester’s demands and gave up.) The touchstone text was Malamud’s first collection, The Magic Barrel. I’d taught these marvelous stories before but it had been a while and found I liked them even more this time.

I’ve always loved their enigmatic qualities, and had long been curious whether his novels were like that too. So I read The Assistant over Thanksgiving (I started a post on that too which I also failed to complete). It tells the story of Morris Bober’s struggle to eke out a living from his small grocery store in a poor part of New York, a struggle that only deepens when he takes on a drifter as a de facto assistant. It is also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, with a scene that genuinely shocked me. Malamud’s stories are hardly heartwarming, but they have a lightness missing from this novel. Absolutely worth reading, though.

Various short stories

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story—Philip Hensher, Ed.

As I said, I taught a lot of short stories this fall, and in the process I remembered how much I love the form. Edith Pearlman, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence were particular favourites. I also want to tip my hat to this wonderful two-volume edition of short stories edited by Philip Hensher. I’ve got volume 2 (they’re only available in the UK and a bit pricey but the production values are amazing) and I’ve only read a handful of the stories. But the roster is exciting; not just the usual suspects. Hensher plowed through a ton of late-19th and early-20th century magazines and has found some amazing stuff. I especially like one by “Malachi” (Marjorie) Whitaker, called “Courage”: it’s going straight on to the Spring syllabus. Hensher’s introduction makes a fascinating case for why Britain produced such good short fiction in the years 1890-1940 and why economic and structural conditions make it unlikely for the form to flourish in the same way again (which isn’t the same as saying there are no good instances of the form today: volume 2 goes from P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith). Please Penguin, bring this out in the US.

The Book of Aron—Jim Shepard
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—Göran Rosenberg

Holocaust literature is central to my teaching, and so also to my reading. These two books impressed me this year, the first a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto that I wrote about at Open Letters Monthly and the second a second-generation memoir that I reviewed at Words without Borders.

Death of a Man—Kay Boyle

Thanks to Tyler Malone of The Scofield I learned a lot about Kay Boyle this year. The best thing I read by her was a heartbreaking early story about failed pedagogy called “Life Being the Best” (read it!), but the book I spent the most time with was this 1936 novel about an American heiress who falls in with fascist sympathizers in pre-Anschluss Austria. I can’t say I liked the book all that much, but I was utterly fascinated by it and I enjoyed wrestling with its slippery politics. You can read my essay, along with many other wonderful pieces, here.

A Wreath of Roses and Blaming—Elizabeth Taylor

These are two of the best books I read this year, but they’re wrapped up in guilt for me because I promised someone a piece about them and never delivered. (Not yet, anyway…. I still want to, though!) I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Taylor, but these are the best of the bunch. Blaming (1976), her last book, is about what happens to a middle-aged woman after the unexpected death of her husband. It manages to be both rueful and acerbic. A Wreath of Roses (1949) is a masterpiece and if it were in print in the US I would have taught it this semester for sure. Less histrionic than Bowen’s Heat of the Day but similarly a novel of what the war did to England, it’s also a story of female friendship that earns its epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves. Genuinely haunting: I read it in June and still think about it regularly.

The Secret Place—Tana French

French doesn’t need me to sing her praises. Everyone already knows she’s the best crime writer today. Some thought this latest book—for some unaccountable reason I held off reading it for almost a year—in the Dublin Murder Squad series a falling off, but I adored it. I especially loved the echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. French is such a genius because she writes super suspenseful books that are ultimately about something quite different: they are fascinated to the point of obsession with the idea of friendship—interestingly, romance or sex features hardly at all—especially how friendship intersects with the partnership between detectives. Yet again French proves she writes vulnerable men better than anyone.

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Other good things: Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brilliant essay-memoir and I would have written more about it here but it’s late and I’m tired (the Open Letters piece is good, though); The Hare with Amber Eyes (again, everyone already knows it’s amazing—I most liked a surprising Arkansas connection!); Emma (enjoyed re-reading this and wrote about the experience here and here); bits of Balzac (the last 100 pp of Pere Goriot, which practically had me in tears; the scene in Eugenie Grandet when Eugenie wakes at night to see her father and his servant taking his gold downstairs: hallucinatory); Wilkie Collins (I liked both The Dead Secret and The Law and the Lady). Also, good light reading: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (urban fantasy—smart and funny: read the first two this year and mean to finish the series in 2016); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 books (engaging Norwegian homage to Golden Age crimes, locked room mysteries and the like); Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books (read the first: surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship).

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Reading is a passionately solitary experience, but also a joyously communal one. That’s true (mostly) in my classroom and, increasingly, on social media and the Internet more generally. Sometimes I find the constant stream of books to read that come through my Twitter feed a little daunting, but mostly I’m thrilled to know that so much reading is going on, so vigorously and passionately.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog in 2015, especially those who encouraged me and prompted me to think harder or differently about the books. It is wonderfully strange for me to speak so much with people I haven’t for the most part even met about something so important to me.

Thanks too to those who published me this year, especially the wonderful people at Open Letters Monthly. Here’s to more writing next year, and of course to more reading.