Emmett Stinson’s Year in Reading, 2021

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

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

J. S. G. Boggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Échelonnement désaxé, 1934

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

Miscellany (3)

I knew it would be hard to return from sabbatical, but I’d forgotten how quickly the semester becomes relentless, each day an exhausting headlong rush. I’ve missed writing here. But I’ve managed to carve out enough time to say a few words about some of the books I read at the end of the summer and even one or two I’ve squeezed into the semester.

Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (2014)

Superior if self-consciously solemn installment of superior if self-consciously solemn crime series centered on the aftermath of WWI in England. The good guys are all a little too good (worse, worthy), but the prose is better than average, and the plot suspenseful. Hard to know where the series can go from here, though I’d have said that after the last one too. I appreciate Airth’s deliberateness: only four books in fifteen years.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town (2014)

I haven’t read Slaughter before, though she seems awfully popular and prolific. (Is that seriously her last name? It’s a bit like the inventors of cinema being named Lumieres.) I enjoyed this stand-alone, even if I found the resolution of the crime itself tedious. Like too many crime novels, Cop Town is too long. The interesting stuff concerns the introduction (I was going to say integration, but that’s just what it wasn’t) of women into the Atlanta police force in the mid 1970s. I assume the depiction is accurate: it’s awfully compelling, at any rate, without being self-congratulatory (“Look how far we’ve come”; “Can you believe what people did or said back then?”). I also enjoyed the surprising—and surprisingly successful—Jewish subplot. I’d read more of her stuff, especially if anyone has any recommendations.

Georges Perec, W., or The Memory of Childhood (1975, English Translation by David Bellos, 1988)

I read this several months ago in preparation for a course on the Holocaust and what Marianne Hirsch calls postmemory: the “memories” of the missed event that haunt child survivors and the children of survivors. I planned to write about it at length here, but never got around to it. At first I decided not to include the text in the course. Then, at the last minute, when I was finishing the syllabus, I decided I needed to include at least a short selection. The book just wouldn’t quite let me go.

W. switches between two layers: a memoir of Perec’s wartime experience as a child evacuee in rural France, and a fictional tale—half boys’ own adventure story, half anthropological treatise—about a man who discovers the remote island of W., a place organized entirely around the pursuit of competitive sport.

It’s obvious the two are related, in that the second is an allegory for what cannot be described or even referred to in the first: the concentration camps that swallowed up Perec’s mother, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died there, probably the following year. The whole exercise becomes more moving, more uncanny when we learn that the story of W. is based on one written by Perec when he was only twelve or thirteen, that is, in the years just after the war. David Bellos, the book’s translator, explains that the letter “w” in French is the double-vee, le double-vé, in which it’s hard not to hear an echo of the double life, la double vie, which Perec lived as a young child in Vichy France.

I initially decided not to assign the book because I worried students would get caught up in untangling the allegory, in making the connections between the two halves explicit, even though the book never hides those connections, indeed advertizes them. I wondered if I could get them past thinking that, having done so, their interpretive task was done. And I didn’t know what I thought about the book, couldn’t decide whether I liked it. (Which is actually a good reason to assign something.) I’m probably selling my students short; at any rate, I’ll see how they do with the excerpt. The section I’ve chosen is a remarkable description of Perec’s uncertainty about his parents and their fate, centered on descriptions of absent photographs. In that regard it will complement our discussions of photographs in Maus and Austerlitz.

Although I prefer Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, a text which also deals with a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to France who was hidden during the Occupation, mostly because Kofman is more interested in the psychic and affective aspects of her experiences, I think about Perec’s book often, all these months later, one of the truest signs that a book is important to me.

Jorn Lier Horst, Dregs (2010, translated into English by Anne Bruce, 2011)

Dreadful Norwegian procedural. Really felt let down by this since I’d heard it praised to the skies by a number of generally reliable bloggers. Wooden translation, leaden plot, the always-irritating detective’s-child-in-harm’s-way subplot: really the full nine stinker yards. File under: title, accurate.

Henning Mankell, An Event in Autumn (2013, translated into English by Laurie Thomson, 2014)

Melancholy because apparently absolutely, definitely, unquestionably final installment of the Wallander series. (Though we know how reliable those sorts of claims can be: cf Reichenbach Falls.) Set before the events of the brilliant, distressing The Troubled Man, this work, slight even for a novella, will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Newcomers shouldn’t start here. Basically it’s a throwaway, as Mankell himself admits (he wrote it as a charity exercise to support Dutch booksellers, or something of the sort). But for me Wallander is one of the great detectives. I always love how irritated and grumpy he is about little things without ever becoming a caricature (curmudgeonly, endearing, gruff exterior but gentle interior, etc).

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad and the Bad (1972, translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2014)

One of my character flaws is a weakness for nice packaging. I’ve always judged books, and other things, by their covers, and I’ve often been led astray by doing so. (And yet I keep doing it.) I’ve long been utterly seduced by the NYRB classics series—and they’ve republished some marvelous, deserving works. (I wouldn’t know Olivia Manning without them, and a world without her is no world at all.) But just because a book has got those fancy full-color inside covers doesn’t mean it has to be good. This is only the third Manchette I’ve read (the others several years ago, I remember them only dimly) but it’s time to call Emperor’s New Clothes on this guy. I’m all for writing that pushes the conventions of a genre, either in order to invigorate another genre or to contest the very idea of genre, but you can’t do it if, like Manchette, you disdain the genre to begin with.

Many have written about the fundamental conservatism of the crime genre (even when it gets put to liberal ends, supports good causes, etc), but Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, and Macdonald (Manchette’s obvious models) are more radical than Manchette’s pretty ham-handed, self-satisfied critique of capitalism. Consider the book’s set piece: a hit man on the trail of the gang who kidnapped the nanny of the nephew of a wealthy industrialist (is there any other kind?) tracks the bad guys into a department store. The ensuing shoot-out gets out of hand: the store is set aflame and looted by euphoric customers whose frenzied lust for consumer goods spills over into the streets of a provincial French town. J. G. Ballard would have made this both funny and ominous, a tonal instability we wouldn’t quite know what to do with. Manchette makes things clear: there’s no difference between the thieves and the customers. Manchette reminds me of late 60s or early 70s Godard: they’re both tediously earnest, but Manchette has none of Godard’s expressive range, the delirium of style that makes the films work despite themselves. His idea of style is a pretty one-note imitation of the hardboiled. I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Laurie R King—A Grave Talent (1993)

Although the early 90s now seem what the 70s were to me as a young adult (embarrassing, quaint, hopeless), King’s novel, the first in her Kate Martinelli series, doesn’t feel dated. It impressed me with its intelligent and subtle representation of a queer relationship, and its vivid description of the forests of Northern California. I wish the book were shorter—it has its longeurs—but it cemented my appreciation for King’s talent. (I really liked her first Holmes pastiche.)

Sarah Waters—Tipping the Velvet (1998)

Having unaccountably stalled out a hundred pages into this book last year, I started over again and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a wonderful debut, and I bet people will be reading it for a long time. It’s not perfect, especially when it seems designed to illustrate a caricatured version of Judith Butler. But at its best it impresses with sinuous, incantatory sentences and exciting narrative reversals (which Waters would perfect a few years later in Fingersmith). Sometimes the book is boisterous, but mostly it’s sad. The queer melancholy that returns in full force in The Night Watch is already evident here.

Maybe I’m just an unrepentant modernist, but what’s really stayed with me is the ending, with seems like an homage to and queer rewriting of the end of Forster’s Howards End: in both cases a new kind of non-nuclear, even non-biological family is imagined in a pastoral setting. Forster’s novel is famously anxious about how modernization/development threatens that idyll, complete with class snobbishness about middle-class redbrick spreading like a stain on the countryside. I was left wondering whether Tipping the Velvet, on the face of it so progressive and generous, might not be similarly conservative (if not about class). When Nan, the protagonist, steps in at the end to give the rousing speech that her lover’s brother, a socialist, cannot articulate, showmanship seems to trump politics. Yet Waters is nothing if not knowing: one of her aims is to redeem performance as something other than “mere” appearance, as substance itself. So maybe I am off target here. But something still niggles at me about the book. I liked it best when it’s least in control of itself, least amenable to allegory.

I want to write more extensive posts on some other books I’ve read: two by Nathan Englander and three by Tove Jansson. We’ll see whether the semester lets me.