Nat Leach’s 2019 Year in Reading

I invited my friend and sometime EMJ contributor, Nat Leach, to write about the highlights of his year in reading. Not only did he write about his favourites, he also described his idiosyncratic reading project. Enjoy! (I couldn’t help but add a few editorial comments along the way.)

When Dorian suggested that I consider writing a review post on my reading for the year, I was keen to share some of my thoughts, but also felt the need to preface it with a confession of sorts, so here goes:

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I have never been the sort of person who could read just one book at a time. When I was an undergraduate student, I kept a pile of books beside my bed. I would read a chapter from the top book, place it in a new pile beside the first one and repeat until the pile was empty. Then, I would repeat the same process in reverse. This had the benefit of keeping my reading fresh, never getting bogged down in one thing, and allowing me to continually be surprised. It took me a little longer to finish books, but I quite enjoyed this too; when I really liked them, I wanted to savour them, and when I didn’t like them, I was soon able to switch to something else.

The problem came when I entered graduate school, moved to a city with excellent used book stores (London, Ontario) [have to say, this does not correlate to my memory of London! – DS] and started to become more broadly curious about literature, theory, philosophy, and just about everything else, than I ever had been before. One pile became two, then three, and eventually I had a long coffee table covered with nothing but book piles. My system became more sophisticated, but the basic principle of moving from one book to the next did not change. Over the years, I made compromises (my wife insisted on bookshelves to replace that coffee table, for example) but I never changed my ways. I continued to enjoy picking up books with no preconceived decision-making process in mind. Thomas de Quincey’s excellent essay on sortilege and astrology influenced my thinking on this point; he accepts that connections exist between things that cannot be rationally understood, so sees value in allowing chance to bring them to light. And indeed, I have often felt that I was reading just the right book at just the right time, some kind of synchronicity between my reading and my life, or between two books I happened to be reading at the same time.

It wasn’t until I joined Twitter two years ago that I began to take stock of my reading life. For one thing, I joined Twitter to participate in the great book conversations that I discovered there, but it’s hard to join in conversations when you have only read parts of so many books. How many times can you say “Oh yeah, I read the first quarter of that book! It’s really good!”? For another thing, I realized that I’m not as young as I used to be, and in the face of inevitable mortality, I’d rather die having finished a few good books as opposed to having started a whole bunch.

It was at this point that I realized that the only way to overcome the negative effects of an absurd and ill-advised reading strategy, I was going to need another absurd and ill-advised reading strategy. I hit on the idea of methodically working my way through all of those never-completed books one at a time from A to Z (from Achebe to Zola, if you will). I already tended to arrange my reading alphabetically, so this simply built in the requirement that I had to finish a book before moving on to the next one.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I now read only one book at a time. But at least I’m now cycling between 20-30 books rather than hundreds, and focusing primarily on a single book. Nor does it mean that I am entirely rigid in my system; it initially intended to involve only books that I had already started, but gradually I have allowed alluring new books to slip into their place in the alphabetical queue. I have also made exceptions for borrowed/library books and communal Twitter events, all of which slow my progress somewhat, but since the pleasure is in the journey, I also enjoy these diversions and side-trips.

All of which is to explain why most of my reading for the year falls within a fairly small alphabetical range. In 2018, I got through A, B and most of C. This year, I finished C and got through D, E and most of F. If I keep this pace of almost 3 letters per year, I’ll be done this project by 2027 (and then I’ll probably just start again). Statistically speaking, I completed 39 books last year and 31 this year; not huge totals, but since I hadn’t even cracked 30 since 2000, I think I can say my new system is showing progress. Also, 9 of the 31 were over 500 pages, which partly accounts for the slower pace. These 31 books were written by authors from 15 different countries, which I thought was a pretty remarkable ratio considering the arbitrariness of my system, although this diversity primarily comes from various countries in Europe; I may need to work on exploring other continents. I read 18 books by men and 13 by women.

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Having said all that, I present thumbnail sketches of my 2019 reading:

Couperus, Louis- Eline Vere

Technically, my last book of 2018, but I finished it on January 3, and it’s so good, I’m including it. It’s a book with a personal connection for me, since my Dutch grandmother had numerous figurines of the title character around her house in The Hague; she explained that because this book was so famous, Eline had become a sort of figure of pride for the city. Once I finished the book, this puzzled me a little, since Eline is not exactly the heroic sort of character one would expect to be commemorated in this way, but the book is fantastic in its depiction both of its social world and Eline’s disaffection and alienation from it. [I really love this book too, and wish it were better known! — DS]

Crummey, Michael- Galore

A magical realist novel set in Newfoundland (think One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a whole lot more ice). Crummey incorporates the folklore and history of the island into a compelling and fantastical multi-generational narrative (this is one of those novels where you are very grateful that there is a family tree included at the beginning of the book). It also features that rarest of things, an ending that is totally unexpected and yet a perfectly appropriate way of resolving the narrative.

Dante- The Divine Comedy

There’s not much new that I can say about Dante, but I do think that reading this book is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Even a lapsed Unitarian like me has to appreciate the thoroughness of his cosmology, even if I’d be very afraid of someone who actually believed all of it. It does inevitably suffer from Milton’s problem, that what happens in Hell is so much more interesting than what happens in Heaven.

David, Filip- The House of Remembering and Forgetting

I had high hopes for this book after reading some early reviews, but in the end was disappointed with it. There are some powerful moments, but it ultimately reads as an awkward mishmash of Holocaust narrative and mysticism (two things that, frankly, do not go together). [Might explain why I never finished this book. — DS]

DeLillo, Don- Falling Man

I count White Noise among my favourite novels of all time, and it didn’t seem surprising that the author of a book that depicts mundane American life being punctured by disaster would choose to write a novel about 9/11. DeLillo represents the traumatic aftermath of the event on one man and his family in a thoughtful and nuanced way. This narrative is juxtaposed with a number of scenes focalized through one of the hijackers which seem to offer a broader perspective, though these segments seem rather under-developed compared to the main plot. I enjoyed the book, although in the end, I found myself wondering if it had really gone anywhere (but maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to?)

Dickens, Charles- Hard Times

This is a book that my younger self didn’t get on with very well because of its overt didacticism, but this time I enjoyed it a great deal, having a better sense of its context. Still not my favourite Dickens, but that’s not really a criticism.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor- Crime and Punishment

Another literary experience that I think everyone should undergo, harrowing though it is. I was already about halfway through the book, having read the crime and was awaiting the punishment. I was somewhat surprised by how long I had to wait, as the book seems quite digressive, but that may also be the point, that the consequences of the crime infiltrate every aspect of Raskolnikov’s life.

Drndic, Dasa- Belladonna

Another book I was very much looking forward to, and this one did not disappoint; it’s fiercely written and utterly compelling. Andreas Ban’s body is deteriorating in a way that mirrors the corruption he sees in his country, Croatia, and his memories and experiences frame the book’s reflections on history, politics, theory, and culture. Much of the book recounts Nazi and Ustase persecution of Jews in WWII and condemns the post-independence government of Croatia for its complicity in rehabilitating war criminals (both from WWII and from the Balkan genocides). Its attacks include a lengthy screed that will cure you of ever wanting to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. [I’m a big fan of Littel’s novel, so now I’ve got to read this. — DS]

Du Maurier, Daphne- My Cousin Rachel

This is a perfect book of its kind. Is Rachel a kindly relative or a cynical gold-digger? Is Philip a paranoid misogynist or a potential victim? Du Maurier keeps the pendulum swinging between these options, building suspense and cultivating uncertainty so that we’re never entirely sure of the truth, but compelled to keep reading. So good it sent me on a Du Maurier book-buying binge after finishing it. [And rightly so! I too loved this one. — DS]

Duncan, Sara Jeanette- The Imperialist

This Canadian classic from 1904 begins as a domestic drama about the Murchison family in a small town in Ontario, but widens into tackling broader economic and political issues. The family’s eldest son, Lorne, becomes an advocate for a preferential trade agreement with Great Britain, and runs for political office on that platform. The novel does get a bit bogged down in economic minutiae of a past era, but its concerns with British isolationism, election fraud, and the exploitation of Canada’s Indigenous people all seem disturbingly current.

Duncker, Patricia- Hallucinating Foucault

In the 1990’s, I think this was an obligatory book for theory-heads like me, but despite touching on Foucaultian themes such as madness and incarceration, it doesn’t really have much to do with him. The book starts with an interesting academic mystery, a graduate student searching for a French author with an oblique connection to Foucault, but fizzles out once he actually finds him. It just feels like the book tries too hard, culminating with an overtly symbolic character death that I couldn’t help laughing at. [Wow, now I need to re-read it. I loved it when I read it as the theory-head graduate student Nat describes, and have always wondered what happened to Duncker. Could I have been so wrong? (Yes.) — DS]

Edgeworth, Maria- Ormond

Edgeworth was much admired by Jane Austen, but her books have not achieved as wide a readership as Austen’s. The perceived regionalism of her Irish settings is no doubt one cause, but this book is at its strongest in its early scenes depicting the tension between Irish and Anglo-Irish ways of life. This novel begins in a picaresque mode, with Harry Ormond sent to live with an Irish relative after nearly killing a man in a quarrel and aspiring to become “an Irish Tom Jones”.  Ormond does improve morally, and the narrative loses some of its energy in the later scenes in Paris which demonstrate his reformed character. Perhaps this didacticism is another reason for Edgeworth’s neglect, but it does not negate this book’s many charms.

Eliot, George- Daniel Deronda

This one was quite a commitment, but was definitely the best book I read all year. From its in medias res opening that takes hundreds of pages to untangle to its swerve in the second half of the book away from concerns with individual relationships towards larger cultural, religious and moral issues, I found it thoroughly compelling both in narrative terms and in ethical ones.

Esquivel, Laura- Like Water for Chocolate

This is as close to light vacation reading as I get; magic realism with a feminist kick. Tita is expected by family tradition to remain unmarried in order to take care of her mother until her death, and the narrative is about overcoming the weight of these expectations. Tita’s creative energies are channeled into cooking, and a recipe accompanies each chapter, making this a potentially very tasty read (although most of them seemed too advanced for my culinary abilities).

Fallada, Hans- Every Man Dies Alone

This book about one couple’s small acts of resistance against Nazism drew me in from the very start and the ensuing cat and mouse narrative raises ethical questions about the obligation and the capacity to resist injustice. These questions become more ponderous as the book goes on, and the stakes are raised, but we never lose sight of the message that each individual must make these choices in ways both big and small. [So, so good! — DS]

Farrell, M.J. (Molly Keane)- Young Entry

I didn’t know whether to file this under F (for the author’s pen name) or K (for her real name), but chose the former simply because I was keen to read it. One of my favourites of the year for sheer reading pleasure; much as the plot about teenage girls coming of age against the backdrop of hunting culture in early 20th century Ireland sometimes bewildered me as I lack the vocabulary for hunting, horse riding and ladies’ underthings, the writing is so sharp and witty, I just went along for the ride. There are, for example, some wonderful passages presented from the point of view of the dog, or take this description of a runaway bicycle: “As the slope grew steeper, and consequently their progress faster, Prudence made the interesting discovery that Mr. Bennet’s bicycle entirely lacked brakes.”

Findley, Timothy- Headhunter

I remember wanting to read this book when it was first published (1993) because I had just read Heart of Darkness and was intrigued by the book’s initial premise, that Mr. Kurtz escapes from the pages of the book and terrorizes Toronto. That is quickly revealed as the delusion of a mentally ill character (Kurtz and Marlow are, coincidentally, the names of two psychologists), however, and what is depicted in this book is actually more horrifying (as readers of Findley might well expect.) Exploitation of the mentally ill, a child pornography ring, graphic violence against humans and animals: it’s not a book for the squeamish. In the end, I’m not sure it really holds together, as it tries to do way too much (and is already over 600 pages), but it sure is prescient on topics such as fake news and climate change denial.

Fink, Ida- A Scrap of Time

I read this book on Dorian’s recommendation, and he’s much better equipped than I am to explain the brilliance of these Holocaust stories. What impresses me most about them is the way that Fink dramatizes the complex dimensions of impossible moral situations. By showing, for example, a father remembering his attempt to hide while his children are being taken away (“Crazy”), or a woman being asked to suppress her past in order to keep a new lover (“Night of Surrender”), Fink makes us see the horrifying ways in which the persecutions of the Holocaust are perpetuated and internalized by survivors. [Yes, these stories are indispensable. — DS]

Flaubert, Gustave- Sentimental Education

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, I got about as wide a range of responses as possible; some people love the book, others hate it, and some feel completely indifferent about it. Upon reading it, I can understand all those responses; it’s a chaotic novel that challenges readerly expectations in ways that might seem exhilarating, annoying, or tedious depending on the reader. I liked the book for the most part; even though the protagonist, Frédéric is often quite obnoxious, and his desire for the unattainable Madame Arnoux so excessive, I was still interested in him as a somewhat exaggerated exemplar of the human condition. His single-minded commitment to the object of his passion and his vacillation on every other desire seem painful, but typical human weaknesses. [Oh man, do I have mixed feelings about this one. — DS]

Fleming, Ian- You Only Live Twice

This was the first Bond novel I had ever read, and was not at all what I expected; the first half reads as a travelogue of Japan, and only in the second half do we get into some (fairly tame) spy stuff. The villain’s diabolical plan is somewhat limited in scope, but his “suicide garden” of toxic plants is evocative and terrifying. I liked it much better than the film, which used almost no material from the book, aside from some character names.

Gaskell, Elizabeth- Cranford

I must confess that I read this one out of order because it was the next book up on my e-reader while I was on vacation. I already knew that I loved Gaskell’s writing, her perceptive analysis of human character and her ability to produce powerfully emotional scenes. What I learned from this book is that she can also be laugh-out-loud funny. These vignettes about women in an English village are sweet, heartbreaking, and humourous by turns; my favourite moment is when a rather hyperbolic panic caused by a suspected wave of break-ins sweeps the town.

Best of the rest:

Levi, Primo- The Monkey’s Wrench

I re-read (and wrote about) The Periodic Table in commemoration of Levi’s centenary, and had intended to write about it in conjunction with The Monkey’s Wrench, but realized it would have been too much. The two books have much in common, including Levi’s characteristically keen eye for the nuances of human character, and a belief in the ennobling power of work. Where The Periodic Table celebrates the chemist’s ability to solve mental challenges, The Monkey’s Wrench often celebrates the more physical aspects of work in stories told by Libertino Faussone, a fictional character whom Levi identifies as a composite of many real men, and the narrator, a version of Levi himself. The most interesting parts of the book, though, are the many places where this manual labour is compared to, and aligned with, the act of story-telling itself.

Pontoppidan, Henrik- Lucky Per

This book intrigued me and frustrated me by turns, but it certainly did make me think. Most of my frustrations came from the book’s seeming uncertainty about how it felt about the protagonist. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Per is a rebel against the soul-destroying form of Christianity practiced by his family, but as Per’s behaviour becomes more reprehensible, the book seems to lack a critical distance from him so that it’s not clear how we are supposed to react to his egotism. This book inspired me to re-read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a favourite of mine which seemed a clear model for this novel, although the possibility of redemption is handled very differently in the two works. Despite my frustrations, this is a book that has stuck with me.

Vermette, Katerina- The Break

I read this fantastic, troubling book because Dorian told me to and you should too!

2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

“Something about Eline”: Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere

Eline Vere (1889) is the best book I’ve read this year, would undoubtedly be one of the best books in almost any year. It’s the first novel by Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (1863-1923). I fancy myself pretty well read in European literature since 1800, I mean, nothing like some people, but more than many. But I had never heard of this book, though I gather it is a great classic of Dutch literature, until I read about it on this terrific list. (As it happens I have those books by Prus, Eça de Queirós, and Der Nister in hand and somehow need to make time for them.) If you like sweeping books about a richly appointed bourgeois world, with a generous but unobtrusive narrator, and just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, you’re going to love this book.

It captivated me over a long weekend at one of my very favourite reading places of all, my in-laws’ farm in rural Missouri, where there is a really excellent porch swing and all manner of birds and animals to look at when you’re tired and need to raise your eyes from the page.

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The scene is The Hague in the late-nineteenth century. The characters belong to the interrelated wealthy families who run the place, or who have enough money that they don’t need to work. They’re not that rich, though, the possibility that the money is going to run out is a worry for many of them, as is the sense, as befits this buttoned-down Protestant milieu, that the men, at least, ought to work regardless of financial need, out of a moral duty to lead society.

The book’s question, then, is: what makes a meaningful life? And in the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult and fascinating for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the female characters. But not for all, certainly not for the protagonist, Eline.

Eline Vere gets compared to Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest. The reason is obvious: all are novels centered on eponymous heroines who are drawn to men who aren’t their husbands as a way to overcome their boredom and uncertain place in society. I’ve not read Effi Briest—I can already hear Tom telling me I have to rectify that oversight, and I mean to—but I didn’t find Eline Vere as much like those books as blurb writers would have us believe.

For Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. She’s not even married, so adultery doesn’t even come into it. In some sense, the book is a long search for the right man for Eline. It seems, halfway through, that she’s found him, an eminently suitable, kind, dutiful, all-around stand-up guy named Otto van Erlevoort. They get engaged, despite his family’s initial reservations—Eline somehow seems so different from them. Otto’s sister never overcomes these reservations: “I know she’s beautiful and charming, but there’s something about her that, well, that I find unsympathetic… She doesn’t have a heart, all she has is egotism, stone-cold egotism.” Later, the sister’s sister-in-law adds similar misgivings: “There’s something about Eline that makes me think she might not fit in very well with the rest of the family. She adapts herself, certainly, but I’m not sure she does so with all her heart.” Note the motif of the heart, or, rather, heartlessness. Having a heart seems here to mean caring for others. But it also seems to mean playing a part, going along with appearances, fitting in with others. The heart is a sign of both authenticity and falsity. Small wonder, then, that the book opens at a party in which the youngsters of the Dutch beau monde organize extravagant dramatic tableau. Eline, who at age 23 is or could be part of that set, is notably absent. (It’s a classic dramatic set-up: as various characters ask each other where Eline is, we get more and more intrigued about her.)

So sure was I that Eline’s travails had to play out in a love affair that I spent the first half of the book wondering who she would fall in love with, and in what way that love would be inappropriate or scandalous. The first candidate is an opera singer who takes The Hague by storm and who Eline is obsessed with for a while, secretly buying pictures of him and stalking him in the park where he takes a walk most days. But she never even speaks to him and before long throws over the infatuation as silly. Then I thought the trouble might be with her brother-in-law, Henk, who obviously adores her and who she seems to like a lot too. (After the death of her mother, Eline lives with her sister, the much more pragmatic Betsy, and Henk and their children.) But Henk is like the faithful Newfoundland dog he’s compared to early on and really only wants everyone he knows, especially his wife and her sister, to get along, so that he can be left in peace to go riding and shooting. He’s a tenderly imagined version of Charles Bovary, though rather more competent. Then Otto comes along and Eline gets engaged to him and it all seems so promising.

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There’s an absolutely wonderful set piece—Couperus is almost as good as Tolstoy when it comes to set pieces—at the Van Erlevoorts’ summer home, De Horze, complete with lovely meals and long days with seemingly endlessly lengthening shadows on the evening lawn and children rushing around underfoot and inventing games. I’m absolutely a sucker for this stuff, and Couperus lays it on thick. But he does so only to insist that idyll can’t last. At almost the exact halfway point of the book, at the end of the De Horze chapter, at the end of the summer, we find this meditation on self-sabotage and the loss of happiness:

[Eline] opened the window and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the air was fragrant with moist foliage. The sky was clear, wiped clean of leaden clouds but for some lingering streaks, from which rose a brilliant crescent moon. The far-flung fields lay muffled in silence; a lone windmill held aloft a dark motionless sail, starkly defined against the pale sheen of the evening sky. The ditches glittered like strips of metal, and a scented freshness emanated like a gentle sigh from the slumbering landscape. Eline leant out of the window, hugging her bare arms. She felt as if that soft sigh of freshness had sweetened all her thoughts with the fragrance of wild flowers, banishing the stale, sickly smell of her former state of mind. It was like inhaling the heady perfume of musk and opopanax, and she felt very young, younger than she had ever felt before, and oh!—of this she was certain—never had she been in love as she was now, never! Her Otto! Thinking of him she felt no need whatsoever to conjure up some idealised image of him; she thought of him as he was, manly and strong in his good-natured simplicity, with one single thought governing his mind: the thought of her. His love was so rich, so full, so all-encompassing. And hers was growing by the day, she believed … no it couldn’t grow any further, that would be impossible! No further wishes, no concerns about the future; it would unfold of its own accord, a perspective tinged with a golden glow! Nothing but the stillness of that lake into which her soul had glided, nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy! Nothing but that … She could not imagine what more a human being could wish for.

Only, there was one tiny blemish in all that clear expanse of blue, an inkling of fear that change might yet come! It was so very long since she had prayed, and she was unsure how to go about it, whether she should say the words aloud or just think them. Indeed, she no longer knew whether she believed in God, she no longer knew what she believed, but now, at this moment, she dearly wished to pray that it might remain as it was now, that nothing would ever change—oh, for that gentle happiness, that tranquility of mind, that blue to remain with her for ever!

“Never again as it was, please God; make everything stay the same as it is now! I’ll die if anything changes!” she whispered under her breath, and as she folded her hands in prayer, a teardrop quivered on her lashes. But it was a tear of joy, and in her joy that tiny fear drowned like a drop in the ocean.

But of course it doesn’t. The fear grows to unmanageable proportions. You can see from this passage that Couperus stays close to Eline perspective, and so that the conventionality or melodramatic extravagance of some of the prose (“nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy”) is the character’s. (He also moves us from character to character—we aren’t constrained to Eline’s perspective, which allows us to see, for example, how frustrating Eline can be at times, especially in the only strand of the story that includes characters from a different social strata, a young couple and their children named the Ferelijns, who have settled in Java and only returned to Holland temporarily due to the husband’s ill health. Eline, who went to school with the wife, veers between sensitivity and obliviousness about their quite precarious financial situation.)

Eline’s life unravels because she can’t imagine herself to be happy, because part of her doesn’t want to be happy, and because she can’t wholeheartedly accept what the rest of the characters call happiness. Eline is a confusing but compelling mixture of fatalism, congenital, even hereditary dissatisfaction, and self-awareness. The hereditary part—Couperus is like a less-militant Zola at times—comes to the fore when Eline and Betsy’s cousin, Vincent—decadent, a bit louche, a debtor (the worst thing you can be in this social world), a dabbler in Nietzsche—comes to visit.

Betsy hates him; Eline adores him; she almost falls in love with him, but their relationship is weirder than that, and besides the genuinely egotistical and probably gay Vincent doesn’t care about her. (Vincent is saved by a rich American friend, a man named St Clare, an enigmatic figure who has wandered in from a James novel. To make things even more complicated he almost has a thing with Eline.) Something about Vincent makes Eline unable to love Otto, or, rather, confirms for her that a life with Otto isn’t possible. Betsy exults when she can finally kick Vincent out of the house; Eline publicly berates her for her unkindness. This rupture leads to an extraordinary scene–another one of those set pieces–in which Eline leaves Betsy’s home in the middle of the night, in the midst of an enormous and terrifying storm. It’s cheesy in my telling but absolutely riveting in Couperus’s.

The book Eline Vere did remind me of is Buddenbrooks, though I haven’t read it in about 25 years, so I may be overstating the similarities. They share a Northern European, Protestant, bourgeois setting and a belief in hereditary decline. What Mann’s novel has that Couperus’s doesn’t is a belief in art as a kind of safety valve. Yes, the generations become more effete as they move away from business, but at least they gain in sensitivity and artistic refinement.

Eline too is drawn to art. She is a passable pianist and her voice is quite good, but she never keeps up with her lessons, and besides as her health gets worse her doctors forbid her from practicing. First love fails Eline, then art. Without those things, what can a woman of this time turn to?

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Eline did for a time love Otto; I don’t think we’re supposed to believe otherwise. But as the book goes on it seems that Eline doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want to, or, at least, know how to. She increasingly finds herself unworthy, and she has an extraordinary way of evading or upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away. The end offers one of the more subtle portraits of madness in 19th century literature (and that’s saying something, there’s madness all over the place there).

We see Eline unable to sleep, increasingly delirious, and we follow the restless zigzag of her thoughts: first desperately trying to hold on a love she can no longer feel, then despairing over her inability to force herself to keep loving Otto, and finally raging over her situation, “because she was being assailed by thoughts she did not wish to think at all, and because she felt herself too weak to turn around and fight those invisible forces.”

Couperus doesn’t judge his characters—he’s no Flaubert—valuing this closely-knit society with its demonic fascination with duty even as he shows it to be narrow and conventional and totally unable to know what to do with Eline. But he makes Eline off-putting enough that we can’t totally sympathize with her, even though we ultimately must pity what today we might call the manic-depressive demons that surge through her.

I’m not sure how well I’ve conveyed this book to you. What I most want you to know is that it’s stranger than it seems. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces—if you’re at all susceptible to gemütlichkeit you’ll love this book—contain unsettling depths. But the depths aren’t appealing enough to allow us to dismiss the surfaces as mere conventionality. Above all, I hope I’ve made this book intriguing enough that you’ll want to read it and talk about it with me.

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Thanks must go to Archipelago Books for their lovely edition, with its generous margins, thick paper, clear font, the whole pleasing heft and size of the book itself. No doubt I would have appreciated some parts of the story even more had the book come with notes or introduction. Definitely a list of characters or family tree would have been helpful. But in the end I enjoyed the book all the more because I just had to plunge in and make my own way through it. (Actually, there’s an afterword by someone named Paul Binding and as I recall it’s quite good, more appreciative than academic.) Yes, sometimes I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but Eline Vere gave me what I too seldom get when reading these days and what I long for more than anything else: a deep sense of immersion, a wish to be alone with the book and to keep the pages turning. The novel’s 500 pages, but twice as long would have been just fine with me. Ina Rilke’s translation seems excellent. I mean it as a tribute to her when I say that I often found myself thinking, Well, I can read German, surely Dutch isn’t that different, I bet I could read this book in the original! Rilke’s supple English—neither fussy nor anachronistic, neither old-fashioned nor contemporary—made me believe in such a fantasy. I’m keen to read more of her translations from the Dutch. And I’m even keener to read more Couperus. A few of his books are available but as best I can tell his masterpiece Old People and Things That Pass (1918) is not. Archipelago, or other brave publishers, I beg you: please, please, please, more Couperus.