Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2022

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her third, is by Hope Coulter(@hopester99), whom I’m lucky to call a colleague. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

David Hockney, Nathan Swimming Los Angeles, 1982

2022 turned out to be a good reading year. I got a wider shot at e-book availability by joining a second public library in the adjacent city. [Ed. – “city.”] Then, by pecking through recommendation lists and hopping from screen to screen, I was able to keep my library hold shelves reassuringly filled—staving off that dire malady known as Running Out of Something Good To Read. [Ed. – Extremely bad. Jenny Davidson writes about some psychological studies done on this phenomenon in Reading Style.] Along the way I ran across some new obsessions.

Starting with nonfiction, I enjoyed and was moved by Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. It’s a cancer narrative that stands out on account of Jaouad’s youth, frankness, and writing chops, as well as the fact that the second half becomes a road-trip book. Jaouad discovered her cancer right after graduating from Princeton. In the flash of an eye the promising, carefree prospect of her twenties became a hellish ordeal. She’s still fighting cancer, and I wish her all the best for recovery. This book is a gift.

Thinking of memoirs by feisty young women, Crying in H-Mart, by Michelle Zauner got a lot of attention this year. For me it was an okay read, but not as memorable as Jaouad’s book. On the other hand, I recommend Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer not for any particular magic in the telling but for the extraordinary nature of Cox herself—her athletic prowess, her ability to connect with people around the world, the cheerful way she greets challenges of all kinds.

Another thoroughly satisfying memoir was Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef, ghostwritten by Veronica Chambers. Samuelsson is the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised culinary phenom who co-founded the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. His account of his Scandinavian upbringing; his rise through some of the most demanding restaurant kitchens in Europe, under despotic chefs; and his lifelong love affair with food and culture make this a book to relish on many levels. [Ed. – I see what you did there!]

George Saunders’s A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life is a terrific read for anyone who wants to dive deep into the craft minutiae of great short fiction. What questions does a story ask, and how do they pull us along? Is it what’s left in or what’s left out that makes a masterpiece? Of the analyses Saunders offers, his take on three of Chekhov’s stories were my favorite. On the other hand, if you’re not minutely interested in the technical and creative decisions behind a narrative—the tied-off loops on the back of the tapestry—you might as well just read the stories themelves.

Last but not least in nonfiction, fans of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker, won’t want to miss his latest, Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey across an Urban World. Imagine a City includes lots of the lyrical, novel description that makes Skyfaring wonderful, this time swirled into memoir and a flâneur’s takes on cities around the world. By the nature of his work as a long-distance commercial pilot, Vanhoenacker often finds himself with two days to spend near any metropolitan destination that he flies. He bides the mandatory rests in exploration and writing. This book not only features slices of such urban-scapes, but recurring takes on the author’s growing-up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: the town, his family, his coming-out, and the globe-spinning reveries that led to his vocation.

Now to fiction. One novel that blew me away this year was Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers. As someone who loves pools and water I was initially attracted to the title and cover (I know, I know, like buying wine for the label; I confess). [Ed. – I strongly support buying books for their covers.] Then when I started to read, I fell hard for the voice. Exactly who is speaking with such quiet authority, unspooling list after list about the lap swimmers with such close, cool knowledge? A crack appears in the bottom of their pool, and it’s like Jane Alison’s Nine Island meets Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried… The novel suddenly widens into a more familiar and pain-steeped story that I won’t spoil; sprint [Ed. – missed metaphor opportunity!] to your nearest book source and see for yourself.

My enthusiasm for The Swimmers sent me to Otsuka’s earlier novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and Buddha in the Attic, which in different ways chronicle the experiences of Japanese American immigrants. They’re well worth the read, though to me not consummate in their artistry like The Swimmers.

Way different stylistically from The Swimmers was a book at least as magnificent: Anna Burns’s Milkman, the densest and strangest novel I read last year. A student in my Irish short stories tutorial recommended it, and I’m so glad she did: this book made me understand as never before what it was like to live in the middle of the Troubles, no, to live the Troubles, to contain their gaslighting and violence in one’s marrow. The narrator has one of those unforgettable voices—drenched in idiom, funny, idiosyncratic—that at first seems impossible to understand. There are few paragraph changes, and few characters are called by actual names. All these might put you off, might seem like obstructions to grasping the story… and yet. Somehow it galvanizes a world as you read, a world that tumbles around you and into you, changing you.

Another surprise and pleasure was Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1971.It opens on a rainy Sunday in January (is there anything more depressing?) in a London lodging hotel just affordable and respectable enough for old folks not yet decrepit or destitute. You might judge this an unpromising start—till you find yourself immersed, riveted by Mrs. Palfrey and her fortunes: the aches, yearnings, miscues, and irritations of ordinary human life, rendered with nothing less than mastery.

Also of seventies vintage was Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), which Dorian has touted for years. I loved it: the boreal setting, the understated tone, a fusion of real with surreal that’s so seamless I question “surreal” even as I type it. The book is alluring and disconcerting at once—shoving me into uncomfortable encounters with my own relationships to sex, animals, and self—and resists interpretation at every turn. In fact, it’s highly entertaining to browse through reader takes on this book anywhere from Amazon to scholarly platforms. What is this thing: feminist text, postcolonial critique, an ursine-Canadian Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or a portrait of a “phallic mother”? Don’t miss Dorian’s delightful conversation with Shawn and James on Shawn the Book Maniac, which includes a clip from an interview with Engel herself. Mind you, as the interviewer admonishes, “This is no kinky, porno Pooh-Bear!” so prepare yourself for . . . something else thereof. [Ed. – Music to my ears, natch. But really 70s books are the best books…]

Thanks again to Dorian I reread Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, and was relieved to find that it still has its magic: it had been so long (or my memory so bad) that the plot twists surprised me all over again. This big novel is good for what ails you, a bracing tonic, just like the big skies and open roads out West. [Ed. – So glad it held up! Every time I see it on my shelf I brighten up a little.]

Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy is about Mike Muñoz, a southern California guy who can’t seem to catch the brass ring. His voice is canny, believable, often funny, and a little hoarse with pain, and there’s never a false note or a missed beat narrating his adventures through emotional and economic labyrinths. This is a fresh take on the American dream, as broken down for disillusioned 21st century folks, and it deserves to endure. Highly recommend.

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh is a gritty novel that revolves around a Boston abortion clinic where the protagonist works and various other characters who intersect there. I read it before the mid-year overturn of Roe, but it’s at least as relevant now: it remains on my mind for its multidimensional treatment of people on different sides of the abortion issue. Creepy, scary, and all too credible, in the case of a couple of anti-abortionist characters; but as I said, granting a multidimensionality that at least seeks to understand the sources of the venom that animates them. As Mohsin Hamid says, one thing literature does is “recomplicate what has been oversimplified,” and a novelist’s nuance is too often missing from the violent discord around this issue.

Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea brings her Oh William! characters forward through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic—moving those inveterate New Yorkers up to Maine. Anyone who has liked Strout’s earlier novels won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointments, even though Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquillity made a lot of people’s best-of lists last year, for me it was pretty forgettable—way less gripping than Station Eleven, the post-pandemic novel she wrote a few years before Covid struck. I was likewise underwhelmed by The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesy’s attempt at a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. I did finish it, but it annoyingly lacked a couple of key plot underpinnings as well as some of the major elements that make Bronte’s novel so great.

Edward Ruscha, Pool # 9, 1968

Last, and monumentally, I come to a series that dominated the last half of my reading year—and which I’m still devouring as we move into 2023: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, which chronicle the LAPD detective’s cases across more than twenty years in L.A. Formerly a reporter, including a last stint on the crime beat at the Los Angeles Times, Connelly is steeped in knowledge of the criminal legal system, LAPD culture, and police-reporter relations—not to mention southern California history and culture in general. So the books take place against a backdrop studded not only with physical landmarks but landmark events, O.J. to Rodney King to Robert Blake to COVID. Oh, and there’s also the iconic food of the greater L.A. area—specific BLTs and tacos and martinis that may have you keeping notes for the next time you make it out to the Golden State with an appetite.

In Heironymous (yes, named after the painter by his mother) Bosch, Connelly has created a laconic, jazz-listening, relationship-tending-to-screw-up hero in the best noir tradition: a SoCal Don Quixote perpetually battling the forces of darkness on his quest to put the bad guys (and women) behind bars. Fortunately, uh, but only for us as readers I mean, in the sweep of the sprawling metropolis there’s no shortage of evil out there for him to take on—from its crumbling bungalows to its gated MCM mansions, from seaside to outlying deserts, and sometimes within the halls of justice and press rooms and inter-warring police precinct headquarters themselves. The writing is spot-on: tough, perfectly paced, with lots of plot and action, of course, and salted just right with description and character. I’ve consumed these books the way I used to read beloved series as a kid, binge-reading with abandon, and now I see with dread that I’m closing in on the end of even the prolific Connelly’s output. [Ed. – Ah, that feeling! It’s really a thing, isn’t it?] He’s written several spinoff books involving sometime partners of Bosch, and a shorter series about a criminal defense lawyer who works from the back seat of his Lincoln, and those are good as well—but alas, they too are finite.

For what it’s worth, I read the series completely out of order, and it wasn’t a problem. When I did make my way back to the first couple of Bosch books, I found them a little stilted and trying too hard on the tough-guy front, in contrast to the grace and understatement of the later ones. In a way, though, the fact that the writing wasn’t impeccable was heartening: it showed that not even Connelly came to fiction-writing already with his skill set complete, but built his command over time. [Ed. — Glad to hear this, because I was underwhelmed by the first when I read it many years ago. Maybe I’ll grab one from later in the series.]

No, I haven’t watched the TV version of the Bosch books, and I doubt that I will; my mind’s-eye picture of the characters is too strong for me to want to sully it with a screen version, even though the author did consult on set. But next time I’m in L.A. I do plan to drive Mulholland Drive, and I’ll be looking for #7203, the modest cantilevered house with the deck on the back, where Bosch gazes down on the lights of the city in pensive moments. I have more to say on this topic, but excuse me, I’d rather go read now. We’re about to find out where the bodies are buried.

Benita Berthmann’s Year in Reading, 2022

Today’s post is from Benita Berthmann (@moodboardultra). Benita studies literature in Marburg, Germany, where she is a full time book enthusiast, part time smoker and occasional existentialist.

Balthus, The Game of Patience, 1954

Once again, Dorian was gracious enough to allow me to write about My Year in Reading 2022, thank you, Dorian, nothing I love more than talking about books!

First of all, the hard facts: In the past year, I’ve managed to read 158 books, which is a bit less than the year before, but in terms of pages, I’ve gone up a bit, having read a whopping 51,308 pages over the course of 365 days. [Ed. – JFC, B!]  I’m glad I was able to spend that much time on my favorite hobby and thankful for always being able to find distraction, solace, amusement and everything else I need in books. That is a great gift, methinks. [Ed. – Amen.]

Enough of the boring statistics, which I track via TheStorygraph by the way, on to the more interesting stuff. It is impossible to talk about all the books I’ve read, so I’ve selected a handful of extraordinary texts to talk about.

Dorian and Magda, you are chiefly responsible for this one: BEAR by Marian Engel, which, apart from being a story about loneliness, nature, and Canadian history, features a female archivist having intercourse with, you might have guessed it, a bear. No, that’s not a metaphor. Consequently, Magda (@theruraljuror) coined the hashtag #bärensexbuch on German twitter which means, literally, book about having sex with a bear. God bless German compound words. [Ed. – I only wish English had a handy noun for this important concept.] Apart from our protagonist having sex with a bear, I enjoyed the atmosphere that I’d deem far more important than the plot. It is calm, yet unhinged, something is lurking in the dark, but for now, we’re lingering on a remote island, pleasantly detached from normalcy. Thank you, D and M, for being so adamant about BEAR, it was the perfect read for a hot and hazy afternoon in late July. [Ed. – I love to hear it.]

In 2022, I have also discovered an author that is right on track to become a new favorite of mine: Haruki Murakami. Yeah, I know, totally basic of me, but from the very first page of KILLING COMMENDATORE (German translation by Ursula Gräfe, English by Philipp Gabriel and Ted Goosen), I was hooked. The story about an unnamed painter trying to figure out what to do with his life after having been left by his wife has everything I love: magical realism, mystery and suspense, obscurity, art and culture. The title refers to a painting that plays a major role in the novel and I physically couldn’t stop reading until I knew what would happen. A novel to fall in love with reading and the magic of storytelling if there ever was one.

At university, I took part in a seminar dealing with literature that has been subject to judicial conflict. One of the books we talked about was ESRA by Maxim Biller, which deals with the relationship and subsequent breakup of Adam, a Jewish writer, and Esra, a German-Turkish actress, troubled and traumatized. None of the characters are particularly likeable, nor is the story itself innovative. [Ed. – Really selling this…] What makes the novel interesting, though, is that one can easily draw parallels between Maxim Biller and his alter ego Adam, not least because of the court case following a lawsuit filed by the woman who was clearly the model for Esra and her mother, both of whom claimed that Biller had violated their privacy rights. In the seminar, we talked about to what degree literature can take inspiration from real life, how German courts have decided these questions, and how they came to their decisions, the discrepancy between scholars of literature and of law and, of course, the question whether it was the lawsuit itself that drew attention to an otherwise rather mediocre novel, whether it is – Streisand effect – at least partly the plaintiffs’ fault that they found themselves subject to public scrutiny. To this day, the novel remains forbidden in Germany, a decision made by the highest German court, and it is nearly impossible to get one’s hand on a copy – except if you’re reading it “for scientific reasons” as we did in class. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to pass on the text, sorry, folks. [Ed. – Fascinating!]

One of the authors I revere most is Simone de Beauvoir, ever since I read The Mandarins almost five years ago. This year, I finally managed to read the second part of her autobiography, THE PRIME OF LIFE (German translation by Rolf Soellner, English by Peter Green). The story begins right where the previous volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, left us: It’s the late 1920s, de Beauvoir studies philosophy, hangs out with Sartre, they become the founders of existentialism and important public figures in France after having made their respective debuts as writers. They survive the war; the book ends in 1944. I loved reading about the extraordinary life of an absolute fucking legend, an intelligent woman; her philosophy and clever wit allowed my thoughts to flourish while reading and I felt incredibly enriched afterwards. Not just from an intellectual perspective, either. Fun and the absurd aren’t neglected either. For example, the book involves an incident where Beauvoir and Sartre encounter a woman smoking a cigarette with her vagina during their travels. [Ed. – But how is that…] Oh, how I long to be THAT cool. [Ed. – Still struggling with this one, B.] In 2023, I really need to read the two remaining volumes of her autobiography.

Balthus, from the series Mitsou, 1919

Even though I’m too lazy to write about them in detail, a couple of books and authors that deserve at least an honorable mention:

First and foremost, Thomas Bernhard, my most-read author 2022, and also my favorite rage-mode Austrian. [Ed. – Hell yeah!] If you need the healing powers of incandescent rage, Bernhard is your man. I’d especially recommend the drama HELDENPLATZ (English translation by Gitta Honneger) that talks about the Austrian Nazi past kept secret.

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong. Has queer prose ever been more thoughtful, more touching, more well-written? I doubt it.

LAPVONA by Ottessa Moshfeg wins the prize for the most disgusting book in 2022. Not much else to say except steer clear of it if gore, organs and cannibalism upset your stomach.

EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY. I am pretty sure that Patrick Radden Keefe is the best contemporary non-fiction writer there is.

Marlene Streeruwitz, an Austrian feminist writer. When will her work finally be translated? Looks like I need to take care of that. [Ed. – Yes you do! That would be a real service.]

The PERCY JACKSON series by Rick Riordan, he is sort of an unproblematic JKR.

Last but not least, Julia Kristeva’s REVOLUTION IN POETIC LANGUAGE (English translation by Margaret Waller, German by Reinhold Werner) deserves the final spot on my list, even though I have not fully finished it in 2022, just because she made me lose my mind. [Ed. – Do Powers of Horror next!]

For 2023, I hope we will all make enough time for reading and find new favorites. Never stop reading. Let’s hope Dorian continues this series for many more years to come so that we have an excuse to create never ending TBR stacks. [Ed. I don’t think anyone reading this needs my say-so to create a giant TBR… Thank you, Benita!]

Scott Walters’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, I’m delighted to say, is by Scott Walters. Scott launched a litblog, seraillon, in 2010, and expects to return to it one of these days. He largely follows Primo Levi’s model of “occasional and erratic reading, reading out of curiosity, impulse or vice, and not by profession” (profession in his own case being academic administration). He lives with his partner in San Francisco and tries to visit family in France as often as possible.

seraillon has long been a favourite blog: in the past year or so I’ve checked in regularly, half disconsolate, half hopeful, looking for new content. You can imagine, then, how happy I am to feature Scott here in his return to blogging. I hear rumours that more may be afoot at the site!

With Scott’s post, this run of Year in Reading posts comes to an end–except, of course, for my own, which I hope to write soon… The project grew into something bigger than I’d ever imagined; it’s been a delight to showcase the work of so many thoughtful readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote, read, and commented on these pieces. (If you’d talked with me about writing a piece but haven’t sent it to me yet, it’s not too late. Just be in touch and we’ll make a plan.)

Milton Avery, Green Sea, 1954

How gracious of Dorian to invite me to submit an end-of-year post! I have been avidly following the others he’s posted, which now have my to-be-read list runnething over. So thank you Dorian, and everyone, and hello. [Ed. – Such a pleasure!]

I’ve written nothing on the seraillon blog for more than two years—”hellacious times and I’ve slipped between the cracks,” as a character says in David Greenberg’s play, The Assembled Parties. But I have been reading, finishing 42 books in 2021. Though about half my typical yearly volume, I also read much more in books, most of which I intend to finish: The astounding Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe (to be continued in the original French, no knock on Anka Muhlstein’s translation). A re-read of Wuthering Heights. Franz Werfel’s monumental novel of resistance against the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, following an interest in Henri Bosco. Henri Bosco himself, in his novels Le Mas Théotime and Sabinus. A book about book designer Robert Massin, who designed these French Bosco editions. There are others, down other rabbit holes.

Here are ten highlights of works I did finish in 2021, plus honorable mentions:

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robinson has shouldered a massive responsibility: digesting everything we know about climate change as well as everything we know about how we might address it, then packing it into a stunningly wide-ranging geopolitical thriller interspersed with chapters that concretize climate change’s multivarious, cascading impacts. The novel is also one of few I’ve encountered (Vincent McHugh’s 1943 pandemic novel I Am Thinking of My Darling being another) that explore competent administration of a crisis. [Ed. – Yes! This is a book about competency. Maybe that’s why it feels so comforting.] Robinson’s book appeared in October 2020, a date to fix precisely given the furious pace of change as regards the book’s subject. In fact, the novel seemed a kind of sundial around which shadows spun and deepened rapidly as I read, some elements already obsolete as others swam into view. This is no criticism; I marveled at the real-time context while reading as well as at Robinson’s courage in being able to place a period on his final sentence, and I’ve been pushing the work on everyone for its articulation of the enormity of the challenges facing us, some lovely conceits such as the return of airships, and a bracing radicalism that makes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang seem like a Sunday School picnic. Despite offering a path forward, Robinson eschews easy answers and offers little in the way of reassurance, seeming to have taken as the novel’s departure point Greta Thunberg’s memorable warning: “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” [Ed. – On my 2020 list; still think about it daily.]

Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich (translation by Howard Curtis)

The cover blurbs’ promise of a resurrected 20th century Italian classic certainly delivered; Calligarich’s short, tight, engaging 1973 novel of dissolution in 1960’s Rome seems to pick up where Alberto Moravia left off in depicting modern Italian existential malaise. The story follows the peripatetic wanderings around Rome of Leo Gazzara, an impecunious, alcoholic, bookish young Roman who becomes embroiled in a tumultuous on-again/off-again love affair. The energy of Calligarich’s automobile-driven narrative and the drifting yet fascinating tour he offers of Rome—the city itself a “particular intoxication that wipes out memory”—help balance out the novel’s bleakness, and a frequent invocation of books provides both literary diversion and dark warning of Bovary-esque entrapment in fictions. One might easily envision a film version by an Italian neo-realist director such as Dino Rossi or Antonio Pietrangeli.

Norwood, by Charles Portis

Considerably brightening a dark year, Norwood (1966) edged out Portis’s True Grit and The Dog of the South as the funniest book I read all year [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!], and even topped W. E. Bow’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle and Patrick Dennis’s Genius. A howling road trip and love story that begins when Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Arkansas gets a job tandem-towing a couple of hot cars to Brooklyn, Norwood limns the seedy, grifty, free-wheeling side of American life with caustic, irreverent humor; splendid dialogue; and unforgettable characters. I have Jacqui to thank for this introduction to Portis and will certainly read his remaining two novels and collection of short pieces, a literary cornucopia inversely proportional to the author’s small output, and no doubt as delicious as a biscuit and Bre’r Rabbit Syrup sandwich.

Stories With Pictures, by Antonio Tabucchi (translation by Elizabeth Harris)

“From image to voice, the way is brief, if the senses respond,” writes Antonio Tabucchi in his preface to 2011’s Stories with Pictures, a collection of 30-some short pieces sparked by a particular painting or drawing. Inspired by his having spent an entire day in the Prado (I did the same thing on the one day I spent in Madrid), Tabucchi writes at an angle about the pictures, riffing on them in a dazzling range of ways, from mediations to letters to what seem at times multi-page, arabesque-like captions. As in much of Tabucchi’s work, motifs connected to Fernando Pessoa abound. Most of the artworks come from 20th century Italian or Portuguese artists, all but a few new to me. As if the posthumous appearance in English of a Tabucchi work wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, the Archipelago Books edition, featuring color plates of each picture, make this a volume with a presentation as lovely as the author’s concept.

Bear, by Marion Engel

“Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?” Marion Engel’s Bear (1976) has made so many end-of-year lists here and elsewhere that Dorian should get a medal for this revival of interest. [Ed. – Aw shucks. No medal, though. I want cash.] Thanks to a new edition from London’s Daunt Books, I finally got in on Engel’s singularly odd tale of Lou, an archivist cataloging the contents of a deceased eccentric’s isolated mansion in Ontario’s remote north—and falling maw over claws for its resident bear. [Ed. – Ha! Maw over claws! That’s good! Gonna steal that.] Literally going wild in shaking herself loose of “the flaws in her plodding private world” and the various civilized confines that have entrapped her, Lou exults in a rebirth as liberating as it is perturbing. Bear’s atmosphere of isolation made it seem readymade for pandemic reading; I suspect that most of us are more than ready to go a little wild ourselves. [Ed. – Sounds pretty good to me!]

Dissipation H. G., by Guido Morselli (translation by Frederika Randall)

My terrific excitement at seeing another Morselli novel appear in English received an abrupt check upon my learning that Frederika Randall, one of the finest of Italian to English translators, had died shortly after finishing the translation. Readers of seraillon may know of my interest in Morselli; this short novel, his last, takes a common theme in which a person suddenly discovers that they are alone on earth. Morselli spins the conceit into a bittersweet, moving and darkly humorous exploration of isolation and the need for human contact. The “H. G.” in the title refers to humani generis and the dissipation “not in the moral sense” but rather from “the third and fourth century Latin dissipatio,” meaning “evaporation, nebulization, some physical process like that.”  In other words, Dissipation H. G. turned out to be another work suited for pandemic reading—if perhaps in the manner of providing solace through affirmation of one’s sense of reality.

Malacarne, by Giosué Caliciura (French translation by Lise Chapuis)

Sicilian writer Giosué Caliciura has yet to be translated into English, a pity, as his fierce, inventive, densely baroque novels, delving into the lives of those on society’s margins, are among the most original and powerful I’ve found in contemporary Italian literature. Malacarne (1999) presents a ferocious testimonial from a Sicilian malacarne (literally “bad flesh”), one of the young hoods employed to do the Mafia’s dirty work.  Palermo—and at the same time a vaguely defined post-mortem space—provide the setting(s) for the malacarne’s reckoning, before a judge, with the brutal details of a violent, savage life. Caliciura’s use of a deliberately impossible narrative voice, an articulation both belonging to and channeled through the late malacarne, adds to the novel’s otherworldly, underworld atmosphere. But the story the malacarne relates is as worldly, gripping and linguistically spectacular as a story could be, a profound exploration of the forces that perpetuate organized crime and engulf the youth it attracts, manipulates, and destroys.

Giorgio Morandi. Paesaggio Levico, 1957.

Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lafferty

I did not know of R. A. Lafferty (apparently revered in science fiction circles), nor had I heard of this novel (not a work of science fiction), and so little suspected what I was about to get into. I found Okla Hannali (1972) astonishing. The author called its initial appearance “a torturous undertaking even though it wasn’t much more than an overflowing of crammed notebooks.” Something of the “crammed notebooks” quality seems to remain in this revised, shaggy final version, but small matter: why this vastly-larger-than-life legend of fictional Choctaw “mingo” (king) Hannali Innominee isn’t a standard feature of the American literary canon is beyond me. Lafferty turns the historical telescope around, viewing early 19th century frontier history from the Choctaw perspective. We know we’re in the realm of legend when the novel begins with a creation myth, which swiftly moves to the early life of Hannali, a “big man who would fill almost a century” and who, during one of the several forced resettlements of the Choctaw, abruptly picks out a plot of land in what is today eastern Oklahoma, “a place less no damn good than other land.”  At this nexus where many elements of 19th century American history converged, the reader witnesses, through Hannali, the westward European expansion, the enactment of genocidal policies towards indigenous populations, the flight of escaped slaves (some of whom become slaves of the Choctaw and/or members of the tribe), the lingering resonances of the Louisiana Purchase, the inauguration of new states, the misunderstood “Jacksonian Revolution” that amounted to little more than “a war of the rich against the poor,” and finally the American Civil War and the grim destruction of the Choctaw republic. Hannali is a magnificent character: defiant, stubborn, courageous, wise, irreverent, a folk hero of magnitudes. Big, boisterous, hilarious, indignant, heart-breaking tales like this don’t come along often; one mourns the unrealized project Lafferty intended to call “Chapters in American History,” of which Okla Hannli, his “Indian [sic] chapter,” is the only one he completed. [Ed. – Wow! Sounds amazing!]

The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

“The calculations were hopelessly out…Calculations about Venus often are.” Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene were close friends, and I thrilled to find Greene-like elements in this exceptional, elegant, psychologically penetrating work. But The Transit of Venus (1980) is something all its own, a dense, intimate, furiously compelling narrative tracing the life trajectories and romantic entanglements of two Australian sisters orphaned at a young age. Tracking the sisters’ moves to England (and one to New York), with events of the tumultuous 20th century backgrounding their stories, Hazzard describes, in exacting prose, the psychological nuances of human interactions. Henry James, another obvious influence here, seems constricted by comparison [Ed. – hmm]; The Transit of Venus did more to put in perspective James’s limitations with regard to women characters than any other work I’ve read [Ed. – hmm]. Hazzard’s antecedents range from Greek tragedies to Goethe to 19th century Realism, resulting in a story almost classical in form and style, yet palpably burning with a sense of lived experience—from a writer who led an utterly improbable life. I’ll be reading more.

A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

“…I still could not feel at home, either in the new country or in the new language,” states the narrator on the first page of Mizumura’s 2002 novel (to which I was steered by Dorian – thank you, Dorian!). [Ed. – So welcome! Delighted to see this here.] This might be a line from any work addressing displacement, but it scarcely begins to hint at the extraordinary directions Mizumura will take over the ensuing 853 pages. I harbored some doubts about descriptions of the novel as a Japanese Wuthering Heights, but Mizumura evinces little interest in simply grafting Emily Bronte’s work onto a Japanese setting. Instead, her ambitions aim broadly and deeply. Taking the coinciding of the 19th century western novel’s golden age with Japan’s opening to western influence as her beginning, Mizumura then uses her own transnational experience (with formative years spent in the US before a permanent return to Japan) to explore, through both western and Japanese literary and linguistic lenses, multiple questions of transnational identity, cultural cross-pollination, Japanese post-war history, and – through her mysterious character Taro, a kind of Japanese Heathcliff/Gatsby amalgam – issues of class and otherness. A True Novel takes its title from a prevailing style of Japanese literature in which works like Wuthering Heights were held up as an ideal form, “where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life.” But meta-fictional elements in Mizumura’s narrative also link it to the later Japanese style of the “I-Novel” (also the title of another, more personal Mizumura work), close to memoir and hewing to the author’s personal experience. Through concatenations of narrative (the prologue alone to A True Novel goes on for 165 pages) and using black and white photographs to heighten sense of place in the mountainous Karuizawa area where much of the story unfolds, Mizumura aligns the substrate of the Japanese literary enzyme with that of its Western counterpart, sparking a catalysis that creates something strikingly original. While it’s rare enough to find something that seems new in fiction, it’s more unusual still to find a work also incorporating something old and familiar and—by means of steady, crystalline, superbly atmospheric prose—so completely absorbing. Re-reading this true novel, my favorite book of 2021, will be a goal for 2022.

Milton Avery, Offshore Island, 1958

Honorable mentions:

  • Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales;
  • Miklós Bánffy’s The Enchanted Night, an excellent collection of short stories that aligned surprisingly with Dinesen (great to see more of Bánffy’s work emerging in translation);
  • Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna, the director’s screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest film never made;
  • N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, an American classic, gorgeous and heartbreaking;
  • Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a marvel of concision concerning Ireland’s Magdalen laundries;
  • Henri Bosco’s Le Trestoulas, affirming Bosco as a writer I will certainly keep reading;
  • Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.

(And in the noir/polar/mystery realm):

  • Georges Simenon’s Chez Krull [Ed. – So good!];
  • Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Demetrios;
  • Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inagumi Curse, terrific to read directly after Mizumura so as to linger a bit in a Japanese mountain atmosphere.

Thanks for reading, and felicitous reading to all in 2022!

Sarah Raich’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Sarah Raich (@geraeuschbar). Sarah is a writer who studied comparative literature, North American studies, and criminal law. A volume of short stories, dieses makellose Blau, was published by mikrotext and the dystopian YA novel All that’s left by Piper. Two of her stories have appeared in English translation by Eilidh Johnstone in https://no-mans-land.org/article/that-i. She lives in Munich.

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).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scene at Night, 1926-7

2021 was a special year for me as a reader, because it was the first year my own books—ones I’d written and published–were being read. Not just by my doting husband and proud parents – but by real readers. [Ed. – Ouch! Tough on that “fake reader” husband!] And, yes, that changed things for my reading. I became gentler in my judgement. And yes, sometimes I was envious while reading as a published writer.

2021 also was the year I tried to read more diversely, meaning less white, and that is how I came across my favorite book of the year: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body. I don’t know if I would have read this if I hadn’t made the conscious decision to diversify my reading. I remember buying the book in Cologne at the event Insert Female Artist, a little reluctantly because I found the cover so unappealing (yeah, I’m superficial). [Ed. – Same!] And then I started reading it and couldn’t stop because it was like being severely punched and gently caressed at the same time. And to me those are the very best books. The story is set in Zimbabwe and has in Tambudzai one absolutely loathsome protagonist. [Ed. – So interesting! I’ve only read Nervous Conditions, where Tambu is not loathsome, IMO, but certainly hard to like…] And Dangarembga manages the magic trick of showing the very many dark sides of her character—and still making the reader feel for her. Suffering didn’t make Tambudzai good. It made her selfish and greedy and needy. And the story doesn’t end well: how could it? Dangarembga tells this story in such fierce language in an unusual second person account that my brain got rattled in a way only brilliant books can do. (That her work appears in Germany from a niche publishing house speaks volumes by the way.)

What This Mournable Body shared with many books I read this year is its dark humor. And maybe that was just the right thing for the sobering and dragging experience of living through a second year of a global pandemic. Take for example Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, which I read in the supreme translation by Nicole Seifert, which describes severe physical and psychological abuse – and yet I laughed so hard. Because the most brutal things contain humor and patriarchs are clowns with bloody swords and dirty underwear they need to have washed. [Ed. – Ah to be a patriarch! Seriously, though, this really gets at an important aspect of the book.]

For me, Bear by Marian Engel also falls in this category. [Ed. – Hell to the yeah!] A book that was wildly discussed and promoted on Twitter—to a considerable extent by the owner of this blog. [Ed. – “To a considerable extent” = German for “What a fucking nut that guy is, always banging on about that book!] I liked the unforgiving yet loving eye Engel casts on the protagonist which also leads to weirdly comical passages while the librarian stumbles through her life in a “molelike existence”, a phrasing I will never forget. In a way this librarian has a lot in common with the heroine in Ghost Wall. They both live a life they haven’t chosen, pushed around and overseen—and view this miserable situation with an acidic view on themselves and the world, and then one of them (Silvie in Ghost Wall) finds friends, the other one (the librarian in Bear) finds, well, Bear.

And yes, while writing this down, I realize my taste for this kind of book grew strong during this year of reading. Books that intertwine the horrible with the comical. One of those books was Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo who has the admirable audacity to throw her mostly German readers into a whirlwind of perspectives, places, and times. Ranging from rebirth and gods and eternal entities that hope for liberation from earthly existence while quarreling with God, into the overburdened subjects of the Shoah, racism, and colonialism, Otoo blasts established narrative boundaries and writes down the shiny pieces. Which left many German critics profoundly confused. I enjoyed the ride very much and I am very curious how the English-speaking audience will respond to this text.

The book contains my favorite quote of the year 2021:

Gott rollte als Steppenpflanze an mir vorbei.

(Einfach so.)

(Als wäre ich gar nicht da.)

(Eine Frechheit.)

Ich ließ alles –  no fee no [im Original in phonetischen Alphabet] – auf mich einwirken, in der Hoffnung, dass diese Sensation aller abendländlichen Farben zeitnah nachlassen würde. Hinter meiner Hoffnung steckte ein Hauch Erwartung. Ich gestand es mir aber selbst nicht ein. Ich wollte solchen banalen Gefühle längst hinter mir gelassen haben. Ich wartete.

God rolled past me as a tumbleweed.

(Just like that.)

(As if I was not even there.)

(The nerve.)

I allowed myself to be moved by everything—nɔ fɛɛ nɔ—hoping that the sensation of these occidental colors would soon wane. A breath of expectation cowered behind my hope. But I could not admit it to myself. I had wanted to leave such banal feelings far behind me. I waited.

(Translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi; translation forthcoming)

One more theme flows through my 2021 reading year, now that I look at it: the difference between serious and entertaining literature, as we put it in German. A difference which part of the cultural establishment in Germany seems obsessed by.

It affects my own writing, as I‘ve published one book of short stories, which some consider one of the intellectual forms of writing, and a second book that’s a dystopian YA novel, which the same people consider a rather grimy genre (unless Margaret Atwood writes it—then it’s different). As a very nice and slightly drunk person from the literary establishment told me once: the problem is, your book doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

Maybe being in this position has made me more sensitive to writers writing books that are misfits. But this feeling was also influenced by the work of Nicole Seifert, especially as expressed in her book Frauen Literatur, published in 2021. In it she describes so many books by female writers being belittled and shoved aside. Seifert’s book was eye-opening, even though I had already read so much of her blog posts, articles, and tweets. And the most important thing I learned from this superb work is how systemic the degradation of female writing is.

One of my most precious serendipities of books being labeled pure entertainment was the writing of Shirley Jackson, starting with Hangsaman. In Germany, Jackson has been considered a horror genre writer, which she is, but through this genre she writes pure literature. [Ed. – Hmm this does seem to uphold that literature/entertainment binary…] Jackson died without experiencing the literary appreciation she should have received. I don’t know why, but this realization really got to me. That a woman of her abilities got overlooked so brutally during her life time. (I rejoiced at the Wikipedia article describing how her otherwise shitty husband fought for her recognition and ranted ferociously against the literary establishment unwilling to give Jackson credit for her genius.)

But the list of undervalued writers goes on, leading to the books of Vicki Baum, whom I had always considered easy entertainment. But when I read them they proved to be epic. I cherished Hotel Shanghai: the vastness of the tableau she created leaves me awestruck.

Jeanne Mammen, Self-portrait, ca. 1926

So this is what I will carry into my year of reading 2022: a thirst for misfits and dark humor. Very dark.

M. F. Corwin’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by M. F. Corwin, who tweets as @eudamonis. Corwin, a person of mystery, currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Gray Day, 1895

M: How can one talk about one’s entire year of reading?

E: Well, that’s why you keep a list, right?

M: That’s just a list of books finished.

E: …and of course there’s more to reading than finishing books.

M: Yes. There are the books abandoned, and the reading done but not completed in the year.

E: There’s no shame in not reading to deadline.

M: Why would the end of the year be a deadline? The calendar’s arbitrary; reading’s continuous. 

E: To a point. Anyway. What books didn’t you finish last year?

M: A lot! Two that stand out are Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds and Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray, both of which I’ve been reading slowly, because I’m not quite ready to leave them behind.

E: Why?

M: For the Barton, it’s the combination of the clever conceit of organizing a memoir around onomatopoeic vocabulary with the keen analysis of culture shock and the tenderness towards her younger self, towards all younger selves. For the Arsenyev, well, it just pushes a lot of buttons. It’s Siberia, so that’s inherently interesting, but there’s also the pairing of naturalist observation with early twentieth-century exploration and adventure after the Russo-Japanese War. It doesn’t hurt that it has some background for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala and was translated by the guy who wrote that book on Siberian owls.

E: Did you read the owl book?

M: I tried, but the tone was too close to a Peace Corps memoir, a sort of magazine slick. Good in its way, but not what I wanted from it.

E: What other books didn’t you read last year?

M: That’s a really important question – for me at least. The books I didn’t (or don’t) read have a huge impact on the books that I choose to read and/or finish, although the relationship can be complicated.

E: What would be an example?

M: Well, I meant to reread War and Peace last year, given that I found a collection of the Oxford World Classics hardcovers of Tolstoy while looking for butter knives. [Ed. – Like, in your house?] I was planning to read his works more or less in order, and War and Peace comes surprisingly early.

E: Just to address what is clearly a side point: Are all of your book purchases failed attempts at housekeeping?

M: … hm. Probably. But, as you say, not important. I was reading Tolstoy’s early short stories and got kind of stuck on the Sevastopol stories, which were really fascinating: keen observation, a brutal eye for military matters, and the veneer of cheap morality really showing some deliberate wear. It got me wondering about the background to War and Peace; obviously as a historical novel, it’s somewhat different, but it made me want more context. I’d already been interested in reading The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, as it had been translated by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees during their Russian kick (which also led to The Book of the Bear, which in turn was part of what convinced me to get around to Marian Engel’s Bear [Ed. — Oh, that sounds interesting], although they are not at all related); I had heard, perhaps erroneously, that Avvakum’s style in some ways influenced Tolstoy’s. So I read that, in a more recent translation, which I didn’t quite care for, though the introduction was very firm about its authenticity.

E: And then?

M: Well, that led me to Janet Martin’s history of medieval Russia, which is a very decent introduction and confirmed my opinion that I needed to get to know a bit more history before I could get back to Tolstoy. I picked up some books that seemed like they might be relevant (Kollman’s The Russian Empire 1450–1801 and Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire, 1801–1917), but before I got to those I felt I really needed to know a bit more about Lithuania, because it just kept cropping up in Martin’s book. So I read a history of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and it was tremendously illuminating.

E: How so?

M: It was one of those wonderful moments when one, as a reader, has the opportunity to see how perfectly ignorant one is. [Ed. — Would that more of us thought this way!] An entire vista, previously unknown, appears with all of its possibilities. Not just an unknown vista, but an entirely unimagined one, a rich field of arguments in every footnote. It’s deeply satisfying to read something that does not confirm one’s suspicions, not least because one did not know enough to have any.

E: So did you get to the Russian history books?

M: Not yet! I mean, I could go through the same sort of scenario with other books I didn’t read: Duras, whom I keep trying to work myself up to liking [Ed. – Same! Speak truth to power!] (which led to Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, and the Léger trilogy published by the Dorothy Project) or Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding (Hamann, Gadamer’s Enigma of Health, and Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary). Sometimes when I try to rev myself up to read something I get distracted – and perhaps the distraction is more interesting than the intention. Like I was working through Shakespeare’s plays last year as well, and I rather wonder if I might not have had more fun with the project, as a project, if I had allowed myself to be distracted from it, about it, more. There’s always a pleasure, though, in rereading something familiar from high school that will stand up to (and reward) attentive rereading – like putting on a mental bathrobe that one has had forever only to find it much finer than one had remembered. The same thing kind of happened in reverse while rereading Civilization and Its Discontents: I had the uncomfortable sensation of (re)discovering the forgotten source for some of my mental furniture, which was a bit embarrassing.

E: Are these distractions always just a way of sneaking up on a reading project?

M: Sadly, no. There’s a lot of the magpie, too. Someone will mention something on Twitter, or there will be a sale from Rixdorf or Open Letter or pretty much any small or university press, and, well, I am easily distracted. Or perhaps I was just ready to be distracted. 

E: What was the best distraction you encountered last year?

M: Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and Idée Fixe, without a doubt – charming without being cloying. I picked them up at random on my first trip back to Powell’s since the start of the pandemic and, even though I had previously disliked the dialogue form, they led me to rethink my position. 

E: So, when will you be rereading War and Peace?

M: Eventually.

Isaac Levitan, Vladimir’s Road, 1892

James Morrison’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by James Morrison, an Australian reader and editor (sadly, not of books) who tweets at @unwise_trousers and blogs (increasingly infrequently) at http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com.

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

Francesa Woodman, Untitled, Rome, Italy 1977 – 78

2021 was like much of the rest of my life: I didn’t accomplish much, but I did read a shitload of books. If you take as true the dubious proposition that literature makes us better people, then virtue must positively drip from my pores. Sadly, the behaviour of nearly every great writer shows instead that constant contact with great literature makes you absolutely repellent.

Reading a lot can mean that when you look back on what you’ve read over the course of a year there are a number of surprises. I read that this year? It feels like a lifetime ago. What book is that? I have no memory of it at all. I only gave that three stars on Goodreads? It’s really hung around in my brain, more so than some of the obvious winners.

Some people have reading plans they stick to. I have no plans, or at least none that last more than a day or two in the face of the constant deluge of new and old books that keep yelling out for attention. I’m also a sucker for pretty books—I will absolutely fall for a book with a clever or beautiful cover design, knowing nothing else about it. [Ed. – Hard same, I’ll often ignore a book with an ugly cover and then decide I have to have it if it’s released in a better design.] Despite this, I will pretend not to be shallow as I talk about some of the things I read last year, in loosely thematic clumps.

Magyars

One of my favourite literary sources is Hungary. Little Hungarian writing gets translated compared to that from most other European countries, but the main reason I like it is that the general quality of what does get translated into English is astonishingly high. Three books from Hungary particularly struck me this year.

Progressive Transylvanian aristocrat Count Miklós Bánffy is best remembered for his massive They Were Counted/Divided/Found Wanting trilogy, but was also excellent on a small scale; and two collections of his short stories came out at roughly the same time from two different publishers, with some overlap. Probably the better of the two is The Enchanted Night, translated by Len Rix, full of elusive stories that range from brutal military realism to strange and spooky Transylvanian folktales.

The selected short stories of Tibor Déry, who was imprisoned for political reasons both before and during the Communist regime, are collected in Love, translated by George Szirtes. Life in Budapest under the Nazis and the Stalinists is beautifully, if bleakly, rendered.

László Krasznahorkai is easily the best-known Hungarian writer on the world stage today, and his novella-with-music (each chapter has a QR code you can scan to summon the accompanying track) Chasing Homer is a compressed marvel of paranoia, pursuit and weapons-grade bile. Surely one day they’ll run out of overrated Sixties singers and lovers of war criminals and give him the Nobel. [Ed. – Could be a while though; spoilt for choice there.]

Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917

Poets

Speaking of the Nobel, I finally read Louise Glück for the first time, and her Averno is genuinely wonderful, so I suppose they don’t only give the prize to the undeserving. Even more marvellous and long-neglected by me was Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied, a book in which the poetry really does attain the qualities of music, pure and wise and breathtaking.

Homecoming by Magda Isanos, translated from Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri, was another small revelation, full of the fog and ghosts and forests of interwar Central Europe. And then there was Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard: if you’re not intrigued by a collection of funny/sad prose poems, each set at the same deranged house party and each taking as its launching point one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, then I can’t help you.

Novels in verse are one of my many obsessions, and there were two that stood out. Fighting Is Like a Wife by Eloisa Amezcua (due out in April) uses as raw material the life and marriage of a historical boxing champion and his wife in formally clever and emotionally moving ways. And then there is Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles. How a major publishing house was persuaded to take a gamble on a hard science-fiction verse novel written in the Scottish-Norse hybrid Orkney dialect is a mystery to me, but that it happened shows this is not yet an entirely fallen world.

Tom Roberts, In a Corner on the Macintyre, 1895

Space

The host of this blog doesn’t give a shit about space [Ed. – correct], because he is Wrong [Ed. – possibly correct], but I’m going to talk about it a bit here anyway because Dorian made the mistake of giving me the microphone [Ed. – absolutely incorrect; no mistake was made]. Continuing the astro-poetry theme we have Ken Hunt’s The Lost Cosmonauts, a collection about the accidents and deaths of the Space Race, much of it constructed from the texts of official reports and radio transcripts. Then there’s Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, a bleak black comedy about the Soviet space program.

Pushing further into the future was the story collection Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (multiple translators), a downbeat set of 1970s/1980s Japanese countercultural tales of sexual and pharmaceutical weirdness. Further still takes us to Olga Ravn’s The Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, a genuine little masterpiece of a “workplace novel” set on a Generation Starship.

Finally, the biggest thing I read in 2021 was XX by Rian Hughes, a 1000-page monster about first contact and artificial intelligence. It’s a beautifully designed book in which the spirit of the 19th Century talks in multi-typeface pamphlets and that of the 20th in Futurist broadsides, which includes an entire pulp SF novella serialised in magazines that never existed, and which is the first book I have ever seen with a reversible dustjacket designed to make it look like a shelf of the fictional publications contained within the text [Ed. — !].

World War Two

Dutch genius Willem Frederik Hermans is having something of a revival, and A Guardian Angel Recalls (translated by David Colmer) is a great book new to English: a public prosecutor, weak and lovelorn, races around Holland as the Nazis invade, wreaking inadvertent havoc as he tries to save himself, protected and frustrated in equal measure by his similarly flawed guardian angel.

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (translated from German by Philip Boehm) is from 1938: perhaps too late to be called prescient, but even years later people were denying its truths. Otto Silbermann is a Jewish German who fought for his country in World War One, too slow to realise that what is happening to other Jews will happen to him too. Finally he has to go on the run, trying to find a way to escape across the border to safety.

Marga Minco’s The Glass Bridge (translated by Stacey Knecht) is another Dutch novel, a tangential look at the Holocaust in fragments from the life of Stella, a Jewish artist hiding out under a dead woman’s name, moving from safe house to safe house, fending off the advances of a sexually predatory ‘protector’.

David Piper’s Trial by Battle (originally published in 1959 as by Peter Towry) is a deeply anti-triumphalist novel about Britain in Asia during World War Two, outclassed and outfought, living on a faltering diet of nationalistic smugness. Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto is a fascinating memoir of the first few months of the Blitz in London. Finally, Donald Henderson’s 1943 novel Mister Bowling Buys a Newspaper, despite its religiose ending, is a fine black comedy about a polite serial killer for people who have read all of Patrick Hamilton and now have a sad void in their lives.

Frederick McCubbin, Lost, 1907

Random Others

Marian Engel’s Bear has no greater champion than the management of this blog, so I shall say nothing other than that Dorian is absolutely right about it in every way, despite the ludicrousness of the premise. [Ed. – THANK YOU! Another satisfied customer! You can watch James admit this truth to me here.] Another weirdly charged masterpiece is Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure, a strange and astonishing novel about a boy helpless in the grip of his aesthetic and sensual needs.

I don’t even like boxing, yet Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the second boxing novel on this list: a wonderful and weird book about masculinity and physical pain, full of great jokes which I have stolen: There are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data. [Ed. – But that’s only one… ohhh…] Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett, which is sort of about the disparity between literature and life but also about everything else, is a genuine marvel. Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) is the story of two Japanese sisters transplanted to New York, a deep and rich and perceptive work enriched by numerous photographs. It’s not quite the equal of her A True Novel, but then what is?

Jeffrey Smart, Cahill Expressway, 1962

[DISTANT, MUFFLED NOISE]

The Surprise Party Complex by Ramona Stewart, criminally out of print for decades, is a beautiful and hilarious bit of work about a group of neglected and eccentric teenagers at a loose end in Hollywood. The deeply weird Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing by René Daumal (translated by Roger Shattuck) was never finished, but what we do have is a surrealist masterpiece. Flesh by Brigid Brophy is a near-as-damnit perfect novel about appetites, both sexual and gastronomic. And everybody who enjoys the atmosphere of a good grotty 1950s London boarding house needs to read Babel Itself by Sam Youd (better known as science-fiction writer John Christopher), another unjustly forgotten bit of comic brilliance about a group of lodgers running spiritualist experiments, having affairs and betraying each other.

[SOUND OF SECURITY FORCES BANGING ON DOOR, YELLS OF ‘YOUR TIME IS UP!’]

Then there’s the Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which really is as good as everyone says, and Jim Shepard’s Phase Six, an unfortunately timed global pandemic novel that’s also a splendidly moving look at female friendship, and Hilma Wolitzer’s career-summary story collection Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, and…

[DOOR BREAKS DOWN]

..and Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, which I finally read years after everybody else, and Giorgio Bassani’s The Heron, the only book of his I’d never read, and…

[MUFFLED SHOUTING, SOUNDS OF SOMEONE BEING DRAGGED AWAY]

Anja Willner’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on her year in reading, her second annual contribution, is by Anja Willner. Anja insists on reading Russian books in the original even though it takes her way longer than in English or her native German. She lives and works in Munich, and tweets @WillnerAnja.

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

Kazimir Malevich, Red House, 1932

I’ve always thought of myself as a reader. Ever since I was able to read on my own, I’ve been a fan of libraries, reading, and books. It took only two pandemic years to question this identity. I mean, how many brain fog afternoons, Netflix hours (and we’re not talking the documentaries I still pretend to myself I will someday watch), minutes spent staring into the void or at my cats grooming themselves (very soothing, can recommend) until I must stop calling myself a reader?

Maybe I will find the answer this year and maybe I will find it on Twitter making silly jokes, writing lists of book recommendations, and losing them.

As to 2021, I finished 66 books read for pleasure and some more for not-so-much pleasure. That sounds like a lot to the non-readers in my life (greetings to my fellow guilty pleasure streamers and starers into the void) and is probably somewhere in the middle for Book Twitter.

It might be more telling to offer the number of books abandoned, unfinished or purchased but still unread, but I never counted these. Probably better for my peace of mind! One almost successful rereading project was Crime and Punishment with about 200 pages of maybe 600 read, curiously on a smartphone.

Reading C&P while waiting for the metro or having home office lunch staring on a rather small screen seemed weird but also strangely suitable. If living in a pandemic taught me one thing, it is this: Sometimes things you used to do with ease are just not possible anymore. Some of these things will come back, some will not. And that is probably okay.

Anyway, some reading projects did work out in 2021 and I’m all the more thankful for these experiences. Some of my highlights:

Minae Mizumura – A True Novel (translation: Juliet Winters)

Thank you, Dorian and Jules (who decided to tackle ‘A True Novel’ in the original Japanese!) [Ed. – Jules; not me], for pointing me towards this novel! Mizumura brought back that pure pleasure of childhood reading. I remember how I had entirely different plans when it was delivered but could not stop reading once I opened the package, so I just stayed on the floor of my apartment with book one (of two) for hours.

I now feel under pressure – but think of the loveliest, tiniest, tenderest kind of pressure you can imagine – to finally read Wuthering Heights, which the novel is loosely modeled on.

Mikhail Bulgakov – Flight, The White Guard, The Days of the Turbins

I’ve been meaning to read The White Guard ever since being the only person during a tour of Bulgakov’s family’s former apartment in Kyiv who didn’t know the novel intimately. I’m not even exaggerating: It was a Russian-language tour and I’m quite sure everybody who went to school in Ukraine or Russia is familiar with the novel. Finally reading it in 2021, I understood three things:

1. Why everyone on the tour went “ah” (the satisfied, approving kind of “ah”) when the guide switched off the lights in the apartment.

2. Why everyone who read the novel is absolutely crazy about it.

3. That recommending The White Guard to readers I consider worthy might be what fate had in mind for me.

Only joking! Well, half-joking. The White Guard is one of those books I want to start reading again right after finishing them. And then again, again, and again. The many layers, the adorable and not-so adorable characters, the (often bitter) jokes, the apocalyptic atmosphere. The understanding that huge changes we read about in history books mean mostly confusion and often bloodshed for the people experiencing them. The wild mixture of Russian, Ukrainian and everything in between, a nightmare for any translator. A language at times so hypnotizing you forget there is a world outside, making you want to memorize parts or read entire passages out loud.

If you want to give Bulgakov a try in 2022 but are more into plays and have less time, The Days of the Turbins is practically the same story with funnier dialogue. It was said to be Stalin’s favorite play until it wasn’t, causing a lot of trouble for Bulgakov. But that’s already a different story.

Flight, another play, has memorable main characters and is darkly funny but might be difficult to get at times if you are not familiar with a) the early parts of Soviet history and b) the language of orthodoxy. But you still have The White Guard or you can turn to the available film adaptions, so you’re not entirely lost for my cause!

Louise Kapp Howe – Pink Collar Workers

This is not a novel, but after the many academic papers I had to read last year Howe’s study of women who work in low-paid and underestimated jobs was such a relief that I have to share it with you. Howe watched women work and talked to them. A lot. It took months and she even worked a retail job to better understand the conditions there. It might be cliché, but I think every (male) reporter turning such experiences into a book would boast about them.

Howe does not do that. She tells the stories of the women she encountered. And she does not care for ‘scientific’ language or the kind of approach that is usually expected for such studies.

Howe in her own words:

[The women I have talked to] included nurses, receptionists, keypunch operators, legal secretaries, domestic workers, medical technologists, teachers, dental assistants, sewers, telephone operators, supermarket cashiers, among others in female-dominated jobs. … I can’t tell you how many there were because I never kept count. Maybe there were 123. Maybe 180. Maybe 206. It doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re women, not data.

The book is from the 1970s and of course not every single sentence has aged well. I like to think that Howe – if she were alive today – would reconsider the way she describes women hitting their children to teach them a lesson. (Note to my fellow readers of medium-ancient books: there is at least no trace of the kind of blatant racism one often encounters in books from that period.)

Marian Engel – Bear

Ah yes, that one – the bear sex book Dorian keeps raving about! [Ed. – I do.] And what can I say, the man is right. [Ed. – she really makes a good point.] Sign me up for the Cult of Bear! [Ed. – Another satisfied customer!] This was lovely, raw, weird and had me google the wildest things. Yes, there is real bear sex, there are a lot of books mentioned for intertextual fun, there is a heroine liberating herself and great nature writing, there is thinking about what it means to lead a successful life, to be remembered, what literature can do. I love it when a book is so thickly layered (but not overloaded language-wise!) that it can convey more on less than 200 pages than some doorstop will after some 700 pages. [Ed. – I did not coach Anja to say any of these things. Genuine testimonial.]

Ivan Turgenev – Asya

Speaking of short: if you feel like you need some good old 19th century reading but your pandemic brain cannot stomach the ‘great’ novels by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the like, go for Asya, a novella by Turgenev. There are all the ingredients one loves (or does not, depends) about 19th century literature: sad love story, passive hero you can project all your negative feelings onto, better kitchen psychology, great but not too much nature writing, social critique – but all within just a couple of pages. Meaning you will be able to finish reading it quickly. Plus, you won’t have to remember 127 names, only three main characters and even fewer minor ones. Double win!

Unknown Ukrainian cubist artist, Portrait of Woman, 1920s — 30s

I’m looking forward to another year of discussing books, chasing after books, and sometimes – when I’m in the right head space, let’s face it – even reading them.

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, November 2021

Ah, November, we hardly knew ye. Wait—November?! What about October? Well spotted, eagle-eyed reader—I know you and many others have been refreshing this page daily in the hopes of getting your EMJ fix. Sorry to disappoint. Trust me, I feel bad about it. A two-year streak of monthly reading reviews broken, just like that. Still hope to catch up, but what can I say, October was a cluster. November was better, which is surprising since it’s usually one of the worst months of the academic calendar. This semester has been one of my lightest ever, though, a blessing since it’s allowed me to keep the rest of my life ticking along, just barely. I had a lot going on. My mother visited, the first time we’d seen each other in two years. There was Thanksgiving to celebrate. And leaves piled up steadily on our tree-lined corner lot, those things don’t rake themselves. But I read some stuff too.

Camille Pissarro, The Path at Basincourt, 1884

Sarah Hall, Burntcoat (2021)

Preordered this even though the idea of “pandemic novels” doesn’t appeal because I’m a Hall fan. Burntcoat is narrated by Edith Harkness, a sculptor—the resonant title is the name of her studio—who, after studying the Japanese art of shou sugi ban (charred or burned wood) has become one of the UK’s premier landscape artists. Some short flashbacks describe an apprenticeship in Japan, but these moments are underdeveloped, serving more as a metaphor—the technique is counterintuitive, “damaging wood to protect it”—than as detailed reality. There are many damaged people in the novel, mostly those infected by a virulent disease, much worse than a coronavirus, that either kills quickly or lies dormant for years after infection. But the most important damaged person in the novel, certainly one who has been protected by that harm, is Edith’s mother, a writer felled by a brain disease that transforms her personality and, for a time, makes her unable to speak or write. She recovers from the trauma to become an outsider artist, whose experimental works are underappreciated until after her death. Before that she had taken her young daughter, Edith, to live in the Cumbrian fells. As always, Hall is great with northern landscapes, but where Burntcoat really shines is in her other area of descriptive specialty. Hall writes great (cishet) sex scenes—exciting, never cringe-y, hot. Quite a feat. The sex in this novel is between Edith and her lover Halit, a migrant from Turkey who works as a chef in a middle eastern restaurant. Their relationship has no sooner begun, though, than the pandemic hits and Halit gets sick. Burntcoat is about making and healing, about losing and grieving, about the depredations and losses of time’s passing that can also become transformations and developments. It’s a good if not great novel, a bit suggestive, sometimes more a sketch of something than the thing itself. Curious how it will fit in her body of work twenty years on.

Nastassja Martin, In the Eye of the Wild (2019) Trans. Sophie R. Lewis (2021)

In 2015, Martin, a French anthropologist with deep knowledge of the indigenous people of Kamchatka, was mauled by a bear while conducting field work. After initial treatment in Russia, she is flown back to France, and suffers from further, supposedly superior, operations and treatments, one of which almost kills her. She suffers, physically and emotionally. Eventually she decides she must return to Siberia, to learn, as the jacket copy of the newly released English-language translation has it, “what it means to have become, as the Even people call it, medka, a person who is half human, half bear.”

From the time Magda first told me about this book, I’ve been psyched to read it, devoted fan that I am of another book about a woman and a bear. (In that one, incidentally, the main character, a librarian cataloguing the books in a great house in northern Ontario, learns that Kamchatkans use the sharpened shoulder blade of a bear as a scythe.) Nathan Goldman brings the two books together in his terrific essay on In the Eye of the Wild. Even more valuably, he points out the central tension in Martin’s memoir/essay: on the one hand, she resists attempts to explain or understand her experience, whether the lens be therapeutic, medical, or cultural (one of Martin’s Evenk friends, for example says the bear left her, the friend, a gift by keeping Martin alive); on the other, she writes in a language of abstraction that feels quintessentially French, especially that of post-Hegelian (i.e. post-Kojève) philosophy: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, etc., language that values nothing more than explanation and understanding, even if only to resist those very concepts. Take this passage for example:

To be the human who sees the bear (or to be the bear who sees the human) is to embody reversibility: it is to describe a face-to-face encounter in which a necessarily radical alterity is actually revealed as the greatest proximity.

Let’s just say I recognize several tics of my own writing in this sentence. (And, yes, Nathan quotes the same line, but I swear I marked it in my copy before reading his piece!) I was trained as a theorist in the 90s, and I still have a lot of time for its insights, if not always its language (though I’m mindful of what Barthes said: between jargon and platitude, take jargon every time). All of which is to say I think I’d have loved In the Eye of the Wild even more had I been able to read it twenty years ago. The whole books isn’t as abstract as that quote, but it’s pretty abstract. I kept waiting for a description of the attack—the encounter as she styles it—but it never happens, not even indirectly, Grizzly Man style.

Some of Martin’s resistance to explanation stems from her experience on the land: “In the heart of these frozen woods, you don’t ‘find’ answers: first you learn to suspend your reasoning and allow yourself to be caught up in the rhythms of an existence entirely organized around staying alive in a forest in winter.” Some of it comes from her anthropological training. Elaborating on her friend’s idea that the bear gave her a gift of Martin’s survival, Martin writes:

I know that this encounter was planned. I had marked out the path that would lead me into the bear’s mouth, to his kiss, long ago. I think: who knows, perhaps he had too.

That “kiss,” I dunno. Maybe I’m just irredeemably Canadian, and want my bear kisses to be literal, or, like Lou, the librarian in Bear, to realize that however necessary the fantasy has been, when bears get kissed things have gone too far. Kiss feels a little dramatic to me. (Lacan: the word kills the thing. Kills it?) I’ve been presenting In the Eye of the Wild and Bear as opposites, and in their representational strategies and general MO they are. But they agree, fundamentally, that, as Martin puts it, “a bear and a woman is too big an event.” The challenges posed by the female-ursine conjunction aren’t the same in each text—which after all were written in different circumstances and in different genres—but both Engel and Martin consider what it means to be a self, and whether one sealed off from the world is worth anything at all.

Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn (2020)

The third book in Australian McTiernan’s Irish-based Cormac Reilly detective series is skillfully done—less engrossing as the first but absolutely engaging. (I spent a happy Saturday on the couch with it.) Yet the police procedural is a genre in crisis—books about heroic inspectors and their harried, money-conscious superiors just don’t cut it any more for readers faced with the violence and racism of the police-incarceration complex. McTiernan isn’t immune to this crisis. She circumvents it by placing the two investigations at the forefront of the book against the backdrop of a larger narrative arc concerning police corruption. But then a wise and trustworthy superintendent of police has to step in last minute to save the day, which keeps intact the myth of rogue agents within a sound system.

Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979)

Ray Midge leaves Little Rock, Arkansas for Mexico, on the trail of his wife, Norma, and her ex-husband, with whom she has taken up again. Before she split, Norma palmed Ray’s credit card. Using the receipts, he tracks the pair south of the border all the way to Belize, which at the time had only recently changed its name from British Honduras. (I’d no idea.) Along the way Ray meets Dr. Reo Symes, a hard-luck case/charlatan whose medical license has been revoked for fraud and who has since poured his energies into grandiose dreams of developing an island in the Mississippi owned by mother. All he needs is for her to give him the deed. To this end, he’s on his way to Belize, where the woman runs a Christian charity, but the old school bus he commandeered somewhere along the way has broken down, and Ray is his only hope for completing the journey. Classic odd couple stuff: unlike the disreputable and excitable conman Symes, Ray is a pedant with strong opinions about Civil War strategy and plenty of observations about human behaviour (“Most children are close with their money”); the men squabble about most everything, including, hilariously, who invented the clamp—a guy from Louisiana or the Sumerians? Finally they fetch up in Belize, where a lot of dramatic things happen quite suddenly before events trail off meekly, in the way of many foolhardy adventures.

The Dog of the South is not a long book, but maybe because the quest itself never feels urgent (we get little sense of Norma until the end, except that she is both long-suffering and careless—the Midges are anything but a match made in heaven) the book drags at times. The first third is comic gold, though, real laugh-out-loud stuff, including some loving disparagement of Little Rock. Plus, Portis’s way with bit characters is unbeatable. My favourite was Melba, a friend of Symes’s mother who helps run the orphanage. A real hoot, that Melba. An insufferable Canadian hippie in Mexico runs a close second.

I listened to the audio book narrated by Edward Lewis (which is different from the version on Audible, FYI), and his intonations and pacing were perfect. Really hits that strange note between smart aleck and stick-up-the-ass that characterizes Ray. I only wish Lewis’s accent were more Arkansan. He avoids generic Southern (it feels specific, though I can’t pin-point it) but that weird Arkansan combination of flatness and drawl escapes him.

Andrea Camilleri, The Cook of the Halcyon (2019) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2021)

Preposterous.

Grete Weil, Aftershocks (1992) Trans. John S. Barrett (2008)

Grete Weil née Dispeker was born to a privileged bourgeois intellectual household near Munich in 1906. Her father was a well-known lawyer, her elder brother a hero of the Great War; the family believed profoundly, tenaciously, unrequitedly in German-Jewish togetherness. As a Young Person, Grete palled around with Erika and Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s children, and climbed a lot of mountains. In 1932 she married the dramaturg Erich Weil; he was arrested shortly after the Nazi takeover and fled to Holland on his release to found a branch of his father’s chemical company. Grete followed in 1935: the couple settled in Amsterdam, where Grete opened a photography studio. Their circle included fellow émigrés Max Beckmann and Bruno Walter. After Holland was occupied, the Weils tried but failed to get to England. They turned their efforts to Cuba. The night before Edgar was to pick up their visas, he was arrested in a roundup and deported to KZ Mauthausen, where he was murdered in September 1941.

Weil was forced to give up her business—she lent her photography skills to the underground, helping to forge documents—and took a job in the Dutch Jewish Council, which helped her evade deportation. When her notice finally came, in summer 1943, she and her mother, who had been with all this time. went into hiding. For almost a year and half they lived on a mattress in a small space behind a bookshelf in a friend’s apartment. There Weil took up writing again—it had been one of the passions of her childhood. After the war, she felt comfortable neither in Holland nor in England, where her brother had settled. To the consternation of Klaus Mann, who tried to talk her out of it, she returned to Germany in 1946. She received her husband’s family’s pharmaceutical company as restitution (one of the only instances I know of in which that process actually did anyone any good) and devoted herself to writing, including opera libretti and translations from the English (including John Hawkes). She published various novels, collections of short prose, and memoirs in the years before her death in 1999.

Before coming across this book, I’d never heard of Weil, which surprises me, given my research and teaching interests, plus the fact that Godine published three of her books in the early 2000s. Aftershocks is the third, a collection of stories and memoiristic pieces about the long afterlife of the Shoah. I was not always gripped by the book, Weil does not seem the most graceful writer (that may be down to Barrett, the translator, not sure), but I admired her unwillingness to ingratiate herself with her audience. In this she reminded me of Ruth Kluger, a writer I also did not fall in love with straight away but who has since become a lodestar. I plan to keep reading Weil, not to mention (the ultimate test) teaching her, so look for a more informed opinion in several years.

Like Kluger, Weil was willing to think the Holocaust together with American state-sponsored racism. In a text called “The House in the Desert,” the narrator, a figure much like Weil herself, arrives in Los Angeles to visit an aunt and uncle who, having settled in America, are determined to laud the place as the land of milk and honey. Walking through the city—her first mistake—she thinks that if she were Black she would rather live in the desert. Even if the chances of getting away “if things really got bad” were slim, they would be better than in LA itself; the desert would be an easier place to run from. For she is an expert in running away. Even though the war’s been over for years she isn’t likely to ever forget:

As if you could simply put aside a habit that had gotten into your very fiber. Once a body’s picked up momentum, it doesn’t just stop suddenly. It doesn’t matter that there are no more Gestapo agents asking for your papers, that no trucks are driving through the streets to pick up people [her husband’s fate]; that no one’s ringing your doorbell at night, that the concentration camps have been turned into museums where cut-off hair and knocked-out teeth are displayed in glass cases, that there’s no reason to run away any more. The running away goes on. Running away from the name. when Auschwitz wasn’t yet a name, you didn’t need to run away, but who’s going to take the name back? Who’s going to tell me it’s not my hair, my teeth. They meant it for me.

She proceeds to eviscerate the white people, her relatives among them, who inform her, with useless regret, that “it’s not possible to solve the race problem from one day to the next.” Weil is nothing if not clearsighted, speculating, in a final text, almost an afterword, which is clearly about her own experiences, that “maybe I’ve remained alive simply because I didn’t witness enough. I witnessed the persecution, but not the deportations, really, let alone the horrors of the concentration camps.”  

I’ve got another of Weil’s books here, and I’m on the lookout for her (as-yet-untranslated) autobiography.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)

Two couples arrive in 1930s Madison where the men, an aspiring poet from money and a newly-minted scholar from nowhere, have landed jobs at the university; the women meet and the four become lifelong friends. The framing action takes place in the 70s, when they gather in Vermont, as they regularly did for many years, to say farewell to one of their number, who is dying, furiously, of cancer, though that hasn’t stopped her from orchestrating their time together the way she always has. The narrator, Larry Morgan, the scholar, though he has left that behind and become a novelist, moves between the present and the past, unfolding the story of the couples’ lives together.

I read Crossing to Safety because Paul spoke of it so enticingly on The Mookse and Gripes podcast. I’m afraid I didn’t love it as much as he does (though I love how much he loves it) but I did appreciate a lot of things about it. The book really is about both couples, the women as important as the men (though I wanted more about Larry’s wife, Sally). Each marriage matters on its own, of course—maybe the most moving thing in the novel is the disconnect between what the poet’s wife wants for her husband and what he wants for himself, compounded by his deeply held wish not to disappoint anyone, her most importantly—but it’s really a novel about friendship: between two men, two women, and between two couples. As Larry notes (he talks to us, his readers, regularly), you’d expect a situation like this to get derailed by sexual desire: by someone falling in love with someone else, maybe an affair, a great smash of hurt and regret. But that’s not what happens: the book is much quieter, though there are plenty of things to grieve amid the joy they take in each other’s company. Stegner is good on the rituals of comfortable WASP American life. He’s even better on the natural world: though he is known as a writer of the West, he must have spent a lot of time in Vermont; he clearly loved the place. And he can do a fine dramatic set-piece: a difficult birth; a boat-ride in the Wisconsin winter that almost ends in tragedy; a last family bonfire, with delightedly screeching children sheering in packs through the summer night.

Why then, after offering such praise, do I say I didn’t love the novel? (I read it over a weekend, after all: it definitely kept my interest.) Not sure, but it might have something to do with the WASPs I mentioned earlier. Despite its insistence on maintaining connection and husbanding memory—the title comes from a Frost poem in which the speaker exults in protecting the things that “while the Customs slept/I have crossed to Safety with”—the novel felt remote. The characters tend to be arch and gay with each other—in this world, to be heartfelt is to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable for these characters is never good. I think it’s the complacent assumption of how life is supposed to work for (certain kinds of) Americans that grated on me, though this isn’t a Boomer novel, the characters are a generation older. And I definitely did not love the depiction of Jewishness (part and parcel of its chilliness IMO). There’s a disturbing scene early on where a striving Jewish husband and wife embarrass themselves at a faculty party—reflecting on how he and the others treated Marvin Ehrlich, Larry says, “Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way, but I don’t think so.” Well I do! Especially when he adds, “I think we simply felt that the Ehrlichs didn’t permit themselves to be part of the company.” I don’t see the novel putting much distance between itself and Larry here. Later there’s a Jewish son-in-law, a kind economist (natch) who stutters, literally tripping over himself to ingratiate himself into the family. Not crazy about any of that.

This was the second Stegner that left me ambivalent: he might just not be my guy. Haven’t tried Angle of Repose yet, though, which I gather is the masterpiece, so if I do go back to the Stegner well, that’ll be the one.

Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (2013)

Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to all as Hirsch, has been demoted and sent to the middle of nowhere, three-hours’ drive from Adelaide, because he blew the whistle on some corrupt cops. No one likes him for having done this, himself included. Now he’s enduring the petty hazing of his new colleagues and keeping an eye on a mysterious person who is trying to frame him as bent. Then there’s a crime to solve, a murder made to look like a hit-and-run. That’s on top of the regular work he does: stopping desperate farmers from beating their wives and children, checking in on invalids, keeping the town quiet on football nights. Hirsch is a pleasingly ambivalent figure (he gets nicer toward the end: disappointing); Disher’s prose better than serviceable, with plenty of great Australianisms. He’s no Peter Temple, but who is? Recommended.

Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

The writer Olivia Sudjic bizarrely describes this debut novel as Mrs. Dalloway mixed with Citizen. The Rankine, yes, definitely (the poet is cited in the novel’s end notes—yes, you read that right). But the Woolf? Makes no sense. The action does not take place over a single day, various characters do not intersect by passing one another, the narration is not even in close third person (with the exception of a short initial section). Who cares about blurbs, I know, but my reaction to this description was like my reaction to the novel itself: I don’t get it. Bits of Assembly are really good: the descriptions of aggressions, some micro, some decidedly not, faced by people of colour will make you wince; the narrator’s boyfriend, able to be dedicated to a meaningful life thanks to great wealth, inherited wealth, wealth that comes in part from England’s colonization of places like Jamaica, which to the consternation even of immigrants the narrator is not from, knows only from family stories, is perfectly delineated: that foppish, well-meaning, smart-but-mustn’t-be-too-obviously-smart, knows-his-way-about-a-wine list insouciance that characterizes many English men of a certain class. The narrator, though, who works hard in finance, doing things with data, making a lot of money, more money than her boyfriend, he likes to joke—she is harder to pin down. She’s just been promoted, an event she has to share with another member of the firm, a white man, who is spiteful about it, muttering about “diversity.” Not even he can tarnish the good news completely, though, and she allows herself a moment to take a break from the endless climb up the ladder, a brief respite from the fear of having nothing beneath her. But only for a moment: even when she receives some lifechanging news, she can’t stop doing and worrying and putting her head down. Most immediately, there’s a party to attend, it’s not hers, though, she isn’t Clarissa, it’s a party being given by a Clarissa, her boyfriend’s parents, who are grudgingly tolerant in a way, I suppose, not dissimilar to the Peter Walshes and the Richard Dalloways.

Assembly is fine, interesting enough, but too short to make a real impression, not nearly as formally innovative as critics are making out.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (2020)

Most everybody loves this book, and most everybody is right. Or, I am like most everybody. My experience matches Rohan’s almost exactly: failed at reading Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, donated it to the library sale, gave the new book a whirl, was captivated by it and convinced I should try her doorstopper again. As to Piranesi, I won’t say much about the plot, for that would ruin it, but I will say how much I loved the descriptions of the world inhabited by the narrator—called by The Other, the only other person he knows, Piranesi, a name he has adopted for himself, even though he is convinced it is not really his—a lonely place of sea and stone and shrieking seabirds that felt joyful and sustaining rather than bleak and damp (though it’s those things too).

In its unraveling of unraveled minds, Piranesi reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy but the better, if at first glance stranger, comparison might be to J. G. Ballard’s wonderful little story “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” (which you can read here if you can get the damn New Yorker site to work). Ballard’s text and Clarke’s novel are happy Robinson Crusoe stories, in which solitude is pleasurable and plenitude rules the day. Piranesi’s plenitude takes the form not of the physical things that wash ashore, as in Defoe, but of experiential connection: he speaks to his world and his world speaks to him. In the end, this communing is, indirectly, what does eventually bring loss into the story.

I’m not explaining this well, you really have to read the book for yourself. Piranesi lends itself to allegorizing, but it warns readers against doing so. It challenges the separation of human and world enacted by science qua knowing without romanticizing the numinous. It describes the life of those, like its author, who are shut off from the world (Clarke suffers from a chronic illness), yet who have gained something from that experience even if it doesn’t mitigate what they have lost. Mostly, though, it tells the story of a man who is alone but not lonely, a distinction it preserves even when the man’s life is, once again, turned inside-out.

Georges Simenon, My Friend Maigret (1949) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2016)

Getting the hang of these Maigrets. The crime hardly matters, the outcome certainly doesn’t. Mostly Maigret just vibes. My Friend Maigret is pleasingly meta about this state of affairs. Maigret is tasked with showing an English colleague how he solves crimes, which incites some embarrassment on his part—he doesn’t actually want to conduct any interviews, or do any deducting, he just wants to hang out on the island in the Mediterranean he has escaped rainy and cold springtime Paris for on the flimsiest of rationales. For a while he does what he thinks the Scotland Yard inspector would want him to. But he quickly realizes that guy just wants to swim and drink and vibe too. It’s all very entertaining, and I am thankful to John Wilson for recommending it to me as an especially good installment in the series.

Charles Cumming, The Moroccan Girl (aka The Man Between) (2018)

Cumming takes on Eric Ambler’s favourite gambit—ordinary guy tumbles into espionage—and gives it a twist: his ordinary guy, C. K. (Kit) Carradine, is a successful spy novelist who is recruited to run an errand for the Service. All he has to do is pass an envelope to a woman while he attends a literary festival in Marrakesh. Of course, Kit gets more than he bargained for, and proves himself, in his naïve way, good at spying. Cumming has fun with the differences between espionage in fiction and in fact. At its best. The Moroccan Girl is pleasantly dizzying and self-referential while still offering the thrills and other pleasures of the genre. I’ve noted before that Cumming is great with tradecraft; I love how exciting his action scenes are without being flashy. (Every car chase takes place in a taxi.) Without being heavy-handed about it, Cumming makes us think about what we do when we read spy stories: Kit is never sure if what’s happening to him is ordinary or suspicious, whether an event is coincidental or conspiratorial. He’s an endless reader of events, just as spy novels ask us to be. Unfortunately, not everything succeeds in this stand-alone (though Cumming leaves himself the chance to write more if he chooses: this would be a mistake). The woman Cumming meets—and of course falls in love in, though at least that’s discreetly and non-cringingly handled—has been involved in an anarchist leftist Occupy-type group called Resurrection, which leads to a number of tedious scenes in which characters debate whether violence is ever necessary. In the end, the novel is ploddingly middle-of-the-road liberal, aghast at “excesses.”

Kiku Hughes, Displacement (2020)

YA comic about a teenager, Kiku, who travels back in time, finding herself interned in a camp in Utah. One of the other prisoners is her grandmother. Before this Kiku had known almost nothing about what her relatives had gone through—which means readers learn a lot, too: I now know where the expression “no-no boy/girl” comes from, for example. In the book’s most interesting development, Kiku tells her mother about her experience, expecting to be disbelieved, only to learn that the same thing happened to her. The mother calls them “displacements,” and thinks of them as a way to correct the shame and silence experienced by Japanese Americans in the decades after the war, responses displaced into the dive to become “a model minority.” (The book is good at explaining intergenerational trauma.) The comic is beautiful, evocatively illustrated—a cloud of cigarette smoke as enervated as the man who’s breathed it out; Kiku’s mother, eyes glued to the television as Trump stampedes to the Republican nomination, a study in disdain, all crossed arms and silent judgment. I must admit that even as I devoured Displacement I did say to myself, well this is all well and good but it’s no Kindred, only to be chagrined when I read Hughes’s hymn to Butler in her acknowledgements. Anyway, worth reading, even if you’re no longer a young adult.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn, 1899

Some perfectly good things this month, but not many standouts. Piranesi was the winner, I’d say. Here’s hoping for a more memorable December. I have several exciting things lined up, including some group reads. How about you? Did your November reading make an impression?

“A Canadian Loser”: Brian Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

Now that’s some Daphne Du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith-level doubling right there. But this passage isn’t from either of those wonderful writers. Instead it’s from another underappreciated 20th century writer who, like those precursors, works primarily in the realist vein but flirts with its representational others: the fantastic, the Gothic and, especially, the uncanny. Brian Moore was born in Northern Ireland, came to Canada in the late 1940s, and eventually settled in California. He wrote 20 novels and, if The Mangan Inheritance (1979) is any indication, I have a lot of satisfying reading ahead of me.

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The character who sees his own face in another man’s is James Mangan, a former poet, a former journalist, and the former husband of a famous actress. This encounter is in some respects the climax of the novel. It’s precipitated by a moment early in the text, in which Mangan, rummaging through some old family papers while visiting his father, finds a daguerreotype of a man who looks just like him. The image, dated 1849, has the initials J. M. penciled on the back. Mangan believes he is looking at the (actual, I was surprised to learn) 19th century poéte maudit James Clarence Mangan, and, moreover, that the man is his direct ancestor, even though most biographies claim he died childless.

Having suddenly come into a large fortune, and freed of all responsibilities, Mangan travels overseas in order to confirm his suspicion. It is January, and Ireland is cold and rainy and poor. Many of the people he meets are suspicious, even hostile. But he feels ever more alive on the trip, especially when he meets some previously unknown cousins. And always he carries the daguerreotype, carefully wrapped in plastic, in the inside pocket of his coat, for every time he looks at it he feels an electric spark. Some kind of force makes itself felt, convincing him he is connected to his lookalike.

Various misadventures on the wild coasts of southwestern Ireland lead him to the encounter described in that passage, which turns out to be with an uncle everyone thinks is dead. Which means there are three identical men. What connection binds them? Has a creative force, a virtuosic artistic talent, been mysteriously passed among them?

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One of the things I like best about the book is how far Mangan and the novel have travelled to reach this point. The book begins with Mangan in his apartment in New York. The door bell rings. It’s the super, come to fix a leaking faucet. “You have bathroom trouble?” he asks. This trouble is easily fixed, but before long Mangan has plenty of other, less remediable troubles. (Impossible not to read that word without thinking of Ireland’s Troubles, not to mention the wonderful J. G. Farrell novel, also from the 1970s, of the same name.) In the end, the man Mangan discovers, the man who shares his face, has bathroom troubles of his own, albeit of a more disturbing, irreparable, and corporeal sort.

But the swerve away from the domestic (the simple business of replacing a washer) is characteristic of the book’s trajectory, which is to break away from all that seems familiar. (This seems to be a real preoccupation of 1970s English-language fiction: I’m thinking of some of my favourite novels: The Summer before the Dark, Desperate Characters, Bear. Make of that what you will.) The book keeps moving, ever onward, from New York to Montreal to the snowy Laurentians and on to Ireland, and, once there, from small towns to a shuttered and ominous Big House to a windswept headland and a man in a tumbled down Norman keep. Only in the last handful of pages is there a return of any sort, and even then it is only geographic. Mangan goes back to Montreal, his home town, but to greatly changed circumstances that will require him to live a different life, if he is willing to do so.

Mangan’s isolation is as much emotional as geographic. Just as he is led further and further off the beaten track so too do his connections to other people fray. His initial exultation at meeting his extended family doesn’t last; before long, Mangan finds himself increasingly adrift. The more he learns about the men who share his face, the less he wants to be like and with them.

That uneasiness appears in a scene in which Mangan, blundering in the dark through a house that once belonged to the family but has been sold to a foreigner, comes across a mirror. He’s led to an uncomfortable thought:

He stared in terror at the face: a narrow old mirror framed in a gold-scrolled leaf and in it, glaring at him, ghostly pale, eyes glittering with the steely hysteria of an insane person, the features frighteningly bruised, lip swollen, missing front tooth: himself. And in that moment he knew why the house resisted him. I am the ghost that haunts it. (Moore’s italics)

How about that first sentence? That second colon, unusual where we might expect a comma to complete the itself incomplete (since the verb is elided) clause “and in it himself,” has the effect of suggesting that he himself is essentially this bruised and swollen figure. (He’s been jumped in a bar—and in so doing becomes ever more like the 19th century poet, not only in his dissolute-ness but also in his physique: the daguerreotype shows him missing the same tooth.)

And how about that final sentence? I am the ghost that haunts it. Creepy! Yet here is where Moore diverges from writers like Du Maurier or Highsmith. Whereas those writers would ask us to take the haunting seriously, as a way to make a point about identity, say, Moore ends up rejecting it. Or, rather, his ghosts are more mundane, if no less scarring. The Mangan family isn’t the repository of creative vitality, the flip side of which would be demonic grandiosity. More upsettingly, the family is ordinary in its cruelty. Some dramatic and sordid things have happened to its members, but they result from common, though terrible, bad behaviour.

All of which is to say that the terror Mangan experiences in front of the mirror is as misguided as the exultation he feels later when, in a sample of the lovely description of landscapes that Moore almost offhandedly weaves into the text, he makes his way to the encounter that he thinks will change his life:

On the other side of the wall was a footpath, a narrow, little-used track in the long rush grasses, leading back up the headland to a white, two-story farmhouse overlooking the sea. It seemed to be about half a mile away, and as he settled down to the uphill walk, the intermittent rain through which he had driven all morning was hurried off by strong, gusty winds coming in from the sea. High cumulus clouds sailed over the blue dome of the sky. Below, to his left, the sea fielded a platoon of angry whitecaps to race on top of its blue-marine depths. The bare green headland, the white house, the azure sky, all of it reminded him of a painting harshly etched, lonely as a Hopper landscape. He felt alive with expectation, as though, like someone in an old tale, he at last approached the sacred place to meet the oracle who knew all secrets. He put his hand in his pocket and touched the daguerreotype as though it were a charm.

When he passes the farmhouse and toils to another slope to his final destination and encounters a man who looks just like him, as described in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post, he feels “elated as though he had stumbled on a treasure.” But the vision of “a man amid his books in a ruined Norman tower, living liked a hermit writing his verse” quickly sours.

Indeed, the promise of his own artistic rejuvenation, passed from the 19the century poet through the hermit and his verses reverses itself: rather than passing down genius perhaps his doubles can offer him only sordidness. Mangan speculates that “his double, like some scabrous sufferer from a dread disease, signaled that his listener was also infected.”

 

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In the end, this speculation is a fanciful as the one that led him there. No genius throbs in the Mangan blood, but neither does there lurk degeneracy. The Mangan Inheritance is ironic in its title, and indeed its disposition. It rejects genetics as an explanatory force. The inheritance of anything more than mere physical appearance proves to be a myth. There were and are no poetic geniuses in the family, but that’s okay since genius has been used to whitewash abuse. The book has no time for the idea of inherited traits. Nothing is passed down; rather, things are passed onward. Mere circulation matters more to the novel than any idea of fate or destiny. After all, the most important inheritance, the only one that has any actual force, is the one that comes to Mangan from his ex-wife. And that one, the Abbot Inheritance, wasn’t even earned by her, despite her fame.

Transmission in The Mangan Inheritance takes the form of capital, not genes: and capital doesn’t care who it belongs to or what right they think they have to it, what belief systems they’ve created to legitimize it. It just wants to be spent, like a virus blindly seeking out a new host. (A salutary lesson for our own era, which is as obsessed with genes as with capital, and, with every advertisement for genetics testing, binds them more tightly and ruinously together.)

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James Clarence Mangan, looking suitably diabolical

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is its depiction of Kathleen, Mangan’s young, beautiful, and damaged cousin, with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. She is consistently objectified, and even though the book makes it clear that this is Mangan’s vision, and that he is taking advantage of her (even as it allows us the possibility that she might be doing the same to him), and that this is just one of many things that have gone wrong in the family—not because there’s some mysterious taint in their blood but because they behave badly to each other—I couldn’t get passed the feeling that the book also enjoyed the objectification. This is the only way in which the book felt dated.

But in general Moore’s use of description is compelling. I wouldn’t call it a lyrical book, but there are lots of lovely bits, whether arresting word choices (surprised by a visit from his ex-wife, Mangan feels “his heart hit”—the intransitive use of the verb is evocative in its amorphousness, capturing how lost he feels), memorable phrases (castigating himself for losing his wife to a rival, Mangan tells himself, “And if she ditches you, it’s because you’re a loser. A Canadian loser.” (Is there any other kind?)), meta-reflections on the nature of the narrative masquerading as reflections of the main character (“To sit here in the car while the priest administered extreme unction to a dying Irish woman seemed a dream which like all true dreams moved at its own mysterious pace, without logic, toward a purpose he did not understand”), and evocative descriptions. Here, for example, is Montreal in winter: “Mangan… saw the steaming exhausts of other cars, the high dirty slabs of shoveled snow, the cleared lanes of traffic racing in the smoking Arctic air: a landscape of death.” Yep, been there.

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Like so many 20th century writers, Moore is stranger than he first appears. In this sense, his use of Gothic tropes is a ruse. For Freud, the uncanny, by virtue of its connotation in German of domesticity and coziness (das Unheimliche), is only truly evident when the familiar reveals itself as strange. Only the things we think we know can really spook us. That’s why there’s nothing as uncanny as a house. And The Mangan Inheritance has a haunted house, not to mention a ruined keep (as I was reading I kept thinking of the contemporary Irish version of this space, the housing estates left half-finished in the Crash of 2008, so brilliantly depicted by the Swiss-Irish photographer Valérie Anex). But the real uncanniness of the book lies in its prose. Take for example, the passage I cited at the beginning:

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

I’m stuck on that “clear.” Yes, it’s not so strange to use an adjective in place of an adverb, especially to mimic speech. But although Moore’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, his narration hasn’t seemed interested in aping speech, and, anyway, Mangan is a pretty formal guy, who’s made his living wielding language, so it seems out of place as a representation of his speech/thought pattern. Instead I think Moore wants us to think not of seeing something (a face) clearly, but of seeing something clear. To see something clear might be to see it off, to pass beyond it. Fanciful, maybe, but this book is all about keeping things moving, and rejecting the past when it is taken as a hypostasized fantasy.

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It’s thanks to Jacqui that I read this book. Her review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne generated so much praise for Moore that I was inspired to finally get to him. Hearne sounded a bit relentless, but I also had Mangan on the shelf. I’ve now started Hearne (40 pp in and I can tell there’s going to be heartbreak, though not quite at Jean Rhys level, I hope) and checked out several other Moores from the library. Everyone agrees that the variety of his substantial output is one of his strengths. If I even find one or two more I like as much as Mangan I’ll be pleased. Do you have a favourite Moore? Or a suggested reading order? I’d love to hear about it.