2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

*

I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.

“Wonderful, Cheerful”: Marie Darrieussecq’s Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Now this is the kind of thing I like. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq has written a wonderful short book, an essay really, on the early 20th-century painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. It’s not a volume of art criticism. It’s not a biography. (In principle, I should love biographies. I love the bits and pieces of people’s lives. But anything that starts with parents and grandparents, or, God forbid, a family tree, ugh I just can’t do it.) You’ll learn a lot about Modersohn-Becker from this book, and about the circle of painters and writers she lived among, including, most famously, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but you’ll learn it causally, almost offhandedly. Darrieussecq says she is not writing “Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.”

Before discovering Darrieussecq’s trace I knew nothing of Modersohn-Becker, and I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did because both the artist and this book about her are wonderful. I’m tempted just to fill this post with examples of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Take a look at these:

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A word about names: Darrieussecq calls Modersohn-Becker by her first name. Normally, I can’t stand that kind of thing in biographies, etc. The familiarity feels unearned, presumptuous. Darrieussecq has her reasons, though. She won’t call her Paula Becker, her maiden name. Nor Modersohn-Becker, the name she took after marrying the painter Otto Modersohn. Nor even Becker-Modersohn, as the museum of her work in Bremen has it. As Darrieussecq explains:

Women do not have a surname. They have a first name. Their surname is ephemeral, a temporary loan, an unreliable indicator. They find their bearings elsewhere and this is what determines their affirmation in the world, their “being there,” their creative work, their signature. They invent themselves in a man’s world, by breaking and entering.

I like this passage. It begins conventionally enough, almost doctrinaire. But Darrieussecq isn’t bemoaning women’s victimhood. Women do find their bearings, they affirm themselves in the world. But it’s not easy. And so then comes the passage’s sting, a lovely little image of how this self-invention happens in a patriarchal world: women break and enter. Not to steal but to make a place for themselves, a task that is creative (they “invent”). If they won’t be invited they will enter however they can.

So I’ll follow Darrieussecq’s lead and call her Paula. Does Paula break into a man’s world? I’m not actually sure she does. But she does something more important: she becomes the person she wants to be. Paula has a marvelous insistence. For example, in May 1900, she writes from Paris, where she has gone to study, to her acquaintances Otto and Hélène Modersohn back at home in the artist colony of Worpswede near Bremen, telling them what she is doing and seeing in Paris. They must both come to visit, she urges. But especially he must come:

Dear Frau Modersohn, I know you are not well, what with all these flus and colds this winter, but if you are not up to the trip, do send your husband. Of course, he will say no; he won’t want to leave without you, but be firm, don’t give in to him. A week will suffice. He will return to you full of vivid impressions.

Modersohn says he cannot come. Then he sends a telegram: he is coming. He arrives on June 10th. Four days later, he returns in haste to Worpswede. Hélène is dead. Paula returns too and gives up Paris. The next year she and Otto marry.

But it’s unclear that Paula set out to pursue Otto. And as it turns out, their marriage is not really a success. Otto’s painting is not as good as Paula’s. He is not as imaginative and sensitive as his friend, Rilke. Otto admires his wife’s painting, but Darrieussecq thinks he misunderstands it, praising it as naïve and simple when it is neither. In general Darrieussecq presents Otto as a problem for Paula, not so much an oppressive patriarch but rather something like an oaf who has the power of the patriarchy behind him. (Though, to be fair, he will take care of the two small girls he has been left by each wife; he will tend Paula’s legacy assiduously.) Eventually Paula leaves him. Later they reconcile, briefly. After years of not wanting a child she gets pregnant, probably by her husband. The birth is difficult, and Paula is sentenced to bed rest. When she gets up, eighteen days later, she immediately collapses and “dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says ‘Schade.’ Her last word. ‘A pity.’” It is November 1907. Paula is 31 years old.

Always, throughout this short life, Paula is insistent. She is driven to create. She writes to her mother that something in her cries for air, and won’t be silenced. Her soul “hungers for something profound,” she tells her husband. And she satisfies that hunger. She works hard, painting all day, almost every day. Striking, beautiful paintings.

Being Here is beautiful too, but it’s not especially elegant. The prose doesn’t feel as freighted, as poetic, as portentous as some of the great essayists I love even though that style can grate (John Berger, or Annie Dillard, say). I don’t mean that Darrieussecq is a bad writer. Far from it. But elegance isn’t what she’s after. Maybe that’s one reason she is so drawn to Paula, whose figures (especially their hands) are often misshapen or bent.

Darrieussecq has a way with pithy, paradoxical observations (she is French, after all): “There is no sounder basis for a relationship than misunderstanding.” She also writes sentences that don’t seem fancy or clever but that strike a chord: “She must love her mother to write her such wonderful, cheerful letters”; “A sitting takes a long time. ‘My bum has gone blind,’ one of her models, an old man, told her.”

The book is episodic, filled with fragments. About a holiday she takes in the summer of 1904 with Otto and some friends in a nearby village, Darrieussecq offers “two highlights”: “Paula’s bed collapses; Paula and Heinrich Vogeler have a violent argument. That’s all I know about it.” The abruptness of the prose and the jaggedness of the short sections the book is divided into create the sense of the past as foreign and unknowable.I found myself trusting Darrieussecq all the more because of the fragmentary and partial nature of her representation.

Despite having been surrounded by other artists, indeed of having spent most of her life in an artist colony, Paula is in Darrieussecq’s portrait fundamentally solitary. Darrieussecq describes her as “a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”

Those paintings aren’t seen in this book, at least not literally. (In all the most important ways, Darrieussecq absolutely sees her, and helps us to see her too.) It’s strange that the book contains no reproductions, a fact probably explained by cost and copyright and similar practical concerns. But I think it’s also a choice on Darrieussecq’s part. Late in the book she writes:

The paintings exist. They are sufficient unto themselves. She does not say much about them. She rarely speaks about her art. … And anyway: how do you write paintings? You can describe their features, their shapes, their contrasting colours. You can express an opinion, criticize them. You can provide an historical perspective and put them into context. But write them? There is a huge gap between the words and the images. Dreams and projections arise from the faultline.

(Typical Darrieussecq: she complicates her own claim in that last sentence. The gap between painting and writing isn’t just an absence. It describes possibility as much impossibility.)

Darrieussecq doesn’t say much about the features, shapes, or contrasting colours of the paintings. She gives us some context, but no grand historical overview. Instead as I’ve tried to show she gives us bits of Paula’s daily life.

But Darrieussecq does have something like an argument to make, especially when it comes to telling us how Paula paints the female body:

In Paula’s work there are real women. I want to say women who are naked at long last: stripped of the masculine gaze. Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.

These women aren’t coquettish or exotic or provocative or any of the other qualities that Darrieussecq, in a bravura passage, associates with one after another of the great male painters of the European tradition.

Mère+et+enfant,+1906-1907,+Paula+Modersohn-Becker

And her paintings don’t just feature real women: they show real babies, too. Darrieussecq is especially struck by a painting of a woman breastfeeding. It is “not sentimental, or pious, or erotic: another sort of sensuality. Boundless. Another sort of power.” Seeing this painting makes Darrieussecq wonder why she had never heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker before. And in that moment comes the impetus for the book: “I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Paula doesn’t just paint other women. She paints herself too. The book’s cover reproduces one of the now famous self-portraits painted while she was pregnant. Thinking about Paula’s paintings of her pregnant body brings Darrieussecq to one of the few times she inserts herself and her own experience into the text. (I actually don’t mind that sort of thing, but books in which the writing “I” is at least as much a part of the work as whatever thing or place or artwork it’s observing have become so commonplace that Darrieussecq’s reticence is striking.) After reflecting on facticity of Paula’s pregnant self-portraits (they show the reality of what they show; they are not allegorical, like, for example, a contemporary painting by Klimt’s called “Hope”), Darrieussecq explains that the only photograph of her in her home is a portrait taken when she was six months pregnant:

At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: ‘We’d like a normal photo.’

For Paula, pregnancy, like everything else that met her gaze, whether birch trees or chickens or old men, was normal. Ordinary not in the sense of unimportant but rather in the sense of being worthy of being recognized.

300px-Paula_Moderson-Becker_-_Selbstbildnis_am_6_Hochzeitstag_-_1906

When we think of modernist artists preoccupied by thing-ness or objectivity (and then with metaphorical or symbolist rejections of objectivity) we might think of Rilke. Another appealing thing about this book is that Rilke doesn’t steal the show. (Hard to avoid—he was pretty much a show-stealer, as best I can tell.) He is important—a phrase from The Duino Elegies, “Being here is wondrous,” gives Darrieussecq her title—but he’s not the star. Darrieussecq likes him more than Otto. I think she’s glad, impressed almost, that he and Paula never became romantically or sexually entangled. They were kindred spirits: the best artists of their circle; they respected each other. There was something like equality between them. Indeed, if anything Paula was the one person who could make him do things for her. (There’s a nice bit about some furniture left over from her Paris studio that she makes the eminently impractical Rilke dispose of. The whole business really flummoxes him.) But in the end Rilke fails Paula, saying of her to an interviewer in 1924: “The last time I saw Paula Modersohn was in Paris in 1906. I didn’t know her work very well at the time, or afterwards, and I still don’t know it.”

In the end, though, Rilke’s self-serving and disappointing dismissal of Paula doesn’t matter. Paula’s life was too short, but it was a good life. When Darrieussecq falls in love with Paula’s work she is struck by the feeling that she misses Paula. She regrets not only not having known her work before, but, more dramatically, not having been able to know her. The lovely thing about Being Here is the way it overcomes that gap, repairs that impossibility. It makes us feel Paula’s being; it allows us to be with her. It’s a happy book, it made me happy anyway. And can’t we all use more happiness these days?