Nicie Panetta’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.

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).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

The Anthropocene

Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]

From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizon here.

From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.

A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is nicie.panetta@gmail.com. Thanks in advance.

The Thing Is . . .

Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful. 

Two Writers’ Memoirs

Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris. 

It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind: 

To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.

Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]

A Poet’s Playlist

Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:

Wayfarer’s Night Song

Above the mountaintops

all is still.

Among the treetops

you can feel

barely a breath—

birds in the forest, stripped of song.

Just wait: before long

you, too, shall rest.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776

The World Wars

A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.

In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.

Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,

You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.

But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,

The wholly indefatigable thing

From “Rose” 

My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”

In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]

Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” 

Salt Water by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.

Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years (ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.

What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:

Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .

Earbuds 

I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.

Campus Duds

I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]

Unclassifiable Wisdom

Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken. 

August Macke, Promenade II, 1913

2022

This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.

In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:

  • Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
  • Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
  • Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
  • Moby Dick with #APSTogether
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Teju Cole
  • More poetry! 

I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!

R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

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).

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Bryce Sears’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.

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).

Paul Signac, Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890

I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.      

Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.  

The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.

Or it could be my tastes are changing.

In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.       

The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.  

My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.   

Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux

I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession (tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.       

The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.    

One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.  

Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.

Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it. 

Other writers I enjoyed in 2021

Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me, Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]

Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).

I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.     

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.

I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]

I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.   

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins,  …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.

Nat Leach’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The fourth post is by Nat Leach (@Gnatleech). Nat has written several posts for the blog over the years, all wonderful. He lives and works on Cape Breton Island.

An Alphabetical Odyssey: Year 3

Like so many things in 2020, my reading did not exactly go according to plan. Readers of my Year in Review post from last year will know that my current project is to work through my shelves alphabetically in order to finish the many partially-read books on them. But while I managed to work my way through almost three letters of the alphabet during each of my first two years of this project, I ended up devoting most of this year to the letter “G”. There are a number of reasons for this: my own tendency to expand this project by creating mini-projects (e.g. exploring 6 translations of Goethe’s Faust or almost 2000 pages of Vasily Grossman) or by adding new books to my shelves thanks to a number of irresistible NYRB Classics titles and some very strong recommendations from Dorian (a Venn diagram of which would basically be a circle), and, of course, my Achilles heel—Twitter read-alongs (Malicroix, Our Mutual Friend, The Man Without Qualities). But if this sounds like complaining, it’s absolutely not—if ever there was a project where the point was the journey and not the destination, it’s this one. After all, what’s going to happen when I reach “Z” (assuming I live that long)? I’m just going to start all over again.

Over the course of the year, I realized something about myself that might help to account for my previous system of rotating my reading between an excessively large number of books: I enjoy beginnings a lot more than endings. A new book introduces us to a new world populated by new characters whom we desire to know better. The potential is boundless. But the closer a book gets to its end, the more it forecloses the possibilities it has opened up, and (often), the more we feel that nothing can surprise us, or, worse, that the ending is not consistent with what went before. Put another way, endings are a lot harder than beginnings; creating the broad outline of a narrative world and its characters is one thing, but sketching in the detail and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion is quite another. Over the years, I think I’ve enjoyed having read only a few chapters of certain books, and having their potential frozen in place like Keats’s urn. But now that I’m getting older, the impulse for completion is getting stronger.

Maybe this is all pretty obvious, but this year really brought it home to me, as I was enticed by the openings of a number of books only to find my interest lagging in the second half. If I could have stopped reading at a certain point, my memories of some of these books would be fonder. Fortunately, I still had mostly positive reading experiences this year; I read 33 books from 11 countries (including 6 from France, making me wonder if there is something about the letter “G” and French surnames), and enjoyed most of them. Here are some short synopses:

Ford, Richard- The Sportswriter (1986)

The only thing I learned from this book is that this middle-aged white guy has no patience for the angst of other middle-aged white guys. The protagonist of this book, Frank Bascombe, is divorced because he has been horrible to his wife, continues to be horrible throughout the entire book, and somehow I’m supposed to care about his faux-profound reflections on life? I could have tolerated this book if there was some sense of distance between its author and his protagonist, but from the light way the book tosses off Frank’s casual sexism and racism to (spoiler alert, if anyone cares) the way he is rewarded at the end of the book with an incipient relationship with a seemingly interesting, intelligent, and attractive 20-year old woman, I can’t help feeling that Ford is thoroughly endorsing Frank’s perspective. I hate to use sophisticated literary-critical terms, but this book was just too “icky” for me. In fairness, Dorian warned me not to read it, but would I listen? I know it’s a bad start to be this grumpy about my first book of the year, but at least if I get a bullet in the mail, I’ll know who it’s from.

Garner, Hugh– Cabbagetown (1968)

Another book from my list of Canadian classics, this novel focuses on the life of an impoverished community in Toronto during the Great Depression. The book’s strength comes from its powerful, vivid depiction of the struggles of its characters as each of them attempts to come to terms with the reality of the Depression in a different way. Here’s a typically great descriptive passage, of a chocolate factory at which one character is fortunate enough to be employed:

The mixing room was heavy with the smell of chocolate. The walls, the floor, the machinery, even Billy, reeked of it. It permeated his clothing, hair, and even his comb, nailfile and wallet, so that he was a permanent olfactory advertisement for Besty-Tasty products. His appetite for chocolate had been satisfied forever during his first week in the mixing room. He had imbibed his fill, not only by mouth and gullet but by absorption through his pores. Now he could no longer even smell chocolate, for it was his own body odour.

It’s far from the bleakest passage in the book, but given the unfortunate fate this character suffers in the mixing room, it appropriately attests to the way in which characters are victims of their concrete circumstances.

Genet, Jean- Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) (trans. Bernard Frechtman)

Usually, when an author has a reputation for being shocking, I find myself highly disappointed when I actually read them. Genet, however, completely lives up to his reputation. Written clandestinely in prison, the book challenges all conventions and taboos. But, going beyond Genet’s detailed and explicit attention to bodily emissions and his multiple slang terms for “penis,” two things particularly struck me. 1) The guy can write. Given his subject matter, it’s hard to call his writing beautiful, but it has a rhythm and flow that captivates, even as his digressive style is continually shifting narrative tracks. 2) At the root of the narrative is actually a very sensitive story of someone who would today be called a trans youth, told without embellishment or censorship.

Gide, André- The Immoralist (1902) (trans. Dorothy Bussy)

Call this Exhibit A of the phenomenon I mentioned above; this book captured me at the beginning, but lost much of my interest by the end. It’s an appropriate book for this year, I suppose, insofar as it is concerned with the way that illness—and recovery—test relationships. I enjoyed this book, but I somehow expected it to go further than it did. Maybe I’ve just become jaded by subsequent anti-heroes, but the climax of the book did not particularly shock me, nor did it inspire much moral reflection. In his Preface, Gide says, “I have not tried to prove anything, but only to paint a picture well”; he does that much, but I couldn’t help wanting something more.

Ginzburg, Natalia- Family Lexicon (1963) (trans. Jenny McPhee)

Call this one Exhibit B: I liked this book a lot, but I loved the first half of it and felt it ran out of steam a little bit towards the end. It opens in a really interesting way, exploring how a family’s language constructs its own particular place in the world. This thread carries through the book, of course, but at a certain point, Ginzburg becomes much more informational, describing what happened to each member of the family and its associated friends. Not coincidentally, this point is the outbreak of World War II, and the various traumas and divisions in the family are noted without being extensively described. Given that Ginzburg notoriously recommended the rejection of Primo Levi’s seminal Holocaust memoir, If This is a Man, because of its subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising to find that she is reticent about describing her own war experiences, including her husband being tortured to death by the Nazis. I liked it enough to give the book to my mother for her birthday, and her take was that the book starts from a child’s perspective, so you don’t expect very much interpretation, but once it shifts to an adult’s perspective, we feel that absence of context a lot more. Which I thought was a good point. All of this is by way of explaining why I felt the latter half of the book somewhat flatter than the first part, but I still enjoyed it a lot.

Giono, Jean- Hill (1929) (trans. Paul Eprile)

This was a late addition to my list, thanks to the recommendation of Dorian, and others on Twitter, and was certainly one of my favourite books of the year. Written in 1929, it reads in a very contemporary way because of its treatment of environmental concerns. I jokingly referred to it as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” meets Picnic at Hanging Rock because it involves a violation of nature that is punished, but in a mysterious, uncanny way. The events take place in a tiny village in Provence, where the inhabitants struggle with the forces of nature, and the book wonderfully illustrates the precarious coexistence of the human and natural worlds.

Gissing, George- The Odd Women (1893)

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some 20 years, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it I could kick myself for waiting so long. Another book that feels very contemporary despite its age, and that rarest of things, a book that deals with social issues (in this case, the Victorian “woman question”) without sounding preachy. Clearly, there are characters we are expected to identify with more than others, but Gissing brings great sensitivity and understanding even to the characters who are clearly shown to be ideologically flawed. My one criticism of this book would be its use of implausible coincidences to move the plot along; for example, when complete strangers meet and realize that they live in exactly the same building in the huge and bustling city of London, you just know that plot complications are going to follow. (On the other hand, I forgive Dickens for stuff like this ten times in a single book, so I guess I can’t really complain.) This is one of the exceptions to my tendency of the year, since it actually gets the ending just right, which is especially difficult for novels about social problems; a happy ending is liable to make readers complacent about real social ills, while an overly tragic ending makes them feel hopeless. Gissing strikes just the right balance between hope for the future and mourning for what might have been.

Godwin, William- Deloraine (1833)

Having read all of Godwin’s “mature” novels (I haven’t read his three “juvenile” novels) except this, his last, I figured it was time. It’s far from his best, and might be accused of being a re-tread of Godwin’s dominant themes: social alienation, class injustice, the haunted perspective of a pursued criminal, and an abrupt reversal of philosophical perspective at the end. He does, however, also do a characteristically good job of using conventional melodramatic situations to raise deeper philosophical questions. Is it worth saving your life, Godwin asks, if you lose your identity in the process?

Gogol, Nikolai- The Inspector General (1836) (trans. B.G. Guerney)

Sadly, this nineteenth century satire on political corruption and deceptive appearances is just as relevant now as it was then. A buffoonish but minor civil servant is mistaken for an important government inspector in disguise; hilarity ensues as local officials seek to conceal their misdeeds and appease the fake inspector, but as the play’s conclusion reminds us, the subject is not all that funny.

Goethe- Faust, Parts 1 and 2 (1808, 1832) (various translators)

I embarked on an ambitious project of beginning 6 translations, and ended up finishing 2 (the Bayard Taylor and Charles Passage versions). Part of the reason for this is that Part 1 has been much more frequently translated than Part 2; two of my translations were of Part 1 only. To summarize briefly, Part 1 was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be (Faust makes deal with Mephistopheles, seduces Gretchen, lots of witches and devilish imagery et cet.), and Part 2 was utterly and completely not (complex allegory about everything from contemporary politics to poetry to geology). I would say that it completely changed my view of Goethe, but now that I think about it, I had a similar reaction to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, so maybe I should just admit that I have no idea what to expect from him.

Goethe- The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) (trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Brogan)

When I was an undergraduate, my classmates and I created a list of “big idiots of English literature,” to which virtually every character in every book we read would be added for one reason or another. Werther would probably have earned his own category on that list. I actually suspect that undergraduate me would have totally loved this book, but given the suicide craze that it sparked in Germany on its publication, it’s probably just as well that I did not read it until I was older and wiser. Now, I’m more inclined to say that it’s a good book, but man, that guy is a big idiot.

Gracq, Julien- Chateau d’Argol (1938) (trans. Louise Varèse)

I had heard such wonderful things about Gracq that I was very keen to read one of his books. Having received this one (his first, as it happens) as a gift some years ago, I chose it, which may not actually have been the best place to start. The writing is gorgeous, the plot minimal—a  man buys a remote castle in Brittany, his frenemy comes to visit, and brings a woman, leading to a love triangle of sorts—and some of the chapters are utterly compelling. One in which the three protagonists swim too far out into the sea and struggle to return to shore was particularly gripping. Given my interest in the Gothic, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the castle and the vivid, often grotesque, imagery, but, finally, I wasn’t sure if the book adds up to much. It gave the impression of housing some hermetic secret, but search me what that might be. But the writing itself is enough to make me want to explore Gracq further.

Grass, Günter- The Tin Drum (1959) (trans. Ralph Manheim)

Exhibit C? At least I’d been warned that the first half of this book is much better than the second. And having seen Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation three times, I certainly had some vivid memories of the beginning: Oskar Matzerath—unreliable narrator extraordinaire—tells the improbable story of his mother’s conception, eventually arriving at his own birth, and the novel’s pivotal event: he is given a drum for his third birthday and decides to stop growing. I was a bit puzzled that I had no recollection of any events from the second half of the book, but after watching the film for a fourth time, I realized that Schlöndorff only adapted the first 2 of the novel’s 3 books. Probably a wise choice since the third book is pretty forgettable, and Schlöndorff ends his film by foregrounding the Holocaust context that Grass himself has been accused of minimizing. As Ernestine Schlant puts it, “there is an ingrained obtuseness and insensitivity to those who suffered and died, evident in a language where silence is veiled in verbal dexterity and a creative exuberance rooted in pre-Holocaust aesthetics.” Schlöndorff does a much better job of addressing this context in his film, foregrounding German anti-Semitism; having Charles Aznavour sympathetically portray Sigismund Markus, the store owner who supplies Oskar with his drums, and one of the few Jewish characters in the book; and, finally, ending with the arrival of Fajngold, a camp survivor who displaces Oskar’s family. I liked the book well enough, but I think Schlant has a point: Grass loves his own creativity in a way that overshadows his book’s troubling subject matter.

Gray, Alasdair- Poor Things (1992)

A playfully postmodern riff on Frankenstein in particular and nineteenth century fiction more generally, this book starts with “Alasdair Gray” discovering and surreptitiously pocketing a manuscript written by a Victorian physician and gets progressively wilder from there. Impossible to write too much about without giving something away, but brilliant in the way that each successive level of documentation works to throw into question what has come before.

Green, Henry- Loving (1945)

This book bucked the trend of the year: it grabbed me from the beginning and never let go. The plot concerns the servants in an Irish manor during World War II, and depicts their lives with a remarkable fullness, rarely showing much of the lives of the upper-class characters at all. Highly recommended to anybody except those who can’t stand when adjectives are used as adverbs.

Greene, Graham- The Heart of the Matter (1948)

This was my third Greene novel (after The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case) and certainly the one I enjoyed the most. I suspect this has as much to do with my age as anything else; I read those first two in my 20’s, but Greene’s heroes always seem to be world-weary and cynical, a position with which I am becoming increasingly sympathetic. I could certainly feel for Scobie, a morally upright but generally insignificant colonial policeman whose conscience gets tested both in his public and his private life. The other challenge I find with reading Greene is the centrality of the Catholic beliefs of many of his characters; in this case, the entire final third of the book hinges on Scobie’s Catholic definition of sin, and even though one of the women in his life points out the inconsistency between his actions and beliefs, it is clear that readers are supposed to be aligned with Scobie’s views. George Orwell disliked the book for this reason, dismissing Scobie’s character as implausible (that, and the fact that the book is set in Africa, but is exclusively concerned with “white people problems”). So, I did enjoy the book, but also felt that I couldn’t sufficiently engage with its moral problem.

Greenwood, Walter- Love on the Dole (1933)

Another very fitting book to read this year, this account of life in a Northern English city during the Great Depression is filled with simmering, impotent frustration with the system, and one very explosive protest. Greenwood does an excellent job of showing the texture of life within the limiting constraints of “Hanky Park,” the slum neighbourhood where the characters live, from the cradle to the grave. We see highs as well as lows, but are always reminded that the system is designed in precisely this way, as the lows get progressively lower.

Grossman, Vasily- Stalingrad (1952) (trans. Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler) and Life and Fate (1960) (trans. Robert Chandler)

I bought Life and Fate on Dorian’s recommendation, but before I could read it, I heard about NYRB’s publication of Stalingrad. I tried to decide which to read first, as there seem to be many opinions on that question. In his introduction to Life and Fate, Robert Chandler says that it is “better seen as a separate novel that includes some of the same characters,” but in his Introduction to Stalingrad, he refers to the two novels as a closely connected “dilogy.” I can certainly see the logic in both claims; one does not need to have read Stalingrad to appreciate Life and Fate. As a stand-alone novel, the latter can simply be seen as opening in medias res, and its ideological perspective is markedly different from the earlier novel anyway. However, I ended up reading the “dilogy” in sequence, which did help me to feel the continuity of Grossman’s intricately depicted world. In fact, Life and Fate begins with characters who had been captured by the Germans about halfway through Stalingrad, and whom I had almost forgotten already, so I’m sure that if I had read them separately, I would have missed many of the connections between them. I enjoyed both books, although Stalingrad is much more ideologically orthodox than Life and Fate, which is more complex (and subversive) in its exploration of the dynamics of totalitarianism, both in Germany and in Russia.

Grushin, Olga- The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005)

This was a wonderful follow-up to Grossman, exploring the history and psychology of the Soviet era with a specific lens on visual art. The novel positions surrealism as an imaginative artistic movement repressed by the official dictates of socialist realism; that repression returns with a vengeance in the psyche of the main character. The book is narratively breath-taking and deftly switches from third-person to first-person at significant moments, building to a remarkable crescendo.

Haasse, Hella- The Scarlet City (1952) (trans. Anita Miller)

Normally, I’m a sucker for all forms of historical fiction, but this one gets mixed reviews from me. Its central narrative revolves around Giovanni Borgia, who is searching for answers to the mysteries of his birth (Is he really a Borgia? And if so, through which member (or members!) of the Borgia line can he trace his lineage?) It’s interesting to note that this character does seem to be based on a real historical figure, albeit one who was murdered before the events of this narrative begin, and who does not seem to have had such mysterious parentage; so the narrative is counter-factual, but not in a way that an average reader would recognize. Giovanni explains that he writes his narrative because there is nobody in Rome he can trust. So far, so good—and this part of the narrative was quite enjoyable—but interspersed with Giovanni’s narrative are the stories of a number of other related characters, presented in a weird combination of omniscient third person narrative and unmotivated first person reflections. The fact that Giovanni’s narrative situation is explained, but these others are not, was confusing enough, but to top it off, Haasse breaks the Sir Walter Scott rule, and makes actual historical personages central figures in a way that feels very jarring from a historical point of view (Michelangelo is the focus of two segments, and we also read letters supposedly written by Machiavelli). Those parts really did not work for me, nor did the whole thing come together in any meaningful way at the end, as I had hoped, although the vivid and brutal depiction of the Sack of Rome of 1527 was a powerful segment.

Hamsun, Knut- Hunger (1890) (trans. Robert Bly)

This book does exactly what it says on the tin: there really is an awful lot of hunger in it. It is psychologically gripping, as the narrator attempts in various ways to get money for food and very often finds reasons to reject it or give it away when he is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get some. I took issue with the translator’s Afterword, in which Bly claims that the trajectory of the narrative is one in which the narrator comes to learn what he needs. I question whether any learning takes place in this book at all; the last event seems like yet another in a series, not a resolution. One interesting note from the Afterword, though, is that Hamsun apparently cured himself of tuberculosis by riding on the roof of a train to fill his lungs with air; I wonder what he would have done if he were alive this year.

Haushofer, Marlen- The Wall (1963/1968) (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

Possibly my favourite book of the year, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. It’s impossible to write a plot summary that doesn’t make it sound a little bit boring: woman thinks she is the last person on earth, tries to survive along with her animals. But it is absolutely riveting to follow the narrator’s thought processes, which are both practical in nature (how to accomplish the necessary tasks to survive) and very human in her need for affection and interaction (provided mostly by her dog, but also cats and cows) and in her reflection on her past life, thrown into perspective by her current situation. I knew I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s a fantastic book.

Best of the Rest

Bosco, Henri- Malicroix (1946)(trans. Joyce Zonana)

It feels like a long time since I read and wrote about this book, but it still ranks as one of my favourite reading experiences of the year.

Dickens, Charles- Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)

I had read this in my youth and was very pleased that it held up as well as I remembered. I know some people complain that the ending comes off as artificial and contrived, but as someone with a great fondness for melodrama, I appreciate a good melodramatic revelation scene when it is well done, and Dickens does indeed do it very well.

Musil, Robert- The Man Without Qualities (trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike)

Technically, I haven’t finished this book yet, but any time I read 1053 pages of a book, I’m going to mention it. Very good so far.

Smith, Charlotte- The Young Philosopher (1798)

Charlotte Smith is a Romantic period author who never seems to get the recognition she deserves. She thought of herself as a poet (and her 1784 Elegiac Sonnets enjoyed a great deal of popularity) but she wrote novels to pay the bills. Her novels combine radical politics and melodrama; the “young philosopher” of the title is George Delmont, who offends society by believing that a person’s merit can be determined by their actions not their status. But the novel’s focus is on his beloved, Medora Glenmorris, and her mother, embattled heroines relentlessly pursued and tormented by representatives of patriarchal culture. The melodramatic situations may be conventional, but the political use to which they are put is pointed.

What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:

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Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.

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In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

A Centenary of Levi Facts

As part of my efforts to celebrate Primo Levi’s centenary, I read Ian Thomson’s biography. Primo Levi: A Life (2002) is thorough, chilly, occasionally a little plodding. But it’s full of fascinating material. Here are 105 things that struck with me. (Tried to keep it to a round hundred, but the effort defeated me.) After the list I offer brief thoughts on the biography itself.

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1. Bartolo Mascarello, apparently the maker of the best Barolo in Piedmont, described Levi this way:

Primo was a sort of owl, you know, extremely intelligent and observant—but at the same time apparently quite ordinary. Primo had a kind face, laughing eyes, extraordinary eyes—penetrating and sagacious. He struck me then and much later as un uomo allegro, a happy man. He was very measured but not in an aristocratic way, in a human way.

2. Levi was “raised on a mixture of coddling and bourgeois stiffness”

3. His mother, Ester, was formal, reserved, cautious, prudish, fastidious. Passed on many of these traits to her son. His father, Cesare, trained as engineer, sold machinery, fancied himself man about town, a sophisticated roué. In fact, claims Thomson, he was an autodidact and a bit of a bumpkin.

4. Cesare grudgingly joined Fascist party (like so many Italian Jews, though many were enthusiastic); Primo joined fascist youth movement in 1924, as a five-year-old.

5. Levi was a frail boy who grew up determined to overcome this frailty. As a teenager (and for the rest of his life) he was an avid mountaineer.

6. The Torinese have an expression for the fatigue that comes from a strenuous mountain hike, la grande fatica.

7. In August 1932 Levi observed his Bar Mitzvah—later in life he described his religious education as entirely perfunctory: in the milieu he grew up in, boys could read Hebrew just well enough that their family could be congratulated.

8. Levi was drawn to study of science because other learning (especially of classics) was done by rote. Fascist regime valued humanities; devalued science.

9. Entered university in October 1937. His first professor told the entering students, “Chemistry is a bricks-and-mortar trade and you lot are brick-layers. Don’t expect to discover the meaning of life around here.” Levi would eventually set his sights on just that grandiose aim, but he always appreciated the brick-layer role. Nonetheless he Later wished he had studied physics.

10. In 1938 Levi narrowly avoided being thrown out of university along with most Jewish students as Mussolini’s regime acceded to Hitler’s demands for anti-Semitic Nuremberg-style laws. At the last minute, it was decided that those who were already in their second year of study could complete their education.

11. The assimilated Jews of Turin and throughout Italy were blindsided by new anti-Semitic laws. Couldn’t believe they would really be affected.

12. Like so many young European Jews, Levi was intrigued by Zionism, especially its secularism. Encouraged by his English tutor (many Italian Jews belated prepared to leave the country), he even translated the British White Paper of 1939 (which reduced number of Jewish refugees to Mandate Palestine). But the Levis would never have been persuaded to leave Turin: 95% Italian, 5% Jewish, they said.

13. Indeed, Levi had no interest in the Jewish refugees arriving in Turin and other parts of Italy from Eastern Europe.

14. Levi wrote his dissertation on what would eventually be called quantum chemistry, specifically the idea that asymmetry is central to the make-up of the universe: the carbon atom is asymmetrical.

15. In summer 1941, Levi graduated with first class-honours—only the second such degree in 25 years. He was a Dottore, but as a Jew had no career prospects.

16. In summer 1942 Levi was hired by a Swiss film in Milan. His project: to extract anti-diabetes medication from burdock root. Swiss firms could hire Jews but needed to keep them on the down low. Levi was taken on as Doctor Primo.

17. In Milan Levi ate at canteen across from the main newspaper. There he met reporters and editors who knew the paper’s Russia correspondent Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin). All of them, Thomson says, knew what was happening in the East.

18. By 1942, when Levi’s father died, Italian Jews were no longer allowed to place obituaries in the newspaper.

19. At this time, Levi began to be involved with the Resistance: wrote slogans (LONG LIVE PEACE) on Lira notes and smuggled propaganda into provinces from Milan.

20. 1 December 1943, Salò regime decrees Jews of all nationalities be arrested & placed in special camps.

21. Levi joined Partisans in the mountains in the high valleys above Turin. His ragtag group was soon infiltrated by fascist spies; he and the others were arrested on December 13, 1943.

22. The night before the arrest, Levi spent the evening discussing the famous Lippizaner horses of Slovenia, said to be able to spell words with their hooves.

23. Levi spent 39 days in jail before being transferred to a transit camp at Fossoli.

24. Life in Fossoli under its corrupt Commissar Avitabile (he demanded sexual favours from women, for example) was relatively good: communal living, packages allowed in, sharing of food and clothes. “Primo is well,” one of his fellow prisoners wrote to her relatives.

25. A minimum number of prisoners was needed for a deportation train: to meet this quota, Italian officials raided a Jewish old folks home. Numbers in the camp began to swell. On February 22, 1944, Levi and the other prisoners in Fossoli were deported to Auschwitz.

26. Levi later described the assimilated Italian Jews who arrived with him at Auschwitz as “eggs without a shell.”

27. Levi sent as slave labour to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, run by the chemical company IG Farben. The rubber-producing plants at Buna, which came online in mid-1944, consumed as much electricity as all of Berlin. It gave Levi satisfaction that the plants never produced any useable rubber.

28. Buna was short for Butadiene and Natrium (Latin for sodium).

29. The SS & I. G. Farben sabotaged each other: former wanted to kill prisoners as quickly as possible; latter needed them for labour. SS ordered Jews to bring back 40 bricks every day from Buna to delay construction; Farben allowed Levi to sell blankets he stole from barracks.

30. In Buna Levi met Alberto Dall Volta, also an Italian chemist—Alberto spoke German well, and was a genius at “organizing” (finding ways to steal and otherwise get ahead in the camps). He and Levi became inseparable—eventually dividing their rations. Alberto died in the so-called Death March just before liberation.

31. Levi also met Lorenzo Perrone, a Piedmontese mason, a volunteer worker in the Third Reich (i.e, he was not Jewish), who smuggled an extra soup ration to Levi every day for six months. His help contributed immeasurably to Levi’s survival. As a civilian, Perrone received packages from home and had a reasonable ration. The soup wasn’t pleasant—it “might contain a sparrow’s wing, prune stones, salami rind, even bits of La Stampa newsprint reduced to pulp”—but it gave Levi an extra 500 calories a day. Perrone suffered upon returning home; he became an alcoholic, which Levi understood as a form of suicide. He died in April 1952.

32. Thanks to his training, Levi was conscripted into a work commando in the lab at Buna. It was in the relative warmth of the lab during the winter 44-45 that Levi began to secretly record his experiences. His notes never amounted to 20 lines, and he destroyed them after committing them to memory. But If this is a Man born already in camp.

33. Caught scarlet fever in January 1945. When admitted to Infektionsabteilung (the camp infirmary) on January 11th, Levi weighed 80 lbs.

34. In the weeks before and after liberation, Levi formed a close friendship with Leonardo De Benedetti, a Turinese doctor who was appointed head of surgery by the Russians after they took over the camp. Benedetti: “I’m like a beggar who has lost everything—except life.” They would be lifelong friends, although they never quite recovered from an argument over Israel late in their lives.

35. On June 6, 1945, Levi—at this point halfway through the six months it took him to make the journey home—wrote a letter to his mother and sister. Here is the PS, which Thomson rightly calls extraordinary:

Maybe I’ll come home shoeless, but in compensation for my ragged state I’ve learned German and a bit of Russian and Polish, I also kjow how to get out of many situations without losing my nerve, and how to withstand moral and physical suffering. To economise on the barber I’m sporting a beard. I know how to make a cauliflower or turnip soup, cook potatoes in a hundred different ways (all without seasoning). I know, too, how to assemble, light, and clean stoves. And I’ve been through an incredibly variety of careers: assistant bricklayer, navy, sweep, porter, grave-digger, interpreter, cyclist, tailor, thief, nurse, fence, stone-breaker. I’ve even been a chemist!

36. Levi reached Turin 19 October 1945. Of the 650 Jews on the transport from Fossoli, 24 returned.

37. At the end of 1945, beginning of ‘46 Levi began buttonholing strangers on trams and on the street to tell them of his experiences. He was in the grip of a compulsion.

38. At Rosh Hoshanah 1945, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. A coup de foudre, but although their marriage was lifelong, it wasn’t especially happy. A big reason was the fact that they lived with Levi’s mother for their entire marriage.

39. In January 1946 Levi began to work at a paint factory (DUCO) near Turin. Train service was still so poor that Levi roomed there during week. That’s when he began writing If this is a Man.

40. He began with the last chapter, “The Story of Ten Days.” The famous and brilliant “Canto of Ulysses” chapter was composed in a single half-hour lunchbreak!

41. That chapter describes an experience with a fellow prisoner, the Alsatian Jean Samuel. He also survived, and the two men stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Levi to Samuel: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.”

42. The hardest thing for Levi to deal with in writing If this is a Man was his anger.

43. Lucia was an exacting editor of the manuscript.

44. The book was turned down by Little, Brown in 1946 on recommendation of a well-known American Rabbi.

45. Even earlier, it had been turned down by Einaudi, the most prestigious Italian publisher. A huge blow to Levi. The novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a reader at the publisher, liked it but thought it not right for their list. Rejected by 5 other Italian publishers too.

46. Levi’s classical style was paradoxically a reminder of Fascist times.

47. Franco Antonicelli, a former leader of the Resistance, agreed to publish the manuscript with his (valiant but small) press. The working title was In the Abyss. Then Drowned and Saved. Antonicelli decided on the final title.

48. Levi was asked to testify at the trial of Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, but couldn’t get the time off work.

49. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo 8 September 1947; on 11 October If this is a Man was published.

50. Levi frustrated by being labelled as a witness. Thought of himself as writer first, witness second.

51. This now canonical book was indifferently reviewed (except by the writer Italo Calvino). Sold less than 1500 copies.

52. The Levis’ daughter, Lisa Lorenza, born 31 October 1948; their son, Renzo Caesare, born 2 July 1957.

53. SIVA (the paint and varnish company Levi moved to in the late 1940s and spent the rest of his career at) moved to new head office about 20 miles from Turin. Levi would choose the wines for the canteen. Employees enjoyed a 2-hour break, complete with, depending on season, snowball fights and bicycles rides.

54. Levi received a reparation payment from I. G. Farben worth about $12 000 today.

55. In 1955 Einaudi agreed to republish If this is a Man but the press’s financial problems meant it wouldn’t appear until 1958. In meantime, Levi revised and added a new chapter (“Initiation”). He also changed the opening sentence, added the section on the WWI vet he names Steinlauf. Steinlauf was modelled on a man named Eugenio Gluecksmann, but also, apparently, on Otto Frank, who Levi had seen at Auschwitz and then met later in Turin (1952 or 53). He also added material on Alberto, but misrepresented him, saying, for example, that he couldn’t speak German.

56. Einaudi’s first printing sold out; Levi began to become a spokesman of the Holocaust.

57. Met Stuart Woolf, who would translate If this is a Man into English. Levi worked closely with him. One day, Woolf gave Levi Tolkien to read. He hated it, returning it the next day.

58. Samuel Fischer bought German rights, with Heinz Riedt as translator: remarkable man who had grown up in Italy where his father was consul in Palermo, got himself exempted from Wehrmacht, fought with partisans in Padua. His father-in-law imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. “Perfect collaboration” between two.

59. US reviews middling; UK better.Germany different: 20,000 sold immediately. Levi spoke to Germany’s young.

60. Began writing The Truce in 1961—important moment in his writing career because it was the first time Levi consciously turned his experience into literature. Published in 1963, it was an immediate success in Italy—but more with ordinary readers than critics. Where If This is a Man had not been neo-realist enough in 1947, The Truce in 1963 was criticized as too neo-realist.

61. At the end of 1963 Levi suffered his first serious depression. He feared he had said all he had to say about his experiences and that he was finished as a writer. This fear reappeared regularly for the rest of his life.

62. In April 1965 Levi returned to Auschwitz for 20th anniversary of the end of the war. Felt nothing at Auschwitz. Saw Birkenau for the first time (!). Amazingly, the plant at Buna was still operational.

63. Levi published two collections of science fiction. Neither was a success. Later he would virtually disown them.

64. Levi wouldn’t tolerate anyone who made fun of others, even children playing together: “The moment the defenceless are derided is the moment Nazism is born.”

65. In late 1966, entered into what would become sixteen-year correspondence with Hety Schmidt-Maas, a German who came from an exemplary anti-Nazi family. As a child, she had refused to join the League of German Women (v unusual). Her ex-husband had been a chemist for I. G. Farben. Schmidt-Maas was on a one-woman mission to understand Germany’s recent past. Levi asked Hety if she had any contact information for the German chemists he had worked under at Auschwitz. Most were dead or had disappeared. But Ferdinand Meyer, who had treated Levi as an equal more than anyone else, was still alive—she offered to put them in touch. Meyer wrote to Levi in 1967. Levi was wary, especially of Meyer’s platitudes of working through past.

66. Meyer (wrongly) saw in If this is a Man the spirit of forgiveness. (Surprisingly, the survivor and philosopher Jean Amery also saw this trait in Levi.)

67. Levi decided not to meet Meyer. He didn’t want the responsibility of forgiving him: not his place. The survivor and historian Hermann Langbein called Meyer a “spineless grey creature.”

68. Later in 1967 went to visit Hety. Successful visit. She called Meyer while Levi was there; the two men spoke by phone. It is not known what they said. Levi confessed to Hety his great fear of seeing Meyer again. Meyer died in December 1967. Thomson’s verdict: “Meyer was less infamous than inadequate.”

69. In 1968 Levi made his only trip to Israel. Not a success. Levi couldn’t square Israel with his preference for the diaspora. Levi was only published in Hebrew in 1988, after his death.

70. In late 1971 Levi wrote to Hety about his depression:

We are not masters of our mood, of our reactions, of our very personality: a slight disturbance in one’s hormonic [sic] balance, and you are turned into somebody else; and you are liable to revert to this obnoxious state again and again, and each time you will stubbornly be persuaded that this is your ral and final condition, that you will have no future…

71. Neither of his children wanted to hear of his past experiences. Thomson concludes Levi had neighbourly but not affectionate relationships with them.

72. In early 1973 Levi began writing The Periodic Table.

73. This was a time of serious neo-fascist violence in Turin: gangs prowled the streets with knuckledusters. Later in the decade, businessmen would take tourniquets with them when going to work in case of being shot.

74. Levi retired from SIVA on December 1, 1974. Had long wanted to do so. Not a good manager, the responsibility tormented him. He felt like a Kapo. At his retirement party, the staff urged him to make a speech. He said, in full: “I believe I have always tried not to get on anyone’s nerves.”

75. Both he and Lucia’s mothers were in poor health. Levi walked his mother around the block twice a day. The only time in their life they were separated for any length of time was the 22 months he was deported.

76. The Periodic Table published in 1975—big hit, much feted, Levi by now a literary legend in Italy. The book expresses the tension between the writer he was becoming and the writer he was taken to be (invention v documentation).

77. Hety visited the notorious Nazi Albert Speer in prison and gave him If this is a Man. Speer didn’t read it, saying he didn’t want to “disturb” Levi by reading it (?!?!)

78. In the late 70s, Levi was indicted on two counts of ‘personal injury’ for causing involuntary injury to workers at the SIVO plant. In the end, no evidence was found and he never stood trial. But the incident shook Levi. The investigating magistrate did find Levi to have been careless of others’ safety—perhaps, Thomson speculates, because of his Auschwitz experience.

79. After retiring, Levi took German lessons diligently for several years at Turin’s Goethe Institut: enjoyed being “their oldest student.”

80. Levi’s literary taste was conservative: found Proust boring, Beckett “annoys me terribly.”

81. In 1979 Levi began to research what would become If Not Now, When. Thomson thinks it a bad book, embarrassing even. (Crude rhetoric, schematic, mouthpieces, over-researched: that was the US critical consensus too.) Began writing in October 1980—wrote the novel quickly in what he called eleven blissful months.

82. On 7 November 1980, the remains of the Holy Virgin St Lucy stolen in Levi’s name from a church in Venice. The thieves left an anonymous ransom note: “St Lucy will be returned on condition that a page of If this is a Man be read each day in all secondary schools and lycèes in the Veneto area.” A local criminal eventually claimed responsibility.

83. Levi thought the natural world was inimical to language, not a human phenomenon like Auschwitz.

84. In 1982 Levi accepted a commission to translate The Trial. He didn’t like the book—“revived his disquiet about Jews and Judaism.”

85. Levi met regularly with students who were writing about him. He was very patient. One student telephoned him about his school essay on If this is a Man, which he hadn’t read: “I promise to read all your books soon,” he told the bemused Levi. (See under: chutzpah)

86. Visited Auschwitz again in summer 1981. Flinched at the sound of a passing freight train.

87. Levi: “Sometimes I wonder if I belong to the Jewish people at all.”

88. The US had been largely uninterested in Levi. If Not Now, When published only reluctantly. The Periodic Table had been published only when Saul Bellow offered a rave blurb. But when Levi met Bellow on his US tour in 1985 Bellow snubbed him.

89. Levi met Elie Wiesel in summer 1981. He had no fondness for Wiesel. The latter had claimed to have had a friendship with Levi in Buna. Levi denied this, saying he had no memory of him.

90. In the fall of 1981, the doctor and survivor Leonardo de Benedetti Nardo died. Levi, as he put it, “became a lonely survivor.” De Benedetti’s maid claimed she never saw Levi smile again.

91. In summer 1984 Levi bought a personal computer. Became a “Mac bore”—convinced the American translator of Italian William Weaver to buy one. Talked about it all the time.

92. The Periodic Table published in the US in the fall of 1984. Finally, Levi received praise and recognition in the US, and he accepted his publisher’s request for a US tour the following year. In America, Levi was always a survivor first and a writer second. Indiana UP had accepted Periodic Table in 1981 but on the condition that only the Holocaust parts be published. (Levi declined.)

93. Einaudi had shorthand for his two Levi writers, Primo and Carlo: “Levi Man’ and “Levi Christ” (Carlo Levi’s most famous book is Christ Stopped at Eboli.)

94. The US trip was a mixed success at best. When Levi met Nahum Glatzer, the publisher of Schocken Books, he left his prosciutto and melon untouched; he didn’t want to offend the observant Glatzer. Thomson claims Levi was puzzled by how much Americans emphasized his Jewishness, complaining that they had “pinned a Star of David” on him. Yet he was very glad to have the US market open to him; his publishers thought he would be back within a year.

95. At the end of June 1985, Esther Levi turned 90. Levi felt increasingly imprisoned by her. He even likened her to “the drowned” of his famous Holocaust metaphor.

96. Jean Samuel visited in the fall and found his friend in very low spirits. In particular, Levi worried about the rise of revisionism; feared all his writing would one day fall on deaf ears.

97. Writing to an Englishwoman who thought she had recognized her uncle in The Periodic Table (it turns out she was right), Levi said “I preserve absurdly precise memories of that period.”

98. In response to an interviewer who asked if he ever dreamed of Auschwitz, Levi told of a dream he occasionally had. He was being driven back into the camp, but protested: “Gentlemen, I have already been here. It is not my turn.”

99. In April 1986 Levi met Philip Roth in London. The two men got on very well: “With some people you just unlock—and Levi was one of them,” Roth later said. In the fall, Roth and his then-wife Claire Bloom visited the Levis in Turin. Roth insisted Levi take him to the paint factory. They shared an emotional farewell: both men cried. Levi: “I don’t know which of us is the older brother, and which is the younger brother.”

100. In an interview, Levi rejected the interviewer’s claim that he wrote from the experience of an underdog:

Levi: I was never an underdog.

Interviewer: But you were in Auschwitz…

Levi: The ones below me were the underdogs. I kept my human abilities. I never sank that far. Underdogs lose the capacity to speak, to articulate. An underdog would never be likely to write anything.

101. Levi’s essay collection The Drowned and the Saved was published in June 1986. Levi planned to write a sequel investigating the German industries involved in the camps. Would that this had come to fruition.

102. Levi’s “unidentified antagonist” in his last book was Bruno Vaari, survivor of Mauthausen, who believed ex-deportees survived thanks to their virtue.

103. Levi fell into a particularly dark depression in the winter of 1987. In February he wrote to a friend: “I know that this phase will pass, just as others have done, but I’m aware of this only at the rational level; my overriding impression is that it will last for ever and that I will never find an exit out.”

104. On the morning of Saturday, April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of the stairwell in front of his third (in the US, fourth) floor apartment. He died immeditely. Ever since, people have debated whether he jumped or fell. (He was on medication that made him dizzy.) Thomson plumps for suicide. To my mind, it doesn’t matter. What is more instructive is our desire to want to make sense of the event. At any rate, news spread quickly in Turin and respectful crowds gathered in front of the building.

105. Levi had said he wanted words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, pollà plankté, much erring, driven to wander far and wide, as his epigraph.

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I don’t read biographies much, so it’s hard to say how good this one. My sense is it’s ok. Thomson is a pretty pedestrian writer, which surprised me, as I read a fabulous essay about his father’s death in the TLS a couple of years ago. The last third of the book feels like a grim, plodding forced march, but, then, Levi’s last years were not easy.

Thomson doesn’t seem to know much about Jewishness. And he has the attitudes of the time regarding depression and mental health. (I gather he did most of the research in the 1990s). He’s not exactly judgmental, but says, for example, that Levi “abandoned himself to black moods.” Just a little dubious, and unsympathetic.

He’ll also occasionally say something silly, as when he writes, apparently with a straitght face, that in Los Angeles Levi “saw no evidence of the murderous gunplay that defines the City of Angels.”

But Thomson, who knew Levi and interviewed him, knows Italian well, and seems very sound on the politics of the 30s and 40s as well as the terror of the Years of Lead in the 1970s. Most importantly, I learned a lot about Levi from this book, which is the point. It reaffirmed by love of him, but also usefully tempered it. Levi wasn’t a saint, and he didn’t want to be one. He was endlessly frustrated at being known as a witness first and a writer second. But witnessing matters. And he can rest assured that he is both a great witness and a great writer.