Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Brad Bigelow. Brad writes http://NeglectedBooks.com and edits the Recovered Books series for Boiler House Press.
When I finished college forty-some years ago, I started writing down every book I read in a little spiral notebook. I kept up this habit for over twenty years and then stopped for some forgotten reason. Since starting The Neglected Books Page, most of my reading has been of long-forgotten books and most of these I’ve recorded by writing about them on the site. But as time goes on, I’m falling ever further behind in this writing. And to make matters worse for the purposes of this piece, I keep no record of my non-neglected reading. So, this is a fairly unreliable review of my reading in 2022, but I hope it’s worth your time nonetheless.
(It’s a good thing I never went into marketing.) [Ed. – No kidding!]
Among my neglected reads, easily the most memorable was Charlotte Salomon’s Life or Theater? Although Salomon told her life through paintings, it operates at an unforgettable level of intensity. There are at least three narratives winding through the hundreds of paintings in this book: the psychological breakdown of her family; her own troubled emotional development; and the trauma of Germany, and of German Jews in particular, with the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As I wrote back in April, “the book is presented as an art book – large and very heavy with its hundreds of pages of full-color images. But I think this does the book as a book some disservice. For it can also be seen as a graphic novel.” And I think it would benefit from being repackaged as a graphic novel, since today’s readers are now so accustomed not just to the language of graphic novels but to the very idea of considering them as literature. [Ed. – Absolutely. Her drawings look like they come from a graphic novel, too, as your post with its generous illustrations suggests.]
Easily the most enjoyable was Madeleine Masson’s memoir, I Never Kissed Paris Goodbye.Though we know from its opening line—“It was a beautiful day in June 1940”—that this story will have a sad ending, most of Masson’s account of Paris in the 1930s is as frothy and delightful as a glass of champagne. It’s full of the infidelity, excess, and manic energy of Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game, and highly recommended to anyone who loves that film. [Ed. – You’re trying to tell me there are people who don’t love that film? Nonsense! This book sounds excellent, BTW.]
My deepest archaeological dig of the year was locating a copy of Carola Ernst’s Silhouettes crèpusclaires, and then dusting off my French to read it, based on nothing more than a brief reference in a magazine from 1921. This modest account of the journey Ernst took in the Fall of 1914 to return a French officer blinded in an early battle of the First World War to his family is a touching portrait of a world in the midst of a radical transformation. The pair are able to travel via Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France thanks more than anything to a spirit of chivalry that had not yet been destroyed in the industrial machinery of the war.
Another highlight was the chance to spend several weeks with some of the many volumes of poetry penned by Raymond Souster, the bard of Toronto. Souster’s longevity and disciplined dedication to his art enabled him to amass an account of one city’s life that may be unparalleled in the 20th century. Souster lived and wrote to the age of 91, worked in the same bank for over 40 years, was married to the same woman for over 60 years, and, as their only child, cared for his parents until they died in their late nineties. Though Souster claims he never wrote any great work (“I’m not sure I’m ready for epics/there are far too many little songs/the rest have left unsung”), the body of his work is sort of an epic in itself. [Ed. – Fascinating! I’ve even lived in Toronto and have never heard of Souster.] Someone needs to go through the thousands of pages of Souster’s poetry and distill it into an autobiography along the lines of what Ruth Limmer did with Louise Bogan’s work in Journey Around My Room.
Finally, I must mention Nina Warner Hooke’s Biff and Netta trilogy: Striplings (1934); Close of Play (1936); and Own Wilderness (1938). These novels follow a half-brother and sister, Biff and Netta, from their early to mid-teens, as their already unconventional and decaying family collapses completely. The first volume received tremendous critical praise and was most commonly compared to the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Warner Hooke said she had no plans for further books at first, but when you finish the trilogy, its narrative arc seems almost predestined. She could no more leave off her story than you could get off a rollercoaster after the first drop. It is deeply strange, not solely because of its theme of incest, and deserves much closer examination than I was able to give it in my post. At 900-some pages, it’s far too long to expect anyone to ever reissue it unless some editor finds the courage to do some substantial posthumous abridgement, but it’s a work that I continue to process months after finishing it.
I tend to rely on audiobooks for my non-neglected reading. For years, I had a daily commute of over an hour each way and I racked up thousands of hours of listening, which enabled me to catch up on many classics I’d skipped. Now, my commute is just a staircase [Ed. – Bliss!], but I still get in an hour or so of listening each day. One of my projects was to go back through the works of Thornton Wilder, who is arguably both recognized and neglected. Aside from “Our Town”, most folks have only a vague notion of what he did, and even the once-ubiquitous The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not a familiar title. Wilder is the only writer to have received a Pulitzer in two genres, fiction and drama, has several volumes in the Library of America, and most of his work never falls out of print for long. I wrote about The Eighth Day, his most ambitious—and, to be honest, most flawed—novel years ago, and loved Heaven’s My Destination and Theophilus North when I first read them. This year, I went back and listened to all his novels in chronological order (an exercise I highly recommend for novelists who particularly interest you), starting with The Cabala.
The experience was both a revelation and a disappointment. I found several of the books suffered from an earnestness that became particularly apparent when considered back-to-back. On the other hand, I was astonished at the innovation of The Ides of March, his novel of Caesar’s last months. It’s a collage of fictional letters, excerpts from actual Latin texts, and even graffiti from the streets of Rome in the first century BC. Why is this book not acclaimed as a milestone in the fictional form? [Ed. – Sounds like time for a reissue?]
Aside from Wilder, most of my listening has been focused on Russian history and literature. I’ve long been fascinated by Russia, even though I’ve deliberately avoided my few opportunities to visit there. There’s something about the darkness of so much of the Russian experience that seems to reassure me that my own life really isn’t all that bad. This might be one of the reasons that I read so many books about Stalin when I was working for the two worst bosses I’ve had to suffer. I listened to two historical surveys by Orlando Figes: A People’s Tragedy, about the Russian Revolution, which occasionally bogged down in the minutiae of political infighting, and Natasha’s Dance, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a historical context to much of the Russian art, literature, and music of the last 200+ years. There were also several biographies—Alex Christofi’s Dostoevsky in Love, Alexandra Popoff’s book on Vasily Grossman, Donald Rayfield’s Chekhov—all richly illuminating. But by far the most enjoyable and impressive listen was Nabokov’s The Gift, which managed to weave so many of the threads from these other books together and remind me yet again of the fact that Nabokov worked at a level miles above so many of the 20th century’s greats.
Of the more recently-published books I’ve read, few really stand out. I found a number of the more acclaimed ones forgettable and will skip over them. Although I’ve read that it’s not the place to start, I loved Annie Ernaux’s The Years, in part because it described a world very familiar to me after 18 years of living in Belgium and working closely with many French men and women. And Gwendolyn Riley’s My Phantoms could have described some of our neighbors on the little street in Norwich where my wife and I lived for two years. [Ed. – Yikes!] I wish I could say that the books I’ve read by American writers were half as evocative, but I guess I’m still getting used to a country that’s so different from the one we left just before 9-11.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention the brightest highlight of 2022, which was the #PilgrimageTogether reading group. Starting in January, a group of us worked our way through the thirteen “chapter-volumes” of Dorothy Richardson’s masterpiece, Pilgrimage, aided by a wonderful cast of Richardson scholars who agreed to take part in our monthly discussions. I first read Pilgrimage in 2016 as part of a two-year project of reading only the work of neglected women writers (complemented by two years of only listening to audiobooks by women) and ever since have been an evangelist on its behalf. Not to denigrate Proust, but I find it astonishing that thousands of people read Remembrance of Things Past each year while Pilgrimage, which speaks directly to so many aspects of life that are still part of our everyday world today, is barely known and even less read. Like others in the group, I found Pilgrimage both so challenging and so rewarding that other books seem somehow diminished in comparison. It’s a novel I know I’ll be returning to again — and, I hope, with another group of readers. [Ed. – This is good to hear, since I regret not joining in. It would be great if you could time it with my next sabbatical, thanks.] Until then, I encourage folks to take up Pilgrimage and spend some months with Dorothy Richardson’s insistently individualistic Miriam Henderson, aided by the Reading Pilgrimage website. [Ed. – Thanks for the post, Brad, and congratulations on that site. What a resource!]