Books of the Year 2005 symposium
The ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2005 symposium comes about because of the generosity and kindness of Matt Christie, Simon Critchley, Peter Davidson, Raymond Federman, Tom Gidley, Debra Hamel, Kevin Jackson, Soniah Kamal, Robert Kelly, William Large, Tom McCarthy, Robert Macfarlane, Charlotte Mandell, Tom Meyer, Stephen Mitchelmore, Chris Paling, Julián Rios, Lee Rourke, Frank Ryan, Michael Schmidt, Anne Sebba, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Natasha Tripney, Lisa Williams, Ken Worpole and Behzad Yaghmaian.
Matt Christie of pas au-delà
What to say about the new edition of Guy Debord's Panegyric? It contains many pictures, not least of all, one of the author's own hand. In the first part, as you will recall, Debord writes: "After all, it was modern poetry, for the last hundred years, that had led us there [that is, to the streets, there where "nihilism is quick to moralize," etc]. We were a handful who thought it necessary to carry out its programme in reality, and certainly to do nothing else..." The title is at once ironic (vis. a vis. 'autobiography') and deeply sincere (as a less-than-pious homage to a certain 'resistance' - one that, it could perhaps be argued, finds its modern day continuation in David Foster Wallace's call for a "new sincerity.") Likewise, uncommonly non-saccharine and supremely readable, was David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, a whimsical, stream-ish, fragmentary and poetic work the ever-returning and cumulative effect of which is quite poignant (though perhaps not entirely without affectation or fatigue). In marked contrast to Murakami's rather benign latest, Will Self's My Idea of Fun takes risks with the narrator-reader relationship itself - both authors commendably take risks, but perhaps Self's are in the end more deservedly lighthearted - risks that run up against the grotesque underbelly and challenge any coding of this strange relation as being merely harmless, sincere or, well, nurturing. Eh, perhaps both are in their way courageous. Continuing with the theme of 'lightness,' this year I greatly enjoyed Gabriel Josipovici's On Touch and John Berger's About Looking. In a slightly different, more head-aching vein, I continue my quest to read everything by Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot (as well as Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and others). I am very grateful to have begun reading at least two as-yet-unpublished books this year: John Pistelli's blistering novel, The Sensitive and Lars Iyer's (just recently published), Blanchot's Vigilance, both of which are full of typographical editorial mistakes, highly original and indeed superb.
I'd like to mention three poets who have made a strong impression on me during the year, one very well known and the other two less so. This year I have been reading Fernando Pessoa fairly steadily and have become fascinated with the master heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, and his poetry of perception that attempts to show us things as they are seen and not thought, a task which is not as easy as it sounds.
My two other discoveries are Jan Zwicky, a poet based in British Columbia, whom I heard speak in October and her verse is really stunning. I would recommend Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, particular a poem called The geology of Norway. A very recent discovery, thanks to a student in New York, is the Irish poet, Geoffrey Squires, who writes beautifully crafted and minimal descriptions of things as they are seen. I'd recommend XXI Poems in particular.
Peter Davidson author of The Idea of the North
This is a rum collection, and no apologies: Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (in Phaidon’s Art and Ideas series) is a wholly readable, richly-illustrated account of the unfamiliar, prodigious arts which arose in Colonial Ibero-America from the fusion of indigenous arts and beliefs with the (equally strange) arts and beliefs of Baroque Spain and Portugal. Angels with guns aimed at the horizon, a heavily draped figure who is at once the Virgin and the sacred mountain of Potosi. Not often do so much original research done on the spot (including some remote and obviously perilous spots), such good writing, and so many pictures of extraordinary things appear at a mass-market price.
Also from the stranger regions of the past (those ones which British good taste usually ignores pretending that none of it really happened) Baroques by Giovanni Careri with photographs by Ferrante Ferranti contains a good number of really peculiar things and not a few very beautiful ones. Bernini’s inlay-work skeletons pushing up the manhole covers and struggling into the upper air on the floor of S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome are only one of the many joys which this survey of the grandeurs and horrors of the grand century worldwide has to offer. Thoughtful note to those of a nervous disposition: better skip over pp.124-28.
Peter Scupham’s Collected Poems is a book I’ve been coming back to all year. He writes wonderfully about places, especially about English places. His poems about memory and his old house in Norfolk are haunting in all the right ways. The sophistication of the technique which underpins every poem becomes clearer and clearer as you read further in this substantial, generous, distinguished volume.
Gerard Kilroy’s Edmund Campion, memory and transcription is an academic book which deserves a wider readership. It’s not easy to summarise but, in short, is a study of the how manuscripts and memories circulated underground amongst the persecuted Catholics of Elizabethan England. After so much simplistic media nonsense about Shakespeare and Catholicism, this is something more like a complex and difficult truth.
Mark: I don't have time to write about the one book that for me what the best I read in a long time, Patrik Ourednik's Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. If you go to [my] blog you'll see that I speak very highly of that book and recommend it to all.
Tom Gidley author of Stunning Lofts
An author about whom I knew nothing before this year is Denton Welch. Welch was studying art at Goldsmiths in 1935, when he was hit by a car while cycling from Greenwhich to Surrey. Left in a state of permanent convalescence and unable to complete his studies, he began writing autobiographical novels and short stories. He finally succumbed to his injuries thirteen years later, leaving behind a small but fascinating body of work. I left My Grandfather's House, Maiden Voyage and A Voice Through a Cloud are amongst the titles I've read in recent months.
Quicksands - A Memoir by Sybille Bedford kept me in a trance for a few days earlier this year. The book tracks a turbulent, romantic life of genteel poverty and intensely variable personal fortune. Bedford, her family and friends were embroiled in key moments in 20th century history and she retells events in a fluid, effortless style. A beautiful, poignant and wise book by a woman whose eloquent recollection of the distant past, at the age of 94, is remarkable.
A very different life is described in Jonathan Coe's long-awaited biography of B.S. Johnson Like a Fiery Elephant. Coe's introduction carries a blazing attack on the mediocrity of contemporary fiction publishing, its inane fascination with (and reliance on) market research, and gifting of advances to Oxbridge graduates and journalists for unwritten manuscripts. A world in which a writer such as Johnson would never get published. He is to be applauded for it - as he should be for the rest of the book, in which he candidly questions the validity of Johnson's approach to his work, and his life. A tragic story of a man tormented by his values and beliefs.
A novel I reread this year was Knut Hamsun's Hunger; a brief, brutal journey into the mind of a writer existing at the edge of starvation and his own sanity. As startling now as when it was first published in 1890, it's the book that made me write Stunning Lofts.
Here is my best-reads-of-the-year list, culled from my reviews at book-blog.com:
Damian McNicholl, A Son Called Gabriel: The beautifully written story, told in the first person, of a boy growing up gay in Northern Ireland.
Ken Follett, Whiteout: Follett delivers with yet another perfectly crafted page-turner.
Gideon Defoe, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists: A hilarious read filled with some extremely clever writing. If you like pirates - and who doesn't? - this is a must read.
Denise Mina, Deception: A smart thriller that will keep readers engrossed and guessing until the book's final pages.
John Shors, Beneath a Marble Sky: A rich, gripping piece of historical fiction about events surrounding the creation of the Taj Mahal.
Eric Jager, The Last Duel: The fascinating account of a feud that culminated in the disputants' trial by combat in the 14th century. I defy anyone to put the book down during its penultimate chapter.
Jason Headley, Small Town Odds: A charming exploration of life in small-town America. Headley has been compared with Richard Russo for good reason.
Joseph Finder, Paranoia: Set among the heirarchical struggles of the corporate world, the story's various twists will keep readers riveted.
Val McDermid, The Torment of Others: The fourth book in McDermid's series featuring profiler Tony Hill is a solid police procedural and simply a very good read.
Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: In prose that flows so smoothly you'll want to down the whole of it in one sitting, Alda shows himself to be in real life an affable, intelligent, intellectually curious, normal, nice guy. Who can write well.
Martha O'Connor, The Bitch Posse: Not a light read, exploring as it does teenage drug abuse, cutting, and other uncomfortable subjects, but certainly gripping.
Kevin Jackson , jounalist and author of the "definitive biographpy" of Humphrey Jennings and the marvelous abcedeary Letters of Introduction: An A-z of Cultural Heroes and Legends
William Empson (1906-1984) was one of the two or three greatest literary critics of the twentieth century, a fine and uncommonly influential poet, and a remarkably original philosopher, linguist and polymath, whose spryly-carried range of learning encompassed mathematics, anthropology, physics and Buddhist art. He was also a magnificent English eccentric, whose rackety progress from Cambridge to Japan and China was crammed with amorous scandals, bohemian revelries, sober heroism and low farce. All these aspects of the great man received generous, judicious and eloquent attention in John Haffenden's superb biography William Empson: Volume I: Among the Mandarins. (Volume Two should be with us next year.)
Carolyn Burke's Lee Miller added a wealth of fresh detail to our received image of this fascinating photographer, model, muse, war correspondent and all-round heroine: Miller now seems braver and more abundantly gifted than ever. Iain Sinclair's Edge of the Orison was a rich and delightfully unclassifiable work of non-fiction by our most indefatigably idiosyncratic prose stylist. By turns comic, ruminative and haunting, Sinclair's thoughtful journey in the footsteps of the mad poet John Clare embraces all manner of subjects and tones, and is in part an unexpectedly moving, not-so-veiled letter of love and apology to the author's wife. Sheer pleasure. My favourite new collection of poetry was Clive Wilmer's Stigmata (Worple Press). The classic writer I re-read with most attention was Dante: watch this space. The minor English poet I discovered with most enjoyment was Charles Stuart Calverly, who can be charming and, at his best, quite funny. If I may be permitted a small act of nepotism, the most impressive work of literary scholarship was Claire Preston's Sir Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science (CUP), which justly won a major British Academy prize. Honesty drives me to admit that I am married to the author.
Soniah Kamal , writer.
Robert Rosenberg's This is not Civilization is a gripping cross-cultural narrative that binds rural Kyrgystan, an Arizona Apache reservation and Istanbul, Turkey into a truly small, small world. It starts with one of the funniest lines I've read in a while "the idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor one." There is a punch line, even funnier.
Michelle de Kretser's The Hamilton Case is a gorgeous mystery set in 1930's Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and grapples with the self colonization of an individual in a colonized land as Sam Obeysekere sets to solve a murder in the Sherlock style.
Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers is like eating a rich fruit cake with your eyes, a delicious treat of a book in language, story and emotions: it makes dance a little patch of Little Pakistan in Britain.
Cheryl Benard's Moghul Buffet remains my perennial "good time" read. A delightful murder mystery set in Pakistan with a bumbling cast: an out of shape American, a Crusoe like Pakistani police officer, gay Bollywood stars, the Taliban before they were the Taliban, horny Mullahs, and what the Burqa can actually be good for.
On the non-fiction front Robert D. Kaplan's Soldiers of God is a reader-friendly look at Islamic warrior country in Afghanistan and Pakistan pre 9/11 (I learn there is a "Gucci" faction what wore designer sunglasses, Banana Republic, and very good cologne). And finally GJ Whitrow's Time in History is a riveting read of of the evolution of "man-made" time and its measurement.
You've been kind enough to ask what I've been reading this year. These are what stand out from recent months:
A century after the great Corpus Poeticum Boreale I used to work with, and thirty years after her own edition of Volume One, we have at last Ursula Dronke's rich and enormously useful translation and commentary of poems from the Poetic Edda, Volume Two. It gives us the best version of the Voluspo I've ever seen or imagined, with notes amenable both to old scholarship, Frazerian shimmer, New Age glamor. What an exiciting book! The narrative built into our language itself, patiently unwoven and told. My gratitude to Oxford U.P. (one of the U.K.'s last cash cows) is abated by the price of this small volume: $160 in the US. Bless the library.
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Atlantis Rising - a tiny chapbook compact of all the traditional information along with some brilliant, excited speculations from one of the most active minds of our day (PLW is aka Hakim Bey).
Benjamin Markovits's wonderfully shaped, detailed, enthralling The Syme Papers - a reconstruction of a lost life. The Chinese menu would call this novel Henry James Meets Thomas Pynchon.
Crawlspace - Edie Meidav's brave novel about an aged French Nazi who has slipped between the cracks of the legal system, and, with unreconstructed prejudices, seeks shelter in his hometown now.
Carey Harrison, Richard's Feet and Egon - two novels from his tetralogy To Liskeard. I was amazed by the first, longer of the two, amazed that I had not encountered him before, this novelist of such amazing dexterity, humanity, inventive skill. He reminded me of Durrell, of Burgess - yet with a sense of tenderness often missing in those showmen. I've since read as much as I can of this writer, unfailingly inventive - as I read his work, I often feel (as with Powys often, and Lawrence sometimes) that I'm reading a detective story that turns out to be about me.
I've finally gotten around to reading Kojève reading Hegel (at least the English translation, much abridged.) How grand, humane and poetic Hegel seems when he is taken at his word (how else should we take a poet, a philosopher?), not seen through the comic opera of influences and afterwards and the easy mockery of those who don't stop to read carefully. As Kojeve so spectacularly, so quietly, does.
Tai Situ Rinpoche, Ground Path Fruition - it is the most lucid introduction to the Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) since Kalu Rinpoche's The Dharma, now twenty years old. Situ Rinpoche speaks, writes in English, with playful mastery and helpful humility. I am amazed as I read, to find how much more there is in what I thought I knew already.
Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought - a man I first knew as a novelist (North of Yesterday) and best known as an art critic and commentator, finally completed his thirty year project on the deep interconnections (no mere 'influences') and reciprocal effects of early Greek and early Indian philosophy. A fantastic grasp of world-think, better by far and less slogan ridden than Jaspers's business of the 'axial age,' deeply pondered and minutely detailed - it is a work on the scale of Onians' Origins of European Thought (which is the highest praise I can think of).
Giorgio Agamben, The Remnants of Auschwitz [the English title should really be What is Left After Auschwitz, since 'remnants' suggests a substantiality nowhere in Agamben's intention] - this struck me as the most comprehensive, radical understanding of what the camps were and meant that I've ever read, and fit company with the great witnesses of the event: Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Robert Anthelme. As I read it, there sang in my ears the searing testimony of Sima Vaisman's A Jewish Doctor in Auschwitz, which Charlotte was translating at the same time. Reading the Remnants got me reading Agamben, and I'm thrilled with him, he is the rarest combination of minute examination (of the scholar) with grand speculation (of the philosopher) - like a Foucault of the particular.
Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes - I approached this central work of the arch-demon behind Neo-Con thinking with anxiety, and found a beautifully written, lucidly reasoned, poetically structured meditation on the state and the individual -- with fatal consequences to the latter. A haunting and unforgettable book, whose shadow falls on Guantanamo and the victims of Rendition daily.
William Large, author of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of Writing
I remember with fondness, and perhaps a sweet nostalgia, that moment in my life when books became important for me, when I couldn’t stop reading, when it seemed every moment of the day and night was consumed by reading. Now that isn’t possible (I say "isn’t possible" because I don’t think it is a choice), and reading the contributions of others to this list, I thought immediately how much more they read than me. This year has been the same as many years now and I have read very little. I have returned to Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, which is one of those books that one has to continually return to in one’s life, because it so dense, peculiar and incomprehensible. I have started to read yet again Franz Kafka. Will I ever stop reading Kafka? Finally, my whole way of looking at the world has been transformed by Spinoza’s Ethics. I believe it completely.
The Dominion of the Dead, by Robert Pogue Harrison (about the cultural meaning of burial, and entombment); The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Walden, and the Formation of American Culture, by Laurence Buell (a magnificent work about place-sense, and the ethics of imagining the non-human). And, just about, Iain Sinclair's The Edge of the Orison, which as Ken Worpole points out represents an appealing softening of Sinclair's mysticism, and a calming of his mania.
Charlotte Mandell translator
Here's a list of my favorite Books of 2005:
Coromandel, a long poem by Thomas Meyer. This was published as a chapbook, but I don't think it's available anywhere. Meyer's translation of the Dao de ching will soon be published by Flood Editions in Chicago.
The Horla, by Guy de Maupassant (in my translation, bien sur!) An amazing tale of how a man's mind is taken over by a vampire, and how he descends into madness. All three versions of the story are presented here, each more harrowing than the next.
A Jewish Doctor in Auschwitz, by Sima Vaisman. A first-person account of a Jewish woman doctor trying to treat patients in Auschwitz's 'hospital,' the Revier. The author wrote this account just a few weeks after she got out of Auschwitz at the end of the war, so it's unlike many other survivor accounts in its freshness and urgency. Then she hid the manuscript until it was discovered by her granddaughter, 50 years later.
At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft. Be warned, though: if you're prone to nightmares I wouldn't advise reading this. Weird dreamscapes come startlingly to life.
I've been reading a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson, in an old omnibus edition published by Walter J. Black in New York (the copyright page has fallen out, so I don't know the publication date -- I'd guess circa 1940). Especially The Suicide Club in the New Arabian Nights; the fantastic tales like Will o' the Mill, in which Death makes an appearance, and Markheim, in which the Devil appears; and The Fables, which include a very funny piece called The Persons of the Tale, very postmodern-before-the-fact, in which two characters from Treasure Island (Long John Silver and Capt. Smollett) meet "in an open place not far from the story" and argue about which character the Author prefers, and whether or not the Author actually exists ... I skipped the verse.
Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (in French, and mostly in Scott-Moncrieff's translation, just because it was the easiest one for me to carry around). I had never read the whole series from beginning to end - just a volume here, a volume there - and I'm finally coming to the end, and wishing I weren't. I've just finished the part in Time Regained where the narrator reproduces a long section he says is from Goncourt's Journals, in which all the characters we know reappear, but in a completely different light. A stroke of genius. This is the only work I've ever read where the characters have all the complexities, depth of personality, and contradictions that 'real' people have. More, in some cases ...
The best new book I have read this year is Stewart Home's Tainted Love. The blurb bills it as a portrait of the sixties' slide towards self-destruction, but it's so much more interesting than that. It involves multiple ghostly inhabitings - of one voice by another, by a third and so on (not for nothing was the heroine of Home's last book, 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess, a ventriloquist's dummy). So Home is writing in the voice of his biological mother whom he never met, a sixties hostess and general girl-about-town, using the kind of generic sub-literary 'Confessions of...' mode as a default style. But then you get scenes in which she visits RD Laing (as Home's real mother did) and gets him off by pretending to be kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst recounting her sexual fantasies about her captors. So 'Jillie' is inhabiting Patty (or vice versa) while Home, haunted by his real mother's ghost, studiedly infiltrates and adapts the session-transcripts of Laing. It's just brilliant. You even get Jilly's death scene from an overdose played out as Warhol's Sleep (and, via a statuette of the New York landmark lying beside her death-bed, Empire too) trawled typographically through Debord's Screams in Favour of De Sade. It's clever, it's moving, it's political and it's important.
Brigit Kempker & Robert Kelly, Scham / Shame: Eine Kollaboration (Urs Engeler, Editor): Remarkable, literal investigation (an analysis really) of what reddens us. Intimacy as material culture, as what matters. The back and forth here, the German and English, a getting to know rises off the pages like a hologram between these two who write here.
Maurice Blanchot, The Book To Come: Again and again, a durable reality made out of thinking, just thinking about something. We recognize this sort of thought in conversation but rarely see (or hear) it assayed.
Du côté de chez Swann, Marcel Proust: Now that we have a slew of sturdy English translations, time to get out the original and pick our way through the floating pronouns and eddies of relative clauses, to see just how beautiful this all is.
The novel that I enjoyed most this year was Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante. Billed as a gangster caper with literary pretensions, it turned out to be just that, yet something else too. It pursued the curse of stories, something that is usually taboo in modern fiction (although it is also central to another favourite of the year, Paul Auster's Oracle Night). For the same reason, I was surprised at the genuine terror seeping out of Guy de Maupassant's The Horla in a new translation by Charlotte Mandell. Though it is over 100 years old and takes only an hour to read, the story opens a Pandora's Box of which most other fiction is innocent.
It's been a good year for non-fiction discoveries. Robert Pogue Harrison's The Dominion of the Dead addresses the 'the founding power of graves' (or books as I also call them); though demanding, it repays patience. On the other hand, Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment – an improvisation on the history of photography - doesn't require much patience as it's effortlessly readable. I liked the way its quirkiness became necessary to its insights. A book that I feel lucky enough to have read this year (as it has yet to be published) is Tom Coustineau's Three-Part Inventions. For the first time in English, we have a clear, inspirational reading of Thomas Bernhard's novels. Readers and writers dissatisfied with the formal poverty of British and American fiction might well find it inspires new confidence in the form.
Finally, Reiner Stach biography Kafka: The Decisive Years is one of most compelling I've ever read. It gives the reader a sense of what it might have been like to look through Kafka's eyes.
It's been a good year for Kafka. Haruki Murakami weighed in with the hefty Kafka on the shore. Like all of his long novels baggy but sporadically brilliant. Murakami is always worth spending a couple of days with. Haus, meanwhile, in their superb Life and Times series, issued their Kafka by Klaus Wagenbach. Short and illuminating and beautifully produced. A lengthy Kafka anecdote in Brooklyn Follies, the new Paul Auster novel, all of which led me back to the source: The Trial, one of the handsome new <Vintage re-issues. I devoured this slowly - three or four pages at a time - and marvelled. Best thing I read all year.
In 1977 I published in my Espiral series the Spanish translation of the first and very original novel of the young American writer Frederic Tuten, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. This little big Mao has been out of print in his homeland for long time but now fortunately is again on the march thanks to New Directions, which has reissued it in paperback as a New Directions Classic. New readers have now the opportunity to discover Chairman Mao transformed into Charming Mao by means of parody, iconic/ironic assemblages and lots of gags.
At that time I was also publishing in the same series, in Madrid, the first Spanish translations of the German writer Arno Schmidt. After Scenes from the life of a Faun and The Stony Heart (these are the titles of the excellent English translations by John E. Woods) I wanted to publish Kaff auch Mare Crisium, also wonderfully translated into English by Woods under the double title of B/Moondocks. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the suitable translator for a novel that uses a double language to tell its parallel stories on a sort of revolving stage, the first and realistic one played out in a German hamlet in the late 1950s, and the fantastic one on the moon in 1980, twenty years after the first publication of the novel in 1960. Great and demanding writers have usually a magnetic power to attract the most creative translators. That is the case of Arno Schmidt with John E. Woods, in English, and with Claude Riehl in French. Riehl devotes all his energies and talent to his Schmidt translations. On different occasions, since our first meeting in Strasbourg fourteen years ago, I stressed the need for a French translation of Kaff in an invented patois. Sooner said than done, but the result is beyond expectation. This year Claude Riehl obtained the Prix Gérard de Nerval for his lifetime career as a translator, mostly at the service of Schmidt. In a flight from Paris to Mexico last February, the newborn On a marché sur la Lande (Editions Tristram) in my hands, I was the man in the moon that cries for the land.
The fiftieth anniversary of Lolita and The Recognitions is a good pretext to read these two seminal American novels. I have celebrated Nabokov's novel in Loves That Bind and again this year in an essay, after a new rereading. I am now rereading Gaddis's encyclopaedic novel with the help of the essential A Readers's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions by Steven Moore.
And last but not least, another American master, Robert Coover the Magician, enchanted me with the black and white magic and the images of Stepmother (McSweeney's Books), an unfairly-fairy-tale for modern times.
Lee Rourke, freelance writer and editor of Scarecrow
For those of you who don’t already know aria fritta literally translates from the Italian as: fried air. A term the Italians use with punch when someone is talking absolute nonsense. But let’s get one thing straight: Ellis Sharp’s Aria Fritta is no book of nonsense. This book makes complete sense. Aria Fritta continues, with utter verve and conviction, the same vitriolic journey William Burroughs started in Naked Lunch – attacking all that is corrupt and absurd; waving its critical baton in the face of society’s accepted myopia, bourgeois folly and the sickening ubiquity of consumer-driven decadence and ambivalence. And Ellis Sharp’s weapon? Surreal, humorous, absurd acts of wild metaphor of course. But beneath all this clever tomfoolery lies a bona fide anger, an anger so ostensible it positively permeates from each page. It is this fury which propels the reader towards one hapless target after another. So who/what are Ellis Sharp’s targets? Judging from Aria Fritta just about everyone and everything: including US Presidents, George Bush, power, people of power, the abuse of power, society, society as construct, normality, social ambivalence, consumerism, capitalism, politics, the right, the left, the novel, the novelist, the Play Station generation (a self-flagellatory love of Ellis Sharp’s own it seems) – to name but a few.
I might surprise you with my selection. This is the book that most influenced me this year on re-reading it, and once again I find myself referring to it in a new evolutionary science book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S Kuhn. In this seminal book, as relevant today as when first published in 1962, the scientific historian and philosopher explains how people have been fundamentally misled by an overly simplistic attitude as to how scientific theories develop. Most of us, whether scientists or non-scientists, come across theories in textbooks at college or as established ideas in articles and communications long after the theory was first conceived in the mind of its originator. In Kuhn's words, "the aims of such ... is persuasive and pedagogic; a concept of science drawn from them is no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure." This book is readily comprehensible to an intelligent non-scientific reader and its message is as vitally important as it is fascinating in an age dominated by science, for good or for bad.
I would urge readers to revisit Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller , a story of unblushing brutality which makes this and last century seem more of a piece, in terms of their evils, with the sixteenth century. What visions, what a compact and Homeric style. Then, I happened to start re-reading Balzac's Lost Illusions the other day andfound it hard to put it aside. The solidity of Balzac's world, the way each general idea is ballasted with particulars, and the unsentimental, unforgiving clarity of his characters, make the book part of lived memory. Of the new books that reached me, Kenneth Koch's Collected Poems is an inexhaustible box of delights. Its inexhaustibility is exhausting, there is little repose in his work, but there is such invention, such a closeness to the heart of his language, that it is beguiling and inspiriting.
I want to recommend Sybille Bedford's Quicksands as my best read of the year. It's not only a book of beautiful, elegant prose it is also full of Bedford's clear sighted understanding of humanity. Her sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of the often painful relationship with her mother is just one example of several as to how, without seeking to justify or gloss, her own life has become a work of art through her autobiographical novels and fragments of autobiography. Her descriptions of the difficulty of living in a country under occupation are chilling and vibrantly evocative.The twentieth was not a good century. As good writing does, this book has lingered in my mind for months.
The year for me, as a reader, was blessed by the discovery of two writers and books I hadn’t yet known. Finding Maurice Blanchot and his essays was one of those life-changing reading experiences, as rare and resonant as the first time I found Rilke. I am now immersed in The Space of Literature , translated with an Introduction by Ann Smock. What makes Blanchot's work so moving and relevant now could be that we, too, and living in an age of political extremes, through times of confusing violences. Blanchot asks: what is at stake when we write? What are the personal, social, and cultural functions of literature? These are especially potent questions right now. As he says of Malraux in one essay, Blanchot, "has always chosen hope, but he has also chosen to go all the way to the end of hope". He inspires us, whether we are readers or writers to view literature not just as a place of metaphors but as a place where personal and public metamorphoses can occur. "Literature is a concern for the reality of things," Blanchot writes," for their unknown, free, and silent existence, literature is their innocence and their forbidden presence, it is the being which protests against revelation, it is the defiance of what does not want to take place outside."
I was also deeply moved by Dovid Bergelson's Shadows of Berlin: Stories of Berlin , translated by Neurroshel Joachim. This wonderful translation gave me fresh access into the brilliant Yiddish writer's imagined world , his simplicity of style and depth of feeling. Clearly, Bergelson was a master story-teller, too often overlooked. Lastly, of very recent novels, I recommend Elizabeth Merrick's Girly for its epic stretch and startling originality. It's a story told by seven separate narrative voices and is uncompromising. A book about sisters in an American Christian fundamentalist family, Girly enchants the reader while bringing them raw and scorching moments of truth and vision. I highly recommend this journey into sexuality, family, and the margins of our American life.
The year, too, marked a place for deep appreciation within me of Elfriede Jelinek's astonishing work. The Nobel-prize winner [Jelinek won the prize in 2004 - ed] has caused a great deal of discord for not sentimentalizing her journey into the all-too-brutal issues of power and gender, almost burning the reader's eyes with prose that is brilliantly, beautifully poetic, raw, dark and sexual. It could be, for me, that this kind of writing has become more and more rare - work that doesn't care if the reader is filled with discomfort and disquiet, the human dramas which enfold do so spinning on truths that are profoundly sexual and unsparing. She explores men and women, capitalism, and power that bring back the power writers like Celine and Genet once held. She is an unforgettable force in literature today, often dismissed. I have grown to admire her novels, The Piano Teacher , Lust and Women as Lovers in ways I haven't experienced for too long a time in my reading of current fiction.
Mark Thwaite managing editor of RSB
Proust and Blanchot mean more and more to me each year, Duras continues to delight and disturb, but I'll try to focus, here, on new books (when, really, I should be concentrating on my French homework). With the Booker shortlist "packed with a plenitude of riches and delights" we were told this was a great year for British fiction, but forgive me if McEwan's middle-class, mediocrity (so satisfyingly demolished by Ellis Sharp) and Banville's bloated, sesquipedalion pedantry failed to engage or move me. Wonderful that Dalkey reissued Nathalie Sarraute's stunning domestic drama The Planetarium, but it was Dai Vaughan 's angry, impassioned, uneven Non-Return that was my novel of the year.
Michael Wood's Literature and the Taste of Knowledge taught me much, William Large's Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, Robert Pogue Harrison's The Dominion of the Dead and Timothy Clark's The Poetics of Singularity each made my brain hurt, but, you know, in a good way. Independent presses like Metronome and Les Figues Press make me think there is still some good in the publishing world.
A philosophical reading of poetry runs the risk of missing the very thing about poetry which makes it poetry, but Simon Critchley's Things Merely Are kept focus on Wallace Stevens wondeful words. A complete success, for me, as it introduced me to Stevens (fortuitously, Faber rereleasd Harmonium earlier in the year) and reminded me how much I like Critchley's work.This year also had me discovering the work of Eugenio Montale, Michel Deguy and Giuseppe Ungaretti.
The End: Hamburg 1943 by HE Nossack made for powerful anti-war reading. Whilst our rulers latest atrocities continue, some strength could be drawn from David Harvey's book on the New Imperialism, Tariq Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms and his Bush in Babylon, the excellent Afflicted Powers and Eliot Weinberger's brilliant debunking of neo-Con rhetoric in What I heard About Iraq .
Delbanco's Melville biography is to be welcomed (and Melville House 's Bartleby the Scrivener is an absolute must read), and I also enjoyed Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life . I am hugely looking forward to Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years which I'll read over Christmas.
My book of the year has to be Åsne Seierstad's With Their Backs To The World: Portraits From Serbia. It didn't recieve as much attention as The Bookseller of Kabul, but it's a truly superb piece of journalism. She manages to be incredibly astute in her depiction of how the country has changed over recent years without ever appearing judgemental and is great sketcher of characters - the stories really stay with you.
I recently revisited Douglas Coupland's Life After God; it's a book that gains something with each reading. Sentimental yes, but questioning and emotive and probably his best work to date. It encapsulates everything he's about and contains moments of real beauty.
I've also been enjoying China Mieville's short stories in Looking For Jake. He's primarily a fantasy writer but this is boundary blurring genre fiction; it's a hit an miss collection but when it works it's genuinely exciting writing, rich with ideas and striking language. It's left me hungry to read his novels which is always a good sign.
No new books for me: I'd have to vote for The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. Her subtle but deep insight into the ways culture and nation continue to divide us, especially when it comes to love and relationships, continues to haunt me. I recently re-read the short story, "Zaabalawi" by Naguib Mahfouz (Modern Arabic Short Stories (Oxford University Press , 1967), translated by Denys Johnson-Davies) - another gem. While the story is rooted in Arabic culture and religion, it serves as a parable that transcends its specific context and becomes a story about human beings' search for meaning. His perfect marriage of form and theme in this story is simply stunning. I was similarly moved by Rabindranth Tagore's story, "Punishment," (Selected Short Stories), translated by William Radice) and his humanistic insight into the ways poverty and oppression define familial and other personal relationships. Also, I'd like to add Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago to my list - a beautifully lyrical and poetic, epic novel.
The Secret Cemetary is that rare thing, a book by academics that speaks with a human voice. A study of bereavement, burial and commemoration amongst a wide variety of modern Londoners secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox by Doris Francis, Leonie Kellaher & Georgina Neophytou, it carefully untangles the anthropological connections between house and grave (the second home), the cemetery and the garden, and memory and belonging. It is full of people's voices, calm, measured, earnest, funny, hopeless. I also loved John Berger's collection of stories, Here is Where We Meet , in which the dead reappear in each story to guide the narrator in his present-day wanderings. The re-publication of Joseph Roth's White Cities was inspired: wonderful pieces about everyday life in Paris and The Midi in the 1920s - people, places, architecture, books, politics - before catastrophe arrived. Finally, I am always delighted when the quarterly The Penniless Press arrives (sae to 100 Waterloo Road, Ashton, Preston PR2 1EP) stories, poems, criticism scrupulously edited, and a reminder that class as an experience in Britain never goes away.
Two books in particular touched me the most this year. Åsne Seierstad The Bookseller of Kabul (Back Bay Books) [ UK edition is Virago ] is a painful tale of gender repression in Afghanistan. This is a not a book about the Taliban, women's imprisonment under the Burqa, or rape and physical violence against women. It is a horrifying tale of an invisible violence that is deep-rooted, socially accepted, and reproduced from generation to generation; of routine and everyday violation of women. Living with a middle class family in Kabul, Seierstad presents a chilling account of the subjugation of women to men, and the power relations within the family. Although repetitive at times, The Bookseller of Kabul is a must read for all of those interested in understanding the plight of women in a society like Afghanistan.
Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Wiley) is a brilliantly written account of a coup that not only changed the future of Iran, but also transformed the Middle East and the world. Kinzer turns the often dry and tedious historical events into a wonderfully written story that reads like an attractive and exciting thriller. This is a perfect book for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the recent conflict between the Islamic world and the West.