Books of the Year 2008 symposium
It is Books of the Year time again! Like I do every year, I've asked a number of friends and contributors to ReadySteadyBook to tell me which books impressed and moved them most over the last twelve months, regardless of whether the books concerned were published this year or not.
The RSB Books of the Year 2008 symposium contributors are: Sacha Arnold, Derek Attridge, David Auerbach, Edward Champion, Richard Crary, Robin Durie, Scott Esposito, Gavin Everall, Rebecca Ford, Paul Griffiths, Sarah Hesketh, Lars Iyer, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Kelly, Sophie Lewis, Charlotte Mandell, Tom McCarthy, China Miéville, Steve Mitchelmore, Nicholas Murray, Rodney Pybus, Lee Rourke, Anthony Rudolf, Leora Skokin-Smith, Dan Visel, Ken Worpole and also me!
Thanks so much to everyone who contributed.
I'm compulsive about many things, but tracking the books I read isn't one of them. What follows is a not very scientific (but roughly chronological) survey of what impressed me the most in the last year.
While I'm a fan of long epics, I was also smitten by the 40-odd extremely short stories (and one novella) in It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature by Diane Williams. Most of them occupy only a page or so but are densely packed with tonal reversals, point-of-view shifts, and abrupt intrusions of emotion not unlike the ones found in the work of Lydia Davis, Gary Lutz, and Ben Marcus -- all of whom have enthusiastically endorsed this book.
Jim Krusoe's first novel Iceland was a masterpiece of over-the-top expressionist goofiness, and I was excited to get my hands on Girl Factory, his second one. Krusoe loves to literalize the dynamics of romantic desire by sending his male characters in picaresque pursuit of his female ones, usually with tanks of fluid involved. Girl Factory's six women suspended in yogurt culture are worthy heirs to Iceland's Emily, keeper of a swimming pool full of internal organs. For more information, check out Robert Silva's review.
Scott Esposito's essay on Franz Kafka and Adolfo Bioy Casares gave me the push I needed to finally read The Castle, and I'm glad I did, although I don't have much to add to all the critical ink already spilled regarding that work. One of these years I'll read The Invention of Morel, too.
Camilo José Cela's last novel Boxwood read to me like a proof by example of the authority of irrationality -- a riot of jumbled accounts of folk remedies, shipwrecks, rural characters lightly sketched, and aphoristic wisdom, mostly unsullied by paragraph breaks. Its voice is the voice of "traditional" values, more medieval than modern, but the music of that voice, and its command over the reader, are undeniable.
I made another step toward curing my DeLillo-phobia by reading Ratner's Star, the closest thing to science fiction in his output. The story of a boy genius summoned to a remote think tank to decode a message from space, it features some of DeLillo's most Pynchonesque comedy (plus a nod toward Stanley Elkin in the one appearance of Ratner himself) in its rush to encyclopedically satirize every branch of human knowledge. But in spite of all the acid humor, there are also a number of moving observations about the emotional stresses of a scientific career embedded in the book.
Carter Scholz's Radiance is another great fictional account of scientists under stress. I revisited it this year in my essay about its portrait of nuclear weapons researchers wrestling with the moral compromises involved in propping up unsound science (as well as sound science used for bad ends). Written in a dialogue-saturated mode that recalls William Gaddis in JR, it brings to big science the same penetrating skepticisim that Gaddis brought to big business.
In the world of comics, I was floored by David Heatley's My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, which transcends navel-gazing by offering an almost ethnographic account of the author's dreams, loves, fears, and family history in its tiny panels. Every single sexual episode in Heatley's life is documented here, as well as every single racially charged one, and his honesty is awe-inflicting. With Epileptic, Fun Home, and Misery Loves Comedy, this is one of the best recent memoirs in comics form.
Derek Attridge is an academic and critic. He is the author of many books including J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading
Another South African blockbuster this year: Michael Cawood Green’s For the Sake of Silence is a fictionalised account of the foundation, in the Natal of the closing years of the nineteenth century, of the Trappist monastery of Mariannhill and its extensive network of missions. The novel -- rich in historical detail -- focuses on the rise and downfall of the extraordinary Abbot Pfanner, who established the monastery and oversaw its rapid growth but was eventually dismissed when his vision of a community energetically serving (and converting) the local black populace couldn’t be reconciled with the Trappist ideals of silence and prayer. By presenting the story in the words of the ingenuous Father Joseph Biegner, always close to Pfanner but wholeheartedly committed to Trappist principles, Green provides a vivid account of the conflict between the two modes of life, and a fascinating portrait of an unusual version of colonial expansion. (Published by Umuzi (Random House, South Africa); available from Kalahari Books.)
On a smaller scale, a fine collection of short stories by Zoë Wicomb, The One that Got Away, was also published by Umuzi in 2008. Like Wicomb’s superb 1987 collection, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, characters from one story appear in others to create an interlocking set of associations, and like her novels, David’s Story and Playing in the Light, the setting moves between the Cape and Glasgow (where Wicomb now lives).
I’d like to put a word in for my favourite audiobook experience of the year: Timothy West reading Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. West brilliantly captures Trollope’s humour – in both its warm and its satiric varieties – and in doing so treats us to a remarkable range of accents.
I spent a good amount of time this year rereading much of Laura Riding's work in the service of an interview with the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the excellent collection or Riding's writing, Anarchism is Not Enough. I remain convinced that both as a poet and as a critic, Riding is a neglected modernist (and post-modernist) master.
Hungarians: Imre Kertesz's The Pathseeker was a much stronger novel than his earlier, inchoate Detective Story, both published this year, though I still find Liquidation to be my favorite and most elliptical of his works. I only just obtained Attila Bartis's Tranquility, but it is so far quite promising. I hope someone will soon translate more of Laszlo Darvasi; what little I've read has me very curious for more. And the rumor is that an English translation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Satantango will be published soon; now that the brilliant film is finally available, I hope it won't be too long.
Older novels that captivated me: John Williams' Stoner and Jose Donoso's Hell Has No Limits, I wouldn't compare them except by seeing them together now, but both deal in their own way with the survival of the creative and the rejected in landscapes of total devastation.
Two books with pictures: South African exile Breyten Breytenbach's All One Horse, an inconclusive dreamscape mixing primitive and modern on a very abstracted background of modern political chaos and oppression; and Hungarian Peter Zihaly's The Last Window-Giraffe, an encyclopedia of brutality.
A couple significant reissues: Marcel Ayme's Beautiful Image, the first three novels of John Crowley's massive Aegypt cycle, Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete, and B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates.
You couldn't avoid Roberto Bolano this year or last year, but let me put in a word for his experimental Nazi Literature in the Americas and the earlier collection Last Evenings on Earth, which are strong condensations of the more inconsistent extravagances of the two larger novels. And let me again plug his Chilean compatriot Jose Donoso, who remains my favorite Latin American novelist.
Finally, my German was not strong enough to read any great amount of the Paul Celan-Ingeborg Bachmann correspondence, but what I did muddle through was as brilliant as I could have hoped. I look forward to its translation as much as to the imminent publication of the first volume of Beckett's letters.
Let the record show that I've written positively at length about this year's books in numerous places. But there was one novel so poorly written, so amateurish and counterintuitive in its human insights, and so solipsistic in its inherent nature, that it was enough to cause me to worry very much about the future of contemporary literature. (But on the flip side, if you're a struggling fiction writer who remains stuck in the mud, you might want to track down this travesty so that you too can get incensed, realizing that the offal you turn out can't be half-bad by comparison.) I am loath to name this novel here, because the author has sought such an unmollified attention in print and online pastures, having his minions email me desperate messages about this author's ostensible genius and even going to the trouble of recruiting unimaginative critics to defend his book at the Poetry Foundation. To sully Mr. Thwaite's fine pages with the name or the title would be like bringing uncooked squirrel gumbo to a kosher barbeque. I'll only say that if you're sad and you're young, it does not necessarily follow that you are literary.
My reading year was dominated by the past. In particular, I read for the first time Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Beckett's prose Trilogy, comprising Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Time very well spent.
I read very little recent fiction this year, but I did enjoy J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, the work of a restless writer, and Marilynne Robinson's Home, a much more traditional novel, yet explorative in its own way, on the nature and consequences of belief. It is a companion novel to Robinson's marvelous Gilead from a few years back, though the new book strikes me as somehow less essential.
I continued my fruitful engagement with the work of Gabriel Josipovici, fiction and non-fiction alike. I'd especially like to mention The Singer on the Shore. The wonderful essays collected in this book have expanded and deepened my understanding and appreciation of the issues explored by Josipovici elsewhere. I cannot adequately explain the importance of his work to me.
One last literary title I'd like to mention is Thomas Bernhard's great memoir, Gathering Evidence. This has emerged as my favorite of Bernhard's books, and I'd be surprised to read a better literary memoir.
In other books, Nicholson Baker's much-maligned Human Smoke is a necessary corrective to the general culture of war and mythmaking. (This seems as good a place as any to mention what was far and away the worst book I read this year, and possibly the worst book I have ever read, Christopher Hitchens' sloppy and utterly ridiculous God is Not Great.)
I'd like to draw attention to Derrick Jensen's two-volume Endgame (not, of course, to be confused with Beckett's play of the same name!) Volume I is sub-titled The Problem of Civilization, volume II Resistance. These are philosophical, political, writerly, inspiring, scary, vital works which move beyond a mere anti-capitalist position (however important), to articulating basic, difficult truths: that the problem lies with civilization itself and that we are running out of time.
And finally, as a new parent, I must mention the beautiful Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. How might our lives be different if we took seriously our own needs and the needs of our children?
Following the rumpus stirred up at RSB after his suicide, as well as Jonathan Derbyshire's delightful recent essay in the Staggers, I have started to read David Foster Wallace. His essays are breathtaking, & Oblivion has impressed me greatly -- here is someone grappling with the problem of how, within the space opened up by postmodernism, to address humanistic & existential dilemmas alongside more 'predictable' critiques of contemporary politics & culture. Reading Wallace only makes the utter dreadfulness of books like Netherland all the more disheartening.
In an interesting discussion of his work from the New York Review of Books back in 2000, A.O. Scott picks up on Wallace's (ironic?) suggestion that a new 'New Realism' may constitute the next 'movement' in post-ironic literature. In fact, this sounds too horrible for words, as does the 'manifesto' of Jedediah Purdy. But, here in the British Isles, we have a writer who has absorbed the lessons of both modernism & post-modernism, while still managing to write books of inspiring political commitment. And this year, Jim Kelman published what may come to be viewed as his masterpiece -- Kieron Smith, Boy is an astonishing achievement, a truly great work by a truly great writer. Kelman's sustained, & totally honest, presentation of Keiron's voice represents an achievement that I think would be beyond virtually any other contemporary writer in the UK. It evoked memories for me of Bill Douglas's great Trilogy.
I like genre-tweaking crime writing. Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason is the best of a very good crop of contemporary Scandinavian writers who all, in one way or another, continue the important lineage of the Swedish Marxist partners Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo; & this year's Arctic Chill keeps up his very high standard. In the same genre, just about, Jim Sallis has been quietly publishing a series of short books featuring a character called Turner. After the postmodern intricacies of his excellent Lew Archer series, these new works might appear unambitious. In fact, they are superb -- Sallis has a fine ear for voice, & these works explore the redemptive power of stories & story-telling with a rare insight. This year's Salt River follows the previous Cypress Grove & Cripple Creek.
Finally, one of the areas which occupies my working day is the environment, & the sustainability of both it, and the communities of humans which interact with it. Brian Goodwin is a distinguished biologist & complexity theorist. His new book is called Nature's Due. It is, in many ways, shocking in its interweaving of science with discourses normally considered alien by science. But Goodwin offers a paradigm for work & research which, I believe, represents a potentially new future. Meanwhile, the UK's best lyric poet, John Burnside, has teamed up with Andy Brown, for a beautiful collection called Goose Music. Both writers have created politically charged poetry of, & for, the environment; & their poems are informed by a philosophical & scientific depth which is utterly rare in British writing.
It's hard not to pick Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as my favorite read of the year. Everything from the narrative voice to the interplay of themes to the language is simply as good as humanly possible. This is a big, thick book, one that took me almost a month to get through to my satisfaction, but for those willing to make the effort it yields great rewards.
This year one of my more notable discoveries was discovered the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, perhaps best known as the person Borges immortalized as the protagonist of his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. His novel The Invention of Morel is a fairy tale for the modern age, a perfect 100 pages. I also enjoyed his novels Asleep in the Sun, Plan of Escape, and The Dream of Heroes, and as I read more and more Bioy I began to discover certain affinities with Kafka (whose novel The Castle and short stories rank among my favorite reads of 2008). In the end, I explored their characteristic use of detective novel conventions in a very rewarding essay.
I read some great criticism this year: I finally knocked off two of New Criticism's greatest works, Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Well-Wrought Urn. In addition, I appreciated J.J. Long's thorough work on W.G. Sebald. I also thought that Dirt for Art's Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson's examination of what seven banned books can tell us about the evolution of the novel, was very worthwhile. And of course, Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination was a bracing but completely necessary read.
I was glad to catch up on some Central Europeans with Nine by Andrzej Stasiuk and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, both books that are bleak but passionate and formally inventive. (I'll be looking for more from both, as more is translated.) Another writer I enjoyed, not quite a Central European but close, was Gunter Grass, whose The Tin Drum I finally read.
Of course, as a dedicated Bolaño-phile, I found a lot to like in 2666 (although not quite as much as I'd expected), but I also very much enjoyed an author new to me who can be said, in some important ways, to be continuing Bolaño's tradition: the Salvadorian novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya. His short novel Senselessness is, with one exception, probably the best first-person novel I read in 2008, and I’m eagerly awaiting New Directions' next translation from him.
Lastly, I read two great books from Ford Madox Ford (probably his greatest books): The Good Solider and Parade's End. I think the former is the best first-person novel I read this year, and the latter is an immense, Modernist take on England during World War I that is simply stunning. Its 800 pages was definitely the most challenging book I read this year, but at the end of them I was left wanting more.
Working on Stewart Home’s Semina series led to the discovery of two surprising novels, The Scene by Clarence Cooper Jnr. and The African Origins of UFOs by Anthony Joseph. Otherwise a year of reading and looking at art projects and artists writings: The latest from Artwords Press, Non-relational Aesthetics by Charlie Gere and Michael Corris, should puncture some of the faddish enthusiasm for Nicholas Bourriaud. I was impressed with The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Gareth Jones, a great artist book published by Four Corners Books. Book Works published The Happy Hypocrite edited by Maria Fusco, which led to a reading a number of art magazines, some old, some new. I’d recommend: Bananas, Aspen, Documents, Useless, F.R. David, Material and Fillip. And, having spent a lot of time looking at it, I wish I could afford to own a copy of the excellent, complete reprint of General Idea’s self-published, underground magazine, FILE Megazine. Also spent some enjoyable days, reading and proofing for the Everyday Press, whose first publication, the English translation of Yves Klein’s The Foundations of Judo is out soon.
Late this summer I decided to revisit Howards End by E.M. Forster. I’ve always loved the line, “Live in fragments no longer” and it had been some years since I’d visited my favorite country cottage. Without fail this book always reminds me why my relationships with friends and family, while sometimes difficult, are worth fighting for. This book is a quick read and forever a classic although I’ve yet decide if I would rather be Margaret or Helen.
"We sit and lie and swim in the sun and sit together reading and drink the first and last summer punch of the year." But a farm is also burning, and neighbourhood men and soldiers are out at night singing and bawling and waiting. Though she keeps almost entirely to the present tense, the unnamed young girl who is the narrator of Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew can hardly speak of the terrible present, from which she keeps veering into memory and anecdote, often circling back to the same events, phrases ("close to Jedenew"), words (that "last", soon ominous). This is Poland, shortly after the Nazi invasion. Those, however, are not the narrator’s terms. She fills her present with the wedding of Marek and Antonina, the treehouse, the younger children, father’s favourite story—until the moment of confrontation in which the whole book seems to be taking place.
Like all the best books, my top three of the year were all accidental finds. Frances Horovitz's spare, refined skeletons of poems are far more moving than any of the jazz riffs written by her better known husband. Her slim volume of Collected Poems shows an exceptional talent cut short by her early death. Alison Fell's The Crystal Owl I unearthed in an Arvon Centre library. Her ruminative notes at the start of each poem are a challenge to the post-Eliot fear of explication. My new found love affair, however, is with Robert Francis. Virtually unknown on this side of the pond, this former student of Robert Frost writes deceptively simple lyrics that demonstrate just how wonderful 'craft' and all its connotations can be. Worst read of the year: Joseph Olshan's The Conversion. Poorly constructed, poorly edited and managed to make murder, sodomy and literary intrigue ridiculously dull.
Lars Iyer is a philosoper. He is the author of the Blanchot's Communism and Blanchot's Vigilance
My novel of the year was published 40 years ago. Golding's The Spire is elemental. It seems seems to have more in common with Greek tragedy than anything written today. Another favourite: the same author's Darkness Visible, the first part of which is a better Life and Times of Michael K., the second an exquisitely distubing account of the emergence of a sensibility and the windy winding third... almost lost me. But it's worth it for the last few fiery pages. There's no finer, stranger British writer since the war.
Bernhard's Amras in Three Novellas was pitch black -- the charred remnants of a book rather than a book.
Like everyone else, I admired the lyrical concentration of Bolano's By Night in Chile. His The Savage Detectives I found freeing, inspiring, but not entirely enjoyable (too long!). Perhaps it matters less for itself, it seemed to me, than the books it gives permission for others to write.
As for non-fiction, I admired Brody's biography of Godard, Everything is Cinema, which is particularly good on the late films. Robert Bird's Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is the best secondary commentary on the Master, and the Ingmar Bergman Archives, edited by Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius is the kind of celebratory volume every great filmmaker deserves.
Levi Bryant's rigorous and exciting Difference and Givenness: Deleuze's Transcendental Empiricism was my philosophy book of the year; Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money is a worthy follow up to his essential Religion and Capitalism: here is that rare thing, a work by an original thinker.
Jacques Dupin's book on Giacometti is the finest I've read on any artist. Why have I come so much later to Diane Arbus than everyone else? No matter: Revelations is a fine catalogue of her work.
My great discovery of the end of the year was Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage. He died at twenty-eight, in 1900, but what a great writer he was! Not just The Red Badge, which is indeed one of the great books about war, up there with The Iliad and War and Peace, even though it is less than a hundred and fifty pages long, but also such short stories as The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. In fact everything he touched he turned to gold. There are no long shots in his narratives, we are always close up against the action, with no time to think or make informed choices, yet Crane has a wonderful ability in a few phrases to give us a sense of the whole man (there are very few women in his stories). This is realism of a very high order and I am amazed that I never read him till now and thankful that I have at last made good the deficit. I look forward to reading John Berryman's Life of Crane.
Another great war book, this time less than a hundred pages long and published in the 1950s, not the 1890s - but only just translated into English - is S.Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh (brilliantly translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaakov Dweck). It deals with a group of young soldiers in effect ethnically cleansing a Palestinian village in 1948, and with the feelings of doubt and horror that overwhelm one of them as he struggles to work out whether he is simply being cowardly in not showing solidarity with his comrades and unquestioningly obeying orders, or is asserting his humanity in a brutalised world. This book, it seems to me, is not just about Israeli soldiers but about young soldiers everywhere at all times - Americans in Iraq, Germans no doubt in the Ukraine in 1942. But it is of course timely, and it coincides with a wave of brilliant Israeli films about war, of which the most recent is the extraordinary animation, Waltz with Bashir. Nicholas de Lange has also translated one of Yizhar's last books, Preliminaries, and one hopes that this is the beginning of the publication in English of all the works of the man thoughtful Israelis describe as the greatest native writer their country has ever had.
I also loved Jean Echenoz's masterly novel about the great Czech middle-distance runner, Emil Zatopek, a childhood idol of mine, simply entitled Courir. And I greatly enjoyed Clive Sinclair's True Tales of the Wild West, a hilarious take on the present-day culture of 'the Wild West', and how in today's world it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the original from the copy, the authentic from the phony. Even the terms are ceasing to mean anything to most people, and it is up to artists, in every way possible, to alert us to this depressing fact and thus, for a while at least, preserve the real world.
Fortunately I have forgotten the boring and the just plain bad books I must have at least have begun in the course of the year.
This has been a year when I’ve had more time for reading than in the past few years, and it’s been wonderful. So the books of the year are what I can quickly bring to mind, rather than a carefully sifted ‘best.’
Marías, Dark Back of Time. Personal pleasure, sneaking through his intricately simple narratives towards the eccentric personages vaguely connected with the favorite fantasy writer of my childhood, M.P. Shiel, King of Redonda. (Marías is the reigning monarch, and my friend John Ashbery is a Duke of that kingdom. I’m not even a baronet...)
Peter Nádas, A Book of Memories. I’m reading it now, caught first by the eerily Proustian detail of sensation recorded. So far I’m impressed by its intense scrutiny.
Walter Scott, The Antiquary. Peter Lamborn Wilson, who’s always loved Scott’s novels, and I who did not, kept quarreling about Scott, until I got tired of my old opinions and started reading anew. The Antiquary and Guy Mannering turn out to be wonderful, quick-witted, slow-drawn out, richly written. Scott knows more than we expect, about souls and spirits, not just swords and inheritances. He gets tired of his plot and jumps ahead – I love that.
Margaret Barker, Temple Theology. Succinct, accessible introduction to this private scholar’s (are there any more of them?) extraordinary re/vision of early Christianity as the fulfillment of First Temple, pre-Mosaic Judaism. I’d gotten on to The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, and other work of hers (some essays online too) through the kind suggestion of Christopher Bamford.
Richard Grossinger, The Bardo of Waking Life. I was so excited by what RG had pulled together from a richly scattered life and a keen mind that I wrote a preface to the book – full disclosure. David Markson, This is Not a Novel and The Last Novel. Fragments masterfully marshaled, fugato, till they are revealed as no more fragments than the notes of a sonata are fragments. An old master – and just as testy (I’d guess) as the old master in Thomas Bernhard’s somber comedy of that name.
Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (Charlotte Mandell’s [Robert's wife] forthcoming translation of his Les Bienveillantes). Unforgettable – Max Aue is a character so attractive and repellent at once, as if to be so private a person as he is in the midst of so public an array of holocaust and crime is somehow an indictment of what it means to be inward. In a bad time, privacy is complicity.
Carey Harrison, The Perfect Innocent (his still unpublished, majestic conclusion to the cycle of novels begun with Richard’s Feet, Cley, and Egon.)
Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and his account of the writing of that book in a time of war and exile, The Story of a Novel. Read it years ago in college, read it again halfway from then to now, and just this summer found it even greater than I remembered, the grand somnolent, honest measures of Lowe-Porter’s translation that so match the sensibility of the narrator. It is the one novel I know that comes close to grasping the Twentieth Century, its mind, its art, its self-deceptions, its tragic destiny that continues in us.
Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This to Me — his collected poems. The purest and clearest of all the poets of mid-century America. Never dumb, never obscure, never sappy. His words never forget themselves. He is always awake.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening. I’ve waited for it a long time: the moment when theoria becomes, and arises from, pure poiesis. A book of luminous attention – the light in the ear.
Ray Monk’s tender and thoughtful biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius, illuminates the man’s road of ceaseless thinking, ever prizing the thinking, not commodities of thought. And I must remember to mention my birthday present from Charlotte, the Sony Reader, an admirable and capacious gizmo in which it is a pleasure to read. I have ninety-nine books on it at the moment, it fits in the pocket and reads like a book. Sometimes when I’m reading something not available in e-form (id est, most everything in the world), I find myself missing the Reader in my hand, the ease of holding, closing and starting up again. Slipping a hundred books into my pocket and getting on a train. These devices are childhood dreams come true. Sod the Luddites.
One of my Books of the Year has to be Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space. His humble but assured, philosophical and down-to-earth approach to our senses of home and house, or stair and corridor, in literature and without, and all their relations, is just mind-blowing. Picked up off one of my comp lit bibliographies and treasured for its surprise warmth and rightness, on a subject so obvious I believe it may have been skipped over as unworthy. But it proves it worth in this book!
Perhaps a fiction tip could be something else also gleaned from a reading list - no shame in that is there? Hans Christian Andersen's late fairy tale (Tiina Nuunally is one excellent translator; there are several) The Dryad. This masquerades, without too much dressing-up, as one of his standard heart-breaking tales, but suddenly shifts from 'once upon a time'-land to mid-19th century Paris and the Great Exhibition of 1867. The Dryad makes a somewhat Faustian pact, exchanging her natural longevity and rootedness as a tree for the freedom to wander the city and see the exhibition for one night only. It is bewildering -- she stumbles in the Madeleine church and even joins a tour of the sewers -- but touching, while itself being particularly rooted in its period, that of the burgeoning of great cities and collectioneering or museum culture.
Charlotte Mandell is a translator -- most notably of the work of Maurice Blanchot, most recently of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones
This has been the Year of Flann O'Brien for me: Robert (Kelly, Charlott's husband) gave me the Everyman's Library Complete Novels edition as soon as it came out and I read through them one by one -- my favorites were At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Then I was hooked, and ordered all the out-of-print Myles na Gopaleen Cruiskeen Lawn books I could get: The Best of Myles, The Hair of the Dogma, At War, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, Stories and Plays... Oh, and the collection of stories called The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman. I'm still reading through them all.
Over the summer I finally read all of Dante's Divine Comedy. I was on a tiny island with a one-room library whose only edition was the one with beautiful engravings by Gustave Doré, translation by Lawrence Grant Wright.
I'm still reading Proust's Jean Santeuil, the book he wrote in preparation for In Search of Lost Time. It's interesting to see how the books converge and diverge. He tried out the neat idea of making the book a manuscript found and published by the young narrator, while the "actual" author of the manuscript is described as "the greatest of living writers". A neat trick, that!
I also read some interesting biographies of Proust: Proust and His World by William Sansom, with wonderful photographs of Proust and his friends, and his Paris; A Proust Souvenir by William Howard Adams, with period photographs by Paul Nadar; and The World of Marcel Proust by André Maurois (who also wrote the preface to Jean Santeuil), an annotated photo album, with full-page photos and drawings of the likes of Robert de Montesquiou and Lucien Daudet and Louisa de Mornand.
And for my birthday in November my friend the poet Ann Lauterbach gave me a wonder of a book: Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles, an illustrated guide to In Search of Lost Time – with 206 illustrations; it identifies all the paintings referenced by Proust, placing each one in context with an accompanying translation from In Search of Lost Time. A really great book, indispensable for all Proust lovers.
I found Norman Lebrecht's The Life and Death of Classical Music an interesting insider's guide to classical recordings. And Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder was a good sequel to his first mystery featuring Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Sheridan as detectives, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance.
My Great Discovery of the Year was Zone by Mathias Énard – a breathtaking novel based on the structure of the Iliad written in one long sentence -- and I'm thrilled that I get to translate it for Open Letter Press!
Camera, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. A major and important novel, for all sorts of reasons.
Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood is a brilliant examination of the multilateral attack on Haiti's democracy. It's an important corrective to those whose justifiable rage at US imperialism makes for the pipe dream of some touchy-feely UN.
In The Liberal Defense of Murder, Richard Seymour brings to the history and modern reality of the so-called "pro-war Left" all the wit, brio, piss and vinegar that's made his blog indispensible.
Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine was great. Some of the left criticisms it's been subjected to have been mean-spirited. You don't have to agree with everything she says -- I don't -- to be impressed with her case that what look to human beings like mistakes or catastrophes, look to Chicago-school economists like opportunities and planned outcomes.
I loved Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia, a superb (and counterintuitively gripping) crossbreed of petro-apocalyptic philosophy and post-genre horror fiction.
2009 might be when Hugh Cook, who died tragically young this year, begins to get the credit he deserves, with the reissue of his The Walrus and the Warwolf (full disclosure -- I wrote the new introduction). Cook was a fantasy writer whose 1980s and early 90s decology Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, though hidden from the attentions of the middlebrow lit-snob by their wizards, dragons and high-kitsch covers, are intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde works. I read and loved several this year -- The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers and The Walrus and the Warwolf in particular.
Much of the output of Ash-Tree Press is really for the hardcore aficionado of ghost fiction, but sometimes, as with its bringing into the light of Marion Fox's 1914 novel Ape's Face, the potential audience is much greater. This extraordinary short work is absolutely unlike anything else: a supernatural horror story, a family saga, an examination of Edwardian class anxiety, and a narratologically experimental rag-bag. It's probably too odd to ever be a classic, but it is unquestionably some kind of major anti-classic.
Sometimes a book opens a door somewhere and going through it is a strange kind of relief or revelation. "Pleasure" is an inadequate word to describe it. So, with this in mind, the books described below should be regarded not as recommendations of "pure pleasure" nor of a limited number of books that have met objective criteria measuring aesthetic merit, but as obscure markers on an invisible path.
Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar is a story of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the 1940s as narrated by an Israeli soldier. The combination of lightness and density is exceptional.
The Man Who Disappeared by Franz Kafka -- Michael Hofmann's 1996 translation of Der Verschollene. What remains for me is Karl Rossmann's silence. His experiences are often oppressive yet the lack of emotive expression and his trust in moving on and not looking back is both disturbing and exhilarating; it's not just the man who disappears.
Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. Presented as science fiction, yet is no more so than Kafka's Metamorphosis, this story of a world apparently divested of otherness reiterates my feeling that literary fiction is literary not in its ostensible subject matter nor in the elegance of its prose, characterisation and plot but in the extent to which it reveals, follows or resists the movement towards the essence of writing.
Jill Marsden's After Nietzsche. I found it difficult to follow much of this book. However, for some reason, I read on and something happened. Sentences and paragraphs shone, such as when it discusses Nietzsche's constant refashioning of his theory of eternal return and, out of that, the transformative force of repetition.
Nicholas Murray is a biographer, poet and critic. His most recent books are A Corkscrew is Most Useful and So Spirited a Town
2008, for me, seems to have been a year of revisiting some modern classics rather than experiencing any major shocks of the new. Am I alone in finding this to have been a rather unexciting year for British publishing? Hearing that there was bad new film of Brideshead Revisited I re-read it after 30 years and found it much better than I had remembered.
I also re-read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier which is a book that reads even better when you are that bit older. It is a novel for grown-ups, unlike Ali Smith's The Accidental which I tried my best to like but already have only a dim memory of.
Among the new books of 2008, George Steiner's My Unwritten Books was GS on good form. Stephen Romer's Yellow Studio was the best poetry book of the year though I admired Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader and I greatly enjoyed Hazel Frew's Seahorses and was proud to have published her pamphlet Clockwork Scorpion last year in my own Rack Press imprint (yes, m'lud, log-rolling!).
Then two very contrasting novels, Paul Auster's Man in the Dark was as strange and compelling as ever and Melissa Benn's One of Us was an intelligent and observant political novel of real moral passion that demonstrated how the realist tradition in the novel has unfailing strengths, however much we like our modernist and post-modernist adventures. Why was this not on the Orange or Booker shortlists? I felt the same about VS Naipaul's magnificent The Enigma of Arrival, another classic (this time encountered for the first time) that makes me want to read more of a writer I have somehow neglected. Of foreign fiction Jean Echenoz's Courir was as good as his last one, Ravel, though he seems to make no impact in English and the more notorious Catherine Millet wrote a much better book than her best-selling sexual autobiography in her new Jour de souffrance.
The only really new book I'm listing this year is The Lazarus Project, a novel by Sarajevo-born Aleksandar Hemon. He has lived in Chicago for some years now -- enough to write fiction in English. A new Conrad? Who knows, but he's very good (though I have yet to read his earlier short stories). The novel runs two parallel narratives: the 'author' protagonist looks into the true story of an earlier immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who escaped the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 in Moldova/Bessarabia as a child, and at the age of 19 is killed by the Chicago chief of police, and he himself, Brik, travels back to eastern Europe with a photographer friend, in search of Averbuch's birthplace. The photographs that fill the book, both historical and contemporary, add to the narrative rather than detract or distract. And Hemon's voice is very much a voice of our times, eagerly American and knowingly European, serious and elegant, funny intelligent and edgy, the emigre/immigrant story. Again, and properly so.
Otherwise, I have spent a lot of time with Cavafy, the Alexandrian poet who died in 1933, using a pair of excellent editions that give both Greek and English in new versions: The Canon, translated by Stratis Haviaras, and The Collected Poems, translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou (though neither seems to me to make the older Keeley & Sherrard version redundant). As always with translations, especially of poetry, one is also reading between the lines to see if one can pick up a tune, a tone that sounds authentic enough to suggest the original. Alongside the poetry I have been reading two other indispensable books: Cavafy, a biography by Robert Liddell, and Cavafy's Alexandria by Edmund Keeley in a new, expanded edition. E.M. Forster's lovely description of Cavafy still stands: 'a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe'.
Economy of the Unlost by the Canadian poet Anne Carson is subtitled Reading Simonides of Keos and Paul Celan: in its erudition and powers of imaginative exploration into the work of two poets so separated by time and place it is such an extraordinary work that all I feel able to say, without having re-read it yet, is 'Read it!' It's the quality of her attention, her sheer attentiveness, that is so gripping and illuminating. What is lost when words are wasted? Indeed.
Among other fruitful reading (and too much unfruitful) I continue to be riveted by Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War, which seems to me from this end of the telescope to be very fair in his judicious marshalling of facts and arguments, as well as exceptionally readable; I have enjoyed my friend Jon Glover's new collection of poems Magnetic Resonance Imaging as much as any new work I have come across this past year for its wry, brave, tender presentation of human fragility and illness, matters of both science and philosophy conveyed in the most human way by showing the resilience of emotion and imagination. And in some very fine poetry. Finally, 'crime fiction' of the highest order in The Knight and Death, and One Way or Another by the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. The 'crime' label here is silly, like calling Oedipus Tyrannus a mystery story. He is, simply, a wonderful writer.
My year has been enlightened by Francis Ponge. I have especially lost myself within Soap (Le Savon) and Siding with Things (Le Parti pris des choses). Ponge gets back to things before they were murdered by language. Reading Ponge takes us beyond language; he is essential. And if you’re seriously reading Ponge then Jacques Derrida’s Signéponge is a must -- even if it does drive you mad. Equally as gratifying have been the novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint, particularly the recent Dalkey Archive translations Camera (L'Appareil-photo) and Bathroom (La Salle de bain). Toussaint reveals the infinitesimal, the everyday, in a sickeningly poetic manner -- the final pages of Camera, for example, are breathtaking. Pigeon Post by Dumitru Tsepeneag enthralled me. As did Blaugast by Paul Leppin. Also essential reads this year have been Simon Critchley’s Things merely are and Very little... Almost nothing the latter containing some of the best writing on Beckett and Blanchot I have ever read. The poetry of Wallace Stevens has also kept me company (introduced to me via Critchley’s Things merely are), a poet whose work I have ignored until quite recently. I now bitterly regret all the wasted years his work has been left to gather dust on my shelves. Gabriel Josipovici’s TLS review of this year’s Hammershøi exhibition at the Royal Academy was not only a good read but also introduced me to the work of a breathtaking artist. Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is also worth a mention, as is Travis Jeppesen’s Disorientations his mesmerising collection of lucid essays and musings on contemporary European art. Finally, although not out until January 2009, I feel I must mention Chris Killen’s The Bird Room, it’s everything a contemporary novel should be: disturbing and authentic.
Rosanna Warren's Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry is a fine poet's indirect self-writing in the meta-guise rather than dis-guise of literary criticism. To my mind, the most brilliant chapters in a brilliant book are those on Rimbaud, Nerval and Melville, as well as a particularly close and subtle encounter with the work of Geoffrey Hill.
The first half of Everything is Connected by Daniel Barenboim is a difficult, profound and compelling engagement with the work of his life and the life of his work: music. He argues that music and the making of music can serve as a template for the understanding of politics and perhaps contribute to a healing of the world's most intractable problems -- no need to name his main example. The second half of the book consists of an uneven group of articles and interviews which, while interesting, weaken the impact of what would doubtless have been considered a too short a book without them. Nonetheless, a book of the year.
Ronald Aronson's Living Without God is a fine and mellow book by a cultural historian and political philosopher whose concern is not to polemicise against religion but to clarify his thoughts about the ways agnostics and atheists should live their lives and approach their deaths.
Elaine Feinstein’s most personal book, The Russian Jerusalem, somehow merges all the genres she has previously practised. Supposedly a novel, it is one of the saddest books I have ever read: a tale of loss and destruction, of sorrow and pain. The author imagines herself back into the company of some of her (and my) favourite writers, four great poets and a short-story writer of genius: Tsvetayeva (Virgil to Feinstein’s Dante), Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Isaac Babel, perhaps the most tragic, enigmatic and fascinating of all these figures. Distinguished and distinctive as a biographer, poet, critic, translator and novelist, in this beautiful book Feinstein obliterates traditional boundaries and enters a new and fertile land.
Amber Jacobs' brilliant and radical book, On Matricide, bears witness to the non-dogmatic self-confident feminism I would expect from the chief baby-sitter of my young children back in the 1980s. Call me a nepotist for this inclusion in my list, too bad: I'm proud of her. Taking her bearings from Lévi-Strauss on the porosity of myths, she argues that the meta-narrative of psychoanalysis needs a new paradigm. One myth, that of Oedipus, should no longer be privileged but contextualised and expanded. For her, the proof text is the Oresteia. This she rereads and glosses in the light of post-Freudian developments, so that the repressed figure of the mother shall be recuperated and patricide no longer given the kind of exclusivity in interpretation which skewed the work of Freud and Melanie Klein and later theorists.
Michael Sheringham is a distinguished scholar in French studies. Everyday Life, his philosophical and intellectual history of surrealist and post-surrealist thought, explores the quotidian via the perspectives of Roland Barthes and Georges Perec and two writers less well known in the UK, Henri Lefebre and Michel de Certeau, and provides a matrix for what has latterly become a fashionable field of enquiry at all levels of discourse. Walter Benjamin and André Breton and stellar conceptual artists like Sophie Calle and Christian Boltanski are but four of many compagnons de route in this demanding and fascinating work.
I only have space to make brief comments on other Books of the Year: Nicholas Murray's spirited Liverpool autobiography, So Spirited a Town (which sits very well alongside one of my films of the year, Terence Davies's Of Time and the City).
Philip Davis's distinguished biography of a great writer, Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life (and let me also put in a plug for Davis's essential magazine, The Reader).
Edward Kaplan's sympathetic and scholarly biography of one of my heroes, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Spiritual Radical (remember the photograph of him marching alongside Martin Luther King?).
Also three novels:
Clive Sinclair's True Tales of the Wild West (I was seriously entertained and happy to be instructed in the ways of a world that has not been on my radar since I was a child. This is a compliment to a master story teller.)
V.R. Main's A Woman with No Clothes On (I am no fan of historical novels but this one, about Victorine Meurent, Manet's model for 'Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe' and 'Olympia', who later turned out to be a painter herself, is a wonderful evocation of a time and place with which I am familiar from other literature. Feminist rescue work with a light touch.)
Max Blecher's Scarred Hearts: (Beautifully translated from the Romanian by Henry Howard and introduced by Paul Bailey, this masterpiece about patients in a French sanatorium is pure Austro-Hungary in its dark and melancholy humour.)
Finally, three poets:
The French master, Francis Ponge -- difficult to translate, as I know well -- speaks his things and their words in a collection of impressive versions by Beverley Bie Brahic: Unfinished Ode to Mud.
Gabriel Levin's The Maltese Dreamboat (a true poet of what used to be called the Levant, Levin, who lives in Jerusalem, is a genuine precursor of the eventual fulfillment of Yehuda Amichai's dream: that one day Israeli literature will be discussed as one of the sister literatures of the Eastern Mediterranean.)
John Seed -- Pictures from Mayhew (2 volumes) and New and Collected Poems -- is a rare poet (his day job as a historian feeds in), and one who has been influenced by European documentary cinema as well as the documentary poetry tradition associated with another of my heroes, Charles Reznikoff. Seed, well named, survives and flourishes in the fertile non mainstream small press territory.
J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Wandering Star was a beguiling find for me. It reminded me that the conditions for the performance of a “modernist” novel to be meaningful needn’t always be formal, (ie, based on structure and linguistics) if the novel draws from a personal place. There is a real “I” feeling in Le Clezio’s Wandering Star, a story which begins by simply telling of a young girl’s coming into herself and awareness during the time the German SS occupied France in the 1940’s. The ingenuous “I” is helpless and passive, operating without the learned, “mature” ability to analyze and compose “interpretations” and that makes the fictional reality take on the soft but surreal tones of a fable. Child-like, a story without melodrama, (though there is plenty of drama here -- the historical violence in Le Clezio’s canvas is overwhelming) this novel is still all about that little girl who notices things like pianos being confiscated by strangers, unknown people disappearing beyond the mountain tops without reasons. The novel is not about the doomed Jews escaping slaughter as much as it is about the child trying to exist and form a comprehension of what is going on around her. I think it’s really a belief in the validity of a subjective, substantiative “I”, that makes this so moving. There’s so little artifice, the authenticity of feeling is breath-taking. It’s all about the sensitivities and shocks experienced by one lone consciousness as she attempts to form a strong enough identity so she won’t drown and perish in the outside tragedies of the more savage world. In this case, the author is using a third person narration, telling the story from a character’s point of view. There is so much to write about from Le Clezio -- it’s hard to say it all here. But this was a really important book for me to find. I’ll be reading it again and again, and want to read more of his work.
Of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of The Star I can hardly say anything as perfect as this little poem another writer wrote about Lipsector's work:
came from a mystery.
And left for another.
We remain in ignorance
of the essence of the mystery.
Or the mystery was not essential,
it was Clarice traveling in it.
Lispector narrates always from within and, as Giovanni Pontiero points out in his superb afterword to The Hour of the Star: "Salvation," for a Lipsector character "ultimately comes in the form of self-discovery and authentic self-expression... Who am I? unwittingly echoes the major preoccupations of the every mortal... Lipsector has always known that ‘Death is an encounter with self’... A brief ecstatic moment of transition as corporeal form is miraculously transformed into vigorous air."
Maybe it was the constant tv broadcasts of our current US elections, all that show-business and foot-stomping ruckus which made these two writers all the more meaningful to me. I was happy about the turn-out of the elections, though, (of course!) but I was even happier to discover Clarice Lipsector’s work while sitting with my husband in a remote hotel room in Panama City this August, thinking about Brazil and Macabea, (the main character of The Hour of the Star).
When I read Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe back in January I thought it overplayed what is essentially a big metaphor for endless deferral (itself, of course, a big analogy about life!) -- in that regard, it reminded my of Henry James' The Beast in the Jungle -- but it has stayed powerfully with me.
I read Golding's The Spire on holiday in Greece. It was the best novel I read all year, although I thought that Khirbet Khizeh was tremendous.
I was thoroughly impressed by Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas and am looking forward, like everyone it seems, to 2666.
Miss Herbert by Adam Thirlwell was frustrating and uneven and often wrongheaded but, equally, it was a fascinating journey of the "left-field" novel from Sterne to Gombrowicz. Some of it reads like a pastiche of Milan Kundera, but there are enough interesting asides to make the whole piece worthy of any bibliophile's attention. Sharon Cameron, Idris Parry and Paul West are the literary critics I enjoyed most this year -- particularly Parry.
Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker is a hugely important alternative look at WWII. Some critics misread this vital book as if other histories of the War didn't exist, as if we didn't all know the context of -- and excuses for -- the slaughter. Baker's book isn't the last word on the war, nor does it pretend to be. It is, however, an essential aid in looking again at a war which was as brutal and inexcusable as any.
Ed Park's Personal Days is a beguiling and completely unexpected combination of Walser's aggressive modesty and Raymond Roussel's poetic stratagems. I can't think of a first novel that I liked more this year.
Evan Dara's The Easy Chain is the novel I'm most looking forward to re-reading this year. Dara's first book, The Lost Scrapbook is one of the few American novels of the 1990s that I find myself returning to again and again, and his utterly distinctive voice is on show again here. More people need to read his work.
Helen DeWitt published her second novel, Your Name Here, on the internet as a PDF. It's not a perfect book but that's because it's so emphatically of the moment: DeWitt has captured the way we read online now, a gloriously distracted mish-mash of narrative, email, and identities. The language of DeWitt's book feels natural when read on a screen of my MacBook: though it's well over 500 pages long, I never felt the temptation to print it out.
I spend a lot of time this year reading the poetry of Susan Howe; Eliot Weinberger pointed out Souls of the Labadie Tract last year in this space, but it's worth pointing out again, as is the CD by the same name that she released with David Grubbs. There's a great deal of Howe's work online in PennSound's audio archive of American poetry, which, like ubu.com, is turning into a stupendous resource. Another rediscovery in the world of poetry comes from Penguin Classics, of all places - they've published Doveglion, the collected poems of José Garcia Villa, a Filipino American high modernist who seems to have fallen out of the canon at some point.
I found Kenneth Laine Ketner's His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce thanks to a mention at Waggish's consistently interesting blog. Ketner's book is an attempt to create a biography of the supremely idiosyncratic pragmatist (or, as he would prefer, pragmaticist) philosopher; to do so, Ketner invents a number of fictional characters, one of whom looks exactly like the late Walker Percy, and sets them to the task of digging up the facts about Peirce's life & work, which isn't nearly as known as it should be. This book only covers the first third of Peirce's life; some enterprising publisher should find a way to publish the remaining two volumes.
J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year probably doesn't need to be recommended here; but I was taken with how Coetzee managed to use formally innovative typographic devices so unobtrusively. It's also astonishing how many reviewers managed to fall into the traps Coetzee sets, even more so after Coetzee has been productively ploughing this field for his past few novels.
I found a beautiful old copy of Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Roget's old translation of The Journals of Jules Renard early in the year; Tin House fortuitously republished it later in the year. Renard's book overflows with ideas: like The Man without Qualities, you can open it to any page and find an idea to run with.
Francis Alÿs, Fabiola: An Investigation: Francis Alÿs has been buying amateur reproductions of Jean-Jacques Henner's painting of Saint Fabiola, now lost, for years at flea markets; 300 of them, almost all the profile of a serene woman in a red hood, were displayed together at the Hispanic Society in New York earlier this year. The catalogue of the show is a fascinating investigation of devotion, copying, and the act of creation. There's a mirror to be found in Bill Drummond's 17: the one-time member of the KLF explores his dissatisfaction with recorded music through setting up choirs of amateurs.
W. M. Spackman's Collected Fiction from Dalkey had been languishing on my shelf for a long time, in large part because the cover is prodigiously ugly and the book is so big; the subject matter, love among well-heeled Princeton graduates in New York also threw me off. Spackman's novels, however, are sprightly and astonishingly beautifully written. There's shamefully little discussion of his work online.
One of the books that left the most lasting impression this year was Kenneth Gangemi's The Volcanoes from Puebla, a work of travel writing from 1990, which I discovered thanks to Wyatt Mason's blog at Harper's. Mason sings the praises of Gangemi's fiction, but I think this is the best of Gangemi's thin catalogue, a record of moments of sensation as pure as any I can think of, alphabetized to remove the tendency to narrative, which always drags down travel writing for me. Dipping into Gangemi's book is somewhat akin to browsing Luca Turin & Tanya Sanchez's encyclopedic Perfumes: The Guide - both make perfect bedtime books.
I made my way with pleasure through the four volumes of Paul West's Sheer Fiction, his collected book reviews and essays; that such essays were once published in the New York Times Book Review thoroughly embarrasses the present. The Shadow Factory, his memoir of aphasia, is on the list of books published this year that I haven't read yet.
In May this year my wife and I visited a German friend who, on retirement as a country doctor in Austria, has now moved to Trieste. Our copy of Claudio Magris’ essays, Microcosms (translated Iain Halliday) was read and discussed intently, and in fact the whole week was enacted as a homage to Magris and that troubled city. With my friend and his Italian companion we planned the week’s itinerary in the Café San Marco, and spent several afternoons photographing in the public gardens close by, as well as visiting the newly (guiltily?) refurbished synagogue just behind the San Marco. It is a city that contains the magical Adriatic castle, The Miramar, as well as the remains of the barbaric concentration camp, the Risiera di San Sabba. To me there is no finer essayist than Magris, nor indeed a more clear-eyed humanist. Microcosms is an exemplary model of how to write the history of a city.
Like many European humanists he has a great affection for parks and public gardens, shared with Rilke (who wrote The Duino Elegies just up the road) and the neglected Austrian essayist Hermann Grab, author of The Town Park and other stories (translated Quentin Hoare). Which in turn put me in mind of another fine collection of essays by English music critic and lover of municipal parks, Paul Driver's Manchester Pieces.
I tend to read thematically rather than au courant, though during the year I picked up and couldn’t put down Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (translated Reg Keeland).