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Saturday 22 December 2007

My Books of the Year

My favourite novel this year was Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt. It has a unique voice; Belben is a strikingly original writer. As soon I began reading I thought, "this is the real thing." And, with regard to modern novels, the "real thing" seems very thin on the ground these days.

The only other fiction I really rated (Vila-Matas, such a favourite with contributors to the Books of the Year symposium, has yet to be read!) was Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares and Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero also deserves mention: with a singular style, which admittedly sometimes masks a lack of substance, he tells a haunting story of a policeman investigating some dreadful murders in post-war Japan. Or perhaps we are simply hearing the ravings of a mad man?

Charlotte Mandell's translation of A Voice From Elsewhere was a treat. We'd seen some of these essays before but a second translation as limpid as these was certainly to be welcomed.

The thesis of Peter Brooks' Henry James Goes To Paris was countered by some critics, but I was convinced. James went to Paris in the mid-1870s, moved amongst the Modernists but didn't, at the time, quite understand just exactly what it was that they were trying to do. Nonetheless he knew what he had seen and read and heard was vitally important. Slowly, it -- early Modernism and its new techniques, its new ways of looking at the world -- worked its way into his writing and the novel would never be quite the same again.

The Emergence of Memory edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz brought together some thoughful essays on Sebald and some illuminating interviews with the man. I consumed it in one or two sittings reminded again of what a loss to literature his untimely death was.

Ironically, my fear for How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is that people won't actually read the damn thing! They'll assume from the title that this is a bluffer's guide to getting away with it at dinner parties. But Pierre Bayard's psychoanalytically-inspired book is both funny and very insightful. The author does two things: he subverts the supposed presence of reading by reminding us how much we forget and misremember; and he reminds us that the small island of books we have read will always be surrounded by a great wide ocean of unread titles. This non-reading, this absence, structures our reading and needs our awareness and investigation. His tongue is often in his cheek, but don't let his comedy blind you to what an important and useful essay this is.

Currently, I'm reading Tim Parks' The Fighter. When you read Josipovici's literary essays you learn how to think differently, how to read differently, as you walk with him through the texts he is discusssing. Not so with Parks: his insights are more mundane, his synopses over long, his range narrower, but he is a passionate and clever critic nonetheless and I'm thoroughly enjoying what he has to say about Beckett, Bernhard, Cioran and Dostoyevesky et al.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Reader Comments

Thursday 27 December 2007

Indran Amirthanayagam says...

I write a blog focused on poetry and am based in Vancouver, Canada. I wonder what you recommend from the New Zealand poets this year?

Saturday 29 December 2007

Chrissy says...

I received the best book gift of all time! Fables From The Mudd by Erik Quisling.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read this book and was really surprised by the content. It has very few words but will have you laughing out loud as you read it with his side-splittingly funny content. Every page in the book has a basic hand-drawn picture with mostly a line or two of words. I read the book pretty quick but kept returning to re-read some of the crazy antics.

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Books of the Week

Montano's Malady Montano's Malady
Enrique Vila-Matas
New Directions

The narrator of Montano's Malady is a writer named Jose who is so obsessed with literature that he finds it impossible to distinguish between real life and fictional reality. Part picaresque novel, part intimate diary, part memoir and philosophical musings, Enrique Vila-Matas has created a labyrinth in which writers as various as Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Bolano, Coetzee, and Sebald cross endlessly surprising paths. Trying to piece together his life of loss and pain, Jose leads the reader on an unsettling journey from European cities such as Nantes, Barcelona, Lisbon, Prague and Budapest to the Azores and the Chilean port of Valparaiso. Exquisitely witty and erudite, it confirms the opinion of Bernardo Axtaga that Vila-Matas is "the most important living Spanish writer.

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Castorp Castorp
Pawel Huelle
Serpent's Tail

Picking up on a throwaway line in The Magic Mountain, Castorp tells the story of Hans Castorp’s student years in Gdansk, long before the adventures in Davos described in Thomas Mann’s novel. Pawel Huelle skilfully creates a credible scenario for this influential period in Hans Castorp’s development, imagining what happened when the rational German student was exposed to the Slavonic eastern edge of the Prussian empire. He comes across people, events and ideas that anticipate some of the encounters he will experience in years to come, including an enigmatic Polish woman who becomes his obsession. Set at the dawn of the twentieth century, Castorp faithfully recreates the atmosphere of central Europe as the storm began that would lead to two world wars. Beautifully written, full of humour, mystery and eccentricity, this is a moving tribute to a masterpiece of European literature.

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Heidegger's Hut Heidegger's Hut
Adam Sharr
The MIT Press

Beginning in the summer of 1922, philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) occupied a small, three-room cabin in the Black Forest Mountains of southern Germany. He called it "die Hütte" ("the hut"). Over the years, Heidegger worked on many of his most famous writings in this cabin, from his early lectures to his last enigmatic texts. He claimed an intellectual and emotional intimacy with the building and its surroundings, and even suggested that the landscape expressed itself through him, almost without agency. Heidegger's mountain hut has been an object of fascination for many, including architects interested in his writings about "dwelling" and "place." Sharr's account -- the first substantive investigation of the building and Heidegger's life there -- reminds us that, in approaching Heidegger's writings, it is important to consider the circumstances in which the philosopher, as he himself said, felt "transported" into the work's "own rhythm." Indeed, Heidegger's apparent abdication of agency and tendency toward romanticism seem especially significant in light of his troubling involvement with the Nazi regime in the early 1930s. Sharr draws on original research, including interviews with Heidegger's relatives, as well as on written accounts of the hut by Heidegger and his visitors. The book's evocative photographs include scenic and architectural views taken by the author and many remarkable images of a septuagenarian Heidegger in the hut taken by the photojournalist Digne Meller-Markovicz.

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Poem of the Week

Sonnet (on the Death of Mr Richard West)

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire:
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require.
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men:
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain.
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain.

-- Thomas Gray
Selected Poems (Bloomsbury)

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Word of the Day


An adult whose activities and interests are typically associated with youth culture. more …

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January's Books of the Month

Walter Benjamin's Archive Walter Benjamin's Archive
Walter Benjamin
Reading Joyce Reading Joyce
David Pierce

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