The Year in Books

“We are a culture of lists,” an old friend once said to me, in affectionate parody of Don DeLillo’s oracular-sociologist mode, and never more than at year’s end. This won’t be a list though, just a semi-chronological tour through my year in books.

The beginning of the year found me reading Sister Carrie. Last Christmas, I bought it at a train station, of all places, and then got hooked while on the train (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know why this is funny). As a veteran of many, many, far-too-many grad school debates about realism vs. modernism (sometimes these took place in my mind; what can I say, Lukacs was my Heidegger), I approached Dreiser grudgingly but then was stunned by the force of his narrative. The man can’t write a sentence, of course, and there is much truth in the old joke that his work reads like a great Russian novel badly translated. As no less a modernist than Woolf told us, however, the basic unit of the novel is not the sentence, but the chapter, by which she meant, I think, the rhythm, and damn if Dreiser doesn’t have rhythm.

Somewhere along the way I finally read Aristotle’s Poetics, even though I already knew what was in it, and then I read the only Ian McEwan novel I ever liked, Black Dogs—though I don’t like it all that much. Then there was Gillian Rose’s extraordinary memoir and deathbed philosophical testament, Love’s Work. I don’t really even believe in the memoir as a genre (they’re all really novels so why not just call them novels and be done with it?), but this is a book I would unreservedly recommend to anyone who thinks that to philosophize is to learn how to live and to die.

Teaching makes demands. In spring semester, I was responsible for a kind of introduction to the English major course, focused on literary theory, research, close reading, etc. Primary literary texts for this course started with Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s physically beautiful but rather uneven anthology of poetic forms, The Making of a Poem. The main pedagogical disadvantage of this book: no footnotes!  Also King Lear, Wuthering Heights, Dubliners, and Teju Cole’s Open City, all excellent books I wanted to re-read and to share with others, and perfect for the introduction of close reading, because each in its own way rewards it so richly.

I also had an independent study thing going with a student who wanted to read some modernist novels. This chiefly involved me in the splendid project of re-reading Ulysses cover-to-cover, the first time I’ve done so in a decade (though of course I’ve revisited many chapters and passages over the years).  The revelation on this year’s sojourn in Dublin was the famously difficult history-of-English-prose chapter, “Oxen of the Sun”: not only did I understand it this time, but I found it one of the most moving chapters in the whole book.  The modern man of compassion against but also as the literary canon.

My student and I also read The Sound and the Fury and Lolita, two more books I hadn’t re-read since my teenage years. The Sound and the Fury did not hold up as well as one would wish, in my estimation. Too much melodrama, too much glory borrowed from Joyce and Eliot, too much muddled politics (de haut en bas portrayal of the black characters smugly coupled with the overdone silent-film villainy-bigotry of Jason, not to mention—how few are my opportunities to feel ethnically aggrieved!—the menacing eyetalians with their risible whattayou-do-weetha-my-seester dialogue). But some nice moments, some indelible imagery, and, above all, some nice sentences. 

Lolita holds up a lot better (V. N. would no doubt agree). I even think I understood it on this go: it’s a twentieth-century post-Aestheticist re-statement of Plato’s Phaedrus. That is, it’s about how the lover, possessed by frenzy on beholding the divine in human form, should not dare trespass upon this form but—here’s the post-Aesthecist part—recreate its divine beauty in art and only in art. This is why the novel can itself be erotic while unambiguously condemning Humbert’s sexual behavior.

What else? I will have to skip some things. I entertained myself over spring break with David Mitchell’s Nabokovian historical romance The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I don’t know if it’s great art, but it does not fail to stir the imagination. The glory of a summer research seminar on Oscar Wilde was De Profundis, which I must confess I had never read before. It’s comparable, in fact, to Love’s Work: it is a novel, a letter, a memoir, a treatise—literature considered as, as Derrida once put it, the right to say everything. (I think Wilde’s best writing overall is in his “non-fiction”: both De Profundis and the essays and dialogues collected in Intentions.) A far less compelling memoir was Hitch-22, which I read in the spirit of airplanes and beach chairs. If you want a lot of unreliable gossip from a man with a broken moral compass, and I did, then this is for you. Also unsatisfying: Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Tragedy as word problem, passionless, all a whole lot better back when it was The Good Soldier.

And then there was The Brothers Karamazov. But you don’t need me to tell you that it’s indispensable, one of the best books ever written.

Also Philip Roth, for better (The Anatomy Lesson) and for worse (The Humbling): he is always with me on my journeys, ever since my dad told me to read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was about 12. And E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which I thought was sadly marred by Forster’s inability to write the gay romance he wanted to write and then by his taking his wholly understandable frustrations out on the heroine. But it has great moments, especially the more essayistic parts. Forster is more a moralist than an artist, I think, it’s possible that the best E. M. Forster novel is Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out.

Woolf, on the other hand, failed to quite persuade me this autumn with The Waves—her Finnegans Wake, i.e., too long a ramble away from where one could reach her. But perhaps a re-reading will convince me otherwise.  I finally made the acquaintance of Willa Cather with My Antonia, and found it so rich and immersive that I could not see how she did it given the unobtrusiveness of the prose. She’s an antidote to Faulkner’s sideshowmanry and should be introduced as such to the beginning writer. Two more Southerners: Kate Chopin, with The Awakening, a visionary Nietzschean confrontation with the primordial chaos, and Flannery O’Connor, with A Good Man is Hard to Find, a carefully-plotted race between degradation and salvation with the latter not always in the lead.

In memorial tribute to an adolescent hero of mine, Ray Bradbury, I read and was delighted by The Golden Apples of the Sun. Toni Morrison’s Home was unfortunately a disappointment, unwilling to confront the moral issues it raised (in short, the hero’s war-time atrocity is so grave and then is waved away so casually that the book became wholly unbelievable); luckily, I had read Jazz earlier in the year, a much better novel, constructed with such intelligent intricacy, befitting a Nobel laureate.  Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was likewise a master class in dialogue and suggestion and psychological penetration; it should be studied by all novelists. I recorded my thoughts on Malcolm Lowry’s mid-century masterpiece Under the Volcano here and recorded my thoughts on Vila-Matas’s sub-masterpiece Dublinesque in Rain Taxi.

Almost all the comics I read this year disappointed me in one way or another. I also read a fair bit of literary theory and criticism, but don’t necessarily think that it needs to be commemorated on the Internet. (As with memoirs, that genre is all fiction too, and the best of it admits that fact.) An exception, also read in memoriam: the late Robert Hughes’s superb, eloquent primer of modernist art, The Shock of the New.

The last month or so found me reading four brilliant contemporary novels: Milan Kundera’s Immortality (though, like Forster, Kundera is best when he’s essaying); Frederic Tuten’s Van Gogh’s Sad Cafe (written up here); Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star (exquisitely cool imagery, spellbindingly long sentences, a scary/sad memento of a lyrical nightmare in a strange city, like so many of my own); and Jose Saramago’s Blindness, every bit as forceful, orderly to end where I begun, as Sister Carrie, but its power borne along in waves by the peerless prose of a wise old master.