The Year in Books, 2013

I began 2013 with Virginia Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, a valedictory Shakespearean romance and Joycean parody about the bittersweet passing of pre-modern England written on the eve of World War II; against the forces of destruction, Woolf pits not only her renowned lyricism and psychological acuity but also her wit and aesthetic inventiveness in a series of pastiches that affectionately parody English literary history.  The resulting novel is a kind of anthology of Woolf’s talents, as if To the Lighthouse had been crossed with Orlando—a worthy culmination of a great writing life. 

Around the same time, I acquainted myself with Andrei Platonov through his wonderfully strange Happy Moscow (see my extended discussion here) and also read Laird Hunt’s marvelous Indiana, Indiana, a magic realist self-elegy in delirious fragments, a becalmed Faulknerian mosaic.  I read too Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, which contains “The Glass Essay,” one of the twentieth century’s great poems (if I, as a poetic amateur, may say so).  For Rain Taxi, I reviewed Blake Butler’s Sky Saw, an avant-garde novel I found largely rebarbative at the time and now find mostly unmemorable; I gave Italian Goth wunderkind Viola di Grado’s 70% Acrylic 30% Wool a chance, but it struck me as formless and overly long, though the narrator’s acerbic adolescent voice was winning if unoriginal. 

I returned to the nineteenth century for Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, an eloquent, essayistic novel less than the sum of its parts (and an obviously fun grab-bag for the cultural historian), but with some awfully good parts, from Maule’s curse to a discourse on modernity precipitated by a ride in a train, a technology then as new and controversial as the Internet.  I read Maria NDiaye’s intense triptych, Three Strong Women, and Marcus Pactor’s inventive collection, Vs. Death Noises (see review here). 

March brought me to Saul Bellow’s Herzog: a major novel, an enviable novel, with page after page of energetically precise prose and intelligent observation, its world so well observed that the hero’s memories may become one’s own, a masterpiece of detail and rhythm that lifts the novel above its own inevitably dated politics.  Then I came to a work that better accords with our own contemporary political mores—and in a ways that will seem just as dated as Bellow’s in 50 years: Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a verse novel whose parodistically learned preface associates its own ambitions with the period after “the difficult interval” between Homer and Gertrude Stein—by which I understand Carson to be referring, in deconstructive fashion, to the interregnum in western history of “the metaphysics of presence.”  And yet the verse novel is at its best in its characterizations, when Geryon talks to his mother or his lover; it’s as if invoking “the novel” at all had led Carson into an ideological trap so that she ends up sounding more like Bellow than Stein. 

After Carson I read and reviewed Mikita Brottman’s excellect Thirteen Girls (see here) and essayed upon Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus (see here).  Inspired by Michael Clune, I read my first Thomas Bernhard, the wounding, haunting, and ultimately cheering Woodcutters, a ferocious monologue about all the missed alliances between art and life.  Coetzee brought me to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, another piercing monologue, a book I found all too relevant to the present (see here). 

Another dissident from nineteenth century meliorism is Baudelaire; I read his Fleurs du Mal in the English translation of George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay with an eye on the French; Dillon and Millay don’t get every word right, but their old-fashioned commitment to rhyme and meter, to mimicking above all the savage swiftness and musicality of Baudelaire’s verse, lead me to prefer them to other translators I consulted.  George du Maurier’s fin-de-siècle bestseller Trilby proved to be trash, as much of a chore to read as our own pop fiction will no doubt be a century hence; though, like Hawthorne, du Maurier lays out a spread for those writing theses in cultural studies—Trilby has art, Paris, mesmerism, foot fetishism, anti-Semitism, theater, masculinity, homosociality, Irishness, and more.  Maybe with a pinch of Foucault, a dash of Sedgwick, and a garnish of Bourdieu, du Maurier’s novel would be almost palatable, but I doubt it. 

I followed Trilby with a novel very much of our own moment, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a clever and moving (though maybe also sentimental) construction about music, memory, technology, and commerce, and then I took up Shirley Jackson’s final novel, the beautifully bizarre We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a modernist Gothic aptly described in its introduction by Jonathan Lethem (who also counterintuitively and usefully compares Jackson to Beckett) as “a frieze disturbed.”  George Saunder’s beloved Tenth of December came next, a collection of stories that seemed contrived and mawkish to me (see here), though I am decidedly in the minority on that judgment. 

I went back to the turn-of-the-century period for Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, an eventually devastating realist tragedy (masquerading as a comedy of manners) about the dissolution of ornamental femininity in the icy waters of capitalism.  Next I read Rikki Ducornet’s lyrical-philosophical novel Gazelle, which moved me to write a digressive essay (see here), followed by Flannery O’Connor’s second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away, a mordant and airless narrative about three generations of men struggling against a prophetic faith that strikes them like a curse.  A complete change in tone was called for, so I moved on to José Saramago’s wistful All the Names, a novel that quietly celebrates bureaucracy and alienation as it attempts to reconcile us to the tender pleasures of our limitations. 

(I suppose somewhere in here I should mention 2013’s great reading failure: Infinite Jest.  I worked on it for a while in March and for much of June and July, but remain as of this writing stopped at page 500.  I will have no final judgment, of course, until I finish; for now, I continue to think of it as three novels–one brilliantly inventive [Hal Incandenza], one brutally moving if worryingly voyeuristic [Don Gately], and one puerile and ridiculous and a waste of my time [ONAN, etc.]–in one.  I hope to finish eventually and make a final report.)

Much has been written about Don DeLillo’s White Noise—about its relationship to technology, postmodernism, consumerism, etc.—but why isn’t it better known as one of the funniest novels in American literature?  I literally LOLed as I read it.  After DeLillo, I returned to the weird world of Anne Carson for Red Doc>, a book even more fragmentary that its precursor and one that leads me to fear that Carson may, Gaiman-like, lapse into self-congratulating self-parody—but what fragments! and what a self!  Also Gaiman-like—and I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment—was Sjón’s fable, The Blue Fox, which was pleasant enough if not very impressive or memorable.

Much better was J. G. Ballard’s beautiful apocalypse The Drowned World, a romance of regression in deliciously rotten Decadent prose; it’s as if Wilde and Wells had written a novel together.  I belatedly read Kafka’s The Trial next, struck by how the text differed from its reputation; as far as I could tell, the novel less a prophecy of totalitarianism than a psychological allegory about the necessity and inevitability of conscience.  Kafka’s hallucinatory bureaucrats, like their successors in Saramago’s registry, imperfectly fill a needed office in a modern world otherwise too occupied to take account of itself.  Calvino’s Invisible Cities offers an imaginary encyclopedia of possible ways to live, while Flaubert in Three Tales also explores lives very distant from his own.  “A Simple Heart” and “Herodias” seem to steal all the critical attention in discussions of Flaubert’s short fiction, the former for its loving but uncompromising realism and the latter for its phantasmagoric Decadence, but I found “The Legend of St. Julien the Hospitaller,” a faux-hagiography ultimately gentle and almost Tolstoyan in its straight-faced medievalism, to be the neglected star of Three Tales.   Continuing on the theme of short fiction, I also took some time over Eudora Welty’s first collection, A Curtain of Green, tales so poetically compressed and precise and rich in startling images that I was moved to compile a little anthology (see here).

I remained in France and returned to Marie NDiaye to read her excellent collection All My Friends, of which I wrote a lengthy review that appears in the current print edition of Rain Taxi.  Then I turned to poetry to read Eliot’s Four Quartets, an attempt to maintain a religious vision at the nadir of the twentieth century, a moving quest for the Dantean vision in which the fire and the rose are one.  From modernist poetry to popular fiction: I next read in succession Marisha Pessl’s hugely entertaining but aesthetically problematic novels Night Film and Special Topics in Calamity Physics for a long review of the former, which is forthcoming any day now. 

At the end of summer, I took up Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, an accomplished and disturbing novel about love, literature, and religion that probably hits too close to (my) home for me to say anything useful about it, except to note its brilliance of design and economy of execution, neither of which prevented me from wanting to fling it across the room a time or two. 

Upon hearing of Seamus Heaney’s death, I decided to get more serious about reading him as something other than a set of anthology pieces, so I turned to his collection North, which features those famous bog poems in which poetry is seen to emerge from the loamy mess of fossilized violence in the earth, and his Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry, which offers a more reassuring vision of poetry as Platonic order and Wordsworthian sensibility.  More Gothicized collective memory and historical trauma in the twentieth century followed as I read Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, a novel written at such sustained intensity that you fail to realize until the end that you still don’t really know what happened, only what a lot of interested parties in various states of frenzy believe to have happened, in the case of Thomas Sutpen and his family. 

Then I read/re-read Dante’s Inferno in the terza rima translation of Dorothy L. Sayers.  It’s common to disparage Sayers for her sometimes strained insistence on rhyme and (at least accentual) meter, as well as for her orthodox Christian interpretations of the poem.  But I found that her verse gave the poem the paradoxical quick gravity of a bold classic, such as it is supposed to have in the Italian; I prefer this English classicism to prosy free verse translations that make Dante sound like John Ashbery gone to Hell.  As for her religion, I welcomed Sayers’s attempts to provide an “insider” perspective on the poem’s theological arcana, no matter how offensive to contemporary views.  I don’t want a translator to condescend to me by self-righteously denouncing the metaphysical propositions and social attitudes of a medieval author.  I look forward to reading Sayers’s Purgatorio in 2014. 

From a medieval to a modern hell: I decided to evaluate the claims made on behalf of J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence.  I wasn’t as wowed by it as a lot of other people were (see, for instance, Kathryn Schulz’s exciting review)—it felt like a fairly close imitation of Michael Ondaatje, and a novel that insisted on its themes rather than letting them emerge.  But Ledgard is undoubtedly intelligent, and Submergence offered some provocative observations on modernity’s embeddedness in a natural context that it may well destroy. 

Still thinking about Faulkner, I turned to one of his most notable contemporary legatees to read Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, a brilliantly constructed novel with prose so energetically empathetic and satirical and lyrical—“firing on all cylinders” is the automotive cliché—that I could feel Morrison’s masterful excitement in writing it; though I note that if it had been written by a man, it would almost certainly, with its rapist hero and vain heroine and bad-mother villain, be considered a late example of midcentury misogyny.  Intrigued by John Irving’s argument for a likeness between Morrison and Thomas Hardy, as well as critical comparisons between Absalom, Absalom! and Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, I then read the latter; written as a weekly serial, the novel was, for me at least, claustrophobically over-plotted and tiresomely coincidence-laden, though valuable for its insights into the passing of the old agricultural order and the values embodied in its protagonists and still more for its brooding tone and visions of death. 

From the Faulkner-Morrison-Hardy nexus, I went back to the Continent for more Bernhard—this time, it was Concrete, a comic novel about an obsessive, resentful, ill composer that has an unexpectedly powerful conclusion as he faces chaos, squalor, and death in a more, well, concrete form than his mundane neuroses had led him to expect from life.  Susan Sontag’s Rolling Stone interview amused me with its onrushing intelligence, while Critchley and Webster’s Hamlet Doctrine was, to my mind, an absurd mess. 

Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is the testimony of a brilliant, deranged male intellectual, one in a long line from Hamlet to Baudelaire to Bernhard, who passes through a period of starved mania and impoverishment in Christiana; it’s one of those prophetic books that defines the themes of the next century, and encouraging in that Hamsun came from an obscurity very like his hero’s to write it (he even did some time as a laborer in the frigid city in which I now type).  Inspired by James Longenbach’s essay in The Nation, I discovered D. H. Lawrence’s poetry with his stunning collection, Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, the flinty but ecstatic lyrics of a Whitman without hope, a Hopkins without God, a Baudelaire without voluptuousness; nothing could be more alien to our sensibilities than Lawrence’s worldview, but his poems are too visionary and too forcefully expressed, to ignore.   I next read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, both of which I treated at length on my blog (see here and here). 

Wanting to refresh my sense of twentieth-century literary theory, I made my way though Habermas’s dense but lucid (and very polemical) Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.  Many of Habermas’s specifically political criticisms seem right to me—his explanations of what’s wrong with Marx and Foucault in particular—but his own proposed solutions to the problems of modernity strike me as wishful, and it’s unclear that his communicative ethics could have much of anything to say to the novelist or poet (this is a provincial concern, I suppose, but it is my concern). 

I finished the year with some Shakespeare—the bizarre and unsatisfying All’s Well That Ends Well—and some Henry James—his brilliant stories of the literary life’s paradoxes collected in The Figure in the Carpet and Other Stories, as well as Michael Gorra’s beautiful Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a crypto-biography of James structured around a reading of Portrait of a Lady and a book that should be considered a model of humanist and biographical criticism. 

The last book I read in 2013 was Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; on the appropriateness at this time of reading a novel that counsels a meditative calm in the face of a disordered society and its answering nihilisms, I will forego commentary.  See you next year!