John Pistelli

writer

My Year in Books, 2018

Looking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet:

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

I was also glad to revisit The Crying of Lot 49, Watchmen, and White Noise (all the action in that review is in the footnotes, an old academic trick), to update my sense of Ernest Hemingway and, especially, Gore Vidal.

In my most sustained act of re-reading, a project started in the summer of 2017, I re-immersed myself in the work of Grant Morrison, a comic-book writer I’ve been struggling with since my age was in the single digits, since I was puzzling over the grim psychosexual psychedelia of Arkham Asylum as the cheaply-bound hardcover came apart in my hands in the year 1989. Is he a genius trickster-author, a postmodern prophet, or just a charlatan with an ear for invigorating ad copy? The answer varies from project to project, I think, but the question gets at the true purpose of re-reading, which can feel like such a waste of time when there are so many unread books in the universe: we reread to measure the changes we’ve undergone.

The cliché is that a book changes each time you read it; but, honestly, the book doesn’t change (though it may fall apart). The drama of rereading is rather your encounter with your old self over the selfsame object. Cold pastoral!

I did read a number of books for the first time too, though. It’s hard to discern much of a theme in that haphazard quest for novelty. Much of my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, Hemingway, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. Even Margaret Atwood—a Canadian novelist, no doubt, but her Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally got around to reading, is in its way an American novel.

As for American nonfiction, I was bemused by or dissatisfied with everyone from Tom Wolfe to Richard Rorty to Maggie Nelson, but Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues came like a shower to our drought-dessicated culture:

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

Likewise, I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still admire Susan Sontag enormously, less for any one text she wrote than for the shape of her mind and life:

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion.

These critics bring me out of American literature to the world of criticism and culture at large. I essayed on an unlikely pair of world essayists: Samuel Johnson

Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.

—and Theodor Adorno

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come…

Speaking of Marxist critics, I explained what was wrong with Terry Eagleton, just as earlier in the year I took Adrienne Rich’s landmark collection of polemical poetry, Diving into the Wreck, as an opportunity to explain where and why I differ from the radicals promoted by academe and official activism:

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

Which doesn’t let liberalism off the hook, as I explain in my review of Frances Stonor Saunders’s amusing, frightening The Cultural Cold War, nor does it absolve the far right of their ideological depredations, for which see my summer post on QAnon and the literary imagination.

I offer an alternative to these reductive politics that insists instead on the irreducible complexity of great art, an inviolable density of thought and feeling upon which I suggest we model our selves and societies. This is why I wrote both “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” in January—

Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.

—and “In Praise of Semicolons” in December—

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

Not to mention a comparison of Joyce to Woolf in June.

Speaking of irreducible complexity, then, I went head-to-head with a few monuments this year. Anyone who thinks there is anything like a settled “dead white male canon” that promotes some kind of conservative values should disabuse themselves by taking a look at Goethe’s Faust, especially Part Two:

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

The best novel I read this year was almost certainly Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Whatever controversies may exist over what Bellow became in his later years, this life-riot and word-riot of a bildungsroman will make you forget them:

Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book.

Let me also put in a word for another Jewish-American novel of the 1950s, one with aesthetic priorities at the opposite pole from Augie‘s: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s bleak, moving moral drama, a novel that deserves to be far more widely read than it is.

Speaking of moral and midcentury fiction, I finally read Iris Murdoch this year with The Bell. I was impressed and disturbed in equal measure by her theory and practice of fiction, but what a pleasure to encounter such a formidable philosophical intelligence among novelists, which is perhaps where a philosophical intelligence belongs. I suspect I will be struggling with her thought, even as I am entertained by her dazzling plots, for the rest of my reading life. Coming toward the present, I made the uneasy acquaintance of Gerald Murnane and, by contrast, easily delighted in Anna Burns’s Milkman, a contemporary novel so superb in every way that my cynical heart still can’t believe they gave it the Booker or that it made the American bestseller list.

I began with rereading, so I’ll conclude with some new discoveries. Aside from Burns, Murdoch, and Albert Murray, not to speak of Jens Peter Jacobsen or Anna Kavan, my best finds came in the field of world comics.

I didn’t have time to write about Joann Sfar and The Rabbi’s Cat, but if you think as I do that comics should be as intellectually weighty as prose fiction, as dense with disquisition and as wise with fable, then you might like it. Not for nothing did I discuss Sfar in the company of Malamud. Sfar’s fellow practitioners of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, also delighted me with four volumes of their surreal and beautiful Les Cités obscures series. From Latin America comes José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s vicious but heartfelt classic Marxist noir, Alack Sinner, which I recommend in case you feel any stirrings toward the banal blandishments of “hopepunk.” I also read some manga classics. Moto Hagio’s pioneering boys’ love masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas, allowed me to address our current heated bafflement over sexual ethics, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk saga Akira gave me a chance to dilate upon the 1980s as our culture’s lost golden age, both in and out of comics.

Finally, I will put in a word for a new book by an author as old to me as is his occult nemesis Grant Morrison. A little over a week ago, I finished Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel, the Lovecraftian Providence, and while I have so many criticisms of it that I don’t know where to start (nobody picks up a comic book wanting to read that much prose! two scenes of gruesome sexual violence are at least one, maybe two, too many!), I also have not been able to shake its nightmare haze, its disquieting ambiguity over the very nature and purpose of art. Just what is it that we bring into being with these readerly and writerly imaginations of ours? I look forward already to rereading it in a decade or two, to see what I and its author used to think, who we once were.

springbooks

The picture that accompanied my back-to-school post in January

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

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