You know that if something begins with a leak in the living room ceiling and ends up as a book that serves as a mini-history of a major city, you have a very tenacious person behind the whole project. Kirsty Bell, a new owner of an apartment in a nineteenth century building in central Berlin that somehow survived World War II, became curious about its history, the previous owners, and the odd neighborhood, bounded by railway tracks and the Landwehr Canal. In The Undercurrents, Bell tells the story of the family that once owned and lived in the building and how they all fared during and after the war. While she does that, she widens her scope to explore the area surrounding her building, including the history of the canal and the railways. But that leads her even farther afield, and soon she’s giving the reader a mini-lesson in the city’s history. She places all of this within the context of Berlin’s intellectual and artistic history. Anyone who visits Berlin after reading her analysis of the sad history of post-war city planning will be better prepared to see the city with new eyes, especially a place like Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s highly touted destination showplace. Finally she gave me the best summary I’ve read yet of all that went wrong during “re-unification.” Every city should be so lucky as to have a book like this. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. (Other Press is the U.S. publisher, with a release date of September 6.)
Who knows what it’s like in real life, but in the crime worlds of cinema and literature, death is dirty and meaningless at the lower end of the food chain. It offers no drama, no sustenance. Push the bodies aside and move on. In The Lime Twig, John Hawkes explores the chaos, confusion, terror, the small-time treachery, the illusions of grandeur, and the outsized dreams of success that are the prelude to several cheap and terrible deaths. A motley gang of petty English crooks hatch a plot to steal a race horse and insert it in a rich race under a false name. It’s all just an excuse for lots of wild Hawkesian writing and carefree plotting, although this is somewhat more restrained than the earlier novels I have written about—The Cannibal (1949) and The Beetle Leg (1951). If Graham Greene had taken a pair of scissors to Brighton Rock, it would have turned out something like The Lime Twig (NY: New Directions, 1961). The Introduction by the late, great Leslie A. Fiedler feels like a Hawkes’ short story unto itself.
All things considered, 2021 was a very good reading year. What follows are the eighteen titles that I found outstanding or memorable in some way out of the eighty-plus books I managed to read in the past twelve Covid-clouded months: ten novels, seven non-fiction titles, and, just for fun, one work of detective fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2021, while the remainder range from 1925 through 2019. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2021, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book as I read it in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. So here’s my 2021 Favorite Books List, alphabetically by author.
Renata Adler. Speedboat. NY: New York Review Books, 2013. First published in 1976, Adler’s novel center’s around Jen Fain, a journalist and member of an unnamed New York City English faculty/ It’s the model for a whole genre of novels that consist of seemingly disconnected paragraphs or short sections, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights or just about anything by Maggie Nelson. It’s brilliant and funny and cutting and the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, even if it is difficult to say just what the book is about. But it’s clear that Adler nailed the 70s without ever leaving her novel feel dated. “There are only so many plots. . . Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.”
Carole Angier.Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. Angier was hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control: several key people would not speak to her and the Wylie Agency would not grant her permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. I, however, am terribly glad she persisted with this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Limited as it is, it’s still is a remarkable and welcome achievement, chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. For my much longer review, see here.
Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. NY: Random House, 2021. A Passage North is in the running for my book of the year. The plot is simple: Krishan, working for an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, takes a long train journey north to attend a funeral. But the book is a complex meditation on freedom, men and women, duty, the aftereffects of war, and so much more. Arudpragasam is a student of philosophy, a stunning writer, and a very observant human being. I was bowled over by his powerful first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta, 2016), which follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a desperate refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, and this is even stronger.
John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. There are times when I wondered if Banville ever met an adjective he didn’t like, but I really admire the power of his prose style in books like Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). Their long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that make me keep my dictionary by my side, are perfectly fitted to Banville’s quirky story that blends snobby art history and Dublin criminal underworld. So when Banville breaks stride and writes a simple declarative sentence, it stops you dead in your tracks and you realize you are in the hands of a master writer at the top of his game.
Michel Butor. Passing Time. Manchester: Pariah Press, 2021. First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps. Pariah Press has undertaken the wonderful job of republishing for the first time the 1960 English translation by Jean Stewart, which has long (and criminally) been out of print. Passing Time tells the story of Jacques Revel, a Frenchman who arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his new acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So, halfway through his year, he sets out to play detective and to see if his actions were in any way connected to that event. He tries to remember everything he can about his stay in Bleston and, to aid himself, he decides to document it all in writing, which becomes the book we are reading. The result is that time—past, present, and future—forms the three interwoven strands of the text we are reading. Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century. See my longer review here.
Laynie Browne, ed. A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on the Poet’s Novel. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. I couldn’t resist a book with this title, even though it was 580 pages long. It has fifty-some-odd essays, each discussing a single author and usually a single book. What is a poet’s novel? Well, too many of the essayists tried to answer that question to let the reader come to any clear conclusion. But here’s how the book’s editor tried to answer that question: “The texts represented in this book are the result of writers who are not content to reside in the known, who in the face of limitations of one form will create another. The leap from one textual behavior to another suggests an emphasis on process, and an impulse against completion in favor of detour, fracture, digression, displacement and discontinuity.” In other words, it’s a bit like trying to nail ice cream to the wall. A few too many of the essays are too hyper-academic for my taste, but the great joy of reading A Forest on Many Stems is that it led me to look into novels I had never heard about or considered reading before. There are essays on writers as disparate as Lewis Carroll. H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Mina Loy, Michael Ondaatje, Fernando Pessoa, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Phillip Whalen. Dan Beachy-Quick writes about W.G. Sebald’s book The Ring of Saturn. He suggests that “one marker of a poet’s novel is a willingness to trust distraction, to follow digression.” So true.
Edmund de Waal. Letters to Camondo. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. The British ceramicist and memoir-writer Edmund de Waal writes some fifty-eight “letters” to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), who had been a friend and neighbor of his relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), who featured prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes. During World War II, Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children, all Jews, were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished. In this beautiful and haunting book, we learn a fair amount about Camondo and about the French decorative arts, which he collected passionately. But we also learn about the French antisemitism which affected the lives and deaths of the Camondo family. Today, the Camondo mansion in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In the first of Percival Everett’s two novels on this list, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and a novelist accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” He’s initially scornful, when he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto. But eventually, under personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black argot under a pseudonym and strikes it rich. The dialectic between his academic desire to remain a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or to be an economically independent black entrepreneur who caters to popular demands, becomes a fascinating tug of war in Everett’s hands.
Percival Everett. The Trees. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021. I binge-read Everett’s satirical novel about lynching and Emmett Till and two weeks later I could barely remember many of the plot details. That’s the risk Everett takes in this farcical, biting book. The gruesome murders of white folks, accompanied by the bodies of seemingly lynched Black corpses, are offset by Everett’s almost breezy narrative, with its Keystone Kops, stereotypical hillbilly rednecks, and characters with names right out of Thomas Pyncheon—delicious names like Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Junior Junior, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetical Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. But the book is deadly serious and, like America itself, we have to ignore a world of distractions if we’re going to be able to see Mama Z’s filing cabinets, where there is a record of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913.” Powerful. Read it twice. See my review here.
Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An exceptional book about some of the writers who ignored Theodor Adorno’s infamous maxim that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” although in this case Franklin focuses on novelists. A terrific writer and a judicious thinker, she studies six “witnesses” (writers who have written novels about their own Holocaust experiences), four “who came after” (writers who didn’t experience the Holocaust first hand but still wrote about it, including W.G. Sebald), and a couple of second- and third-generation writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.). One of her main achievements is to try to untangle the various ethical conundrums that hover about these books, deserved or not.
Dan Gretton. I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann, 2019. This true doorstop of a book (1,089 pages) is an extended attempt to understand how people “sit at desks” or otherwise act remotely at jobs that knowingly result in the deaths of people, whether these people are Nazi criminals ordering the Final Solution or are corporate executives making decisions that will kill locals in the Niger Delta or some other far-off location. Gretton’s book is simultaneously an act of research (who knew what? who did what?), an exploration of the psychology of desk killers, and a tentative exploration into the subject of repentance. Needless to say, this is a tough book to read and it must have been even tougher to spend twenty years or more researching and writing it. But Gretton wisely intersperses the tough stuff with both snippets and longer pieces of memoir-like writing that are more or less unrelated to the bulk of the book. At first I thought this was really gratuitous, but I came to see that, amongst a thousand pages of horrendous acts, we need to see what normalcy looks like now and then.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, the reader follows members of the Pfaffrath family members as they explore the Eternal City of Rome, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets. The two most prominent family members are Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a young German composer whose composition is having its premiere soon at a concert hall here. But family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will ultimately prove fatal. It is Koeppen’s conceit is to bring these Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, everyone’s true nature shines through, exposing the forces that Koeppen felt led the German people astray. Full review here.
Wendy Lower. The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. A discomfiting detective story. Historian Wendy Lower takes a single newly-discovered photograph of the horrific final moments when a mother and two children are actually being shot by German officials and local collaborators and tracks it back to the site where the murders occurred in 1944 in the Ukraine. Along the way, she discovers the identity of the photographer, the shooters, and the likely victims. This is how Holocaust research is really done. A short, utterly fascinating book. Thanks to Dorian at https://eigermonchjungfrau.blog/ for pointing me to this one.
Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. In many of his books, Javier Marias is obsessed with the trappings of traditional marriage. He has found ways to put the marital ideals of faithfulness and trust to the ultimate test through infidelity, murder, and other trials. Here he tests a marriage by dishonesty, disappearance, and silence. A Spaniard, Tomás Nevinson, is a spy for Britain’s MI6. He’s married to Berta Isla, has two children, and goes off frequently for weeks or months at a time on jobs he is not permitted to explain to her. Much of the book is told from her perspective as she tries to cope with a husband she can never really, truly know. And then, without warning, Tomás disappears, apparently for good, and with no explanation from MI6. This thought-provoking and compelling novel, which returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain.
Ali Smith. The Accidental. NY: Penguin, 2005. A young woman’s car breaks down near the rental home of the Smart family during their summer holiday in Norfolk. Amber, youngish, but of indeterminate age, serves as the agent of change who transforms each member of the Smart family into a magnified version of themselves. Thirteen-year old Aster, teen-aged Michael and the parents, Eve and Michael, each become individually ensnared in Amber’s world in different ways, until the summer comes to a dramatic and traumatic ending. I’ve tried and failed to like two previous novels by Ali Smith, but this one, her breakthrough novel, hit it out of the park. It’s formally inventive, if not groundbreaking, and it’s terrifically funny and nicely cynical. It’s one of those rare novels that seems as if it must have been absolutely thrilling to write, day after day.
Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Penguin, 2001. Solnit gives the reader much, much more than you would expect from the title. In addition to a history of walking, hiking, pilgrimages, marches, and just about everything else that happens when people move their two feet, Solnit deals with the issues women face on the streets, the problems of the suburbs, and recent attempt to curb walking on sidewalks and other normally public thoroughfares through a variety of legal means. Any book by Solnit is a winner as far as I am concerned.
Charles Todd. A Test of Wills. NY: HarperCollins, 1996. The first of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries takes place in Warwickshire, just after WWI. Rutledge has to deal with a death in a small village where the primary witnesses seem to be an unreliable war veteran with shell shock and a hysterical child. But Rutledge also has to deal with his own war-related issues: is he still the detective he was before enduring the trenches of France and coming home to find that his fiancé has left him? This is the best writing I have run across in a mystery in some time. Rutledge is a well-rounded character, the time and place seem realistically portrayed, not set pieces, and the key characters are given psychological depth. I look forward to more of these pleasant escapes, although, sadly, one half of the “Charles Todd” team has just passed away as I write this.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is a re-reading and it still astonishes. Every page is a delight to read. Mrs. Dalloway is even better than I remembered, though I think Woolf struggled to make the party section work as well as the rest of the book. What I had forgotten was how little of the book is seen through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective—maybe one-tenth?
Here are two novels I recommend, both with embedded photographs and both, oddly, by Australian writers, although Louis Armand is now based in Prague.
Here’s the premise of Stephen Downes new book The Hands of Pianists (Fomite Press, 2021): “A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers. ending her promising career at the keyboard. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists.” At first, I will admit that I was skeptical. Downes’ narrator is an obsessive driven by his guilt and I don’t have much patience with obsessives. But as it turned out, I read the book in two non-stop sittings, fascinated and ready for more. My initial prejudices melted away when I saw that the narrator’s true obsession was a global search for meaning through music.
The three men whose deaths are being investigated by the narrator are genuine virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. American William Kapell died in 1953 returning from Australia when the commercial airplane he was in crashed south of the San Francisco airport. Australian Noel Mewton-Wood also died in 1953, committing suicide. He apparently blamed himself for failing to notice symptoms of the disease that would cause the death of his partner a few days earlier. New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell died as a passenger in a car crash in Sussex in 1958. In this well-written, digressive, almost Sebaldian novel, Downes takes the reader into the minds of pianists to explore what music and performance means to them. For someone like me, who frequently listens to classical music and attends concerts, Downes gives an insider’s window from the professional’s perspective. He writes about stage-fright, pianists hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, and much more, in addition to writing about the aesthetic qualities of music. The book moves from Australia to London to the Czech Republic. My favorite section is a visit to the Czech campus of Paul McNulty, the foremost builder of fortepianos, who builds them completely by hand for some of the foremost musicians of our time, one fortepiano at a time. In Prague, during a visit to the Kafka Museum, the narrator encounters a ghostly “Dr. K,” who challenges him on the nature of his quest. Have you transferred “your guilt about your sister’s accident,” he asked, “to a dead instrument?” By the end of the book, the narrator admits that “my notion that pianos kill pianists was unraveling.”
The Hands of Pianists includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.
Canicule is French for the dog days of summer. In Louis Armand’s Canicule (Equus Press, 2013), three men struggle with their pasts, their passions, and their failures. The book culminates with two of the men, Hess and Wolf, meeting to scatter the ashes of the third, aptly named Ascher, who has committed suicide by self-immolation.
Hess is our first-person narrator. He’s a screenwriter who can’t get anyone to return his calls anymore. But he has a dream about “the perfect film. . . about three characters whose lives are completely empty.” “But why not tell it like it really is? Begin with that much, keep it in the margins, let the story speak for itself. The full two reels’ worth.” And so some of the chapters are written in third-person, free-indirect mode, with Hess just another character in his own story.
“Three boys in a fading kodachrome” first met in 1983, “the year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. . . the sunset of a world with no future.” Wolf’s father was murdered on live television during an airplane hijacking in the 1970s. Depressed, his mother tried but failed to commit suicide and murder Wolf by putting rat poison in their milk one day. Ascher, an East German, was orphaned at ten, when his parents were killed in an auto accident. When the Berlin Wall came down he found himself angry “at having grown up at the fag-end of a defeated ideology” and proceeded to join “a succession of more and more radical groups. . . looking for the edge.” But in the end, Ascher’s wife walked out on him and took the children, and he ended up impoverished and friendless in an attic in Hamburg, where he finally killed himself.
Canicule is bleak and, to some extent, the men’s lives seem to be a reflection of the times they in which they live. But after a while I didn’t give two cents about the male characters in Canicule. Their masculinity had left them utterly adrift as adults and they were blithely ignorant about the damage they did to the women that got drawn into their circle. But what kept the novel intriguing was Armand’s ragged, inventive writing and Hess’s continual attempt to re-imagine his story as a film. Each chapter begins with a photograph, most of which appear to be film stills from classic movies (none of the images are credited or identified). Hess tends to see the world filtered through film terminology. “All of a sudden Ada turned towards him, tears in her eyes. Like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s Jean d’Arc. That silent terror in the exchange of looks, shot-reverse-shot, between Falconetti and the mad monk Artaud. Martyr and prelate. History’s revenants, like blackened celluloid dolls. And right before his eyes she began to dissolve, a piece of film erupting into invisible flame.” But, in the end, even Hess questions his own belief in film. “Somebody dies and right before your eyes they turn to celluloid. Is that all there is?”
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Emily Dickinson
Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.
Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints
Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching Musee Picasso, Paris
In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.
By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.
Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.
While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”
The first release from the new House Sparrow Press is a beautifully produced book/CD combo called A Sparrow’s Journey: John Berger Reads Andrey Platonov. The book contains a short story by Platonov (1899-1951) called “Love for the Motherland, or A Sparrow’s Journey: A Fairytale Happening,” along with a piece of writing by Berger that is obliquely about Platonov called “That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches about Endurance in Face of Walls,” a brief essay about Platonov’s story by Robert Chandler (who co-translated it with his wife Elizabeth), and an even briefer piece about discovering this previously untranslated story by Gareth Evans, editor of House Sparrow Press (among other things). Platonov’s story about a fiddler and a sparrow was written in 1936 in homage to Alexander Pushkin in advance of the one hundredth anniversary of his death in 1937.
A Sparrow’s Journey is one of those publications that remind you how wonderful it is to hold and read a book. Smartly designed and nicely printed on thick paper, handling this small volume is like holding a sparrow in your bare hands. The accompanying CD of a recording of Berger reading the Platonov story is housed in it’s own paper folder with artwork by Georgia Keeling. The story fits into 25 slim pages but Berger takes a full 44 minutes to read it in his quiet, luscious, and deliberate voice and I didn’t want the reading to come to an end. Somehow, Berger’s reading gave me insights into Platonov’s story that I never suspected were there.
As I was writing this yesterday, word spread that John Berger had died at the age of ninety. Do yourself a favor and get this publication and listen to his voice over and over.
An old man stands in a room, staring out the window, listening to the sounds of children in a playground below. Incomplete snippets of conversations – shuffled into chronological disorder – appear on the pages of the slim book I am reading. Conversations between the man – Felix – and his two wives, between Felix and his son and his daughter at various stages in their lives. The conversations with the second wife and his friends often drift into the subject of literature. Felix listens to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, opus 132 and stares out the window some more.
Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes (Carcanet, 2006) is a rich and suggestive novelette that is only 60 pages long including oodles of white space. It reads like poetry with every sentence resonating with possibilities. During the brief time that it took for me to read and reread the book, I realized that Josipovici had cunningly fractured the reader’s viewpoint so that we observe the characters and the sequence of events from multiple perspectives simultaneously – as if looking through the compound eye of an insect. Everything in Everything Passes takes place in the present tense, so it is ambiguous whether Josipovici is deliberately presenting the fragments to us in random order or whether we are witnessing the order in which Felix is recalling memories. Is the reader inside Felix’s mind or an observer watching the observer as he stares out the window? Or both.
As he has tea with his second wife, Felix explains his one great and final obsession – to write down his theory on how literature became modern (a topic Josipovici considers at length in his 2010 book What Ever Happened to Modernism?). But the writing won’t come.
Rabelais though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing… I want to tell people about his modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now.
He looks at her. She smiles.
There are two main events in Everything Passes, but it is not clear which happens first. Felix has a heart attack and is saved by an injection into this heart, a “red hot needle.” And one day the writing suddenly starts to flow.
I was writing fast, without pause, setting down on the white paper what had been waiting all those years. Everything would be said. I knew that. I couldn’t write fast enough. All in the right order. I knew it was the right order. It flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop.
Depending on the reader’s predilection, the outcome, which I won’t reveal, is either a moment of heartbreaking sadness or of joyous release. Probably, it’s both.
Every year I read many more books than I can find time to write about on Vertigo, and so I use the category Recently Read as a way of bringing attention to the occasional book that stands out but isn’t quite at the heart of what I tend to write about here. Two books have lingered in my imagination over the last couple of months – Elise Blackwell’s The Lower Quarter (Unbridled Books, 2015) and Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, 2014).
Reading The Lower Quarter is like closely examining an inset that magnifies a small neighborhood on a map of New Orleans. Obliquely a mystery that centers around a missing artwork and the murder of the last man who possessed it, the book explores the intersecting paths of four characters who, post-Katrina, are trying to rebuild their lives even as the lower French Quarter rebuilds itself. Blackwell only hints at some of the critical events that have shaped and propelled Johanna, Eli, Marion, and Clay on stage, leaving it to the reader to try to piece together the backstory of each character. The book spans a few months during which the quartet of characters warily venture into each others’ lives. The Lower Quarter has a 21st century noir sensibility, with gnarly things like online revenge, sadism, and sex trafficking scrolling across the background. Blackwell has a knack for always leaving the reader slightly off balance; every time that one loose end gets resolved, another strand starts to unravel.
Here’s Johanna, an immigrant who makes a living as an art restorer:
How the change had occurred she could not have articulated if pressed, but across time, mostly gradually and unconsciously but occasionally with moments of leap and clarity, she began to feel as if she was part of the city. This nourished an understanding that a history can be adopted, that the history of the city could be her history and that she could become part of its history, regardless of where she’d been born or how recently she’d arrived. After all, that was what New Orleans had always been: a receiver of outsiders and immigrants, a blender, a granter of new identities, a place where you could disappear and then resurface under new terms…
This way of thinking had something to do with her work, too. She understood that her vocation made her, by choice, a person who believed that at least some damage can be undone, that original states can be recovered or at least approximated, that life can go on as though some things never happened. She knew, too, that you could also simply paint over a canvas, change the picture for good, so that without an x-ray machine it looked like the former story had never even existed.
Fog Island Mountains is a lush book, rich in language and vibrant in imagery. It centers around a married couple that live in a mountain village in Japan. As the book opens, Alec (originally from South Africa) is learning that he has terminal cancer, while his Japanese wife Kanae, already sensing the calamitous news and fearful of what lies ahead, is about to run away. An approaching typhoon mirrors the inner turbulence that consumes the couple. Much of the power of the novel comes from the omniscient narrator Azami, a mysterious elderly lady who is their neighbor. Azami, who is referred to an “an old fox,” is cast in the role of a kitsune, the fox which, in Japanese myth, has supernatural powers and can take the form of a human. Azami watches the typhoon as it sweeps over the village and, in her own discrete fashion, tells us how Alec and Kanae separately cope with his prognosis. Here, Azami watches as Kanae finally breaks down in tears:
Let us give her this moment, let us turn away, because the relief in letting herself cry will be ugly for us to look at, we can step outside the door so as not to hear her whimpering, we can stand here a moment feeling the force of the wind and the sound of the crashing up in the forest, and when she’s ready, it won’t be long, Kanae has always been the stronger one, we can step back inside…
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these weather-inflected novels. As Azami says (in Fog Island Mountains): “The clever thing with stories is that they are never really fixed, they are meant to change as often as the listener needs them to be something else entirely.”
Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).
The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.
Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one. Faces in the Crowdcomes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:
When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.
OK. Got it.
Luiselli’s approach to this intertwined narrative is standard fare (especially, it seems, in first novels) and, to be honest, nothing revelatory or innovative arises from the rather obvious ways in which she weaves the three threads together.
And I guess this is what is meant when Goldman refers to her “fearless, half-mad imagination”:
Dakota moved to her new house at the beginning of summer. It was an apartment in Queens, near a cemetery. The day they handed over the keys we went to buy three cans of paint. She wanted her whole house to look like Juliet Berto’s cobalt-blue bathroom in Céline et Julie vont en bâteau. We opened all the windows and stripped down to our panties. We painted the bathroom, the kitchen, but only half of the bedroom because we ran out of paint. We painted each other’s nipples cobalt blue. When we’d finished we lay face up on the bedroom floor and lit a cigarette apiece. Dakota suggested we swap panties.
Oddly enough, Luiselli and (once again) Enrique Vila-Matas wrote blurbs for my next book. The Journey (Deep Vellum Publishing) is the second volume in “Trilogy of Memory” by Sergio Pitol, a writer with a long history of serving his country as a cultural attaché. (I have not read the first volume, The Art of Flight, while the third, The Magician of Vienna, has not been issued yet.) The Journey concentrates on trips that Pitol made to Prague, Russia, and the Georgian city of Tbilisi sometime during the Gorbachev era. Wherever he goes, Pitol’s main interest is literature, and so most of this volume deals with the writers he meets, the books he reads, and the literary venues he visits. Even when the writers and their work were utterly unknown to me, The Journey made for lively, enlightening reading. As his publisher’s website puts it, Pitol “imaginatively blends the genres of fiction and memoir in a Borgesian swirl of contemplation and mystery, expanding our understanding and appreciation of what literature can be and what it can do.” While that might be overstating it a bit, it’s pretty close. Actually, the best summary of Pitol’s style comes from Pitol himself, when he describes the works of the Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva, who he reveres:
In her writing of this period, the thirties, always autobiographical, everything dissolves into everything, the miniscule, the jocose, the digression on the task, on what is seen, lived, and dreamt, and she recounts it with unexpected rhythm, not without a certain delirium, an alacrity, which allows the writing itself to become its own structure, its reason for being.
It is nearly impossible for me to find a short, exemplary quote from Pitol’s book because he tends to pile impression upon impression until the reader finally intuits the complex point that Pitol has been making through his seeming aimless meandering. But here, with the use of a few ellipses, is a good example from the section on Prague:
I’m almost certain that the same day I allowed myself to be dazzled by the [Matthias] Braun exhibit, I was able to find, with the aid of a city map, the Café Arco, one of the holiest sites of interwar literature, where Franz Kafka met with his closest friends…They considered themselves provincials, disconnected from the living language, unconnected to contemporaneity, to the prestige of the metropolis, and the truth is that their very existence represented, but at the time neither they nor the world knew it, the zone of maximum tension of the German language…From the street and especially inside, the establishment could not be seamier. It looked like all the bleak and filthy fifth-rate establishments that Hašek created for his soldier Švejk…Imagining those young geniuses talking around a table in that dreary space, devoid of atmosphere, its floor littered with cigarette butts, greasy pieces of paper, and dirt, exchanging ideas and discussing them, or reading their latest texts to each other, had an obscene quality.
I read these two books back to back and was quite surprised by the result. Pitol’s book had been sent to me by the publisher and I had to convince myself to give it a try, whereas Luiselli’s book had been on my wish list for months, based on the intriguing publicity it had been receiving. But in the end, it was Pitol’s book that riveted me, even though I knew next to nothing about the literature of the Soviet Union or Georgia that was his main subject, while I frankly struggled to finish Luiselli’s book. Both of these writers traffic in fragmented moments to tell a larger story and both rely on deliberately blurred literary boundaries to create their signature styles. What Pitol brings to his writing is an exuberant passion that is leavened with a mature intelligence. In his search for whatever is truly original in literature and in life, he skewers any and all forms of pretentiousness. What Luiselli seems to be trying to do is to magnify the mundane details of daily life in hopes of locating significance. Luiselli, who references Hemingway on the first page, writes in a dead-pan language that seems desperate to sound as unliterary as possible, and it is only within such a deliberately barren context that the sudden appearance of cobalt-blue nipples or swapping underwear or casual sex might possibly be considered as some sort of shock value.
Two books, both by French authors. One about cinema, one about photography.
A longtime Vertigo reader sent me a copy of Nathalie Legér’s newly published Suite for Barbara Loden, for which I am extremely grateful. Barbara Loden was an American actress, whose second husband was the film director Elia Kazan. Loden wrote, directed and starred in the 1970 movie Wanda. Shot in cinéma vérité on a ridiculously low budget, Wanda retells the real-life story of a bored coal-miner’s wife who gets involved with another man and helps him commit a bank robbery. The robbery fails, the man is killed, and Wanda seems relieved to be sentenced to prison. When Legér was asked to write a brief film encyclopedia entry about Loden, she found herself doing far more research than necessary.
Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organisational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another.
After this semi-comic confession of overreach, Legér realizes she has become obsessed with Loden in the same way that Loden became obsessed with her film character Wanda and the real woman she was based on – Alma Malone. Using film techniques like montage, jump cut, and flashback, Suite for Barbara Loden is a stunningly beautiful book in which the lives of these four women -Nathalie Legér, Barbara Loden, Wanda, and Alma Malone – become one. Or, as Legér puts it:
To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.
Several Vertigo readers have suggested I get Roger Grenier’s A Box of Photographs, and I’m glad I did. Grenier writes movingly and with a light touch about the power of photographs to engage the viewer’s curiosity, to galvanize memories, to provoke responses. At just over 100 pages, this is a compact book that ranges far and wide. Grenier has given us a series of meditations on photography, photographs, and photographers, all with brief glimpses into his own life as a member of the Resistance, journalist, amateur photographer, and longtime editor at Éditions Gallimard. Oddly, the book only contains sixteen photographs and they often aren’t the photographs I most wanted to see. Grenier includes a snapshot of his dog, who receives only a brief mention, but fails to include an image showing us an image of the murderess Sylvie Paul, the subject of one of the longest essays and about whose striking appearance Grenier can’t stop writing. Her “steel-gray eyes captured the reader, even in the poorest quality photos that appeared in the press.” But alas, we are denied the pleasure of seeing Sylvie Paul.
Nathalie Legér. Suite for Barbara Loden. London: Les Fugitives, 2015. Translated by Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon.
Roger Grenier. A Box of Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Translated by Alice Kaplan.
Full Circle Editions is a small publisher based in East Anglia that has produced sixteen books since it began operations in 2008. I’ve written about two of their books before: Audio Obscura by poet Lavinia Greenlaw and photographer Julian Abrams andAfter Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. I’ve recently finished two more of Full Circle’s handsome, well-designed books: Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (2009) edited by Giles Foden and The Burning of the Books (2014), a poem sequence by George Szirtes with photocollages by Ronald King.
Going to a university to “study” creative writing is a vexed topic lately. Can writing even be taught? Maybe not. But almost uniformly, the contributors to Body of Work agree that something important happened to them during their time at the University of East Anglia’s writing program. Body of Work is a rich testament to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where W.G. Sebald taught for most of his professional career. The fifty or so essays each address in one way or another the experience of attending the UEA as a writing student or serving as a faculty member – or, in numerous cases, doing both. While the bulk of attention is paid to the department’s long-term head Malcom Bradbury and the influential teacher Angela Carter, there are several essays on Sebald: Rebecca Stott’s “Dust, Like Pollen,” Luke Williams’ “A Watch on each Wrist, Twelve Seminars with W. G. Sebald,” and Andrew Motion’s “After Nature and So On (W.G. Sebald).” A partial list of some of the other contributors gives an idea of the importance of the UEA writing program: Mohammed Hanif, Amit Chaudhuri, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Lodge, Marina Warner, Adam Mars-Jones, George Szirtes, Richard Holmes, and Rose Tremain. Body of Work ought to be required reading for any writer thinking of heading off to a graduate writing program.
Full Circle Editions is an outgrowth of Circle Press, founded in 1967 by artist Richard King as a way for artists to publish limited edition prints and books. In 2008, Circle Press published The Burning of the Books, a limited edition with fifteen original etchings of photocollages by King and a poem sequence by Szirtes, inspired by Elias Canetti’s 1935 novel Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fe, in English). A trade edition of this became the first title issued by Full Circle. King’s images consist mostly of faces, body parts, and texts, jumbled together in combinations that often recall classic Surrealist photocollages, although the opening double-spread is a clear homage to Picasso’s Guernica. Szirtes describes his poems “as a kind of marginalia” written around Canetti’s book. In fourteen poems, Szirtes beautifully addresses some of the complex topics found in Canetti’s story of a book-obsessed scholar who marries his ignorant housekeeper with tragic results.
This edition of “Recently Read” features two books – both blue! – that are as delightful to read as they are to hold. Some books – particularly small books, I think – just feel right in the hand when the publisher has put extra care into the design and production. And today’s books come from publishers who do things right: the Christine Burgin imprint at New Directions and the new Fitzcarraldo Editions. Both are physically handsome, modestly sized, modestly priced, and short (80 and 68 pages respectively). Howe’s book comes hardbound with blue cloth covers and a reproduction of a cyanotype photograph pasted down on the cover. Critchley’s book has stiff French wraps that open up to reveal indigo blue endpapers.
Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe is the latest of several spectacular trade book productions from Christine Burgin that include Robert Walser’s Microscripts, A Little Ramble, and Thirty Poems and The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems.Spontaneous Particulars was “originally conceived as a lecture” and slide show that has been turned into a free-form, genre-busting essay illustrated with photographs of archival objects that Howe has had the opportunity to view in various research libraries. The photographs show manuscripts by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, Hart Crane, Charles Pierce, Noah Webster, and Gertrude Stein, plus several images that were used in Howe’s limited edition publication Frolic Architecture (which was released in a trade version called This That). Like everything Howe writes, Spontaneous Particulars is tender and rigorous at the same time, with her unique mix of the spiritual and the analytic. To my mind, Howe’s essays achieve the status of poems and this one is dedicated to the objects that show us the moment during which creative ideas are first transferred to paper – typed and hand-written manuscripts, doodles and scribbles. Physician William Carlos WIlliams often wrote parts of poems on the pages of prescription pads. But my favorites are the manuscript books of Jonathan Edwards written on “discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans.” About these Howe writes: “Surface and meaning cooperate to keep alive in one process mastery in service, service in mastery.” (All of my posts on Susan Howe can be found here.)
“I am dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction.” So begins Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre, a books that meanders around the concept of the “memory theater” of sixteenth century Italian Giulio Camillo, who featured prominently in France Yates’ 1966 book The Art of Memory. Critchley – or, perhaps, “Critchley” – finds he has inherited a number of boxes left to him on the death of his teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar. Among the papers are astrological charts accurately predicting the death dates of several philosophers, plus one that ominously predicts the day on which Critchley himself will die. With his own death date approaching, Critchley weaves dreams, hallucinations, autobiography, and doses of fiction into a fascinating prose piece on memory.
I peered through the magnifying glass at my destiny. The detail was fascinating. Working through the concentric circles, I moved from briefly noted events in my life that Michel couldn’t possibly have known about…I tried to resist looking through at the centre of the circle, with the date of my death. But there it was: “le 13 Juin, 2010, 1551h, Den Bosch, hémorragie cérébrale.” Cerebal haemorhage. OK. I was expecting lung cancer. But where the fuck was Den Bosch?
The book includes a sequence of photographs of a skyscraper under construction by the British artist Liam Gillick. The photographs appear in reverse sequence and so we effectively watch the building’s dismantling. I suppose that’s a metaphor for something, but I thought Gilliam’s concept was rather flat and the execution left something to be desired. The images are all reproduced on blank pages, suggesting that they aren’t meant to mingle with the text but to proceed in parallel with it.
Susan Howe. Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. NY: Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014.
Simon Critchley. Memory Theatre. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014.
I began Vertigo in 2007 primarily as a vehicle for writing about W.G. Sebald and the history of fiction and poetry with photographs embedded as part of the author’s original text. I now write about a broader range of books that interest me. You can see my 11 favorite posts (from more than 600) by clicking on the Top Posts tab. And check out my yearly Reading Log, where I write something about every book I read. The categories below are only a handful of the topics covered in this blog over the years. Please use the Search field below to see if an author, book, or topic has been mentioned or discussed. To contact me, just leave a comment at any post and I will answer. Enjoy! Terry