What I Read, December 2020

I read fewer books than usual this month, because I felt compelled to chew my way (before the new year) through hundreds of pages of accumulated unread issues of the magazines I subscribe to — the NYRB, LRB, Raritan, Foreign Affairs, NLR, Artforum, Bookforum, Asimov’s, and F&SF. I really let them pile up over the last few months, in favor of doomscrolling and wall-staring. But nevertheless, despite devoting days to that snowdrift of periodicals I did manage to read a few books. And here they are.

The Searcher, by Tana French

A novel about a Chicago police detective who has retired to rural Ireland where he is enlisted by a child to investigate her brother’s disappearance. It is as descriptively lush as French’s novels always are, but slower paced, populated (it seemed; I haven’t counted) by fewer characters, and focused intensely upon landscape. It mostly avoids what I consider to be her signature structural flaw, an over-reliance on flashbacks and flashforwards. This happened, probably, because The Searcher is written — for the first time in her body of work — in third person, a point of view in which it is harder to gracefully integrate flashbacks. Or so I have found. But if this choice gained her a new structural unity it also sacrificed one of the pleasures of her novels, which is discovering the very distinctive voices she crafts for each new narrator. I still read it like a thirsty man gulping water, of course: few writers at work today are more compulsively readable.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen

A partial biography of Charles Darwin — the dramatization of one strand of his life, from the weeks post-Beagle-voyage when he began to get an inkling of the idea of natural selection up until the publication of his great book. For me it was a sneaky late contender for my favorite book of the year. It is a tale of secret notebooks and wary correspondence, of the slow growth of a shattering idea whose thinker recognizes how poorly it will be received and devotes whole decades to building a shield around himself for the inevitable shitstorm, only to discover at the end of his labors that an upstart has stumbled on the same idea and is preparing, brashly, to trumpet it in the public square, and so the slow and careful thinker is forced to his desk like the pulpiest hack to condense volumes of data and loops upon loops of intellection into a single, persuasive book, which we know as the scientific classic The Origin of Species.

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker

A very short novella — almost a novelette — about an exorcist, set in one of Parker’s vaguely renaissance-seeming secondary worlds. As does every K.J. Parker story, it dramatizes the technical details of its central craft — in this case the craft of exorcism. What Parker did for the construction of seige engines in the Engineer trilogy, or for the management of bureaucracy in The Folding Knife, or for swordplay in the Fencer trilogy, he does for the extraction of demons (and the casting of large bronze statues) in this book. Also typical of Parker, the book features a character with a dubious penchant for sacrificing the innocent to prevent ostensibly greater evils.

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

A gothic novel about an English woman, a translator living in Prague, who becomes literally and figuratively haunted by a folkloric personification of guilt. I came for the unique and stylized prose — of a kind you can only get away with in a gothic novel — and stayed for the profound and uncomfortable questioning of the real ethical import of “bearing witness.” Like all the best horror, what’s most chilling here is the presentation of a plausibly selfish nihilism in human behavior, beside the ugliness of which the more sensational aspect of the horror — the scary figure of Melmoth — has an almost erotic quality.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

A novel, translated from French by Alyson Waters, about the strange adventures of a police officer in a small, isolated French village in the foothills of the alps. He first comes to the village to catch a serial killer; then he moves there permanently to serve as the local wolf hunter (a real government position); finally, with the advice and aid of a retired prostitute and an aristocrat from a neighboring town, he seeks a wife. These are the book’s three acts, and although they seem rather disconnected in summary like this, the whole thing hangs together like a poem through the repetition of hallucinatory images — blood in the snow, hunting horns, images of distance and remoteness and shrouding fog — and the increasingly inscrutable problem of the central character’s thoughts and motivations. He is described from without in a polyphonic oral history, refracted through a narrator who never met him but heard about him from the other denizens of the village. It is the kind of novel that defies any attempt to say what it is “about,” and which yet leaves a strong and unified impression. It was my first book by Giono; it will not be my last.

Hitler: 1889-1936, by Ian Kershaw

The first volume in a two-volume study of Hitler’s life. Kershaw approaches the man from a sociological perspective, seeking the structural conditions for his acquisition and concentration of power. His thesis is that Hitler’s sole talent was propaganda; but, also, that this talent intersected fatally with unusual historical conditions perfectly aligned to elevate the right propagandist to absolute power. Hitler possessed all (and only) the virtues of the demagogue: single-minded commitment to a small set of core themes that he could emphasize or suppress with great sensitivity to an audience, an intuitive grasp of the techniques of self-advertisement, an insatiable appetite for symbolic domination, and, crucially, the ability to speak movingly to large groups of people. But the nature of propaganda as a talent, the way it necessitates constant escalation and ever-greater mobilization of its target audience if it is not to be exposed as empty posturing, especially when it is not tempered by any other talent or moral commitment, leads inexorably to catastrophe. That’s the implicit lesson of the duology, the first book of which is subtitled “Hubris” and the second “Nemesis.”

I listened to this book in audio form while taking my daily ambles about town, masked up, glasses fogging. It’s the first biography I’ve read via audiobook. My usual walking accompaniments are either urban fantasy detective novels or string quartets. I found listening to a biography as I walked more engrossing than I had expected, and will probably listen to many more that way.

Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman

A memoir about the author’s brother, who was incarcerated for his role in a homicidal robbery. Wideman’s other writings are primarily short stories and novels, full of nonlinear, fragmentary narratives and sudden cadenzas of introspective wordplay. It’s fascinating to see what such an innovative writer does when confronted with the demands of nonfiction. It is a twisty, montage-like memoir, braided from many strands: essayistic reflections on brotherhood, race, and the injustices of the carceral state; a straightforward retelling of the brother’s involvement in drug-dealing and robbery, stylized in his voice; scenes depicting what it’s like to visit a high-security prison and to live in the constant knowledge that your brother is there; and isolated memories from a shared childhood, memories that probe how two men, so similar in personality, who share a family and a neighborhood, could have such widely differing life outcomes — in Wideman’s case a Rhodes Scholarship, high-profile teaching positions, and an award-winning writing career; in his brother’s case a failed attempt to become a drug-dealer and a life-sentence in prison.

The window in the room where I am typing these words looks over a highway, down into the valley where the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh lies. Homewood serves as the setting for scenes throughout Wideman’s work, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve been steadily reading him since I discovered my physical proximity to the regions of his imagination. The library I frequent — also in Homewood — has well-thumbed editions of all his books. I hope to have read them all before I leave Pittsburgh.

The Dollmaker, by Nina Allan

A novel in which a man slowly travels across a blighted English landscape to rescue from an asylum his pen pal, a correspondent with whom he has fallen in love by letter. His adventures are braided with one side of the correspondence — the pen pal’s side — and with fairytale short stories from a book he is reading. Each inset story uncannily echoes his own life and mission. The interplay between the stories, the letters, and the narrator’s own life create a gothic atmosphere of unease.

The book reminded me strikingly of Melmoth (see above). In the first place, both punctuate realistic narratives with fantastical and eerie stories-within-stories that complicate and render uncanny the primary narrative. Also, both manage to be profoundly creepy without ever (to my mind) quite becoming about the shivers they provoke — the creepiness is atmospheric and also a side-effect of the metafictional aspects of the narratives. Melmoth has a somewhat simpler structure and a clearer moral message, while The Dollmaker is riddled with ambiguities that effectively conceal or mystify any simple lesson you might try to draw from it; but the experience of reading both books was equally delightful in similar ways. I think the gothic novel as a form is in exceptionally good hands.

A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

A mid-20th century novel, translated by Erdag Göknar from Turkish, about the doomed love affair of an Istanbul flaneur. For once the adjective “lyrical” is not a cliche: not only is the great mass of this book comprised of the detailed, quasi-poetic descriptive prose we tend to call “lyrical” — much of it devoted to the seemingly endless transfigurations of water and light as seen from a caïque (fishing boat) in the Bosphorus — but also songs, lyrics, are a primary structuring principle and theme. The central plot, a summer romance between a newly divorced woman and a newly minted academic that swiftly gutters and fades with the seasons, for reasons and in a manner clearly intended to make some sort of allegorical comment on midcentury Turkish culture and politics — plays out the story of a song that comes up over and over again throughout the book; and the characters, in their long discursive conversations about philosophy and history, allude to the idea that songs are somehow more real or permanent in their expression of a culture’s essence than the contingent doings of individual people. This was the second book I read this year set primarily in Istanbul. The other was a collection of stories by Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Between them they account for my growing interest in the modern history of the City of Two Continents, and in Ottoman high culture — the music of ney flutes and the drinking of rakı, calligraphic miniatures and Persian poetic forms. For Tanpınar, these things are clearly the objects of a conflicted nostalgia. His primary concern is to figure out the lineaments of a Turkish modernity that would not, in its pursuit of new ways and ends, discard what is unique in Turkish history. Such concerns are remote from me, not least because of my profound ignorance of Turkish history, and as a consequence a lot of the import of this novel — and it is clearly intended to make a lot of urgent points — went straight over my head. I appreciated it as a description-heavy, slow-moving, and immersive realist novel, pregnant with meanings I could not quite work out — this is the half-blind experience of translated literature I enjoy.