What I Read, January 2021

I had such optimistic plans for January! I would wean my 2020-addled consciousness further off the news cycle, dive into some big writing projects, get back to serious reading. Well, a certain notorious week early in the month shattered those plans like a kid with a stick shattering the first delicate icicles of winter. That week I fastened myself to the teat of the news-cycle like a hungry puppy, wrote nothing but histrionic journal entries, and read nothing but dire op-eds and breaking news chyrons. But – nevertheless — some reading eventually occurred. And this is what I read:

Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru

A novel about a Brooklyn-based writer whose midlife crisis turns into a mental breakdown during a writing retreat in Berlin, where he meets, argues with, and is catastrophically triggered by an aggressive white nationalist. It is written in clean and often clever prose, and I certainly recognize the pathologies of feckless self-conciousness it depicts.

Luster, by Raven Leilani

A novel about a young black woman barely surviving in NYC who gets involved with a married white man a decade older than herself. But that’s not the heart of the story: through a strange sequence of events, the young woman ends up staying for several months with the man’s family, and the most complicated and interesting relationship in the book turns out to be that of the young woman with her lover’s wife, who works in a morgue. Wife and young woman struggle over the husband but ultimately it’s a novel about the protagonist becoming an artist, or at least making a breakthrough in her art, and it’s her rival in love who helps her do this. Really it’s quite a tender bildungsroman beneath the caustic narrative voice and purposefully scandalizing surface.

97,196 Words, by Emmanuel Carrère

A collection of essays (translated from French by John Lambert), each an example of Carrère’s signature self-saturated reportage. His pet subject is the double life: the criminal who hides his deceptions, the public figure whose face is a facade, the city so over-reported that it cannot be seen. For Carrère, the reporter — he, himself — always has to be in the story, whether he’s recounting an interview or reviewing a book. He makes clear in a short review of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer that he considers his relentless commitment to autobiographical cameo an aesthetic and epistemological principle. He feels obligated to a weird idea of truthfulness, obligated to pop up like an authorial jack-in-the-box because somehow that proves he’s not deluded by the false pretensions of objectivity. (I suspect he is, instead, deluded by the false modesties of subjectivity.) His self-insertions would be an intolerable mannerism if he did not also write a very supple, casual, and yet precise prose, and if he did not have a frank eye for the sensational element of whatever he chooses to write about. He’s really fun to read!

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante

A novel (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) about the daughter of a Neapolitan intellectual who has renounced association with his lower class, religious family. The daughter overhears a chance remark from the father that she is beginning to look like her aunt. It makes her curious and afraid, because she knows this aunt is a figure of evil, and she worries her father thinks she is becoming ugly — her father! She is precipitated by curiosity into a painful discovery of old feuds and adult intrigues, and somewhere along the way the pain she stirs up in this way mutates into the more universal pain of adolescence. As usual in Ferrante, adults betray children, eros and intellect intertwine, and communal feminine identity forms a kind of answer to the insults and injuries of life. Unusually for Ferrante, religion is also a major theme and thread of the book, in fascinating ways.

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

A big novel about four interconnected generations of Zambians living in and around the capital of Lusaka. The story begins in the colonial period and extends past our present into an imagined future, and it all builds to a rather science fictional climax involving synthetic mosquito swarms and idealistic terrorism. It ranges across nine points of view — tied together by the dithyrambic voice of a chorus of mosquitoes — and it is composed of chapters that have the density and internal satisfactions of good short stories. It has speculative elements both fantastic and science fictional — a woman covered all over in unnaturally fast-growing hair, another who begins to weep and does not stop for half a century, a future Zambia where great powers have turned the nation into a lab for risky vaccinations and experimental technologies. In the familiar way of big realist novels rooted in a specific historical and geographical setting, it tackles the topics you would expect before reading it: colonialism, the complexities of race and gender, AIDS, neo-colonial extractivism and the poisoned pill of humanitarian aid, post-colonial political ideologies, and so on. But apart from all the novel’s ambition, I loved it because of the prose. Just quirky enough to goose my linguistic and visual imagination into a constant state of close attention, but never peacocking in that try-hard MFA manner we’re all familiar with — these sentences are the work of someone with total self-consciousness and control over the difficult interrelation between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and acts. Just a delight to read.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, by Patricia Highsmith

A short story collection composed entirely of revenge tales from the point of view of animals. An elephant named Chorus Girl tramples a cruel zookeeper. A Venetian rat eats the face off a baby. A cat named Ming tricks her mistress’s false lover over a balcony. There is something hypnotic about the formula. Each story follows a simple pattern: we meet the animal in its customary setting and innocent habits, then we meet the human whose cruelty or betrayal will push the animal over the edge, and then a decisive conflict climaxes in a death. Highsmith’s ability to keep a reader turning pages even in the presence of so unvarying a repetition is virtuosic — I felt like the victim of a mad scientist or cruel practical joker, but also I kept reading. The stories do not grow less interesting as the book continues. And I found that knowing the structure of each story in advance added a new element of suspense — how would Highsmith get her animal to plausibly kill a human this time? How would this hamster turn into a killer? Or this cockroach for crying out loud? (Actually, that one didn’t surprise me. I’ve had several near-death encounters with cockroaches myself.)

Sybille Bedford, by Selina Hastings

A biography of one of the 20th century’s most interesting writers. Bedford’s life was fissured by sometimes elective and sometimes imposed nomadism: she was always fleeing something, including, on two occasions, world wars. Her biography is the story of a difficult and not always successful attempt to combine beautiful living (she was a gourmand, prolific lover of women and men, frequent traveler, enthusiastic attendant and host of parties, and oenophile) with literary ambition. She wanted badly to be a great writer, and she was surrounded by great writers from a young age (Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley), but she sabotaged herself repeatedly and only summoned in spurts the discipline she required. Fortunately she did manage to write two of the century’s great novels — A Legacy and Jigsaw — as well as some fine travel writing and legal journalism. Hastings does what I always long for in literary biographies: she draws on research to show us the writer at work. I won’t say more because I have a review of the book coming out in February, which expands on all these points.

Providence, by Anita Brookner

A short novel tracing the main disappointment in the life of Kitty Maule, contingent faculty at a small provincial English university and subordinate partner in a tepid and perplexing relationship with a fellow professor. She would like to be permanent faculty and to marry her lover. She attempts to achieve these goals proactively, taking charge of her life for the first time, but because she is at the mercy of Anita Brookner things go about how you’d expect.

This was Brookner’s second novel. I’ve read six now, including the first and last and several from the middle of her career. They all have the same type of premise and the same arc, but these early novels have sharper climaxes, more stinging endings, and less richly precise and stimulating prose. The early novels that I have read also seem less self-contained than her later novels, by which I mean that they rely upon allusions to and discussions of the work of other writers — in the case of Brookner’s first novel, the other writer is Balzac, about whom her protagonist is writing a book; and here the other writer is Benjamin Constant, about whose work Kitty is conducting a tutorial for three students. This technique of subplot by way of literary criticism makes a primary text feel secondary, rather in the same way that Brookner’s characters often feel as if they’re not the protagonists of their own lives.

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

A novella about a trio of cursed New Englanders. A man with a hypochondriacal wife falls in love with their hired girl; the wife notices and finds an excuse to dismiss the hired girl; the man and girl, feeling trapped, attempt to commit suicide together and fail. I feel free to summarize the whole plot because this is probably Wharton’s best known story, or at least the one most often assigned in American highschools. I didn’t do normal school, so I hadn’t ever read it before. It’s not my favorite Wharton (that remains The House of Mirth), but I think it may be my favorite writing by Wharton — and that’s saying something, because I am always ravished by her sentences. There’s a quality of inexorability in this story, a quality I last encountered in Anne Brönte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Vivid nature writing — depicting a stark New England winter — interposes like an oblique commentary between fated narrative beats. Apart from the annoying slow intro section, it was perfectly paced. (I really dislike the practice, in Wharton and Henry James, of prefacing a reported story with a long, dry-as-dust account of the situation in which the narrator first heard the story. And yet, when Joseph Conrad pulls the same trick, I gobble it up with greed and delight. Mysterious.)

Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrère

An exuberant biography (translated from French by John Lambert) of a very strange Russian writer. It contains, of course, the inevitable auotobiographical cameos by the author (see my notes on him, above) — in this case, a truly irrelevant chapter about his boring failures at love and commerce in Bali. But the Limonov bits were great! The big conceit of the story is that Limonov is supposed to have lived many lives, more lives than you or me. He was an underground poet in Russia, a destitute and lovelorn immigrant slumming around New York, a celebrity memoirist in Paris, a professional revolutionary on behalf of an incoherent ideology, a political prisoner of great dignity, etc. But in fact Limonov’s antics struck me as pretty consistent throughout his life, the steady pursuit of personal aggrandizement through flashy, unmoored dissent and rebellion — getting to be a noble prisoner was a climax of, I would imagine, great personal satisfaction to him. In a way, impressing Carrère enough to inspire this book feels like a culmination of Limonov’s life, perhaps the best he could have hoped for.

Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw

The second volume of Kershaw’s big structural-sociological biography of Hitler. I listened to it as an audiobook while walking around Pittsburgh, just like I did the first volume. Much of the book feels like a series of exemplifications of Kershaw’s pet concept, that what happened in Nazi Germany can be explained above all by the phenomenon of “working toward the Fuhrer.” Hitler would set the ideological coordinates for his party in his repetitive speeches, and then party and government functionaries, seeking preferment and promotion in the personalized autocracy the German government became, would seek creative ways to carry out those ideological goals better than their colleagues. The flashiest and most extremist plans and proposals would make their way back up the ladder to be approved by Hitler and would, in turn, provoke him to ever more extremist expressions of the ideological goals they were supposed to instantiate. So, for example, the practice of euthanizing disabled babies was an initiative undertaken by a subordinate who thought Hitler might approve, and he did approve and ordered that such practices become general at the discretion of the subordinate, until it turned into a systematic massacre. The result of this dynamic across the many facets a whole industrialized modern nation was a perpetual motion machine of radicalization that swept the whole government in the direction of the horrors they perpetrated.

An Untouched House, by Willem Frederick Hermans

A short, devastating novella (translated from Dutch by Daniel Colmer) about an exhausted Dutch soldier in WWII who finds himself, through a complicated series of circumstances, on the Eastern Front of the war, where he speaks the language of neither his allies nor his enemies. He stumbles into a quiet, well-furnished house in an abandoned town. He decides to ignore the orders that took him there — he didn’t really understand them anyway — and pretend he’s the owner of the house if anyone tries to evict him. He’s dead tired of the war. Things get exceedingly dark because of his decision. This story rips your heart out, chews it up and swallows it, vomits it back onto the floor, then feeds it to a pack of dogs.

Angel of Oblivion, by Maja Haderlap

A novel (translated from German by Tess Lewis) based on its author’s memories of growing up in the Slovene community of the Carinthia region in Austria. From this minority population came the sole Austrian military resistance to Nazism, and so the narrator’s family and acquaintances are all haunted by their memories of WWII. Many of them were partisans, and all of them were oppressed by the Nazis who hunted partisans. Her father was tortured as a child, strung up from a tree and beaten nearly to death, and his violent PTSD terrorizes their family life; her grandmother was sent for years to a concentration camp; her aunt died in another; in the evenings the old people who live around her family’s holding drink and reminisce about who was shot, whose farm was burned, whose families were disappeared. Now, their valley is surrounded by German speaking Carinthians who look with disfavor and suspicion upon the Slovene community’s history of heroic resistance; but the war cannot be so easily erased from memory, it persists in fragmentary reminiscence and psychological trauma — and in the darkened childhood of the narrator of this novel. The story’s form reflects the growth of her terrible consciousness of history. Beginning as a series of beautiful innocent memories of her family’s bucolic life, the narrative is slowly darkened by the evidence of the war that emerges in her grandmother’s concentration camp stories and her father’s PTSD and the suicides that plague her community, until, as she grows up, the narrator pieces together her family’s, and then her region’s, dark history.

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.