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.