Reading Highlights Since March

I’ve been dealing with our annus horribilis primarily by hiding in my apartment in Pittsburgh, staying quiet, and more or less holding my breath. But I plan to resume blogging my book logs in 2021. Here are a few highlights in reading since I last posted in March.

From Dawn to Decadence, by Jacques Barzun

An 800-page cultural history of Western Europe. Barzun is better on dawn than he is on decadence: his narrative is darting and exciting, full of clean lines and complex details, until he reaches the twentieth century. At that point the style of the book changes; a railing tone of generalized invective takes over. The text turns into an indictment of the culture Barzun experienced firsthand in his own long life (he lived to be 104, and he wrote this book in his 80s). This aspect of the book (judging by the available evidence of its reception on the internet) limited it’s initial appeal to the Spenglerian likes of magazines such as The New Criterion, First Things, and The National Review, where it was predictably acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Personally, I found the closing chapters hard to square with the evenhanded and detail-rich narrative that precedes them: until those closing chapters, Barzun’s mode of historical narrative is epigrammatic and anecdotal. He strews his telling with potted biographies, book recommendations, and tangents on the technical details of music, art, literature, fashion, and manners. These particulars are wedded to an assertion about the essence of Western Culture, supposedly composed of a set of themes like “self-consciousness” and “abstraction” and “emancipation.” These words, and several others, appear in small-caps throughout the book. Their historiographic status is unclear to me. Are they supposed to play some causal role in the development of culture, or are they merely names for patterns Barzun descries? Nor is it clear to me why they belong to “Western Culture” in particular. It’s not like you don’t find abstraction, self-consciousness, emancipation, et al as themes in non-European culture. But despite the disappointing narrowness of this thesis, and the failures of Barzun’s conclusion, I have to admit this is one of the best cultural histories I’ve ever read, at the level of sheer narrative verve and interesting detail-selection and fruitfulness for further reading.

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri

A wonderful anthology of 20th century Italian literary fiction. I can’t possibly imagine a better Virgil to guide us to this heaven than Jhumpa Lahiri. Her love affair with the Italian language is detailed in the book In Other Words. Each story in this anthology is preceded by a one-page introduction of its author by Lahiri, and her introductions emphasize those features of her subjects’ lives that rhyme with her own persistent themes and interests: the xenophile obsession with a foreign language, the experience of bi-culturalism, exile and return. The stories themselves were, some of them, remarkable, others mediocre, but collectively they quenched a thirst I did not realize I had to know more of Italian academic and literary culture, its personalities, institutions, and preoccupations. I think this thirst was acquired when I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. As a good anthology should, this one furnished me with a reading list in addition to satisfying me on its own terms.

Infomocracy, by Malka Older

A near-future political thriller about a stolen election. In the late 21st century, much of the global population have been broken down into “centenals” of 100k people, each of which get to vote for their own government. Thus earth is a patchwork of governments, with large cities having hundreds of different governments and some governments having centenals on every continent. The whole system is run by an institution called Information which, in addition to running elections, is the official annotator of a universal VR overlay. Information is like if one of those “fact checker” columns took over the world. This is Idea Fiction, but it also works pretty well as a straightforward thriller, with enjoyable set-pieces, reasonably interesting characters, and loads of interesting settings. Older has worked for years in “humanitarian aid and development,” in jobs I don’t quite understand but which seem to have involved a lot of high-stakes disaster response all around the globe. She draws on that experience to convincingly portray the workings of large institutions and the specificity of farflung locations (often via loving descriptions of food). The book’s two sequels are more of the same, and quite interesting, but I enjoyed the first book most.

Kracauer: A Biography, by Jörg Später

A translation from German (by Daniel Steuer) of a biography about Siegfried Kracauer. He was a journalist and film theorist, and he is perhaps best known — now — for his peripheral role in the lives of more famous thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. His own life turns out to be quite something: a precipitous rise from unhappy architect to famous columnist for a major newspaper (the Frankfurter Zeitung) where he managed to become both a popular commentator and a philosophical provocateur, then flight from Nazi Germany, a hair-raising escape from France ahead of the German armies, and a second, much more obscure career in a new language (English) and a new country (the US). The book itself is a wonderful biography, written in a unique way. It makes no pretense to narrative holism — and gives explicit, sound reasons for doing so — and each chapter is its own composition or academic paper, providing a snapshot of some confined period of Kracauer’s life and going deeply into the social context of it. At the same time it’s written with a level of detailed narrative immediacy that makes it more engrossing than many of the traditional biographies I’ve read.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

A novel about high-stakes diplomacy conducted via literary analysis, to paraphrase something one of its characters says. It’s this year’s Hugo-winner and — my goodness, it’s so much fun. I haven’t enjoyed a space opera this much since I read Iain Banks’s final Culture novel. It takes many of the standard trappings of its genre and mashes them up with a culture of poetic diplomacy ripped straight out of the history of the Byzantine Empire.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays, by Charles D’Ambrosio

18 essays about Seattle and suicide, moral conundrums and American fuckups, failed utopias and literary disillusion — characterized above all by a logically extreme style. What do I mean? I mean D’Ambrosio goes as far as you can go in the direction of a certain kind of juxtapository essay-voice, a voice that purposefully runs together idiomatic vulgarity and highflown eloquence to produce an earthy amalgamation that is entertaining and even enthralling to read but also rips your attention away from whatever the writer is talking about, as you marvel at the sizzle and slap of his word choices and sentence structure. In the introduction, D’Ambrosio admits that “I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent, trusting that if I got the sound right . . . then sense might eventually make an appearance.” Mostly, in reading this book I felt I’d been given a key to the stylistic aspirations of a generation: many an odd turn of phrase I’d encountered in other contemporary essayists now make sense to me as attempts to approximate this voice.

Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi

A novel about the denizens of a particular street in American-occupied Baghdad and about the monster to which they accidentally give rise. Stitched together from the victims of car-bombings, the monster at first uses its life to hunt down and kill the murderers of the various people whose bodies make it up; but every time it gets a bit of justice, the relevant body parts liquefy and it has to replace them with new ones, adding new targets to its hit list. The absurd and evil presence of the U.S., and the civil unrest it ushered in, is just a backdrop to the lives of the characters and the fantastical tale of the monster; but at the same time the superpower and its obscenely indefinite, terrorizing and terror-spawning “war on terror” is the allegorical object here. “The [monster] was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his victims and criminals.”

The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking, ft. Charles Rosen

An interview with the polymath and pianist Charles Rosen. This is a very short book, just published. I got hold of it early intending to review it, though that plan fell through. But it delighted me. In part, it delighted me by re-immersing me in the world of classical piano music, a world I inhabited from my 7th to 14th years when I believed my talents as a pianist were leading me to become a concert pianist. But also, Charles Rosen’s views on the purpose and method of musical analysis chimed with and developed a view I’ve been slowly forming about the nature of criticism in general: the view that criticism is a response — as John Berger puts it — to the function of the work of art, which is to lead us to the process of creation it contains.

Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey

A compilation of four biographical essays, about Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon, famous as a snide takedown of Victorian mores and hypocrisy. Its readability and narrative propulsion surprised me — and I suspect its excellence as a work of narrative nonfiction accounts as much for its reputation as does its implicit ideology critique. It almost reads like four stately short stories. I found the ideology critique a lot tamer than I’d expected. Perhaps because Strachey’s critique has simply become a kind of common sense about famous Victorian personalities, that they concealed base drives, ambitions, and cruelties beneath a veneer of saccharine piety and sentiment.

Shaw (in 4 vols.), by Michael Holroyd

A massive, detailed biography of George Bernard Shaw, one of the more-or-less forgotten literary giants of the late-19th and early-20th century. I picked this up because I wanted to read Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, but the library only had the one-volume compression of his four volumes on Shaw. I read three chapters of the compressed version and immediately purchased used copies of all four volumes of the original edition. Then I somehow ended up buying all of Shaw’s collected letters, his diaries, and reading a bunch of his plays, essays, and early novels. I was obsessed.

Let’s be clear: G.B.S. was not by any means a wholly admirable character. But I had the extraordinary feeling, in Holroyd’s somewhat mocking but highly detailed and fact-faithful rendering of his life, of encountering a personality in Shaw that mirrored my own on some deep level, in both good and bad ways. I found myself compelled to inhabit the day to day progression of Shaw’s life, especially his first years in London attempting to fashion himself a literary career, by reading his diaries, letters, and the biography in tandem. I genuinely feel as if, in lockdown this summer, I relived a decade of Shaw’s life in granular detail. I’m not sure if I think Holroyd’s biography is objectively good or not — although it’s often listed among the indispensable literary biographies, the four-volume edition is out of print everywhere — because I didn’t read it like a normal book, but rather it changed me such that some corner of my brain is now permanently colonized by the half-encouraging, half-disturbing personality of G.B.S.

Piranesi, by Susannah Clarke

A slim, perfect novel. I don’t want to say too much about the content of this book, because while I normally don’t care too much about “spoilers,” I think the unfolding of the nature of this book’s premise is a deep part of its pleasure. I will just say this: it is one of my favorite novels, ever. The personality at its heart, the slow and beautiful emergence of its story through diary entries, and the astonishing range and depth of its themes and allusions are all so deeply moving that not a single day has passed since I read Piranesi in which I have not longingly recollected it. If I could write a book like this, I would die happy.

*

And that’s it for now, folks. More soon.

6 Comments

facetiousnights December 8, 2020

Eminent Victorians does feel like short stories — I enjoyed it a lot but remember being a little puzzled by its reputation as vitriolic. It went further to explaining the point of Florence Nightingale, for instance, than the usual mentions of her. I thought the Thomas Arnold chapter the weakest, as if Strachey thought he ought to be a delicious target but found he didn’t have so much to say as he’d expected.

I’ve been looking forward to getting round to A Memory Called Empire and Piranesi. Did you read/like Strange and Norrell?

Robert Minto December 8, 2020

I completely agree about Eminent Victorians. The Arnold chapter is the weak link. If it’s like a story collection, the Arnold chapter is like the filler story the writer slips in because they couldn’t get it published anywhere else and needed to pad out the book’s table of contents.

I did read JS&MN, and I liked it, but — for me at any rate — Piranesi is on a whole other level of excellence. It has a confined intensity impossible to achieve in the “loose baggy monster” kind of novel. It feels like there’s not a word out of place in Piranesi, like it’s carved in stone.

Kym December 8, 2020

Very good post Robert. I think we can all connect with your sentiments. Stay encouraged. Keep reading and keep writing. Are you by chance on Goodreads? 🙂

Robert Minto December 8, 2020

Hi, Kym. I’m afraid I’m not on goodreads. Sorry about that!

Amateur Reader (Tom) December 9, 2020

A stalker! How awful. I have never experienced worse than, oh, a mild nuisance.

The plunge into Shaw must have been something. Too bad it is so much work to write it up.

Welcome back! Whatever that means.

Robert Minto December 9, 2020

I hope to write something longish about Shaw, actually. Ideally for publication, but otherwise here. His pre-dramatist days are especially fascinating to me — when he was running around London giving street-corner speeches about Fabian socialism while simultaneously excelling as book reviewer, music critic, art critic, and theater critic, all at once. He is so interesting.