What I Read, February 2021

Bland Fanatics (Pankaj Mishra)

A collection of essays criticizing the political and historical illusions of Anglo-American neo-imperialists. Mishra has a talent for stirring up heated opposition that more or less confirms his observations. He’s been threatened with lawsuits and publicly insulted by such recipients of his scrutiny as Neil Ferguson, Jordan Peterson, and Salman Rushdie. Most of the essays in this collection are book reviews, op-eds, or articles tied into news hooks. They are, in other words, journalism at its most immanent. But the extraordinary thing about Mishra’s journalism is that it’s also literature. This small collection would be an excellent entry point for a reader new to his work.

A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

A novel almost entirely composed of stylized and combative dialogue between the Edgeworth household and their acquaintances in the local parish. The story must be inferred from the insinuations of the dialogue. It’s a painful story, about parental domination and sororal cruelty, murder of innocents and romantic betrayal, religious hypocrisy, gossip, and the malevolence incentivized by inheritable wealth. It’s like a very heady, oblique, and cynical play. (I wonder if anybody has staged Compton-Burnett? That would be something to witness.) At times it feels like you’re reading nothing but scene after scene of elaborate greetings and farewells, the drawing-room ephemera of conversation; but in fact not a syllable is extraneous, and every one is a dagger in your throat.

The Culture of Lies (Dubravka Ugrešić)

An essay collection (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) about living through the Yugoslav wars, mostly written while Ugrešić was still hanging on in newly constituted Croatia in the early 1990s, not yet driven into exile. Even though her new country was casting itself on the world stage — reasonably enough — as a victim of Serbian nationalism, she had no time for Croatian nationalism either, because history was being manufactured and dissembled in both countries in the rush to carve culturally distinct nations out of the corpse of Yugoslavia. These essays were among the acts of civic heresy for which Ugrešić eventually became so reviled in her home that she left Zagreb to live in Amsterdam.

Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (Thomas Mann)

An atrocious but fascinating book-length self-justification (translated by Walter D. Morris) of the sudden fervor for war that Thomas Mann discovered in himself in 1914. Better known, politically, for his later outspoken opposition to the Third Reich, a few years before that he was for a time — because of this book — a literary avatar of German chauvinism. His views caused a rift with his brother, Heinrich, who wrote a veiled critique of him in an essay ostensibly about Zola, and Thomas read this essay partway through writing Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. You can tell the exact moment in the composition of the book when this happened, because the text torques sideways to become personal, conflicted, and defensive. It’s painful to read, but fascinating. I’m writing something not exactly about this book but definitely including it, which will be published at the LARB sometime in the near future. (This thing I’m writing is a new departure for me, an essay in the form of a non-fiction short story, or a short story in the form of an essay. You’ll see.)

Bernard Shaw: A Life (A.M. Gibbs)

This — the fourth biography of Bernard Shaw I have read in six months, somehow — was research for the essay/story mentioned above. It is probably the best of the extant Shaw biographies for anyone just interested in getting a straightforward summary of his life and work, except for one thing. Gibbs scants the role of socialism in Shaw’s thinking as well as Shaw’s role in the foundation and early years of the Fabian Society. He does this out of a baffling and somewhat amusing embarrassment about the very idea of socialism. Gibbs seems genuinely nervous to mention Shaw’s central political passion, and he breaks his biographer’s cool every time it comes up — which is as seldom as he can help it — to make timid and contextually irrelevant comments about how Russian communism didn’t work out so great and how capitalism is awesome and inevitable. But unfortunately for Gibbs, a book about Shaw that doesn’t put socialism among the central foci of his life is an essentially misleading book.

(And thus Holroyd’s biography remains the best Shaw biography, I think.)

Cities of Salt (Abdelrahman Munif)

A novel (translated by Peter Theroux) not so much about any single individual or set of individuals — the protagonist role is handed around like a baton in a footrace — as about the overall consequences for the Bedouins of the discovery and exploitation of oil in their deserts. This novel is banned in Saudi Arabia. It depicts the consequences of the government of an unnamed middle eastern nation inviting an American company to extract its oil, promising confused and terrified citizens that all this will make them rich. A port city springs up out of nothing. Communities are displaced or economically enslaved. Islamic culture bumps up against the materialistic and hedonistic culture of the American oilmen. It’s a distressing story of slow-motion revolution from above and the collapse of a culture and a society.

The Jakarta Method (Vincent Bevins)

Speaking of distressing books about revolution from above, this is another one — about the absolute travesty of 20th century anti-communism, and about the horrors committed in its name. The book’s central narrative weaves together firsthand accounts of the bloody Indonesian military purge of the PKI (the Indonesian communist party), and shows how deeply involved the US and other anti-communist powers were in that genocidal bit of modern history. But it’s really a larger study of the way 20th century anti-communism metastasized into something far more dangerous and sinister than the form of ideological great power politics it purported to be. It broke and remade much of the globe in its indiscriminate violence and imperial terrorism. I listened to this book on Audible, while walking around Pittsburgh, and I may have to go back to lighter fare during those walks because every other day I’d find myself suddenly no longer taking my exercise but standing still with my jaw dropped listening to another horrifying chapter-climax.

Little Tales of Misogyny (Patricia Highsmith)

A themed short story collection — a nasty, black-humored one. Each story — very short, almost but not quite flash fiction — cynicizes about some example of a type of woman named in the title. For example: “The Female Novelist” (about a writer who persecutes her partners until they cheat on her, then capitalizes on the drama by writing stories about it), “The Mobile Bed-Object” (about a high-class escort passed from rich man to rich man until she begins to age and loses her exchange value), “The Prude” (about a woman so obsessed with her own and her daughter’s virginity that she ruins her life), “The Breeder” (about a woman whose only goal in life is to have as many children as possible, and thereby manages to ruin her husband financially and ultimately to drive him insane). It’s like a mean-spirited version of Theophrastus’ Characters. Surely it is one of the chief exhibits for those who wish to argue that Highsmith was a cruel and dangerous writer. I find something paradoxically purifying, though, in a book with this quantity of uncut disillusion, something exhilarating in its pessimism. But I’m glad not all books are like this.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Iain Banks)

A gothic literary novel about the scion of a wealthy business family who must attend a general shareholder’s meeting where the family will vote whether to allow themselves to be bought out by an American corporation. While he’s there he hopes to get some resolution of the two mysteries of his life: his mother’s unexplained suicide and the persistence of his own romantic feelings toward the first cousin with whom he once had a disastrous adolescent romance. I thought it was going to be a lesser Banks, at first, but by the horrifying and atmospheric climax I realized there is no such thing.

Hygiene and the Assassin (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) in which the (made up) Nobel laureate Prétextat Tach has granted a series of interviews to select journalists on his deathbed. He humiliates them one by one, sending each away from his dark apartment a broken man, until the last interviewer appears — a woman, the only journalist who has read all his books and understood them — and she makes Tach confront the crime he has been hiding for years and explain the highly aestheticized theology of murder he has constructed to rationalize his past. This book is the first of Nothomb’s prolific run. They come out punctually, once a year, always a commercial success, and supposedly always only one of the four books she writes that year, longhand, without revising.

Loving Sabotage (Amélie Nothomb)

Novella (translated by Andrew Wilson) concerning a period when Nothomb’s family — the family of a Belgian diplomat — were stationed in China. She and the other diplomats’ children are confined to a single barricaded neighborhood, and within it they conduct a cruel and organized war against each other, traveling about in gangs, capturing their opponents and beating them up or urinating and defecating on them or playing nasty pranks on their food supplies. The six year old protagonist is one of the youngest but fiercest combatants. Then a new child appears in the neighborhood, a beautiful little girl who refuses to participate in the war, and the narrator falls in love. Unfortunately for the narrator, she has found the pre-teen version of an ice queen, and the novella becomes about the narrator’s struggle to impress, or even draw the attention of, her beloved. This book announces Nothomb’s central dramatic idea: the similarity, perhaps even interchangeability, of love and war. In most of her books, love becomes a kind of war or develops toward a climax of violence. Here the parallel is explicit.

The Stranger Next Door (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Carole Volk) about a retired couple who buy an idyllic house where they intend to seek ultimate solitude in old age. They have lived together — been married in the truest sense, insists the narrator — since they were six years old. After they move in, however, they discover that they live next to an intrusive, monosyllabic, and enormously fat doctor, who insists upon visiting them every day from four to six in the afternoon. Then they discover that he appears to be married to a literal monster whom he mistreats. Things deteriorate.

(There’s a reference to the main character of Nothomb’s first novel at the end of this one, which made the speculative fiction reader in me wonder if all her non-auto-fiction is supposed to be set in the same universe.)

Life Form (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) featuring the author as its protagonist. She gets a letter in the early 2000s from an American soldier stationed in Iraq who has gone on the opposite of a hunger strike (that is, he is frantically eating in order to become as large as possible) as a protest against the war. She responds, and a correspondence equally fascinating and disturbing arises. Buried in the crevices of narration here, there is a whole fascinating treatise on letter writing. Nothomb famously replies by hand to all her correspondence.

Strike Your Heart (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) about the first 35 years of a woman whose mother was jealous of her when she was born and therefore treated her with great coldness. This tiny fact about her is followed to its last consequence, through her childhood, her relationships with her siblings, her pursuit of a vocation, and her acquaintance with another little girl whose life has been blighted by the same problem.